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Meaning and Purpose

Uses of the Word “Meaning”

The word “meaning” has a few uses:

  1. What symbols or actions convey, indicate, or reference
  2. The significance or importance of something
  3. The purpose or intent something

These uses appear related.

Meaning as Significance

My wedding day was more meaningful than yesterday. What makes some days more meaningful than others? I believe the meaning of an event to an individual derives from the impact of that event on the individual.

My wedding was not meaningful to the caterers who patiently served my family that day. Meaning is in the memory of the beholder and is therefore relative.

My great grandfathers met my great grandmothers, and begot those that begot those that begot me. The moments of their meetings impacted me greatly, but I do not know anything about them, and they are not meaningful to me. Many great inventions and ideas impact me daily, but are not meaningful to me.

Meaning is not synonymous with impact. Meaning derives from our memories, and the impact of these memories.

Meaning is recursively derived. For example, the meaning in my relationship with my wife is derived from the meaning of many days spent together.

Meaning as Purpose

Purpose is the reason for which something exists. “Humanity’s chief purpose is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” The purpose of a jar is to decorate or contain. The purpose of my trip to the country was to enjoy nature.

Purpose is a relation between a creator and the created.

When someone asks “what is my purpose,” it may mean “for what purpose was I created?” or it may mean “what purpose should be behind the collective actions of my life?” In the first case, God is the creator and the person is the created. In the second case the person is the creator and their actions are created.

Meaning and a Creator

If we are created we may find meaning in the fulfillment of our creator’s purpose.

Or we may not—a Sumerian, who believes they were created to supply beer and bread to the gods, may find the endless sacrifices meaningless.

Alternately, there may be a creator, yet we may not have any purpose—perhaps we are agents in a simulation, and we evolved by chance and our universe is entertainment for higher beings who are largely indifferent to our existence.

Meaning and the Finite

Can there be meaning in the finite? If conscious existence will be snuffed out by entropy, can our lives have lasting meaning?

For most of us, lasting meaning requires lasting existence. We may die, but our contributions, ideas, art, writing, or offspring will not. Three thousand years pass, and Achilles is still famous, but eventually all memory of Achilles will be lost. Will his striving be meaningless?

When faced with our finite existence, we can only find meaning outside of time. Any effect of us having existed may be gone, but we still did exist. We lived our best life. We loved our best, and contributed what we could. We appreciated the beauty of the universe, and that will never change.

Meaning and the Infinite

The longer one lives, the less significant any particular day or event becomes. Our first trip abroad is more meaningful than the tenth.

If meaning originates from significance, then an infinite existence acts to reduce the meaning of any of it. In this way, meaning may be squeezed out by the infinite. Alternately, one may say that all meaning comes from the finite; our lives are valuable because they are short.