While thinking further about a conversation I had with Sadunkal about meaning, it occurred to me today that understanding what "meaning" means in the context of language can be very helpful in exploring the "meaning" of life.
The first thing is that to have meaning, you must have a mind. Without a mind to interpret facts, there can be no meaning.
The second thing is that there are two types of meaning: intended meaning and perceived meaning. This applies both to language (What I say versus what you understand) and life (What I want my life to mean versus what others perceive it as meaning).
The two types of meaning have very distinct characteristics.
Intended meaning is pretty cut and dry -- you mean what you mean. But there are some inherent dangers.
The first is, obviously, the risk of meaning something wrong. You may say -- and quite sincerely mean -- that the Earth is flat -- but the plain facts of reality confound you. So it is with life. You may intend your life to "mean" total sacrifice to others -- but that is self-defeating -- a person cannot live in total sacrifice, because they will die. And further, in order to live in total self-sacrifice, you force someone else not to. A world in which everyone lived by that principle would not function. It is a "wrong" meaning, because it contradicts the facts of human life.
The second inherent danger in intended meaning is not being clear enough in what we mean -- you might say "I love you" to someone. But what does that mean? Does that mean you'll stay with her forever? That you wanna screw her tonight? That you want to make her feel better? That that's just what people say? One phrase, vaguely defined, is really no meaning at all -- it leaves both the speaker and listener without a clear sense of what's actually being said. So it is with life. Unless you are very clear about what you intend things -- and your life as a whole -- to mean, you will act vaguely and indecisively -- and will inevitably by misunderstood.
Perceived meaning is even hairier. We can perceive meaning correctly, incorrectly, or even in the absence of meaning! If I say "Peach" and you're an English speaker, generally speaking, you'll perceive my meaning. But if you're a Turkish speaker, you'll perceive something entirely different -- a curse word, in fact. We can also perceive meaning where there is none -- for instance, seeing a particular cloud formation as a sign that we ought to marry the next girl we see, or that walking under a ladder leads to this or that.
So it is with life. I may mean my life to speak "success," but another might perceive it as "arrogance." The meaning in our lives can only be perceived as intended if the observer shares our understanding of what actions mean what things. Similarly, it's possible to find meaning where none exists -- as with the Jihadi who sacrifices himself for a paradise he will not inherit.
Another important point is to stop looking for "objective" meaning. There is no "meaning of life" carved in some objective rules of nature, any more than there is an objective definition of the word "Peach." That's not to say that nothing means anything -- only that meaning is in the eye of the beholder. That beholder might be me -- it might be my neighbor -- it might be God -- but it is always relative to the values of the beholder, and not to the universe.
But significantly, the relativity of meaning does not imply a relativity of reality. "Peach" means different things in English and Turkish. However, in both languages, it refers to a definable, real thing. So it is with life. Career success may mean "Work ethic" to one person and "materialism" to another -- but work ethic and materialism are both real things -- and a person who shares the same values will draw the same meaning from the actions involved.
So the ultimate question is not "What's the meaning of life?" It's "What do I want my life to mean, and what meaning will others (human and/or divine) perceive from what they see in my life?" Those questions, I think, are not easily answerable -- but at least they're answerable with some effort.
WJM Throws Down the Gauntlet
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