Posted by: N.S. Palmer | September 12, 2011

The Meaning of Life

By N.S. Palmer

In today’s New York Times, its column “The Stone” asks what The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy called “the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything:”

What is the meaning of life?

The British comedy troupe Monty Python devoted an entire movie to that topic. At the end of the movie, John Cleese summarized the meaning of life as follows:

  • Be nice to people.
  • Don’t eat too much fat.
  • Try to get some walking in.
  • Read a good book every now and then.
  • Live in peace and harmony with people of all races, creeds, and nationalities.

That’s a good answer, considering that the question itself is badly stated. As the supercomputer Deep Thought observed in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, you can’t understand the answer unless you understand the question.

So you can’t answer the question “What is the meaning of life?” unless you can answer “What is the meaning of the question?”

The New York Times column has some good ideas in it, but largely misses the point. It approvingly quotes Jean-Paul Sartre‘s remark that without God, life has no meaning. But then it disputes the idea that life has meaning with God, either.

The Meaning of Meaning

In logic and linguistics, meaning typically refers to intentionality, the property by which an object refers to something other than itself.

If I say “there is an elephant in the living room,” my statement is not self-contained. It refers to something beyond itself, that is, to the presence of an elephant in the living room.

In fact, intentionality is one of the defining characteristics of consciousness, and therefore of us. To be conscious is to be conscious of something.

That isn’t too far removed from people’s vague sense of what it means for their lives to have meaning. We want our lives to be about more than just themselves. We want them to be in relation to something else.

Most people want to live for something beyond themselves: for God, for their spouse, for their children, for their political ideals, for music, and so forth. They want their lives to be in accordance with their objects (God’s wishes), pleasing to those objects (God’s approval), or beneficial to those objects (the welfare of their children, the success of their political ideals, and so forth).

In that sense, God does give meaning to people’s lives, both:

  • In an absolute, metaphysical sense (whether people believe in God or not), and
  • In a psychological, moral sense (if people choose to devote their lives to following God’s directions as they understand them).

But you can’t make sense of the answer unless you can make sense of the question. That’s how I make sense of it.

Your answer might differ: but if it makes sense to you, that’s what counts.

Copyright 2011 by N.S. Palmer. May be reproduced as long as byline, copyright notice, and URL ( are included.


  1. […] therefore think” approach to society, politics, and God. My favorite of his recent posts is The Meaning of Life, in which he quotes Monty Python but also seriously considers the meaning of meaning […]

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