The question of the meaning of life is perhaps one that we would rather not ask, for fear of the answer or lack thereof.
Historically and still today, many people believe that humankind is the creation of a supernatural entity called God, that God had an intelligent purpose in creating us, and that this intelligent purpose is the ‘meaning of life’. I do not propose to go through the various arguments for and against the existence of God. But even if God exists, and even if He had an intelligent purpose in creating us, no one really knows what this purpose might be, or that it is especially meaningful. The Second Law of Thermodynamics states that the entropy of a closed system such as the universe increases up to the point at which equilibrium is reached, and God’s purpose in creating us, and, indeed, all of nature, might have been no more lofty or uplifting than to catalyse this process in the same way that soil organisms catalyse the decomposition of organic matter.
If our God-given purpose is to act as super-efficient heat dissipators, then having no purpose at all is better than having this sort of purpose because it frees us to be the authors of our own purpose or purposes and so to lead truly dignified and meaningful lives. In fact, having no purpose at all is better than having any kind of pre-determined purpose, even more traditional ones such as to please or serve God or improve our karma. In short, even if God exists, and even if He had an intelligent purpose in creating us (and why should He have had?), we do not know what this purpose might be, and, whatever it might be, we would rather be able to do without it, or at least to ignore or discount it. For unless we can be free to become the authors of our own purpose or purposes, our lives may have, at worst, no purpose at all, and, at best, only some unfathomable and potentially trivial purpose that is not of our own choosing.
Some might object that not to have a pre-determined purpose is, really, not to have any purpose at all. But this is to believe that for something to have a purpose, it must have been created with a purpose in mind, and, moreover, must still be serving that original purpose. Some years ago, I visited the vineyards of Châteauneuf-du-Pape in the South of France. One evening, I picked up a beautiful rounded stone called a galet which I later took back to Oxford and put to good use as a book-end. In the vineyards of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, these stones serve to capture the heat of the sun and release it back into the cool of the night, helping the grapes to ripen. Of course, these stones were not created with this or any other purpose in mind. Even if they had been created for a purpose, it would almost certainly not have been to make great wine, serve as book-ends, or seem beautiful to passing human beings. That same evening over supper, I got my friends to blind taste a bottle of Bordeaux. To disguise the bottle, I slipped it into one of a pair of socks. Unlike the galet, the sock had been created with a clear purpose in mind, albeit one very different from (although not strictly incompatible with) the one that it had assumed on that joyful evening.
Some might yet object that talk about the meaning of life is neither here nor there because life is merely a prelude to some form of eternal afterlife and this, if you will, is its purpose. (Usually, the idea of an eternal afterlife is closely allied with that of God, but this need not necessarily be the case.) One can marshal up at least four arguments against this position. (1) It is not at all clear that there is or even can be some form of eternal afterlife that entails the survival of the personal ego. (2) Even if there were such an afterlife, living for ever is not in itself a purpose, and so the question arises, what is the actual purpose of the eternal afterlife? If the eternal afterlife has a pre-determined purpose, again, we do not know what this purpose might be, and, whatever it might be, we would rather be able to do without it. (3) Reliance on an eternal afterlife not only postpones the question of life’s purpose, but also dissuades or at least discourages us from determining purposes for what may be the only life that we do have. (4) If it is the brevity or the finiteness of human life that gives it shape and purpose (not something that I personally believe), then an eternal afterlife cannot, in and by itself, have any purpose.
So whether or not God exists, whether or not He gave us a purpose, and whether or not there is an eternal afterlife, we should strive to create our own purpose or purposes. To put it in Sartrean terms, whereas for the galet it is true only that existence precedes essence, for the sock it is true both that essence precedes existence (when the sock is used on a human foot) and that existence precedes essence (when the sock is used for an unintended purpose, for example, as a bottle sleeve). We are either like the rock or the sock, but whichever we are, we are better off creating our own purpose or purposes.
Plato once defined man as an animal, biped, featherless, and with broad nails; but another, much better, definition that he gave was simply this: ‘A being in search of meaning.’
Human life may not have been created with any pre-determined purpose, but this need not mean that it cannot have a purpose, nor that this purpose cannot be just as good as, if not much better than, any pre-determined one. And so the meaning of life, of our life, is that which we choose to give it.