Monday, June 14, 2010

The Trouble With "Personal Meaning"

"It’s the Kantian sublime, what you’re experiencing. There’s your life, and then you get a glimpse of the vastness of the unknown all around that little itty-bitty island of the known.”--from the short story "The Entire Northern Side Was Covered with Fire," by Rivka Galchen.

"I want to do what I want to do!"--George Bailey, It's a Wonderful Life.

Almost from the moment we started this blog (or so it seems), we have been engaged in a debate about whether one can legitimately draw a distinction between universal meaning (i.e., that there is something beyond the physical, and thus some underlying purpose to human life), and so-called "personal meaning," essentially something that has value only to the individual in question. Those who espouse personal meaning generally claim they simultaneously reject universal meaning, at least so far as one can do so--such a point is, of course, unprovable either way.

As one recent commenter put it: "In the example of the father gathering up his little girl in his arms, the minute mechanical description is the circumstance, the sublime feeling is the significance that transcends the simple act...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."

There are several issues here worth exploring. First, as we have discussed before, the concept of personal meaning is reliant on a non-physical "self," and thus cannot be so easily separated from universal meaning. What is the entity that experiences this meaning? Does it exist independent of its physical processes? If so, then we are talking about something non-physical; if not, then such "meaning" is analogous to (and no more significant than) the shifting of sand on a beach.

Second, we are continually mystified by people who claim the above statement is incompatible with living a content and compassionate life. In fact, we would argue just the opposite--it is belief in the self, in the concept that "I" have independent thoughts, needs, and desires, that leads to all strife and conflict. This may seem counterintuitive at first; indeed, one of the most common objections we get to such a position is: "Well, then, what's to stop you from becoming a mass murderer?" In short, if nothing matters, then surely it is irrelevant whether one hurts others?

But this is to miss the deeper point of irrelevance. In short, the idea that causing harm is somehow justified by the lack of meaning is ridiculous--what is the entity that "enjoys" subjecting others to pain? The fact that one's actions are meaningless is not enough--one must consider why one would prefer to act in such a manner, and the only legitimate answer is belief in a self. Succinctly put: show us a man who accepts the self is an illusion, and we'll show you a man who is truly content.

Finally, as we have noted before, we are not so much seeking "truth" as a lifestyle best suited to what we believe is an utterly pointless existence. And it is here that we find the concept of personal meaning most misleading. Simply put, personal meaning seems a way to have one's cake and also eat it--one can reject the concept of transcendent meaning, while at the same time assigning a sort of "temporary significance" to one's own desires.

Unfortunately, as with most things that sound "too good to be true," this (admittedly seductive) idea contains the seeds of its own demise. For how does one define this personal meaning? As noted, calling it significant only to "me" is a circular argument, as it requires existence of a non-physical self, which forces one to reconsider the universal meaning one has already rejected. It is not, in other words, a consistent belief system, but rather an "out" for those who accept the absurd theoretically, but nevertheless shrink from its true implications.

And yet...it is those very implications that hold the key to the content life! It is only when one embraces the meaningless and arbitrary nature of existence that one is free to live truly free from worry and regret, no longer seeking ephemeral pleasures and suffering inevitable disappointments, but rather living moment to moment, knowing one's actions are no more significant than leaving falling from trees, or dinosaur droppings, or even the bits of matter that scientists tell us come into being every so often in empty space, only to vanish the very next instant...

23 comments:

  1. What exactly is it that you're denying when you say that the "self" is an illusion? Mental subjectivity? Consciousness? Or is it merely the ego and one's personality and all of that stuff? If it's the latter, I'm definitely with you. However, while I can only speak for myself (since I only have access to "my own" mental states), it is quite obvious that "I", or something, is conscious - that at least one mind exists (even though we still haven't figured out exactly what constitutes the mind, of what nature it is or how it works).

    Like you, I fail to see how one life, "objectively" speaking, could be better lead than another. A phenomenon has to be meaningful for at least one subject in order to be meaningful. One could say that meaning is observer-dependent. In the absence of an observer, not even the concept of "meaning" could exist. Objectively speaking, there's just a bunch of atoms moving around, and it's only when minds enter the stage to assign the different emerging constellations value; regarding some of these piles of atoms as good, some as bad, some as right, some as wrong, and so on, that meaning - along with suffering, it is worth pointing out - arises.

    Hence, I do agree that a key to equanimity is to refrain from making value-judgments. If you neither approve nor disapprove of things, you don't care whether or not they happen. Since suffering is often (if not always) a result of one's desire for things to be different than they are, learning to accept things the way they are can certainly be a way to become free of suffering. (Although one could ask oneself why one should want that.)

    I've found that a lot of thinkers from different places and time periods have reached similar conclusions, and there are plenty of terms describing the same state of mind: Nirvana. Emptiness. Ataraxia. Amor intellectualis Dei. Embracing the Absurd. Lucid indifference. But why is this state of mind desirable? Why is this preference is preferable to other preferences?

    Objectively speaking, it's not. This preference, this value, is essentially no different than that of other subjective values, regardless if we're talking about goodness or badness, meaningfulness or meaninglessness, rightness or wrongness. Thus, if you value, that is to say, like the feeling of equanimity, then you're in the same boat as the mind that finds some other phenomenon "personally meaningful".

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  2. why do u guys want believe in absurdity? I am always amazed...

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  3. Jens-

    Well said and a good point. We were really trying to make two separate points here. First, that the notion of personal meaning is incompatible with broad meaninglessness, and second, that one who accepts meaninglessness (and thus the equivalence of all things and experiences) should be indifferent to circumstance, and thus content regardless of situation.

    However, you seem to be asking (much as we mused in our post "Absurd Simplicity"): "Is a desire to live a life free of desire...still a desire?" The answer, as we see it, is that we do not "desire" equanimity, or find it meaningful, but rather that it seems to us the natural way for the absurd man to live.

    Perhaps it is a question of phrasing/intent. One who is indifferent to circumstance, for example, is quite different from one who pursues equanimity for the sake of contentedness. (I.e., the old saw about finding happiness when you quit looking for it.)

    Thanks for the interesting note.

    RB

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  4. Indeed, perhaps the desire for desirelessness isn't really a desire, or if it is, maybe all desires aren't necessarily problematic. Perhaps it is possible to retain a sense of equanimity despite having, for instance, certain aspirations, as long as they're not compulsive.

    I used to be quite convinced that nothing matters whatsoever. I still think that in the end, when it comes down to it, objectively/observer-independently speaking, nothing matters. And while I personally aspire to let go of most of my preferences or desires, I'm not sure if I reject the concept of meaning completely.

    Even if none of this will matter in a few billion years; even if the universe as we know (or do not know) it will eventually come to an end, we're here now, and there are certain things we like and certain things we don't like. In other words, we value certain phenomena more than other (and perhaps that's a major cause of our suffering, but it's also what enables us to enjoy the benefits of increasing the amount or intensity of the phenomena we like.)

    An old Iain M. Banks quote comes to mind: "Everything about us, everything around us, everything we know and can know of is composed ultimately of patterns of nothing; that's the bottom line, the final truth. So where we find we have any control over those patterns, why not make the most elegant ones, the most enjoyable and good ones, in our own terms?"

    What Banks seems to be saying is basically: Nothing matters in the end, but we're here now, so let's make the best of it, according to our preferences.

    And perhaps the best thing, according to some of us, is to embrace the absurd and live a life free from suffering and worries. Doing so clearly isn't meaningful in the grand scheme of things - nothing is - however, for what it's worth, it is a subjective preference some of us seem to share.

    I feel like I'm tumbling down the rabbit hole. I also feel that I need to think more about the concept of value and meaning. Anyway, hopefully this didn't come across as entirely nonsensical.

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  5. Rick,

    Your analogy comparing the physical nature underlying self to shifting sands seems to me to comparing apples and oranges, if the sand were aware of its shape and somehow valued its configuration, only then would your analogy hold.

    The sense of self, the consciousness, is an emergent phenomenon of the complex physical biological system. An analogy can be had with the simple physical system of an old clock. If you were to completely dismantle the old clock and lay all the parts out on the work bench, there would be no fundamental ‘time keeping’ component, no essential clock-ness would be found in any of the parts, you would only have the physical parts, the cogs, the gears, the stem, the hands, etc. But putting all the pieces back together into the complex system of the clock would produce the emergent phenomenon of time keeping.

    Consciousness, the self, works the same way, if all the components were lying on the work bench you would only have the physical parts, the neurons, the synapses, the transmitters, the receptors, the chemical transmission medium, etc. There would not be any nonphysical component laying on the bench that contained some essential self-ness , but put all the pieces back together into the complex system of the brain and a nonphysical emergent phenomenon is produced, consciousness, the self.

    Like meaning in the last thread, while the self may be illusory (in the sense that it seems to exist independent of the brain), it does not mean it is not an existent phenomenon. As Jens stated “…it is quite obvious that "I", or something, is conscious - that at least one mind exists (even though we still haven't figured out exactly what constitutes the mind, of what nature it is or how it works).”

    So no linkage to a metaphysical, nonphysical, self normally associated with metaphysical meaning, needs to exist for a personal meaning to exist. And just because we cannot fully explain what this self is does not seem to me sufficient justification to scrape the whole concept of meaning.

    And in truth you don’t really scrape the concept either, because saying that ‘(equanimity) seems to us the natural way for the absurd man to live’ is just a by-word for meaning. It is your mask of personal value, or meaning you choose to wear. Which is perfectly fine, if it affords you the comfort and contentment you desire, why shouldn’t you wear this particular mask, it is as good as any and better then some whose visage really does cause unnecessary consternation in this world?

    I just cannot fathom why one would be compelled to reject most of the selfish gene supplied emotions and feelings that make life preferable to not being alive, and cling to but one, when they are ALL the result of the very same process. I just don’t get it, however I am still able to see the utility in using the absurd to mitigate the worst of the negative of the system.


    -RH

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  6. Rick,

    Edit: hmm, something strange happened here, if my posts does a double post I apologize, it says 5 comments but I can not see my comment when it updated, and I have used multiple browsers, so I am going to repost my comment.


    Your analogy comparing the physical nature underlying self to shifting sands seems to me to comparing apples and oranges, if the sand were aware of its shape and somehow valued its configuration, only then would your analogy hold.

    The sense of self, the consciousness, is an emergent phenomenon of the complex physical biological system. An analogy can be had with the simple physical system of an old clock. If you were to completely dismantle the old clock and lay all the parts out on the work bench, there would be no fundamental ‘time keeping’ component, no essential clock-ness would be found in any of the parts, you would only have the physical parts, the cogs, the gears, the stem, the hands, etc. But putting all the pieces back together into the complex system of the clock would produce the emergent phenomenon of time keeping.

    Consciousness, the self, works the same way, if all the components were lying on the work bench you would only have the physical parts, the neurons, the synapses, the transmitters, the receptors, the chemical transmission medium, etc. There would not be any nonphysical component laying on the bench that contained some essential self-ness, but put all the pieces back together into the complex system of the brain and a nonphysical emergent phenomenon is produced, consciousness, the self.

    Like meaning in the last thread, while the self may be illusory (in the sense that it seems to exist independent of the brain), it does not mean it is not an existent phenomenon. As Jens stated "…it is quite obvious that "I", or something, is conscious - that at least one mind exists (even though we still haven't figured out exactly what constitutes the mind, of what nature it is or how it works)."

    So no linkage to a metaphysical, nonphysical, self normally associated with metaphysical meaning, needs to exist for a personal meaning to exist. And just because we cannot fully explain what this self is does not seem to me sufficient justification to scrape the whole concept of meaning.

    And in truth you don't really scrape the concept either, because saying that "(equanimity) seems to us the natural way for the absurd man to live" is just a by-word for meaning. It is your mask of personal value, or meaning you choose to wear. Which is perfectly fine, if it affords you the comfort and contentment you desire, why shouldn't you wear this particular mask, it is as good as any and better then some whose visage really does cause unnecessary consternation in this world?

    I just cannot fathom why one would be compelled to reject most of the selfish gene supplied emotions and feelings that make life preferable to not being alive, and cling to but one, when they are ALL the result of the very same process. I just don't get it, however I am still able to see the utility in using the absurd to mitigate the worst of the negative of the system.

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  7. RH,

    What I think you're saying is that Rick takes it too far. You are saying that emotions and human connection feels good, plain and simple. We have these tools to make us happy, and even though the notion of being happy can lose its romanticism once you start attributing it to the selfish gene (which has been my personal struggle of late), you still might as well use them. But the counter to that, and I think this is where Rick would agree, is that it’s too easy to let those feelings control you. You become paralyzed by your fear of losing or not having that happiness, and so you put off the responsibility of living in the moment to satisfy those needs. By totally letting go and not fearing anything, you are then free to do anything. That might be from Fight Club. Sorry if it is. Am I on the right track here?

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  8. Let's get to the main point here . . .

    What's with the new font size on this post?

    Seems absurd to me . . .

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  9. Rick,
    I still think you are arguing from one definition of personal meaning against a different definition.

    The purely human process of deciding what to value and what to care about (beyond those things for protecting or advancing the person's life) - well that process exists as surely as thoughts and emotions exist, and it exists in humans in a way that it does not exist in other animals. So, if someone calls this process "personal meaning", then personal meaning exists.

    If you want to argue with the definition, then do, but you keep missing this point and just argue against the existence of personal meaning as you define it.

    Arthur

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  10. Enzo,

    It is not exactly the fact that I think Rick takes things too far that I find puzzling, it is more that I find his prescriptive solution to the situation of the absurd condition of man's innate need for meaning and the apparent meaninglessness of the universe to be unproductive and ultimately impossible to achieve. I do not mean to sound harsh when I say this, because I find a lot of what is presented on this site useful and enjoyable.

    However, what I find to be THE reason to prefer being alive to simply not being alive, namely the human feelings and emotions provided by the selfish gene, and indeed, the value and personal meaning assigned to these, Rick's interpretation of the absurd would have him quash. I can't help but to think of this is a form of suicide, but instead of being physical suicide or psychological suicide, it is emotional suicide.

    To be human is to HAVE these emotions and feelings of the selfish gene, to be human is to HAVE a rational valuation of these that provides a sense of meaning. To be indifferent to these is to be apathetic to the very things that make us HUMAN. If we are not human, what is the point of being alive? A person in the hospital in a vegetative state is indifferent to the feelings and emotions of the selfish gene, without a rational valuation of these things, but no one would want to spend the rest of their life in this vegetative state, many would rather the plug be pulled.

    Further more it is a state that is impossible to actually achieve, at least for more than a temporary span of time, like with meditation perhaps. Assuming normal functionality then you WILL have these powerful emotions and feelings, the evolution of man and the selfish gene ensures that you will be subjected to them, they are not dependent on the rational mind decisions to the contrary. Additionally if you have rational mind you WILL have an interpretation of them, it is unavoidable, that is how the human mind works. To put on the mask of indifference because you have made the leap of faith of ultimate meaninglessness is no less illusory then to put on mask of religious fervor because you have made the leap of faith of ultimate meaningfulness. The cognitive dissonance will be similar in both of these scenarios.

    As to the danger that you may allow the self created meaning to control you, that is a legitimate concern, however the irony with which you view your personal fiction insulates you from this to some degree. It is the value of the actor analogy, which like a movie allows you to abandon yourself and experience the highs of the human condition, allows you to revel in the invented story of true love, or the seeming transcendent relationship between a parent and child, or revel in the exulted sentiments of honor, commitment, bravery, truth or beauty, while insulating you from the lows of the human condition because, after all, it is just a flicker show. You can pull yourself back in and console yourself that it is merely the selfish gene and your self created fiction at work that is making you feel the lows.


    -RH

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  11. Enzo,

    I also wanted to comment on your parenthetical aside, I too struggle with the loss of romanticism with the realization of the prominent role of the selfish gene. However a while back I ran across a video series by Richard Dawkins which has given me a new perspective. The series was recorded back in the early 90's and he was presenting a series of lectures on waking up in the universe. The particular portion of the presentation went something like this;

    Imagine that the Earth came into some planet ending danger, a danger that would destroy all life, including, of course, all human life. But before it happened an elite group of people were selected to board a spaceship and go forth into the universe to find a new home for humanity, but with the distances involved they have to be put into cryogenic stasis. So the ship goes forth and after 14,000 million years a new suitable planet is found. Imagine you waking up from that long deep sleep and you have a brand new planet to explore, a planet that is choke full of sights and sounds, color and shapes, a world of unknowns waiting to be explored, of knowledge waiting to be discovered, a world of experiences to be had and enjoyed. Sure there is going to be some hardships involved, but imagine the sense of accomplishment of being one of the elite few that gets to propagate the human species, that gets to help humanity on its journey to find the new undiscovered territory.

    This is exactly the way we find ourselves here on earth, we have been unconscious for 14,000 million years, we have finally awoken to a world waiting to be explored and experienced, of knowledge waiting to be discovered, and of all the possible multitudes of people that could be existent, we lucky elite few are the ones that get to help humanity on its trip to the undiscovered country of the future.

    Even though I am a stranger in a strange land, I want to experience everything I can before I have to close my eyes again and go to sleep forever, even if it doesn't mean a thing. Sort of corny, I know, and I am sure I didn't do the story justice, but it sort of gave me a different perspective than I previously had.


    -RH

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  12. I'll tell my idea. I have realized that there is no meaning to life. The purpose of life. If this is right then no action is right or wrong. But it's not as simple as that. From the existential stand-point there is nothing right or wrong, because there's no purpose to the existence. But from the individual stand-point there ARE right and wrong things, because being "thinking beings" we do have purposes. For, intelligence can't work without purposes. These purposes are self-assigned, though. And thus, what serves these self-assigned purposes is right. What is detrimental to them is wrong.

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  13. RH,

    You wrote: "This is exactly the way we find ourselves here on earth, we have been unconscious for 14,000 million years, we have finally awoken to a world waiting to be explored and experienced, of knowledge waiting to be discovered, and of all the possible multitudes of people that could be existent, we lucky elite few are the ones that get to help humanity on its trip to the undiscovered country of the future."

    Although this feeling of wonderment might help resurrect some sort of naive romanticism in the beginning, how long before you think it would wear off (individually or socially)? To sustain it for any length of time, I'd imagine we would have to practice a rigid form of self-deception. The fact that you or Dawkins has to recommend it as a self-help thought experiment to someone suffering disillusionment seems to support this point.

    Besides, isn't man programmed to get used to his environment? How's he going to survive if he's always distracted by the romanticism of new and exciting things? Again, it sounds like its a delusional method for the privileged class to distract themselves from the disillusionment of modern times.

    -MM

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  14. MM,

    "How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable seem to me the uses of this world Fie on't! O fie!" -Shakespeare


    What you call delusional, I call the self created fiction, I never implied that it is anything more than this, in fact I have been pointing out that it is exactly the mere interpretations of the rational mind, and nothing more. Whether it has any meaning beyond this is unanswerable.

    And while I may sometimes tire of the invented fiction, as one might tire of a favorite classic play, it is useful to remind myself the reason why I continue this strange voyage, why I enjoy it as I do, just as you must remind yourself of your mask of unmeaning and indifference when those powerful feelings and emotions of the selfish gene raise their ungainly heads.

    As to how man will survive with the distraction of the of new and exciting things, I imagine he will survive just as he has always done when he unwittingly wore the mask of ultimate meaning that previously provided the romanticism.

    -RH

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  15. RH,

    You wrote: "And while I may sometimes tire of the invented fiction, as one might tire of a favorite classic play, it is useful to remind myself the reason why I continue this strange voyage, why I enjoy it as I do, just as you must remind yourself of your mask of unmeaning and indifference when those powerful feelings and emotions of the selfish gene raise their ungainly heads."

    Indeed! It seems that our disagreements are always rooted in our fundamental intuitive differences.

    (Nice Shakespeare quote!)

    -MM

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  16. Food has no meaning
    Food has no meaning past
    Food has no meaning past the where it provides energy
    Food has no meaning past the where it provides energy for the brain
    Food has no meaning past the where it provides energy for the brain
    That concludes that life has no meaning
    Food has meaning
    -gatorcog

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  17. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  18. "Although this feeling of wonderment might help resurrect some sort of naive romanticism in the beginning, how long before you think it would wear off (individually or socially)? To sustain it for any length of time, I'd imagine we would have to practice a rigid form of self-deception."

    Aren't all philosophies and religions just self-made fictions that we use to make things "better"? If you are opposed to the invented fiction, it seems to me that you'd have to include every kind of mental discipline or attempt at cultivation of disposition or spirit, including Zen, Daoism, and any other school dedicated to spiritual discovery.

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  19. Enzo Jones,

    Indeed! Even eating food, to reference the logic puzzle above, is a contradiction in my day-to-day existence.

    For a more in-depth discussion, I recommend reading the MM/RH debate on Rick's previous thread.

    -MM

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  20. Sorry, I missed my grammatical errors, hope you can tolerate the correction, thank you:

    Food has no meaning
    Food has no meaning past
    Food has no meaning past the point
    Food has no meaning past the point where it provides energy
    Food has no meaning past the point where it provides energy for the brain
    Food has no meaning past the point where it provides energy for the brain
    That concludes that life has no meaning
    Food has meaning
    -gatorcog

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  21. Enzo (Mr. Jones?)
    I did read that thread and I find myself attributing a sense of enjoyment from food as I age, more than when I was younger; not sure what accounts for that, but I also appreciate wine more. It may derive from serious health problems I had when I was younger that were caused by a terrible diet.
    In general eating is a necessity where varying gradations of meaning can be attached to it, depending on the preferences of the eater. Meaning or no meaning, the action of eating and the sensory input from it impacts the individual brain whatever significance the concious chooses to attach, or not, to it.
    Always good banter here in the Blog of the Absurd!
    -gatorcog

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  22. Gator,

    Trimming away the excess, I end up with this blurb that I don't understand. Can you please explain it:

    Food has no meaning
    Food has no meaning past the point where it provides energy for the brain
    That concludes that life has no meaning
    Food has meaning

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  23. Food = 0 > Energy > Brain > Meaning > Food = 1

    Look at food on your plate. It looks meaningless until you put it into your mouth, at which point it converts to energy after digestion. As you sit there telling yourself life has no meaning, the energy from food generates this brain activity ("life has no meaning"), converting food into meaning.
    I hope this helps.
    -gatorcog

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