A middle-aged man dreaming of the day when he can stop begging for scraps and write for a living.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Meaning of Things

Twice today I've been confronted by people who assert that "meaning" is some sort of property that can be found in objects or events. One asserted that beauty is proof of his god and another asserted that religion gives people meaning to their lives. So now I feel compelled to write about meaning and how we confuse what we want with what really is.

The first individual asserted "...it is the meanings which are encapsulated within it which make it beautiful, which make it something enlightening." Naturally I pointed out that this implies that meaning is an objective property that we can glean from something, but an objective property doesn't change based on the perspective of who is looking at it. An apple doesn't change into an orange when viewed from the proper angle. Meaning shouldn't change at all if it's an inherent property.

To further make his point this individual presented to me three actions that he believes have inherent meaning: a handshake, a hug to a crying child and a thumbs up gesture.

First the handshake. Apparently he wasn't aware of the history of greetings, from the Greek wristclasp demonstrating neither of you were armed (although this is disputed) but today having nothing to do with weaponry. When did it change from "I'm not armed" to "I'm pleased to meet you?" This is not established, but it serves to refute the idea that a handshake has inherent meaning, only the meaning we assign to it.

Then the hug to the crying child. Obvious this invokes some biological imperatives recognizing that as social creatures humans crave physical contact. The crying child is looking for reassurance but the person offering the hug may be more concerned with silencing the noise than with the emotional distress of the child. The meaning behind the hug may not be what you assume.

Finally the thumb up. It turns out there are six different meanings to this gesture which completely blows away any inherent meaning to it. But the most common meaning, the one meaning "okay" or some form of approval meant something very different to the Romans from whom we inherited it. During gladiatorial games when two opponents fought and one fell the crowd would extend their thumbs if they wanted to see the defeated fighter die. If they felt the fighter's combat was valiant and honorable they would hide their thumbs. So again, the meaning of the gesture has changed over time.

Objective properties don't change. If you can demonstrate that the meaning of something has changed then meaning is not an inherent property.

Related to this is the idea that we derive meaning from things. A painting or a sunset may inspire us, but what does that imply except that we have the capacity to be inspired? Did the inspiration come from whatever inspired us or do we project our own creativity onto what we see? For example, people have been inspired by the works of Jackson Pollock aka "Jack the Dripper" for decades, but I don't see why. When I look at it I see paint drippings on a canvas, not a key to the mysteries of the universe. But show me a nude by Rembrandt and I'll show you a love of the human form, particularly the soft curves of a woman. Someone else might see lechery and perversion, while yet another might see a blatant rejection of puritanical values.

I commonly hear that religion gives people comfort and offers meaning to their lives but I don't buy it. Like these paintings, religion doesn't have any intrinsic meaning or there wouldn't be so much dispute over what various religions mean. Instead what we have are examples of people projecting meaning onto religion, finding whatever they expect to see. How else could we have over forty-thousand different interpretations of the same religion? Religion is a blank canvas on which we paint, some by the numbers and others with free form. Put another way, religion is a blank page on which we write all our opinions and bias and call it sacred. Whatever religion offers that doesn't fit our expectations gets ignored or denied, often dismissed as metaphor or allegory for something else.

So what's the point? If meaning isn't inherent to anything, does that imply we should abandon all meaning? Of course not. When we find meaning in something that doesn't mean whatever we found was always there. It means we found it inside ourselves. We learned something new about ourselves and we're free to explore its implications. We can share this meaning with others and see if it resonates with their values as well. Perhaps the meaning we find will help others discover something new about themselves. We're just not justified in imposing that meaning on anyone else. Just because it has meaning for us doesn't imply that it must have meaning for everyone.

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