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.

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