What shall we do with our minds ? take 2
Think clearly and think for yourself — on the narrative of meaning
“I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong. I have approximate answers and possible beliefs and different degrees of uncertainty about different things, but I am not absolutely sure of anything and there are many things I don’t know anything about, such as whether it means anything to ask why we’re here. I don’t have to know an answer. I don’t feel frightened not knowing things, by being lost in a mysterious universe without any purpose, which is the way it really is as far as I can tell.”
Richard P. Feynman
For various reasons it appears that most human minds are very much unlike Feynman’s in that a very deep fear is encountered when meaning is annihilated or suspended.
Apparently, most minds find the idea of a universe without any purpose, supremely frightening and scary. A dark meaningless universe appears to the untrained mind as ultimately intimidating.
Why that should be so, is a quest best left for another essay, in this here my aim is to explore the idea of meaning and what to my mind is the main culprit for the above state fear of meaninglessness.
In short it is the narrative of the given.
The narrative of the given (or the myth of the given) is basically a premise that the meaning and so the purpose and goal of life is somehow a ‘given’, its out ‘there’ or in ‘here’ somewhere, and so one needs only to find it and ‘all is well’.
To confront the idea of the given is to accept the reality of emptiness. Embracing the void of meaninglessness. These however, contrary to convention are to my mind a liberating process. For what better platform to create our own meaning than a universe without purpose?
For this endeavor to be fruitful and healthy we need first explore the very idea of ‘meaning’.
“Man cannot stand a meaningless life”
If there is one thing, we can state with certainty about ourselves as humans it is that our appetite for meaning is insatiable.
We, as a species, crave meaning. Even the staunchest supporters of nihilism need meaning, if only to negate it.
But where is meaning to be found?
Meaning is often confused with similar (and correlated) but distinct terms, such as purpose, goals, reason, and function.
The confusion stems primarily from the ambiguity of language in general but more specifically from mixing up contexts. In other words, the confusion concerning meaning is mostly due to what is apparently the usage of context related terms to different contexts.
This situation generally implies as a basic argument that form equals function, equals purpose, equals meaning.
Within given contexts of course, forms do equal functions, equal purpose, equal meaning. The common example is a hammer, its form reflects its function: to hammer, equals its purpose: to hammer, and so its meaning. In the case of the hammer and all examples belonging to the same class, it is quite clear that the context defines the form from which all else stems. The reason of course is that all these forms, a hammer, a chisel, a chair, a house and so on are all a product of a designer, the human.
So, in this sense, all forms pertaining to a designer have their purpose, as it were, built in. The meaning, the purpose, the reason, the goal, and the aim are packed together in the same object. In the realm of human inventions, design, and production thus we can state that there always exists a direct correspondence between fact and word, object and meaning, function and purpose.
The problems of moving context start when we move from human designed objects to ‘natural’ objects to which the human had no part in their creation. Crucially the very habit (and habit is all it is) of applying the term meaning as in ‘it means that’ is the very root of confusion. Especially when we conflate a perception with its implied purpose. In the realm of the natural the question of meaning is senseless, there is no inherent logic to the question what the meaning of a bee, for example, is. Furthermore, it will be meaningless to ask the purpose of the existence of a bee, bees like all other forms of life are products of the biological evolution of life on this planet. As indeed are humans.
Humans however, we may assume, for lack of a knowledge of the inner lives of bees (assuming that they do have such an inner life), are the only creatures we know of that have this maddening habit of asking the most senseless questions such as: what is the meaning of Life (capital L) and not less important what is the meaning of my life?
That these are categorical mistakes is not the point (they are) the point is that by making such extrapolations from one context to another we confuse the issue and bring ourselves into an error situation.
It goes without saying that if one believes in a design (creation) and a designer (a god of any kind) all the above confusions disappear if only because a ready-made meaning is there for the taking or grasping or discovering and so on. Obviously, this is not a viable option for a clear-headed thinking conscious aware mind.
Assuming that one demands a clear and lucid mind embedded in freedom, we should therefore assume that the meaning of ‘meaning’ is not a given and so is fundamentally open, for the story telling capability of that mind to construct its very own meaning.
“The significance of our lives and our fragile planet is then determined only by our own wisdom and courage. We are the custodians of life’s meaning. We long for a Parent to care for us, to forgive us our errors, to save us from our childish mistakes. But knowledge is preferable to ignorance. Better by far to embrace the hard truth than a reassuring fable. If we crave some cosmic purpose, then let us find ourselves a worthy goal.”
Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space
Meaning construction then.
It is the narrative of meaning which makes a difference, and so for the first act (or performance) of meaning creation, we may start by using a more complex terminology. Instead of meaning I use ‘meaning-relation’ as a term designating the inherent state of relationality of the mind, for there is no mind that is not in the world and implicitly interconnected with all other minds. Moreover, the dynamics of relationality stating against an absolute, include if so, a prerequisite that also meaning is not an absolute but a relation and so all meaning relations are in constant flux.
Given the flux of all meaning relations, the dynamics of meaning are better called the flow of meanings.
In other words, meanings are not an absolute basis and do not have a fixed correlation and or composition. At this point one may be confused as to how to convey the meanings intended if meanings are always in relation and always in motion, flux and dynamic states. The answer is to make a distinction between ordinary usage, the usage pertaining to the community of same language speakers and thought usage. Put differently we need distinguish between communication of meanings and their actual (mind) significance.
Moreover, meaning if so, resides in the relation between agencies and not in an agency independently. (By agency I ‘mean’ any perceptually defined ‘thing’ object or subject, idea, thought sensation and so on).
Hence meaning-relation is the term of choice for my mind.
There are several ways to think about meaning. We may think about meaning relations as a conceptual bridge connecting the experiential (as in the event of being) story (see stories and narratives) with the situation (circumstances) of that event in the world (Mind) as narrative.
Meaning can also be thought of as an ability of the conscious aware mind of an individual, meaning application is the performance of this ability.
Alternatively, we may think of meaning as a quality, the quality of bestowing a given significance upon a given agency relation.
Finally, conscious awareness (another meaning relation) contains both the ability and the quality of conferring meaning upon an agency (or thing) for the purpose of self-motivation. It is in fact the actual engine of motion, the emotional motivation apparatus.
Furthermore, meaning relation is that which gives value to things (agencies) and correlates to significance, importance and crucially to interest.
I leave you with this most beautiful and quite enchanting poem of Walt Whitman:
“O Me! O life!… of the questions of these recurring;
Of the endless trains of the faithless — of cities fill’d with the foolish;
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light — of the objects mean — of the struggle ever renew’d;
Of the poor results of all — of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me;
Of the empty and useless years of the rest — with the rest me intertwined;
The question, O me! so sad, recurring — What good amid these, O me, O life?
That you are here — that life exists, and identity;
That the powerful play goes on, and you will contribute a verse.”
Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass
Thank you for reading, this is a work in progress and will continue to expand next year.
A meaningful and happy new year.