I just saw a dumb article in Quartz claiming that as science has revealed to us a mechanistic universe (and a view of the human brain as mechanism), we’ve come to face a new kind of “existential crisis” as we confront “the meaninglessness of the universe.”
Here’s why that’s a supremely stupid statement. Meaning is not a characteristic of things in themselves per se. The term meaning has several possible meanings. One is “intention,” as in “No, when I said, ‘Hey, why don’t you come over for a movie,’ I just meant [intended] ‘Hey, why don’t you come over for a movie.’” Most dictionary definitions are meanings of this kind; they are possible intentions of words.
Another meaning of meaning is “significance to a person,” as in “Those early psychedelic experiences had a lot of meaning [significance] for me; they taught me that much that we think of as given isn’t.”
So, let’s consider the second meaning of meaning in the context of that statement from the Quartz article. Are there, in fact, significances to people of things in the universe? Well, of course there are. This or that has significance to you. If what you are doing doesn’t have significance to you, you need to do your best to change what you are doing.
I’m being a bit disingenuous here, because, of course, when would-be philosophers speak of the “meaninglessness of the universe,” they are thinking in terms of a third definition of meaning–meaning as “purpose.” They are painting a picture of a universe in which we are not created to serve some higher purpose of the kind espoused by some religions. Sartre put it this way: Letter openers have a designer who created them for a purpose. We don’t. (Sartre was an atheist and a materialist.)
But even if you hold the fashionable scientistic (but unscientific) view that the universe is just stuff–atoms and the void–clearly people and other animals act purposefully all the time. So, equally clearly, the universe gives rise to purposes, and we both have purposes that have significance, that have value, and can choose purposes that do. That we and others have bodies with wants and needs that give rise to purposes is a clue there.
Philosophers often get mired in muck by not thinking clearly about the plain, often varied, everyday uses of their key terms. Meanings are not characteristics of things in themselves per se but, rather, events–significances and purposes–in the experiences of sentient entities. (Whether the universe itself is such an entity is an open question. I believe that there is good reason to think, as most indigenous peoples used to think, that this is in fact the case.) Often that significance is related to our bodily needs and desires. And often it is related to our intellectual needs and desires. Both are the firm ground upon which ethics and purpose are based. We create meaning by doing that which has significance to us and to others, that which occasions flourishing. Working to achieve flourishing gives us purpose, and we are the artists of meaning.
Does this mean that things in themselves don’t have meaning? Of course not. They can be significant to sentient entities, and protecting that significance arguably entails treating them as having value in and of themselves. Taking such a stance shows our seriousness.
That stuff about our living in a purely mechanistic universe is stupid too, but it’s a different kind of stupid, and that’s another discussion.
For other essays (and cartoons!) by Bob Shepherd on philosophical subjects, go here: https://bobshepherdonline.wordpress.com/category/philosophy/