Monday 20 January 2020

What is it for Life to have 'meaning'?

The insistent demand for Life to have 'meaning' is - for some people, including myself - a primary motivation, instinct, urge.

It is also, typically (and it was for me) a fuzzy and ill-formed demand; such that it was possible for me to be fobbed-off with simplistic, partial, incoherent and unsatisfying answers - that introduced confusions and disappointments.

I guess it is the same for most people. They have a 'need' for something, call it 'meaning' in Life, but after failing to express this need, failing to find an answer, seeing the whole business parodied and mocked - they just give-up and seek to maximise pleasure and minimise suffering... The hedonic life.

The 'hope' that such inchoate yearnings as the search for meaning will be numbed and crushed by sufficiently intense and sustained gratification from sex, drugs, status, creativity, money... Will be drowned by novelty, driven-out by busy-ness... whatever gratifies us personally.

As if the answer to a philosophical question was to forget it, and instead enjoy a night out on the town. That is about the level of mainstream modern reflection on the subject of the meaning of life - albeit dressed up pretentiously and dishonestly; and this cover-up itself covered-up by impatience and aggression.

We live in a world where the 'official line' is that there is no real meaning in reality; reality is a product of physics, chemistry and biology. Stuff 'just happened'. The only escape allowable from rigid materialist determinism is 'randomness', chaos, entropy. There is no meaning in any person's life, because there is no meaning in such a world. Stuff happens.

The, and this is quite common, people are advised (with a kind of forced cheerfulness) to 'make their own meaning'. This world has no meaning, and is utterly indifferent to you gratification; 'therefore' it is up to each individual person (or maybe they could do this is groups?) to manufacture meaning.

This can be made to sound pseudo-heroic: mankind isolated in an indifferent meaningless universe, busily making meaning out of nothing; so our brief life is itself surrounded by a bubble of... well what exactly? In the end, self-manufactured meaning of this sort usually devolves to 'pleasure', gratification. People are not so much being advised to 'make meaning' as (again) to enjoy themselves and forget about meaning...

But even if we happen to be some kind of creative genius and can make a mini-world of meaning - can make a bubble of meaningfulness around our-selves and perhaps those we love - then it would not do the job.

Suppose you were a Tolkien, and could make a world and inhabit it imaginatively, and there find the meaning missing from real-life; and suppose you could also persuade others to join you in this world. This doesn't work. Why? because it is temporary and arbitrary, yet we crave that which is permanent and true.

We want the meaning to be out-there, and potentially the same meaning for everybody. We want that meaning to be solid, something that is discovered and not invented. We want it is be lasting, and not something that crumbles away beneath us.

Self-deception doesn't work. People cannot live by their own wishful thinking no matter how they try. To create and to sustain a meaningful world requires conscious effort, and we cannot suppress the awareness that that is what it is. It doesn't work if we create an illusory world, enter that creation, then try to forget that it is illusory.

So the meaning of life must be external, permanent, objective and all that kind of thing. But it must be more than that if it is to have meaning. Meaning must be experienced, and must be personal. So a meaningful life must be subjective - experienced inside us, as well as present outside.

Meaning must be relevant to us, each individual, you and me personally.  And it must be involving: so that we participate in that world (and don't merely observe it).

In sum, the meaning of life must be outside us; but it must also be inside us - otherwise it will do us no good. And it must be true, not made-up, arbitrary or merely wishful; otherwise it will not count as meaning.

So, this is what is needed, that is what is wanted; and the above is only a summary of it. Anything less, or anything that only deals with either the inner or the outer, will be grossly inadequate.

What I get from the above analysis is that we need to have meaning at every level. Our reality needs to be a Creation - it cannot be something that just happens. And that creation needs to have a direction, a purpose. And that purpose needs to encompass not just mankind, but every single individual...

And that purpose must also encompass the individuality of individuals, the innerness and subjectivity of individuals, the motivations and nature of each individual.

The purpose of 'the universe' must be directly relevant to me, here and now; and I must be involved in it.

And all this must be really-real; not just some invention or hypothesis. To Live, I need (perhaps we all need) this kind of large-scale, multi-level, multi-faceted meaning; and we need it ASAP, not just as the unlikely goal of some kind of distant and vague project.

Anything less will not suffice; so discovering the meaning of life ought to be, needs to be, a major priority for everyone capable of yearning for such answers.

Also, despite the urgency of such and enquiry, we need to resist being fobbed-off with half answers. We need whole answers - of rather, I should say, we need The whole answer. 


Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

In your opinion, what is it that makes non-arbitrary meaning possible? Immortality? The existence of God?

Bruce Charlton said...

WmJas - I would say it needs several things, not just one thing. Which suggests that it needs a certain overall situation, rather than a list of criteria. And that situation is the one I have often described on this blog - the combination of Mormon, Barfield, and Arkle.

Jared said...

I really resonated with this post and I thought you evoked a them that was really understandable, Bruce.

I think that it's kind of like being in a library that happens to have the book that is the secret-to-everything, but you don't know which book it is. You read several books, looking for the right book, and when you finally find the book that is the secret-to-everything you are tempted to leave it mostly unread.

Although, it's kind of different, because when you do find the truth it informs everything you do.

I appreciate your perspective, because part of me resonates with the functionality aspect. Like I have a lot of dependents and being a good breadwinner is key. But part of what makes me a good breadwinner is caring about this deeper question, about wondering how it all fits together.

When we are motivated to understand ourselves (the 'within' you mentioned) and we are prepared to take our place in the circle of life (the 'without' you mentioned) we know that what we are is unique in some ways but the same as other people in some ways.

It's kind of like we're all popcorn kernels and you don't know until they 'pop' what shape they're going to be. Some might pop sooner than others, but really the ones that take a long while to pop may take on the most beautiful shapes. Just an analogy.

There's a rite of passage going on, in my view, with people taking so long to grow up and there being so much prosperity. There's just either so much to learn about society, or so much that has been lost, or maybe both (I can't decide which) that in order to interface as eternal beings in this finite and fallen world, we are having to make choices that define us.

I tend to stay away from words of finality about myself. But on the other hand, it's good to find out which things you want to define yourself as, and what things you can be consistent in.

Great post.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Jared - Thanks, glad this one hit the spot for you.