Updated: Mar 28, 2021
‘The meaning of the world must lie outside of the world. In the world everything happens by chance or accident. As that which is accidental is meaningless. That which makes the world non-accidental or by extension meaningful must therefore lie outside of the world otherwise it would be accidental and therefore meaningless.’
Ludwig Wittgenstein - Tractatus Logico Philosophicus
The meaning of life is often confused with the purpose of life. The difference between the two may seem small at first. However, they are vastly different. The meaning is the ‘why’; the purpose is the ‘what for’. As such, when we talk of the meaning of life, we are, in essence, asking why we exist or why we are alive. We are not asking what it is that we exist for or what the purpose of life is.
When we ask why we exist or why we are alive, we are only asking part of the question that we should be asking. The real question is not ‘why do I or we exist?’ but rather, ‘why does life exist?’. This question is the genesis of the ‘why’ questions or the questions of meaning regarding life. It is logical that for us to be able to answer why we exist; we must first answer why life exists. Now, this is a hard question to answer. The greatest thinkers of the ages have tried to answer it and, in many cases, have become confused and ended up talking about the purpose of life as opposed to the meaning of life. This confusion has been the case of most for the theistic religions which have made great stock in answering what we should do but struggled to answer why we should do it (using logical arguments), the ‘why’. The reason for this is, as Ludwig Wittgenstein said in his ‘Tractatus Logico Philosophicus’, ‘The meaning of the world must lie outside of the world. In the world everything happens by chance or accident. As that which is accidental is meaningless. That which makes the world non-accidental or by extension meaningful must therefore lie outside of the world otherwise it would be accidental and therefore meaningless’. This externality of meaning creates the problem so well comprehended by the Nihilists and Existentialists even if they missed Wittgenstein’s conclusion. That of the apparent meaningless of the existence of life. Or more aptly, that the meaning of an event is predicated on the observer’s perspective and, as such, has no objective meaning.
The Existentialists took this evident truth as gospel, creating as a by-product the modern sense of purposelessness. However, if we recognise that if there is anything that makes the universe or life ultimately meaningful, it is to be found outside of the physical universe, we begin to understand why we struggle to answer the question of why life or we exist. If the meaning of this universe’s existence is only to be found outside of this universe, then the meaning of life’s existence is comprehensible only from outside of the universe, and consequently, outside of life.
This conclusion might sound a little bit out there, but hear me out. Let us reduce our question of the meaning of existence down from the ultimate question to one far more benign. Let us consider the existence of a mug. Imagine a mug capable of reflection, asking “why do I exist?”. How would one answer this question from the mug’s perspective?
Well, let us get specific. When the mug asks, ‘why do I exist?’ it asks why it exists in this location in space and at this point in time. ‘Why do mug’s like me exist and what is the meaning of my existence?’ If the mug can reflect, we must assume it also has some sense of time stretching from it first being a mug and ending when it ceases to be a mug. It also has a sense of objects not itself in the world such as a table or the seemingly random force which interacts with it. With these truths in hand, it asks itself, ‘what is the meaning of my existence or why do I exist?’
Consider also that it will be aware that it may sometimes be hot, or cold, full, or empty, moved, or unmoved. What meaning could it draw from these occurrences? It may be aware that other cups are also prey to these occurrences to either greater or lesser degrees. Again, what meaning can it draw from these happenings? I posit that, like us in life, the mug limited by its perspective would be bound to come up with many of the same ideas we humans have come up with.
It may decide that its existence is meaningless (nihilism), and it does not matter what state it is in as all are neutral. Or it may determine that the meaning of the chance events is determined by it (Existentialism and Stoicism) choosing to regard one state or all states as good or bad, depending on its whim. It may determine that the meaning of existence is to enjoy the pleasant moments (Hedonism and Epicureanism) where it finds them valuing the pleasant states and avoiding the unpleasant ones. It may wonder if the answer to its existence is to be found in the existence of the table it rests on (as we do with the existence of the universe).
Yet as it can only examine the existence of the table from its own perspective, it is locked in a loop. The table exists so that the mug may exist on it at that point in time, and the mug can only exist there as the table exists ad infinitum. As it looks at existence from its own perspective, it could never answer the ‘why’ of its existence with any certainty. To answer that, it would need to be able to see existence from outside of the existence of things, and in this case, from the perspective of us, its creator.
From our (human) perspective, the why of a mug is simple. The mug exists at that location and point in time because we willed it to exist. The mug was created because we humans desire hot drinks and found that using that ceramic with a handle allowed us to enjoy them. As you enjoy hot drinks in general and desired one at some point in time, the mug came into being, was acquired by you, and was placed in the location where it found itself. The meaning of its existence is that you desired a hot drink. Hence in the completion of this desire, you placed the mug in its present location. This banality explains the why of the cup’s existence. If you did not desire hot drinks, you would not have acquired the mug, if you did not desire a drink when you did, the mug would not be where it was, and so on and so forth.
If we return to ourselves, we see that, like the mug, we are trapped in our perspective, or more aptly, in the perspective of life. We look at the physical universe and wonder why it exists. Yet like Schopenhauer in The World as Will and Idea (vol1), we are forced to concede that ‘the universe can be said to exist only if it is perceived and it can be perceived only if life exists. But life can only exist if the physical universe has preceded it in time’. This looping nature of the universe from the perspective of life is inescapable in the same way as the table’s existence is from the cups. We know we could only exist if the physical universe existed prior to our perceiving it. Yet we can also see that, logically, the physical universe could only be known to exist if it was perceived to exist.
The problem is, we are inside the universe and can therefore not perceive the why of its existence. We are alive and thus cannot perceive the why for life. This conclusion is not to pass judgement as to if there is or is not a why. But merely to state that it is unknowable through observation of the physical universe. It may be possible to determine cosmic truths through communion with the mystical, but that is beyond the scope of this work which is focused on the determination of how to live well in this physical world. Instead of pursuing the unknowable, let us turn our minds to that which can be known with certainty—the ‘what for’ of life or the purpose of life.