Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Understanding Ultimate Meaning

This post continues my series of explorations, ideas, and observations on “ultimate meaning.”

I find the topic fascinating partly because I’m confused by other people’s assertions, such as “If materialism is true, then there is no ultimate meaning to human life.” I don’t clearly understand what the word meaning actually refers to, let alone ultimate meaning.

Terminology is a bear in discussions of atheism, religion, and generally philosophical subjects. People use common words without pausing either to define these words or to consider that the definitions may be problematic. This inattention to clear and consistent language keeps such discussions interminable (and yet still interesting).

In linguistics, the concept of meaning is complicated and subject to many philosophical disputes. Semantic theories and foundational theories explain the nature, origins, and conditions of meaning. I will not review these theories now, but I recommend the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on “Theories of Meaning.”

However, human lives do not correspond very well to the linguistic model because we are not like words or statements in a grand utterance. If we were, then we would have to figure out the how linguistic concepts such as phonemes, morphemes, syntax, dialects, and grammar. Undoubtedly, some enterprising intellects could draw all the parallels between humanity and language, but I wonder whether parsimony would wisely demand that we let the analogy go.

Some might look to video games as a better model. Games incorporate language, coding, and visual complexities. So, perhaps our lives have meaning in the sense that we are characters, encoded with certain properties, interacting in a similarly encoded world.

I don’t like the gaming model much better than the linguistic model. If our lives are encoded in the universe, who are the players in this scenario? What are “points”? Are there other levels in the game or even other games? Can games be re-started or turned off?

Again, as with language, gaming provides a good yet limited understanding of human lives and meaning. Knowing the imperfection of our analogies, we can nevertheless proceed to describe meaning in terms of language and/or gaming to get a good understanding of why the concept is so important to many theists and anti-atheists.

After some research--as compared to dissertation-level research--I have provisionally accepted Paul Grice’s foundational theory of linguistic meaning as the best tool for assessing meaning in the context of human life. What I like about the Gricean model is that meaning traces back to a speaker’s communicative intentions.

A classic example:
imagine you are stopped at night at an intersection, when the driver in an oncoming car flashes her lights. You reason as follows: “Why is she doing that? Oh, she must intend me to believe that my lights are not on. If she has that intention, it must be that my lights are not on. So, they are not.” To summarize:

The driver flashes her lights intending
  1. that you believe that your lights are not on;
  2. that you recognize her intention;
  3. that this recognition be part of your reason for believing that your lights are not on.

Call such an intention an M-intention. Grice's idea is that an utterer U means that p by uttering x if and only if U M-intends that p by uttering x. Utterances may include, not just sounds and marks but also gesture, grunts, and groans--anything that can signal an M-intention. The example illustrates an indicative M-intention; such intentions may also be imperative. In such a case, the utterer intends to get the audience to perform an action.
In my understanding of the Gricean model, the analysis of Judeo-Christian meaning for human lives can be expressed as follows:

G means n by creating h iff G intends in creating h that
  1. G’s humans come to believe n.
  2. G’s humans recognize this intention.
  3. (1) occurs on the basis of (2).
Although my formulation above may need tweaks, I think I now have a firm basis for meaning and meaninglessness. In the theistic schema focusing on human lives, meaning consists of (a) recognizing that God has certain intentions for our lives and (b) believing that humans have a way (or ways) to gain awareness of God’s intentions. The theist thereby evaluates life in terms of feeling aligned with God’s intentions, intentions which are not declared outright but accessible only through activities that one deems as being mandated by God or God’s earthly emissaries. These activities include biblical study, practical application of the Bible to daily life, prayer, observance of prescribed rituals, volunteering with and donations to certain organizations, and presentation of one’s children to the religious community.

God’s intentions for humans and humanity, therefore, are the ultimate meaning. Ultimate carries the senses of superiority and finality. It also serves as an organizing concept. Ultimate meaning is stable. It never changes. It’s the same in every context. Because it is stable, every other type of meaning encountered in life—meaning from people, from books, from emerging fields of knowledge—can be evaluated and reconciled against the ultimate standard.

Perhaps more important is the idea that ultimate meaning becomes known only in certain ways. This prescription seems to serve as a guarantor. People in the community have a certain security that their like-minded neighbors behave in basically acceptable ways and will likely refrain from basically unacceptable behavior. We trust ourselves, not others. The intention behind ultimate meaning, in my opinion, is nothing less than physical security and social predictability.

A meaningless life, on the other hand, is one in which there are no recognizable intentions for one’s life and there are no means of coming to learn of any such intentions. Meaninglessness must be a frightening prospect, then, for anyone who feels the need for overriding guidance and for a sense of instrumental security. For this personality type, a meaningless life truly makes no sense. Such a person can never declare with full confidence that “I’m right” if there’s no final arbiter and authority.

Worse, such a person can never consult a fully authoritative resource to stand in as final judge. That person has no confidence in others because others do not necessarily share the same behavioral code, and if they do, it may be for different reasons.

In a world without ultimate meaning, we cannot be certain we’re right and we cannot blithely assume that our own moral values constitute the best or even the norm. Some people don't like this kind of world and don't accept that its is so. Atheists like myself, on the other hand, find much to appreciate in such a world.

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