Is meaning subjective or objective?

The psychological research on meaning doesn’t touch this question. The research shows that humans perceive meaning separately from happiness, so, at minimum, meaning appears to be real in the subjective sense.

Philosopher Michael Huemer’s Ethical Intuitionism made me question my biases against introspective perceptions as opposed to physical perceptions (e.g. sight). Whether perceptions of meaning are hobbled perceptions of objective meaning, or simply subjective, or one of many potential delusions, it’s not clear.

However, why not assume the Bayesian prior that we can follow our intellectual perceptions of meaning towards objective truth? This seems to be a good approach for ethics. Bryan Caplan’s argument for free will sums up this burden of proof well (emphasis added):

I observe that I choose freely, at least sometimes; and if you introspect, you will see it too. There is no reason to assume that these observations are illusory, any more than there is reason to assume that vision or hearing is illusory. I frequently hear scientists declare that real science (as opposed to bogus Aristotelian science) rests on observation; that is, they take the observed facts as a given, and work from there. The insistence that free will does not exist has more in common with the worst a priori scholasticism than with modern science. The latter demanded that the facts fit the theory, while the essence of science is supposed to be that we make our theories fit the observed facts. […] Any argument for doubting our observations of our mental states would ipso facto be an argument to doubt the observations that confirmed atomic theory. […]

This doesn’t mean that I am sure that no explanation is possible; maybe one day someone will show that this “brute fact” is not a brute fact at all, but one capable of a simple explanation. The point is that we don’t need to wait for this explanation before we can accept my view. We can gather all of the needed evidence for that if we merely turn inwards and observe.

Some meaning researchers in psychology use the following formula to help people find meaningful work (purpose is considered a subset of, or tool to attain, meaning):

Purpose (P) = Values (V) + Strengths (S) + Ecosystem (E)

If meaning is objective, then discovering objective values is necessary to decide a meaningful path. If, for example, the ultimate value is to reduce suffering, then maximizing meaning involves a job that tries to minimize suffering. Sadly, it’s not easy to know when you’re doing this or not. And strangely, sometimes, values can be realized in unintuitive ways, or without consciously trying to do so (profit-seekers probably reduced average suffering more than the the most benevolent kings, queens, or priests).

Doesn’t all of the above apply even if meaning is only subjective? Well, yes, one should still follow perceptions of meaning even if they’re only subjective, but if meaning is also objective, then we’re forced to struggle with our intellectual laziness more. It’s easier to stop the chain of ‘Why’ questions when we can give up at any point and think, “well, it’s all subjective anyway,” and, ultimately, that may stop us from increasing meaning.

Just because a question’s hard, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try our best to explore it. We should be hyper-sensitive to our perceptions of meaning throughout the journey.

At the same time, it might not be as hard as over-thinkers like me make it out to be. Just like with morality, although we should be aware of our biases, and we should be open to questioning the sources of our beliefs, and we should be open to changing our opinions, generally, it’s not that hard to introspect and guess what a right and good action is. Similarly, it might be intuitively obvious (potentially with requisite wisdom) what a meaningful career and life looks like, even if they’re not easy to attain.


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