Tuesday, 12 July 2011

I would like my ice cream with some sprinkles of Meaning, please

What exactly do people mean, if they mean anything at all by it, when they use the word 'meaning' from a philosophical perspective? Meaning to me seems to be one of those things that 'everyone' knows but no one can define - a little like qualia, in a way. You can't describe what Red looks like (though you might, with some advanced science, be able to link certain wavelengths of light to certain neuron firings in the brain), but you 'know' what someone means when they say 'red'. The same thing, I think is true when someone talks about the 'meaning of life'. What they are actually talking about isn't a definable thing - for example, if the universe were created as a video game for God's little son Jesus to play with, then that, from the standard definition, should be the purpose, the meaning for the universe. But that wouldn't satisfy anyone - it'd probably just depress them. "There must be a deeper meaning!" they might say. The thing is, by definition of purpose, that should exactly 'click' with most people's mental apparatus, and yet, it doesn't, just as a description of red's wavelength and frequency doesn't 'click' with people's understanding of the colour red. But when, if ever, does 'meaning' seem to 'work' in people's minds? Well let's look at religion. The only people, other than nature-worshipping 'atheists', like Richard Dawkins (I mention him too much here, I think), who ever claim to have meaning in their lives, or to know the meaning of life are the religious. But when they talk about meaning, they never have a clearly definable little snippet to give you. No cute little proverbs, just a feeling - just a fuzzy feeling of well-being, accompanied by some idiocy such as 'God works in mysterious ways' or 'Only God knows' or 'I'm content in God's plan for us'. They don't know the meaning of life either, but the 'meaning' switch in their brains is clearly set to the on-setting permanently. So is the endless modern quest for meaning simply a disguised quest for fulfillment in a world that is so different from our ancestral environment? Maybe - or maybe it's simply a need for religion, or some other kind of spirituality. With the vast numbers of religions out there, seen in every ancient society - who's to say that it isn't something almost necessary in humans? Perhaps it serves some sort of social function - but truth be told, it hits centres that pure pessimistic atheism at its core can never even hope to strike. I think the general thoughts on religions in the atheist-sphere is that they are simply highly spreadable meme-plexes - a series of memes that spread remarkably easily in the human mind, and in doing so, by evolutionary processes, therefore are in abundance in society. But what I'm thinking is, if this is indeed the truth, why have a meaning cluster in the brain? What is the point of it, even if religion is simply acting as a neurological parasite?

I foresee two scenarios: either religion is a necessary component of humanity, for reasons to do with society and meaning-deficiency is a real mental health problem caused by its lack, OR the meaning button evolved to broadcast happiness and contentment to others, perhaps with one's job or one's position in society, and has been corrupted by philosophy's search for answers where there are none fulfilling our human needs.


  1. For the longest time, queries like "what is the meaning of life?" have struck me as nonsense questions, analogous, perhaps, to asking "how much does Beethoven's C# minor string quartet have in its checking account?" or "what kind of underwear does the color blue wear?" I guess the best sense that I can make of the question is that it rests on some sort of presupposition that there is some sort of moral order woven into the fabric of reality, and if we could just somehow figure out what that is and then fit ourselves into that moral order, our lives would be Good Somehow. Maybe not today, maybe not even tomorrow, but in some sort of final accounting, Good Somehow. You don't have to be a theist to believe that, although it certainly seems to help. It might be related to the just world fallacy.

    Needless to say, the whole notion of life's meaning still strikes me as strange. As it was to John Mackie, the idea that there are values "out there" which we can somehow discover (and then subordinate ourselves to and thus make our lives Good Somehow) is to me irremediably queer.

    But of course it's easy to see that the notion of the meaning of life need hardly be true in order to propagate. Those who believe in it, convinced that they can make their lives Good Somehow, will plod forward and reproduce. Those who don't, won't.

    Another example, as if any more were really needed, of how evolution is not your friend.

  2. Yes, exactly! It's nonsense primarily because it does not expect an answer - since no answer can satisfy it. This tendency I think is another case of civilisation marching forth quicker than evolution can catch up (dispelling some of the magic people associate with evolution) - perhaps the drive for meaning serves some ancestral purpose, as I've said. Humanity is actually unique in the sense that not only are we the only animals to have domesticated other animals, such as dogs, cats and rabbits, but we are the only animals to have domesticated ourselves. And in doing so - just like with dogs - we are now prone to all these strange behaviours that only make sense in our ancestral environment.

    I like your evolutionary scenario there - it would actually explain quite well why so many people do live and reproduce, instead of coming to the antinatalist conclusion.

  3. Not everything about the way we have evolved is functional or has been selected for. Some things are just there due to genetic drift and some things are spandrels. The search for meaning is probably the latter.

  4. Very interesting CM! I haven't been reading up on evolutionary theory in a while so excuse me if I'm a little behind. It is quite a strange trait - strange enough that maybe, as you say, it is simply a byproduct of other traits being selected for. Still, the problem with all this evolutionary psychology here is that it's not all that scientific - if you make a hypothesis to fit the results, it's extremely hard to test that hypothesis with having access to a time machine. But if we had a really vast library of brain scans and compared the 'searching for meaning' sections that light up with other scans, I guess one could work out which one is actually the case.