Why do I find my daughter to be so darn cute? Why do I enjoy intricately progressive, yet melodic metal so much? Why do I find the aesthetic value of Mad Men, not to mention Christina Hendricks (but also Elisabeth Moss, now that we’ve gotten to know her), so compelling? What is it about baking that’s so deeply satisfying? Why do I think the stand up routine above is probably the funniest I’ve ever seen?
There are a million things that give life meaning. A million little daily things that make life life. But what do they mean?
Reductionistic accounts of the world would say that the experience of meaning are nothing but an elaborate trick pulled by the deterministic biological processes that make up the inner workings of our bodies. The classic quote from Francis Crick spells this out in excruciating elaboration: “[Science has shown you that] ‘you,’ your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. As Lewis Carroll’s Alice might have phrased it: ‘You’re nothing but a pack of neurons.'”[1. Francis Crick, The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for Soul (1994), 3.] We’re the enormous vehicles of minuscule, but omnipotent selfish genes who will stop at nothing to guarantee their survival.
While there are some aspects of what we experience as meaning that do make sense, to a certain degree, as selfish genetic embellishments, like loving one’s children. But even a phenomena so conducive to genetic survival as loving one’s children seem overly embellished. Other animals seem to get along fine without, for example, telling everyone on Facebook that their baby just rolled over unto their stomach for the first time.
The only naturalistic explanation I think is plausible is that at one point in human neurological development, the emergence of symbolic cognition threw our imaginations into overdrive. There isn’t really any basis for this in terms of survival. Our brains just do all this stuff for no particular reason. All this meaning doesn’t really mean anything.
I’m inclined to think that meaning does actually mean something. I think that when we reached the aforementioned neurological stage, we didn’t invent something, we discovered it. Meaning is real. It’s not a way for our genes to promote their survival, nor is it meaningless neurological overactivity. It’s something that’s actually there.
But why is the world this way? I think it’s because the world has its origin in a God who is, among other things, mind or consciousness. The meaning we experience in the world is the meaning of a world emanating from its divine source. That’s why we laugh at good stand up comedy. Because it’s actually funny.
I could add some things to this perhaps. Science will reveal more about our tendencies and our striving for meaning. Also, the selfish gene aspect of evolution has been overplayed and individual and group selection are both important, especially in light of Arni’s thoughts. But still… an outstanding post on the tension between the objective and the subjective, the impersonal and the personal, the how and the why. Well done.