Let's Measure Meaning!

That’s the upshot of my short piece today at Culture 11.

Here’s a crazy bit that introduced a few too many issues, so I left it out. Enjoy!

“I don’t know why we are here,” Ludwig Wittgenstein, the grimly mystical Austrian logician, once confessed, “but I’m pretty sure that it is not in order to enjoy ourselves.”  I’m pretty sure Wittgenstein is correct. Evolution by natural selection–the only credible non-fiction story about “why we are here”–tells us that we exist “in order to” make copies of our genes. In the typical case, we enjoy genetic recombination a lot, but to enjoy ourselves is not what we are for. To enjoy ourselves is not why we are here. 

But knowing why we are here, or what we are for, turns out to be terrifically useless in guiding our choices or framing our lives. It doesn’t matter why we are here. Should I learn that I had been designed by bioengineering performance artists from Alpha Centauri to savagely exterminate kittens, it would not validate my taste for ripping the heads off tiny whimpering calicos. Knowing my function would not tell me what it is for my life to go best, from my point of view. Were I to fight my instincts and lovingly cuddle kittens instead of wantonly destroying them, that would be my otherworldly creators’ failure, not mine. Should I find a hollowness, a gnawing absence of kitten corpses at the center of my life, I might be right to think that my life would, in some sense, mean more to me were I to give in to my biological imperatives. But I would be wrong to think that a more meaningful life, in that sense, would be better. The value of meaning would remain an open question.  

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