Here is a simple list of questions (and some feasible answers) presupposed by the great but oft misunderstood query ‘What is the meaning of life?’:
Q1: Why do I, everyone else, and the Universe itself exist?
A1: This is presently unknown. With regard to the existence of humans our most plausible explanation is some variant of Darwinism. We seem to be part of an evolutionary environment, equipped with regular instinctual drives to fulfill just like the animals (and if not fulfilled overcome through adaptation) but with no single common purpose. An answer may lie in the study of Earth’s prehistoric history as to why an animal with such markedly high intelligence (in comparison to other animals) came into being. Now, the reason for the Universe itself existing is such a complicated question with so many possibilities our answers derive largely from informed speculation. Considering this, acquiring even an approximate answer will probably require significant scientific progress in multiple areas before an attempt can be made to ascertain the underlying comprehensive truth, assuming one does even exist.
Q2: Do I have a purpose? Is my life path determined in a way which exposes me to certain experiences, to create a purpose to improve humanity in some way and then achieve that goal in the course of a lifetime?
A2: Perhaps. The assumption that you will have only one purpose to fulfill may be too simplistic in a multifaceted environment like planet Earth. Moreover, there is no way of telling exactly how your own life path fits into the overarching narrative of human progress. From a pessimistic perspective your role in human affairs could simply be a culmination of particular arbitrary circumstances, while from an optimistic perspective reality may at all times be formulating itself around you in a way which allows you to make a considerable contribution to humanity (if that is what you desire to achieve).
Q3: If we are apparently alone in the Universe are we then able to construct our own meaning for objects and experiences?
A3: Yes and no. We can identify the things and activities we find desirable and work towards maintaining our relationship with them but we do not have a firm grasp of the extent to which we create and control our original desires (“Man can do what he wills but he cannot will what he wills.” — Schopenhauer). Meaning seems to be found or created in the process of experience but enjoyment relates directly to our (probably) inherent temperamental affinity for certain types of experiences. On the other hand certain activities are almost unanimously found to be meaningful; such as helping or bringing joy to others, experiences which relate to the bodily functions (good food, sex, even alcohol!) or more curiously pursuits such as music/dance and sport. Many existentialists would argue that the ideal way to cope with a lack of absolute, codified meaning is to develop then pursue your own idea of what is meaningful.
Q4: What is the meaning of (or reason for) the perpetual suffering in the world, both mental and physical? Why isn’t life ‘fair’ (e.g. why are some lives longer or shorter than others)?
A4: This is perhaps an inquiry into the lack of suggested inherent morality. While morality is not necessarily entirely relative or just a social construct, we can perceive no definite punishments for behaviour which is deliberately hurtful or injurious to others (e.g. a murderer is not immediately smote for ending another person’s life). However, there could certainly be some sort of underlying imperceptible karma-like system where ‘good’ decisions lead to enjoyable future experiences and ‘bad’ decisions to less enjoyable ones, but we don’t yet have the evidence for such a principle. Again we are essentially restricted to speculation here. You can make an argument that, counter-intuitively, mental suffering can turn out to be a positive experience to go through (“…That our pains are thus unendurable, means not that they are too great, but that we are sick. We have not got our proper life. So you perceive pain is no more necessarily an evil, but an essential element of the highest good.” — James Hinton) but physical suffering is very rarely seen as anything other than an unwanted experience. All we can hope for is that somehow these aspects of existence are connected in a way which proves there is some justification for the madness of life and death.
Q5: What would be the implications of knowing the meaning of life? Would life immediately lose its lustre upon understanding exactly how reality fits together? Is there a great advantage in striving for but never reaching a finished comprehension of things?
A5: This is probably true, but we can’t know for sure until some polymath genius stumbles upon an integrated awareness of the way reality functions, then explicates this for the world to see. It could even be the case that the meaning of life has already been found! Perhaps the simulation hypothesis is actually correct but not provable at this time. The problem here is the recognition that humans generally need a clear sense of purpose to function correctly. Once that purpose has been reached in most cases we almost immediately need another one or else we can lose motivation. If meaning is related to our subjective valuation of the importance of a certain goal, finding the solution to the ultimate question, the meaning of life, could ironically render most of human conduct utterly meaningless (all conduct which doesn’t fulfill the revealed particular purpose). Yet it’s difficult to see this in a way which precludes the ongoing search for an increased understanding of absolutely everything the Universe has to offer.