This is a confusing topic because the definition of two of the words “meaning” and “life” are ambiguous.
In one way, it’s defined as interpretation. Like how we talk about the meaning of a painting or a piece of music. It’s something that lies beyond its perception, and it must be conceptualized through thought by deliberate judgment, and only after it’s experienced.
But there’s another definition, one which is altogether unrelated to this idea. Meaning, in this other sense, is a type of experience itself (rather than an abstraction extracted from it). When someone says that a particular experience (or life itself) was “meaningful”, it is in this sense that they use the word. Most people seeking meaning, are seeking this definition of it, whether or not they’re confused about it.
There’s yet another meaning, and it in my opinion a faulty one, but it is to this definition the large confusion arises: meaning as purpose. So that the phrase “meaning of life” is equivalent to “the purpose of life”.
Similarly, life has different meanings creating further confusion. Life, in its biological sense, is the property of living beings which distinguishes it from non-living beings. The purpose of life, from a biologist’s point of view, is the maximal replication of genes through procreation. But here, there’s no distinction between human life and an amoeba – they both have the same purpose or meaning. Of course, this biological answer is uninteresting from a philosophical standpoint, which is how we wish to address the question correctly. It is what’s expected when the question is posed, with bewilderment, confusion, and wonder: “what really is the meaning of it all?”
Life can be looked at from two different points of view: the objective and the subjective. We can look at a person’s life, or life as a general abstraction, from a third-person sense, and ask what it means? What interpretation can we give to this seemingly complex and apparently profound collection of processes that make up the human life, from birth to growing up, to relationships, society, art, science, and philosophy; vengeance, war, lust, depression – the whole cocktail of the human condition. What is the overarching interpretation of all this at the highest level of abstraction? We might be mute on this point. There might be nothing to say here, other than to enthrall at the staggering incomprehensibility of it.
But even this point of view misses the most crucial and perplexing, yearning that pushes forth this question. The right vantage point is the subjective: what is life like from the inside? The conscious experience of being you in this universe. And in a sense, you are the universe looking at itself. Life at its foundation is the fundamental “something”, in the famous phrase “something rather than nothing”. Why is there life at all? Why couldn’t it have been nothing instead? An absolute nothing – no space, no time, not even a primordial soup of quantum fluctuations; but rather the absence of everything that can be conceptualized. Why not that? Why is reality required at all? And it is in this context that you are here, filled with richness, beauty, and profundity that words do a poor job of delineating. This is the human condition, of being the locus of experience. What is it all? There’s a table, a chair, a sky, a person, a thought, a feeling, a sensation, a sound, a taste – but these are all concepts I’ve introduced to describe them: what are they prior to conceptualization? What is this blue in the sky that I see? What is that sound I hear? Don’t tell me the physics of it, I’m not looking for an explanation for how they came to be, rather, I ask what this qualitative experience is – and I’m at a loss for words, there’s truly nothing to say but simply contemplate, see, taste, hear, and feel the absolute mystery of existence, of life.
And in this sense, the meaning of life is the most fundamental question of all that we can ask. The one which cannot be answered, that which cannot be put into words or equations, the inscrutable nature of our circumstance.