June 5, 2024

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.)


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