A Scientific Approach to Meaning in Life

What is the meaning of life?

This question may have caused more debate than any other in the history of the planet. Instead of answering it directly, we’re going to look at the question itself in the context of how the human mind works. By exploring the structure of the mind, we’ll be able to qualify approaches to meaning and see their impact on the nature of experience.

The title of the article is A Scientific Approach to Meaning in Life because we’re going to focus on cause and effect. What causes this question to matter, and how do different types of answers affect the mind?

The question of meaning is of unique importance to humans because of metacognition, which is our ability to think about thinking. We have the ability to consider different choices, weigh our options, and make decisions. We even have the ability to assess the process by which we consider options and make decisions. And, we can think about our own mortality.

Being cognizant that our life will end creates a remarkable perspective for us. All living organisms instinctively fight for life to avoid death. We go one step further and wonder what it’s all for (hence the question). Traditionally, all societies have collective explanations for the meaning of life, typically in the form of religion, myth and/or cultural ethos. People simply need something to believe in.

This is as true today as it always has been. Some of the forms have changed, but the need for belief is as profound as always. Religions are still a common source of meaning and belief. Many believe in the promise of science and technology, or in the power of the human spirit, or in the maturation of the human species through knowledge and communication. But we all have hope of one kind or another.

Hope plays a primary role in the mind. Hope is desire, and desire is the impetus for volition. Volition is the action of life. All life forms express some form of volition, at the very least in adapting to stimuli in order to sustain life and avoid death. All volition requires some awareness (sense) of life (self) that differentiates it from others. This is called agency, and life is not possible without it.

All life is the expression of volition (will) for the sake of the sense of self (agency). In humans, this agency is enveloped in a complex and layered construct of self known as identity. This identity contains all our definitions of who we are, from the physical to the psychological, social, and aspirational. Where the simplest organisms are capable only of action that sustains life, we humans are capable of incredibly sophisticated action to reinforce any aspect of our identity.

The mechanism for how this works is fundamentally the same in all living organisms, with the details varying significantly according to the biological makeup of the organism. The will always acts for the sake of the agency or identity, either exclusively by instinct or also by intention. Hope is a term for the primal urge (desire) for survival (and improvement) that drives all our experiences.

Without hope (desire), there is no action. This is peaceful since there are no forces in tension (nothing desired, nothing to do). There is a common use of the term, though, that is very different. When someone feels hopeless, they mean a frustrating tension between having desires and not believing they can be fulfilled. In their extreme, these painful feelings of hopelessness can even lead to acts of suicide. This is not the absence of hope at all. In contrast, the absence of hope is supremely peaceful with feelings of contentment.

Before we explain the impact of metacognition on hope, volition and identity, we need to understand how creative the mind truly is in generating order and meaning in everyday life.

Creativity, Sense and Order

The mind does many things at once, but its main purpose is to make sense of things. The purely objective reality of the world is plain, boring, and inherently meaningless. This is the interaction of atoms, molecules and energy without any interpretation by the mind. Most of what we experience in life is a set of shared and individual subjective interpretations of this reality. These interpretations supply order and meaning where there would otherwise be none. In other words, the mind creates all meaning in the world on every level.

To give an example of what I mean, look at this simple sentence:

The cat is large.

When you read this, the image of a cat appears in your mind. Because there is no specific context, the words cat and large could be interpreted any number of ways. You could imagine anything from a house or alley cat to a wild cat, like a leopard or tiger. Large could mean tall, wide, or fat relative to its species, or it could mean one of the larger species of cat.

How does your cat image relate to the objective reality of that “sentence?” It doesn’t. It’s entirely a mental creation. This can be hard to believe but it’s true.

Assuming you’re reading this electronically, the objective reality is simply pixels on your screen illuminated in contrasting patterns. Your mind converts these light patterns into shapes. It ascribes meaning to those shapes on many levels. First, it sees them as letters, which together form words. The letters and words do not exist objectively. You have to train the mind to convert lines and shapes into concepts of words. If you doubt this, try reading a script you haven’t been trained in or change the context of the word. For example, the word gift means “poison” in German.

The words themselves have no objective reality. There is no such thing as a “cat” in objective reality. There are living organisms in objective reality. The mind groups these living organisms into functional categories in order to facilitate survival and efficiency in general. One of these categories is “cat.” By forming the concept of a “cat,” we can be much more efficient communicating, understanding and deciding.

There is an important distinction here between reality and utility. The objective reality of the above sentence is waves of light emanating from a screen. The utility is recognizing shapes into words, words into language, language into meaning, meaning into communication. We could not live our lives as they are without these incredibly efficient and useful shared interpretations. But we have to understand the shared subjective reality is not the objective reality.

A similar process goes on in most aspects of our lives. There are no personal relationships in the objective reality. Nor are there laws, politics, traffic, fun, fame, happiness or love. These all exist (and play important roles) only in our shared subjective realities.

I would like to emphasize this again because it’s so important. The overwhelming majority of our lives are focused on subjective realities. The things that make life worth living are subjective, which means created by the mind. The fact that they’re subjective does not mean they are wrong, unreal, inferior or random. It just means their reality has been created by the mind. The mind operates by known rules, so we can develop a deep understanding of how subjective reality works.  

Belief

With subjective reality, it is the belief in the authenticity of a notion that creates its reality, not the actual reality. For example, the false reporting of the death of a popular person can create widespread mourning and crying even though that person is completely healthy.

Belief may be what gives subjective experiences their reality, but facts affect belief. Once everyone sees the person alive, the belief that they died evaporates and the mourning stops.

This role of belief has caused many people to reject subjective reality as unreal. Instead, the subjective reality has a bigger impact on our lives than objective reality, so to reject it as unreal is to miss the essence of human life. Instead of rejecting it, we should seek to understand how beliefs are created, strengthened, weakened and/or destroyed. And to do so, we have to differentiate between the shared and individual subjective realities.

There are three categories of reality: objective reality, shared subjective reality, and individual subjective reality. The objective reality is the world of facts that can observed and measured independent of interpretation, such as the size and location of a building. The shared subjective reality contains all the agreed-upon interpretations, such as language, laws, politics and relationships. The individual subjective reality is each person’s thoughts, feelings, emotions and experiences, whether they align to any shared reality or not.

For example, it is an objective fact that the earth revolves around the sun in approximately the amount of time it takes the earth to rotate on its axis 365 times. There are shared subjective terms called a “year” and a “day” that we use to describe the amount of time one revolution and one rotation take. Individuals can have a variety of individual beliefs that may or may not align with any shared or objective realities.

There are probably people alive who believe that the sun revolves around the earth. We know that millions of people lived their entire lives believing this prior to Copernicus. This belief is not, and never has been, correct in the objective reality. In 1633, though, Galileo was imprisoned for promoting the correct notion that the earth revolves around the sun. This violated the shared subjective belief that the earth was the center of the universe.

The objective reality is unaffected by belief, but it is inherently devoid of meaning. The mind creates meaning by interpreting what it perceives and thinks into a cohesive model. This cohesive model may be highly aligned with objective reality or it might be completely at odds with it. How does this happen? What are the mechanisms by which two people can observe the same objective reality and come away with entirely different interpretations?

The answer has to do with how the mind operates. The two primary driving forces in the mind are identity and will. The will first uses the identity as its filter for interpretation of all phenomena. Then, it forms ideas and actions to defend and reinforce the identity. We know this because changes to the identity create immediate and profound effects on the interpretations and actions.

The will has many tools at its disposal. It can use perception, memory, imagination and reasoning alone and together in a variety of ways to fulfil its intent. This means an enormous variety of interpretations of any given reality are possible. This can be problematic for people trying to live together and get along in society. One of the main reasons humans have such a long childhood is the need for extensive training in how to interpret and navigate the objective and shared subjective realities. Each society, clan, group or family has their own tolerances for how varied these can be while still being included.

There is always going to be some tension among these three layers. In fact, how each of us manages this tension is a primary determinant for the quality of our life. Understanding which aspects of experience are objective, shared and individual (both for you and for others) is extremely beneficial for successfully navigating life.

The Tools of Meaning

In the above section, it was shown that the mind works constantly to create order and meaning. The will or volition drives this activity for the sake of the identity or sense of self on three levels of reality: objective, shared subjective, and individual subjective. The order and meaning created by the mind are how we function in the world.

We humans, though, are not motivated primarily by concepts of order and meaning. We are driven by emotions, which are tightly associated with desires (see Daniel Khaneman’s and Martin Seligman’s work for more on this). When something happens that we interpret as reinforcing our identity, we feel comfort, satisfaction and pleasure. When something happens that we interpret as threatening our identity, we feel discomfort, angst and pain. All of our actions in life are toward reinforcement, satisfaction and pleasure, and away from threat, angst and pain. As such, any changes to our identity and/or our interpretations result in different emotions and different courses of action.

All emotions are part of our individual subjective reality. They are our own, and nobody else feels them. Even when groups of people feel similar emotions at the same time based on shared events, each person’s experience of those emotions is unique. This is because identities and processes of interpretation are always individualized.

Let’s tie all this back to the original question, what is the meaning of life? As we said before, on a purely objective level, there is no meaning of life, just as there is no objective meaning to the light emanating from your screen. Therefore, the meaning of life is a creation of the mind, or whatever we believe it to be. So what’s the big deal?

There are two big deals, actually. The first is that “whatever we believe” about life affects our emotional experiences, which drive our decision-making. Therefore, we will look at different types of belief systems and how they affect emotions. The second is that facts affect beliefs. When “whatever we believe” becomes incongruent with observed facts, we can have a crisis of meaning. Therefore, we will look at the different ways systems of meaning relate to daily life and the growing body of scientific knowledge.

While there are nearly infinite varieties of beliefs, they can be categorized broadly in three ways: self-oriented (“me before others”), passionate (“excitement for its own sake”), and principled (“fulfillment of ideals” or arete). These three correspond roughly to Freud’s “will to pleasure,” Nietzsche’s “will to power” and Kierkegaard’s “will to meaning.” The characteristics of each cause predictable trends of emotions.

The objects of desire associated with self-oriented systems of belief are pursuits of pleasure for their own sake. These focus on getting what you want for yourself in the moment, and are the most ephemeral. As such, they tend to cause more tension, anxiety and instability of mind than the other two.

The objects of desire associated with passionate systems of belief focus on activities performed by each person and aligned groups. These feelings of pleasure derive from achievement and belonging. This orientation is a mix of external and internal elements, and there is some value connected to the activities themselves. As such, they are more stable, spreading out the highs and lows, and resulting in moderate levels of tension, and anxiety.

The goals associated with principled systems of belief focus on ideals and values that transcend both the individual and the natural fluctuations of daily life. They are extremely stable, and as such create a solid foundation that reduces tension and anxiety. The feelings of pleasure result from the satisfaction of living with a commitment to ideals. A principled life also tends to be less exciting than the other two types, which can reduce its appeal.

Any system of belief should align with, and ideally explain, observable reality. There are three types of reactions when they don’t align: the system of belief is adjusted to fit with observed reality, the observed reality is denied or ignored, or there is a crisis of meaning. Therefore, systems of belief that more closely align with (and explain) observable reality are better than those that don’t.

As an example, let’s look at the concept of justice. There are two extreme positions: the world is just, and there is no justice in the world. While both of these positions have lots of supporting examples, they also have lots of contrary examples. Some people get away with cruel and illegal acts, and some innocent people are punished for crimes they didn’t commit. Therefore, a superior belief system allows for discrepancies in observable justice. Some systems include retribution in the afterlife, and some describe internal sufferings as a form of justice.

While it is outside the scope of this article to propose a full system of belief, it is important to recognize that the efficacy of any belief or approach to meaning is affected by how closely aligned it is with observable reality. Fundamentalism is the term for clinging to a system of belief in spite of contrary observable evidence. Moral ambiguity is the term for denying the importance and/or relevance of a belief system. Both are flawed in obvious ways.

Conclusion

The purpose of the mind is to create order and meaningful experiences out of the activities of life, which occur on three levels of reality: objective, shared subjective and individual subjective. Objective reality exists independent of any interpretation by the mind, whereas both subjective realities are created entirely by the mind through an understandable set of processes.

The mind functions through the will acting for the identity within a model for interpretation known as a worldview. Belief is the force that makes each worldview real, contextualizing the experiences of life with meaning and hope.

The general characteristics of each worldview affect the emotional and volitional state of the believer in predictable ways. They can be categorized by their orientation and impact on our emotional and mental states, and thus our decision making. The more closely aligned they are with observable realities, the more useful they are. Therefore, the characteristics of our belief system are a vital part of every aspect of our daily lives.

The scientific aspect of this discussion has been to establish why the structure of our belief systems matter, and to identify which elements cause what effects. As different as people are, the functions of the mind are structurally the same. These understandings can also be used to assess a worldview, and adjust it to become more effective in the quest to create a quality life.

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