The Meaninglessness of External Causes

By: Dr. Sam Vaknin

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Some philosophers say that our life is meaningless because it has a prescribed end. This is a strange assertion: is a movie rendered meaningless because of its finiteness? Some things acquire a meaning precisely because they are finite: consider academic studies, for instance. It would seem that meaningfulness does not depend upon matters temporary.

We all share the belief that we derive meaning from external sources. Something bigger than us and outside us bestows meaning upon our lives: God, the State, a social institution, an historical cause.

Yet, this belief is misplaced and mistaken. If such an external source of meaning were to depend upon us for its definition (hence, for its meaning) how could we derive meaning from it? A cyclical argument ensues. We can never derive meaning from that whose very meaning (or definition) is dependent on us. The defined cannot define the definer. To use the defined as part of its own definition (by the vice of its inclusion in the definer) is the very definition of a tautology, the gravest of logical fallacies.

On the other hand: if such an external source of meaning were NOT dependent on us for its definition or meaning again it would have been of no use in our quest for meaning and definition. That which is absolutely independent of us is absolutely free of any interaction with us because such an interaction would inevitably have constituted a part of its definition or meaning. And that, which is devoid of any interaction with us cannot be known to us. We know about something by interacting with it. The very exchange of information through the senses - is an interaction.

Thus, either we serve as part of the definition or the meaning of an external source or we do not. In the first case, it cannot constitute a part of our own definition or meaning. In the second case, it cannot be known to us and, therefore, cannot be discussed at all. Put differently: no meaning can be derived from an external source.

Despite the above said, people derive meaning almost exclusively from external sources. If a sufficient number of questions is asked, we will always reach an external source of meaning. People believe in God and in a divine plan, an order inspired by Him and manifest in both the inanimate and the animate universe. Their lives acquire meaning by realizing the roles assigned to them by this Supreme Being. They are defined by the degree with which they adhere to this divine design. Others relegate the same functions to the Universe (to Nature). It is perceived by them to be a grand, perfected, design, or mechanism. Humans fit into this mechanism and have roles to play in it. It is the degree of their fulfilment of these roles which characterizes them, provides their lives with meaning and defines them.

Other people attach the same endowments of meaning and definition to human society, to Mankind, to a given culture or civilization, to specific human institutions (the Church, the State, the Army), or to an ideology. These human constructs allocate roles to individuals. These roles define the individuals and infuse their lives with meaning. By becoming part of a bigger (external) whole people acquire a sense of purposefulness, which is confused with meaningfulness. Similarly, individuals confuse their functions, mistaking them for their own definitions. In other words: people become defined by their functions and through them. They find meaning in their striving to attain goals.

Perhaps the biggest and most powerful fallacy of all is teleology. Again, meaning is derived from an external source: the future. People adopt goals, make plans to achieve them and then turn these into the raisons d'etre of their lives. They believe that their acts can influence the future in a manner conducive to the achievement of their pre-set goals. They believe, in other words, that they are possessed of free will and of the ability to exercise it in a manner commensurate with the attainment of their goals in accordance with their set plans. Furthermore, they believe that there is a physical, unequivocal, monovalent interaction between their free will and the world.

This is not the place to review the mountainous literature pertaining to these (near eternal) questions: is there such a thing as free will or is the world deterministic? Is there causality or just coincidence and correlation? Suffice it to say that the answers are far from being clear-cut. To base one's notions of meaningfulness and definition on any of them would be a rather risky act, at least philosophically.

But, can we derive meaning from an inner source? After all, we all "emotionally, intuitively, know" what is meaning and that it exists. If we ignore the evolutionary explanation (a false sense of meaning was instilled in us by Nature because it is conducive to survival and it motivates us to successfully prevail in hostile environments) - it follows that it must have a source somewhere. If the source is internal it cannot be universal and it must be idiosyncratic. Each one of us has a different inner environment. No two humans are alike. A meaning that springs forth from a unique inner source must be equally unique and specific to each and every individual. Each person, therefore, is bound to have a different definition and a different meaning. This may not be true on the biological level. We all act in order to maintain life and increase bodily pleasures. But it should definitely hold true on the psychological and spiritual levels. On those levels, we all form our own narratives. Some of them are derived from external sources of meaning but all of them rely heavily on inner sources of meaning. The answer to the last in a chain of questions will always be: "Because it makes me feel good".

In the absence of an external, indisputable, source of meaning no rating and no hierarchy of actions are possible. An act is preferable to another (using any criterion of preference) only if there is an outside source of judgement or of comparison.

Paradoxically, it is much easier to prioritize acts with the use of an inner source of meaning and definition. The pleasure principle ("what gives me more pleasure") is an efficient (inner-sourced) rating mechanism. To this eminently and impeccably workable criterion, we usually attach another, external, one (ethical and moral, for instance). The inner criterion is really ours and is a credible and reliable judge of real and relevant preferences. The external criterion is nothing but a defence mechanism embedded in us by an external source of meaning. It comes to defend the external source from the inevitable discovery that it is meaningless.

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