The Search for Meaning and Purpose

“An optical instrument on board a boat on Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise” by Shane Hauser on Unsplash

The contemporary French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy points out that we use the terms “meaning” and “purpose” as if we know what those terms mean. Meaning that we have experienced meaning and purpose. But just how could that happen? How would we know what having meaning and purpose even feel like?

“My life has meaning and purpose” sounds like a great thing to say, until we ask how we know that. Who told you your life has meaning and purpose? You? The norms of your family, clan, or society?


Admittedly, all this sounds very meta and abstract. But it’s not. It’s what each of us does, that search. It is what makes up our lives. Even if we don’t know we’re searching for meaning and purpose, we are. It’s the human condition.

Yes, you might object, but I know my meaning and purpose: god’s in his heaven and all is right with my life because I’m following the master plan. Fine and dandy. But it’s wise to remember that you have chosen that meaning and purpose. Or had it chosen for you. It did not fall on you from the great beyond.

Like the Anthropocine, it is human-made.

That life doesn’t have meaning and purpose without one god or another is an old argument. The Romantic Era German philosopher Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi, who died in 1819, popularized the tern nihilist to describe those who no longer had Glaube, meaning “faith” or “belief.” (Nihil is Latin, meaning “nothing.”)

Just there is the alley we walk into when the idea of meaning and purpose is not examined carefully. Human-created gods serve human-created ends, even if the humans creating the gods have no idea that they are projecting their own social agendas onto their gods.

Frankly, I think Herr Jacobi was absolutely correct that Romantic Era individualism was getting out of hand. However, the thought that a common god creates community is only tangentially true, as evidenced by that fact that there are thousands of Christian denominations. The Christian god leads Christians to both capitalism and socialism, pro-life and pro-choice, militarism and pacifism, et cetera ad infinitum, according to the social and political preconceptions that created the denominations.

Rather than underwriting a set of beliefs by ascribing them to a god, as Herr Jacobi advocated, aren’t things made clearer by merely advocating for a set of assumptions without getting a god involved?

But back to meaning and purpose. With Glaube, any of us can create that subjective feeling of meaning and purpose, even if we have no idea how that is supposed to feel or might feel to others. It’s subjective, after all, that sense of well-being …or whatever it is.

Gods don’t create meaning and purpose. Rather, assumptions concerning what meaning and purpose are create gods. Unfortunately, gods too often become the focus of consideration (traditional theology), not the meaning and purpose of meaning and purpose.

It’s something to think about. Thinking about it won’t make you a nihilist, but it might make you a Humanist.

*Note that this line of argument does not preclude the existence of some sort of god or gods, only the sort of god or gods that exhibit human attributes. Many concepts of the gods do not include the concept that gods are understandable by human logic or imagination.