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Defining Meaning

This is the second essay in a five part series. Read the previous essay here.

“The literal meaning of life,” philosopher Albert Camus stated, “is whatever you’re doing that prevents you from killing yourself.”

Well that’s dark. Leave it to the existentialists to unapologetically pull the rug out from under our feet and then kick us when we’re down.

What do you live for?

Perhaps the point is better made by asking the question: What do you live for? What are you passionate about? What gives you purpose?

Many of us live our lives without ever explicitly entertaining these questions. In modern society, when we feel stagnant or a lack of purpose, we tend to think about our next career move or whether our partner is sufficiently serving our needs.

Yet these thoughts just beg the question: What is it that we think a different career or a different partner will change? Don’t we need to first ascertain our raison d'etre so that we can know what we’re looking for in our careers and relationships?

For the better part of our history, we didn’t have much of a choice about how we made a living or who we married. But we didn’t depend upon those things to provide meaning; our religions and cultural institutions gave us that medicine.

Today, our increasingly post-religious, post-liberal, post-techno-optimist, and post-postmodern world no longer spoon feeds us meaning. When someone tries to sell it to us, we often assume (and often, correctly) that it’s snake oil. So we medicate in other ways, like buying stuff we don’t need or reading self-help advice that doesn’t work. More often than not, these things exacerbate our ailments by distracting us from what could actually help.

What keeps us going? What’s preventing us from acknowledging the ugly truth that life often involves or causes more suffering than not and, therefore, doing what some philosophers would consider the rational thing—letting our species quietly peter out?

One could accurately point out that the instinct to survive and the drive to reproduce are as old as life itself, and that these drives will keep most of us going even in the midst of perpetual existential crises. But just because we keep on going doesn’t mean our needs are being met. Humans’ need for meaning—which doesn’t stop at mental hygiene—is as powerful as our drives to survive and reproduce.

The thing is, we don’t know what it is. What does meaning mean?

It doesn’t help that Camus’ guidance is a bit circular. To counter a sense of meaninglessness that might lead one to… well, kill themself, one can’t expect to find meaning in whatever prevents them from doing so.

We clearly need to look elsewhere. Perhaps the most logical place would be to derive a meaning for life from a more foundational understanding of the meaning of “meaning” itself.

There are just two caveats. First, in what was perhaps the greatest breakthrough of the 20th century, Claude Shannon stripped away any and all meaning from communication. His Information Theory introduced bits—the 0s and 1s that make up our information matrix—which became the foundation for essentially all modern technology. That is, the modern world is currently running on information without meaning.

That wouldn’t be so bad if we thought that humans could somehow put the meaning back into information to create an agreed upon body of knowledge and reach a consensus about our shared purpose. This leads to the second caveat. In proclaiming the death of God, the existentialists did much more than put meaning on trial. They also inspired their intellectual descendants, the post-structuralists, to call into question the very foundations of knowledge.

There is nothing outside the text

When Jacques Derrida famously argued, “There is nothing outside the text,” he meant that all meaning—not just the meaning of life—is circular. You can prove this to yourself by opening up a dictionary and looking up the meaning of any word.

Inevitably, the meaning of any word is defined in terms of other words, which are, in turn, defined in terms of other words, and so on and so forth. Meaning is an infinite, self-referential loop.

What a conundrum! Even if meaning is, by definition (pun intended), relative, might there be some kind of foundational units from which we can construct meaning?

Derrida didn’t think so, but one could argue that the responsibility to further pursue the idea didn’t fall on his shoulders. After all, most philosophers are only trained to poke our intuitions, challenge our assumptions, and sometimes kill our gods. It’s the scientists that do the heavy lifting. And they’ve discovered how meaning is made in the brain.

You might be thinking to yourself that we’re conflating two distinct concepts: the meaning of words, or “semantic meaning,” and the meaning of life, or “existential meaning.” In fact, these two concepts share a foundational similarity. We used to take for granted words’ meanings (the first dictionary only appeared in 1604) just like we did the meaning of our lives. Both were given to us by our gods. After all, according to nearly a third of the world, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

Of course, now we realize that the gods are just us. Words are social consensus and religion is a collective fiction. We’ve invented the meanings of words and the meanings of our lives. In light of this deep commonality, we can begin to see a path toward understanding existential meaning, as well as how to sustainably construct it, from an understanding of how we construct semantic meaning.

Meaning evolves like a living organism

Understanding the nature of anything requires understanding the forces that act on it—the things that caused it to be and cause it to change.

This is obvious for living things: Organisms’ evolutionary and developmental origins define what they do and why they do it. It’s also true for non-living things: Celestial objects, weather patterns, and even rocks are defined by the conditions that led to their creation (remember the igneous, sedimentary, and metamorphic classifications you learned in elementary school?). In both cases, how these things came to be explains their raison d’etre.

But what about the world of things that exist at the blurred boundaries of material and immaterial? That is, what about our models of the world—our thoughts—and the meanings we give them?

Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins postulated in his pivotal book, The Selfish Gene, that thoughts shared throughout a culture—“memes”—were every bit as alive as organisms. The system that encodes them—language—is constantly evolving. And while you can’t point to one, there’s no doubt that their existence depends upon brain states.

To understand the nature of thoughts and the meanings we give them, then, we need to understand how they came to be and how they change over time. We need to understand infants’ earliest representations of the world and how they learn their first words.

Continue with Developing Meaning.


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