On The Meaning Of Meaning

In reply to some remarks I made about the recognition of genuine meaning without reference to religion, George replied with this challenge:

Dan,
Now you have got me thinking….
I’m not entirely clear about your point of meaning in everyday events.
My logic tells me that a completely statistically probable event happens and I impart meaning to it that does not really exist outside of my INTERPRETATION of it. True enough that meaning exists simply because I perceive it to be there, but what about third party meaning. My heart still clings to destiny or some semblance of it and THAT is what logic tells me is not likely. My run in with my friend is more intertwined with my eventual loss of faith, which my mind wants to believe happened for a reason. It did not…

For some time I had been struggling with my faith and much like you have alluded to in other posts I was finding it difficult to be an outward Christian because I felt I was enabling other Christians who believed some repugnant things regarding morality and ethics. But I had swung from right-wing to left-wing ideology in my early twenties and had some grasp of the “moral imperative” argument of right-wing ethics, so I could see the logic(however faulty) of their arguments.

This friend of mine BELIEVES THE WORLD IS 6000 YEARS OLD. He believes in a far reaching scientific conspiracy to fudge data with the sole purpose of undermining Jesus. This was a turning point for me. It is one thing to use religion to come to faulty, literalist conclusions that suit your pre-existing stereotypes, a sort of lazy, comfortable logic. But to completely divorce yourself from reality in order to take a literalist view of scripture is completely alien to me. It underscored something that I had accommodated for far too long.

What I mean by this is that I ascribed the divorce from God to that meeting as though it was somehow fated to occur. What was logically fated to occur was some event that would release what little grip I could muster while falling from the tree of faith. I was already, in retrospect, hanging from the last few branches trying not to let go. But my mind still wants it to be FATED, he came into my life to show me something. There was no OUTSIDE intention, just a cause and effect.

So Dan, can you explain a bit further what constitutes meaning and if I am off base here in thinking that ascribing meaning to seemingly fortuitous events is nothing more than an remnant of a superstitious indoctrination.

…Your Thoughts.

First, right off the bat I would say that if you are thinking of your circumstance of running into your friend as intended by any supreme conscious mental being or force that wanted to teach you something then, yes, in that sense you are still having residual superstitious thoughts.

But the larger question is whether our events have meaning in terms of significance.  I do not think that the meaning of this event is simply a function of your interpretation of it.  I think that there are relatively objective meanings of events.  In fact, there are more meanings to events than even those you consciously recognize to be present.  As long as we can describe the event in abstract terms in which others can interpret its meaning in commonly accessible terms, I think we have a meaning that is not idiosyncratic to your perspective but exists in any rational human perspective or in any perspective that understood your group’s practices and values.

When you describe running into an old friend, this is a formalizable type of event with all sorts of connotations that all of us who have friends can identify with.  We can all put ourselves in your shoes and understand what sorts of things can happen and we can understand a whole range of appropriate responses to them.  We know that when rediscovering an old friend, you are most likely to discuss both the past and the present and the difference between the two.  That’s what custom and curiosity alike lead people to do.  If one or both of you evades all discussion of the past, then it is only rational to infer there might be reasons for that and that it’s not a coincidence.  If it turned out that there was an ugly fight that helped split your paths, then even if you two don’t bring that up, the fight is likely part of the meaning of your current silence.

If on the other hand, one or both of you evade discussion of the present, there are some likely meanings:  you’re embarrassed about how things have gone since you parted ways, you’re worried that you have changed since you parted ways in ways that will alienate you from each other, you’re so overwhelmed with joy about getting to reconnect to the past that the present seems irrelevant, etc.  The formal range of possible meanings of these choices seems manageably finite.  The specifics that fill out the story could be wildly different, but essentially these encounters fit into broad types.  Happy reunions, sad reunions, disappointing reunions, nostalgic reunions, etc.

So even though you and I hardly know each other, I can imagine myself in your shoes, I can understand the hopeful spirit with which one would greet an old friend, I can understand the feeling of alienation and disappointment that occurs when you discover your friend has changed in unethical and anti-intellectual ways.  These are objective meanings.  It objectively means something specific to run into an old friend.  it means something to find out that you have grown apart in opposite directions.  It means something specific to be disappointed in someone’s behavior and alienated from them by that behavior.  In other words, you did not simply interpret the event as having all these meanings, it had them and you simply perceived them.  You intellectually perceived his ethical and intellectual failures.  You intellectually recognized that this objectively alienated you from him in terms of some fundamental priorities and ways of thinking.  Your emotional response of feeling alienated from your friend was a rational response to the event’s objective meaning.

The event’s meaning is objective in that even I just imagining the situation third hand can recognize that an actual alienation occurred in it since I understand what it means to be alienated.  The alienation was in the divergence of your values and thinking as an objective feature of the situation which was distinct from your emotion of alienation and which then caused that emotional experience of alienation.  Objectively I can recognize the fact of alienation as a literal meaning of the event and objectively I can judge that your emotional feeling of being alienated was a rationally appropriate response to the situation.

So the significance of the event is formally understandable by anyone who can imagine being in your shoes, understanding all the meaning connotations of circumstances like the one you were in.  Your responses can be interpreted as either emotionally, intellectually, and ethically appropriate or inappropriate as corresponding to various objective meanings and whether it is sensible to feel, think, and act in certain ways towards different objective meanings.

Your interpretation may or may not adequately account for the meaning of the event.  It may make a mistake in guessing the psychological meaning of it if it misunderstands either your or your friend’s thought process.  Your interpretation of it may mistake the meaning of friendship or something else.  In such cases, the objective meanings of a situation and our subjective interpretations of them can be at variance.  We can misinterpret events’ meanings.  We can misconstrue both others’ and our own intentions and motivations and we can misconstrue what objectively certain actions mean.  If there is an objective way to ethically assess actions, for example, there may be actions that mean we are bad people even while we falsely interpret them to be ones that mean we are good ones.

So then this question of fate:  I am one of those who thinks that Hercalitus is right and that our character is our fate.  There is a sense in which your intellectual virtues, your broader values, your idiosyncratic psychological makeup, your abstract beliefs, your reasoning skills, your habits, your genes, your knowledge-base, your culture, and numerous other things about you all combine to make some things simply appear true or good or right, etc. to you while others strike you as false or bad or wrong, etc.

The combination of your traits and your thoughts was inevitably going to have to cross the bridge of coming to realize the cognitive and ethical dissonance your faith was creating in you.  And given who you were deep down, you were inevitably going to opt to resolve those dissonances by feeling compelled to abandon faith for your reason and your moral understanding.  In this way, you became who you were in some significant sense “meant” to be.  You weren’t meant to be this because some being with any intentions gave you this purpose but because your traits and your environment and your experience, etc. all make you this particular being who is inevitably going to unfold in a certain way rather than others.

Part of what I am saying here is that it is futile to imagine ourselves as distinct from either our internal constitution of drives and beliefs or the “happenstance” of our environments and social interactions.  We are partially constituted by our environments and encounters with others.  I think it’s a false dichotomy to consider ourselves as even conceivable apart from them.  Yes, by chance you could have had different friends but then you wouldn’t be the specific you you are just like if you’d had a particular different gene you wouldn’t be the specific you you are.

So, for me, I take the whole package of my life down to every single particular detail to be constitutive of who and what I am.  I am inseparable from where I grew up.  Had it been somewhere else, I’d have been someone else.  I am inseparable from my family, friends, girlfriends, colleagues, teachers, students, acquaintances, etc.  Had they been different people, I’d be a different person.  I’m inseparable from my activities since they too shaped my character and mind and subsequent decisions.

When I left Christianity, part of me was inclined to interpret it as a radical conversion away from everything by which I had defined myself.  But what I quickly realized was that it was not only that but actually, more profoundly, the surfacing and realization of what was always the core of who I was.  My fundamental priority when push came to shove was commitment to intellectual conscience and truth—not to God.  This was what was revealed.  As much as I had thought my primary commitment was to faith and Christianity I had only stayed with them for as long as I could believe they were justifiable as truthful and moral.

What was most fundamental to me became clearest when I chose it over a whole host of other priorities which required Christianity for their safeguarding.  In that sense, I really believe I realized my fate.  When I try to imagine what it would have been like to experience the last 10 years as a Christian had I never left the faith, the question is simply silly to me.  It’s inconceivable that I would have not left.  I cannot imagine the me who stayed a Christian since there is no such me.  That would be imagining another person whose psychology I cannot even guess since it’s certainly not mine.  My psychology had to respond to the reasons I came across the way it did.  My psychology believed certain things, had certain values, and had certain experiences all of which made leaving the faith the only option for me.

So, I think those are all objective meaning relationships.  I think those are objective states of affairs—belief states, values, psychological dispositions, etc.—all of which have meanings that third party observers can interpret at least similarly if not identically.  And those factors objectively fated me in a significant sense to respond as I did to what I was exposed to.  So, I would say there were objective meanings of the event and some sense of fate to it.

There was no externally guiding hand at work.  But that feeling that you had to have this encounter is a correct feeling not because you actually had to bump into the friend but because when you did bump into him and hear what he thought you had to respond as you did given who you are and that necessity is what you are feeling, I think.  And when you imagine that you might have been exposed to something else and you might not have had the same philosophical epiphanies, you are not imagining being you, you’re imagining being some one else quite like you who you might have become but did not.  But the you that you are had to come into being given the reality of what you were exposed to and you sense that necessity and feel it as fate since it was a decisive moment of discovery of what within you would ultimately be most important when push came to shove.  It was responding to a certain exposure with the discovery of what you really were and a claiming of it.  And so the whole experience is imbued with a sense of self-recognition and that feeling that you discovered yourself is identified with a recognition of your own necessity, of that within you which proved necessary.

I hope these somewhat uncharacteristically oracular speculations are intelligible and defensible.  For further exploration of this topic, see my follow up post, Character As Fate And Environment As Variability which replies to George’s comment in the comments section below..

Your Thoughts?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • George

    Dan,
    Again I find myself thanking you for this blog. You make me wish that I had have signed up for those philosophy courses in university, although I doubt I would have found such an eloquent professor.
    I touched a bit on some of your points in my post and I think by you expanding on them you did clarify your position.
    I am not entirely sure that an assertion that fate can be described as a sum of your traits and experiences and if either factor was different than you would not be the you that you are isn’t a redefining of the word at best and possibly a bit tautological.

    In that there are factors that I believe we have no control over I believe in fate.
    1. It seems logical to assume that I could not have had different parents, so all parts of my “whole self” that result from that fact are in a sense “fated”. ie. That I was a Christian
    2. In that my relationship with my parents resulted in certain proclivities and aversions, that events that result from those particular traits are to a lesser extent “fated.” ie. As I am inquisitive and questioning of authority, I should find myself at odds with Christianity.
    3. That I should gravitate to certain types of persons by virtue of common belief and interests.

    Okay, so I’m not sure if I just proved your point in an attempt to disprove it. So now in talking myself through it I completely see your point. Kudos.

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