Existential Meaning

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

The inflection point of human evolution happened as our ancestors’ increasing abilities to link their minds together bootstrapped their brains’ reward systems. The result was the emergence of an evolutionarily novel psychological drive. Just as powerfully as our biological drives compel us to reproduce our genes, our “communicative drive” compels us to reproduce the contents of our minds into other minds. We achieved a psychological escape velocity and, along with it, an insatiable hunger for meaning.

Our communicative drive compels us to converge on shared meaning

From the perspective of the brain-as-prediction-machine, the emergence of a communicative drive in humans is highly predictable. Our species depends upon communication for survival, so we’re extremely tuned into one another. Other humans’ behaviors are the most salient aspects of our environments. This means that our brains are constantly making predictions about other humans and calculating the prediction errors between our expectations and their behaviors.

Most of this happens unconsciously, and we reconcile prediction errors fluidly. Language comprehension is all about making rapid, unconscious predictions about the dynamically unfolding speech signal. In everyday conversations, we seamlessly converge on semantic meanings by unconsciously negotiating subtle differences between our mental representations.

Most conversations are relatively simple and highly predictable. Even if language enables us to converge on shared semantic meanings for the purpose of refining our models of the world, that’s not what we use it for most of the time. Instead, about 2/3rds of our conversations are about keeping tabs on each other. We gossip a lot.

Some evolutionary psychologists believe that our ancestors' grooming and gossiping behaviors drove the emergence of human language. Whether or not they’re correct, our extreme tuning to other humans doesn’t just lead us to gossip about one another. It also compels us to automatically model one anothers’ minds. Our brains are constantly calculating prediction errors not only between our expectations and others’ behaviors, but also between our own mental representations and our representations of others’ representations.

While these “meta” calculations, like most others, are usually unconscious, the prediction errors they generate have major consequences for how we feel and act. When there’s minimal error, we feel comfortable, safe, and confident. It’s reassuring when others see things as we do. In contrast, when there's a large error, we feel frustrated, scared, or even insane. It’s alarming when others don’t see things as we do. We are highly motivated to converge on shared representations of the world; shared meaning.

Humans converge on shared meaning by conforming or creating

How do we reconcile prediction errors between our representations of the world and our representations of others’ representations? Logically, we can do one of two things: we can update our representations to match our perceived representations of others (we can conform), or we can attempt to change others’ representations (we can create).

Humans’ predisposition for conformity is not inherently good or bad—it can lead to both social harmony and blind obedience. But we often think of the darker historical examples, such as when otherwise decent people have participated in atrocities because they were simply following political orders. These examples highlight the importance of independent thinking.

Humans’ predisposition for creativity leads them to integrate ideas into new insights. Cognitive scientists call the unconscious information integration that triggers a conscious “a ha!” moment “opportunistic assimilation.” Everybody has had insights that they’ve wanted to share with others. Philosophers and scientists have formalized the process, inventing new words and conceptual frameworks to get others to update their representations in accordance with their insights.

But even the most revolutionary conceptual breakthroughs, like evolutionary theory and quantum mechanics, don’t “feel” like much. Sometimes the very scientists who study ideas like these claim to not really understand them. This is because the language we need to accurately describe the natural world must be extremely precise—far more precise than natural language evolved to be.

While precision is necessary if our goal is to increase the predictive accuracy of our models, it comes at the cost of communicating insights broadly. Even within the ivory tower, different academic communities have mutually unintelligible jargons. If, instead, our goal is to communicate new insights to as many people as possible, then art is more effective than language. Exceptions prove the rule: Exemplary science writing for the public, just like poetry that paints images in our minds, is often considered to be art.

Language and art are two sides of the same “creative coin.” They’re both strategies for aligning our minds that emerge from our communicative drive. They both require common ground, sufficient technical skill, and an idea at the center. And they both shape our dynamically changing models of the world. But they optimize for different things: Language (and its derivatives, logic and math) optimize for precision, while art optimizes for potency.

Art is a technology that hijacks our emotions and cultural associations to provide a shortcut for opportunistic assimilation by situating us on the same neural wavelength. It only works if it taps into things that immediately resonate—things that, on an implicit level, we already know. But in bringing different combinations of ideas to the forefronts of our consciousness, art illuminates new conceptual horizons.

Comedy is a case in point; it only makes us laugh if it highlights something we’ve all attended to, but in a new and surprising way. Humor differs across cultures because people within different cultures attend to subtly different things.

In fact, the role that art serves for society is very much like the role that consciousness plays in the brain: It integrates and distils information in order to make it globally accessible so that, in turn, it can be integrated within other conceptual frameworks. In the same way our individual identity (what psychologists call a “self concept”) results from integrating and organizing our conscious experiences into an autobiographical narrative, our collective identity results from artists integrating and organizing cultural input into a collective narrative. Art provides existential meaning for society.

Art is the bridge between semantic and existential meaning

If the greatest breakthrough of the 20th century, Claude Shannon’s Information Theory, stripped away any and all meaning from communication, then perhaps the greatest breakthrough of the 21st century will be to figure out how to establish a “universal basic meaning.” What would it look like for humans around the world to converge on a common existential meaning?

Existential meaning is about interpreting our place within the world and feeling a sense of purpose—a raison d’être. Establishing a kind of universal basic meaning will therefore require converging on a common narrative about what it means to be human and empowering individuals to make a difference within their communities.

It may seem impossible that the many diverse cultures and communities around the globe could converge on a common narrative about what it means to be human. Until recently, it probably was. Without a standardized method to get beyond subjective experience and local histories, there was no way to establish universals about human thought and behavior.

Now, however, we have a science of the mind. And this science has matured to a point where we can make several confident claims about our shared human experience. The power of art—itself a human universal—can be leveraged to distill and broadly communicate some of the other human universals.

Specifically, we want our art to communicate the universals that allow us to establish a global common ground within which we can sustainably co-create meaning. These include the following:

  1. Humans are fundamentally curious. From infancy, we spontaneously explore our environment and seek novelty. We're instinctually driven to learn. As we develop, the thrill of learning never disappears; it’s just a matter of finding the things we’re passionate about. Learning and sharing what we’ve learned with others are the most sustainable sources of neural reward available to humans.

  2. Humans are fundamentally creative. If nurtured, our curiosity triggers a virtuous cycle of discovery and insight (opportunistic assimilation): As our brain learns, it spontaneously detects patterns, builds generalized models, and subsequently craves additional complexity. The more expertise we cultivate, whether in a skill or a particular domain of knowledge, the more we experience the highly rewarding states of flow that accompany creating.

  3. Humans are fundamentally cultural. Our communicative drive compels us to establish common ground. We strive to strike a balance between our individual and collective identities so we can feel both a recognition for our unique contributions and a sense of belonging. Social psychologists call this sweet spot “optimal distinctiveness,” and we can sustainably achieve it by cultivating our unique expertise and sharing it within and beyond our communities. Our cultural narratives can highlight either similarities or differences between communities, inviting us to feel kinship with or antagonism toward one another. In both cases, for better and worse, these narratives have the power to interpret our place within the world.

In sum, the art of the 21st century could unite us by providing demonstrations of (1) exceptional human knowledge and skill, with (2) all the complexities our brains can grasp, and which (3) collectively integrate a wide variety of cultural input.

Inevitably, the more we grow our collective knowledge pool, the more we’ll need to update our models of the world and our understanding of our place within it. This is exactly why the above prescription is so elegant: It allows us to derive our meaning from cultivating our unique areas of expertise and offering them to the collective knowledge pool, knowing that we’re contributing to its continual evolution. Our individual insights build upon others’ insights, while simultaneously allowing others to build upon them.

At our core, we’re all vehicles for ideas. After all, we call ourselves Homo sapiens because we pursue knowledge. Each and every one of us are manifestations of the universe “knowing itself.” And as manifestations of the universe that are not only capable of understanding bits of itself, but also inherently motivated to do so, perhaps our greatest chance at achieving a universal basic meaning is to facilitate the pursuit and sharing of knowledge.

We cannot find existential meaning on our own. We must co-create it within a community—and if we want to survive the 21st century, it must be a global community. This is why we need to converge on a set of cultural values that support our co-creation of existential meaning. This will be the topic of our next series.