Tuesday, April 14, 2009


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.


sadunkal said...

I've been meaning to read this whole thing and respond to it since you first wrote it. Maybe I was hesitant to do it because I feared that it might force me to rethink a few fundamental decisions, or maybe because I wanted to really have some time to focus on it, not sure. Either way, I think you touch an important issue, and I had never thought about it like that.

You didn't state it here as clearly, but earlier you said "I figure there must be meaning in life". I guess if you focus on perceived meaning, you can perceive a meaning for everything. But does that mean that there is such a things as the meaning of life, even if totally subjective? I don't know. How is that different from superstitious meanings?

In that regard, intended meaning feels more real to me. I'm a Turk. And when somebody says "Peach" I value the intention because it matters. Similarly if the universe "tells" me something, I don't just trust my perception but I value the intention. But where is the intention? Is there any? I guess I will have to learn to speak the language of the universe better to figure out if what I perceive has any meaning in its language, but I suspect that it doesn't really have a language: It just is. Therefore I still assume that life has no real meaning for now.

On the other hand you made me think about this: How could it ever have any real meaning? You say that there is no "objective meaning". I don't know how you know that but that would be my guess too, as explained above. When I accepted that there probably is no such thing as a "free will" it felt sort of demotivating to me, as if my life had lost its meaning. Then I got over it. But I hadn't noticed -until I read your comment here- that even if I had some supernatural control over my actions, or if there is some supernatural creator, that doesn't give life any real meaning either. In other words, I felt demotivated for wrong reasons. You made me notice that. I just wanted to mention it because it's sort of interesting I guess, was for me when I realized it at least. :)

ungtss said...

Thanks again for your thoughts, Sadun! I agree with you that when we're talking about "The Meaning of Life" intended meaning is the most important type of meaning. Thus there is your intended meaning for your life. However , for there to be an intended meaning in the universe as a whole, there must be a mind or minds to intend it (a creator). If no meaning was intended in the creation of the universe, then any meaning we invent is just as fanciful as seeing shapes in clouds. However, if the universe was created, then the intended meaning is the intention of the creator. Thus, no creator --> no intended meaning --> only fabricated, superstitious perceived meaning. On the other hand, Creator --> intended meaning which it would be in our best interest to decode, just as it benefits a listener to decode the meaning of a significant speaker ... Does that make sense?

sadunkal said...

It does make sense. But what I tried to say in that last part of my previous comment was this:

Sure it would be interesting to decode the intended meaning of the creator, if there is one. It would be extremely awesome! Yet I'm not sure if that would make life really, objectively meaningful either... I mean what can this important speaker possibly say? Does it make any difference if s/he says that the universe+humanity is there just because s/he was bored, or if that s/he created all this because we're supposed to flourish in this universe and when we grow up we'll interact with this other universe his/her evil twin -or good twin- has created, and that when all this is over we'll all become gods with our own universes etc.? Or s/he could as well say that we were in the "matrix" this whole time and we were in reality Gods with endless power this whole time and that we're free whenever we decide to etc. Would that give life a real meaning?

Either everything always existed, or they came to be at a certain point in time(beginning of time?). But I fail to perceive an objective difference in the "meaning of life" in all cases.

I feel like no matter what he/she might possible intend to say, afterwards I can think to myself "So that was it..." and that would be it. But that wouldn't do much for me. I mean it would be exciting for sure, and I would be pretty motivated to explore further, but I would still have questions like "Yeah but why?", and ultimately such questions will always remain unanswered I guess. And maybe there is no point in looking for answers apart from the fact that it's a lot of fun. :D


And maybe that's it? Fun..? Naah...

So I don't know... Maybe I had too high expectations from this existence to begin with. I can't even imagine a possibility where my high expectation can be fulfilled as you can see. Is that because I lack imagination or is that because I'm right about the inevitable meaninglessness of it all, unless one decides to perceive an imaginary one?

This is sort of like some English speaker saying "Peach", and I understand what he means by that. And I ask: "Yes, peach. I understand that, but go on, what do you really mean?" And it goes on forever like that... Maybe he repeats the word "Peach" eternally or goes silent after a while and I go "Jesus christ man!!" or he adds new words and new meanings to it after each cycle. But I still say "Yes yes I get that. But what does all that really mean? Why are you telling me this? Why should I really care?" Hehe...

I hope all that was somewhat understandable.

sadunkal said...

I want to clarify that I didn't see it always like that. At one time, the existence of a somewhat-conscious creator with a clear intention for its creation would make life appear like it has a "real meaning" to me. I just don't know why I should care so much about the creator's intentions anymore, apart from the excitement/fun factor.

Maybe in the past I had some kind of an inclination to have this endless respect and admiration for something that has eternal power. So much so that whatever that being's intentions might be, they would appear infinitely meaningful to me. Now I feel free from such a tendency to submission perhaps. Emotional independence? Dunno... It just seems less significant.

ungtss said...

I agree with you again if I understand what you're saying ... That even if there is a creator and even if he has intended meaning for the universe, that doesn't provide meaning for life in any real sense. But what I recently came to believe is that in wanting some objective, non-personal meaning in the universe, we're looking for something that not only doesn't exist, but is a logical impossibility, because meaning can exist only in a mind. It is a product of purpose and interpretation, which exist only in the mind. Therefore, WE are the only ones who can decide on and create the sort of meaning we're looking for. This is different from the existentialist view that "the world is cold and meaningless so invent your own" -- it's "meaning exists in the mind only. You have a mind. So decide what you want your life to mean, and execute it.". I don't feel cheated by an unfair universe. I feel freed from a desire for the self-contradictory, and inspired to create real meaning in my life as I am the only one who can, whether or not there is a creator.

sadunkal said...

Yes. It's like a half-empty/half-full thing I guess. It is cold and meaningless, or it is warm and it has whatever meaning you want it to have. :)

Or maybe the word "meaning" is a distraction and should be completely excluded from all this. Because if there is no ultimate intention involved in the way the existence is being expressed -which is not impossible I guess- then "meaning" can be seen as an empty word in that context. It would be no different than talking about the "meaning" of clouds' shapes.

I'm not sure which word could replace it though. Let's see... we're talking about a concept that is solely dependent on mind, it is subjective.... What about "Choice"? The choice of life? Is it better? Why don't we also make up a word for "the choice of life"? What's the correct way of making up words?

In Latin it may could've been something like Vitavia; lifeway. Or Vitareor, Vitalego, Vitasumo. Doesn't sound magnificent enough. I'll just call it Vitaia. Ahh whatever... Vitavieor... I'm very hungry right now.

ungtss said...

Ha! I like the way you think dude:). Maybe instead of "glass half full" it's "glass can be filled, but it doesn't fill itself." You make a good point -- seems to me choice and meaning are related but different ideas here -- choice being what you decide to do and meaning being the significance of things. The meaning of a word, after all, is the object of concept it signifies. And what do we want our lives to signify? No matter whether there's a God or not, although I think our choice might depend on the answer... What town you from in turkey? I'm in Adana.

sadunkal said...

Yyyyess... but there's still a choice involved. That makes it different than the meaning of "peach" for example: Sure you can choose what you want that word to signifiy for yourself, but that wouldn't change the word's meaning, would it? What changes is your understanding, perception. That still feels different from "meaning" to me. But you know what? This is a pointless discussion I guess. I don't really care what it's called, I think we more or less agreed on things of significance and that's enough for me right now.

I was born in Bursa and later went to school in Istanbul. Nowadays I'm studying in Germany, in Berlin. What the hell are you doing in Adana if I may ask? I've never been there myself, it should be a somewhat interesting town I suppose. I had a friend from Adana during highschool in Istanbul, he was bizarrely obsessed with it. He was always eager to go back to visit his family/friends/city.

ungtss said...

>Yyyyess... but there's still a choice involved. That
>makes it different than the meaning of "peach" for
>example: Sure you can choose what you want that
>word to signifiy for yourself, but that wouldn't
>change the word's meaning, would it?

Hmm ... but if I choose to make my life mean "efforts to grow in knowledge, wisdom and virtue," and another chooses to make their life mean "sacrifice to others" and another choses to make their life mean "pursuit of pleasure" and another never explicitly decides what they want their life to mean but just kinda stumbles along ... what is happening?

I'm in Adana with the US Air Force @ Incirlik, just outside. Haven't been to Bursa, but loved what I saw of Istanbul.

I can see why a person could become obsessed with Adana ... it's not exactly a world capital / center of civilization, but it's got a unique charm, especially out in the country. And the Taurus mountains kick ass.

sadunkal said...

I guess you could say that the meaning is changing from person to person, but I just feel like that's unfair to things with a certain intended meaning behind. I'm more comfortable with avoiding the word "meaning". But as I said; since it's not a widely discussed topic I don't really care about such details. I guess I still wouldn't have any problem with Vitaia though.
On the other hand I just googled "Vitaia" to see if such a word exists already. Interestingly it seems to exist in a "language" called Paralingua, and in that "language" no word has a single intended meaning apparently: Vitaia = Virtous or Vexatious, I think.

So... I don't know. :) With that kind of approach -which is impractical I guess- it should be possible to view life with multiple intended meanings too. But does it make sense? Does it matter whether or not it makes sense?

Anyway, Incirlik, that makes sense. Do you have interesting military secrets you can share? :) You guys use that base mainly for the "war against terror" and stuff like that, huh? I must say that I'm disturbed by the existence of military in general. It's even weirder when a country has a military base on the other side of the world.

ungtss said...

Got it -- sorry, sometimes it takes me a few go arounds to fully understand what is meant -- I get it now:). Paralingua ... interesting ...

Yeah, it's a strange and terrible thing, having a military. Taking resources raised by peaceful, productive citizens and transferring them to those trained only to kill people and break things. On the other hand, seems like the civilizations without militaries (or with inadequate ones) always seem to get their asses handed to them by civilizations that do. So I guess I'd rather have a military and try to convince my countrymen to use it ethically than not have one and try to convince the Vikings, Mongols, Crusaders, Conquistadors, or Stalinists to.

sadunkal said...

I understand. In my opinion, insisting on military's existence would be a guaranteed way to ensure unsustainability though, thus inevitable collapse of the human civilization. Even if one day the world would become one and there would be no wars or conflicts left, what will happen to all the bombs, weapons, soldiers etc...? It troubles me... It would be just a matter of time that somebody uses some of the destructive weapons again. It's like we're trapped in our own fears. Self-fulfilling nightmares.

ungtss said...

Interesting ... Why do you think insisting on the existence of a military is inevitably unsustainable?

sadunkal said...

I worded it weirdly. What I mean is that as long as people believe that there is a need and purpose for military, they'll defend the existence of it. And as long as military exists people will invent new purposes to justify military's existence. That's my guess at least.

ungtss said...

Ah, I get it. And agree.