What Is the Meaning of Existence? (In 10 Minutes or Less) | Unveiled
VOICE OVER: Peter DeGiglio
WRITTEN BY: Will Barrett
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The meaning of life has puzzled humankind for centuries. Why are we here? What's our purpose? Does anything really matter?? In this video, Unveiled takes a closer look at some of the world's leading philosophies and worldviews, to try to make sense of it all! Which of these ideas most resonates with you?
What Is the Meaning of Existence? (In 10 Minutes or Less)
Sometimes life is beautiful. But sometimes it can seem like a drag. And, for all the fantastic moments they throw our way, our lives are also punctuated by tragic events… and guided by the inevitability of suffering, aging, and our own mortality, too. The problems and pains that we all must endure from time to time can often lead us to wonder in our low moments, what’s the point of it all? But, as it turns out, there are lots of responses to that one, crucial enquiry.
This is Unveiled, and today we’re answering the extraordinary question: what’s the meaning of existence?
In this video we’re exploring various philosophical and religious opinions on whether or not there’s some kind of purpose to our existence. We, of course, know that there are a number of physical, scientific theories, as well - such as the Big Bang theory - that seek to explain the fact of our existence, and why we’re physically here. There are countless videos covering these on our channel, so be sure to check them out too!
But, today, let’s start by looking at what some philosophers throughout the ages have said about the meaning of existence. First up, the ideas of one of the most famous philosophers of all time, Plato. For Plato, the ultimate goal of any life worth living is to obtain the highest form of knowledge possible. This word, “Form”, is important. Plato believed in the existence of universal Forms, which are ideas or concepts in their purest, most abstract state. These Forms do not exist in the real world, but rather in a kind of spiritual realm - and accessing that realm is to pursue the meaning of life. Plato’s Forms could be anything… from Beauty to Squareness, to Blueness, and so on. A particularly important form, however, is that of Goodness… and for Plato the purpose of all our lives is to try to obtain the highest possible understanding of the Good.
A different philosopher, Antisthenes, took a different approach though… one which emphasized virtuous action as opposed to knowledge. This school is known as Cynicism, and to a cynic the purpose of life is to distinguish between wholesome and unwholesome values. Do so, and it’s believed that one can live a happy life in accordance with nature. To be a Cynic, you must reject unvirtuous desires such as fame, possessions, power, and wealth - as these will never bring you the peace that true happiness needs. Get rid of fame, possessions, power, and wealth, and you free yourself from unhealthy mental baggage in favour of leading a pure life.
Cyrenaicism offers a vastly different approach, however. It’s a smaller school coming out of Ancient Greece, but it advocates most of what cynicism denies. Cyrenaics believe that the most sensible course of action for each individual in their individual life… is to constantly seek short-term gratification. Including things like money, material goods, and physical experiences. Even if doing so means sacrificing their long-term interests. In stark contradiction to followers of Plato, too, Cyrenaics are skeptical of the value of knowledge. Instead, they exclusively trust in their immediate perceptual awareness. Again, valuing short-term pleasure over long-term gain, they see the meaning of life as being clearest when we trust our innate instincts about what we want right now. They don’t delay, they don’t second-guess themselves, they just go for it!
To flip the debate again, the school of Epicureanism takes an often opposite approach, despite also valuing the pursuit of pleasure. For its founder Epicurus, the ultimate goal in life is to maximize long-term pleasure… and you do that by minimising pain and fear. With most humans wanting to be free from pain and fear, this should perhaps be one of the more straightforward worldviews out there? But, of course, inconsistencies arise by the fact that different humans find different things pleasurable and painful. There doesn’t appear to be one right answer here, but Epicurus generally believed that the pursuit of mental pleasures is more meaningful than chasing physical ones, because physical is usually short-term gratification whereas mental can often result in long-term wellness.
Next, there’s nihilism, a famously pessimistic philosophical movement (it would seem) which refuses to believe in any kind of objective meaning to existence… and claims that all value systems are baseless. Nihilists view other philosophies as just desperate attempts to find meaning in what’s really an unforgiving and meaningless world. With that said, there are some nihilists with at least a little optimism. Many, for example, refuse to let the meaninglessness of everything get them down… and so they develop a more heroic mindset that strives to preserve their own happiness (in spite of the lack of meaning). Others go one step further, to emphasize the positive side of the lack of meaning itself… namely that if everything is meaningless, then that takes the sting out of all the apparently negative aspects of life, too - such as fear, humiliation, and guilt. Because if, in the end, nothing really matters… then all those things that we worry about on a daily basis don’t matter either.
There’s also Absurdism, which could be considered a branch of Nihilism, put forward by amongst others the French writer Albert Camus. The “absurd” part here is directly referring to the contradiction between an individual’s innate desire to find a meaning to life, and the impossibility of doing that in an ultimately meaningless universe. This leads to an unavoidable dissatisfaction with pretty much everything… but one solution is again to simply accept the absurdity of life, and to live it regardless without any identifiable reason for doing so.
But the final philosophy we’ll examine today is something of a meeting point for many philosophies. Existentialism holds free will as the most important value in life. Existentialists therefore believe in the uniqueness of all individuals and generally deny that it’s even possible to prescribe a one-size-fits all rulebook (or meaning) for everyone. From cynicism to nihilism, no one idea could ever solve all of life’s big questions. Instead, for existentialists, it’s the individual’s responsibility to seek their own meaning… and this can be found in a variety of places. The existential dread we sometimes feel is then not an indication that life is pointless, but rather a motivation to seek our own truth... and to discover for ourselves why we’re here.
To finish, however, we know that most religions offer their own take on the meaning of life, too. And there are some common themes. The major monotheistic religions, for example, preach that a single God created the world, and that it’s our duty to submit to this God in order to lead a good life. The specifics of what we should and shouldn’t do often differ from religion to religion, though. In Christianity, for example, the purpose of life is to seek salvation through the grace of God… with most denominations implying that all people are sinners by nature, but that all can be forgiven for their sins by following Christian teachings. Islam also refers to life as though it’s a kind of test, although it places more emphasis on service to God… with the purpose of life being more to know and worship God.
Generally speaking, eastern religions differ in a number of ways, with one common theme being that the universe (and therefore our existence) in eastern faiths has a cyclical nature. In Hinduism, for example, it’s believed that human beings have an immortal soul that’s reincarnated after death. The purpose of our existence, then, is to gain liberation from the concept of Karma… which is the idea that all our actions have future consequences, even if those consequences don’t occur until a future reincarnation. Worship of Gods, moral action, and enjoyment of life are worthy pursuits in Hinduism, too... but the meaning of life is more about arriving at a higher level of existence, beyond the cycles and structures that bind us.
Buddhism also refers to higher levels of being, but never really concerns itself with directly answering the question of existence. Nor does it especially claim to understand how the world was created. Buddhism instead emphasizes the impermanence of all aspects of our lives, and suggests that all human suffering comes from our tendency to cling to things that can’t last. While there’s no explicit meaning or purpose to life here, Buddhists do still follow a path; the path to enlightenment or nirvana, a state of being in which suffering has been eliminated. Meanwhile Taoists also seek a similar inner peace, by trying to follow the Tao, or the Way, which is the perceived natural order of the universe. You follow the Tao by trusting your intuitive knowledge about how to proceed through life towards wisdom.
We’ve briefly covered a wide range of philosophies and ideas today, and we can already see how links can be made across almost all of them. Life is certainly complicated, then, and people have always (and will always) see it through different lenses. Whether or not there’s truly any meaning to existence may not be a question we can ever definitively answer… but which of these modes of thought most resonates with you?