18. The Universe is not Meaningless, On Objective and Subjective Meaning

People hunger for meaning.  We have a profound desire that life not be a “tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury signifying nothing.”*  This can create a problem with the dominant world-view of our age, which is broadly atheistic/materialist, and thus tends to denude the world of meaning. 

Recognizing this as a problem, adherents of the atheist/materialist world-picture will often displace the locus of meaning from the world to themselves.  In other words, the classical, traditional understanding is that the world is imbued with meaning which discloses itself to man.  The modern reformulation is that the universe is meaningless, but can have meaning imputed to it by human beings.  It is objectively meaningless, but subjectively meaningful.  This response is untenable upon reflection, however, resting on some widespread confusions that are worth dispelling. 

First, there’s the problem of what the categories of “objective” and “subjective” actually point to.  The former typically seems to mean something like “mind independent” and the latter something like “within the mind.”  Lurking behind this division is, implicitly or explicitly, a sort of Cartesian dualism, which divides reality into mind and matter, with the latter denuded of a whole host of qualities that we typically take to be present within objects (for instance, color).  These qualities are rendered as objects of the intellect alone, not “really” present within the thing itself, but only in the mind of the perceiver. 

It’s a very odd view when you dig into it, because the qualities that we typically take to make things what they are, their forms to sneak in some Aristotle, have been removed from the world of objects, leaving only that which is subject to the mathematical, weight, extension in space, etc. More, it places an apparently insurmountable epistemic limit on human minds, because even measurement can only take place within the mind, thus apart from the objects themselves (and potentially allowing us to deny their very existence “out there” as in certain forms of idealism).  With the scientific world-picture mixed in this leaves us with a world of vaguely theorized particles bumping into each other, with form being imposed on these particles by the human mind.** 

The problem, of course, is that this makes no sense at all.  

Indeed, this supposed account of the world fails to account for anything at all.  To give an account of something as simple as a chair, we’re immediately forced to leap across the apparently unbridgeable gap between the “thing in itself” and the chair as it appears to me “subjectively.”  The very act of speaking necessitates this.  (seriously, try it)

The solution is to recognize that that the division between mind and matter operative here is simply a conceptual framework that does not actually map on to reality.  It’s an abstraction requiring a withdraw from primary experience that cannot be mapped back on to that experience.  Exploring this at greater length is beyond the scope of this post, I’ve already spent far more time than I intended on it, but perhaps we can return to the subject at some later point.*** 

One final issue with the “objectively meaningless, subjectively meaningful” view:  We cannot isolate the world in which we participate from ourselves as participants.  More concretely, the problem with saying that the universe is meaningless and that all meaning is imposed by us is that we are part of the universe.  It’s not some vast superstructure that we stand outside of somehow. What’s more, it is our participation, our standing-inside, that grounds our very existence. 

An example, say we pick up a rock, make some judgment about it, take the interplay of geological features to be particularly beautiful, and take (or assign, so as not to beg the question) some meaning from it.  That’s all well and good, something I’m sure we’ve done or approximated at least once in our lives.  But now consider yourself, who are you?  Well, you’re the type of being that can pick up a rock, that makes judgments about things like rocks, finds things beautiful, and takes/assigns meaning to them.  That’s what you are, and any conception of yourself that you might arrive at must similarly be grounded in your participation in the world. 

It is not, therefore, that we impose meaning on the world as something radically distinct from ourselves, but rather that we immediately participate in the world’s disclosure of meaning to us, and this participation is what actualizes our existence. 


*note signifying, pointing to something beyond itself

**Barfield brilliants traces out the implications of this picture.

***As a brief summary of the position I’m advocating, what we call mind and matter in this post-Cartesian sense interpenetrate.  Unity, not division as the underlying principle of the cosmos.

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