Thursday, April 25, 2013

Nihilism and optimism

meaning
n. the end, purpose, or significance of something
NB: Emphasis added.
Consider the definition given above by Dictionary.com. We're told the meaning of something is its purpose.  If a thing has a purpose, that purpose must have been intended by someone.  If we're told something has "inherent meaning," we must ask from whence this intent comes.  There doesn't seem to be an obvious answer to this question.

We might say that this intent originates with God.  But personally, I don't believe in any god, capital-G or otherwise.  The existence or non-existence of God has been a point of philosophical contention for quite some time.  There have been claims of proofs and disproofs on both sides.  I'm not interested in getting bogged down in that kind of argument today.  However, I'd like to note that many of the more credible arguments in favor of God's existence have greatly weakened the definition of "god."  The cosmological argument is a good example of this.  If you accept it (and many people do not), it establishes the existence of, well, something, which existed necessarily.  What that means is that this whatever-it-is must have existed, as a logical necessity.  But that's all we know about this object.  We do not know that it still exists.  We do not know that it can think.  We certainly do not know that it is omnipotent.  In my opinion, calling such an object a "god" is misleading.  More to the point, we cannot ascribe intention to it without first proving it capable of intending things.

So where does that leave us?  God's existence is debatable, and I'm not satisfied by invoking him, her, or it as a source of meaning.

We might simply ascribe this intent to any convenient being.  Certainly, there are enough of us on the planet.  But this really doesn't make very much sense.  We're saying that the meaning of, say, life is whatever John Doe intends?  That is entirely untenable.

My conclusion is that we bring our own meaning to the table.   The world is what we make of it.  But we can hardly call this meaning "inherent," if it's different for each person.  So there is no inherent meaning.  All meaning is synthetic, constructed by us for us.

This seems rather depressing, at first.  Why construct meaning if it's all artifice?  What's the use?  We'll never get any "real" meaning, will we?

I couldn't disagree more.

Since all meaning is synthetic, this division of "real" meaning and "fake" meaning is, well, meaningless.  All meaning is "real."  The meaning I derive for my life is just as valid as the meaning you derive for yours.  Far from diminishing us, the concept liberates us to think and believe what we like.  But what about reality?  Shouldn't we aspire to have some relationship between our beliefs and the real world?

Of course.  But we can do that from within this "meaning-relative" framework.  We can invent symbols and rules to abstract the details away; we can then model those details in a rigorous fashion, and perform experiments to validate or falsify our models.  These abstractions may be very valuable for describing and predicting the universe.  But if they are wrong, we don't hesitate to scrap them and start over.  They are models, not truths.  There are different ways of modeling these things, different sets of underlying symbols and rules.  Which of these are correct?  None of them and all of them.  The universe is what it is; a model may be very true to the universe, but it is not "inherently true."  It is, ultimately, a construct.

We're just manipulating constructs, then?  Why bother?

These constructs are meaningless to the universe as a whole.  Personally, I do not identify as "the universe as a whole."  Perhaps some members of my audience do, but if that is the case, I'm afraid they are simply beyond my reach.  For the rest of us, then, it is quite possible to ascribe meaning and value to these models, and to anything else we please.

I have heard a rather interesting objection to this argument.  The objection goes something like this:
You say that classical logic is no better than any other kind of logic, and has no inherent meaning.  Yet, in the same breath, you use basic logical principles and reasoning to make your point.  How can you rely on these supposedly "meaningless constructs" in this way?
These constructs are meaningless to the universe, not to me, and not to you.  I wrote this post in English.  I could have, with some difficulty, written it in Spanish, or, with significantly greater difficulty, in Japanese or some other language.  But English is, ultimately, just a collection of words, symbols, and self-referential definitions.  I use English to express my ideas because it is convenient, not because it is somehow "superior" to Spanish.  Similarly, I use classical logic instead of paraconsistent logic or (were I feeling adventurous) lambda calculus because it is convenient.