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Monday, 10 March 2008

What if I didn't find Meaning meaningful?

How do we find meaning in life? Theists -- even open-minded ones -- often speak of a sort of meaning that I really don't understand. Here's Quixote, who is ever-thoughtful in both senses of the word, opining quite honestly on the subject of meaning:

"Atheists have purpose in their lives. They find meaning. They stare at the heavens just like theists. If purpose and meaning are illusions, they are darn good ones. We are all fools. Atheists themselves are only slightly less deluded than theists in this area.
"Again, we do not seem to get meaning from matter. Meaning is more consistent with an intelligence behind the universe."

It's not just theists, either. I met an atheist guy at a party once who said that as far as he was concerned, the meaning of life was looking for it -- not creating it, but looking for it. "Maybe there's meaning out there," he said.

How the heck can there be meaning out there? The only meaning I've ever seen was very definitely in here. In my mind!

Seriously, I don't get this. When I say 'meaning', I'm not talking about a property of the universe. I'm talking about my mental state, or perhaps another person's mental state. When I say something means something, I mean that it means something to me, or to you, or to us as part of a shared understanding. There is no echo of some bigger concept. There is no sense in which I am using 'meaning' as a flawed substitute for Meaning with a capital M. This is the only meaning I know and as far as I can tell in my youthful state it is the only meaning I'll ever need.

Apparently, not all atheists agree. John Evo speaks of "trying to play that via rationality I can create meaning". Evidently, for him, (human-)created meaning is not quite enough. I note this with all sympathy and have no desire to pathologise it. It fascinates me. Why do I not feel this way? Authors Philip Pullman and Terry Pratchett both surely have to take some credit. The fact that I adopted this notion of meaning prior to my teens may also contribute to my inability to conceive of other possibilities. Whatever the reason, for me 'meaning' is the easy question. Before reading John Evo's post I honestly thought theists just brought that one up because they were deluded and brainwashed.

So I have some questions. If you do believe in, or wish for, or are able to imagine some idea of Meaning beyond the ordinary meaning which simply refers to a state of mind, how would it interact with little-m meaning? What if I didn't find Meaning meaningful? Would that be possible, in your opinion?

Is Meaning just an extra thing that some people find meaningful?


Pseudonym said...

The hard-core existentialist in me thinks that there must be some middle ground between "meaning: a state of mind" and "Meaning: inherent in the universe". However, I don't have the vocabulary or philosophical grounding to articulate it well.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the 'food for thought' post...It'll take this old brain some time to truly digest it :-)

I am amazed that you had a meaning of life answer pre-teen. I'll raise my hand and admit that it took me much longer...30s I think.

Now at the tender age of 49 1/2, I've learned one very important rule (for me), and that is not to hold on too firmly to any 'meaning of life' answer. It's very nature makes it a moving question and seeks answers that will indeed change as we experience each new chapter of our life.

Thanks again! As simply my way of giving back, I'd like to offer you a gift copy of my book, "No Experts Needed: The Meaning of Life According to You!"

No strings attached...really! Offer open to all who read this. Just e-mail your request via my website -and a copy will be sent within 24 hours.

Yes, it is just that simple; and, yes, I am just that generous!

take care,
Louise Lewis, Author
No Experts Needed: The Meaning of Life According to You!

Anonymous said...

I also don't understand the people who are looking for meaning "out there" - as if meaning was something physical you could find, like a pot of gold. It seems to me that this claim suffers from a serious case of the fallacy of misplaced concreteness.

Meaning is a mental property; that's all it could possibly be. It is an aspect of the way you view the world. As such, it is within your power to create, the same way it's within your power to create happiness or sadness in yourself. It wouldn't make sense to say that you feel happy, but aren't actually happy. That would be a contradiction in terms. The same applies to meaning: if you consider something meaningful, then it is meaningful. There's no magic extra ingredient, no elixir of meaningfulness, that has to be added.

Unknown said...
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C. L. Hanson said...

It may be the result of consciousness + survival instinct. Like other animals, humans have a strong desire to keep living, but humans are also capable of asking themselves "But why???"

I think the human brain tends to seek reasons and causes for things tends to seek justifications for its own desires. So for some people it's hard to accept "because -- like other living things -- I want to keep on living" as a sufficient answer.

The Exterminator said...

Nice post, Lynet.

In my experience, people who talk about meaning in their lives are either (1) looking for a set of instructions for programming humans, including themselves; or (2) looking for justification to get out of bed when they'd really rather sleep for another hour.

I've never really worried about the "meaning" of my life, just as I've never really worried about the "meaning" of asparagus. Both worries seem equally silly to me.

Anonymous said...

The poet Lorca once said, "life understood is life lived". I tend to agree.

John Evo said...

Good post. To be clear, I'm not on a quest to find "Meaning". I'm fully convinced there is none. I suspect there is probably no small m "meaning" like the ones you have. I think you only think there are such things. That's why I occasionally go through depression. As CL Hanson indicated, we evolved self-awareness and can contemplate our own lives and ultimate death. No other animals do that. They may fear death, in the many life death situations that confront them, but they don't (in some leisurely moment in sun) wonder why the fuck they just bothered to save themselves from those jaws a few minutes earlier.

And the poet Lorca may be on to something. I don't get it, but then I don't do all that much in life that might enable me to.

Lynet said...

Well, Evo, it's possible that sometimes you don't have as much meaning as you'd like, but that's a property of you, I guess, not the universe.

Still, I'm not sure that meaning can be an illusion. If you really do find it meaningful, then it really is meaning. I suppose you could worry that you're just pretending to find it meaningful.

Most of the time, I try to create meaning. That works insofar as I find it meaningful -- and usually I do. I call it 'weaving myself into the world'. It takes work, but it has its rewards.