"What embitters the world is not excess of criticism, but an absence of self-criticism." - G.K. Chesterton

Friday, September 05, 2008

If anything matters, everything matters

Meaning, meaning, meaning.

We've all done it (here in Minnesota at least). It starts with a fresh snow fall and an empty parking lot. You throw the car into reverse, turn the wheel as far as it will go and hit the gas. Round and round you spin. You may have noticed that even though you have the steering wheel pegged, you never end up repeating the exact same circle twice. There's always a bit of drift—just enough to keep things interesting...

Okay, maybe it's not that interesting. But anyone who's been around here for any length of time knows where I'm going with this. Matt and I have been going round on the meaning of life since the very first (with the help of many others along the way). Indeed, we may well sound like broken records at times. Still there is this "drift," subtle shifts in the direction of the conversation and an unshakable feeling that there is more to be said—that it's still a conversation worth having. Or maybe that's just me. I don't know.

Starting back in July there was a rash of "meaning of life talk" that broke out. First here. Then here. From these two conversations two theories of meaning were purposed (well, more than that actually, but these were the only two that stayed in the discussion):

Alex's Meaning Thesis {AMT} =
A thing or state of affairs is meaningful only if it holds a conceptually significant place in relation to the telos of the whole.

Existentialist Meaning Thesis {EMT} =
A thing or state of affairs is meaningful if it strikes an observer as significant or "weighty" when filtered through one’s life experience.

EMT was then later revised by Matt and became something slightly different. I would like to call the Personal Meaning Thesis:

Personal Meaning Thesis {PMT} =
Something I think is meaningful will have (a) influenced the way I see myself and the world I inhabit, and/or (b)will have been something I've considered valuable (either at the time, or later on).

To begin exploring this I would wish to make two preliminary remarks. First, we should note that there is a epistemological/metaphysical schism running between AMT and EMT/PMT. I will elaborate on this shortly. Secondly, PMT (and from here on I will speak primarily of PMT) is fully able to exist comfortably within AMT. Following from this second observation flows my primary challenge: Can PMT obtain if AMT is rejected? In other words, is talk of personal meaning coherent if we deny any telos or "ultimate purpose" to the whole (i.e. all reality)?[1] It seems to me any serious atheist must face this question. The very credibility of all vigorous denials of nihilism are at stake.

Now, back to this talk of epistemological/metaphysical schisms. This is an important point as it uncovers the fact that our comparison is not a kind for kind, but rather we are dealing with two levels of explanation. AMT is the more ambitious of the two theories as it deals primarily with questions of metaphysical truth (e.g. is love ultimately meaningful? Is striving for justice ultimately significant?). PMT, on the other hand, is a much more modest theory as it works within a more epistemically limited domain. [2] PMT would say, "look, we can't know the nature of ultimate reality in the way AMT seems to desire, thus if we work from what we can know (e.g. I feel a sense of solidarity with those who suffer, etc...) then we can go on to construct a theory of meaning from these basic facts.

This is true so far as it goes and I do not wish to minimize it's legitimacy in any way. The question is, under what circumstances does this legitimacy obtain? PMT cannot answer this question. It simply does not go far enough as a theory of meaning. Allow me to here try and put my finger on the fatal flaw of all PMT type formulations. PMT ultimately ends with an emotional brute fact. The question is then not "why desire a desire," (as I was thought to be suggesting here) but "what's next in questioning this desire?" Is it really an absurd question to ask, what is desire? Is desire itself meaningful?

Here, if held at the exclusion of AMT, PMT is dashed on the rocks of its own inquiry. It's not that this desire in PMT is unable to be questioned in the same way the validity rationality is (discussed here). The validity of desires can be questioned without absurdity, the problem here is that PMT is simply too small to answer the question and thus is a myopic theory of meaning. PMT dwells long and hard on the four-color "welcome to the Rocky Mountains" brochure while refusing to step off the tour bus to witness the sun cresting over glacier crowned peaks.

In the final analysis if we accept AMT and it is true that there is a purposeful telos to the whole of reality (much as the Christian story suggests), then you get PMT as well. Yet if we deny the legitimacy of AMT by arguing that "the whole" does not have a telos, then we have yet to see how this ruptured dam of meaninglessness can be kept from surging back down the canyon of history destroying every supposed village of meaning along it's path. PMT, like everything else, is awash in the flotsam of cosmic waste.

I realize that at one point, Matt, you said that you are not necessarily denying AMT. I'm not altogether sure what you meant by that. Though I do know you had your money on PMT, at least last we talked. I'm not sure whether or not I have succeeded or not, but I have tried here to demonstrate that PMT is dependent upon AMT and the additional premise that "the whole" does indeed have a telos.

If what I have said so far is true, then one of two things can be said from our intuitions of "meaningfulness." 1. Our intuitions regarding meaning are appropriate inklings of the truth that comes both before and behind all history, or 2. these intuitions are simply the Universe making noise for no other reason than the fact that it does. Thus, to speak of "meaning" under 2. seems to entail such a heavily qualified disclaimer that we may as well speak clearly into the mic: All is meaningless.

Thoughts? Pushbacks?

The Factory Thought Experiment
Consider a factory. It sits somewhere out in northern Saskatchewan. The factory is completely automated and no one knows where it came from or who owns it. As a matter of fact it produces absolutely no product, service or output of any kind. It is completely and totally without purpose. It even runs as if by magic, needing no energy source to sustain itself.

Now on a random vacation to the area you are passing by this very odd factory and you notice a sign offering free tours [let us here ignore the suggestion that the purpose of the factory is to provide a location for tours]. Not having anything else planned, you decide to have a look. Once inside, you notice the factory is filled with all manner of frantic, automated activity.

Happening across a particularly complicated little piece of machinery you note the many intricate tasks it seems be be performing. Getting the attention of the tour guide you ask, "What is this little gizmo up to?" (how is it contributing to the telos of the system?)

The tour guide then begins to expound on how it contributes to the larger system of which it is a part. Having provided a satisfactory answer regarding how our little device participates in this system, you ask the obvious question, "okay, but what does that system do?" And so on…

Thus, from inquiring about the one isolated gizmo, one's questions becomes ever more expansive, asking of ever larger systems within the factory. Likewise, each answer must relate the previous system to the next larger system in which it is nested, until finally there is no "next step up" except that of the entire factory itself. To ask this final question exposes the absurdity of the exercise, for, as we have stipulated, the factory itself has no telos—it "just is."

From here we must ask, does this dead end not render questionable any purpose within the previously mentioned systems and relationships? That is to say, did our little gizmo ever relate to the telos of the system of which it was a part? It does not appear that it did, for the only way this purposive relationship could be justified was by appealing to the telos of the system yet above it, and so on…. We have a regress on our hands that must stop with the telos of the factory, which, by definition, has none. Thus, if all those relationships are evacuated of any purpose, does that not also annihilate any significant meaning? It seems to me it does. And if this is true for our little gizmo, how much more so for our own lives?

At least when taken at its best. At its worst this position is held to avoid the uncomfortable implications of AMT in relation to certain metaphysical convictions. Not pointing fingers. I'm just sayin'.

P.S. This post title is shamelessly ripped off from William P. Young's The Shack

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Blogger Matt M said...

Is desire itself meaningful?

This seems, to me, to be the crux of the issue.

I'd say that PMT (is that acronym deliberate? Hmmm.) is more than capable of answering the question when it comes to specific desires: Does it impact my life? Do I consider it valuable?

The question of desire overall is more complex - but I think that you're still trying to get at the desirability of desire, which is simply unanswerable. Desires (at least primary ones) just are. We have no platform from which to examine them and have no choice but to accept them.

Desire and reason are the tools we use to examine the universe. But they're useless at examining themselves.

Nor do I think that AMT solves any of the problems - If the telos of the whole (assuming such a thing even existed) confers meaning on things, then what gives the telos itself meaning?

I think at this point we may need to agree on using different terms to refer to meaning - as I don't think we're really talking about the same thing.

For example, my relationships with the people around me are meaningful to me. That's just a fact. The rest of the universe is utterly irrelevant to it - as it doesn't require further justification. It's like having an itch or feeling hungry. These states of being simply are. Perhaps we should call this "relative meaning". What you're looking for seems to be "ultimate meaning".

If this is the case, then I'm fine with the fact that my relationships have no ultimate meaning - as such a thing is utterly unimportant to me. It has no bearing on my life.

"Ultimate" meaning is simply a mirage. In order to completely understand something you have to stand outside it - but if you can stand outside it, you still have that outside to deal with.

2:58 AM

Blogger Tom Freeman said...

Hi guys!

Completely agree with Matt's last para there.

And I think we can all agree that the notion of personal meaning works "so far as it goes" - the question is whether we think there's a type of meaning that goes further.

Personal meaning (as the name suggests) ultimately ends subjectively, in an individual's mind. 'Absolute' meaning, though, as you view it Alex, ends in God (I can't quite take seriously the idea that some transcendent type of meaning could be coherently rooted in an impersonal Buddhist-ish scheme).

But PMT only fails by the standards of AMT - it doesn't offer what AMT purports to offer, but then it doesn't try to. PMT 'can't' answer the question of what further meaning there is because it sees the question as based on a fallacious view that there's a more transcendent type of meaning.

To judge this a genuine failure begs the question, assuming that what AMT aims at is the target that all theories of meaning must aim at. To accept this criterion dooms PMT by definition rather than argument.

Furthermore, and coming back to Matt's last para, a theory of meaning that ends in God's mind is also subjective. It's as I said about Buddhism above: the notion of 'absolute' meaning only seems to make sense by being modelled on the kind of subjective purpose we're familiar with.

6:30 AM

Blogger Baht At said...

Meaning of life? There isn't one - the objective is the enjoy yourself and die before your brain packs in. Sadly many people forget that and waste effort avoiding things that might kills them and then spend ten years annoying their children and dribbling.

11:16 AM

Blogger DSK Samways said...

They call it PMS over here.

Crazy Americans. Everything's a "syndrome" with these guys.

3:08 PM

Blogger Alex said...

I was wondering what that innuendo was referring to.

5:45 PM

Blogger jmb said...

Merry Christmas to you Alex.

12:30 AM

Blogger Alex said...

Thanks JMB,
Merry Christmas to you as well!

9:18 AM

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Blogger Gustavo Woltmann said...

Many people don't live up for their life because they are afraid in the consequences. Great post Matt.

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6:18 AM


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