Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Difficult Meaning of Meaning

One of my students challenged me a couple of weeks ago to tell him what, in all the world, meant something.

This student, a rather intelligent one, ascribes rather heavily to the "speck of dust in the universe" philosophy that in the grand scheme of things, one tiny person in one tiny city on one tiny planet in one tiny galaxy can't possible be a part of anything meaningful. As the Animaniacs put it so eloquently in verse a couple of decades ago, "It's a great big universe, and we're all really puny." Such is the curse of intelligence, I think: if you're as bright as my student (or the Warner Brothers), these are the kinds of questions that plague you, because only with intelligence can you really comprehend just how tiny you are in the grand scheme of things. I imagine that this would be a source of great anxiety for me, as well, if I were that intelligent. Happily, I'm not.

After probing him a bit to learn the source of the question and attempting to get him to answer it for himself, I finally gave my own interpretations of why we matter. Unsurprisingly, he was not convinced. My meaning is not his, nor is it yours.We tend to forget that: if we're lucky, we each have one or more things that matter, that give our lives meaning. Perhaps it is a quest for knowledge, a desire to do good, a hope for greater wealth and comfort, or a religious imperative. But we are all different, and there are different values which we each hold as primal. Even two very good people, heavily involved in the same religious (or agnostic) background, engaged in the same enterprises and hobbies, often find that they starkly differ in their opinions of what truly means anything, of what matters.

Although I stand in disagreement with several of his opinions (his denigration of poor Pluto chief among them), I greatly respect the thoughts of Dr. Neal Tyson on the matter: "For me, I am driven by two main philosophies: know more today about the world than I knew yesterday, and lessen the suffering of others." I also realize that most people in the world do not share Dr. Tyson's value of knowledge and service. We all know people who could care less about the welfare of those around them (sadly, these people are often involved in politics) or about bettering themselves by increasing their knowledge and wisdom. Some find meaning more specifically in their families, lovers, symbols, and gods. Others find meaning in teaching, art, creation, and self-improvement. Many find meaning in comparing themselves to others, reveling in their status relevant to those less fortunate. It is sometimes a sad world.

But we invariably fall victim to a fundamental cognitive error, assuming that what matters to us, matters to others. As we predict the behaviors and reactions of others, we tend to believe that they will act rationally (in most cases), but rationally according to what we view as meaningful. I remember a conversation I had in 2003 with a good friend of mine regarding the recently initiated Iraq War. My friend, a staunch liberal, stood in firm opposition. I, wavering between political allegiances, remained undecided, a malady my friend attempted to rectify. He told me that a war meant many American dead, both from the battle itself and future retaliation. He told me that our president could not be trusted, and only wanted to childishly finish the job his father had started. He said that it was about neither freedom nor protection, but about oil. I did not argue any of these points, as I had been pondering them myself. I had only one response, something which greatly trouble me: that the Iraqi government had committed genocide repeatedly, slaughtering hundreds of thousands of their own citizens. Did this not warrant justice? If we had the power to do so, was it not our responsibility to prevent future deaths?

My friend brushed aside my question without addressing it. He returned to his list of holes in the U.S. case for war, of his lack of confidence in the administration, and of the need for a peaceful resolution. I agreed that he made important points, but asked again whether we had a responsibility to stop genocide. He didn't even bother to reply. This continued for a few more circles, until finally, exasperated by my persistence, my friend asked me, "What do I care about a bunch of towelheads?"

I never forgot those words. Not necessarily because they forced me to reconsider my understanding of my friend's character (although they did), but because they showed me the true reason why we could not conclude our debate. He assumed my values aligned with his, and I assumed his values aligned with mine. He argued points that would persuade people just like himself, whereas I offered questions in return which only people more like myself would care about. We assume people think as we do, and value the things we do. I place a value on all human life - my friend did not. I believe that my position is right, and he believes his position is right. Only a higher power could say for sure which of us truly has some sort of Correctness, and only one of us actually believes that such a higher power exists. This left us, I realized, with a chasm between us.

I learned from my friend, though, as I've learned from many people whose values differ from my own. The nice thing about different people finding meaning in different things is that when we interact, we have an excellent opportunity to use their paradigms and perspectives to refresh and build upon our own. If we're particularly open-minded, we may even see something that matters more than what we thought mattered most of all. Sadly, thanks to a psychological principle called similarity attraction, this doesn't happen very often. We tend to seek out interactions with those most like us. This stunts our growth, as we've little new to learn.

Finding meaning in the world is an important process, and one that I'm sad my student has not yet completed. Although the journey is often more pleasant than the destination, and the wisest minds do tend to constantly challenge their own beliefs on what matters, I imagine a life without any answers at all to be very bleak. As Albert Camus wrote in L’√Čtrange, "You will never be happy if you continue to search for what happiness consists of. You will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life." We may never have a definite answer to the question of what matters, and perhaps the pursuit of it may give our lives some meaning. But it's also important to develop hypotheses as to what that answer may be, and to test them to best of our abilities. If they are unsatisfying, we discard them; if they bring meaning to our lives, we incorporate them into ourselves and share them with others. This process, in and of itself, has given my own life a bit of meaning.

My values and what matters to me did not resonate with my student, and this did not surprise me. I recognize that there's little which I, as a teacher or as a human being, can do to persuade others of anything. The only thing that can convince another person to change their mind is their reaction to something I say or do, a philosophy that has served me well as a university instructor. As my student is quite bright, I challenged him then to think of what it means to mean something - what it means to matter. Surely, I told him, if we know that so many things don't matter, then we must have some idea of what does, if for no other purpose than mathematical comparison. And, I told him, if nothing mattered at all, why bother even asking such a question? Why seek knowledge? And why, most peculiarly, was he working so hard to earn an A in my class if it didn't matter?

I sincerely hope he finds his meaning, and I pray that I can help him along that path in some way. I have been lucky to always have some meaning in my life, even if that meaning has been incorrect for many of my years. Life is good now that I have made peace with what matters, but I'm still seeking improvement on that front. I think that's healthy. We may be tiny, but there's a lot we can be and do even at this size. Or, as the Animaniacs playfully put it in the close of their little song, "Though we don't know how we got here, we're an important part here, it's a big universe, and it's ours!"

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