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.

April 7, 2018

Finally Finishing “Sapiens”

Filed under: History — Steve Ruis @ 9:31 am
Tags: , , ,

I have blogged on several issues I have encountered while making my way through Yuval Noah Harari’s “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind,” a book which I find both illuminating and irritating, although not in equal measure. If you want to know what I think of the effort, I have already bought the next book of his “Homo Deus.”

My latest quibble is in a discussion of how capitalism was at the root of empire and its associated oppressions, which are covered quite well. And in that discussion YNH states “At the end of the Middle Ages, slavery was almost unknown in Christian Europe.” He goes on to show how capitalism was at the root of the Atlantic slave trade and more. Fair enough but … the phrasing “At the end of the Middle Ages, slavery was almost unknown in Christian Europe” makes it sound as if Christianity had something to do with the elimination of the slave trade. I think not.

People use the phrase “Middle Ages” to describe Europe between the “fall of Rome” in 476 CE and the beginning of the Renaissance in the 14th century. And I take “at the end of the Middle Ages” to be roughly the year 1450.

So, why might slavery be “almost unknown,” if there were no prohibition movement or even anti-slavery sentiment, etc? Please do realize that the medieval serfs were basically slaves. They had no choice as to their labor, they did not get paid, they could not leave the land, and their lord and master could kill them with impunity. There was rampant “slavery” in the Middle Ages.

The reason slavery had basically disappeared in “Europe” was due to one simple thing: a monumental labor shortage. This was caused by plagues, the most notorious of which was the Black Death of 1347 to 1352. The Black Death was the first major European outbreak of the first of the great plague pandemics that occurred over the 14th to 18th centuries. The Black Death killed a quarter of the population of Europe, over 25 million people! A second major epidemic occurred in 1361, the “pestis secunda,” in which 10 to 20% of Europe’s population died. By 1430, Europe’s population was lower than it had been in 1290 and would not recover to pre-pandemic levels until the 16th century.

In order for slavery to work, you need surplus population to enslave, or you need to go out and get the slaves and bring them back. Then you need to control them, both of which require a great deal of manpower. The Europeans of the time (the end of the Middle Ages) fit for work were weakened by disease, malnutritioned, and not very healthy. Treat them poorly and they would either die or leave. Whole villages starved to death during the Black Death and other plagues because there was not enough labor to work the fields, even to harvest crops already planted.

Now YNH’s statement could be defended as “Christian Europe” being a designation of a region as opposed to being the reason slavery was on the decline, but that argument is weak at best. According to Wikipedia “From the Middle Ages onwards, as the centralized Roman power waned in southern and central Europe, the dominance of the Catholic Church was the only consistent force in Western Europe.” So, Christian Europe was about the only Europe there was.

Also, consider the fact that Christianity would never have gotten to where is was without the support of the Roman Empire and it would never have gotten that support had it not supported slavery. So, Christianity was “pro slavery” and not a basis for its abolition. The role of Christian ministers and whole denominations opposing slavery in the U.S. in the 18th and 19th centuries was in spite of scripture, not because of it.

So, what could YNH have said instead of “At the end of the Middle Ages, slavery was almost unknown in Christian Europe?” Easily enough he could have said “At the end of the Middle Ages, slavery was almost unknown in Europe (mostly due to population losses from plagues).” This would not have undermined his argument that it was capitalists who financed the slave trade, not governments. In any case capitalists worked hand in glove with governments as they both were “elites” who used religion to control the masses. The control mentioned was that civilization was built upon cheap labor coerced from the masses and religion was one of the more powerful coercive tools used. When that faltered, state power filled in.

When writing for a lay audience, especially a broad one, more care is needed with the use of language as misperceptions are easier.

February 24, 2017

Stop with the Theories!

Filed under: Science — Steve Ruis @ 1:47 pm
Tags: , ,

I read widely across quite a few topics. I suspect I am not alone in this practice. I am fascinated by particular tidbits of science that are far from any level of expertise I might have. Recently an article caught my eye; the topic was that the ambient temperature we experience affects our emotions. When we feel warm we tend to be more open and generous. When we feel cold we tend to be more suspicious. Interesting.

The article then continued with “The big question, of course, is why? Why are physical and psychological temperatures linked in the first place? There are two theories …

Can you see the word I have a problem with? Yep, the word theory. What the researchers had as the result of their work were: hypotheses, guesses, hunches, whatever, but theories, no. The word I prefer is “conjectures” as a better word than “speculations” in a case like this but I wouldn’t quibble much over speculations.

This happens in ordinary conversations: someone asks “Why is President Trump acting that way?” and you answer “Well, I have a theory….” No you don’t. The best you have is a wild ass guess. But this is a game you cannot lose which is why you play. You espouse your “theory” and if it turns up being right, you get props from your fellow travelers later. If it turns out to be wrong, there is no penalty.

I suggest that if anyone wants to propose a theory, they should be willing to put money on it.

A theory has to do one of two things to qualify as a theory: it has to be able to predict yet unknown facts or it has to make good sense of what we already know, aligning the topic of the theory with other fields of investigation, for example.

If you want it to be a scientific theory, there are additional requirements. To make a scientific theory, you have to make testable predictions. There have been any number of beautiful theories that turned out to be non-testable, e.g. God created the Earth. Since the claim is not testable, it is not a scientific theory. It is a claim, an supposition, a conjecture, etc. but it is not a theory.

So, the next time you hear someone ask “Why …” and you want to answer, you might say “I have a hunch …” or “I have an idea …” or the equivalent, but unless you have a full-blown scheme that makes complete sense out the source of the question or can make predictions, you do not have a theory.

So, please just stop with the theories.

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