Purpose, Meaning, and the Moral Arc

by Daniel A. Kaufman


My discussion with Robert Wright, of BloggingHeads.TV and MeaningofLife.TV, on purpose, meaning, and the moral trajectory of mankind.

Originally aired on MeaningofLIfe.TV, February 9, 2016.







36 responses to “Purpose, Meaning, and the Moral Arc”

  1. Thanks very much for conducting and posting this fascinating talk.

    Dan, I think you are really terrific as an interviewer. At times I felt Robert was losing direction and I think you were able to really pull out of him clarity as to his thoughts and motives. For the most part I found myself in near complete agreement with Dan. I do think the non zero-sum idea is useful, but I don’t think that idea in any way depends upon ascribing purpose or meaning to some fundamental source or creator of natures doings.

    I found the discussion of self based practices such as mindful meditation and fitness based self development also quite interesting. As someone who has devoted a great deal of time to some form of these types of practices for 40 years I have always seen these practices as non zero-sum. For me these practices have included Juggling, basketball, meditation, tai chi, and more recently endurance training. I found Dan’s initial reaction to the idea of working on ones fitness as seeming self indulgent if not done for the sake of a specific other (his daughter) quite foriegn to my conceptions and experience. I have always looked at these practices as having broad positive transference in the way I engage the world (including others). I include basketball because while it is a team game I spent a good deal of time individually on skill development. Even though in origin some of these practices were almost entirely done alone (meditation, Juggling) and others were mostly alone (tai chi, endurance running) they were always done with idea the that I was both developing an aspect of myself that provided meaning because it also helped become part of something outside myself.

    When I had developed enough juggling skill people enjoyed watching, developing some basketball skill led to a creative expression with others I have not found in many other activities. I became a tai chi instructor which has been rewarding and hopefully productive of some positive impact. I’m part of a running community that seems to truly get meaning from both the competition and the cooperative support we all provide for each other. Tomorrow I am taking part of a support group of about 7 runners for about 40 running friends running the LA marathon. We have towels and sponges soaked in cold water ready for the runners, and some of will running along side the runners as they hit difficult stretches. But beyond all those quantifiable aspects and in addition to any fitness or cognitive benefits there has always been some intangible benefit I feel I receive from simply engaging in a practice whereby I feel I embodying the process of learning or progress.

    Thanks again for a really interesting talk.

  2. Interesting and lively conversation. Throughout much of it, not only did differences between teleology and teleonomy bounce around in my head, but also Kant’s remarks on “purposeless purposiveness” in the the Third Critique. It is indeed a puzzle: the world is always in motion, and we want to read it in ‘forward’ motion (so to speak), but when we ask where it is going (assuming we are not predisposed to answer that question on the basis of some religious cosmogony), we end up with no answers, only further questions.

    I wonder if the profound turn of thought in the 16th/17th centuries was not towards science or some form of non-theism, but the disturbing recognition that, should one exist, god had detached himself from the universe of his creation (Spinoza, Deism, Kant in a complicated way). An uncaring god is somehow more profoundly disturbing than the lack of god entirely.

    Concerning the concluding debate over the ‘moral trajectory’ of the species: I first note that this hyper-optimism that Wright expresses sounds an awful lot like similar assertions made in Victorian England. Of course, for the Victorians, the future was brightest for the only people who mattered, White Men of England; and of course, such expressions were couched in Christian terms, albeit with considerable faith in science and technology. Nonetheless, they were convinced that Humanity had learned all its lessons, and could only improve morally. The British were sounding this note into the 20th century – at about the same time that Leopold of Belgium was slaughtering a million Congolese natives. (But of course, they weren’t white, and none of them were British.) To say of such hyper-optimism (based on religion or scientism or whatever) is historically myopic, is being to kind to it.

    Interestingly, prior to listening to this conversation, I listened to a TED talk by astronomer Martin Rees, on the highly unlikely survival of the human species. He suggested that unless we find some way to use technology to ‘evolve’ into a new species (which he speculated we could do in some 300 years), we are pretty much doomed, due to the poverty of our judgment in dealing with our environment.

    Granted that Rees is speaking beyond the authority of his credentials (which many scientists do these days, especially at TED), the point is, that even among those heavily invested in scientific hope, the future need not look very hopeful, once we account for the human capacity for committed misjudgment – that is, the devotion to wrong-headed decisions. Frequently, by the time humans realize their mistakes and change their minds, the mistakes have already determined the consequences they must live with. (As events in Iraq these past 15 years demonstrate conclusively.)

  3. Hi Dan, that was an interesting conversation that ended on something useful/informative for me. Robert Wright is someone I usually like to listen to, but often find myself disagreeing with. The same is true here.

    With two exceptions I agreed with almost everything you (Dan) said in this piece, especially…

    ~26:30 – It is not compelling when people seek/need their individual purpose to be joined to some external/larger purpose.

    ~46:30 – Biology has little (if anything) to say about culture.

    ~1:06:30 – There has been no such thing as general moral progress.*

    I have referred to the kind of argument made by Robert Wright around 55:30 as signs of suffering a “good delusion”. I do not believe that a global civilization is inevitable much less that it is necessary to avoid some chaotic collapse of humanity, much less that moral progress would be crucial to have a functional global civilization (except by a very limited definition of moral progress).

    Indeed, it was useful that you drew Robert out on his concepts of purpose and meaning and especially his very limited definition of moral progress. That last point made his position more acceptable to me, even if I disagree with his idea moral progress on this single dimension has occurred.*

  4. Hi Dan, regarding all those asterisks * in my previous reply I wanted to skewer Robert’s argument on our state of moral progress, even within the single dimension he gave (recognition of the humanity of others).

    It was funny that Robert credits lack of slavery as a sign of moral progress. While humans are not usually called slaves, and not explicitly owned as property, compulsion to labor still exists within the world along with a dehumanization (even if not in name) of those forced into such labor.

    At this point in time, the working (as well as nonworking) poor are often disregarded as deserving their position and fate, as if they are not in a system with the cards stacked against them and not facing physical, violent force to prevent means of obtaining the social security they lack. Only this time around the force is wielded by the State they happened to be born into (unfortunately not to rich parents), instead of by the plantation they happened to be born into (unfortunately not to the owners).

    This is true without addressing the hard fact that the US has the highest percentage of its citizens locked up (historically and across the world), who are forced to work for companies (at incredibly discounted rates if they get paid), and if I remember right measure more than the population of slaves held in slave-owning US (both in strict numbers and percentages).

    This kind of argument for an achieved moral progress is a con. The language and style may have changed but the game remains the same.

  5. Seth Leon wrote:

    found Dan’s initial reaction to the idea of working on ones fitness as seeming self indulgent if not done for the sake of a specific other (his daughter) quite foriegn to my conceptions and experience.


    Well, I thought I said that is just didn’t compel *me* very much, without those sorts of considerations. I certainly didn’t mean to crticize others for it.

  6. Wonderful discussion Daniel. It is great that you find so many worthy people to associate with, and I’m certainly pleased to tag along. I saw general agreement between you and Robert, though perhaps DB knows each of you better than I do, rendering your differences more clear to him.

    ≈ Minute 22 you said something like: “Let’s stipulate that there is purpose in this sense and remain agnostic about what provides this purpose. What is your context?” Here he virtually apologized for simply being able to come up with “Isn’t this just interesting?” The reason that he wasn’t able to go further, I think, is because an actual purpose would need to be identified in order for true context to be provided. Surely the thing which provides purpose will be instrumental regarding its uses?

    ≈ 27 Minute you said “…the idea of outside purpose, or from somewhere else, is foreign to me.” Yes, it is to me as well. The purpose which I identify, however, seems to have evolved into us. I don’t consider there to be an actual difference between a rock, a watch, and an animal, regarding purpose — each of them simply “are.” But as you’ve implied, it’s the perceiver which provides purpose to such things. So what’s ultimately behind our perceptions of purpose? You’ve nearly hit upon my own answer yourselves…

    ≈ Minute 37 Robert said “Sentience is a prerequisite for meaning,” and you agreed that this is uncontroversial. YES! THIS IS INDEED WHAT I CONSIDER THE ANSWER TO BE! The sentient sensations which are experienced, I believe, are what provide meaning in themselves, or purpose, or good, or bad. Without sentience, existence becomes perfectly inconsequential.

    ≈ Minute 42 Robert said “No one has a compelling argument for why sentience evolved.” Well I do have an associated theory that I think is pretty good. I suspect that sentience essentially evolved in order to create autonomy. Observe that without punishment/reward, evolution must directly program things to do what they do — plenty of “IF…THEN…” statements and so on. But for advanced forms of life such as the human, programing each step seems to have been an inadequate road. Instead evolution must have essentially said, “Given these punishments and rewards (or sentience), you yourselves are now compelled to personally figure out what to do.”

    Does anyone object?

  7. Eric: Sentience evolved in order to create autonomy.


    I am of the view that the question of autonomy is a matter of how we interpret certain acts in a number of contexts. It is not a matter of being in some kind of internal state, so I don’t see that sentience has anything to do with it.

  8. Hi Dan,

    I didn’t take the comment you made as a criticism. I just thought the large difference in the way we each perceived the issue was interesting so I provided my framing.

  9. Well yes Daniel, that would be a separate but quite valid way of defining the term “autonomy,” or essentially as a matter for a perceiver to interpret. For example, I might see autonomy in the devastation of a storm — from here it might thus “do what it wants,” and so on. And perhaps I appreciate your point even more than you happen to, given that I’m one of those rare “determinists.” In an ultimate sense, I don’t believe that anything, (including me) has any true autonomy. From a naturalistic perspective I should simply represent a causal process which I’m not ultimately controlling. (From the recent Munich workshop which Massimo attended, I was extremely pleased to meet Sabine Hossenfelder. She does share my perspective regarding freewill, and did recently present the following associated blog post: http://backreaction.blogspot.com/2016/01/free-will-is-dead-lets-bury-it.html?m=1)

    Regardless, beyond “perfect perspectives,” there are also smaller perspectives such as the minuscule one which I seem to have. I obviously don’t see/know everything, but rather have just a slight bit of information from which to function. Thus I do at least perceive personal freewill, given that I feel like I can choose to raise my arm or not, for example (though I also consider this perception to ultimately be false).

    From this minuscule perspective, nonetheless, there does seem to be punishing things which I experience, as well as the rewarding. It is from this non ultimate perspective which I seem to “choose” to do what I do, based upon the sensations which I experience. Thus with the term “autonomy,” I was referring to this limited sort of perspective, or an engineering feature by which there is “personal” function, and even without ultimate freedom.

    Now does a storm, a stone, a computer, or a tree, have any such autonomy regarding its function? Do any of them perceive any choices? No, I don’t believe that any of them do. Thus it would seem that evolution was able to stop “figuring out” every aspect of how life functions, through the perceptions of autonomy associated with consciousness. Through the punishment/reward of sentience, evolution seems to have essentially said, “Look, you must personally figure out what to do in your own lives… or face the consequences!” This is what I consider to define the meaning/purpose associated with this topic, or that which sentience itself facilitates, as each of you have also implied.

  10. Eric: Autonomy can only be ascribed to actors in certain kinds of communities. It is misapplied to storms and the like.

  11. Hi Eric, I’m not sure if you meant to anthropomorphize evolution or not, but it would be extremely inaccurate to claim “… sentience essentially evolved in order to create autonomy… Instead evolution must have essentially said, “Given these punishments and rewards (or sentience), you yourselves are now compelled to personally figure out what to do.”

    Dan and Massimo have an interesting conversation over at bloggingheads right now which discusses the difference between teleology and teleonomy (a word I had not heard before and am grateful to Massimo for explaining). There is no goal driven evolution, and so nothing can be said to have evolved “in order” to do anything. The best you can say is that something evolved “in a way that” something was facilitated.

    I am not against considering autonomy to be a state, and that increased sentience led to such a state. However, I don’t think it was necessary or that it provides meaning… as opposed to (what was said in the video) being a prerequisite for meaning to exist.

  12. Hi Dan, while I believe I understand (and agree with) your statement “autonomy is a matter of how we interpret certain acts in a number of contexts”, I am not sure why that excludes the use of “autonomy” to also describe a state one can reach (other than the caveat it would be a variable state, with degrees of autonomy… and yeah, not storms). I’d be interested in more description why the latter would be an invalid use of the term.

    But more important… heading back to the video… Robert’s dismissing your example of Germany’s moral collapse because (he claims) it had been disconnected from other nations was confusing/unsatisfying to me and I think I puzzled out why.

    1) He said they were disconnected and being punished for WW1. Is that even true? I know there were economic problems, and Hitler claimed they were being punished, but was that an accurate assessment of the situation? This is an honest historical question, I don’t know.

    2) Assuming that were true, that fails to explain the equally horrifying atrocities that were going on throughout that time in Russia and Japan (and China as a victim of Japan).

    3) Even if a parallel explanation were raised that somehow Russia/Japan had disconnected themselves, it fails to explain what happened in the US during our purge of the indigenous population which has essentially continued (or at least not been dealt with) up through the present day. It also fails to account for our mass internment of Japanese nationals during WW2, or the clear systemic bias in imprisoning racial minorities today.

    4) Let’s say all these can be addressed via some econo-social disconnect, given his criteria for the “legitimacy” of Germany’s moral collapse, doesn’t the current wealth inequality in the US suggest that our nation should also be suffering/facing a similar collapse? Maybe he would agree that it is, but then that would put him at odds with Pinker/Singer.

  13. Hi DB,

    Thanks for replying, and you are of course correct — I didn’t actually mean for my anthropomorphing to be taken literally. But you did bring up a great point, or that Robert and Daniel only submitted sentience as a “prerequisite” for purpose. I, however, would have us all go further.

    To do so I suspect that Daniel would not only mandate a need for “language,” but for purposeful ascriptions to be made in a given language. And though I do consider such definitions quite valid and useful, my own associated definitions involve a more fundamental kind of purpose that doesn’t simply address the human, but all conscious subjects.

    Let’s presume for a moment that ants essentially function as our robots do, and thus all circumstances are just as inconsequential to them as we presume existence to be for our robots. Here evolution would need to address any given situation that the ant is likely to face, through associated programing. But apparently such “inconsequential” function simply wasn’t sufficient for quite advanced forms of life, given that we don’t observe non conscious mammals and such. Why? Well perhaps it just wasn’t feasible to simply “program” something to function as well as a cat does. Instead evolution seems to have said (my apologies again), “You must personally figure out what to do, given these punishments and rewards.” Thus it would seem that decision making was effectively “subcontracted out” to a given subject itself, by means of the punishment/reward associated with sentience.

    So to Roberts assertion that “No one has a compelling argument for why sentience evolved,” I believe that my own explanation, just might be. Any thoughts?

  14. Eric,

    You recurrently prefix verbs with the modifying verb “do.” Will you please stop this? “And though I do consider such definitions ” reads the same as “And though I consider such definitions” without having to pause and wonder, ‘why the modification?’ It detracts, rather than emphasizes.

    Ants don’t function like robots – that’s one of the problems with claims for ‘sentient’ mechanisms or ‘conscious AI’ – not even the simplest organism responds to its environment as simplistically as a robot or a computer must.

  15. Thanks for the suggestion EJ, I will consider this in the future. I suppose that I sometimes use this extra “do” for emphasis, though I suppose that it may be annoying to those who don’t hold my firm convictions.

    As far as the “ants” go, however, please take another look (oh how I wanted to say “do” there!). Here was building a hypothetical scenario from which to make a specific point. Truth be told, I actually suspect that ants have a very primitive level of consciousness from which to function. Nevertheless, I required a non conscious subject from which to present my point, and so fabricated one. I’d love to have your assessment of this theory as well.

  16. I thought Dan came across very well in the conversation with Robert Wright (appropriately critical but always reasonable and restrained). Generally I sided with Dan on the issues, except perhaps on the relevance of biology to behavioural questions. (I also share Wright’s interest in the riddle of sentience, but I don’t want to go down the path he takes.)

    The main issues are probably too big to deal with here, but let me just say something on a couple of issues dbholmes highlighted.

    Though I think it’s clear that Wright’s views on purpose and moral progress etc. have (as he himself suggests) a religious source and (separate point) are just not compelling, it is still the case that (certain kinds of) economic interconnectedness do have socially beneficial effects. (You could argue about what kinds of interconnectedness, etc..)

    dbholmes asks about Germany. Historians tell various stories, but my take on what happened after WW1 (and I think there is a consensus of sorts on this) is that the international community did put Germany in a virtually impossible position and so helped to create the conditions that led to the rise of National Socialism. And lessens were certainly learned: after WW2 both Germany and Japan were given assistance and effectively reintegrated into the global economy.

    Even so, a film made to help prepare Allied soldiers going into Germany just after the end of WW2 gives an insight into the attitudes of the time which probably reflected earlier attitudes also. The Germans, the narrator states, don’t regret their aggression etc.: their only regret is that they lost the war. Significantly, the film references previous wars (back to the 1870s) and characterizes Germans as inveterate (once overt and now covert) supporters of an imperialistic and race-based attitude, a kind of spiritual illness which must now be crushed and exterminated once and for all.

    [I saw this film (narrated in French) in a YouTube video featuring also some extreme right-wing material. If anyone wants to find it, use the search terms Nuremberg and Maurice Bardèche on YouTube. Apart from the training film, there is a text (again in French) by Bardèche juxtaposed to harrowing (colorized) scenes of devastation in Berlin and the Sudetanland filmed in 1945. Bardèche argued that the Allies demonized the German people in order to avoid facing the awful truth of the atrocities which they themselves had committed against them.]

  17. labnut

    I’ve been reluctant to dive into this issue. There is so much to say but how can I say anything useful in a subject so extensively debated by so many people over so much time? But let me try anyway.

    We are narrative animals. From our earliest beginnings we have told stories. First they were preserved as oral records and then writing happened. With that there was an explosion of narrative. This narrative was in the form of poem, prose, song, theatre and fiction. It was aetiological, religious, moral, historical and artistic. We have created an astonishing record of narrative which is the deepest possible record of who and what we are.

    When someone dies we write an obituary. That obituary is an outline narrative of that person’s life that establishes the context and meaning of that person’s life. We construct narratives of the lives of people close to us, often through gossip, but most importantly we construct a narrative the describes the arc of our own lives. It is in this self constructed narrative that we find the meaning in our own lives. This narrative is historical, it is explanatory and it is predictive. A person who has a well defined narrative has found meaning in his life. By constructing a narrative of his life he has interpreted the events of his life in a way that supplied profound meaning in his life.

    The important thing to remember is that a narrative is interpretive and value laden. It is not a historical document. This narrative establishes:
    1. My identity. Who am I? What sort of person am I?
    2. My role. What am I doing? What should I be doing?
    3. My purpose. What am I trying to achieve? Is it congruent with my identity and my role?

    People who have found meaning in life are those with well defined narratives that are explanatory and value laden. These narratives confirm their identity, values, role and purpose in life. Meaning reconciles history, identity, role, values and purpose in a way that is both satisfying and challenging.

    Meaning is a layered thing that can be seen in a shallow way or with great depth, depending on how reflective and insightful you are. You may find meaning in one or more of the following:
    1. in a narrow consideration of who and what you are;
    2. from your role as a family member;
    3. from your membership in a group, small, large or even supra-national
    4. from your membership of the human species;
    5. from your belief in a transcendent God.

    In all cases meaning is found by constructing a personal narrative that is explanatory in these contexts, gives you an identity, values, a role and a purpose. It can be shallow or deep, restricted or broad. The deepest meaning is found in the combination of all five levels.

    A family is the place where narratives are born and are nourished. These narratives contain our implicit values and they are the primary means of moral instruction. They provide a child with an anchor in life and sustain the child until they are ready to start creating their own narratives. When we come home from work, sit down around the dinner table and recount our daily stories we are building the narratives maintain our family and sustain our children until maturity allows them to build their own narratives. Our children will start reading the narratives of others(in our huge body of fiction, history, poetry, etc). These insightful narratives will supplement the narratives of their parents, giving a larger and deeper perspective.

    And here we come to the great failure of modern society. We have gratefully abdicated this role to the juggernaut of entertainment so that we can focus on our own pleasure. Hollywood(as symbolic of the larger media enterprise) is our narrative machine. It is replacing both parents and the large body of insightful, written narratives. It is a narrative machine driven by profit, lust and violence. It is shallow with an attention span that can be contained in sound-bites. And so our children go into life equipped with a degenerate narrative that is a poor foundation for the narratives they must create in their own lives.

  18. Labnut: I agree entirely with this (and it is very well stated). But I take it as being consistent with — indeed, quite amenable to — the idea that there is no actual purpose or meaning in nature itself, separate from our narratives about it.

  19. labnut

    one of the most remarkable narratives of all time is the Jewish Old Testament(I should use Jewish terminology but I’m really not sure what the correct forms are). The problem that most Christians have is that they invest too much spiritual significance in the Old Testament. They should instead see it instead as a quasi-historical aetiological narrative that the Jewish people created to give meaning to their lives. Since they were such a religious people they saw the hand of God in all events, including the violence of their own rulers. The consequence is a quasi-historical/cultural and sometimes semi-fictional narrative interwoven with the development of their religious understanding. When read in this way, and not as the inerrant word of God(as many Christians are wont to do), one discovers an extraordinary literary creation that is without equal. This narrative has given the Jewish people a most powerful sense of meaning that has sustained them and maintained their cohesion through repeated, violent dispersals. It is for me the text book example of how narrative creates meaning.

    When we create our own narratives to supply meaning to our lives, we, just as the Old Testament does, are selective with our distorted memories and overlay them with our values. We sincerely regard our own narratives as the truth. No person is exempt from this process.

  20. labnut

    But I take it as being consistent with — indeed, quite amenable to — the idea that there is no actual purpose or meaning in nature itself, separate from our narratives about it.

    Yes. My understanding is independent of the presence or absence of meaning in nature.

    there is no actual purpose or meaning in nature itself, separate from our narratives about it.

    We and our narratives are part of nature so evidently there is meaning in nature. When people say there is no purpose or meaning in nature they are making an artificial distinction that excludes us from nature.

    The central question is this – can meaning and purpose manifest itself in nature(as it evidently has) through a mechanism of blind, random, chaotic chance, starting from an absolute nothingness? This is the central assumption of atheism and it does not have even the smallest shred of evidence to support it.

    There is no doubt that we are narrative, meaning making machines. And yet, how do machines
    1. display intentionality?
    2. display conscious, self awareness?
    3. exhibit free will?
    4. bridge the gap between syntax and semantics?
    5. bridge the gap between is and ought?

    We do not know how, even in principle, to answer these questions. And yet some will confidently declare that it is the natural end result of absolute nothingness transforming itself through blind random chance into our immense cultural output. Now that is an even bigger act of faith than any shown by theists. There is nothing more amusing than watching a bunch of self proclaimed rationalists who claim evidence based reasoning then commit the biggest act of faith in the complete absence of evidence.

    Their reasoning is, in effect, as follows
    1. Here we are, meaning making machines;
    2. We are the end result of natural processes(cue Darwin and the rest of science);
    3. Therefore it is possible without God;
    4. Therefore there is no God.

    But this superficially plausible line of reasoning collapses when in (2) it is understood that we are excluding God by definition, or by stipulation. But why should we do that? Is there any reason why God cannot be the author of natural processes and realise his aim through natural processes? What a strangely limited understanding of God that would be! And so the first conclusion(3) has not been demonstrated. The above line of reasoning(1 to 4) is a gigantic question begging exercise based on wishful thinking in the complete absence of evidence.

  21. Labnut,

    I have to say I find it annoying when I’m told that the meaning I create and experience cannot be as ‘deep’ as the meaning created and experienced by those who incorporate a transcendental god concept into their framework.

    I would never think of telling anyone else my sense of meaning is ‘deeper’ than theirs or that the way I construct meaning is the deepest way to do it.

  22. Labnut: I agree that much of the EvPsych, EvEthics, and the EvX crowd generally exhibit a lot of reasoning that could be described as falling under the genetic fallacy. But I think it is also fallacious to infer in the opposite direction — that is, that because of all the things you mention — intentionality, freewill, etc. — there must be a supernatural entity or dimension to reality.

    Seth: I thought that Labnut indicated that any number of things can bring meaning to a person’s life, a supernatural God being only one of them. Yes, he said that one’s life is the most meaningful when it includes *all* the elements, but I read it enumeratively. A person who only got meaning from God and none of the other things would have less meaning in his life than someone who had four of the five, not including God.

  23. Sorry DanK,

    But he clearly states “The deepest meaning is found in the combination of all five levels”. This very directly implies that if one lacks a transcendental god concept they cannot access the deepest level of meaning which is restricted to those who employ that concept along with the other four.

  24. Sorry, I just don’t see it. It’s inclusive. If I have 4 out of the 5, except for God, I have more meaning than if I have 1 in 5 or 2 in 5, with God.

  25. Hi Dank,

    If you have all 5 I cannot match you, there is no way around that. Also by listing the transcendental god category at level 5 it is given the highest importance as levels 1 through 4 clearly represent a progressive hierarchy. And is it really even defensible to state that having a transcendental god concept ( apart from or in addition to other concepts) always deepens the meaning we create and experience. I don’t think so, it may, it may not.

    I don’t think we can quantify the quality of meaning or purpose one creates at the subjective level. Certainly not by checking off categories on a list.

  26. labnut

    Seth, I had no intention of offending. Dan-K is right in that I meant it to be understood enumeratively and not evaluatively. Because of my beliefs there are additional levels of meaning accessible to me that you reject. You could reply that these are delusional beliefs and that delusional beliefs are not generally helpful. I in return would argue that these beliefs are one of the most persistent and long lived parts of human nature. And therefore they almost certainly fulfill a valuable function. You would then argue that far from being helpful they are the source of many historical evils. I would reply that these evils are inherent in humankind and that religion has only a limited power to overcome these evils. You would call that a no true scotsman argument, etc, etc, etc. These are well rehearsed arguments and it is impossible to pursue them without offending someone’s feelings. Mostly it is theists who are on the receiving end of this process. We take comfort in Jesus’ words – ‘Blessed are you, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake.‘(Matthew 5:11). This is a perfect example of the additional level of meaning accessible to Christians. You might, in return, argue that it is not deeper but superficial and exculpatory. And so we could go on, but I hope we can do it in the spirit of friendly debate.

  27. Thanks for the clarification Labnut,

    Perhaps I was more cranky than usual on short sleep this AM from working late.

    I would never call your beliefs delusional or make some of the other arguments you suggest regarding the way you create your own meaning. Why would I want to make such judgements? You are however still classifying ‘levels of meaning’ as being unavailable to me. Belief in a transcendental god is simply not synonymous with a level of meaning, and I maintain that I have access to the same levels of meaning as you. Many approaches can land on the same destination.

  28. labnut

    I would never call your beliefs delusional or make some of the other arguments you suggest regarding the way you create your own meaning. Why would I want to make such judgements?

    Yes, I know you did not say those things. I was merely illustrating how such discussions typically develop.

    You are however still classifying ‘levels of meaning’ as being unavailable to me.

    Then lets call it ‘forms of meaning’. Talk of a pecking order of levels or forms of meaning has missed the main point of my contribution. I am saying we create meaning in our lives by creating narratives about our lives. This process is an interior, reflective one that finds expression in many ways. This narrative represents our understanding of our identity, role, sense of value and purpose in life.

    This finding of meaning through internally created narratives is a subjective process. But is there an external source of meaning that transcends our subjective viewpoint? I and my co-religionists claim there is. Atheists, on the other hand, maintain that religion is merely another form of subjective narrative that has been widely shared.

    This argument hinges on a single point – can we detect external signs of purpose that transcend our subjective viewpoints? I have outlined some of the arguments for why I think we can detect this. Dan-K disputes, maintaining my arguments are not sufficient. This is a very fruitful area for future debate.

    Related to this is another important question. If God exists why does he not plainly reveal himself to us? In other words, why is God hidden? Carrier and Dawkins make much of this issue which reveals their crude, amateurish conceptions of God. I happen to think there is a powerful answer which I am sure we can discuss another time. In the meantime here is my humorous take on the subject – http://bit.ly/20KIhJt(The Scientist and the Formicarium). It was intended as humour but it says something important – the ant is utterly incapable of perceiving the Scientist which is why Dawkins Ant had to be inserted into the ant colony. I hope you understand the delicious irony of that statement.

  29. Seth: I don’t understand your point. Surely, people get meaning from their religious beliefs. Now, if you don’t and cannot — because you cannot believe in anything supernatural — then that type of meaning is unavailable to you.

    I don’t see how it could be otherwise. And I also don’t see what’s problematic about it.

  30. Thanks Labnut,

    What you write in your last entry is clear and I have no issues at all with that way of wording your beliefs.

    On the dispute regarding an external ‘source’ of purpose I tend to side with DanK. Actually though, the internal/external framework doesn’t hold much sway for me in the way I conceptualize meaning. I think of mind as an interaction between brain (situated in body) and environment. So I don’t think of mind or narrative as purely internal. I’m also not sure meaning is derived purely from narrative but I do think our narratives clarify and eventually refine and define our pre-reflective sense of meaning of purpose.

  31. Hi DanK,

    I think I see the confusion. I was speaking to ‘meaning’ in the sense of what it affords one to feel and how situates one to act or respond. The discussion was framed in terms of levels of depth of meaning, and being deprived of a certain depth of meaning was what I objected to. When Labnut reframed his wording I had no objection.

    So if meaning is defined purely on the source of the belief, then sure I wouldn’t have access to that meaning as being tied to that source. But I often hear the belief in a transcendental source as disposing one to a sense of meaning not available to someone with my belief structure.

    For example, this past week in a horrible tragedy a well known and very religious basketball coach lost his wife in an auto accident. He has responded with strength, grace, and forgiveness relying largely on his belief system all of which I applaud. Yet all over the airwaves the sentiment is that a non-religious person would not have the source of belief to respond similarly. This is the sense of ‘meaning’ I was referring to that I do not feel is only open to those with religous convictions. I am probably concieving of meaning differently than you since I am mot a philosopher.

  32. Hi Eric, sorry for the delayed reply. I was actually amused by Robert’s statement that there were no compelling arguments for why sentience evolved. Why would we need one? As long as it (and all its preceding forms/functions) would not interfere with reproduction, there is no reason it shouldn’t exist. Give me a compelling reason it couldn’t possibly have emerged and I’d start worrying about our lack of an explanation. Until then…

    That said, if I want to try armchair evopsych, I guess I’d say sentience seems to offer an advantage in decision-making, itself being a specified level of awareness regarding potential decisions and results. The more awareness (greater scope) the more sentience. The physical aspects would be almost trivial, some altered form of neural network connection providing increased and diversified processing capacity.

    On your scenario, I would debate whether ants wholly lacked sentience or preferences, and would argue their difference from robots. I would also not characterize the change in decision-making as some “subcontracting out” to the subject itself. The ant already has some sense of self, even if limited. And I would think that would include some level of punishment/reward. The decision of the ant wasn’t made elsewhere, or by something other than the ant.

  33. Hi Labnut, I agree with your overall argument connecting meaning and narratives (and it was well written).

    However I understand Seth Leon’s trouble with your statement that belief in all 5 forms of “meaning” grants the deepest meaning. At best it sounds like self-indulgent theism. But we can move beyond that.

    More important is that your 5th point “belief in a transcendent God” is merely one belief regarding Gods and/or sources of external purpose, and you have not explained why only that one specific type of entity is listed.

    And what is the importance of being external? Assuming such entities are external, feelings and beliefs about them and whatever purpose they give come from the same source as everyone else’s sense of purpose: inside.

    I agree with DanK’s (brief) argument against your position and agree with you that this is a fruitful area of future debate. I would also go further than DanK and say that while we do not have complete answers to the physical underpinnings of intentionality, free will, etc we are not completely lost (in principle) on how to answer these questions. Part of your idea likely stems from your misunderstanding of the “central assumption of atheism”. No one claims meaning and purpose emerged from some “… mechanism of blind, random, chaotic chance, starting from an absolute nothingness?”

    And while some atheists might move directly from life is possible without God(s), to there being no God(s), many (if not most) atheists have more reason than this to doubt the existence of God(s). The actual question being begged here is “What God(s) are you talking about?” I have yet to see any coherent evidence for any.

  34. labnut

    I suspect you haven’t fully appreciated what I meant when I said we find the meaning in our lives by constructing narratives about them. Here is a good, popular level article about the subject – Life’s Stories (http://theatln.tc/1IZzm1K).

    From the article:
    “Life stories do not simply reflect personality. They are personality, or more accurately, they are important parts of personality, along with other parts, like dispositional traits, goals, and values,” writes Dan McAdams, a professor of psychology at Northwestern University, along with Erika Manczak, in a chapter for the APA Handbook of Personality and Social Psychology.

    In the realm of narrative psychology, a person’s life story is not a Wikipedia biography of the facts and events of a life, but rather the way a person integrates those facts and events internally—picks them apart and weaves them back together to make meaning. This narrative becomes a form of identity, in which the things someone chooses to include in the story, and the way she tells it, can both reflect and shape who she is. A life story doesn’t just say what happened, it says why it was important, what it means for who the person is, for who they’ll become, and for what happens next.

    Storytelling, then—fictional or nonfictional, realistic or embellished with dragons—is a way of making sense of the world around us.

    We are meaning making machines and narratives are our primary means of making meaning. The article I quoted is a perfect example of this.

    A diversion.

    Scientismists feel the need to make sense of the world, just as everyone else does. They have rejected other narrative sources and so are left with a dry assemblage of science papers. They weave this into a narrative which we have come to call scientism. But the moment you weave a narrative it stops being the truth and becomes your subjective take on more than your truth but also your identity, role, values and purpose. This is the supreme irony of scientism for they have created a narrative that transcends science. The rest of us think it is a most impoverished narrative because it purposefully undervalues other narrative sources, because they are not science. They have become just like other religions by insisting that their narrative is the one true narrative.

  35. Hi Labnut,

    Your example regarding the way we incorporate narratives corresponds with my understanding. I was on that page, although I don’t like the machine metaphor with respect to human beings. I agree we do a lot of story construction in order to categorize and classify what we are feeling and doing in an ongoing process to define for our selves who we are and what we believe. I think these stories are always incomplete representations of our perceptions and actions, but can provide some degree of clarity and can feed back on our future perceptions and actions if we learn to recognize the stories for what they are. I think the self story telling process is a necessary and natural part of being human which does need to be harnessed to avoid falling into the trap of defining our self narrowly in a prison of our own making.

  36. Hi DB,

    Thanks for getting back to me. The reason that we might ask why sentience evolved, is because it apparently DID evolve. Surely it’s non trivial that pain is painful rather than simply a normal sort of information? You’re right that I can’t say why sentience does not exist, though I do know that I feel sensations myself, and therefore that it must exist. Furthermore I suspect that atoms, rocks, trees and so on have no sentience whatsoever. Thus if we live in a world of standard irrelevance, what would cause me to personally have sentience? This is what my stated theory addresses.

    Given the observations that you and EJ have made, I see that my “ants” thought experiment was not clear. Like you however, I suspect that they have some consciousness. Regardless of the beliefs which we have however, let’s imagine ants to not be conscious whatsoever, or even substitute them for a human built robot. This sort of “ant” shall thus be non conscious, and so will need programming from which to decide the various decisions which confront it each day. I’m saying that it must have instructions that reasonably address each and every situation that it faces while it’s walking through the forest, eating off my floors, or whatever else it happens to do.

    Evolution, however, seems to have said, “No, I won’t provide all instructions from which to run Philosopher Eric,” nor to my cat, nor even to the ants digging on my property, perhaps. It would seem that instead of writing each of our instructions to address each of the circumstance that we face, it gave up control somewhat. Instead evolution seems to have mandated that sensations of hunger, pain, disrespect, hope, empathy, and so on, cause existence good/bad for a given subject, therefore charging each of us to figure out what to do for ourselves given the punishment/reward dynamic that we feel. This, I believe, is what defines consciousness itself.