What Does Meaning Mean?

So Jonathan MS Pearce recently wrote a post talking about how we should build our own meaning and purpose without appealing to something like religion.  One of the things he says in it is this:

Thus, meaning is, of course, whatever you want it to be. If you want to change the meaning of the word “table” to mean “chair”, go for it. You are free to do that for yourself. But be warned that it might be advisable to consider others in the process for the practicalities of navigating life.

This reminded me of the old riddle:  How many legs does a dog have, if we call a tail a leg?  Four, because no matter what you call it a tail is not a leg.  The same thing applies here, and demonstrates why Pearce’s nominalism fails.  When he talks about a person changing the “meaning” of the word “table”, he is implying that he’s talking about changing the concept through his nominalist stance, but that is precisely what he isn’t doing.  All he is doing is changing what the English word “table” refers to, by shifting it from pointing to things that we commonly place in the category of tables and instead to pointing to things that we commonly place in the category of chairs.  Thus, all he’s doing is changing the label we apply to those objects in the world.  But he isn’t changing any of the properties of those things nor what we’d generally use to determine if they fit into the category that we are applying the label to or how we use them.  And given that the label points to things in the real world, the properties we find in the world are real properties.  While there may be some leeway in what importance we place on the various properties and even on what categories we pay attention to, those categories are out there, in the world, to be discovered, making them as objective as anything we find in science.  And this is true by necessity, as for the most part what empirical science does is nothing more than create these categories and labels and concepts to describe the world and how it works.  So if Pearce can use his nominalism in a way that means that these determinations are not objective and are merely what everyone gets to make up for themselves, then the same thing is true for science as well, which would put a lot of Pearce’s positions in a bad spot.

However, we can also see that Pearce’s argument here actually relies on equivocation.  When we talk about meaning in terms of the meaning of our lives, we are not talking about what a word signifies or “points to”, but instead are talking about what gives our lives importance or value.  Pearce can get away with saying that someone can change the meaning of the word “table” and only have to worry about whether others will understand what they’re talking about because meanings, in that sense, are absolutely unimportant in that sense.  We don’t think that what word we pick to point to and signify the things that we call tables gives it any sort of value one way or another.  It doesn’t matter to the value of those things what word is used to point to them.  So when we talk about meaning there, we are using it in a way that excludes the idea of value from the picture.  But the reason we want to find a meaning or purpose for our lives is one that inherently includes value, and is inseparable for it.  We can assign a word to something that we don’t think has any particular value, but we cannot come up with a meaning for our lives that doesn’t give our lives a value.

So the meaning and purpose to our lives exists precisely to give our lives value, which gives it a far greater importance to us than the example of what word to use to refer to a certain set of things in the world.  So when we try to build it ourselves, we can see a potential issue with how Pearce suggests we do that:

It might be useful to pose a question at this juncture: What do you want out of life?

This question is met almost universally with some variation of “To be happy, for my friends and family to be happy, for as many people as possible to be happy.” And happiness can entail pleasure, a lack of pain, and well-being in general. We could even talk in terms of fulfillment and flourishing.

But while we may not be able to achieve ultimate meaning, we may be able to achieve at least some degree of transcendence. Meaning and impact can live on past our lives, through our children or the people we know or the people and world we influence and affect, progressing into the future. Okay, we might have to admit the eventual heat death of the universe or some such scenario. Just don’t be afraid that meaning might be much more about living in the here, living in the now, and perhaps working hard for the future, even if it is not eternal.

The issue with this — and Richard Carrier makes the same mistake — is that it bases everything on the desires that we currently have and what we currently want.  We are trying to figure out by this what we want out of life and then either using that to determine our meaning or else defining our meaning so that it justifies and allows us to fulfill our desires.  But this ignores that the main reason we want to figure out our purpose and meaning in life is so that we can determine what it is we ought to want.  Ought I want to be “happy”?  Are the things that make me happy the right things or should I change so that other things are what makes me happy?  All of these approaches tend to ignore the fact that we can indeed shape to a large extent what makes us happy and what makes us have satisfying lives, and the whole point to searching for meaning and purpose is so that we can determine what shape the things that make us happy should take, and what shape we, as sentient beings, should take on in order to live the “best” lives.  This, then, means that we want an objective answer to what meaning our purpose should be, even if that ends up being a meaning and purpose that is unique for each individual.  If any meaning and purpose will do, then what is the point of having a meaning and purpose at all?  Instead, we should simply reflect on who we are and insist that, to paraphrase a great philosopher, that we yare what we yare without having to have any additional “worldview” or “meaning” or “purpose” underpinning or overarching that.  Meaning and purpose, on this model, becomes meaningless and purposeless.

And we can see this with Pearce’s example of the spade, where he asks us to consider a spade that was created by someone to dig in a garden and so would have that as its purpose, but where it might disagree with that purpose:

If the spade were sentient, and decided that it didn’t fancy being used to dig holes in my garden at my behest (I am the purposer here, the god), but wanted to take on a nobler cause of digging gardens in the community, and helping criminals rehabilitate their ways in a gardening program, then the spade is entitled to feel that its own purpose was superior (even if it was something less morally upstanding).

But we can see here that Pearce is trying to make his point here by using something that we already think follows from our existing notions of meaning and purpose in saying that the spade wants to take on the “nobler” cause of working for the community and helping criminals rehabilitate instead of just digging in our personal garden.  But why is that a nobler cause?  We would be inclined to think that that purpose is nobler because the idea we have of purpose means that helping others fits our purpose better than simple self-interest.  If the situation was reversed, we would be far more likely to consider the spade selfish instead of considering it to be pursuing something “nobler”.  Pearce can be seen, here, as arguing that the spade is justified in considering the purpose nobler mostly because it’s its own purpose, but we would not be as quick to go along with his analogy if he had had the spade rejecting a purpose that we considered more noble in order to pursue a personal purpose that we considered less noble.  Given this, again, it seems like the concept of “noble” also becomes meaningless in Pearce’s model, as it reduces to “what the individual wants”, and shortening that to “noble” implies a moral superiority that doesn’t apply to it and so is equivocation and on top of that lacks a justification for calling that “nobility” instead of “desire” or “preference”.  The only reason to call it “noble” is to make the link to superiority, but that idea of superiority only exists because we think that there is an objective moral value that we can assign to things … all of which Pearce’s view requires him to reject.

Ultimately, that is the main issue with subjectivist ideas of meaning, purpose and morality that those like Pearce advocate:  the only reason we care about them at all and the only reason they have any value to us is because we think of them as objective and so something that we can use to shape our own ideas and notions.  If we make them subjective, then they can no longer do that, and so have no use or value to us anymore, making it so that we have no reason to care about them and so no reason to spend the time Pearce advocates we spend trying to figure them out for ourselves.  Thus, if Pearce’s view is right his own approach means that he is wasting his time doing the “hard job” of figuring that out.

One Response to “What Does Meaning Mean?”

  1. Eric Says:

    Reblogged this on Calculus of Decay .

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