What would it be for life to have a “meaning”? What does it mean when people say life is meaningful? I’m not sure, so let’s start with smaller, more obviously meaningful things. Better yet, let’s start with some meaningless things. When Bob sits down to polish the steel junk he’s about to haul to the scrap heap, we can say his activity is meaningless: there’s no point to it. Similarly, when my students sit down to prepare for an exam that I have decided to cancel, their work is pointless and meaningless. When Sally writes a memo about the futility of writing memos, crafting her prose to limpid perfection, with the aim of deleting her anti-memo memo before anyone reads it, we should feel some degree of concern for her mental well-being. Meaningless things have no point to them – nothing is achieved, no purpose can be fathomed, and the work we dedicate to them is entirely wasted. Meaningfulthings, let’s presume, are just the opposite.
So, how about life as a whole – your whole life, and the lives of everyone? If we believe in a Grand Scheme of Things, some cosmic contest with an unambiguous finish line, then we might then see lives as meaningful. The history of philosophy is crammed full of such Grand Schemes, but we might call upon Leibniz to present one of the greatest ones. This world, said Leibniz, is the best of all possible worlds, the very best world a just and omniscient being could call into existence, and it is made the best by all of the things people do, when taken as a whole. All finite things strive toward greater and greater perfections of being, and the world over time turns into something that is worthy of divine selection. If we embrace the Leibnizian scheme, we feel the pressure of bringing all our actions and thoughts to the highest reaches of moral and metaphysical perfection. Everything is meaningful, because everything contributes to the end God set for creation.
This is one thrillingly grand notion of cosmic meaningfulness – but hardly anyone now believes it. Most of us accept that the universe has not come about for the purpose of achieving anything.