Like we mean it

This is an extension of a much earlier post on meaning, or the universe’s apparent lack thereof, as well as Sean Carroll’s presentation from The Amaz!ng Meeting 2012. Both of those are virtual prerequisites for making the most out of this post, primarily because I don’t feel like reiterating a bunch of stuff.

So, given that there is no meaning to life, the universe, & everything (small l, t, u & e, to differentiate it from the Douglas Adams book,) yet this still remains a disturbing thought to many, it seems to indicate that we actually want some meaning. What, exactly, does this mean? And no, I’m not trying to be funny.

As noted, mixing up ’cause’ and ‘intent’ is responsible for a lot of confusion, but knowing this difference is what helps to explain why we seem to have this thing about meaning. Somewhere in our evolutionary development, we developed a desire to seek cause. Call it curiosity, call it (as I have before) a ‘puzzle’ instinct, call it a fundamental understanding of Newtonian physics – whatever you like. It’s even possible, given what we see of curiosity from other species, that the only part unique to Homo sapiens is its strength. But we have a natural tendency to see things, especially change, and ask “why?”

This isn’t enough by itself – there’s another little bit that contributes, and it’s loosely defined as ‘ego.’ While we are a cooperative or social species, relying on others around us to form a tribe of mutual interaction, we are also to a certain extent a competitive species, especially among ourselves. Sexual selection is a significant contributor to this, since if we can convince a potential mate that we are more worthy than those around us, we get to pass along our genes. I am not sure if this underlies all of our drive to improve ourselves to stay ahead of the pack – do greater privileges and/or more possessions stand by themselves as a survival drive, or do they merely reflect an extension of sexual ‘fitness?’ – but there is no doubt that competition is also inherent in our species, and important to survival. Thus, we have a certain level of self-awareness in terms of making ourselves important/desirable/better individually, and this is separate from the internal drives for social cohesion. It’s easy to imagine that these are theoretically in conflict, but selection of strong members within a tribe for preferential reproduction does nothing to harm the tribe.

A brief, pertinent side note: there are two forms of competition. One is where any individual works hard to make itself better than others – think of Olympic games. The other, however, is where others are perceived as a threat and require a discouraging response – aggression, threats, or violence. This distinction is important, because as a species we mistake the two constantly. A tribe can function perfectly well with the former, not as much with the latter.

Getting back to meaning, however, we can see how these factors all work. We may wonder how the planet got here, or how light works, and that’s primarily due to the curiosity/puzzle drive. But then, our species has a fierce propensity to wonder what the purpose of things is, most especially when it applies to ourselves. Because we see ourselves as important, more important than any other species, this likely contributes to the idea that we have a special goal, that our presence is not something as inconsequential as the existence of rutabagas or weasels. And thus, the “how” question becomes the “why,” and we start thinking in terms of intent rather than cause.

Another likely contributor to this is a further part of our social/cooperative drives. As Homo sapiens, we relate to one another on an sympathetic level, concerned about how others feel and how they view us; we constantly pursue this feedback. Again, it works well for tribes – you scratch my back, etc. – but it probably results in considering sympathy as a vital function of human beings, and since we established above that we’re higher beings, then this is by extension a higher function. It’s not often that we consider any other species as sympathetic to us, and very often exactly the opposite. Thus, any supposed cause of human existence may get automatically associated with sympathetic feelings; if it created us, it must like us. And so we jump from cause to intent, and it’s easy to see that we like this idea much better than an indifferent cause. Note, also, that the human trait of pareidolia has us finding faces – other humans – in totally inanimate objects with barely the faintest hint of anthropomorphism, and that imaginary childhood friends are surprisingly common, and that we frequently believe animals think like we do. It’s not hard to see that we are geared towards ourselves.

Interestingly, all of this gives very strong indications that religion was created out of these thinking traits of ours, rather than (as is often supposed) this information having been imparted to our ancestors divinely, or our ability to actually see evidence of design and intent. Given events that we did not understand, with a desire to find cause and a propensity to see humans as important, it’s not hard to imagine how a sympathetic creator can be hypothesized, and this does a pretty good job of explaining the widely varied concepts of gods throughout human history with only a few basic traits in common.

We have a lot of fundamental ‘desires,’ emotional goads within our brains that prod us towards behavior that helped us to survive, the same as any other species. Some are stronger than others. We want to believe that everything we do is based upon conscious, rational decisions, but this just isn’t the case. Drives and emotions, however, aren’t terribly specific by nature; they do not arise only when functional, and they do not produce specific intent. Most of the time, all we know is that we feel a certain way, and (most importantly for our purposes here) we can satisfy such feelings in multiple manners. Everyone is familiar with compensatory indulgences, such as eating to combat depression, and drug addiction is nothing more than trying to produce the euphoria associated with emotional success, the brain’s reward system for performing some act related to survival.

Ergo, the search for meaning, which addresses several desires mentioned above. Note that very few people seem to have a good grasp of what their own meaning actually is, and in the large majority of cases, the search goes on. It becomes an (admittedly mild) itch that perpetually waits to be scratched, and even though many people have gone their entire lives waiting for it, to be told that scratching is not possible makes it that much worse. So, what can we do?

Sean Carroll begged off on this aspect, saying that it wasn’t up to him to define meaning for anyone else, and this has a certain reality to it; he wouldn’t be able to provide something that would perfectly fit everyone’s vague urges in this direction, and neither could I. What he explained is that we have plenty of good reasons to believe it all to be a false quest (or at least significantly misunderstood) – we have the science that throws the whole concept of ultimate meaning into serious doubt, but not how to cope. In some cases, however, that’s actually enough; if you recognize that meaning is a false impression, it automatically loses the importance it once had. I used to believe that the smiley faces my elementary school teachers would (occasionally) draw on my tests were reflections of my abilities, but now I know that they were only manifestations of my teachers’ own selfish pleasure in successfully performing their career functions, and I was just another clay figure to them!

Sorry – digressed a bit. You have to break up the long screeds sometimes ;-)

Still, what remains are internal urges that we want to satisfy, ones we are rarely able to recognize consciously. We seek goals, something that makes life more than occupying ourselves until we die. Yet, the quest for meaning isn’t a dead end – while we may not have an ultimate meaning, something cosmic or transcendent, we can still find plenty of things that fit the bill on a more local level. Nature’s goals are simple, or supposedly so: survive and reproduce. This is the manifestation to the individual which produces the net effect, which is the continuation of the species. In a world as complex as ours, with countless variables affecting us daily, these deceptively simple ideas have to take hold in detailed ways. Like many other species, we function best in a pack/tribe/village/community, mutually cooperative, and so we get good feelings – internal rewards – from behavior which reinforces this. Unlike the search for meaning or the self-indulgent euphoria of getting stoned, this is actually what we evolved to do, and it continues to be useful and important. Something as simple as helping others is meaning, and actually moves our species along. Compare this to the sop to selfish ego that cosmic meaning, whatever the hell it is, tries to provide.

Even cool nature photos. Right?
The achievements of our species, the remarkable development of tools and vehicles, medicine and industry, science and technology, are all fostered by the social structure. Nobody would accomplish very much if they had to individually reconstruct what any of our great scientists, inventors, or doctors have done – we are as advanced as we are, at least in terms of knowledge, because we share it. Is that, in itself, a meaning? Countless millions of people the world over, when faced with rough times, can cope solely because someone else is there to help, whether physically, medically, or even just emotionally. Does that mean anything? Hell, the roads and electrical grids, even the waste removal services, all contribute to the quality of life we have now. Is meaning really that goddamn elusive?

There is another side to all of this, however. Other emotions can easily be misinterpreted, mistimed, or misapplied. Above, we considered the competitive aspect of humans, and the functionality (and yes, importance) that this has – but also a brief look at the abuse of it as well. In the quest to be considered higher than others in some respect, we can build ourselves up, or we can tear others down – one of those really doesn’t have much application to improvement, and if we built a society on it, such a society wouldn’t go very far. Yet, we engage in this all of the time. Very, very few circumstances that we might find ourselves in require an aggressive response, or what might be termed as a ‘threat competition’ rather than an ‘achievement competition.’ Long ago it was a different story, and we (probably routinely) had to protect the family and tribe against predators and raiding parties; this was a facet of life for millions of years of our development. Only recently, in an evolutionary eyeblink of time really, did this vanish from our lives almost entirely. Right now, the survival traits bred into our brains are still catching up.

This means that we aren’t so good at differentiating threat competition from achievement competition, and see an awful lot of things as threat when they represent nothing of the sort. The average social dynamics in most places of employment today can attest to this. It’s safe to say that virtually no one’s coworker presents anything remotely resembling an actual threat; they might, however, present someone that needs to be surpassed in ability in order to secure a raise or promotion. Thinking, “They threaten my livelihood,” or alternately, “my rightful position in this company,” doesn’t change the nature of what we should be doing about it. They are not the enemy; they are the bar we must clear.

The same may be said of religion. Nobody’s religion is threatened at all – this actually isn’t possible, any more than anyone’s choice of soft drink can be threatened. The most that can be said is that someone is blocked from the free expression of their religion, but basically, so what? We do not have thought police, so believe whatever you want. The idea of religious oppression is an asinine one, most especially throughout the Americas and Europe. Any attempt to do so can only affect what someone might be allowed to do publicly, but even if their church is burned to the ground, that doesn’t affect what they believe (actually, that’s probably not true – it very likely makes it even stronger.) Galileo famously signed a statement from the catholic church when they demanded that he recant his idea of heliocentrism; his response (I admit to paraphrasing here) was, “Sure, whatever the fuck you like. It still doesn’t change the facts.” Tellingly, the event came about because of the church’s belief that his meticulous research was a threat. But heliocentrism had nothing to do with trying to damage the church – it was simply a far more convincing argument. And the only ‘threat’ to churches these days is exactly the same thing. The bar is now set even higher.

I have to point out something else here, too. Many, many religions present deities with strong threat responses, as if they could possibly have something to fear – this is especially nonsensical in the monotheistic religions. It might be a petty trait in humans, but completely insane in a deity, yet three of the ten commandments, as an example, specifically portray insecurity over a supposed threat – in this case, that puny humans might choose not to worship. Seriously?

Even the pursuit of wealth and status is almost always a response to feelings of inadequacy, but how is this supposed to work? Is it actually important to achieve a certain income bracket? Does this, in any possible way, benefit us as a species, a society, a community, or even a family? Or is it merely a selfish attempt to appease poorly understood emotions? What has more meaning: getting rich, or building a better future for others who weren’t born in the right circumstances? Which provides more status, better community standing, and a measurable advancement for human beings? These aren’t hard questions.

You may have noticed something: by abandoning the idea of ultimate meaning and trying to understand the reasons why we even have the desire, we can find not only useful meanings (and further, motivations and responses,) we’re actually doing exactly what the traits had evolved to help us accomplish anyway. Petty achievements and inappropriate responses to competition are not what will make Homo sapiens survive in the long run, and it’s not anyone’s concept of divine purpose that brings that realization. The credit for that goes to science. Consider this the next time someone says that science can’t answer the big questions about life.