Class Warfare Blog

October 31, 2019

The Meaning of Meaning and Purpose of Purpose

I have been having a running disagreement over two words with John Branyan. This disagreement emerged, I think, from my opinions that life has no intrinsic purpose, nor an intrinsic meaning either. These opinions were mocked by Mr. Branyan, who is very good at mocking. (Hey, some opinions should be mocked . . . yes, I am talking about you, Flat Earthers.) He apparently wanted to debate those opinions and I did not, which created another point of disagreement.

Actually, to clarify my opinion I expanded upon my original comments and shared that I thought all “purposes” and “meanings” were quite synthetic, that is fictional, that we make up such things to provide a narrative for our lives.

Consider the following scenario.

*** Start of Scenario ***

The Earth seems to be about 4.543 billion years old. If some aliens happened to fly their spaceship by 300,000 years after Earth’s Birthday (EB hereafter) they would have seen a planet still very, very hot but also covered to some extent with water containing possibly some monocellular life. Puzzled, they wondered what was the meaning of this? What was the purpose? They decided to come back later.

When Earth had it’s 1500 millionth anniversary of its birth, the aliens dropped by again. Their records showed their prior visit and now this planet had cooled considerably and the surface water, much in abundance, was teeming with monocellular life but nothing else. Again, they wondered what was the meaning of this? What was the purpose? . . . and decided to come back later, which they did 3 billion EB. Everything was much the same: no plants, no animals, vast oceans, but now they discovered that there was some multicellular life present. And, as before, they wondered what was the meaning of this? What was the purpose? . . . and decided to come back later. This time they waited until 4 billion EB and voila, there were plants and animals, some very, very large. Some of the animals ate the plants others ate the animals that ate the plants. Some animals walked, others ran, some swam and some even flew. The land was very green, the animals multitudinous. What was the meaning of this? What was the purpose? . . . they decided to come back later. They did so 4.542 billion years EB (1 million years ago). Life had become very much more diversified. The very large land animals were largely gone and smaller animals had grown much more numerous and varied. But none of these species possessed a language they could comprehend so communication with any of the denizens did not seem possible. Wondering what all of this meant and what its purpose was, they decided, since the pace of change seemed to be accelerating, to come back shortly, which they did just now. They found the planet covered by this one species of mammal, which had languages and cultures, oh my. Excited, they established communication with several of these cultures independently so they could compare notes afterward. Once mutual communication was established, each contacted group understood the questions “What was the meaning of this? What was the purpose?” but had completely different answers to those questions, so no consensus existed as to why this planet existed the way it did and what its future might hold. Puzzled, the aliens decided that they had better things to do and decided not to come back.

*** End of Scenario ***

So, just when did the meanings and purposes of “all of this” get created? Did they exist earlier than that last visit? Is great puzzlement.

John asked (I am paraphrasing) “If meanings aren’t real, what are dictionaries, then?” Words have meanings, otherwise we would not be able to communicate. A word I thought “meant” one thing and you thought “meant” another would make communication difficult, especially if there were a great many words being used that fit into this situation. But do your meanings and my meanings line up, exactly or even at all? Are they the same? If you ask college students to write definitions for a list of words, you will find amazing variation in those definitions, almost to the point of unintelligibility. If you ask two of those students to defend one of their definitions to one another, a conversation would take place, information exchanged and usually the two agreeing that they “meant” the same thing or that the word “means” different things in different contexts.

As an example of this consider the following hypothetical conversation:

Mom: How was the game DeSean?
DeSean: It was okay.
Mom: How did your friend play?
DeSean: He was bad, very bad!
Mom: Oh, I am sorry to hear that.
DeSean: No, we won, and he was great!

So, for at least a sizable fraction of this culture, “bad” has become “good,” the usual exact opposite of what bad “meant” at some point in recent time. Apparently we allow people to make up meanings, even contradictory ones, as they wish.

And dictionaries, well, they are for when we encounter words whose meanings are obscure or just unknown. But, if you read a dictionary definition of a word, do you then know what it means? How about when “bad” meaning “good” hadn’t showed enough legs to get included in a dictionary? And, you may have noticed that all of the definitions found in dictionaries use words found elsewhere in dictionaries! These meanings are not objective, they are subjective! Oh, my, oh, oh, oh. . . .

We make up the meanings of things to be able to communicate. Enough good will exists that if there are misunderstandings we negotiate what was “meant” so as to be clear about that . . . and this happens a lot because what one person’s meaning for a word is can be quite different from another’s. (Especially when you consider there is more than one language.)

Christian and religious apologists believe that each of our lives has a purpose. This is linked to their belief that we have been “created” as only created things have purposes and only the creators know what those purposes are, although they may try to communicate, aka share, that purpose with the curious. When sentient entities create things, they often do such things “for a purpose” that is “for some reason or use later.” Other times we create with no purpose (doodling, noodling, whittling, etc.) A whittler may be making shavings of wood for the purpose of using the shavings to kindle a fire . . . or . . . they may be just passing the time doing something rather than nothing . . . or . . . they wish to create something pleasant to the eye to give as a gift . . . or. . . . The very same activity could have a multitude of purposes and no one by the whittler can tell you which was the “actual purpose.”

So, the belief that “life has meaning” that “life has a purpose” is tied to life being created by someone or something that can articulate what their purpose was in making the creation, but . . . but just because the creator had a purpose, the creation doesn’t inherit that purpose as its own. A painting, deemed to be a lovely piece of art, originally was created to get paid and satisfy the aesthetic senses of the painter and patron, can become an investment or a gift or symbol of a decadent society or whatever. Similarly, if we were created by some creator god, that god’s purpose in creating us also puts us under no obligation to accept that as a guiding principle to live our lives. We are not bees or ants, we are not created to be anything in particular.

And, for those of us who cannot believe the fairly tales that are our creation myths, any of them, since there was no creator, there is no purpose coming from the outside to inform our lives. If we want our life to have a purpose, an inner, conceptual guide for our life, we are free to create one . . . or not. But, unlike “meanings” no one has compiled a “dictionary” of generally accepted purposes for us to consult when we are confused. We are on our own.

And that is good . . . or bad . . . or, well, you know what I mean.

22 Comments »

  1. “And, for those of us who cannot believe the fairly tales that are our creation myths, any of them, since there was no creator, there is no purpose coming from the outside to inform our lives.”

    There has never been a disagreement between us about this. I understand the position of you who do not believe the fairy tales.
    You live. You die. It doesn’t matter.

    Yet you continue to write about politics, religion, and life as if it does matter. You suggest what other people “ought” to do. You criticize the GOP and Donald Trump for acting according to their self determined purpose. In other words, you don’t practice what you preach. If there is “no purpose coming from the outside to inform our lives” – then that includes YOU. You cannot criticize Republicans for acting according to their purpose. You cannot criticize we fairy tale believers for the way we create purpose.

    You continue to ignore the futility of your dogma – just like a Flat Earther.

    Liked by 1 person

    Comment by John Branyan — October 31, 2019 @ 9:19 am | Reply

    • Hi, John! re “You live. You die. It doesn’t matter.” Oh, it matters … to the person living and dying for sure. And, if one adopts a purpose in life to help others, it matters to the one’s helped, too.

      As to “Yet you continue to write about politics, religion, and life as if it does matter.” Yes, it matters to me (I am an expert on what matters to me.) and it matters also to many who I care about and, well, one is allowed a hobby no? Even if it is contradictory?

      And, are you implying that things that matter are only those things that have purpose and meaning behind them? I suggest this is not the case. All kinds of things just happen. In movies, notorious bad guys are portrayed as psychopaths who torture people for, well, their pleasure. No matter that the person being tortured can detect neither the meaning or the purpose behind their torture, we all understand that it matters to them.

      On Thu, Oct 31, 2019 at 9:19 AM Class Warfare Blog wrote:

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      Liked by 1 person

      Comment by Steve Ruis — October 31, 2019 @ 9:27 am | Reply

      • I’m encouraged by your relentless search for meaning. You are engaged in the search for ultimate truth and my fairy tale religion teaches that the earnest search for answers will be rewarded with wisdom.

        One is allowed a hobby, absolutely. But I doubt you’ll be satisfied with a contradictory worldview. It’s unsettling when you realize your philosophy is unworkable. In my fairy tale religion, that’s called “conviction”. It’s the Creator speaking to you. His is a difficult voice to ignore because it seems to be coming from your own head.

        I don’t believe I create my own purpose. My fairy tale says my purpose is to “act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God”. Purpose comes from outside of me. That’s not difficult for me to accept because virtually everything in my life comes from outside of me.
        Oxygen comes from outside.
        Water comes from outside.
        Food comes from outside.
        Relationships come from outside.

        I’m not capable of creating my own food, water, or atmosphere. It seems unlikely that I can whip-up my own meaning. To be completely honest, my whole life is the result of forces and circumstances outside of me.

        So, if I have no zero purpose and you have zero purpose, and we add that together we still get zero. We can add all our friends and family into the equation and the sum remains zero. Believing that zero plus zero is anything other than zero is another kind of fairy tale.

        I know what I would do when facing the existential crisis of a collapsing worldview, but I don’t want to force my religion on you.

        Like

        Comment by John Branyan — October 31, 2019 @ 10:23 am | Reply

        • “act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God”.

          And you voted for Trump?

          You don’t seem to take your ‘purpose’ very seriously, do you?

          Liked by 2 people

          Comment by john zande — October 31, 2019 @ 10:40 am | Reply

        • Incredible! You compare an idea “meaning” with material substances needed for life (food water, interactions with others). So, water comes from without, so the meaning of life and my life’s purposes does, too. Brilliant, fucking brilliant.

          On Thu, Oct 31, 2019 at 10:23 AM Class Warfare Blog wrote:

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          Liked by 1 person

          Comment by Steve Ruis — November 1, 2019 @ 8:42 am | Reply

          • No. Your life purpose comes from within yourself. It is subjective and temporary. It pertains solely to you and not me.
            Again, I wasn’t pushing my silly fairy tale on you.

            Like

            Comment by John Branyan — November 2, 2019 @ 12:16 am | Reply

  2. Buggered that up:

    Let’s eat, Grandpa!

    Let’s eat Grandpa!

    Do me a favour and get rid of that comma… and investigate my political rival, will you.

    Like

    Comment by john zande — October 31, 2019 @ 9:53 am | Reply

    • I just deleted the previous comment … which leaves this one kind of hanging, but all of life’s mysteries shouldn’t be explained, no?

      And imagine poor Jesus who got no commas, periods or anything. Not any way to treat a rising and dying savior god, if you ask me.

      Liked by 1 person

      Comment by Steve Ruis — October 31, 2019 @ 9:56 am | Reply

  3. Hahahahaha!!! Oh my. (shaking his head slowly) So very vexing. 🤭

    Be careful not to waste so much of your valuable time on a Black Hole Steve. Some people are totally worth walking away and chuckling. Much better things in life to do, as you are well aware of Sir. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    Comment by Professor Taboo — October 31, 2019 @ 12:34 pm | Reply

  4. I haven’t been following all of this debate so somebody may have already referenced this from Wittgenstein:

    “For an answer which cannot be expressed the question too cannot be expressed. The riddle does not exist. If a question can be put at all, then it can also be answered. Skepticism is not irrefutable, but palpably senseless, if it would doubt where a question cannot be asked. For doubt can only exist where there is a question; a question only where there is an answer, and this only where something can be said. We feel that even if all possible scientific questions be answered, the problems of life have still not been touched at all. Of course there is then no question left, and just this is the answer. The solution of the problem of life is seen in the vanishing of this problem.(Is not this the reason why men to whom after long doubting the sense of life became clear, could not then say wherein this sense consisted?) There is indeed the inexpressible. This shows itself; it is the mystical …Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”

    The problem is that we can create sentences and questions that sound meaningful but in reality are not.

    What is the sound of one hand clapping? Why is there something rather than nothing? What is the meaning of life?

    Liked by 2 people

    Comment by James Cross — October 31, 2019 @ 12:59 pm | Reply

    • LOL… those are excellent analogies James. I particularly like “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” That is beautiful because in order to have a productive, civil 2-way dialogue, the participating parties must have 2-way exchanges, yes? Or in this case two hands clapping. 😉 I find too often when TRYING to have productive, civil discussions, with Evangy-Fundy Xian apologists especially, there is only 1-way conversation or plenty of transmitting, little to no receiving. Know what I mean? 🙂

      Like

      Comment by Professor Taboo — October 31, 2019 @ 1:41 pm | Reply

    • Well, we certainly can’t argue that Wittgenstein thought too little of language! To paraphrase Descartes, I breathe, therefore I live. As I live and breathe, it is so hard to just slog on without a purpose! I wonder how all of the other animals do it?

      On Thu, Oct 31, 2019 at 12:59 PM Class Warfare Blog wrote:

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      Like

      Comment by Steve Ruis — November 1, 2019 @ 8:46 am | Reply

  5. “The problem is that we can create sentences and questions that sound meaningful but in reality are not.”

    Is the above sentence meaningful? How do you know?

    Like

    Comment by John Branyan — October 31, 2019 @ 1:04 pm | Reply

    • Sentences exist in a context that gives them meaning. They don’t stand by themselves.

      For example, take this question:

      Why is there nothing on the table?

      This question might be asked in the context that something – say the groceries – was expected to be placed on the table. So the answer could be that I left them in the car or I haven’t gone to the store.

      “Nothing” is used to express the absence of something but the something is usually something specific, occasionally something more general or abstract, but never everything except in the meaningless sentence I gave as an example. “Why is there something rather than nothing?” is meaningless because there is no context to the question, no possible answers.

      My sentence is meaningful because I can follow it up with specific examples that provide the context and elaborate its meaning. The examples don’t require special knowledge or belief but just a simple understanding of language itself.

      I wrote this a number of years ago:

      In the early 1970’s living in Oregon I would periodically encounter members of the Children of God. This group was a fundamentalist Christian group regarded generally as a cult. The group lived communally and recruited dropouts from the hippie movement with an evangelical message about End Times and salvation. The ones I encountered were young, about my age at the time, and very sincere. They would say various things: “Jesus loves me.”; “Christ is my salvation”; “The Judgment Day is near.” These are all “words of belief”that led to the recruitment pitch for me to become one of their community.

      What struck me at the time was the fundamental abstractness of their statements combined with an obvious internal emotional resonance that they felt but that I did not despite my attending a Baptist church in my childhood. While millions of Christians may believe in the statement “Jesus loves me”, the basis of this belief cannot be checked factually. It is a statement that a person saying it finds true through internal sense and feeling. It comes from hearing others – usually parents and loved ones or, in the case of the Children of God, the other members of their group – profess belief and the association of certain feelings with that belief. The words in themselves mean nothing. None of the people had ever seen Jesus and had known anyone who had. The belief can only come from hearing other people say they believe. In a sense the words are like mantras that make internal alignments in the psyche of the speaker but have no meaning in themselves. They are words that grow out of shared belief. The affirmation of others in the group is what makes the words real to the individual.

      Liked by 1 person

      Comment by James Cross — October 31, 2019 @ 1:44 pm | Reply

      • While millions of atheists may believe in the statement “there is no God” the basis of this belief cannot be checked factually. It is a statement that a person saying it finds true through internal sense and feeling. They are words that grow out of shared belief. The affirmation of others in the group is what makes the words real to the individual.

        Agree?

        Like

        Comment by John Branyan — October 31, 2019 @ 4:32 pm | Reply

        • internal sense and feeling — Isn’t this what God-believers also use? Along with “shared belief” and the “affirmation of others?”

          Liked by 1 person

          Comment by Nan — October 31, 2019 @ 5:03 pm | Reply

      • James, this is excellent use of common, higher-educated logic. Well done. All mathematics, especially advanced mathematics, with logic support and prove each other… or disprove. I suspect that most radical religious zealots are not only poor in advanced mathematics, but equally so in logic. 😉

        Like

        Comment by Professor Taboo — October 31, 2019 @ 9:52 pm | Reply

      • I am always struck by the “Jesus loves me” trope in that many Christians believe Jesus is part of the godhead (the Trinity) and that the NT supersedes the OT, but Hell is mentioned not at all in the OT (Sheol, yes, Hell, no) so apparently Jesus’s new covenant is that He loves us so much, he created Hell for those who didn’t love him back … enough. It seems that most Christians understanding of their religion is based upon the songs they were taught as children (“Jesus loves me, this I know, because the Bible tells me so …” but exactly where it says this isn’t something they can point out.)

        On Thu, Oct 31, 2019 at 1:44 PM Class Warfare Blog wrote:

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        Liked by 2 people

        Comment by Steve Ruis — November 1, 2019 @ 8:51 am | Reply

  6. When a person says he/she believes in some god, well nobody can prove such a critter as any god exists.
    I give my own life meaning. Everybody else should try and do that. Remember, only you can give your life meaning.

    Liked by 1 person

    Comment by Walter Kronkat — October 31, 2019 @ 4:59 pm | Reply

  7. Steve,
    Great post sir. Words do have meaning, but we humans decide on those meanings. As I recall my days of being a kid and through high school, then USMC, we changed those meanings. Often as an inside joke among a small group, but often it would spread into a larger grouping and even across the country.
    Language changes, unless they die out, as Latin is said to be a dead language. I sort of understand kids using ‘bad’ to mean ‘good’ or ‘great’. Think back to your own days of being in high school and the way we all used words. Yeah, admit it, we all did it, at least here in ‘Merikkka we did.
    What gets me is how news announcers misuse words. Not just TV or radio, even many print ‘journos’ do the same or worse. Editing must be a lost art.

    Liked by 1 person

    Comment by Walter Kronkat — October 31, 2019 @ 5:09 pm | Reply

    • We all want to cement our relations with our “in group” and there is no better way than by suing code words the Muggles don’t understand. Especially useful are words they think they understand but they don’t mean what they think they mean! Bitchin’!

      On Thu, Oct 31, 2019 at 5:09 PM Class Warfare Blog wrote:

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      Like

      Comment by Steve Ruis — November 1, 2019 @ 8:53 am | Reply


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