Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Lucid Dreaming

Sing with me, sing for the year
Sing for the laugh, sing for the tear
Sing with me, if it's just for today
Maybe tomorrow, the good Lord will take you away
Dream On...Dream On...Dream On
Dream until the dream comes true

--Dream On
, Aerosmith

Have you ever had a lucid dream? We had one once, a long time ago, and the memory lingers. Not the memory of what transpired--like all dreams, this one has dissolved in the fog of the past--but the memory of the intense feelings it evoked. Namely, we woke feeling invigorated, with a burning passion to do that again!

Lucid dreams, of course, are dreams in which you realize you are dreaming, and are thus able to control your actions and (more importantly) everything about your environment. Want to fly? No problem. Sex with Megan Fox? Done. In short, a lucid dream is essentially a movie in which you not only star, write, and direct, but are not subject to the rules of the physical world. In many ways it is akin to the "training module" in The Matrix (or, to be honest, the Matrix itself, at least for those able to recognize it...)

Try as we might (which essentially consisted of reading a few articles about lucid dreaming and experimenting with a couple of methods, such as "watching" ourself fall asleep), we were unable to replicate the experience. However, it occurred to us recently that the only difference between lucid dreaming and what we think of as "reality" is the aforementioned control over our environment (well, that and physical laws). In other words, what is to stop us from treating life as a lucid dream?

We have been experimenting with this for a few weeks and it has been an interesting experience. The concept is similar to the notion of playing a role, but with a key difference--when you treat life as a lucid dream it has the liberating effect of eliminating the illusion that others "exist."

Let us explain. In the cult classic "The Family Man" (all right, perhaps a classic only to us...), there is a scene where Nicolas Cage, freshly installed in his new "role," is asked by his 5-year-old daughter if he is really her father. No, he explains, he works on Wall Street ("with the big buildings"), and this is only a "glimpse" of an alternate life. "Well," the little girl asks, seemingly on the verge of tears, "where's my real dad?" This brings Cage up short--good question! This little girl in an alternate universe wants to know where her daddy is...and he has no idea!

But consider why this is unsettling to Cage. He is assuming the little girl exists in some sense, and that the absence of her"real" father is upsetting her. This, then, makes Cage feel bad, as he is the proximate cause of her distress.

Alternatively, think how the scene might play were Cage having a lucid dream. (First, he wouldn't be changing a diaper...) In a lucid dream there is no point in caring what others think, since they do not exist anyway, but are mere creations of our own mind. We know neither they or we are "real," and thus do not spend time worrying about what they might be thinking. We live purely in the moment, thinking neither of consequences nor past grievances.

(To head off an obvious rejoinder here, let us address the issue that such a viewpoint encourages one to cause harm to others, since it doesn't "matter." While this seems to logically follow, in fact it does not--one who renounces the self has no more desire for violence against others than to put out his own eye. In fact, it is the pernicious notion of the self that instigates and perpetuates such acts; one who has no self sees his physical incarnation as akin to sand on the beach. If there is no self then one is part of everything, and even the concept of violence ceases to make sense. Think about it...)

This brings us to the concept of playing a role, which, valuable as it is, has a flaw we only recently recognized. Put simply, while an actor in a play knows his actions do not "matter," and the people he interacts with are also playing roles, underlying this is the latent belief that he (and others) have some sort of "true nature." The "real" Nicolas Cage, for example, is apparently a chateau-loving fool on the verge of bankruptcy. But why do we differentiate this from other roles he has played? What if The Family Man were a long-running soap opera? For that matter, what about soap operas themselves? Imagine an actor that played a role on a soap opera from the age of 3 through death--who is the "real" person? What about The Truman Show?

Our point, of course, is to expose the fraud of the self for what it is--a diabolical illusion to which we are genetically in thrall, and our obsession with which has led directly and inexorably to the conflict, strife, and extraordinary unhappiness that define the human race.


  1. I am an avid lucid dreamer. The best advice I have read about initiating a lucid dream is to wake up about 2 hours before you intend to get up, stay awake for about 45 min then go back to sleep, prompting yourself to have a lucid dream while falling back to sleep. Look for in dream cues of unreality, the last lucid dream I had the cue was a good friend coming to my house to pick me up to go to another friend’s house, but we hadn’t planned it, he just showed up. There is no way that would have happened in RL, and that was the cue I needed, I realized I was still asleep in my bed. It was the most lucid dream I have ever had, but still I only had partial control of my dream.

    I am not sure about the veracity of your contention that the only difference between LD and RL is control and physical laws. Even in the vividness of the dream world I always know the difference (when lucid), in fact I use the dream world to experience levels of behavior that I know are unacceptable in RL, precisely because I know that I am in a dream. So there must be some fundamental difference in the nature of the dream world and real life that I am detecting and using as my cue to do as I please.

    As for the flaw in the actor analogy, I think you are misunderstanding the analogy a little bit. ‘All the world is a stage, and men and women only actors…’ The analogy is not to act as an actor, who has his on stage persona then his ‘REAL’ persona, but simply to act as an actor while he is on the stage, full stop, nothing further.

    This brings up another point I noticed in your interpretation of the absurd presented on this board. You seem to appreciate the value of the actor analogy, but fail to commit to it fully. It is as if you are acting like an actor, but between every line of the script you are turning to the audience and saying, ‘you know this is not real, right, I am only performing a play.’ It breaks the suspension of disbelief.

    The value of the actor analogy is to act as if stuff matters, the actors playing Romeo and Juliet act as if love matters, act as if death matters, even though the actors know that it is all a conceit, they don’t let on. So when Romeo dies the actress playing Juliet acts as if it matters, even though the actress is not really affected by Romeos' death.

    This blog seems to strip out the acting part of the actor analogy preferring to concentrate on the conceit of the actor instead of the performance of the actor.

    The value of the actor analogy is that even while you are ACTING like stuff matters, you know that it is merely a mask, a role, a conceit of you own construction, and thus, the ‘conflict, strife, and extraordinary unhappiness that define the human race’, as you put it, is greatly reduced.

    By the way, conflict, strife, and extraordinary unhappiness is only PART of the definition of the human race. The other part, of course, is the sense unity, contentedness and extraordinary happiness that can be achieved by some of the human race, some of the time, which is what makes life preferable to simply not being alive. That they ALL maybe illusionary is irrelevant.


  2. RH-

    Interesting - thanks for the tip.

    Re: your comments about the actor analogy - we are largely in agreement here - while this post may have been a bit of a stretch in our distinction between lucid dreaming and acting, this was more a rhetorical device to make a point.

    As to your comment about stripping out the acting part...not at all! The reason we spend so much time discussing the "conceit" is not to denigrate the acting, but rather to point out the (sad) fact that the vast majority of humans are playing roles without realizing it. And honestly, how interesting would it be to discuss the roles people play? We get that in the newspapers...;-)

    Finally...your last paragraph is very well put...


  3. RH and Rick,

    Acting as if it matters will only get you so far in the pursuit of happiness. It's an intellectually hollow reaction to the dread one feels in the face of meaninglessness, and solves nothing for the man cursed/blessed with an advanced awareness.

    Sugar-coating meaninglessness might help one get through the day (much like an opiate for the nihilistic masses, or a self-help book), but the fact that we need any relief at all undermines any inherent positivity of the absurd. Quite the contrary, it seems to require some sort of conformity to a principle...


  4. MM,

    It is only a hollow reaction if you take the intellectual leap of faith that there is, in fact, no meaning. But we have covered this ground before.

    The plain fact is that man SEEMS to have evolved a sense of pleasure from the links of the illusionary feelings of meaning supplied by the selfish gene. But, ultimately it is simply a leap of faith to say that they are, in fact, meaningless, even though the majority of human knowledge seems to suggest that this is the case. However since God is outside man’s ability to perceive, any meaning is also outside of man’s ability to perceive.

    So, to me, the point of the absurd viewpoint is NOT to illuminate that that the pleasures we receive are false, they are not they are very real, the point is to allow me to rebel against the seeming meaninglessness of the universe while remaining intellectually honest and not committing psychological suicide by abandoning reason with a leap of faith. I do this by the mask of meaning that I assume, by the role that I play, that allows me to still appreciate the evolutionary derived pleasures, but yet allows me to mitigate the worst of the downside, because ultimately I keep a sense of irony about my passion play, I know that it is simply a fiction I created that is affording me this pleasure, and I will never know, at least in this life, if it has any further meaning than that.


  5. RH,

    I agree that it cannot be known whether life is meaningless or not (on the grand scale, at least), and that it is an intellectual leap of faith to claim otherwise. But we do know that the traditional modes of human meaning (patriotism, nationalism, religion, loved, family, etc.) have been obliterated by science and experience. Perhaps it's just a temporary void on the path to another age of meaning (one that we can't see yet), but the fact remains that we are in a void right here and now, and in all practical areas of life the effects are very real. If we should act as if there is meaning that we can't percieve or not, seems to me just another leap of faith (albeit a much more challenging one given the circumstances).

    I like what you're saying, but I can't accept it for the very same reasons I can't accept the ethics of Christianity (or Buddhism, or Stoicism).


  6. Still traveling . . . from Melbourne, then off to London for a quick stint, before finally back home to Hawaii. Ah, the life . . .

    . . . but it's all absurd!

  7. MM,

    To say that man’s modes of meaning have been obliterated is to beg the question, and directly contradicts your preceding statement. It begs the question because for it to be true it must assume meaning does not exist, when the question is does meaning exist.

    While I concede that the modes of meaning that you listed are the masks of meaning that man has unwittingly worn, it does not follow that once being exposed by science and experience as being merely masks, that they are inherently meaningless. They may well be meaningless, the majority of human knowledge seems to suggest that they are, however it remains an open question. A question, I fear, that man can never answer, except by a leap of faith.

    All of the modes of meaning that you listed have at their root a fundamental character of human nature. For instance nationalism/patriotism has at its root group inclusion that is a fundamental need of the human psyche. Love, the effects of which can be scientifically measured, is also a fundamental need of the human psyche. Science and experience tells us that these needs are most likely a result of evolutionary pressures and the meaning that we associate with it is simply added baggage.

    However the fact remains that it is simply the most likely explanation, not the only explanation. Additionally, and more importantly, even if it is the right explanation it does not exclude a meaning that we are incapable of knowing. But most important of all, even if it is the correct explanation, it does not eliminate the evolutionary evolved fundamental human needs themselves.

    The plain fact is that to be alive and human (assuming normal functionality) is to have a mask of meaning, or put another way, an interpretation of the thoughts and feeling that being human entails. That is the way the human mind works. Even your interpretation of the absurd, as minimal in appearance and presentation as it is, is simply a mask of meaning, or if you prefer a mask of unmeaning, it is an interpretation of the thoughts, feelings, and needs of man. It has as its main objective to interpret, explain, and accommodate the fundamental human needs. Your particular mask seems to do this by sublimating some of the needs, ignoring others, and emphasizing still others.

    So in the end the question of the absurd is not whether man should wear masks or not, all men wear masks, it is what to do about the seeming meaninglessness of the masks that all men wear. There is only really three ways to deal with this seeming meaninglessness, suicide, leap of faith, or rebellion. The way I see it, to say that man’s modes of meaning have been obliterated, or to wear the mask of unmeaning is a leap of faith equal to that of a leap towards meaning, but to regard the mask you choose to wear as a fiction of your own creation is to rebel against the seeming meaninglessness, rightly leaving the unanswerable question unanswered..


  8. RH,

    You wrote: "While I concede that the modes of meaning that you listed are the masks of meaning that man has unwittingly worn, it does not follow that once being exposed by science and experience as being merely masks, that they are inherently meaningless."

    Again, I agree with you here. They may not be inherently meaningless, but, for all human valuation is concerned, they are meaningless. To give reasons for the masks we wear by citing the "needs of the human psyche" furthers my point: we have nothing but hollow science to explain our needs and desires (hollow in the sense that it strips away any passion man once felt for these masks). It's ridiculous for me to fall in love, for instance, when I acknowledge that it's just my selfish gene at work.

    I also don't see how suicide or rebellion are mutually exclusive from the leap of faith. In both of these instances, one must rationally choose to act, which would presuppose some sort of value judgement in regards to meaning (an impossibility, since man can not perceive the meaning or lack thereof, right?). Besides, it seems if we constantly rebel against meaninglessness we would always be undermined by another rebellion, which in turn would be undermined by yet another rebellion, and so on and so forth. This doesn't seem that practical except that it might provide a good apology for action in a world that increasingly reveals the pointlessness of action.


  9. MM,

    Why is ridiculous to fall in love when it is not ridiculous to eat food or breathe air, they are ALL the result of the selfish gene’s quest for survival and propagation. I know the reason I breathe and eat, because I enjoy being alive. Similarly, I want to fall in love because I enjoy the sensations that this entails, whether it has any further meaning is irrelevant.

    Why do I embrace the role of father, the earth sure doesn’t need one more child, man’s survival doesn’t depend on it, my own genetic survival isn’t even at question, it is merely the selfish gene at work…however I WANT the experience. I want it because even though I can describe to you in intimate mechanical detail how a man gathers HIS little girl in his arms, and how, with a innocent gleam in her eyes, she reaches up and lovingly strokes his cheek and kisses him in adoration, the description of which, no matter how vividly I paint the picture, pales in comparison to the absolute sublime transcendent feelings the actual event engenders. Whether the transcendence is illusory or not is irrelevant, the feelings are real, the experiencing of those feelings is real.

    There is a human valuation that these feelings, in fact, have some value, the value of these feelings creates a sense of meaning, so I must disagree with you when you say where ‘all human valuation is concerned, they are meaningless’. The only reason one might discard them is because they are not inherently meaningful, however we cannot say this without deferring to a leap of faith.

    The reason suicide, rebellion and a leap of faith are mutually exclusive is fairly straight forward. Suicide is the complete abandonment of everything human. A leap of faith is exclusive from rebellion in that it excludes reason. You come to the end of reason and it does not offer the answers, so you abandon the unique human capacity to reason and take a leap of faith. Only rebellion exclusively retains man’s defining attribute.

    I am somewhat confused by your statement concerning rebellion, one would only be compelled to rebel in the face of some tyranny, you would only continue to rebel if your rebellion created additional tyranny. I am rebelling against the tyranny of meaninglessness, my rebellion does not create a different tyranny, because of my sense of irony that my rebellion is merely a self created fiction. So there is no need to rebel from that.


  10. RH,

    You wrote: "Why do I embrace the role of father, the earth sure doesn’t need one more child, man’s survival doesn’t depend on it, my own genetic survival isn’t even at question, it is merely the selfish gene at work…however I WANT the experience."

    That "WANT" is the key difference between me and you, and is the reason we would never be able to reconcile our views. The rest of mankind is thankful, at least, that you don't get transcendental feelings by slaughtering others, and that your selfish gene "morals" align with the dominant morals of civilization. Besides, isn't your "WANT" a tyranny in itself?

    You wrote: "Only rebellion exclusively retains man’s defining attribute."

    Then you must rebel against your rebellion, no? Otherwise, you become satisfied in the tyranny of rebellion (or the tyranny of your "WANT"). That should help illuminate my argument that authentic rebellion would go on ad infinitum.


  11. Good sparring guys.

    But perhaps we have all taken the leap. No matter if you believe in God, or that the meaninglessness question is unanswerable, they are both beliefs. They may both be the result of a leap of faith, cause we dont KNOW.

    And bravo RH. My little girl is 10 months, I hear you loud and clear. Tyranny? Who cares. Love it. Whether it means or doesnt mean anything.

  12. Rick,

    Help me out. When you talk about the "self," what do you mean? Are you talking about an idea of what we should be?

    So if I dream of being the president of the US and make up rules for how I should behave in order to become the president, these rules would constitute my "self?"


  13. MM,

    Well, if you are saying that even the pleasure we derive from our human condition, our wants, are illusions, because they too are the result of the selfish gene, then there really is nothing left in the end. They have a word for that, nihilism. If that is the case, then the mask of the ‘man cursed/blessed with an advanced awareness’ of the absurd that you prominently wear is simply another conceit, one that allows you to appreciate the contentedness of simply being regardless of circumstances, while ignoring the fact that contentedness is also a stratagem of the selfish gene.

    If you consider our basic human condition of seeking pleasure, our wants, as tyrannical, then there is really only one option available, suicide, not that I am advocating that solution for you, but anything else is simply a conceit. You would be correct that our two views are un-reconcilable, I have long ago rejected nihilism because of its inherent contradiction of ‘there is only one truth, there is no truth’. Because of its inherent irrational contradiction nihilism can tell us nothing, it is intellectually bankrupt.

    As for your argument of rebellion ad infinitum, it ignores the fact that my sense of irony about my fiction keeps It from being tyrannical, as I said in my last post, if there is no tyranny the is no need to rebel. My wants are not tyrannical because they are mine, I have used my reason to conclude that the pleasure derived from the conditions imposed by the selfish gene has some value to me and this evaluation of pleasure is my wants, they are not tyrannically imposed on me, I came to them by rational evaluation.


    First, thanks for the shout out!

    Next, I do not think my belief in the unanswerable is a leap of faith, I believe that I came to it by reason and unlike a leap of faith, which abandons reason, it is still open to consideration if new data comes to light.

    Finally, I like sparring, it is fun and allows me to understand my position on a deeper level.


  14. RH,

    You wrote: "Because of its inherent irrational contradiction nihilism can tell us nothing, it is intellectually bankrupt."

    The position you advocate, on the other hand, only tells us that through some perverse rationality we can create an excuse for existing. At least the nihilist casts a doubt on every breath he takes (and accepts his contradiction), rather than justify it through some solipsistic (because it's meaningful to ME) reasoning.


    P.S. I will say that you're an excellent sparring partner, RH.

  15. RH,

    A thought just occured to me: is the fundamental difference between our approach to life the fact that you see the irony in living with your meaning, and I see the irony in existing with my meaninglessness?


  16. MM,

    Ha! That is succinct and hits right at the crux, I like it.

    Although I am sure Rick and Inigo both would consider our lengthy exchange pointless philosophical naval-gazing, after all we all have our contradiction and irrationalities that we live with, nevertheless I have enjoyed our conversation.

    One last thing on this subject, a confession of sorts from me. While I sincerely believe every iota of what I have expressed, and my views are intellectually honest, at least to the best of my ability, I often irrationally think and act as if everything is, in fact, absolutely meaningless, and I am often content and happy in doing so.


  17. RH,

    At least we can rest assured that the philosophical naval-gazing will never die as long as we frequent this blog (and Rick and Inigo don't start censoring the comments)!

    It's been a pleasure. Until next time!


  18. Very interesting conversations. I agree that it is important to separate contentment, enjoyment and satisfaction (and possibly even fulfillment) from meaning and whether something matters or should be a certain way.

    I will echo MM about the common tendency to apply differential treatment to various instincts, downgrading some (in this case falling in love, at other times loving family more than anything else) and elevating others (raw experience or getting drunk) without a clear indication about why a lack of meaning implies that we would have such preferences.

    In fact, in a past comment, I asked whether we could even have current utility regarding the likely future state of our children after we die. I mean without it being a secret play for immortality or thinking it means something or believing that we will care when we're dead (which is impossible). I mean naturally and genuinely with eyes wide open - enjoying now the probability that our kids will likely thrive even after we are gone, simply because this is a normal human instinct, just like enjoying now some good food is.

    I'd love to get some of you wise souls to comment about that one.


  19. "the value of these feelings creates a sense of meaning"

    I do think that when most people say "it has meaning" they are simply sectioning off a certain class of human (gene-replicating) desire. This definition for meaning, nostalgic feeling, would make meaning compatible with absurdism.

    RH, could you please define meaning? (this meaning that you think exists).

  20. Anon,

    The most succinct explanation of meaning for me would be a significance that goes beyond (transcends) the circumstance.

    A couple of examples, the words I am typing on this page transcends the mere grouping of squiggly lines (the circumstance) and gives significance that you can interpret. Meaning.

    In the example of the father gathering up his little girl in his arms, the minute mechanical description is the circumstance, the sublime feelings is the significance that transcends the simple act. Meaning.

    Likewise, the release of chemicals by the selfish gene is the circumstance, the value I place through rational thought on the feelings this engenders is the significance that transcends that circumstance. Meaning

    And ultimately, of course, when I was using the phrase 'inherent meaning' I meant a significance that transcends the human circumstance of being bounded by ignorance and certain death. Meaning?

    So when I say meaning I am implying a significance that goes beyond sectioning off a certain class of human (gene-replicating)desire, which would simply be the circumstance.


    The CONTEMPLATION of the future state of our children could have some present utility, as do a good food or fine wine. We could also, by rational thought, attach some significance to the contemplated likely future circumstance that transcends the mere biological instinct and add that to our mask of meaning that we wear with irony. But I don't see how the likely future state of our children, in itself, would have a present significance, if that is what you are asking.


  21. Arthur,

    One more thing, I think you were echoing me and not MM, it was MM that was downgrading love while elevating contentedness, I was the one that pointed out they are both stratagems of the selfish gene, and both ripe for the experiencing, regardless of why you choose to be alive. Just wanted to clarify that.


  22. RH,

    You wrote: "it was MM that was downgrading love while elevating contentedness..."

    Just to clarify, I never intended to elevate contentedness (that's Inigo's and Rick's job). In truth, I attempt to downgrade everything without prejudice (and fail miserably everyday).


  23. RH,

    Sorry for the confusion, but I am the anon also, and the two comments are related.

    Your definition of meaning would be the key issue as things relate to this site. So I would like to question it if you can tolerate a little more in this long thread :).

    The definition seems to be moving too much. Taking them in order, the first is simply meaning-in-the-world and relates to information theory about transmission. I think we all agree that this type of meaning exists. Regardless of a sentence's significance, it "means" whatever. Not related to whether the topic matters.

    In your second example, it is sublime feelings. I don't think we can define meaning as simply sublime feelings, can we?

    In the third example, it is "value I place through rational thought on the feelings", apparently different than the second one. What exactly is a person doing when he deems something (feelings or whatever) important or valuable? I claim it simply means that he decided to pay extra attention to it and care about it.

    The last definition is the most interesting. "a significance that transcends the human circumstance of being bounded by ignorance and certain death." Even in the moment of our death, we can care about some things, but only certain types of things. We probably cannot care about what time our dinner will arrive or whether there is a stain on our shirt or probably even if our house burns down (if we live alone). But there is a certain class of things that we might care about, even in our last moment. (Of course, after our last moment we won't care about anything). What is this class of things that we might care about even in our last moment? This type of desire or intention feels different and in some ways special. That is why I say that meaning is just a certain type of desire. A desire which (on appearance at least) truly goes beyond preservation or advancement of the self. (We don't have to be in our last moment to have this type of desire but it focuses our thinking here.)

    The question I still wonder (and keep asking Rick and Inigo, et al) is this: are these desires always a secret play for immortality or can they be pure? For example, at the moment of your death, you may care about what reputation you will leave, or your name - probably because you fail to appreciate how utterly gone you will be. But what about your desire for your children to be okay? Or your desire for your country to be okay? Probably the same?

    So, leaving that question unanswered, here again is my latest definition of what people mean when the say "meaningful": relates to a desire which goes beyond preservation or advancement of the self.

    Such desires certainly feel different, more noble. But I would argue that they are still in us due to evolution, allowing some groups with such desires in it's individuals to survive while other groups without this didn't.


  24. Arthur,

    I think you are making an error when you say 'simply meaning making’ that does not ‘matter’, when talking about my first example. This is exactly the same thing we have been talking about in this thread. It is man using his reason to imbue meaning into something (squiggly lines) that would not otherwise have meaning. Language uses the alphabet to denote sounds, and grammar and syntax to arrange these representations into ideation of meaningful structures. It is the only type of meaning that can be found in a seeming meaningless existence, without resorting to a leap of faith.

    Likewise, meaning can be viewed as just another form of language, one that serves a similar purpose as any other language, the transmission of information (mostly to yourself). The information is significance, and this significance makes it meaningful beyond the circumstance. The language of meaning uses the selfish gene supplied feelings as its alphabet, and rational valuation as its syntax and grammar. Man uses his reason to mold this alphabet, grammar and syntax, arranging them into structures that transmit the information of meaning.

    So when a man deems something important or valuable he is using his ability to reason to weight the sensations he feels. He’s applying a gradation, or scale, assigning some as more important than others, some more valuable than others. In a very real sense he is using his alphabet of feelings, coupled with reason, to craft the grammar and syntax of his meaning language. So, this is similar to what you are saying about him simply deciding to pay attention to it, or care about it, but it is not arbitrary, it is not done by whim, and it is not merely forced by the dictates of the selfish gene, it is forged by reason.

    Now some (MM ;) are going to say ‘Isn’t your decision to assign this importance or that value simply the product of the selfish gene?’ But I don’t think it is, and I believe I can give a scenario that illustrates why I have this opinion.

    Imagine a situation where a man’s good friend is on his deathbed, he has an opportunity to see his friend for the last time, so he does. A day later he also has an opportunity to do a thrilling and daring feat, skydiving, and he has always wanted to have that experience, so he does that the day after his friend dies. Imagine the man reflecting back on both events a few days later, which do you suppose had more meaning for him?

    When he saw his friend for the last time he was sad, it depressed him, he was flooded by chemicals that produced negative thoughts and feelings, when he went sky diving he was elated, he felt alive, invigorated, and he was inundated with chemicals that produced positive feelings. If it were simply the selfish gene dictating importance or the value of the events, than logic would suggest that the positive experience would get the nod. The selfish gene uses chemicals that produce positive feelings to reward and reinforce, and it uses chemicals that produce negative feelings to punish and deter. But one event was frivolous and one was deep and meaningful. It is the rational brain that weights the negative more important, or more valuable then the positive.

    Now this example was so egregiously obvious that it borders on ridiculousness, but I believe that this happens all the time, and with shades of gradation infinitely more narrow than this silly example, but it gradually builds up into our language of meaning, crafted over the course of a lifetime, more so over the course of human history of reason, that has fashioned the syntax and grammar of our meaning, and informs us what we find meaningful.

    However, it is still the creation of man in ignorance, it is the mask of meaning, a self-creation that must be always viewed with a sense of irony.

    As to your other question, I imagine this meaning persists to the moment of the end of human reason of the individual, be that by death or dysfunction.

    Now whether it has any inherent meaning is another question entirely.


  25. RH-

    We are a bit confused about the distinction you are drawing here. Why, in your example, would the selfish gene "prefer" skydiving over sitting with one's dying friend? The selfish gene is concerned purely with gene replication - surely one could argue that caring people have been seen as appealing mates, and thus those who sit with the dying friend (as it were...) have passed on more genes than those who skydive.

    The larger issue is that no matter how you couch it, you are trying to draw an arbitrary distinction between "meaning" as defined by you...and the biological processes that underlie such decisions! Surely you can see the problem here - if we are purely physical beings, then everything we do is underpinned by our genes and environment. The notion of a rational mind making decisions based on some ephemeral concept of meaningfulness, then, is no less an illusion than that of Saint Peter welcoming us at the pearly gates. We've said it before - either everything is meaningful...or nothing is. You can't have it both ways...

  26. RH,

    Very interesting comment. This has been the clearest (to me) yet.

    I, for one, am a mereological nihilist, so I really don't believe that any composite entities exist. I think composite entities are just our way of seeing the complicated universe. So, I don't believe that emotions for instance, as some new ontological entity, really exist. Unlike most people (and even most philosophers) I don't think emotions, people, cities exist as things over and above the molecules that comprise them. i.e. Emotions are not some new thing over and above brain cells firing. Calling certain series of firings "emotions" is just a mental method to help us make predictions and communicate.

    Or as Rick said, "an arbitrary distinction between "meaning" as defined by you...and the biological processes that underlie such decisions!"

    But, having said that, I must admit that you are moving a long way toward convincing me (with even a somewhat reasonable definition of meaning) that a type of personal meaning exists - well, as much as people or emotions exist anyway. But I'm not there yet, and I haven't moved a bit on believing in universal meaning.

    But I am still a little confused about it. Think I will re-read later.


    PS: I really enjoy this blog, and this particular discussion.

  27. "an arbitrary distinction between "meaning" as defined by you...and the biological processes that underlie such decisions!"

    OK, I see the problem. Ultimately, RH is NOT trying to draw such a distinction. He is saying that meaning is the mental and emotional language (process) by which humans decide what is important and what to pay attention to and what to do. So, it is not some separate thing over and above. He is also throwing in some confusing stuff about the selfish gene and how decisions can be based on a palpable get-what-I-want ego feeling vs. other instincts arbitrarily driven by rationality (meaning).

    And earlier I tried to emphasize that even the latter basis of decisions and placing importance on things other than advancement of the self could be in us via natural selection pressures acting at the group level rather than just the individual level. (i.e. groups that had the right kind of selfless empathy in their members beat out groups that didn't, selecting the groups with certain behaviors).

  28. Rick,

    First I want to correct you, I never claimed that the selfish gene ‘preferred’ anything, what I said was that logic would suggest that OUR preference, or our valuation, was likely not driven by the selfish gene. Genes merely reward characteristics and behaviors that advance replication, and deter characteristics and behaviors that do not, without preference, bias, or prejudice, through a mindless process. While caring undoubtedly has some group utility that recommend it selection, that does not suggest why we value it more then other things that have group utility, like the boldness of one who would undertake skydiving. I would suggest that it is simply another phrase in our meaning language, precisely because of the group utility (well, for that reason among a host of other entwined reasons, our meaning language is infinitely complex).

    As to the rest of your post, you seem to be under the impression that if something is illusory then it necessarily cannot be existent in the world, but this is simply not true. I will give an example to try to illustrate what I am saying. A rainbow is a good example, a rainbow really is not a huge multi colored arch in the sky, it has no substance, you can never get to a rainbow, you can’t touch it, taste it or smell it, it is by all accounts an illusion. Before we knew about the light spectrum there were all kinds of mystic stories, legends and myths to explain what a rainbow was, and its portent.

    But even though a rainbow is illusory it exists in the world, it is a real existent phenomenon, light really is being diffracted by water droplets, it really is being segregated into distinct frequencies, and this diffracted light really is entering your eyes and being received by your optic nerves, and you really are perceiving something existent in the world. It is just not the illusory thing it formerly purported to be.

    Meaning is the same way, we had (have) mystic stories, legends, and myths to explain man’s perception of meaning, to explain its portent, but in light of (relatively) recent discoveries about how the mind works, and how genes work, it easy to see that meaning is illusory, as we previously understood it. But that does not mean that meaning does not exist in the world. Meaning is a very real existent phenomenon, it is the process by which the rational mind differentiates value, it is a human process, no less so then the perception of diffracted light. It is just not the illusory thing it formerly purported to be

    Saying that meaning does not exist because it is a process underpinned by genes and the environment is exactly the same as saying that language does not exist because it is underpinned by expulsions of air and physiological contortions of muscles, but here we are communicating through language, because humans have a way to imbue the seemingly meaningless with meaning.

    It is simply human reason that makes meaning out of both of the sets of physiological/environmental preconditions. If God were to show up tomorrow, and in some irrefutable way prove beyond all doubt that he exist, that he created us, that he has a divine purpose for us, it would not change one iota of how we humans perceive, understand, and transmit meaning, we would simply have more data to work with. That is simply how the human mind works.

    (cont below)

  29. (cont from above)

    You also seem to have some bias against meaning because we are merely a biological process affected by the environment. I do not understand this either. You seem to be saying that meaning can only exist if there is some duality between our physical selves and our eternal ‘soul.’ But this is not true either. Again, if God showed up tomorrow and revealed that he created us for a specific purpose, that he created us weak and mortal, destined to live our short little span and be no more, and he did so for the express purpose of using us as examples to his immortal angels how not to live, then that would be our purpose, that would be our meaning (even though we might not be too thrilled about the situation). Despite the fact that we are mortal, biological and destine to die, existential meaning would exist, and it would not be dependant on our immortality, and it would not be dependant on any duality of our nature.

    So to sum up, meaning is not dependant on the fact that we are merely a mortal biological process subject to the whims of nature and the selfish gene, and meaning can be illusory and still be existent in the world. Meaning is simply a process of human reason. However, whether it has any existential meaning beyond this self-created mask remains, and likely forever will remain unanswerable, and therefore must be taken with more than a few mounds of salt.


  30. "Meaning is a very real existent phenomenon, it is the process by which the rational mind differentiates value, it is a human process.

    Saying that meaning does not exist because it is a process underpinned by genes and the environment is exactly the same as saying that language does not exist because it is underpinned by expulsions of air and physiological contortions of muscles"

    This is why I brought up mereological nihilism. There are (at least) two questions here:

    1. When people claim that life has meaning, are they normally just referring to "the process by which the rational mind differentiates value"? I doubt it. But if that's your definition, then it exists - as much as people, the self, or emotions exist.

    But its an interesting definition: It would be wrong to say that we don't use archetypes or tell stories or assign value to our life story, because we obviously do.

    2. Even with that definition, it doesn't exist as some new entity over and above what comprises it. And hence, according to the mereological nihilist, doesn't really exist. And this type of super-existence as a new ontology is what people usually assign to meaning - this big universal thing that's more important than your actual life.

    But, unlike past defenders of meaning on this site, I don't think RH is totally off or logically inconsistent.


  31. I'm comment #31, and there's only been ONE post for June . . . now THAT'S absurd!

  32. Arthur,

    I would whole heartedly agree with you that this is not what most people mean when they say life has meaning, but the sad fact is that most people have the introspection of a herd animal, which is where the derisive term sheeple comes from. But perhaps I am being a little too harsh in my assessment, social myths that are taught from birth, combined with the illusory nature of meaning are potent combination, and these biases built into the system are hard to overcome. The fact is most people are not aware that meaning is merely a mask created by man, and for many it doesn’t even dawn on them to question their assumptions.

    As to your second point, considering all we know (or how little that we know, depending on your perspective) about the atom and its component parts, the fact that 99.9% of an atom is empty space and everything in the universe is composed of the handful of elemental particles that make up the atom, along with the four known forces interacting with these particles, then it could quite literal mean that everything is an illusion. Then the universe, stars, the planet earth, man, the selfish gene, firing neurons, the brain, thoughts, emotions, all of it could merely be a fiction of these particles and the standing waves of interacting forces, all started when two membranes bumped up against each other.

    However, this concept is so alien to my way of thinking that I prefer to simply wear the mask of meaning created by the reason man, modified by my own rational consideration of course, than to concern myself with a question that is as unanswerable as the question of whether God exists or not. Besides if this is true then none of it matters anyway, and I might as well enjoy the selfish gene supplied feelings and emotions that I imagining that I am experiencing, they are, after all, what makes life preferable to simply not being alive.


  33. Oh my . . . I'm officially the 33rd poster on this thread! [NB symbolism of the number] And our absurdist hosts are thinking, "Geez . . . thanks be to whomever that we can just let this ol' thread go on and on and on and not post for a while!"

    Meanwhile, I continue my globetrotting . . . London was terrific, but Madrid, I know, will be something special . . . and then it's a quick saunter to Barcelona . . . before back to Hawaii.\

    It's all absurd!

  34. I've really enjoyed this conversation. RH's meaning is the whole human process (mental/emotional) of assigning value and "meaning" to events, roles, people, dates, our accomplishments, our life story, etc. Value over and above any (readily apparent) implications for our survival or happiness. The whole process of deciding what we care about, beyond the obvious class of more basic animal desires.

    I suddenly remember reading about archaeologists piecing together that early European hominids dropped some special chiseled rocks into a pit burial chamber, and claiming that it was the first sign of complex symbolism (beyond communication methods) that anyone could identify. The chiseling efforts could not, in any obvious way, have helped the creatures to survive. There is nothing similar in the animal world.

    This whole class of thoughts and emotions that humans have is really something. Yes its are the result of natural selection; no its not a new ontological entity apart from the stuff that makes a person; but we get much use out of the concept of "thoughts" or "emotions", so, very carefully defined, we could possibly get use out of the concept of subjective meaning - as long as we don't mistakenly believe that we have created some new substance (subjective meaning) based on our arbitrary choices.

    With this definition, the human mind creates thoughts, creates emotions, and creates meaning. The organism's behavior is guided by all said mental creations. Perhaps meaning-creation can be adaptive (probably is since it exists in us). For example, people could get a lot of motivation out of it.

    That said, I personally am glad I have seen clearly that things don't Matter or MEAN something.

    Rick do you still disagree with RH now that we have whittled down the definitions?


  35. Arthur,

    The ironic thing is that no matter how Rick answers your last question he will be demonstrating the exact thing that I have been presenting in this thread.

    Presumably Rick is human, this immediately implies two things, he is subject to the mindless whims of the selfish gene, and that he has a rational mind (assuming normal functionality). Either answer that Rick gives will be the product of his rational mind giving valuation to the mindless whims.

    His answer then, no matter which way he goes, is the mask of meaning that he chooses to wear. It is his interpretation of the emotions and feelings of the selfish gene, it is his rational valuation of them, and this is what meaning was, is, and always will be for humans, despite its illusory nature which implies it is something more than this.

    As to you last statement on the clarity of meaning, this is where I have to disagree with you. It is not clear to me. One can only make that proclamation by a leap of faith, by abandoning the defining characteristic of the being human. This is not something I am willing to do.

    It might also surprise you to learn that I believe that there is an objective source for the meaning that man perceives, and that man could not have developed any meaning but the meaning that has developed. Of course in saying this I realize I have opened up a 'can-o-worms' because explaining my belief may well take another 34 entries into this thread, and I am sure many are feeling topic fatigue, so maybe I should leave it for another discussion.

    However, having proclaimed my belief in an objective source of meaning I want to emphasis that even though I believe as such, this does not imply that I believe that it is a metaphysical source, and therefore proof of God. It may well be, but this too would require a leap of faith to believe, and as you undoubtedly noticed, I am somewhat averse to those.


  36. RH,
    I am very interested in hearing more about your philosophy in future posts. Enjoyed the conversation.

  37. In fact, it is the pernicious notion of the self that instigates and perpetuates such acts; one who has no self sees his physical incarnation as akin to sand on the beach. If there is no self then one is part of everything, and even the concept of violence ceases to make sense. Think about it...

    This was the best part in this article. Absolutely and undoubtedly true it is. And of course, the lucid dream is an interesting phenomenon.