Meaning is a fluid thing

I think suffering poses a big problem to philosophies that make life meaningful by absolutising “goodness”. Human morality is based on avoiding harm, and a harmful world simply cannot be designed by a God who shares that morality.

We can redefine harm so that whatever happens is “good for us” in some not-immediately-obvious way, and I met some clever rationalist Muslims who think along those lines… but I don’t think we can really do that without undermining our morality. The Christian answer to the problem is that we brought it all on ourselves when we ate that figurative apple, and all will be put to rights in some new world in the future… but I find this an overly bleak and damning picture of life and of humanity.

The bottom line is, our natural human judgments are evidently not shared by the universe, and there is no easy answer for a human utopia (relationships being one example). I think we have to confront this awkward state of affairs in order to engage honestly and constructively with life, the world and other people. And it’s okay! We are excellent at creating meaning; we probably do it quite naturally.

I have been reading about philosophy of science lately and realising that even science has human values, imagination and meaning stamped all over it. Mary Midgely in the first few pages of “The Myths We Live By” points out that the term ‘competition’ as used in the theory of evolution is actually a metaphor… and that blew my mind.

So maybe meaning is much bigger than truth, and beliefs create our reality even more than they describe it. That is also a mind-blowing thought; it demands that I take responsibility for the way I think about life! I think the worst thing I have ever believed is that I am incapable of change. We have collectively adapted to every environment on this planet from scorching desert to icy tundra… our history has honed us into beings that thrive on adversity… and yet somehow I am not capable of self-improvement. What a piece of nonsense!

There is no meaningless objective reality that we should be afraid of bumping into in a dark alley. I think if we let meaning be a fluid thing, it will almost create itself.

Be not afraid of life. Believe that life is worth living, and your belief will help create the fact. (Henry James)

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This entry was posted in absolute goodness, God, Humanism, morality, myth and metaphor, philosophy, science, spiritual, suffering. Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Meaning is a fluid thing

  1. This is kind of off topic, but in a philosophy class we studied the bible and my personal conclusion is that God wanted us to eat from the tree of knowledge. Why else would the serpent be present? I doubt anyone else agrees with me, but I thought I’d share.

    • sanil says:

      I agree. In my Genesis class, I actually wrote a script of what happened after they left Eden, where Adam and Eve yelled at each other and the Serpent explained how it had actually helped them. They yelled at the Serpent and walked away still bickering. People in my class thought I made some good points and liked the interpretation. So no, you’re not alone.

    • I read this somewhere – what kind of father would leave a box of matches on the table, tell his children not to touch them, then invite an arsonist into the house!

    • Sarah says:

      Interesting! And do you think as well that God wanted Abraham to disobey when he told him to sacrifice Isaac? Someone suggested that to me and I always thought it was a cool idea. 😉

  2. sanil says:

    I really liked all your points here. This especially: “So maybe meaning is much bigger than truth, and beliefs create our reality even more than they describe it. That is also a mind-blowing thought; it demands that I take responsibility for the way I think about life!

    That was just a brilliant way to phrase that thought, I had followed the same line of reasoning and had similar thoughts before but never put quite that way. You made a little lightbulb turn on in my head. 🙂 I like the implications of that, that what you think matters as much as or even more than what you do, and therefore believe isn’t just something you can let go and accept without thinking, but that you have to examine to be sure what you believe is good and useful. I think that is a world-changing thought, if everyone understood and followed it.

    • Sarah says:

      Thank you! It’s always great to hear someone else has the same thought 😀 I am now reading a Cognitive Behavioural Therapy book and it is saying the same thing – we need the core beliefs underlying all our thoughts, feelings and actions to be good ones, that is, realistic and helpful.

  3. Julian says:

    Your ‘clever rationalist Muslims’ remind me of Voltaire’s ‘Candide’. I read it many years ago, and as I recall, it satirises just this kind of naive philosophical optimism. Such clever rationalists (or perhaps I should say rationalisers) are maybe not so far removed from the Christian variety. The only real difference is that the Christian idea you mention relies more on resolving the problem of evil in an afterlife, and the objects of Voltaire’s derision resolve it more in the here and now in this ‘best of all possible worlds’. Voltaire doesn’t resolve the problem of evil either, but seems to propose a practical question of how we should respond to life as we find it. I think you are right, we have to create the answer. There is no obvious answer. There may not even be a right one.
    I find it a bit depressing that I was able to read Voltaire’s ‘Candide’ before I became a Christian and it did little to protect me from such naive conclusions about life. As bleak as life might sometimes seem without such optimism, I would never choose to go back to that way of viewing things, even if it made me feel better. There would be no authenticity in that for me these days, and authenticity is more important to me now than simply feeling good about everything.

    • Sarah says:

      I haven’t read “Candide”… it sounds similar from what you’re saying. I think I did agree with the rationalist Muslims to some degree, in that it’s not trivial to work out what would make the world better, but I just don’t find the idea that “the world is perfect as it is” logically consistent with moral imperatives that we all tend to agree on.

  4. susanne430 says:

    I really enjoyed this post and the comments! So interesting! 🙂

  5. I feel I’ve also been arriving at the same conclusions as you. I’m trying to understand what Truth is and if it is at all relevant. Maybe Nietzsche’s solution helps? I think you are right when you say that meaning is central, which, I believe, expresses itself through the stories we tell ourselves about who we are and our place in the world. Do our beliefs have to have some basis in reality in order to survive? The relationship between all these elements is quite confusing!

    • Sarah says:

      I’m not very familiar with Nietzsche to be honest. I think if we want to be really pedantic about it, truth is unknowable… I see science as providing a descriptive and predictive set of tools that work because they can be tested and shown to be reliable, but the underlying nature of reality remains unknown…

      I agree with what you say about meaning and how it expresses itself. That’s how I see it too. I think it’s perfectly possible to maintain beliefs that are not based in reality… phobias are a good example of this. Our behaviour and thinking and emotions result from our beliefs, but they also feed back into it; our beliefs colour the way we see life and this always seems to confirm the beliefs. It takes considerable effort to evaluate and correct our unrealistic beliefs!

  6. caraboska says:

    You’ve been tagged! See my latest blog post for details:

    http://caraboska.livejournal.com/26283.html

  7. Valerie says:

    I think meaning is a very fluid thing and changes throughout our lives. I know that for me, the things I found meaningful ten years ago are not the same things as I find meaningful now. I have changed my views based on my experiences and what I have learned from others. The fact that we can change our views over years, months or even weeks should come as no surprise – over four billion years of evolution shows us that adaptation does happen. People are capable of change and to say that they can’t or that change can only happen under the influence of some divine power is making us less than we are. I’m not saying that there is no meaning is such views, they do have merit, but to see God as a catch all solution to human problems is not a very realistic way of viewing the world in my opinion.

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