In the modern era, many philosophers and scientists, including existentialist philosophers and Darwinists, have pondered the idea that life lacks inherent and ultimate meaning, purpose, or goal. Some even found it absurd to ask questions about existence and sought answers to these questions. They believed that providing objective answers to such questions through intellectual effort was not just difficult but impossible. To them, the universe was a vast factory that operated according to the laws of nature, and humans were biological beings created by evolutionary processes or Homo economicus, aiming for maximum material satisfaction. If life had any meaning or purpose, it was simply to survive and continue living.
However, with the advancement of psychological science and deepening research into human nature, it became clear how important it is for individuals to have a sense of meaning and purpose in life. Humans are inherently curious beings who seek to understand themselves and the universe they inhabit, asking questions and seeking satisfying answers. Perhaps scientific explanations about the flow and order of existence provide some satisfaction, but alongside “how,” they also ponder “why.” They want to understand why they were thrust onto the stage called the world, whether there is a metaphysical reality behind the world of phenomena, and they yearn to grasp the truth and mystery of existence. When they cannot find satisfying answers to their questions, they become restless.
On the other hand, the modern world has witnessed how tasteless, colorless, monotonous, bland, and tedious life can be when it lacks meaning and purpose. It recognized that much of the harm caused by harmful habits, addictions, pessimism, despair, anxieties, unhappiness, boredom, and even suicides stemmed largely from the widespread sense of meaninglessness. The belief that life is empty and meaningless was seen as draining all of a person’s life energy like a sponge. It became evident how unbearable and crushing it is to simply await death helplessly after a certain age. Yes, human beings find life worth living and become motivated when they perceive it as meaningful and set satisfying goals for themselves.
The modern world, after realizing the pathogenic (disease-causing) impact of the sense of meaninglessness on human life, set out to infuse meaning into life and set goals for individuals. However, instead of exploring the genuine, intrinsic, inner, and ultimate meaning of life, modernity, which set aside ancient teachings and metaphysical knowledge, distracted individuals with instrumental and materialistic goals such as success, career, comfort, and prosperity. It fell into the misconception that life belonged to the individual, and therefore, the individual could give it any meaning they wished. By placing individualism and freedom at the top of the hierarchy of values, it assumed that the meaning of life was also an individual matter and instilled the idea that individuals could constantly chart their own destinies.
Modern individuals believed that they could find happiness through hobbies, leisure activities, and achieving success and careers, filling their lives with meaning. Since their lives were their own, they had to construct meaning and purpose through their own efforts. (Although the extent of modern individuals’ freedom in this regard is debatable.) They worked hard, earned a lot, had fun, and attained comfort and prosperity, but they still couldn’t find the satisfaction they were looking for.
To elaborate further, in the modern world, for some, the meaning of life may be making a lot of money. After all, money signifies power, and there is nothing money cannot buy, including happiness and peace. Especially in the capitalist world that venerates capital. Can working, earning money, and accumulating wealth truly be the meaning of life? How reasonable is it to link the meaning and purpose of life to a condition that may be achieved in the future? In this case, what will console the poor and those who have gone bankrupt? Can one continue to experience the excitement and happiness they feel when striving for money and wealth after achieving their goal? In short, do the rich find the meaning of life and feel satisfied? There’s no need to dwell on this; everyone can find the answers to these questions based on their own experiences and observations.
For others, the meaning of life may lie in pleasure and enjoyment. They believe that life becomes worthwhile when they indulge in food, drink, and the pleasures and blessings of the world. However, life is not just about these pleasures; pains, losses, illnesses, deaths, and deprivations are also part of life. How can someone who sees life as mere hedonism give meaning to all these and endure the hardships of life?
Moreover, can human desires and passions be satisfied with worldly pleasures? Can a person’s desires and passions be satiated by worldly pleasures? Are there pleasures in the world without sorrow? As each day passes, a person’s life capital dwindles, their health and vitality wane, and they move one step closer to death. How much joy can one truly derive from life under such circumstances? If the meaning of life is pleasure and enjoyment, wouldn’t the lives of animals be more meaningful? Anyone who can honestly answer these questions will realize that pursuing pleasure alone does not fill the void of human existence.
Or is happiness, as some claim, the hidden essence of life? Should people search for happiness throughout their lives and live for it? At first glance, happiness can indeed be seen as the meaning of life. However, this raises questions about what happiness is and how one can attain it. Happiness is a concept that is difficult to define, and identifying the sources of happiness requires further exploration.
Additionally, it’s important to remember that happiness is an outcome and not solely dependent on life experiences and material conditions. It is also closely tied to an individual’s expectations and perspective on life. Therefore, people find happiness in different things. Moreover, what brings happiness to one person might bring sadness to another. So, what determines a person’s expectations and perspective on life? It’s their sense of meaning and purpose in life. In other words, happiness is not the meaning of life; it is often a mental state and inner contentment that arises based on this meaning.
So, can engaging in intellectual activities, as some philosophers have suggested, be the purpose of life? Can a person’s pursuit of knowledge, wisdom, and understanding through reading, thinking, and observing nature be the meaning of their existence? The effort to develop and broaden one’s knowledge, horizons, and consciousness is truly a noble goal. Through this endeavor, humans can transcend the level of animal existence, achieve true freedom, self-realization, and come to know their essence.
However, questions arise here as well. First and foremost, we know that intellectuals have historically remained a small minority within society for various reasons. Does this mean that the common people lead meaningless lives? On the other hand, can acquiring knowledge and wisdom be an end in itself? Many philosophers who dedicated their lives to learning and acquiring knowledge have complained about the meaninglessness of life, and some have even contemplated suicide or made suicide attempts. So, can knowledge and wisdom be a means to an end rather than an end in itself?
In addition to all this, founding a family, having children, living honorably, possessing virtues, experiencing love, responsibility, creativity, success, power, freedom, art, prosperity, and many other things have been seen and presented as the meaning of life. Undoubtedly, each of these is an important value and goal that can make a person happy and add meaning to their life. However, some of these things presented as the meaning of life are material, worldly, and instrumental; some are contingent on certain conditions; some are not things everyone can have at all times; some are subject to chance; and some are values that pale in comparison to the grandeur of life and human worth. The meaning of life should encompass all of these things. It should cover all moments and situations in life. It should be the goal of all human activities, and all events should find meaning in it. It should be unconditional and something that everyone can attain. It should not be confined to the brief adventure between birth and death; it should encompass what comes before and after.
It must be emphasized that reaching such a higher meaning exceeds the limited human comprehension. Whoever created life, we must learn the meaning and purpose behind its creation from that source. Without understanding the purpose of creation, where humans come from and where they are going, why they were sent to this world, what kind of beings they are, the meaning of life cannot be found. The mind and modern science can say very little about these matters. Moreover, it is neither reasonable nor realistic for anyone to determine the meaning and purpose of another person’s life or impose responsibilities on them. For this reason, throughout history, people have learned the meaning of existence from religions. Therefore, in our next article, we will turn to Islam and examine the teachings it offers regarding the meaning of life.