Tuesday, 1 September 2015

What is the Meaning of This?

Today's blog is about the subject of meaning and its a fairly "stream of consciousness" type of a blog. As I write I am just back from my daily exercise which is my chance to blow some cobwebs out of my mind and loosen up my gradually aging body. It happens quite often in these times that thoughts come to mind and coalesce in ways that are fruitful and many of the blogs you see here are a result of such times. This is going to be another one like that.

So if you have been reading this blog at any time during this year you will know that my grand subject has been human being. I have been asking myself what it means to be human, where humans might be going and what the difference might be between a human being and the possible technological beings that we might become in the future. There has also been a strand of that which concentrated on consciousness. I have found it all greatly stimulating and it has brought me forward in my own thinking and inspired much new music from me that led me down new paths.

It was a couple of weeks ago, however, that it finally dawned on me what this was all about though. It was then that I realized that the great question here, perhaps the greatest question of all, was the question of meaning. Read back through some of my earlier blogs if you like and confirm this for yourself. It further dawned on me at that time that the question of meaning had really been the question that has animated me from my earliest days as a thinker back when I was 8, 9 and 10 reading biblical stories or The Odyssey which I read aged 10 at school. There was always a sense of wonder with me (a naive sense of wonder, I might add) and that has probably not served me very well in the long run but it has meant that I wanted to try and get answers to the questions that have animated my life.

Fast forward to a middle-aged man with 35 years more reading and experience under his belt. Meaning, why things mean, how things mean, what things mean, have come to be the central questions of my existence. Perhaps they are, in various forms, for everyone. Not everyone confronts these questions of course. Some try to hide from them or run away from them, scared of the possible answers. But I take a more prosaic and present view of things. Life would be hell if I didn't try to work out some answers. My thinking and reading this year have brought some progress for me it seems. At least, it feels that way. And as those writing about consciousness know very well, how things feel is very important to we humans. This, too, is something else caught up in all the "meaning" questions.

So what of "meaning"? Why do things mean? This, it seems to me, is a problem of consciousness. Neuroscientist Christof Koch sees consciousness as a feature of complex enough systems, systems, for example, such as the human brain. Koch himself does not limit the possibility of such consciousness to the human brain alone. He conceives it is possible that machine networks, if complex enough, could also become conscious. He also suggests that other animals with brains not so different from ours could be conscious - if in not quite the same way or to the same extent. For my purposes here the relevance of this is that with a developed enough consciousness comes the problem of meaning.

For with a consciousness such as ours, one that is self-aware, aware of its surroundings, able to extrapolate and problem solve, able to refer back to previous events and project forward into future ones, meaning floods in. Why is this? It is because meaning-making is a matter of relating things one to another, a matter of contextualizing things with other things, a matter of giving things a situation, a matter of relating and relationships, of networks. It just so happens that the universe bequeathed to us consciousness, quite blindly, and, in so doing, meaning flooded into our lives and all the problems that go with it. Meaning is what happens when conscious minds start going about their business. It is what happens when you take one object or idea, something that means nothing at all in itself or in isolation, and then relate it to something else. Or anything else. It is in the interactions of things and ideas that meaning is produced. As beings with a developed consciousness this was something we just couldn't help doing - the making of meaning.

In recent centuries our great thinkers have had problems with meaning though. Some wanted to try and fix meaning, believing that in so doing they could get things "right". Time and time again that project has failed but there are still those who believe that there is "a way things are" that could fix meanings. I am not one of those. Others have seen a problem with "nihilism" which is the lack of meaning. This issue is tied to the first inasmuch as by their constant failure to fix meaning it seemed to some that there was no fixed meaning to be found. I don't think that there is but I also don't think this should be cause for despair. Coming from a different angle, there were others who said that the problem wasn't that there was no meaning but that, instead, there was too much! These "poststructuralists" argued that the issue wasn't a lack of meaning but that there was so much it could never be fixed. Meaning was a matter of the "play" of many different meanings.

It seems to me that if you follow my basic ideas above of how meaning arises at all then it is no surprise that meanings are not fixed. It seems to me that if I am anywhere close then it would be impossible to fix meaning in the first place. For if meaning is simply a matter of relating things to other things then there are as many meanings as there are things to be related and in as many ways as you can relate them. In that, context may sometimes guide but it can never be determinative. We would still end up with as many meanings as it would be possible for people to have in any given scenario. It would seem that the poststructuralists were on to something with their ideas of a superfluity of meaning.

This, of course, brings its own issues. How is such a superfluity to be controlled? After all, we all need meaning and meanings for things but we all also need to live. In this I find something that the recently departed neuroscientist Oliver Sachs said deeply relevant. He wrote that "Each of us … constructs and lives a ‘narrative’ and is defined by this narrative." I find this to be intuitively and reflectively true. Sachs is here saying that we all build a story of our lives as we grow up and develop, one that gets added to every day with each event, thought, idea, that happens. This comes to be the story we tell ourselves about ourselves, about our circumstances, our possibilities, our past, our future. This forms a major context for all the meaning-making that we will do in life. It becomes the borders of what things can mean and acts as a stabilizing, if also sometimes an imprisoning, force. It is the boundaries of our thought. But these are not to be thought of as hard and impervious boundaries. The boundary can sometimes move and new meanings become possible. It is a movable border but a border nevertheless.

One corollary of this is that things will not mean the same thing for everyone. Nor, if this is right, should they. Difference is in-built into this understanding of things and is something to be negotiated rather than denied or avoided. We will tell completely different stories about ourselves and live individual lives and this will add to the list of possible meanings that can be made. This in turn speaks to an amazing plurality of lives and of meaning-making that often scares those who want to fix things or find a "way things are". There is no "way things are". And this is why there can also be no gods. Gods are used to try and fix meaning. They are there as guarantors of "the way things are" and act as a kind of über-context for everything. But there is no über-context. The universe did not come with meanings attached. It merely blindly created beings for whom things must mean.

This is what is bequeathed to us: to make things mean something useful to us, something that we can understand and live with. That may be a struggle but we cannot avoid it unless we die or go mad. I hope to study meaning and its making further over the coming days and weeks. There are those, such as Nietzsche or Foucault, who studied how things mean in more detail, for example, by using "genealogical" or "archaeological" techniques - but upon knowledge and its meaning itself. Nietzsche did great studies into the history of morality, something he saw as a problem, whilst Foucault, amongst other things, studied the history of prisons, sexuality, the treatment of mental illness and even scientific knowledge itself. None of these things, or their meanings, are givens. The idea of the "given" is one that those who want to fix things one way (and its always their way!) would like us to have. But following the path I have that seems crazy and to be rejected. What intellectual studies such of those of Nietzsche and Foucault have shown us is that no knowledge and no meaning is a given, Rather, it is all created and with a very specific history that was necessary for its formation. We would do well to remember this.

So we are in a world of play, the play of meanings. We are free to make ours to the extent that our lives, and the stories we tell about them, allow us. Meanings do not come with things so the idea of an "in-itself" with a meaning attached is silly. The meaning comes in the relating of one thing to another, in the activity of our conscious minds.

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