Although I’m nauseatingly disgusted by Nihilism, French Existentialism, and Scientism, and my Bayesian prior is that they’re wrong or incomplete, I can’t deny their plausibility. However, from what I’ve read, these philosophies usually deny objective meaning in very sloppy ways, so I was pleased to find A Nihilist’s Guide to Meaning, which struggles with meaning at some depth:
I’ve never been plagued by the big existential questions. You know, like What’s my purpose? or What does it all mean? […]
Unfortunately, some of my favorite writers of recent years — Sarah Perry and David Chapman, in particular — can’t seem to shut up about meaning. […] I’ve long struggled to make heads or tails of such metaphors — and yet these are solid, STEM-y thinkers, people I trust not to take me too far off the rails. […]
I’d like to venture a more explicit hypothesis about what, exactly, underlies our perceptions of meaning. Please forgive the mathy tone here:
A thing X will be perceived as meaningful in context C to the extent that it’s connected to other meaningful things in C.
Sarah gives a helpful metaphor: meaning is pointing. So the more arrows issuing out from something, the greater its meaning. […]
If meaning is about connectedness, and especially causal influence, we can see why it’s adaptive to pursue meaning. Perceptions of meaning allow us to answer a question we’re always asking ourselves, “Why am I bothering to do this?” If an activity feels meaningful, it merits our continued attention and investment. Whereas if it feels meaningless, an appropriate response is to stop doing it — to give up and search for a more meaningful path. To seek meaning, then, helps us avoid dead-ends and retain control over our lives. Just as boredom and ennui are emotions that prompt us to make better use of our time or to look for other opportunities, our perceptions of meaning (or lack thereof) prompt us to think about the deepest, longest-term impact of our actions, and to steer toward better outcomes.
It’s important to remember, though, that we can get duped into perceiving meaning where it doesn’t actually exist. As in many other areas of life, we can’t always pursue the outcomes we want directly. Instead we evolved to pursue a set of cues that give us the subjective sense of meaning. These cues typically correlate with real meaning, but have the potential to lead us astray, and in clever hands can even be used to exploit us. A charismatic CEO, for example, waxing grand and eloquent about the company’s mission, can create a strong sense of meaning in his employees — but all too often it’s illusory, the reality less “world-changing” than the rhetoric. […]
One of the best ways to look at meaning is to contrast it with pleasure. Consider this dramatically oversimplified formula:
Life satisfaction = pleasure + meaning
“Pleasure” here is what hedonists traditionally try to maximize. It includes health, comfort, and all manner of enjoyable sensory, aesthetic, and cognitive experiences, along with the absence of pain, misery, and suffering. Even beauty, for the hedonist, gets rolled up into the pleasure term.
Now we could imagine defining “pleasure” in such a way as to include “meaning.” After all, it feels good to experience meaning in one’s life. So why break meaning out into its own separate term?
One reason is to highlight how people are often forced to choose between meaning and pleasure; the two experiences seem to trade off against each other in interesting ways. Having children, for example, seems to reduce one’s pleasure, at least in the short run, while contributing greatly to one’s sense of meaning. (More here.) In the extreme case, martyrs are willing to endure torture and die for the sake of something larger than themselves. And sure, a martyr is a tragic figure — but vastly more tragic is he who suffers and dies for no purpose whatsoever:
But the bigger reason to separate meaning from pleasure is that pleasure is a strictly subjective experience. You can close your eyes and bliss out as hard as you like, and the pleasure you experience will be no less valid because it’s “just in your mind.” Meaning, on the other hand, is entangled with external reality, making it possible to be wrong about it. And thus the pursuit of true meaning requires an outward orientation to the world.