Questions My (Late) Goldfish Asked Me about Meaning of Life

Uploaded 12/23/2020, approx. 49 minute read

In an age when youth is venerated as a youth cult, I am an old man. In an age that had given up on books, I devour them. And believe you me, I have had enough time to read them all, every single tome, every thought, to watch every video, every guru, every public intellectual, every philosopher and wannabe philosopher, every self-styled expert, every money-grabbing coach. I have watched them all, I have read them all.

But the most important figure in my life was Frederica. Everything I have learned I have learned from Frederica.

And Frederica, you may be short, was my goldfish. In her algae-ridden aquarium, my goldfish, Frederica, invariably appeared to be happy. She never complained, except when cold or hungry. She circled in the water, fins erect, mouth agape, the better to catch food, muscles. I don't really know if she had been happy or not. I don't even know if she was capable of happiness or if she was, whether her brand of happiness resembled mine as humans.

I can't fully empathize with a goldfish without anthropomorphizing her, projecting onto her my inner world. I can't put myself in my goldfish's non-existent shoes, even if she had any.

And still, there was a lot to learn from the late, lamented, my Frederica, when it comes to being content with life and with its offerings in her aquarium.

And so, thinking about Frederica and continuing to talk to her long after she went the toilet way, I came up with a series of questions and then with purported or attempted answers.

And this first video is dedicated to the questions.

Questions to ponder.

Life should not be confused with existence. Existence is a fact, the raw material of life. Life is what we do with and throughout our existence. It is a subtotal of our choices as expressed via our actions and behaviors.

So don't confuse the two, life and existence. Meaning, similarly, should not be confused with essence. Essence is our nature. It's the user's manual. It does not imply purpose except the purpose of existence.

Meaning is not essence. It cannot be derived from the essence. Only purpose can be derived from essence.

So that implies that meaning and purpose are not coterminous. They're not the same.

Let me try to simplify this with a parable.

Consider a life. Its essence, its purpose are clear and they are related via the actions of the life's designer or creator.

But what is the meaning of a life? Does a life have a meaning?

Essence also cannot be the outcome of choice. Where there is choice, there is no essence. Essence is immutable, unchangeable, given, fundamental.

But can I choose to act against my nature? Against my essence? If I am by nature cruel, sadistic and choose to act compassionately, am I not cruel or sadistic anymore? Am I now compassionate and pathetic? Or am I just a cruel sadistic man who merely fakes it, is faking it, chooses to suspend his nature, his essence, and act compassionately?

We are uniquely endowed with the ability to act against our nature in defiance of our essence. And this is what makes us human, the ability to suspend, to transcend our nature.

It is an important element in the meaning of human life. While we do construct our meaning, we do not and we cannot construct our essence.

Essence can be idiosyncratic, highly specific, highly individualistic. My essence can be different to your essence even though we are both human beings.

But essence is a template. We are born with our essence and it unfolds, unfurls and interacts with our environment throughout life.

Meaning, on the other hand, is, as the existentialists maintain, the outcome of cumulative choices.

We choose meaning and therefore it is subjective, it is arbitrary. Subjective and arbitrary it is, but is it real? Does meaning have any bearing on the world?

If we were to be transported and transplanted into another planet among aliens, would we still preserve the same sense of meaning and would we still pursue it in the same ways?

In other words, is meaning context dependent? Can meaning exist without a design imbued with the intentions and plans of a designer? Can meaning arise out of random events or stochastic processes?

After all, we use the language of probability in our description of the universe on both the micro and macro levels.

But are these merely language elements or do they reflect the true nature of the world, its essence? Even if they do, does that mean that they can render the world meaningful?

What is the relationship between the world out there, my interpretation of the world out there, my reaction to the world out there, including an instinctual, cognitive and emotional component, and my actions which are based on my interpretation of the world out there?

What's the relationship between all these? Can I choose to not react to the world, to not act, to not orient myself to the future, the temporal side of my action? Can I choose to orient myself to the present, the temporal side of my exposure to an interaction with the world? Can I choose to not transcend in Sartre's phrase?

Think of Viktor Frankl in Auschwitz, an extermination camp. Did he choose to live in the present or did he choose to live in the future? Was he interacting with his world or did he avoid it altogether?

I refer you to my previous video, uploaded today, about his logotherapy, Viktor Frankl's logotherapy.

The answer is, of course I can ground myself, embed myself in the present.

This is the foundation of all mindfulness therapies. I can choose to not orient myself to the future, to not foresee the outcomes and consequences of my actions, to not try to secure favorable outcomes from the environment.

In other words, to let go of the world.

Sure I can, but is this choice indicative of our freedom to choose meaning? Are we condemned to be free even when we elect to ignore the world and to not act? Can we derive meaning or at least self-definition, acquaintance with our essence, through inaction or does meaning necessitate action and orientation towards the future?

Moreover, the essence of meaning is different to the essence of choice. Meaning is unlimited. Meaning is immutable.

One can choose meaning, but once chosen and for as long as it applies, it is unchangeable.

Indivisible, innate, imminent and all pervasive. It is also the fount of all values, decisions, choices, beliefs about the world.

So choices are limited. They are constrained by circumstances, if not by freely self-imposed priorities, roles, values, mores.

So by definition, choices are mutable.

The opposite of meaning. Choices are mutable, changeable, divisible, transdued, reversible and the outcomes of values and beliefs start with bad faith.

Choices can be automated. Choices can be outsourced to, for example, to an external value or moral system, to an ideology, to a belief, to a social role, to an overriding priority. Choices are much more malleable. They're much more protean than meaning.

While outsourced choices are not one's choices, the choice to outsource is one's choice.

Moreover, the very principle of absolute freedom to make any choice is an external constraint because it interpolates, compels, compels one to choose even if and when one is authentically not inclined to choose, chooses to not choose, chooses to freeze.

In other words, meaning yields choices and consequent actions, not the other way around.

Our meaning is not generated by our choices because the mutable cannot create the immutable. Our meaning is not generated by our choices. Our choices are generated by our meaning.

Choices do not yield meaning. They derive from it.

Once the meaning changes, so do the choices and actions of an individual.

We all know that.

But if meaning is the antecedent, antecedent, if it precedes choice, how does it present itself? If it is not chosen by the individual, how does he come to adopt meaning?

Don't we choose our meaning? Does meaning emerge spontaneously, epiphenomenally, from a life lived? Does meaning amount to merely making sense of one's personal biography in circumstances? History?

What is one's personal biography or personal history if not the accumulation of one's choices?

Again, we come to choices, ultimately, on the ground level.

So if we derive meaning from life, our life, our lives are the accumulation of our choices, we derive meaning from choices. Meaning cannot emerge over time, for then it would be conditioned by and premised upon and derived from choices.

And we just said that choices derive from meaning. Meaning does not derive from choices.

So meaning cannot be temporal. It cannot emerge over time. It cannot be conditioned by choices. It cannot be premised on choices. And it cannot derive from choices, cumulative or not.

Meaning must be a priori, must precede choices. Yet if it is a priori analytically, as it is not dependent on the world, it is not dependent on knowledge of the world, it must be a priori in the analytical sense.

Where does it come from? Why is it different for each individual?

If it's out there, if it's a priori, if it's in the const language, a priori category, why don't we all have the same meaning?

It's like, you know, reality, the color red. Most of us wouldn't agree on the existence of the color red.

If meaning is out there and doesn't depend on our choices and actions, why don't we all end up with the same meaning?

What about negative meaning? One can surely say with certainty that one is not. One can more easily define one's inauthenticity than capture one's authenticity.

Can this serve as a source of meaning? Is it in principle meaningful to not be?

For example, to not be something?

What about exclusionary meaning and self-identity?

When our identity is in contrast to others, in opposition to others, the outcome of racism, for example, resentment, envy, can we derive meaning by contrasting with others, by excluding others?

Meaning, I said, cannot be derived from the world, nor can it be lost to or through the world. This is because we do not perceive the world directly. We perceive only our unique idiosyncratic perceptions and impressions of the world. And these perceptions of any presence of the world, even they're not real, they're filtered. They're interpreted by us. They're subjected to mathematical models in the brain. I mean, we don't have access to the world, let alone access to anyone else's mind.

We are islands in the fullest sense. We are solipsistic. Our emotions are powerful hindrance and they distort our ability to objectively seek for meaning.

Meaning derived directly from the gaze, memory or opinions of other people is nothing but narcissism.

So deriving meaning from affiliation with or from belonging to some collective, that's self deceiving. That's not meaningful. That's not meaning. Other people cannot serve as sources of meaning because they are also in search of meaning and their lives appear to them to be as meaningless as your life appears to you.

Relying on other people for meaning in tautological fashion, it's a tautology. It's bound to lead to circularity, a kind of infinite regression.


What about self-developed values? Morality, faith and a view of the world.

Weltanschau, for example, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche suggested, you know, why don't you become the source of your meaning? Why don't you become self-referential, self-recursive, self-sufficient?

Can such self-reference render one's existence meaningful? Can one be one's source of meaning?

And this leads to infinite regression as well.

What endows one, we ask, what endows one with the capacity to bestow meaning to start with?

Moreover, by rejecting conformity, one allows society to define or be negatively one's authenticity. By defying society, by defying authority, by acting consummately, one becomes authentic only in contrast to social conformity.

When you reject something, you're defined by it as much as when you accept it. Meaning can also not be derived from actions because activities are meaningful only within a context. It is the context that endows activities and by extension the actor with meaning.

But where does the meaning reside?

Context is observer dependent. Does the meaning reside in the common knowledge of the situation or in some kind of intersubjective agreement that something is meaningful? Aren't such agreements arbitrary? Aren't they culture bound?

In other words, aren't such agreements context dependent, which again leads to infinite regression?

We again come across tautology, tautology and circularity. It is culture that is context. It is context that determines which activities are meaningful within that culture, which is the context to this meaningfulness.

So culture refers to itself via activities, via actions and becomes its own meaning. It's an absolutely meaningless construction.

But the most common actually.

Let me try to go down to earth a bit.

Going from point A to point B mentally or physically is in itself you would all agree meaningless. Just going from A to B is meaningless unless there is no point B and the path itself is the destination, the journey.

Not the destination but the journey.

But most people are goal oriented. They don't regard the journey or the path as the destination. They're going from point A to point B.

And now in itself it's a meaningless activity. And presumably only point B is meaningful.

So you're departing from point A. It's point B that renders the whole trip meaningful.

And so we traverse an area whose lower limit point A, lower boundary point A is less meaning. And whose upper limit point B is more meaning.

We go from less meaning to more meaning.

The act of seeking meaning, the doubt, the path, the journey cannot in itself be meaningful because it assumes a want or a lack of meaning at the point of departure.

And hence the undertaking of the search. You cannot depart from meaninglessness.

From a meaningless point, point A. You cannot depart from a meaningless point in pursuit of meaning.

And you can definitely not attribute the locus of meaning to point B or to the journey. You must depart from meaning. You must catapult yourself from meaning, from a meaningful point A in order to bestow meaning on the journey, the path and the destination.

Point B is meaningful because other people say so. The seeker cannot decide on his own that point B is meaningful because he has never been to point B. He needs the experience and the opinions of those who have been to point B in order to determine its potential meaningfulness to him, which is by no means guaranteed as only he can be the judge of that. Only he can decide if point B is meaningful to himself. He cannot rely on other people.

And so if the act of seeking, seeking meaning, is interrupted before one gets to point B, the whole experience of seeking meaning, one's past in effect, is rendered meaningless.

Similarly, if one could pop a pill and find oneself in point B directly, its meaningfulness would still be preserved, except if reaching point B requires a struggle and sacrifices and suffering that in themselves are considered meaningful.

So, money worn in the lottery is easy come, easy go, because point B is about making the money, earning it, not about the piles of cash. A physical trip is meaningless. Whatever meaning is to be found in such pilgrimage lies in the parallel and correlated inner states which unfold as the trip progresses. This inner landscape evolves. The experience of being in point A, the nirvana of accomplishment, this experience is said to be meaningful, but what and where is this meaning?

It isn't the ability to reinterpret and reframe the world past and present. It is in a new perspective, because in a new perspective, reside new powers, transformation of the self.

Reaching point A is empowering. So meaning is a process of self or other transformation, not a static representation, not a statement.

So do science, magic or religion provide meaning? Yes, of course they do, by endowing us with power to transform ourselves via a new understanding of the world. They are not merely instrumental, they are conceptual.

Consider material possessions, for example. Material possessions allow you to act on yourself and on the world, to manipulate, to conquer, to alter.

But material possessions make use of existing concepts, existing paradigms.

Science and religion act on us and on our view of the world via paradigmatic shifts and conceptual upheavals. Science and religion offer both creative destruction or disruption and organizing principles.

And so do various schools of philosophy.

Treatment modalities in psychology, anything that provides an organizing principle and hermeneutic explanatory principle provides meaning.

So meaning has to do with empowerment. Meaning has to do with empowerment via a comprehension of the world, mediated through sets of concepts, rules and formulas.

Point A equals attaining this empowerment by gaining access to this knowledge, sometimes arcane knowledge.

The status of point A is meaningful, is derived from a consensus of earlier seekers of meaning.

Consequently, there are many points A and as many meanings.

And they are often incompatible.

What is the relationship between meaning and time? Is meaning eternal, permanent, infinite? Or does it evolve over time? Does it change? Can meaning survive death? Or is it limited to one's life span? Can prospective events and actions, imagined, planned, considered, can they change the meaning of one's life?

What happens to meaning after death? Where does the meaning go to? Do posthumous events change the meaning of my life retroactively?

Like things that happen after you die, do they change the meaning of your life or how your life is perceived in terms of meaning?

Well, presumably not in your eyes because your eyes are dead now after you die. Meaning doesn't change in your dead eyes in a state of post-mortem.

Only in other people's eyes.

So is meaning a collaborative effort? Is it a social undertaking? Is it a social artifact?

Even if the existence of a human species, humanity, mankind, can be shown to be meaningful, which is a dubious proposition to start with.

But let's assume there's a genius, a philosopher much more genius than anyone has ever been in. He succeeds to prove conclusively that the human species, mankind, humanity, has meaning.

Its existence has meaning.

Can I, as an individual, derive the meaning of my own life from the meaning of my species? Is the meaning of my life a subset of the meaning of the existence of my family, nation, mankind, football, club or even the universe?

What is the relationship between meaning and happiness? Is the state of being happy meaningful, ipso facto, in itself? Or is the striving towards happiness, interacting with the world and with others in prescribed ways, is this meaningful?

Our attempt to attain a state of happiness, is this a meaningful attempt? Or is this meaning?

Does finding meaning automatically induce happiness? Having a meaningful life entails the preference of certain values over other values, in other words, a choice.

What are the criteria for such a selection? How to assess value? How to rank values? How can we tell if certain values are more conducive to inducing meaning, more meaningful than other values?

Do we derive meaning from the values that we had adopted? Or vice versa? Do we select values according to the meaning that we attribute to life?

Sartre's absurd life project.

And didn't we say that meaning is not contingent upon choices? On the very contrary.

So it would seem to be that our values are derivatives of the meaning we attribute to the world and to our lives.

Some philosophers suggest that we should believe, we should have faith in a supreme being as a guarantee and a fount of meaning. We should make this leap of faith. We should unthinkingly obey the commandments of the supreme being as Yeshaya or Lebovich, the Jewish philosopher, Jewish-Israeli philosopher, say.

Martin Buber, Aidao.

So some introduced a supreme being into the equation. Presumably such a being is meaningful in itself and can bestow, kind of radiate its meaning on those who attach themselves to him via an act or state of faith.

It's like, you know, the court tales of meaning. Like this supreme being doesn't need anything external because he includes everything. Because it includes everything, this supreme being, it also includes its own meaning.

And so if you attach yourself to such a being, if you grasp by his coattails, you will have found meaning.

The attributes of such a being is infinite, is omnipresent, is omniscient, is omnipotent and possibly benevolent as a debate about this. You should watch my video about the Odyssey.

So the attributes of this being are supposed to somehow yield immanent meaning, but it is not clear how.

How does such a supreme being radiate meaning? Why?

It is also unclear whether his meaning, the meaning of that supreme being is exclusive, excludes all other possible meanings. Or is it, on the contrary, inclusive, includes all other possible meanings.

And finally, and we also don't know if the meaning of a supreme being with these attributes has any applicability to us, small, finite, stupid, mortal. Can we share the mind of God? God has meaning, or we have meaning? Why? What do we have in common with God?

Finally, we don't know how it is that faith extracts meaning from the divine being or the supreme being. By what process? In which ways is this meaning extracted? And how can we, what criteria do we have?

When we do extract the meaning, how do we know it's real? Not fake, not false.

There are false prophets. Satan is playing games with us, doesn't he? It's a fallustean world.

Meaning is therefore not unique, singular or objective. It is consensus-driven, statistical, and the outcome of polling.

Human interactions and cumulative experiences and wisdom are put into the mix. The consensus doesn't pertain to any one particular individual and is therefore not direct, not narcissistic, but it is not altruistic either. It just is existential.

Meaning is about being. Meaning amounts to a theory about the world. It must satisfy all the demands of scientific theories.

But in contra-distinction to scientific theories, it is also teleological. It deals with purposefully ultimate, not proximate, causation. In other words, it incorporates purpose, goal, direction, like the arrow of time. Time and meaning are intimately connected. Meaning is an amnetic, all-inclusive, coherent, consistent, logically compatible, insightful, aesthetic, parsimonious, explanatory, predictive, prescriptive, ideological, imposing, and elastic. It is a narrative, organizing, integrative, absolving, very often.

Meaning is supposedly reflective of the essence of that which it renders meaningful. It therefore cannot be transient. It cannot be speculative. It cannot be uncertain.

Essence is immutable and so is meaning.

So you see, we come from different directions to contradictory understandings, mutually exclusive understandings of meaning and essence.

Meaning is often linked to accomplishments, for example, to leaving one's mark on history or on one's personal history, at least. And this is considered meaningful.

The hidden assumptions are that the past is immutable and that change, improving one's lot, is important. And these are the twin illusions of permanence and progress. They are illusory because the past is subject to constant culture dependent revision. And progress is a value judgment frowned upon in many societies and periods in history.

What about a value neutral, value free transformation? If you seek something, transform something, transform yourself, transform your environment, the seeker, regardless of whether such changes seem to be progress, is the seeker's path still meaningful?

So if the seeker just is, exists, but keeps transforming himself and transforming his environment in a way that does not conform to any value, if it is at all possible, as a Gedanken experiment, a thought experiment, would that be meaningful without value? Would a value free, non-axiological meaning be meaningful?

Affecting change implies directed energy and activity, a sense of control. Can meaningful emerge from these sensations, the possession and exercise of control?


Let me repeat. Imagine that we could create a situation where someone would affect change in himself or his environment without adhering to any value system, any opinion and any judgment. It would just exist and be and do.

Still, affecting change is about power. It's about energy. It's about activity. It's about control.

Can meaningfulness emerge from these things?

Granted, exerting control makes some people feel good. It doesn't necessarily make them feel meaningful. Pleasure and an enhanced sense of well-being feel good. Happiness. They are not the same as leading a meaningful life. A meaningful life frequently is a very unhappy life. Suffering is intimately connected to me, as Jordan Peterson had popularized and Tranquil had observed decades before which it is possible to find meaning in pain, even in death, for example.

So can we derive meaning from events in life, including death? Does meaning survive death?

Coming back to the previous question, meaning is often retrospective. When we look back and we behold the pattern of interconnectedness, event A leads to meaningful event or outcome B.

Meaning assumes progression towards a goal, point B. Sometimes we do set goals and pursue them linearly. But more frequently, life's events are random. Their outcomes are serendipitous, fortuitous or calamitous, but inadvertent. We ascribe to your logical causation, orienting meaning to events only when and if the outcome is favorable.

But death ends all events. It renders one's whole preceding life meaningless. There is no meaning without a sentient being capable of deriving or comprehending or observing meaning. Our personality or accomplishments may be judged to have been meaningful by others after we are dead, but they can never be meaningful to us posthumously after we are dead because we are no more, we don't exist.

Meaning is predicated on our existence.

Hence the need to believe in the afterlife and in its rewards or punishments which make our life and actions we took in our life meaningful. This is why we have this need. This is why we have the need to believe in a legacy.

When we die, we will leave behind our books, our thoughts, our intellectual accomplishments, our children, a legacy, but rewards and the avoidance of punishments. These are goals. Attaining goals has to do with gratification, not with meaningfulness.

What if the goals achieved were to be guaranteed to be eternal?

Let's assume that malignance of love, narcissism revisited, my book will survive forever. It will be eternal.

When we hearken back to the medieval ages, they believe that rewards in heaven, health penalties, health punishments are eternal.

So they introduce the concept of eternity into rewards and punitive measures. They said if you live a good life, your rewards in heaven will be eternal. If you are evil, your punishment in hell will be eternal.

What if we were to introduce the concept of eternity into our lives? Everything we do will live forever. Our children's lineage is guaranteed forever. If we were to remove time, time itself, would then eternity guarantee us meaningfulness? Eternity is immutability. It's a lack of change.

So is eternity the guarantee of meaningfulness? Isn't meaningfulness caused by transience?

For example, in human life, isn't meaningfulness induced by the very fact that we're about to die? Our life is meaningful because we're about to die, isn't it?

Or is meaningfulness caused by transience, mortality in our case? What is the role of time in generating meaningfulness or meaninglessness?

Also, what is the distinction and what are the differences between imminent meaning and teleologically? Is imminence linked to performance and to eternity? And is teleology by definition connected to motion and is therefore time dependent, time defined, and time limited owing to its dependence on change?

When we search for meaning, which of the two kinds are we looking for?

As limited mortal beings, can we even grasp imminent meaning? Or are we bound to fallaciously reduce true, out-there imminent meaning to the teleological variety, even as we mistakenly elevate teleological meanings to the level of eternal truth?

It's a problem. Our limits, the fact that our hardware is finite, it's a problem in trying to tackle questions that require an infinity of mind.

Indeed, is there a necessary linkage between truth and meaningfulness? Can a falsity, can a lie be meaningful even when it is known to be a lie? Meaningfulness is a state of being imbued with meaning.

If one were to be hypnotized, if one were to be dragged into this state, would we as observers still pronounce that his life is meaningful?

In other words, if you acquire meaning by abusing substances, or if you acquire meaning while in a hypnotic state, is your life meaningful? You would insist, maybe, that your life is meaningful. You would insist that your LSD trip was very meaningful to you, as Timo Felire and others did, Ellen Ginsberg.

But why is our judgment superior to these people? Why is our judgment superior to that of a junkie? Why is our judgment superior to a hypnotized subject?

In what way?

We would maintain that a junkie's life is meaningless because his self-attested state of meaningfulness has been induced externally because he is not in self-control. He is not in full awareness. He is not in control of all his faculties. He has surrendered his locus of control.

But is meaning intimately linked to control, let alone self-control?

It seems that there are two conditions to a state of meaningfulness.

One, that it is an inner state and self-induced. And two, that one is in an uncompromised position to judge whether one has attained meaningfulness.

So the lives of drag addicts and cult members do not meet these conditions. Their meaning is a simulacrum, is an imitation, is fake.

Progress of meaning isn't necessary, but not a sufficient condition. Outside input is required in order to establish a certain sense of enlightenment.

Is the subject in his right mind, for example, psychotic people, they claim to have meaning? Is the subject in full control of his faculties?

Drag addicts claim to have meaning, they are in control.

Did the subject reach point B on his own in a process which unfolded internally and not inexorably, which was induced internally and not externally, which he was aware of and able to stop at any minute?

So attaining meaningfulness is a collaborative effort, not a solipsistic endeavor because the judgment of external observers, the judgments and opinions and observations and even experiments of external people is crucial to the establishing of meaning.

It also requires a conscious investment of psychic resources on a regular basis in a controlled environment. So put together these requirements remind us of two other human undertakings, learning and experimentation.

Learning and experimentation have the same attributes as meaning or seeking meaning.

Is meaning idiosyncratic? Can someone find meaning in something that all other people find meaningless?

The consensus guards against delusions. The consensus serves as a filter. If you are the only one who finds meaning in something and the rest of humanity doesn't, something is wrong with you. You are in a delusional state, you have a delusional disorder.

But isn't self-delusion a potent tool in the pursuit of meaning? Isn't even psychosis a very important instrument in obtaining meaning?

One could easily argue, make a case that most religious prophets would today have been considered psychotic, mentally ill, and yet they have generated more meaning than anyone else. There's no dispute about this. A lot of this meaning is delusional, but some of it is not.

So psychosis could generate meaning and yet psychosis and delusional disorder, these are solipsistic states, they are more dependent on a collaborative effort.

Why pursue meaning at all? Isn't mere survival meaningful? Isn't it enough? Isn't pleasure seeking meaningful? A life of doing and acting as an antidote to envy and angst. Aren't we meant to merely survive, merely act? Meant by who? By a designer? In a world without a creator and therefore without a plan or without intent, is meaning possible at all?

If acting in itself constitutes an engender's meaning, then what kind of acting? What type of acts? All acts? Random acts?

Acts that involve no forethought, intention, planning, innovations, creativity, or motivation? Do they generate meaning?

What about criminal acts? Utterly? Beyond the pale acts like pedophilia? What about the actions of our autonomous nervous system? Our autonomous nervous system acts all the time. That's why you have a heartbeat.

Can these actions endow your life with meaning? Is your heartbeat meaningful? Is the firing of neurons in your brain meaningful? What does meaning reside in your brain? In your interpretation of what's happening in your brain?

So that's not action. It's not the action that generates meaning.

What does the world mean to me? What do I mean in the world? What do I mean to the world?

I keep my goldfish alive. I kept it alive. I fed it. I changed water in her aquarium.

And I did this because, one, my transactional gratitude. My goldfish gave me peace of mind, gave me pleasure, and I gave it food and care. It was a deal, a business deal.

And number two, I value life. I strive to fend off its destruction. Life equals order. Death equals disorder and entropy.

I don't like disorder and entropy. I'm compulsive in arranging all the objects in my room. I'm like Hercule Poirot in more than one way.

So I value life and the order it represents. I try to sustain it.

And number three, the death of my goldfish will remind me of my own mortality. It caused me great anxiety and grieving.

And finally, I wanted to prolong the benefits of the existence of my goldfish. I wanted to prolong my pleasure, my peace of mind.

And so to the goldfish, I was the source of life itself. The goldfish would have surely died without them, though it may not have been aware of this fact.

It behaved as though it were.

Can we generalize my goldfish? Will I cease to keep my goldfish? Will I have ceased to have kept my goldfish alive if my goldfish were ill or unable to provide me with the aforementioned benefits?

I don't think so. I got attached to my goldfish. I got attached to the memories of the good times my goldfish and I had together before my goldfish got sick. I'm attached and was attached to what my goldfish stood for. It represented constancy, loyalty, happiness, and I was grateful to my goldfish for having kept its side of the bargain for as long as it could before it got ill.

So attachment plus meaning plus gratitude outweighs the utilitarian calculus.

There are ways to fend off death, but do they bestow and endow meaning? Is fending of death a meaningful activity? Is the sole aim of life to fend off death? Are we mere negentropic agents, agents that act against entropy? And is having an aim or a purpose the same as having a meaning? Does it depend on whether our purpose is baked in, hardwired, the result of being designed for a purpose? Or maybe it's not hardwired and we choose our purpose.

So does meaning depend on whether the purpose is hardwired or chosen?

Take a spider's web. Don't actually.

But consider a spider's web. Does a spider's web possess meaning? Is it meaningful? Independent of human observers who endow it with meaning?

I'm not disputing that a spider's web has a function. Surely it has a function. Perhaps even it has a purpose teleologically, although the proposition that nature, if not the spider itself, yielded a purposeful web is debatable in the absence of a designer.

But forget all that. There's a function, maybe a purpose.

But does it have a meaning? Even if we agree that the spider's web has a purpose, is it meaningful to the spider? Is it meaningful to the web a purpose? Probably not.

As it is not, the spider is not sentient, is not self-aware. If it is meaningless to the spider, is it meaningful to nature? Is it meaningful to us? Is it meaningful to the spider's prey? Is it nature equally automatic and rigid, hardwired?

If the spider's web is meaningful only to us as observers, how can we be sure that it is meaningful universally at all? How can we be certain that meaning is an observable parameter or intensive property that is independent of any specified observer?

Human beings are not like spiders. Human beings are not even like goldfish, alas. They're endowed with introspection, a consciousness of their own existence and an insight into their inner landscape and their internal condition, their entrails, mental entrails.

And human beings have the ability to imagine possible futures, possible worlds, and re-imagine, re-frame, and reinterpret the past.

And these two endowments or curses, depending how you look at it, they contribute to the confluence of function, purpose, and meaning in human life.

Because humans are designers, they intentionally create functional objects whose purpose is ostensibly also their meaning. That's the source of the confusion. We are creators. We were made in God's image.

Similarly, human beings treat their own lives as objects. They mold their lives to avoid dysfunction, to enhance functionality, to accomplish selected goals.

Transhumanists and many bio-engineers believe that humans should apply the same principles to their bodies and thus supplant natural selection with volitional selection.

But will appropriating these natural functions, directing a revolution henceforth, will this imbue our thus objectified selves and lives with meaning?

Are we not confusing choice, direction, selection, function, and purpose? Means with meaning, which is the end. Are we not confusing means and end?

Means is the mysterious, elusive end. It's not the means to obtaining this end.

Function, purpose, selection, these are the means, the tools to reach meaning. They are not meaning.

Meaning is sometimes said to be the end, both literally and figuratively.

We deploy varied means to achieve predetermined ends.

It is commonly assumed that if we were just to wait to the end of a process, a life, an event, we will uncover its meaning.

Religion explicitly states that the meaning of human history lies in the end of time, in the end of all days.

Why should the end process be possessed of this privileged status? Why do we privilege the end over the beginning? Why not the beginning? Why not the midpoint?

Perhaps because we are all too painfully aware of how little control we have over unintended consequences, external shocks, externalities, even with the best of intentions, designs, planning, and forethought, look at the pandemic.

Real, invariant knowledge, the truth, can be obtained only when movement ceases. When entropy takes over, the dust settles and we die.

But wait a minute, I said the truth. Is meaning the same as the truth? Must meaning be truthful? Can we not derive meaning or come across meaning, even accidentally, in mid-process when the truth hasn't fully revealed itself?

Now, back to Frederica.

Is my aim or purpose to keep my goldfish alive, among other aims and purposes? Is my conduct instinctual, built-in design, and I only intellectualize it by superimposing on a teleological construct? Or is my aim or purpose to keep my goldfish alive the outcome of a conscious choice? Can I choose to not keep my goldfish alive? I have a choice, and I can make choices in this world, but these choices are constrained by my template and by the rules of the game.

Many theoretical choices are just that. Theoretical, inapplicable to the world, is given.

Even when I strive to change the world, the set of possible modifications is predetermined, and subject to the laws of nature, including my nature. We are limited, much more than we care to admit.

And can I alter nature? Really? I can act on nature. I can act within nature by rearranging and manipulating its ingredients and constituents and building blocks. Can I change my nature?

The answer depends on the limitations of introspection and constitution, physical and mental.

But, by and large, no.

Does the world have a choice with regards to me? Not the physical world, nature, but the human world. Do other people have choices? Do they exercise them frequently when it comes to me?

This is one of the attributes that set humans apart from nature. Humans do have choices. They exercise.

But is having a choice, is exercising a choice, a meaningful or meaning-generating feature or action? If it is, is it because it's not natural? Maybe meaning is not natural. Maybe meaning arises only when we act but not naturally, unnaturally, supernaturally.

God endows the world with meaning, and it's a supernatural being. Humans make choices, and this choice is apparently a conscious, you know, can go either way, and that's not natural, because nature is hardwired, baked in.

So, when we deviate from nature, meaning arises. So, do we acquire more meaning the further we distance ourselves from nature? What in nature deprives us in our life of meaning? Is it the automatism of nature, the lack of conscious choice? Is it the valuelessness, the lack of context, nature's indifference, lack of emotions? What in all this?

Think about the following combos, triads, combinations.

Triad number one, attachment, memory, gratitude. Triad number two, choice, values, context, emotions.

These are the attributes of God.

The secret of religion is that it purports to provide meaning.

Can we derive these two triads without resorting to a God and within human life, exclusively embedded in and struggling with nature as it is?

Is there meaning without an external source of meaning?

The ultimate privilege of certain. It's like quantum mechanics writ large.

Can meaning be engendered internally without degenerating into circularity, tautology and self-reference? And in which ways is God not a part of the system? In which ways is God external? Is any meaningful conversation about meaning possible without a God? Looming death renders life both meaningful and meaningless. It is an engine of meaning.

As far as we are concerned, nothing we do, nothing we accomplish survives death as far as we are concerned. And therefore nothing is meaningful to us, but it may be meaningful to other people. And so it may survive our physical demise, extending our meaning of our life, the meaning of our life beyond determination of our life.

And this is only scratching the surface.

Consider the following. Can robots, indistinguishable from human beings, robots that pass the Turing test with flying colors, androids that look exactly like human beings and cannot be told apart, can these have a meaningful life?

In other words, do these robots possess the capacity to have a meaningful life?

It is conceivable that in the far future such robots will be capable of making autonomous choices.

But is this free will and necessary and sufficient condition for meaningfulness? Can someone have a meaningful life if his life is totally predetermined? Is it possible to entirely predetermined anything, let alone a life, human or machine?

Our ants take ants, not ant, ant, insect. Are ants capable of having a meaningful life?

What about bacteria? What about the COVID virus?

An uncertainty principle, if we were able to inquire this of the ant and the ant were able to respond, then her life would not be predetermined and she would not be an ant. But would her life be potentially at least meaningful?

If we endow the ant tomorrow, we implant a chip in the ant and she becomes self-aware, introspective, conscious and creative. She becomes, in other words, a human ant. She becomes purposeful. She becomes able to make choices, but does her life become meaningful?

What trend is an entity capable of having a meaningful life?

When we say entity A is capable of having a meaningful life, is it the same as saying entity A has quality B, the capacity to have a meaningful life? Or is it the same as saying entity A is capable of having quality C, a meaningful life? Or is entity A is D, capable of having a meaningful life?

You see how many variants there are.

Let me repeat this, it's crucial.

When I say entity A is capable of having a meaningful life, one interpretation is that entity A has quality B, entity A has the capacity to have a meaningful life. Or entity A is capable of having quality C, meaningful life. Or entity A is capable of having a meaningful life.

There's an identity here. That's what entity A is.

What is this capacity? Is it reflexive? Is it automatic? Is it learned? Is it acquired? Is it intuitive? Is it analytic?

What is this capacity to derive meaning?

A meaningful life does not have to be happy. We know that. It doesn't have to be fulfilling, even pleasant, rational, consequential, influential. None of these are sine qua non, necessary conditions for a meaningful life.

So, for example, can a dream state be meaningful in and of itself?

You remember the movies? The Truman Show? The Matrix? There were people there, and they were either in a dream state, or they didn't know it, but they were inside a television show. Their life was not real. It was a television, it was a script, television script.

So, can a dream state be meaningful in and of itself? If we were never to wake up for instance, if we were trapped in a virtual reality universe, there was a technical malfunction. We couldn't wake up. We remained trapped in the machine, in the dream state.

Would our life have meaning?

We tend to think that it wouldn't have been.

But why? Why is such a life meaningless?

What makes such a life meaningless?

If this life is coherent, consistent, feels real, involves relationships and accomplishments, why is this life meaningless?

What makes such a life lived in a dream state within a machine less worthwhile than if it were spent in real reality?

That's why people keep saying reality is a simulation. It's not a simulation, or at least we can't prove that it is a simulation, or falsify this assumption. It's a meaningless statement.

But they feel that it's a simulation.

What if we could direct our dreams via lucid dreaming? So, we could direct the dreams indefinitely.

So, with this directed, resulting lucid dreams in aggregate amount to a life imbued with meaning, can we disentangle morality from meaningfulness?

We can't, because there is no such thing as an amoral or morally neutral act or existence. Morality in itself is not a form of meaning, of course.

Leading a moral life may bestow meaning, but it's not the meaning that it bestows.

The same goes for happiness. Living a content and worthwhile life may endow such a life with meaning.

Even a hedonistic, pleasure-oriented thought can be meaningful, but it is not the same as the meaning endowed or bestowed.

We should not confuse that. The ends with the means with the end.

Is meaning dependent on the narrative quality of a life lived? The coherence of such a life, intelligibility, plotting, purpose, direction, transcendence.

Can, for example, a big Lebowski meandering life with the life of a slacker, the life of sensory deprivation, self-denied? A life in coma, spent in vegetative state. Can such a life be meaningful?

According to most religions and many philosophies, asceticism is actually a condition for a meaningful life.

Avoiding life, rejecting life, denying life, cutting down life to the bare bones is the condition for a meaningful life.

What is a monk or a nun? It's someone who has renounced 99% of life and everything it has to offer, and yet they claim that their life, their life, their lives are meaningful, ours are not.

Is meaning in general, and life's meaning in particular, an objective good, distinguished by its superiority, worthiness, the reactions and emotions it evokes, judgments and values it is attached to, its history?

And if so, is there a recipe for securing this objective good, for getting hold of it by making the right choices, for example, possessing the appropriate motivation, I don't know, drive, urge, desire, something?

Where is the way to meaning?

Perhaps when we speak of meaning in life, we have in mind one or more of these related ideas, certain conditions that are worthy of great pride or admiration, values that warrant devotion and love, qualities that make a life intelligible, comprehensible, or ends apart from base pleasure that are particularly choice worthy.

That's what we say meaning, we mean these things.

Perhaps by studying a meaningless life, we can hit upon a uniform and unifying definition of a meaningful life.

Is a meaningless life wasted, unreasonable, futile, absurd? If meaning is a good, objective good, like I don't know, a glass of water.

So if meaning is an objective good that bestows meaningfulness, what are the properties of this good?

This object, must such a good be infinite, perfect, eternal, immutable, universal?

Is such an objective good of meaning?

Is meaning invariant? Or is it observer-dependent, subjective? Can meaning be statistically inferred? Can it be normalized, a matter of common opinion, an intersubjective agreement, an opinion poll? Or is it the exclusive domain of a sovereign individual who is solely qualified to judge if his or her life is meaningful?

Is meaning constituted by the mind almost solipsistically? Or is it imported from the outside? Is it the outcome of feedback or input? Or is it self-generate? Is it conscious or unconscious? Is it recognized out there by its beholders as a good or a property?

And if so, which kind of good or property? Does it have an autonomous existence, an intrinsic value, intrinsic value that are independent of any judgment, value or opinion?

For meaning to arise and a state of meaningfulness to be established and accomplished, is it enough to adopt a passive stance to believe in something, for example? Or is a proactive attitude called for? For example, seek something aggressively, manifestly, consistently. Do we have to do something? Or do we have to just be?

Some schools of philosophy and metaphysics and mystics, they say that the less you do, the more likely you are to come across meaning.

The misconception is that one's life is more meaningful, the more one gets what one wants very strong, what you desire. The more you achieve your highly ranked goals, the more you do what you believe to be really important, the more meaningful your life is.

Yet many, maybe even most, accomplished professionals. People with degrees, publish papers and books, famous, I don't know, many of these people will tell you immediately they're unhappy, their lives are meaningless. They come, you know, they go to therapy.

The value these people place on their existence is so low that self-destructively and self-defeatingly they do drugs and sometimes even commit suicide. This and we, angst, dissatisfaction, may even be the human condition, prevents all lives from possessing meaning. That's the pessimistic strand of nihilism.

Let's take it.

Reductio ad absurdum.

Consider trimming your toenails. Trimming your toenails. I hope you do it regularly.

Does this activity confirm meaning? Most people say what? Trimming toenails? Meaningless.

But this would be the wrong answer. Saying that trimming your toenails is meaningless would be the wrong answer because it ultimately depends on the context.

If one is trimming one's toenails as a part of a ritual or to uphold the belief system or to participate in a beauty contest or to appeal to and attract her lover or to provide a lesson in personal hygiene to others, then even this trivial and ostensibly pointless and repetitive activity acquires meaning, becomes meaningful.

If one is a pedicurist and takes pride in her vocation, trimming toenails becomes the foundation upon which her self-esteem, sense of self-worth, creativity, pleasure and meaningful life are constructed.

To cut a long story short, specifying the act is not enough. Context is critical. Meaning seems not to be subjective, not to be objective, but contextual.

Okay, you see, what about harming other people? Causing them pain wantonly, sadistically. What about killing someone? Can this modus operandi confirm meaning on one's life? Yes, it can.

If one takes pride in one's abusive bullying and regards it as a creative art form to be perfected and honed, and if one derives overwhelming pleasure in inflicting agony and anguish on other people and regards the attainment and securing of pleasure as meaningful goals, if one kills at the service of his nation state, that's called a soldier, it's another example.

Is it therefore possible to compile a list of invariantly meaningful activities? Must such activities always be moral, rational, creative, pleasurable, aspirational, loving, beneficial to others, help realize one's potential, ambitions, anything?

Is there any standard, any criteria that will allow us to compile a list of activities that are always meaningful?

What? Think about this. Hitler must have regarded his career not as heinous, but as all the above. Moral, rational, creative, pleasurable, aspirational, loving, beneficial to others and realizing potential and ambitions.

Must we and can we substitute an objective list for Hitler's subjective appraisal of his own actions?

Who is the ultimate judge? Is Hitler the ultimate judge of the meaningfulness of Hitler's life, or are we?

What guarantees and ascertains the objectivity of any list we compile of meaningful undertakings? What is the source of this imputed objectivity?

For a life to be meaningful, should its significance be equally distributed throughout its parts? Can a life subsist of clusters of meaningfulness, separated by long stretches of meaninglessness? And such a life can it be called overall meaningful?

Can the meaningful parts arise without the meaningless ones? Don't the meaningless stretches, these meaningless enclaves and islands, don't they serve as incubators of meaning?

And so they yield, they birth the meaningful parts?

Should the meaningful parts be various, not repetitive? Does repetition and routine, wrote, do they detract from life's meaningfulness?

Someone who has spent his entire life making, doing a single thing, single movement, let's see, is life meaningless? Can we judge a life to have been meaningful before it is over? Is the whole likely to give rise to an emergent, epiphenonal meaning, not inherent in the parts, or in the sum of the parts? Is it like a narrative, a story, a plot, with an ending, or a punchline, without which the whole sequence appears pretty meaningless?

According to Schopenhauer, life acquires meaning when we deny our narcissistic will, when we continue to exist as beings devoid of will.

This would imply that normal, willful existence is automatically meaningless. But, of course, it takes an act of will to adopt this prescription and embark on such self-denial.

Nor is it clear why being possessed of a will renders one's life meaningless.

The notion is counterintuitive, as Viktor Frankl had noted. We usually associate will-driven goal attainment with the acquisition of meaning, not with its undermining.

Kierkegaard suggests that to render life meaningful, one must find a unifying principle, an underlying narrative, and a single dedicated goal to which one is devoted.

But an equally potent argument can be made to the contrary. That plurality and diversity foster an engender meaning.

Nor is it clear why only a relationship with the infinite can bestow meaning on one's life. Or rather, that it cannot accomplish the same goal with less exertion and implosibility and suspension of judgment.

These are the questions, and I'm going to spend the next few videos actually answering them. I encourage you to try to find your own answers, thereby imbuing your life with enhanced meaning.

Thank you for listening.

If you enjoyed this article, you might like the following:

Happy Birthday, Mr. Vaknin: Lessons of a Life Ill-lived

In this lecture, Professor Sam Vaknin reflects on his 63rd birthday and shares an interview he had with Scott Jacobson. He discusses the irrationality of celebrating birthdays and emphasizes the transient and meaningless nature of life. Vaknin also talks about his early life, the lessons he learned in different stages of life, and the decline of his physical and mental capabilities. He advises on career, ambition, and the importance of not compromising in one's career. Ultimately, he expresses that he looks forward to death as the ultimate respite.

Avoid 3 Errors in Search of Meaning in Life

In this transcript, Professor Sam Vaknin discusses the human search for meaning and the three mistakes we make when trying to find it. He argues that we should let the path choose us, rather than trying to choose our own path, and that we already have all the answers we need, but lack the ability to identify them. He also suggests that we should focus on asking the right questions, rather than seeking the correct answers, and that relationships and love are the foundation of meaning. Finally, he quotes the Dalai Lama, who suggests that many people sacrifice their health and present happiness for the sake of money and the future, ultimately dying without having truly lived.

Reality Or Shared Fantasy Your Choice (from Best Offer To The Matrix)

Professor Sam Vaknin discusses the concept of reality and fantasy, using examples from popular movies such as The Truman Show and The Matrix. He delves into the idea of living in a dissociative state and the construction of narratives in our minds. Vaknin also explores the ethical implications of imposing happiness on others and the philosophical implications of virtual reality and simulation. He concludes by connecting these concepts to narcissism and shared fantasy in relationships.

Are YOU a simulation? (with Benny Hendel)

Professor Sam Vaknin discusses philosopher David Chalmers' view that simulations are as real as reality and that reality may be a simulation. Vaknin disagrees with Chalmers on two main points: 1) Vaknin believes that there will always be a conscious act of will required to switch between reality and simulations, and 2) even if our reality is a simulation, it is still our privileged frame of reference and cannot be escaped. Vaknin argues that Chalmers' view requires an impossible vantage point outside of both reality and simulations to compare them.

Suicide: Why Choose Life, Not Death!

Professor Sam Vaknin discusses the rising tide of suicidal ideation among people of all ages and cultures and provides a philosophical foundation for why people should choose life. He argues that existence is always richer in potential than non-existence and that life is full of potentials because it is complex and because of other people. He also criticizes modern society for presenting falsities, lies, manipulations, and life substitutes that limit people's promise and suppress their free will. Ultimately, he urges people to choose themselves and realize that their existence alone suffices to steer everyone and everything in another direction and towards an alternative destiny.

Consciousness is: Intending Inwards (with Benny Hendel)

Professor Sam Vaknin discusses the problem of consciousness and the psychophysical problem, which is the linkage between the physical body and our consciousness. He argues that consciousness is a secondary phenomenon, and the primary phenomenon is intentionality, which is a mode of relating to external physical objects and internal objects. He believes that intentionality is universal and is the organizing principle of mental life, and that reality is observer-defined. He argues that his thesis reunites the mind and reality, and that understanding this can help us take responsibility for our role as creators in nature.

Dostoyevsky’s Beef With Psychology Path Towards Its Renaissance ( Congress Presentation)

Professor Sam Vaknin discusses Fyodor Dostoyevsky's quarrel with psychology and how it contrasts with modern psychology. Dostoyevsky's work delves into the human soul and the individual's reaction to society, contrasting with the statistical and pseudo-scientific approach of modern psychology. Dostoyevsky's characters struggle with morality, suffering, and the conflict between the pursuit of truth and the rejection of life. His use of symbolism and exploration of the self reflect his own inner conflicts and his commitment to truth. His characters' inner fixity and rejection of life lead to a spiritual death, and his work serves as a critique of narcissism and the pursuit of perfection.

Chair Work Be Your Abuser, Talk To Him Her For 10 Minutes

Professor Sam Vaknin discusses the concept of nothingness and suggests using chair work, a psychological technique, to better understand oneself and others. He reads excerpts from Oliver Sacks' book "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat" and James Tiptree's "Meet Me at Infinity" to illustrate the importance of memory, identity, and self-discovery. Vaknin emphasizes the need to let go of ego and status, and to embrace empathy and understanding in order to grow and change.

The Rich Have You BRAINWASHED: Capitalism is a Zero-sum Game, They WIN, YOU LOSE

Professor Sam Vaknin's lecture at Euro College in North Macedonia went viral due to its complexity, covering history, cultural studies, and economics. He clarifies that he is qualified to discuss economics due to his extensive experience and publications in the field. Vaknin argues that capitalism is a zero-sum game, benefiting the rich at the expense of the poor, and provides evidence to support his claim, including the impact of taxation, inflation, and the depletion of natural resources. He also discusses the illusion of economic growth through fiat money, debt, and a symbolic economy, ultimately concluding that the system is rigged to benefit the rich and exploit the poor.

Free Will: Illusion or Reality?

Free will is a useful fiction that helps humans make sense of life and provides self-efficacious guidance. It is an article of faith rather than a fact or hypothesis, and has no place in modern scientific discourse. However, it is crucial for human civilization and moral responsibility. The concept of free will depends on the frame of reference and level of description, and while it may not exist from a cosmic point of view, it is a powerful organizing principle from a human perspective.

Transcripts Copyright © Sam Vaknin 2010-2024, under license to William DeGraaf
Website Copyright © William DeGraaf 2022-2024
Get it on Google Play
Privacy policy