"We are too late for gods and too early for being." —Heidegger
The modern world is in a meaning crisis. "Traditional" sources of meaning (religion) are being rejected, but there's nothing to take their place.
The meaning crisis is becoming increasingly dire as we've moved up Maslow's Hierarchy from Now Me (basic needs) to Future Me (meaning). Meeting your Now Me basic needs is simple—eat food, find shelter, etc. But meeting your Future Me meaning needs is more confusing. What is a clear path to create meaning?
I. First, we need to ask—what is meaning?
Meaning links two independent concepts to each other.
A meaningful life:
"Links the biological reality of life to a symbolic interpretation."
What symbols do we apply to our biological reality? Modern psychology shows that meaning is a combination of three things:
- Purpose: having life direction
- Significance: believing your life is important
- Coherence: having predictability in life
In other words, a meaningful life is a Clear Important Path.
II. How does religion provide meaning?
What symbolic tools can we use to create that Clear Important Path? There are three main theories of meaning-making: supernaturalist, naturalist, and nihilist.
- Supernaturalists believe that meaning in life comes through relationship with a spiritual realm. These can be either God-centered or Soul-centered.
- Naturalists believe that even if there is no spiritual realm, meaning in life is possible.
- Nihilists believe that life has no meaning.
We can see how a supernaturalist religion like Christianity creates meaning:
- Purpose: To get to heaven
- Significance: God says your life is significant
- Coherence: The Bible, 10 Commandments, and Sunday church all provide a clear routine.
Christianity creates a Clear Important Path.
III. What Reality do Clear Important Paths get built on?
Thus far, we've focused on the Symbolic—the Clear Important Path. Now let's explore the Real—the biological realities of life.
Meaning is the relationship between the Symbolic and the Real. We know the Symbolic is the Clear Important Path. But what of the Real? What does that need to look like in order to create meaning? What substrate do we need?
The Real needs to be something that is "ripe for" the meaning provided by the Clear Important Path.
Before looking at a "ripe" Real, let's look at let's look at two extreme (and bad) examples of an "unripe" Real.
1) What about Drinking Water? Is that a good Real substrate to layer a Clear Important Path? Not really. Why? It's already a Clear Important Path.
- It's super Clear—drink the water.
- It's super Important—if you don't drink, you'll die.
- And it's an obvious Path—you know the process: put water in the mouth and swallow.
You could try to create a Drinking Water God that says the "process of drinking water is sacred". But it's unlikely to gain adherents.
2) On the other end of the spectrum is something that's an Unclear Unimportant Non-Path. Here's an example—getting random colors from RandomColour.com. This is a bad Real substrate for symbolic meaning.
- It's relatively Unclear—you get a random color without any ability to draw patterns.
- It's Unimportant—it has no impact on the rest of life.
- It's a Non-Path—there's no clear destination.
You could try to create a RandomColour.com God that says the "process of reloading the color page is sacred". But it's unlikely to gain adherents.
So you want a "Goldilocks Process" that is kind of Clear, kind of Important, kind of Path-y.
What's an example of a Goldilocks Process? An Antifragile Attractor (AA).
To define and clarify an AA, let's look at some examples.
AA Example #1: Gardening
I get meaning from gardening. Why? How?
1) Gardening is kind of Clear. This means there's enough randomness in nature that I can layer self-generated patterns on it, but not too much randomness where it's impossible to find any pattern. In other words, gardening is perfect for creating meaning from randomness. My experience of this:
I go into my backyard and feel the stochastic rays of sun on my skin. I water each plant. All of them are a bit different. Every day I go outside, there's something new. On one day, my catnip has grown too large and needs trimming. On the next day, I see that I've overwatered my petunia and underwatered my jalapeños.
2) Gardening is kind of Important. It's not like if I don't garden, then I will die. But it's also important—I'm nurturing life! And, it's important enough to have a goal, which leads to the third piece:
3) Gardening is kind of Path-y. My daily garden habit has a goal—to nurture life and create food. At the end of the summer, I will eat those cherry tomatoes, thank you very much.
This is what I mean by an "Antifragile process." Gardening is a process that, when explored, continuously creates more stuff to explore. The "idea maze" has no end. There's no point where I can be "done" with gardening. There's always another season, another kind of plant, another type of soil. Like a hydra head with infinite branches. Nature is a complex system. Meaning comes from reducing that complexity.
If gardening is an Antifragile process, what do I mean by an Antifragile Attractor? Because of their depth, complexity, and ability to "take up time", Antifragile processes are innately Antifragile Attractors. That is, they attract time towards them.
For a counterexample, let's look at a non-antifragile thing, like the times table from above. It doesn't have a web of possibility. There's just 100 squares to fill in. No randomness, no excitement, no possibility. And therefore, we humans don't spend much time doing times tables. We spend a lot more time gardening. It attracts our attention and keeps it there. Like a gravity well.
And crucially, we can layer the Symbolic (Clear Important Path) on top of the Real (Gardening as an AA). Gardening provides people with meaning. You feel like you have a Clear Important Path (nurturing life in a garden!), which is layered on an AA complex system (nurturing life in a garden!).
AA Example #2: Meditation
Meditation is another Antifragile Attractor. It's nestled in the Real and ripe for a Symbolic meaning layer—a Clear Important Path.
Like gardening, I find personally find meaning in meditation. Here's my lived experience of meditation
I explore perception itself. I focus on the physical sensations of the breath while being aware of other thoughts, emotions, and sensations. Through this process, I begin to have a perception of perception itself. I understand my own lens.
The meditation process is kind of Clear (just the right amount of randomness), kind of Important (self-development is helpful but not crucial), and kind of Path-y (there are many chartable paths through a meditation journey).
And this meditation process is Antifragile. The breath is stochastic and constantly changing. Every time I check back in with it, there's something different. This constantly changing input (the AA Real) is ripe for meaning. I can paint a meaningful Clear Important Path on it. I follow a daily meditation routine that puts me on an "important" path towards enlightenment. Plus, there are many styles of meditation to explore. One is never "finished" with meditation.
AA Example #3: Psychedelics
Psychedelics are another example of an AA. There's your whole inner world to explore. Your deep self. An infinite tree of branches to reflect on. And it all has a noetic quality to it—a feeling of meaning. One can never be "done" with self-reflection.
AA Example #4: Raising a Family
Raising a family is an AA. Much like garden plants, children grow up! Every day is new—your kids are a bit taller, a bit different. And you're never "finished" with raising kids. Sure, they move out when they're 18. But you never stop being a parent.
To conclude: an Antifragile Attractor is the Real substrate upon which a Symbolic "Clear Important Path" can be created. Or, as John Vervaeke describes it:
Meaning is relevance realization—the process of zeroing in on relevant information from the combinatorially explosive ocean of information always available to us.
IV. What is the future of meaning making? Can we escape the meaning crisis?
There are two ways to answer this question:
- What are the new Symbols? The new Clear Important Paths?
- What is the new Real? The new Antifragile Attractors?
1. New Clear Important Path—Presentism
My primary answer to this is that the "new path" is simply enjoying the present moment. What I'd call Presentism. (Meditation gestures at this.)
Instead of an external force (like God) saying that you have a Clear Important Path, you generate it yourself simply by saying "each moment is important." From a Presentist perspective, the process is the goal. The meaning is the message. (The Symbolic is the Real.) Experiencing reality (Antifragile Attractors) as they are IS meaningful. This is connected to Vajrayana Buddhism, metamodernism, and paradigms. As David Chapman writes:
We don’t have to take meaningness so goddamn seriously. Absurdity is funny! Paradox is enjoyable!
Or as Donella Meadows writes:
It is to get at a gut level the paradigm that there are paradigms, and to see that that itself is a paradigm, and to regard that whole realization as devastatingly funny. It is to let go into Not Knowing, into what the Buddhists call enlightenment.
Presentism is highly connected to Optimistic Nihilism, a paradoxical statement that says both:
- Yes, experiential space-time is massive, we'll all die, and humans don't matter. (Nihilism)
- AND, we can still have a good time. (Optimism)
As they say in the video describing Optimistic Nihilism:
If the universe has no purpose then we get to dictate what it's purpose is.
Or as Neil DeGrasse Tyson said:
The universe is under no obligation to make sense to you.
It doesn't really need to make sense to anyone except you.
2. New Antifragile Attractor—Roote Paradigm
As we become Presentists, there's a juicy new layer of reality to map symbols onto—our collective awakening as a species. With over 4B smartphones, we're now a Networked Human Organism. We're experiencing a massive paradigm shift in our ways of knowing, creating, and prioritizing. I call this new post-capitalism our "Roote Paradigm."
The evolution towards the Roote Paradigm is a ripe substrate for meaning making. Hopefully we don't weaponize it.
If you're interested in building the future of meaning-making, please apply for our Roote Fellowship.
I first started to explore this idea in October 2019:
Three things I really wanted to add:
- There's also a huge connection to Predictive Processing in this essay. (PP is SSC's pet psychological/neurobiological theory.) Hmmm, what to say. I guess I'd say something like: our brains are constantly trying to PP. To turn the Real into the Symbolic to decrease uncertainty and increase coherence. Perhaps we can find meaning in the process of PP? Or perhaps meaning comes when we do a set of PP for the first time?
- For most of this article, I am skating around Lacan's Real vs. Symbolic. Slash map and territory stuff. I still don't quite get Real vs. Symbolic vs. Imaginary.
- And sacredness. Hmmmm. From the POV of the above article, sacredness is primarily a mechanism for "Importance" (in the Clear Important Path sense). It's difficult for something to be sacred if it has been commoditized. See Categories of Sacredness and Weaponized Sacredness.
- I used to think of meaning something that followed "meeting your basic needs". But actually, there's a loop between meaning and happiness. As Laura King notes: "If meaning is necessary, then it should be available to all."
- Another interesting stat from King that I would like more info on—are we actually in a meaning crisis? King shows that 83% agreed or strongly agreed that their life has an important purpose/meaning. So, sure, there's the Vervaeke perspective which follows the philosophical tradition of nihilism (among other intellectual traditions), which inevitably leads to the meaning crisis. But is society actually experiencing a crisis in meaning? Would love to see more research here. (I love the title of King's 2014 paper on this—Life is pretty meaningful.) See the graph below. I don't think a 4.5/7 is a meaning crisis. But it's also not a 7/7.
- Meaning is negatively correlated with GDP. Which is mostly correlated with religion. Religion "produces" meaning!
- King's entire talk on meaning is illuminating.
- King also notes that we shouldn't try to live a life of happiness/sorrow. Instead, we should be present/have clarity with what is happening to us. I'm reminded of my high school English teacher who said we should strive for a life of clarity, not one of happiness.
- This is also similar to Viktor Frankl's line of thinking (logotherapy) in Man's Search for Meaning—that meaning is orthogonal to happiness. Even in a bad situation (for Frankl—concentration camps in WWII), we can find meaning even if we're not "happy".
- My account above doesn't include the effects of social connection. e.g. "When an individual thinks themself to be socially excluded, one's sense of purpose, efficacy, value, and self-worth are all indirectly diminished."
- This is all part of the field of "positive psychology". This is the difference between eudonic pleasure (meaning) vs. hedonic pleasure (pure dopamine to the face).
- Interesting that positive psychology was "started" by Maslow. In 1954, the final chapter of his book was "Toward a Positive Psychology." In the second edition (1970), he removed that chapter, saying in the preface that "a positive psychology is at least available today though not very widely."
- I love this view of reflection itself as meaning-making: Reflecting on why we pursue those goals is significant, however. By taking a reflective perspective, significance itself accrues. “This comes close to Socrates’ famous saying that the unexamined life is not worth living,” Woodling writes, “I would venture to say that the unexamined life has no meaning."
- I'm moderately annoyed that finding the "one truth" of how we produce meaning doesn't exist. e.g. This one says meaning comes from: "belonging, purpose, storytelling, transcendence."
- Here are 5 specific examples of how to produce purpose, significance, and coherence.
- Someone should tl;dr Vervaeke's 50-episode series on the meaning crisis. Episode 46 is sweet (on the map of thinkers that informed Vervaeke). I especially enjoyed learning about the Kyoto School, a group of Japanese thinkers that combined Western and Eastern thought.
- Related: I'd love to see Vervaeke write a book like Hirschman Passions and Interests, but for nihilism/meaning-making. i.e. A curated synthesis of how we got here.
- This Letters.wiki conversation between Vervaeke and David Chapman is amazing. One nice quote: "Our hunger is not for meaning, but for structure."
- Also, it's cool to see them co-realize their convergence: "I agree the degree and depth of our convergence is impressive. The fact the we have independently generated arguments and evidence for such similar conclusions increase for me the plausibility of those conclusions. So I thank you for that."
- Also, see 4E Cognition as "ways of knowing".
- This video on Optimistic Nihilism is also great.
- Antifragility is a search space.
- We should find ways to couple Future Me meaning to Now Us and Future Us. e.g. If you get your meaning by mastering an expensive hobby (like watch collecting), that's not great. Try gardening instead! Especially if it's gardening in your front lawn because that'll increase social capital.
- Related: Religion has bundled moralizing gods with meaning. I wonder if they'll be unbundled? Or if there's some underlying mechanism that requires morals to be tied to meaning.
- This past year I've learned that the "sun provides joy, you just need to actively accept it." Similarly—there's tons of meaning if we want it. As King notes: "The modern problem is that people don't recognize how meaningful their lives are."
- Why do we want meaning from an evolutionary perspective?
- One image I wanted to create: Imagine of all of these Antifragile Attractors around me. Meditation, psychedelics, cajon. C.R.E.A.M. A.A.R.E.A.M.
- Another Image To Create: The opposite of a Clear Important Path is being in the blackness.
- Addiction is an AA and hijacks the process.
- We can "create meaning" from the times table. One way is to layer "go faster" on it. This creates a (weak) Clear Important Path. Or you can imagine going through the times table in all of the possible paths (roughly 4^100? if you allow teleporting?).
- Note: "Nesting in a Home" is a more general form of gardening. It's deriving meaning from rearranging atoms of the built environment.
- There's a paradox in a Clear Important Paths layered on an AA. a) You want a goal (an end of the path). But b) In order to be Antifragile, you need to never actually reach it. To never be done.
- There are lots of other examples of AA meaning. One of the first that made me think of this is the EveryNoiseAtOnce music map. This so clearly maps onto an AA. It's a network of connections to explore. Endless exploration possible.
- I'm curious about how meaning is related to connection and spirituality.
- Against Presentism as a path to meaning: Happiness was largely present oriented, whereas meaningfulness involves integrating past, present, and future. For example, thinking about future and past was associated with high meaningfulness but low happiness. Happiness was linked to being a taker rather than a giver, whereas meaningfulness went with being a giver rather than a taker. Higher levels of worry, stress, and anxiety were linked to higher meaningfulness but lower happiness. Concerns with personal identity and expressing the self contributed to meaning but not happiness.
- (Maybe this implies that a good combo is Presentism + reflection?)