The Meaning and Purpose of Your Life

To live a meaningful, purposeful life, you need a solid grasp of the core concepts involved in this lifelong project. Key among them are “meaning” and “purpose.”

What exactly do these terms mean? What purpose do they serve?

Like so many important terms (e.g., spiritual, reverence, soul), these concepts have been co-opted by religionists who claim that meaning and purpose have no objective basis without “God.” Such claims are not merely false; they are dangerously false—even murderously false. Throughout history, people, tribes, and nations in thrall to an alleged God’s alleged purpose have caused all manner of mayhem—from Crusades to Inquisitions to “witch” burnings, fatwas, “honor” killings, genital mutilations, and the atrocities of 9/11 and 10/7. God knows what’s next.

The fact is that there is no God or “supernatural” being, which is why no one ever has presented evidence of his existence—much less evidence that meaning or purpose emanates from his will. (Nor could anyone present evidence for an “all-powerful” or “unlimited” being, as that’s a contradiction in terms.) What does exist is the natural world (aka existence, reality, or the universe) in which we live, including all the wondrous things in it, from atoms to waterfalls to hummingbirds, people, concert halls, planets, and galaxies. So much to explore and enjoy!

The concepts of meaning and purpose are our means of identifying certain things and relationships in reality, especially those pertaining to our needs, goals, and intentions. These concepts are closely related but significantly different, so we’ll take them in turn.

The Meaning of Meaning

Consider a few representative uses of the concept of “meaning”:

  • “He struggled to decipher the meaning of the poem.” Here the concept means “theme,” “message,” or “overarching idea.”
  • “Teaching science to children adds great meaning to her life.” Here it means “psychological value,” “productive significance,” or “spiritual depth.”
  • “What is the meaning of ‘belief’?” Here “meaning” means “referent,” as in: “To what does the concept of ‘belief’ refer?”

We use the concept of meaning in various ways and on a regular basis: We speak of the meaning of a holiday, a hand gesture, a wink, a nod. We learn the meaning of a punctuation mark, an equation, a premise, a theory. From such usage, we can see that the concept of meaning refers to relationships among things here in the natural world—the elements of a poem and what they add up to, the work someone does and the value she gains from it, and so on. The concept is rooted in the requirements of human cognition, communication, and earthly pursuits. There’s nothing “supernatural” about it.

Religious people are (properly) free to believe or say that meaning has no objective basis without God. But they are not free to make sense while doing so. To make sense means to make it to the sensory level—facts we can see, touch, hear, etc. Whereas the natural world is teeming with facts that give rise to our need for the concept of meaning, zero facts support the notion that God exists, much less that the concept of meaning depends on his existence.

The Purpose of Purpose

Likewise for the concept of “purpose.” Either we need the concept, or we don’t. If we don’t need it, then there’s no point in discussing or using it. But if we do need the concept, then the natural facts that give rise to our need for it will shed much light on the source, meaning, and purpose of the concept.

Why do we need the concept of purpose? What use is it? To what in reality does it refer?

Again, a quick look at everyday usage provides an indication of its nature and value:

  • “The purpose of a business is to produce goods or services and trade them at a profit.” Here the concept means “mission” or “reason for being.”
  • “The purpose of thinking is to understand the world and our needs so we can live and love our lives.” Here the concept means “intention” or “goal.”
  • “The only moral purpose of a government is to protect individual rights.” Here the concept means “function” or “job.”

As with meaning, we use the concept of purpose in various ways on a regular basis. We identify the purpose of a heart, an app, a trip, a moral code. We distinguish between doing something on purpose or by accident, between a purposeful approach and a haphazard approach, and so on. From such usage (which often overlaps), we can see that the concept of purpose identifies important things and relationships here in the natural world. The purpose of “purpose” is to help us identify and think clearly about such things and relationships. It has nothing to do with “supernature.”

Here, too, religious people are (properly) free to believe and say that purpose ultimately is rooted in God. But they are not free to make sense while doing so. The notion of something above, outside of, prior to, or beyond nature makes no sense. And whereas countless facts here in the natural world give rise to our need for the concept of purpose, evidence in support of the notion that purpose is rooted in “God” or “supernature” amounts precisely to nil.

The Meaning and Purpose of Your Life

The broadest and most profound importance of the concepts of meaning and purpose lies in their application to your life as a whole.

People often pose the question, “What is the meaning or purpose of life?”—rather than, “What is the meaning or purpose of your life?” But without that “your” (or “my” or “his” or “her”) included, the question is logically invalid: It commits the fallacy of the loaded question (e.g., “Have you stopped beating your wife?” or “What company are you shilling for?”).

As Ayn Rand pointed out, a question such as “What is the meaning or purpose of life?” presumes that some outside source, such as “God,” imposes meaning or purpose on our lives and that we are supposed to discover and uphold it. This is not only logically fallacious; it is morally obscene. It implies that your goals are not yours to choose, that you are a slave or servant of some “supernatural” dictator, and that you must do as he bids. But your goals crucially are yours to choose. Your life belongs to you—not to an alleged (and nonexistent) God. The meaning and purpose of your life are precisely what you choose to make them—by choosing how you will live your life and why you will live it that way.

What kind of life do you want to live? What core mission or central purpose do you want to set for yourself? Do you love science? Writing? Construction? Tennis? Management? Dancing? Farming? Making movies? What kind of soul-fueling career might you build around your interests? What kind of hobbies or recreational activities do you like? Hiking? Sailing? Knitting? Gardening? How can you work them into your life? What kind of friends do you want? Where can you meet such people, and how can you develop rich, rewarding relationships with them? What do you want in a romantic partner? What can you do to find someone who meets your standards and desires? How can you build a beautiful relationship with him or her—a relationship full of laughter, pleasure, intensity, ecstasy?

Only you can answer such questions. Of course, you can get help from others in thinking about them. But your choice of values and how to design your life is ultimately up to you. Thinking about these issues carefully and regularly—and pursuing the values that you think will fill your life with wonderful experiences, achievements, relationships, love, and joy—that is the meaning and purpose of your life.

Don’t let false conceptions of meaning and purpose undermine your capacity to think clearly about your life and happiness. Keep the true, fact-based, reality-oriented meanings of these concepts clear in your mind. Defend them against efforts to undermine their vital significance. Use them for your earthly pursuits. And live a deeply meaningful and purposeful life.

That’s your mission—should you choose to accept it. And the incentives couldn’t be better.

(You’ll find a global community of other people who take their minds and lives seriously here.)

Understanding and Loving Life

If we want to live and love our lives, we need to keep our minds connected to reality. We must commit ourselves to accepting ideas only when they are rational—which means: supported by perceptual observation, conceptual integration, and logic.

Think about what it means to understand an idea. It means to grasp what stands under it, what supports it, what connects it to reality. If we know what stands under an idea, if we know the observations and integrations that give rise to it, then we understand it; in which case, we can use it to think clearly about the world and our needs. If we don’t, we can’t.

For instance, we know that a good friendship depends on shared interests, mutual respect, and enjoyment of each other’s company; thus, we have an understanding of the idea and can use that understanding in our efforts to establish and maintain good friendships. If we didn’t have that understanding, we couldn’t use it.

By contrast, if someone says “social justice is a moral imperative,” and if I don’t know the actual referents of “social justice”—that is, the concrete instances of this (alleged) thing that give rise to the need of the abstraction—then I don’t know what social justice is, much less whether it’s a moral imperative. My lack of understanding makes the idea meaningless in my mind and useless in my thinking.

Similarly, if someone says “you should serve something greater than yourself,” and if you don’t know what supports the claim, then you don’t know it’s true. To know a claim is true is precisely to know the ideas and evidence that stand under it and connect it to reality.

Even if others’ claims happen to be true, if we don’t understand why they are true, then we don’t know they are. If someone says “the fossil record supports the theory of evolution,” and if I don’t have sufficient understanding of the fossil record and how it supports evolution, then I don’t know that it does. As John Locke observed:

[W]e may as rationally hope to see with other men’s eyes, as to know by other men’s understandings. So much as we ourselves consider and comprehend of truth and reason, so much we possess of real and true knowledge. The floating of other men’s opinions in our brains makes us not one jot the more knowing, though they happen to be true.

In this same vein, think about what it means for an idea to make sense. It means that the idea makes it to the sensory level—that it’s supported by sensory evidence. If we don’t know the evidence that underlies and supports an idea, ultimately connecting it to perceptual reality, then the idea doesn’t make sense to us. And if we accept ideas that don’t make sense, we’ve accepted “the floating of other men’s opinions in our brains.”

Understanding ideas—making sense of ideas—is vitally important. It is essential to thinking clearly, living fully, and supporting liberty.

Take any important area of life. Career, for instance. What makes for a wonderful, soul-fueling career? Are there any truths or principles that can help us answer this question? If so, what are they? What facts give rise to them? What undergirds and connects them to reality? If we know the answers to such questions, we have significant understanding and thus can use it in our thinking about our options and efforts to develop a career we will love. If we have no such understanding, we can’t.

Consider romance. Are there any principles that can help us create and maintain a deeply meaningful and rewarding romantic relationship? If so, what are they? And what deeper ideas support those principles? And so on—all the way down to the perceptual level, the base of all knowledge. If our ideas about romantic love are grounded in perceptual reality—including our experiences of smiles, touches, desires, kisses, and the integrated meanings and significance of such things in relation to our deepest personal values—then our ideas about romance can help us think clearly about this crucial aspect of life. If our ideas about love are not grounded in reality, our efforts at romance will be frustrating at best.

The same analysis applies to every area of life and every question we face:

  • How can I get and stay physically fit? Are there evidence-based principles that can guide me here? If so, what are they? How can I understand and apply them?
  • What kind of government should I advocate? Do we need a government at all? If so, why? What facts about human beings and social relationships give rise to the need for a government?
  • What is spirituality? Do I need it? If so, why? What facts give rise to the need for it? And what do those facts say about the source and nature of spirituality?

“Understanding” is one of my favorite ideas because it’s one of the most helpful for thinking clearly and living fully. It’s about keeping our minds connected to reality so we can succeed and thrive in reality.

Here, on this blog, and in my new OSI podcast, Under Standing, I’ll be focusing on the nature and importance of understanding, including the principles that foster it and how to apply those principles in the grand project of loving life.

Objectivism vs. “Open Objectivism,” Part One

Young people discovering or trying to understand Ayn Rand’s philosophy, Objectivism, can easily be confused about the nature of the philosophy and its relationship to “true philosophy” or “philosophic truth.” 

“True philosophy” or “philosophic truth” is a broad and ever-expanding umbrella or category of ideas. It includes all philosophic truths identified by people, past, present, and future—truths identified by Socrates, Aristotle, Epictetus, Thomas Aquinas, Francis Bacon, John Locke, Baruch Spinoza, Ayn Rand, and whatever is to come. “Philosophic truth” is an open file folder into which all truths discovered in the realm of philosophy are properly put.

But philosophic truth is not the same thing as Rand’s philosophy, Objectivism. If the principles of Objectivism are true, and I think they are, then they fall under the broad umbrella of “philosophic truth”—but they are not the equivalent of that umbrella. To treat them as the equivalent is to commit the fallacy of the frozen abstraction, which consists in substituting a particular conceptual concrete for the wider abstract class or category to which it belongs. In the case at hand, it consists in substituting a specific true philosophy, “Objectivism,” for the general class or category of “true philosophy.” This substitution is fallacious because, although Objectivism is true, its principles are not the only truths in philosophy. Other philosophic truths include, for instance, Aristotle’s principles of syllogistic reasoning, Leonard Peikoff’s principles of the mechanics of induction, and any philosophic truths that you or I or others might identify in the future.

Just as we don’t treat “math” as the equivalent of “algebra” and thus exclude geometry, calculus, and other kinds of math from the field—just as we don’t treat “religion” as the equivalent of “Christianity” and thus exclude Judaism, Islam, and other religions from the field—just as we don’t treat “government” as the equivalent of “theocracy” and thus exclude democracy, constitutional republicanism, and other types of government from the field—so we should not treat “true philosophy” as the equivalent of “Objectivism.” It is not.

To use a perfectly parallel example: We don’t add our own educational discoveries or principles to Maria Montessori’s educational system and call them part of her system. Likewise, we shouldn’t add our own discoveries or principles to Rand’s philosophical system and call them part of her system. They are not.

Objectivism—the fundamental philosophic concepts and principles identified by Ayn Rand and integrated into a system of ideas by her in her lifetime—is not the equivalent of philosophic truth. Rather, it is one set of ideas under the broader umbrella of philosophic truth.

Objectivism is not open to additions or revisions. It was "closed" when Ayn Rand died. Philosophic truth is forever open to additions and refinements. And much work remains to be done.

I’ll say more on this subject in the coming weeks, either here, on my blog, or on my soon-to-launch podcast, Under Standing.

If you have questions or comments about the matter, please share them via my contact form. I’ll address any that I think would be helpful to readers or listeners generally.

Also, I’ll be debating Stephen Hicks about whether Objectivism is a “closed system” or an “open system” at NICON in Serbia this April. Details about that conference and the debate will be announced soon on Ayn Rand Center Europe’s website.

Biden Admin to Thugs Worldwide: We’ll Trade with You!

The Biden administration should not have exchanged the merchant of death for Brittney Griner.

Negotiating with tyrannical regimes is impractical because it is immoral.

America has now signaled to every thug on the planet that they can kidnap American citizens and get something in exchange.

What should the Biden administration have done? It should have notified Putin, in effect:

If Brittney Griner is not safely back in America within 48 hours we will begin destroying Russia’s computer systems and networks. We will not stop until Brittany is on American soil, in good health. If you harm Brittany, we will kill you, Putin, personally.

We will not say a word of this communication publicly. You may make up any story you like about why you released her.

The choice is yours.

We will not negotiate. You will not hear from us again.

Alas, no American politician today thinks in terms of moral principles. So none would have handled the situation this way.

We will pay for the moral failing.

(Whether Brittney broke a Russian law by "smuggling" hash oil is irrelevant. The possession of a drug does not violate rights, so such a law is illegitimate.)

Big Kite

Something from way, way back . . .

Here’s a poem I wrote when I was nineteen. I like what it implies about spiritual values and the integration of benevolence and self-interest.

I hope you enjoy it!

Big Kite

My father gave to me a kite,
But I’d no need in its lone flight;
For though it had a nine-foot span,
’Twas not enough to lift this man.

I took it down to old Byrd Park;
On one small face it made its mark.
There was a boy that it could lift;
My present then became my gift.

His small face grew to big brown eyes;
My hand held out, “See if it flies.”
Big wind picked up as if on cue—
Big kite. Big day. Big high it flew.

Now when in flight that kite I see,
It is enough to lift—lift me.

Occasional Newsletter

Recent Posts

Follow me on social media