15 March, 2021
My thoughts on meaning
Heavily inspired and informed by Man's Search for Meaning
Summary: Meaning, Purpose, and Morality are different yet interrelated. We need a purpose, which is often based in morality (and reality) to reach a subjective feeling of meaning. This feeling of meaning can deeply affect our well-being because it can override the pleasure or suffering of a string of moments through the stories we tell ourselves about those experiences.
Our understanding of ourselves as nothing but animals made of dead stuff makes it clear that there is no inherent meaning in the world aside from that which comes subjectively -- from human values. The universe will one day be completely dead and cold and all of our achievements and failures will be dust.
Science and technology are leading us towards a more machine-like -- although accurate -- view of the world that makes it easy to see things as a nihilist. We are losing the traditions, religions, and obvious mystery in our world that used to tell us or at least let us wonder what we should do, but now we must decide for ourselves. The freedom is paralyzing.
In the past, purpose was more simple and clear. Religion, family, survival. For the modern American, "No instinct tells him what he has to do, and no tradition tells him what he ought to do; sometimes he does not even know what he wishes to do."
Any purpose we might have is just a story we are telling ourselves. But some subjective purpose sounds a lot better than just doing nothing.
(This is not to say that all morality and purpose are completely relative and can't be compared, only that individual purpose and individual meaning are subjective.)
The conclusion that nothing matters come from the searching for absolute meaning, but we can find meaning in the meaningless: striving to be an Olympic weightlifter, hiking to the top of a mountain, running a marathon or helping others. These goals are all human and arbitrary but still give people a deep sense of meaning.
I have gotten confused before thinking that meaning is something more than a feeling. From reading too much moral philosophy my mistake was equating the feeling of meaning that is central to our well-being with moral importance or living an ethical life.
Most people tend to derive some meaning in their life from their ethics, but meaning can also be decoupled from morals.
To me morality means improving human well-being, but even if my charitable donations are the thing that most improve other people's lives, those donations don't feel meaningful to me. I see charitable donations as highly morally important, because I can help people through them, but it's nearly impossible for that impersonal donation to feel meaningful. It doesn't activate my evolutionary instincts for what is supposed to feel meaningful.
Meaning is only a feeling that at different times may or may not be related to ethics.
I think confusion comes in here from using meaning like it's used in "what is the meaning of life". Here, meaning really means purpose.
Neither your life or all life could have an objective purpose. If you told me that the reason I was alive, or the reason everyone was alive was because a cosmic turtle vomited and our universe came out, I would ask why the cosmic turtle exists. And if you told me the purpose of my life was to help others, or be the best person I could be, or to make paper clips, I would also ask why. Both chains are endless, or just stop at the last thing we can't explain -- like the big bang.
Therefore if there was an objective purpose to my life or all life, it seems it would have to be outside of my ability to understand it, and then it is essentially useless for me to try to ground my actions in this purpose.
Purpose, meaning and morality are different but interrelated. It seems impossible that there is an objective purpose to life but we generally must find some subjective purpose to have experiences and live a life that feels meaningful. One way people often find this purpose is through their personal morality.
When an experience is meaningful, its individual parts aim towards a collective purpose that gives context to each part. On reflection, the experience was more -- or at least, different -- than just the collection of moments that made it up. Consider how the full meaningfulness of each scene in a movie can't be fully understood or appreciated until the end of it, and how little any individual scene would have meant on its own.
Meaning seems to be related to whether we like ourselves as the protagonist in our narrative memories. Will I be able to tell myself a good story tonight about how I performed and struggled and overcame obstacles today, or only how I suffered pointlessly?
The most common way we find meaning is through our goals and struggles. We set goals or are given challenges that make our temporary purpose overcoming that obstacle. Each experience on this path of overcoming now has a deeper purpose -- however subjective it is -- that can make this experience feel meaningful.
The goal isn't fundamental to this feeling of meaning, but the purpose is. A general purpose of "making the world a better place" or "doing good" is not a goal that can be achieved, but people can still find meaning in it because it can give a deeper context for their actions and decisions.
In general, we feel meaning from hiking up mountains and not hiking in circles.
Meaning is a foundational aspect of human well-being. The sense of meaning underlying any experience can keep pain from turning into suffering, or keep pleasure from leading to happiness.
In Man's Search For Meaning, Viktor Frankl writes that the three places people most often find our well-being is through their work, through their relationships, and by being courageous through hardship.
Surprisingly, even people in the worst situations, such as concentration camps, can find hope and meaning in their daily lives by looking toward the future and taking responsibility for whatever they retain control over. Even in these awful conditions, one can persevere by thinking to the future "of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, [and] will never be able to throw away his life."
This allows him to put his current suffering in the context of a greater purpose. Suffering can be bearable as long as there is a reason behind it. (On a smaller scale, consider enjoyable pain in the context of working out).
We have even more examples of the converse: People who are super rich or famous yet miserable. Clearly human well-being comes down to more than a string of positive or pleasurable moments.
The feeling of meaning that is available when people have an underlying purpose is more important to human well-being than the actual pain and pleasure of successive moments themselves.
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