I have an inconvenient tendency to look behind the curtain - it makes everyone uncomfortable. Increasingly I’ve been trying to find where biology ends and philosophy begins, and philosophy is backed into an ever shrinking corner. Maybe there is only a tiny gap that makes us human, or the concept of being a uniquely chosen, sacred species is only an illusion.
Even the search for meaning, our most profound (and profoundly vague) goal can be better understood with evolution. In fact confusion surrounds this issue because there are two meanings created over different periods of evolution, and they often conflict.
The older, stronger one is about survival. It’s nature’s way of challenging us to use and explore all our complex abilities to flourish as a species. It’s like a special exam the teacher only gives to the brightest kid in the class, a secret weapon to make him use his potential.
The newer sense of meaning comes from the conscious brain, specifically self consciousness. It reflects on the beliefs inherited from nature and spots flaws and logical incoherence – of which there are plenty in the old version of meaning.
But both have in common the definition of meaning as a process rather than the goal. The key to understanding it is the emotion of anticipation – which is a much cruder, older version of the same process.
Instinct for meaning
Our compass in the search for meaning is feelings and instincts. You can believe these are cosmic truths given to us by some cosmic force. But it’s far more likely that they evolved, like everything else in our bodies, for survival.
Emotions of pleasure and pain signals gain or loss. Anticipation and fear points the way to future gain or loss. The sense of meaning can be seen as another emotion, one that developed with our conscious brain and our ability to string together complex learning behaviour. The instinct for meaning drives us to make the most of our powerful brains, motivating us to start and persist in extremely long term, complex planning and delaying gratification.
Even in modern times, meaningfulness is very clearly associated with these things, like long term career development, learning something new and difficult, overcoming challenges, investing in a family and bringing up kids.
What are we directed to accomplish with this complex planning? Either one of two things: a) using as much of our innate abilities as possible, the ultimate example is creativity or, b) building civilization by supporting the set of conventional moralities.
a) Using our abilities is both the goal itself, and also the way we achieve the goal. Creativity therefore is its ultimate representative. New ideas are an end in itself, a pure expression of what the brain can do. But at the end of the day, even creativity has evolutionary uses in the extremely long term, it’s the ultimate long term investment. For example pure research science and philosophy.
b) Morality is associated with meaning because it allows us to organize and utilize large, complex societies. Civilization is probably the most important factor in our evolutionary success so far. Morality evolved to help us with social organization, how to balance between individual impulses and compromising for the good of the group. Search for meaning often involves building families or communities on the one hand, or fighting for causes that upholds the rights of the individual.
If that seems bleak and unromantic then stop reading, because the second type is bleaker.
The paradox of meaninglessness
Consciousness is built to search out accuracy, whereas the older brain makes whatever sense it can from whatever material is at hand. It’s one of the greatest ironies of life that consciousness will eventually find there is no meaning.
Self consciousness therefore comes to the conclusion that we are absurd.
Reality and nature is a big pool of everything mixed together, differentiated by no good or bad, or any values in between. Is one rock better or worse than another? Is the sea better or worse than the sky? Are the solar systems a good thing or a bad thing? The questions aren’t applicable, things in nature just ARE. They exist that’s all. They have no meaning. Reality is meaningless.
Then life came along, and it differentiates from the rest of nature. Life values life for itself, and assigns the value of good to alive, and bad to dead. Then it goes on to impose values on everything according to whether it helps you live or not. But it’s an imposition on reality, not reality itself.
All living things thus live in created meanings, like a story or a play. Man comes along and he is the most complex form of life, and naturally he creates the most complex form of theatre. He is an actor in a play but he doesn’t know he is acting in a play. He thinks the play is reality.
BUT the truth seeking consciousness can’t help but work out the internal incoherence of this state of affairs. Self consciousness then causes us to realize ourselves as actors in the play. But this realization conflicts with many, older and very strong instincts. Though it’s more accurate, it’s only allowed to surface from time to time.
This is why everyone has at some point felt that life is meaningless. It comes and goes. But the more self conscious you are, the harder that it will pound on your awareness. Like Neo in the Matrix.
Speaking of the Matrix, is the answer then to take the red pill? i.e. leave the matrix (the play) and go in search of the truth? The harsh answer is no because unlike the Matrix, there is no bigger story outside of the story we have woken from. Reality is meaningless - it has no stories. We have no where else to go. (And this is why the Matrix sequels are so bad, they completely lost the plot).
This is the existential crisis that’s part of the human condition. Everyone one will always have to deal with it.
The actor who realises he is acting must continue to act. The only choice is whether to embrace the acting or see it as an unsolvable trap. Only the first choice offers any chance of happiness. As a self conscious actor he can actually embrace the fundamental absurdity of life, and put all the passion he can muster into the role. He can also change his role and the play to suit his tastes.
The conscious search for meaning therefore involves creating meaning. You can choose anything and then create its meaning with the act of devotion. The more you make something important, the more value it will have. Both parts are a kind of defiance of absurdity. It’s all in the attitude.
How do the two meanings add up? Well they often conflict, especially at the existential crisis. People will be a lot happier if they knew it just exists and got comfortable with it. But choosing and creating your meaning fits in quite well with the set tasks of evolution, which was designed to draw out our creativity. Most need some of the conventional moralities to aim for, but a lot of creativity can be worked into that.
(The spanner in the wheel is modern cubical jobs in mega corporations. By being so specialized they eliminate many of the key features of meaning. Our powers of social organization have evolved faster than our emotional brains, but that’s another post.)
Since the older brain trumps the new for emotional power every time, the key is to put its requirements first. But not forget also to deal with the fallout from having our newer intelligence.
From this I can deduct a pretty clear and detailed definition of how to find meaning:
Engage in a long term project that requires complex planning and delaying gratification. It needs to be challenging enough to stretch as much of your abilities as possible.
The goal can be either stretching your abilities itself, creativity, or building society (any set of the conventional moralities).
Really devote yourself to it.
Build in as much choice and creativity as possible.
Be aware of the feelings of meaninglessness that will come up, and continue regardless.
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