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Meaning of life

"What is the meaning of life?" is probably the most-asked philosophical question by humanity at large. Common answers include: happiness or flourishing; pleasure; power; knowledge, understanding, or wisdom; and being blessed, or achieving union with God or the divine; or simply that there is not meaning to life. Philosophers, religious authorities, artists, scientists, and countless ordinary people have thought a great deal about the question.

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What does it mean to ask what the meaning of life is?

The 'meaning' referred to is purpose, justification, not meaning in the sense that words have meaning. This is why responses such as 'life can't have a meaning, it's not a word' or 'look it up in a dictionary' are fallacious. The definition of life is an interesting issue in its own right, however, especially as relating to artificial and extraterrestrial life.

We can also separate this question into two different questions: one about the objective purpose of life, and the other about subjective purpose of life. The subjective purpose of life varies of course from person, and need not be considered any further.

Many deny that an objective purpose of anything is possible. Purposes, they argue, are purely subjective. Others claim that life has an objective purpose, though they differ as to what this purpose is, or where it comes from.

How philosophers have addressed the question

Over the millennia, philosophers have had much to say about this question--though philosophers do not fixate on it as much as popular conceptions might lead one to believe. Theories of value--of which there are very many indeed--are not necessarily, but can sometimes be construed as theories of the meaning of life. Great philosophers such as Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Spinoza, and many others had clear views about what sort of life was best (and hence most meaningful). The existentialists addressed themselves to the question head-on. More recently, Robert Nozick discussed the question at great length in his Philosophical Explanations.

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Religious views on the meaning of life

Religion itself, it is often suggested, is a response to humanity's search for meaning or purpose. The notion here is that we do or ought to seek a higher purpose that will give our lives meaning.

Science views on the meaning of life

Science is sometimes criticized for not providing an answer to "the meaning for life", but it does not attempt to do so. Science addresses questions of "what" and "how", but does not attempt to answer "why".

A Mathematical view can be found in the Incompleteness Theorem, which basically says that there are some Mathematical facts that are true yet unprovable, unless you adopt a view of the universe that is so simple that it does not include arithmetic.

A Computer Science view can be found in the Halting Problem, which says that it impossible to know if an arbitrary program will eventually finish running, unless you cripple the allowable programs in some fashion. (For example, you can require that each program be allowed only a finite amount of memory. In this case, it must eventually repeat a state, so it will eventually halt or go into a recognizable loop.)

Some people say that the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle also follows this theme, that you can't possibly know everything about a particle.

Significance of "42"

The number 42 as an answer to the question of the meaning of life is a reference to a joke in Douglas Adams's book The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy. An advanced race of pandimensional beings builds a gigantic computer called "Deep Thought" to find the Answer to "Life! The Universe! Everything!". Seven million years later, the computer gave the answer of "42". After the answer was given, the pandimensional beings realized that they did not know the question and an even larger computer (earth) was built to find it, however the earth is destroyed just before the final readout.

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