Class Warfare Blog

May 6, 2013

An Imaginarium of Meaning

A recurring topic in this blog is the rabid thirst we seem to have for meaning. We have created tens of thousands of gods to be responsible for myriad things we could not describe at the time. We have had a god of lightning, a god of the wind, a good of good luck and one for bad luck, a god of a spring (not all springs, just one in particular, actually many of these). When the ground shook from an earthquake, we attributed it to some god’s message which had a particular meaning. “Uh, the ground god is unhappy with us. We must mend our ways.”

There seems to be no limit to this thirst for meaning. I remember a New Yorker magazine cartoon in which one psychologist passed another in the hall and said “Hello,” while a thought balloon over the second psychologist said “I wonder what he meant by that?” At the time I thought it was a comment about psychologists but now I realize it is a comment about human behavior.

Where did this desire to find meaning everywhere come from? I can’t know whether anyone will be able to prove this but, as Bob Newhart used to say, I suspect it went something like this: when we evolved our big brains we found a use for them while out hunting. There were distinct advantages to having multiple hunters working in concert. The problem involved how to coordinate the hunt, how to turn a bunch of individuals into a team. Presumably grunts and hand signals worked up close and louder vocalizations worked from farther away. The question, though is what did that particular grunt or whistle mean? So through pantomime they eventually developed a vocabulary of hunting instructions. You can see the modern equivalents in any action-adventure movie when a group leader, moving his group in silence, stops the group in its tracks by an upheld clenched fist. Then moves them again with a hand wave.

The greater the communication, the greater the success of the hunt and the greater the demand for more communication. You could also substitute plant gathering as the activity (Ugh, this one poisonous. Mmm, this one okay but tastes bad.) or a number of different things. Such ability to communicate became very important on those occasions in which one family group encountered another. The encounters, as archeoanthropologists have determined, could be quite deadly. A larger group of males may decide to kill a smaller group’s males and take their females, for example. So communication was very helpful to prevent misunderstandings and possibly to negotiate bribes.

The central issue, always, was what did those grunts, clicks, and other vocalizations mean. One tribe’s grunts might be another’s whistles.

And as we developed language, it became a more and more valuable tool, so we developed nuances. We could agree with somebody sarcastically, indicating we do not agree. This meant that the words themselves didn’t carry all of the meaning. Some linguists state that the words themselves carry less than 10% of the meaning of any statement now. Tone, inflection, affect all carry more meaning.

So when frightening occurrences happened, it became natural to seek meaning as well as inherent dangers. Lunar eclipses, thunderstorms, herbivore stampedes, all had meaning sought for them.

So, at least this tendency is imaginable.

But there is no limit to it. It is like a three-year old asking “Why?” The question cannot be answered.

One critique of atheism is that without a god, life would have no meaning. So, people who believe this have created an all purpose answer to the question: what is the meaning of life? Their answer is “God has a plan for you.” But you can’t question the mind of God, so that is the end of the question.* (Whew, I didn’t think there was one!)

Well, there is a answer to “what is the meaning of life?” That is: if you want your life to have a meaning, you must live it so that it does.

* According to the Catholic Catechism “He created us so that we would know, love, and serve him.” So God’s plan is that you be an informed infatuated servant.” It pays to not ask too many questions.

Advertisements

14 Comments »

  1. Wanting to know why is understandable. Being unable to look beyond pat answers we were raised with is not so much.

    Like

    Comment by lbwoodgate — May 6, 2013 @ 9:10 pm | Reply

    • Wanting to know is natural; it is curiosity. But when we don’t understand something, especially when it frightens us, we look to wiser, stronger heads to reassure us (parent figures). Not being reassuring loses one points in the power rankings, so reassurances were given, which reinforces the appearance of wisdom and strength. So, we are lead to accepting an explanation we do not understand (the Brook God did it) because we would not think of demanding a clearer answer from the more powerful. Consider the Catholic Church’s behavior today. The same scheme is at work.

      Asking for meaning is a special question, just one special kind of “why?” Consider a meteor blazing across the primitive sky and a child asking his father/mother “What is that?” And the parent answers that it is a bit of rock falling through the sky so fast that it glows from friction. The child probably can’t understand the explanation, but accepts it because his/her parents seem to know what it is. Then the child goes on to “What does it mean?” The parent answers “it doesn’t mean anything, there are lots of rocks (look around my child) and some fall through the sky.” A steady diet of this and the child becomes more and more curous and reality based. But when the bullshit begins (The Sky God is throwing rocks at people who don’t behave.) then there is no end to it because the parents are not preparing the child to think for him/herself and there is no basis (other than more creative bullshit) to continue. There is also no basis to put the pieces together for yourself, so acceptance must follow. You must accept what the authority figure provides as they are a source of power and coherence in your life.

      In my humble opinion, of course, ha!

      Like

      Comment by stephenpruis — May 7, 2013 @ 7:56 am | Reply

  2. the ability to ponder, to be curious of, to reason, to question even our proclivity for finding meaning in everything is an evolution of the human brain. perhaps in the not so distant expansion of cortical brain comes our inanity for the morals of meaning. unlike other mammals we cannot simply exist, we must have reason for living, a direction of action, a purpose for continuation.

    Like

    Comment by memoirs — May 6, 2013 @ 10:06 pm | Reply

  3. It’s a bit odd: we’re driven to find meaning in the patterns we observe, yet we’re set up to favour the quicker, cheaper explanation as that is more evolutionary beneficial. Jump now, think later. It’s a bit of a push-me-pull-you situation.

    I liked Fourat’s take on it: “If science (reason) was easy and intuitive it wouldn’t have taken us 200,000 years to discover it.”

    Like

    Comment by john zande — May 7, 2013 @ 7:39 am | Reply

    • Actualy in many ways we have had “science” for millenia. Agriculture wouldn’t have been invented otherwise. (Science is organized curiosity.) But when we don’t understand something, especially when it frightens us, we look to wiser, stronger heads to reassure us. Not being reassuring loses one points in the power rankings, so reassurances were given, which reinforces the appearance of wisdom and strength. So, we are lead to accepting an explanation we do not understand (the Brook God did it) because we wouldn’t not think of demanding a clear answer from the more powerful. Consider the Catholic Church’s behavior today. The same scheme is at work.

      Most people think of science is the pursuit of abstractions and things not readily practical, but that is short sighted.

      Like

      Comment by stephenpruis — May 7, 2013 @ 7:45 am | Reply

      • Good point on the agriculture; crops and animal husbandry are scientific, albeit localised. And it’s true, we have used scientific discoveries since tool-making was a hit, but the methodology of science, though, is new.

        Like

        Comment by john zande — May 7, 2013 @ 8:01 am | Reply

        • I don’t think it was the methodology as much as “science” was born when some people spent the bulk of their time doing it. In antiguity, only a few and those with royal patronage could do much, certainly much of anything not associated with one’s craft. Chemistry was evolving out of embalming, dying, and cosmetics. Physics evolved out of ballistics (of war making engines), etc. Only when some non-patronage types became involved and the key element of communication was added was modern science was born.

          The methodology became codified, but was being used in bits and pieces for thousands of years (organized trial and error, for example).

          And where did you get your education? Australia seems to educate folks better than here. (Or are you extraordinary, as I suspect?)

          Steve

          Like

          Comment by stephenpruis — May 7, 2013 @ 8:13 am | Reply

          • Only when some non-patronage types became involved and the key element of communication was added was modern science was born.

            Damn good point. I stand corrected.

            Yeah, product of Australia, but nothing extraordinary. Said it before: good teachers. Education in Oz is egalitarian. The academics don’t vary between state schools and private, just the access/promotion of extracurricular activities and sport. The US seems pretty hit and miss: excellence balanced out by the truly awful.

            Like

            Comment by john zande — May 7, 2013 @ 8:29 am | Reply

            • You got that right. Oz has a good system and students who apply themselves, which you so obviously did, get well-educated. Here, it depends on how much money you have (more now that when I was educated). I went to a community college then a state college, then another state college to get my degrees. Those colleges didn’t have stellar reputations but they had willing faculty and I got a good education, even though I could have worked much harder (tended to slide on my “smarts,” those things are damned slippery). It also didn’t cost an arm and a leg. At state colleges, I paid like $70 per sememster in fees and under $100 in books. Same colleges now cost thousands.

              Steve

              Like

              Comment by stephenpruis — May 7, 2013 @ 8:48 am | Reply

              • Uni was free when i started but halfway through they introduced HECS (Higher Education Contribution Scheme). It’s a small levy (differing per course) which is deducted at 1% from your later salary once it exceeds a certain threshold. Free would be better, but its not such a bad idea. Damn, we protested it, though 🙂

                Like

                Comment by john zande — May 7, 2013 @ 9:06 am | Reply

                • I don’t mind a partial fee, in that everyone has some skin in the game. A study done on the California State University System found that for every $1 spent by the state generated $13 in the state’s economy. That is reason enough for the state to subsidize education (Hell, it is required and free at lower levels.) but having a little of one’s own money in the game made for a bit more earnestness. (And I remember being desparately poor in college (for a period).)

                  Like

                  Comment by stephenpruis — May 7, 2013 @ 9:11 am | Reply

                • John,

                  I have “reconstructed” the short story I mentioned to you (with a few touches inspired by you) and I am perplxed as to how to send you a copy. If you will send me an email at ruis.steve@gmail.com, I will send a copy of this story by return email. The story was initially inspired by the thought of why not come back and make a better case than you can to a bunch of illiterate goat herders.

                  Steve

                  Like

                  Comment by stephenpruis — May 7, 2013 @ 1:04 pm | Reply

                  • Just sent you an email, but you already had it, didn’t you?

                    Like

                    Comment by john zande — May 7, 2013 @ 2:26 pm | Reply

                    • Yeah, didn’t think to look in the obvious place. IQ of 140+ and can’t do the simplest things .

                      Steve

                      Like

                      Comment by stephenpruis — May 7, 2013 @ 2:29 pm


RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: