The Imposition of Meaning

From what I’ve observed, human beings tend to take on one of two overall philosophical attitudes toward life, or to alternate between the two. One “outlook/attitude” is to survive in the least painful or most pleasurable state possible. The other “outlook/attitude” is to seek meaning, either in life, the universe, or the theological/metaphysical beyond the tangible we perceive. Some individuals try to balance both outlooks; few, I suspect, succeed. Part of that problem is that, if one isn’t successful at surviving, one doesn’t have the time or resources to seek meaning.

Most, but certainly not all, intelligent individuals I’ve met want to survive as well as possible, while devoting some time and thought to meaning, almost as sung in the now-ancient pop song, “Alfie,” the opening line of which is “What’s it all about, Alfie?” [The song was first a hit sung by the British singer Cilla Black, and then later recorded by Cher, Dionne Warwick, and Barbra Streisand, as well as more than twenty other singers.]

Now there are those human beings for whom meaning beyond maximization of survival is irrelevant. For those who are truly poor, survival has to come first.

But there are those who carry maximization of survival to extremes. As Bud Fox asked in the first Wall Street movie, “How many yachts can you water ski behind? How much is enough?” For such maximizers, meaning lies in how much power and wealth they can accumulate. Even if they owned the entire earth, what would that mean? [I’ll offer an answer to that at the end.]

Not surprisingly, most individuals searching for meaning seem to seek that through religion, as if nothing else could explain and attribute meaning to anything as vast and majestic as the universe, especially since every decade more refined measurements show that it is far vaster than the last set of measurements found it to be. The usually unspoken part of that quest for meaning is: “How am I meaningful in this universe?”

The answer to that is, bluntly, we’re not. The latest calculation on the size of our universe by the Institute of Physics is that it contains two trillion galaxies, each containing something like 200 billion stars.

We’re only meaningful to ourselves and to those who care about us and – for those who believe in a personal Deity – to that Deity. Yet we all want to mean something, somehow, to someone, or to lots of someones.

The only entities that appear to understand this need are other human beings, and most likely, not even all of them.

Yet, in all too many cases, the followers of each religion or variation of that religion, rather than appreciating the need and the quest for meaning, seem determined that their particular views are the only “true” way of reaching understanding and meaning, and today and historically, seem determined to prove in one way or another, that their belief is the only “true” faith, just as the maximizers of survival are trying to convince themselves and others that billions of dollars mean anything to the universe.

Really? In a universe where the planet on which we live is less than one eighth of one two hundred billionth of one two trillionth of the known universe?

Isn’t that a bit arrogant? Either way?

Maybe we should find a bit more meaning in other people, rather than trying to impose our meanings on them, and in turn, they should stop trying to impose their meanings on us. Then, we might, just might, be able to work on what’s meaningful to all of us.

3 thoughts on “The Imposition of Meaning”

  1. Tom says:

    Meaning – the connection between belief and reality? For humans the meaning you wrote about sounds like an effect on the ego we have and other animals do not seem to have. The focus on self seems only to be affected by significant tragedy involving others, and even then but briefly. It is usually under these circumstances that a wide acknowledgement of assigned meaning seems to be able to be agreed on. Yet we consider humans rational.

  2. Daze says:

    Aristotle labelled these as “hedonism” and “eudaemonia”. A lot of the recent literature of positive psychology concentrates on how hedonic wellbeing is transitory and needs constant feeding with new goodies, while eudaemonic wellbeing has deeper roots and can be fed with small random acts of kindness, as well as Good Works.

  3. Tom says:

    What is relevant to each human are the happenings within and affecting their immediate (ever widening) environment. Even the nova of Alpha Centauri would be irrelevant except to the facts which helps us expand our ability to rationalize. Each life has its own ‘arete’ and this determines both our eudaemonia and hedonist achievables. Understanding our arete should increase our ability to understand meaning in other people.

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