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Nathanael Garrett Novosel, August 12 2020

Defining Meaning

While it might not seem like the most interesting topic to define terms, but anyone looking for the meaning of life or more meaning in life needs to define what that means to them.  As simple as it might seem, there are many things that you might mean with that question.  As a result, you might get advice that you don't find useful because you are looking for something else, and you also might argue with people about what the meaning of life is and talk past each other because you're referring to completely different concepts.

So, let's break down what meaning are possible when someone says, "What is the meaning of life?":

There are likely others, but this list is a good representation of the most common meanings.

Because of how varied this list is, one could ask the exact same question, receive many different answers, and then disagree or not be satisfied because they were not using the same definition.  For example, someone might mean, "What is the goal?" and be disappointed when someone says, "To live a good life," referencing ethics.  Someone else might mean, "What caused us to be here?" and be upset when the response is, "You are here to serve others," referencing how you should live or what your purpose should be.

Therefore, if you are going to debate or discuss this topic with someone, you should definitely agree on which of the above meanings you are referring to before engaging.  It will address a lot of unnecessary arguments around your answers when the root cause of the issue was that you didn't even agree on what the question meant.

What's interesting is that you can narrow down possibilities and reason the most likely options once you have a definition, making the process much easier to discuss.  Here's how you can narrow down options pretty quickly:

Hopefully, the above summaries can help you frame conversations and consider the possible options in a structured fashion so you can derive conclusions that resonate with you.  A benefit to the above list and framing is that you can have a scientific discussion about how life works and what you can conclude from the evidence as well as a philosophical conversation and what you might believe but not necessarily be able to prove scientifically because subjective and non-physical answers are outside the realm of science.  As long as you are defining your terms and framing the conversation in a way that focuses on what you care about while being open to different possibilities, you are fostering a good intellectual conversation on the meaning of life.

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Nathanael Garrett Novosel

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