Change Work July 2014

The meaning of life

All Douglas Adams fans know that the answer to the ultimate question about life, the universe and everything, is... 42!  But the age-old question, "What's it all about?" still comes up all the time. You usually hear it from someone in reflective mood - perhaps after a drink or two - wondering what the purpose of life is. They don't really expect an answer, and most of the time we're all content with not knowing and to just get on with things.  But if something gives you cause to stop and think, then it becomes very important to have reasons.

Science produces more and more accurate and complete accounts of the natural processes that have led to the world being as it is.  It's answering the question, "How are we here?"  But we want to know "Why are we here?"

Many people find the answer to that question in their religious faith. Others have concluded that there is no "why", we just are.

(I must confess that, as I get older, I'm more likely to be asking "Why bother?" But that's another story!)

The ability to understand the world has given humans an enormous advantage over those other species that can only respond to what they perceive. We can predict what will happen in new circumstances that we haven't yet experienced and this creativity had enormous survival value to our ancestors. It was reinforced over the generations and has given us our civilisation.

But in this civilised world we can't resist using our creative abilities in ways that never arose in our hunter-gatherer past. Our craving for "meaning" leads us to invent it.

In the news, journalists analyse and give meaning to events.  I'm struck by just how much of the nightly news on TV consists of interpretation (as well as speculation) rather than reporting of facts. "Don't let the facts get in the way of a good story."  "If there's no news, make some up."  "If there's no apparent explanation, create one."

That latter is how science works - by hypothesising explanations for things. Crucially though, science then devises experiments to test the hypothesis by asking, "What are the logical consequences of this theory and do they actually happen?" If not, scrap the theory and look for a better one.  Journalist don't usually test their speculations or delete them when they turn out to be wrong.

For individuals, the need to find meaning in everything is particularly acute in our relationships with other people. "What did she mean by that?" is the kind of question that exercises most of us a lot of the time. You understand the sense of the words but you want to know the underlying thoughts - the intention. You might be able to ask for clarification but, typically, you will imagine the intention:

This is called "complex equivalence": making the connection "A means B" when you don't really know what the connection is, or even that there is one. And, as an individual filling the "meaning gap", you notice whatever confirms your interpretation and ignore what doesn't. Then you persist with the resulting beliefs and it can take a lot of contradictory evidence to shift them.

The trouble with all of this is that you quickly accept your imagined interpretaion of events as truth.

(Complex equivalence is one of the two common sources of mistaken beliefs. You imagine an intention on someone else's part and then believe it. The other is cause and effect, for example, "When you do that it makes me angry".)

When you imagine that you know what someone else is thinking we call it "mind reading".  You will always be wrong.  If it's important to know what their intention was (what they meant) then you must ask them! Of course, they may not tell you, or not tell the truth, but in most situations people want to be understood - and complain when they aren't.

What all of this comes down to, even for the ultimate question about the meaning of life, is that it's usually much more productive to ask "how?" rather than "why?", to search for evidence rather than inventing answers.

"Something only seems to be missing because you're expecting much more."Julian Baggini

"Because children grow up, we think a child's purpose is to grow up. But a child's purpose is to be a child." Tom Stoppard - the Coast of Utopia