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Exploring the Depths of the Human Quest: The Meaning of Life Across Time and Philosophical Perspectives

For the past few centuries, one of the most frequently asked and sought-after questions has been the meaning of life. Over time, many philosophers, psychologists, religious leaders, and sociologists have tried to shed light on various aspects of this issue from their own perspectives through books and articles. They have explored questions such as what we mean by the meaning of life, whether life has a purpose, why humans seek meaning in life, how to discover the meaning of life, what the meaning of life is, and what a person loses when they lose meaning.

We know that when a topic occupies minds and the agenda extensively, it indicates the magnitude of the problem. No one embarks on a quest for something they believe they already possess. Therefore, it’s beneficial to view the question of the meaning of life in this way. It seems that over the past few centuries, as traditions went into crisis, meaning began to evaporate, humanity lost its way, and this significantly impacted the quality of human life, prompting a closer examination of the subject.

Providing clear answers that satisfy everyone to questions about such an abstract, broad, and vague topic as the meaning of life is genuinely challenging. The first reason for this challenge is the difficulty in understanding and defining the essence of life. Second, as humans are a part of existence themselves, the meaning of life cannot be grasped without comprehending the overall existence and purpose of existence. Third, it’s due to the perception that scientific knowledge is seen as the sole source of learning the truth, and the duty of science is seen as explanation rather than determining meaning. Fourth, it’s because the human intellect alone is incapable of comprehending this without heeding the declaration of the one who created life.

Terry Eagleton, who wrote a book about the meaning of life, begins his book with this sentence: “Those who are rash enough to write a book on the subject would do well to prepare themselves for a heap of ciphers in intricate symbolic form.” (Eagleton, The Meaning of Life, p. 9)

It’s also helpful to clarify in a few sentences what we mean by the meaning of life. The meaning of life refers to the goals and values that give value to life and connect individuals to life. The existence of a meaning in life depends on having a goal and purpose. It’s this goal and purpose that make life worth living and struggling for. Therefore, the presence or absence of something to live for and even die for is the meaning of life.

In different words, the meaning of life is the answers given to questions like where humans come from, where they are going, why they were sent into the world, and what their place in the universe is. Understanding the meaning of life is also tied to understanding the meaning of death. For someone who cannot make sense of the truth that there is a reality called death that we cannot escape from, who cannot grasp the nature of death, and who cannot understand where they will go after death, genuine meaning cannot be attributed to life. In fact, to comprehend the meaning of life, it’s necessary to think beyond life and death, to contemplate the meaning and purpose of existence itself because we are also a part of the cycle of life and a part of the universe.

So, how can we understand all of this, discover the meaning of life, and provide answers to terrifying questions about existence? Does contemplating life and existence lead us to a conclusion? Can the problem of the meaning of life be solved within the limits of rationality? Can reason grasp the mystery of existence, understand the reality of death, and find a convincing meaning for why humans must endure the pain and suffering of life?

Philosophers like Arthur Schopenhauer, Friedrich Nietzsche, Albert Camus, and Jean-Paul Sartre have pondered the meaning of life and ultimately stated that life has no meaning. According to Schopenhauer, life is an illusion, consisting of suffering and misery. “The world is like a hell, and in it, people and demons are suffering souls in torment.” (Schopenhauer, The Meaning of Life, p. 29) says Schopenhauer. Camus also states regarding the meaning of life: “This world, which I cannot understand, is essentially an endless absurdity.” (Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, p. 37) Sartre’s approach to the subject is similar: “Life has no pre-set meaning, no purpose. Life is nothing before you live it. It’s your job to give it meaning.” (Sartre, Materialism and Revolution)

Nietzsche, too, stated that individuals can only find what they add as meaning to things. (Nietzsche, The Will to Power, p. 327)

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Existentialist philosophers have even developed a concept called “absurdism” to express the meaninglessness and absurdity of existence and life. According to them, there’s no inherent meaning and purpose in existence. Objective meaning and value cannot be attributed to life. Everyone must construct this meaning for themselves. Some philosophers have even considered suicide to be acceptable and the natural right of someone who no longer has hope and reason to live.

Additionally, the dominant evolutionary perspective in science and human understanding in recent centuries has also contributed to the emergence of a crisis of meaning. According to evolutionists, everything in existence is a result of matter, natural laws, and chance, so it’s absurd to talk about meaning and purpose. Phenomena beyond the world of appearances cannot be associated with substance, soul, or meaning. There’s no ultimate cause and basis for existence, nor any necessity or direction. For these to exist, there must be a plan, a program, consciousness, and awareness.

Terry Eagleton describes this situation as follows: “Today, except for the United States, which is surprisingly conservative at least in the West, many educated people believe that life is a random evolutionary phenomenon that has no real meaning other than a chaotic swirl of wind or a rumbling of the intestines.” (Eagleton, The Meaning of Life, p. 45)

French writer and politician André Malraux also expressed how Western civilization has fallen into a void regarding the meaning and purpose of life with the following words: “Our civilization is the first and only civilization in history to answer the question ‘Is there a meaning to life?’ with ‘I don’t know,’ and perhaps it’s not possible to find an answer. The idea of the meaning of life is directly linked to religion.”

Furthermore, many philosophers have argued that only religions can provide meaning to life. The following words, surprisingly, belong to Sigmund Freud, who had a strained relationship with religion: “The question of what the purpose of human life is has been asked countless times, but no satisfying answer has been found, and perhaps it is not possible to find one. Only religion can provide an answer to the question of the purpose of life. The idea of the purpose of life is directly connected to religion.” (Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents)

Similarly, Kierkegaard suggests that the conclusion reached about the absurdity of life may be due to an overly rational perspective on events and life. According to him, reason and science tell us a lot, but they cannot provide meaning or value. To find meaning, one must believe in God and listen to His word. (Kierkegaard, Present Age)

Tolstoy, who grew up in a religious family, later became an atheist, found life meaningless, and even contemplated suicide, came to this conclusion towards the end of his life: “Faith adds an eternity to human existence, meaning that does not vanish with suffering, sacrifices, or death. In other words, the presence or absence of something to live for and even die for is the meaning of life.” (Tolstoy, Confessions, p. 59)

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Yes, human beings want to understand why they were sent to what is called a house, where they will go from here, what the meaning of their existence is, and what they are supposed to do in life. They seek solid reasons to endure a life filled with pain and suffering, which ends with death, even during the most difficult and distressing times. They desire a firm handle that will help them escape from boredom, anxiety, worries, and sorrows that sometimes imprison them. They want to know themselves, their inner world, their emotions, and thoughts. Occasionally, they long for lofty ideals and goals to live for and even die for, which will help them break free from the monotony of life. They strive to understand existence and make sense of their relationship with existence.

Human beings have not been able to find satisfactory answers to these crucial questions about existence, life, and meaning without the light of revelation. Finding answers to these questions, which are beyond the capacity of human reason, is not possible. Just as we did not come to this world of our own accord, life is not our own making either. We cannot reach a conclusion about these matters based on the world of appearances. If we want to learn the meaning and purpose of existence, we must first have a clear idea about the Creator who gave existence. Without establishing a correct relationship between humans, existence, and God, we cannot solve the problem of meaning. Divine revelation shows us how to establish this relationship.

(In the next article, we will explore how a crisis of meaning has arisen in modern times and its causes.)

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Professor Yuksel Cayiroglu is a scholar focusing on Islamic Law and Religous Studies.

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