November 2010

In Part 10 of this series (which starts here), I completed the visual component of my Model of Everything, but neglected to discuss what I see as the model’s implications regarding meaning in life—so let’s (begin) to do that. As I see it, we need first to define our definitions—that is, to be clear about what we mean by meaning. It’s all too common to toss around questions like “what does it all mean?” or “what is the meaning of life?”—and it’s all too uncommon to understand what we mean by such questions.

Why is this important? Because the word “meaning” has distinctly different meanings—particularly when used in questions such as those above. When asking “what is the meaning of life?” –someone might really want to know:

1. What is the purpose or intention behind (my) life?

— or they may be wondering,

2. What importance or value does (my) life have?

— or they may be trying to understand,

3. What is the context of (my) life, where do I fit in, how do I make sense of it all?

So I contend there are (at least) these 3 different questions embedded in “what is the meaning of life”—and as a result, I’ll take a stab at 3 different (yet compatible) answers:

Purpose / Intent

If we are asking what is the reason for our existence—that is, what purpose do we serve? I say that first, the answer is most probably different for everyone, but that second, whatever the answer is, it comes (and can only come) from within. We envision purpose for ourselves, we have intentions, and we exercise them. The thing that we purposefully orient ourselves toward can (and probably should) be outside ourselves, but it is from within the orientation proceeds and where the feeling of purpose resides. We may become muddled and confused as we work our way through life—we may become discouraged, but the capacity to imagine and fulfill purpose for ourselves is a characteristic of the kind of being that we are. Purpose is a human “sense”, we have inextricable sense of purpose. And I think, in fact, that purpose must come from within because a purpose imposed on us would not only be superfluous, it would sap us of meaning. To be used in a cosmic or divine plan is to be meaningful to the planner, not to ourselves.

So in opposition to the oft-peddled religious view that we exist to fulfill God’s Will (or some variation on that theme), I contend that our purpose is in no way subservient to an outside agenda. Meaning is neither a burden nor a reward that we inherit—it is not infused by a mysterious 3rd-party. We are not game-pieces playing out a cosmic struggle to be strategically enlightened through tribulation or personal overcoming. We do not suffer evil to make us “better” or to prompt us into personal transformation (though evil may certainly do so). And the only reason I can see for believing that we suffer in order to make us better, is to excuse a God who we want to believe is ultimately good.

No, we need not fit into any grand schemes to live purposeful, intentional lives—our lives create meaning on their own. We are meaning-making-beings, each of us a little meaning-generator. A sense of purpose is in us, and it sends us into our various individual futures, big and small alike. Victor Frankl based an entire psychotherapeutic method, called Logotherapy, on this truth. I highly recommend his classic Man’s Search for Meaning for anyone interested in learning more about it.

Importance / Value

Now if what we mean by “the meaning of life” is understanding the importance or value of our lives then, once again, I say we need look no further than inside ourselves and recognize the sense of value we already have. Just like our sense of purpose, a sense of value and importance is among the myriad other senses we’ve evolved. Just as we feel pain and love, so too do we feel important, valuable (even, interestingly, when feeling small, unimportant, and valueless). It is a result of our sense of importance, our overwhelming sense of value (or lack of value) that makes us shake our fist at the sky and demand to know, “What its all for?” Even when we feel valueless—there is the sense that something is missing, that though we don’t feel important at the moment, we are certain that we should.

It is our overpowering meaningfulness, the overwhelming sense of import that fuels our curiosity and spurs human endeavor. It’s why we dissect and why we collect, why we record and why we gaze—and in some cases it’s why we make-up gods and demons, worship deities and pray to invisible beings. It’s the certainty that life is meaningful (without understanding why it is so) that convinces us someone/something else must be in control—we think to ourselves, “All this meaning can’t come from just me!” But it does. Your are that meaningful.

So why isn’t it obvious? How is it people conclude their existence is meaningless, their sense of self an illusion—mere mindless, valueless, chemical-electrical processes throwing up an illusion of self? Well, because people are just not that impressed with stuff; they make that eliminative, reductionist mistake that a whole can have only the properties of its parts. And since their sense of value and importance outweighs the importance and value they place on their own material parts, they—in a grand act of self-denial—ignore and denigrate their own subjective experiences and interior-sensing lives.

Context / Making Sense

But perhaps what we mean by meaning is “making sense”—understanding ourselves in the context of a wider reality. And it is here that a scientific, even reductionist, understanding of ourselves becomes most significant. The more we can make sense, the more clear our context—the more meaningful we become.

What does it mean if the matter that makes me is reducible to energy and that the localization of this energy behaves in probabilistic, non-deterministic, ways? What does it mean that fundamentally, elementarily, our energies are always exchanging, entangling, and even, maybe, sneaking off into other dimensions?

Our best Materialistic explanations are capped on both ends by mystery. Strings and quanta on one side, dark matter and dark energy on the other (the “stuff” that makes up 95 percent of the universe).  What does it mean, and what are the implications, that the photons pulsing through our brains do (and must) behave probabilistically? To be honest, I’m not sure, but it thrills me to think what it might mean.

And, how wonderful and incredible that when hydrogen and carbon and iron and oxygen get into just a certain organization—it can fall in love! To me this is a greater achievement than any of those attributed to gods or supernatural beings. And this is the kind of meaning that’s revealed by “reductionism”.

And what about coming to an understanding of the inner-experience of ourselves—knowing why we value what we value, examining what is important and meaningful to us, making sense of the world and our place in it—that is the answer to “what it all means.”

Without a deep understanding of ourselves and our world, then our sense of meaningfulness, our sense of value and importance, makes no sense at all (unless, of course we actually are the playthings and chess pieces of gods).

So, I ask again: Are we left cold, loveless and forlorn under the weight of our new (and ever-increasing) knowledge? Does our “reductionist” understanding make us meaningless “things”? Contrary to the eliminativist view, I contend that such understanding enhances our sense of meaning and purpose rather than relegating those concepts to “mere” evolutionary spandrels or illusory byproducts of a computational brain. Our meaning is expanded by widening and deepening our understanding and knowledge. The subjective experience of “feeling meaningful” is part of the answer, and understanding how/why that feeling emerges completes it. Meaning flourishes by understanding ourselves inside-and-out and our context within nature. That is to say, whatever increases our self-understanding, our sense of context—gives us meaning, and as material beings in a material world, we need to trust in that sense of meaning. That and perhaps we should spend a little more time chasing squirrels in trees.


In Part 9 of this series (which starts here), I discussed “Reductionism” and argued that, yes, we can be reduced—and that, no, we cannot be reduced. If that seems contradictory, then you should go back and read Part 9! In this post I will describe what will be the final layer of emergence in my Model of Everything. In subsequent posts, I will discuss what I see as the model’s implications regarding meaning in life.

Let’s get started then—the final layer of emergence I call human endeavor, and it is here that we not only begin to recognize the context of ourselves and our lives, but we also begin to chase a concept called “truth”. Now that’s certainly a loaded term, so when I say truth I mean something like this: “An observation or theory that coheres with our collective experience of reality”, and it includes the caveat that further information may require us to restate our observations or reform our theories. I fully acknowledge that my definition of truth relies on a kind of inter-subjective agreement. I believe we can only speak about truth based on the kinds of beings that we are—that is, limited by the way we experience reality and/or by the way deeper realities can be revealed by technology.

Broadly, I see human endeavor fitting into 3 major categories: first, Horizontal Truths. These are activities such as visual art, storytelling, religion—activities that are organic to our human experience.

The truths uncovered here provide insight and commentary on the human condition in context of the human condition—as it is lived—as it is felt—and I think that is a certain kind of truth.

Horizontal truths are not preoccupied with our component parts; these truths do not surface by breaking us down—they do not lay us out or dissect us into explicable parts. These are truths revealed by great paintings, poetry, music, and even religion. Can we learn something truthful from a poem or a novel? Sure—though we needn’t think the characters are real. Can religion provide insight into human psychology? I believe it can, but it provides us no reason to think that gods or devils actually exist. I see religion as a horizontal framework for understanding and makings sense of the world—different only in scope from other (if more narrow) frameworks such as Impressionism or the fictional world of Moby Dick.

The second major category of human endeavor gives us what I call Vertical Truths.

These endeavors depend on absolute clarity and repeatability—on emotionless, subject-disinterested, lab-driven observation, and they are overwhelmingly concerned with the mechanics and machinery underlying a given property. The hard facts grounding these disciplines are the object of much of our technological tooling, and it is these facts (when we reduce our existence to them) that “reductionist!” shout-downs begin.

And yet between these two sets of disciplines, between these two kinds of truths lie a vast and interesting middle ground: Curvy Truths.

These endeavors attempt to explain the human subject, not just its object parts, but also in terms of science and the methods its developed. To understand feelings, for example, in terms of underlying function while also retaining a clear understanding of how feelings feel. One cannot explain the psychology of love without coming to terms with what is meant by “love”. One cannot study emotions (effectively) without being in touch with real emotion. These curvy, connecty sciences are crucially important—these are the disciplines that unite the subjective and objective—they provide the bridge between the lived human experience and the mind-blind sciences. And so, when I say that horizontal endeavors provide truth, it is because they hook into these curves—which are, in turn, underpinned by “hard-science”.

I consider primatologists and anthropologists to be scientists as much as I do physicists; their informed human interpretation of primates and culture is what makes their work interesting science. The fact that they may deal in probabilities and intuitions, the fact that their theories do not always hold or may be proven wrong, does not make them less scientific. Conjecture is part of science, so is speculation, and so is being wrong. Wasn’t Newton doing science? Wasn’t Freud? Science is the human endeavor to understand the natural world, and those understandings come in ranges of probability (as I discussed in Part 2)—sometimes wider, sometimes more narrow—and the possibility of revision lurks always in the background. I consider (even poor, old) Philosophy as science, for if science is the human endeavor to understand the natural world, and if philosophy is the love of wisdom, they must surely be dealing with the same thing. Philosophy exercises critical thinking and logic while at the same time it pushes the limits of knowledge and understanding. Yes, Philosophy often wanders into realms one might better call intuition or conjecture, but I see nothing unscientific about that (unless, of course, one rigorously clings to a philosophy after it’s been disproven, or been determined to be vanishingly improbable, or found to be in some other way superfluous). Philosophy is the science of science,  centered not so much on providing answers, but asking questions, in probing-out the weaknesses of other truth claims. Lastly, philosophy holds the burrito together—it attempts to reconcile and cohere other disciplines into a comprehensible, sense-making whole. But again, if a particular philosophy becomes demonstrably or logically false, that philosophy should be regarded as so much caloric and luminiferous aether.

And so, when I say that horizontal truths are unconcerned with being reduced, I contend that should we reduce them, whatever we’d be prepared to call “true” (about art or music or religion) can be traced into the folds of some curvy discipline—and in those curves we will find connections to the vertical. Where religion, for example, makes true claims about the human condition—about our psychology, about the importance of meaning in our lives or our ability to change and transform ourselves from within—those truths are traceable back through other human endeavors (i.e. the curvy sciences). Where religion makes claims about the existence of gods, demons, devils, heavens, hells or the like—where it talks of implanted souls and father-figures in the great beyond, I count it about as likely as meeting Ahab hauling in a great white whale.

The whole of these human endeavorshorizontal, vertical and curvyhelp us to understand ourselves, our context, and through them we find expression for what is meaningful. Now a particular challenge when talking about meaning is answering the question: “What do we mean by meaning?” or “What does meaning mean?” But that is for another time, for now let’s put it all together— here is my Model of Everything!

NEXT: Part 11. The Meaning of Meaning