Wednesday 21 June 2017

What Do We Mean By Meaning?

One of the many complaints about the modern world is that fundamentally it lacks meaning, and, of course, this is perfectly true as regards its materialism. A materialistic world is without meaning except what we artificially give it. But in itself and without our projection of meaning onto it, it has no meaning whatsoever. This is the cause of the widespread alienation of the present day and of our endless pursuit of such ultimate banalities as wealth, personal success and the constant distraction of entertainment and ceaseless stuffing of our brains with fairly useless information. All the while we need topping up and stimulating, and this is because our lives have no real meaning. Even those who find fulfilment in their work (and those who do are fortunate nowadays) will eventually reach the point when that is no longer enough and they will wonder if that is all there is. Without meaning our lives are, well, meaningless. 

But there can be no true meaning in a materialistic world in which nothing has any real purpose or permanence. Nothing is even real. I'm not real, You're not real, not really real. We're just temporary assemblages of atoms, molecules and electric impulses or whatever whose only significance is to pass on our meaninglessness. Is it any wonder that when we peel away the illusions we comfort ourselves with we feel so empty?

If something has meaning that is to say it signifies something beyond itself. It is not just what it appears to be but there is more to it. It is the repository or focus or vehicle of something greater than itself. It opens up to a deeper level of being and we mustn't be afraid to say that this is also a higher, indeed a spiritual, level. That is to say, it is a doorway to a greater reality and it calls to something inside us which we intuitively recognise is our true and real self.

Human beings need meaning because if they don't have it they have to invent it or inside they gradually wither away. People look for it all over the place, in art, politics, sex, drugs, science and so on and so on, but it seems clear that the only place it can really be found is in spirituality. Spirituality is meaning. Without spirituality there is no meaning and you might as well be dead.

But I would go further. I would say that real meaning can only be found in a personal Creator who loves us. Even forms of spirituality that promise liberation or enlightenment are ultimately unsatisfactory. That is because they don’t accept the integrity of the person, thinking this to be the last impediment to a true realization of the nature of being. Consequently, whether they acknowledge this or not, they deny the value of relationship. But I think meaning is to be found in the full understanding that you are a real person and that others are real people and we are all sons and daughters of a real Parent.

We have arrived at our destination. Meaning is love.


Bruce Charlton said...

Before I was a Christian I tried for decades to make sense of the mainstream idea that 'we each create our own meaning' for Life.

In the end, I could see no difference between this and saying that there is no meaning at all - because all meanings are arbitrary; or that there is no difference between a created meaning and a delusion in a psychotic patient.

Indeed, I would sometimes sort-of envy psychotic people who were certain that there was a real objective meaning in Life - and they had a place in it, whereas any meaning I made-up was obviously arbitrary.

Yet, spontaneously we all begin life sure there is a meaning, and with some idea what it is - and it takes a lot of cultural conditioning to extinguish the idea. But once meaning has been extinguished, it is very difficult to escape from that pit.

William Wildblood said...

I think your point that we all begin with a sense of meaning and that gradually that is extinguished is absolutely right. We intuitively know there is something real, something more, behind it all. It's only when we start to give the rational mind more credit that it deserves that we start to go wrong. Which is not to condemn that mind but just to put it in its place!

Ben said...


"Yet, spontaneously we all begin life sure there is a meaning, and with some idea what it is - and it takes a lot of cultural conditioning to extinguish the idea. "

This is why I experience **nostalgia** when I'm in the right frame of mind or having a spiritual experience. I have a feeling that as a child I was always like this--that this view was natural for me.

You write, well, on this. On reconciling this child who was always within it, but not knowing that they were within it, with the adult who is without it but with more agency.

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

The problem is that, for something (call it P) to be meaningful, it must signify something beyond itself (call it Q) -- and Q must itself be meaningful. For example, if I translate "vnjefisoqf" into Morse code, the resulting string of dots and dashes will signify that string of letters, but since the letters themselves do not signify anything, the dots and dashes will nonetheless be meaningless.

This leads to an infinite regress. In order for P to be meaningful, it must signify Q; Q must in turn signify R; R must signify S, and so on. Since an actual infinite regress is impossible, this chain of signification must sooner or later terminate in what is quite appropriately called a "brute fact" ("brute" in the sense of "unable to speak" -- i.e., not referring to anything beyond itself), something that simply is what it is for no particular reason and has no reference to anything else -- something like "vnjefisoqf." The ultimate arbitrariness of everything seems unavoidable. There can't be a reason for everything; ask "Why?" persistently enough, and eventually you reach the rock bottom of "Just because." Some things can be "meaningful" in a limited sense (i.e., if you don't think about them too much), but ultimate meaning seems logically impossible.

This problem obviously has the same logical form as several other "turtles all the way down" paradoxes. To solve one is to solve them all. The traditional solution is "God" in his roles as Unmoved Mover, Uncreated Creator, Unjudged Judge, Meaningless Source of Meaning, etc. Some people, I am told, find such concepts coherent; the rest of us are apparently doomed to nihilism.

Bruce Charlton said...

@WmJas - As I have often said - the problem with your line of reasoning is that *you* have set-up/ assumed the meaningless metaphysical system within-which you then discover no place for meaning!

William Wildblood said...

I don't think we could even have the idea of meaning if meaning didn't exist. The sense of meaninglessness implies the absence of a real thing.

Dagonet said...

Largely agreed. I have been aware of a sort-of Buddhist David Chapman for a bit who is trying to come up with an argument for contingent meaning in a materialist universe, 'meaningness':

He hasn't really finished it to the point where it convincingly refutes nihilism but it's interesting as another take.

David Balfour said...

Yes, I agree. This harmful modern habit seems to me like a self-deceptive way of refuting meaning in all things. The qualititive nature of the thing can either be spontaneously experienced and acknowledged or explained away with a deliberate agenda to deny the nose on ones face. I sometimes think that it is so so simple that as modern over-intellectual people we find it very difficult to percieve a thing as it stands and acknowledge its reality without trying to 'explain it away.' The qualia of lifes *valuable* experiences forever lie beyond explanation, or at least do not require it or become damaged or distorted and abstracted: if you love someone it can be felt powerfully and directly as real, the beauty in a physical object or landscape, the intrinsic harmony in music, etc. These things are real, immediately transporting or moving to the human being. The first step is to acknowledge the reality of the thing directly and intuitively from our very being. Once we start undermining the thing by saying something is *just* merely the complicated interplay of various neurotransmitters and electrical signals in a biological machine, we have already imposed constraints on and altered the simple and powerful (yet elusive, mysterious and ephemoral at the same time) thing itself. We create intellectual rats mazes and contortionist mental straight jackets for our inner realities. No onr can prove blue looks the same to two people and yet we assume and know that it does. We know what love is and assume others are capable of the same. We can know meaning because we believe in it and we can feel existential angst only if we assume a denial of an imagined meaningful reality as the mental reference point. And so either the act of subjective imagined reality is a false construct (generated from what exactly? Random chance) or meaning really is real. I chose to assume the later and when I do I feel like I am whole and integrated human being that belongs in the universe. The experience of existence makes sense.

As a hopefully interesting aside and to echo Bruces original comments. It was my experience of several years working with depressed patients as a therapist that almost always the depression was contingent upon a loss or absense of the sense of meaning in ones life. I would commonly encounter suicidal patients lament "what is the point?" and then usually on further exploration they would describe a very nihilistic/materialistic perspective on life that had rendered them personally bereft of meaning. It was during this time that I discovered the work of Viktor Frankl and logotherapy and I realised that the current metaphysics of patients and their therapists, continued to rob them of any deeper meaning beyond a hedonic calculus: you are depressed? Well why not go to the gym, go on holiday, find a new hobby? Not bad ideas in of themselves but ultimately they never really exacted any long term change except temporary distraction from the overarching ignored or denied existential problems for each human life. This requires genuine spirituality to meet these needs of the human heart. But of course this approach is actively denied and discouraged. It was also during this time that I realised that modern empirical psychotherapy approaches, such as CBT, are woefully inadequate to meet the needs of the human soul for an enduringly meaningful life as it denies the irreplaceable value of spirituality and religion as an antidote to the current plague of modern western nihilism. The treatment for the modern condition of nihilism requires a change in deep metaphysical assumptions on daily life, which is something I have discovered from Bruces many blog posts on the subject.