The history of philosophy has been a continuous search to find the meaning of being and life, for example, the allegory of Plato’s cave. Humans have tried over centuries to elucidate whether existence, being, in general, and human existence in particular, makes any sense. The meaning of life is something merely subjective because for each person life could have a different meaning. Culture, where people were born, where people grew up, their ancestors, the education they received, and even stereotypes they acquired, can be a preponderant part of people meaning of life.
Therefore we could not speak about the meaning of life in general for all human beings, but instead, people may search for the meaning of life as individuals. The meaning of life can be observed from different points of view, which may be view by beliefs such as the biological, philosophical, or spiritual sense of life.
From the material or the biological point of view, life can be seen as just a sequence of events that begins with birth and ends with death, where people never had control of it since they could never make the choice to be born.
From a non-transcendental material sense of life, the only possible meaning that life has from a materialist conception of history is to transform the world with one’s work and enjoy the fruit of it. The meaning of life is, therefore, purely and exclusively material, where the human being can live a dignified life and participate in it with freedom, with no other purpose than to see life go by and leave a legacy for the next generations.
The closest that materialistic people can be to transcend their own life is through their legacy. That legacy can be cultural, artistic or simply by offspring. For the atheist, Oliver Sacks, who studied physiology and medicine at Queens College, Oxford, and was a professor at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, the periodic table manifests itself as a biological symbol of eternity, of perpetuation and transference of everything the universe contains. As he wrote in the article “My Periodic Table” for The New York Times in July of 2015, “And now, at this juncture, when death is no longer an abstract concept, but a presence — an all-too-close, not-to-be-denied presence — I am again surrounding myself, as I did when I was a boy, with metals and minerals, little emblems of eternity.” However, people can also enjoy the beauty that this life offers them and question themselves for the ephemeral of life, as Sacks wrote, “ It was this celestial splendor that suddenly made me realize how little time, how little life, I had left. My sense of the heavens’ beauty, of eternity, was inseparably mixed for me with a sense of transience — and death.”
From the perspective of philosophy, it is fundamental that being and life (our own life) have a meaning that transcends pure and crude materiality so that it consists of something more than the simple realization of vital functions. The meaning of our lives has to be found in the world that we have to live, with the experiences we can have of ourselves but, at the same time, people must be able to find importance that transcends the perception of the senses. The Greek philosopher Plato, explains in his renowned work, The Republic, that there are two levels of intelligence: opinion and knowledge. For him, the statements or affirmations about the physical or visible world, including the observations and propositions of science, are the only opinions. Many times opinions or sciences have very good arguments that support it, but others do not, and none of them should ever be considered as true knowledge. True knowledge is born from pure reason, instead of observable experience. The reason, used in the proper way, leads to ideas that are true and the objects of those rational ideas are the true universals, the eternal forms or substances that make up the real world. For a philosopher, living means confronting fundamental and existential questions. For the philosopher, it is not life if people live it in ‘automatic pilot’, a life without its own opinion, without learned concepts, repeating the ideas and opinions held by parents, teachers, and friends. Certainly, it can be a form of existence, but it is not a life. As Plato, ancient Greek philosopher and founder of the Academy and author of philosophical works of unparalleled influence in Western thought wrote in “The Allegory of a Cave”, “Would he not say with Homer, Better to be the poor servant of a poor master, and to endure anything, rather than think as they do and live after their manner?” Plato explains, with this expression that living with a master, even if he is poor in intelligence, is better than living under the rules and manner of a society, that does not think for itself. Therefore a life without philosophy is a dead life that makes no sense.
From the spiritual perspective, the sense of being and of human life is outside of us and transcends the physical world. There are objective moral values, there is a purpose for human existence and there is also a reason for everything, perfectly established. But all these elements do not belong to the physical world but transcend it to the spiritual world. From the spiritual perspective, the ideal world is separated from the material world in which our corporeal existence unfolds and the spiritual world takes for granted the existence of a supernatural world in which God would inhabit. The greatest possible human happiness will occur when, once the body and earthly life have been abandoned, the soul can directly contemplate that true and eternal world in the company of God. Therefore human reasoning is not sufficient to understand it, making essential ‘divine grace’ on the one hand, and on the other, faith, elements that open people to a supposed supernatural reality whose knowledge is impossible without the intervention of God. In this paragraph, Plato explains perfectly in an allegorically way, the passage from ignorance to knowledge and from the physical to the spiritual world, ‘Anyone who has common sense will remember that the bewilderments of the eyes are of two kinds, and arise from two causes, either from coming out of the light or from going into the light, which is true of the mind’s eye, quite as much as of the bodily eye; and he who remembers this when he sees anyone whose vision is perplexed and weak, will not be too ready to laugh; he will first ask whether that soul of man has come out of the brighter light, and is unable to see because unaccustomed to the dark, or having turned from darkness to the day is dazzled by an excess of light. And he will count the one happy in his condition and state of being, and he will pity the other; or, if he has a mind to laugh at the soul which comes from below into the light, there will be more reason in this than in the laugh which greets him who returns from above out of the light into the cave.’
My personal experience as an individual is that when people look for meaning in their lives, why and for what to live, the most committed question has to do with who I am and what am I here for? When we look for meaning in life, we have a yearning for the ultimate understanding of ourselves, of the reality that surrounds us, of the world, and of the cosmos, seen this one as the outside world in Plato’s cavern. Something that, in turn, is linked to a path of self-knowledge, which has been proposed for millennia by the various spiritual traditions. Many people, as they deepen their self-knowledge, encounter what we may call spiritual concerns, the search for transcendence and meaning beyond the contingent or the immediate.
The meaning of life, at the end of the day, is an introspective question that one must ask themself. Whether it is living in moments or looking outside of our own reality into the divine, it can never be truly answered. The different interpretations help guide us to the conclusion that one must search for their own meaning of life, whatever that could mean to them. Every person finds the sense of their logic as a reason to be, using the perspectives as nothing more than a building stone for knowledge.