`Where did we come from?', `Why are we here?', `Where are we going?'. These are questions which surface, centre stage, at some point in most people's lives. For philosophers, and others, they constitute the core problem known traditionally as the Meaning of Life.
It might be thought that the first task in considering the question of the `Meaning of Life' is to define the key terms: `Life' and `Meaning'. However, the meanings of `Meaning' are many; and `Life' itself could be seen as not so much a separate entity, but rather, the totality of those meanings to which I have alluded. Anyway, I shall take `Life' in this context to mean HUMAN life, and the meaning of this life as, specifically, the condition of our existence so far as we bring this into question.
The question of life's meaning is not simply an exercise in intellectual curiosity; it arises when life is seen as a problem, and it is one that it is imperative to solve. For example, Albert Camus, in his `The Myth of Sisyphus', sees the question as linked closely to the problem of suicide: Why commit suicide? Why not, if life has no meaning?
A vivid description of the state of mind behind the question is also to be found in Tolstoy's `My Confession', where the great Russian enquires, `Is there any meaning in life that the inevitable death awaiting me does not destroy?'
It could even be said that those for whom life has never appeared problematic, have not really found - nor can they ever know - the meaning of life. For these people Life is just a matter of `living', and the question of its meaning simply does not arise.
As the question of meaning is not purely speculative, but practical, it is also related to the question of VALUE. The ethical question could be expressed as `What is the good life?' or `How ought we to live?' However, the question of life's meaning is `WHY should we live?'
So, `What is the meaning of life?' might be re-phrased thus: `Is life worth living?' All of which brings out an ambiguity in the phrase `the meaning of life'. Sometimes it is taken as equivalent to `the value of life', or that in virtue of which life is worth living. It may also be taken to refer to the nature of the human condition - how it is with us, how we FEEL about life. Nevertheless, to the extent that questions about the `Why' of life may be seen as concerned with the value of life (`What makes life worth living?'), they are therefore related to the ethical.
Pessimism is a possible answer to the question of life's meaning: life is devoid of meaning in the sense of worth. Pessimism or optimism may be thought merely an attitude people have towards life, something having no objective validity; the optimist sees the bottle as half full, the pessimist sees it half empty - and that's all there is about it. But, while some of our attitudes towards things are unreasoned others are not. A pessimist may have arguments for pessimism: one philosopher actually claimed to have proven that...