The Pleasure of Meaning

By: Dr. Sam Vaknin

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People often confuse satisfaction or pleasure with meaning. It is one thing to ask "How" (what Science does), another to seek an answer to "Why" (a teleological quest) and still different to contemplate the "What for".

For instance: people often do things because they give them pleasure or satisfaction – yet this doesn't render their acts meaningful. Meaningless things can be equally pleasant and satisfying.

Consider games.

Games are structured, they are governed by rules and represent the results of negotiations, analysis, synthesis and forecasting. They please and satisfy. Yet, they are largely meaninglessness.

Games are useful. They teach and prepare us for real life situations. Sometimes, they bring in their wake fame, status, money, the ability to influence the real world. But are they meaningful? Do they carry meaning?

It is easy to describe HOW people play games. Specify the rules of the game or observe it long enough, until the rules become apparent – and you have the answer.

It is easy to answer WHAT people play games FOR. For pleasure, satisfaction, money, fame, or learning.

But what is the MEANING of games?

For a meaning to exist, we must have the following (cumulating) elements:

  1. A relationship between at least two distinctive (at least partially mutually exclusive) entities;
  1. The ability to map important parts of these separate entities onto each other (important parts are those without which the entity is not the same, its identity elements);
  1. That one of the entities exceeds the other in some important sense: by being physically bigger, older, encompassing, correlated with many more entities, etc.;
  1. That a sentient and intelligent interpreter or observer exists who can discern and understand the relationship between the entities;
  1. That his observations can lead the interpreter to explain and to predict an important facet of the identity and the behavior of one of the entities (usually, in terms of the other);
  1. That the entity's "meaning" provokes in the observer an emotional reaction as well as change his information content and behavior;
  1. That said "meaning" is invariant (not conjectural and not covariant) in every sense: physical and cultural (as a meme).

The Meaning of Life is no exception and must adhere to the conditions we set above:

a.      As humans, we are distinct entities, largely mutually exclusive (though genetic material is shared and the socialization process homogenizes minds). We are related to the outside world and thus satisfy the first requirement.

b.     Parts of the world can be mapped onto us and vice versa (think about the representation of the world in our minds, for instance). The ancients believed in isomorphism: they mapped, one on one, features and attributes of physical entities onto each other. This is the theoretical source of certain therapies (acupuncture).

c.      We are related to bigger entities (the physical universe, our history, God) – some of them "objective – ontological", others "subjective-epistemological". Some of them are even infinitely larger and thus, potentially, provide us with infinite meaning.

d.     We are intelligent interpreters and observers. We are, however, aware of the circularity of introspection. This is why we are on a quest to find other intelligent observers in the Universe.

e.      The obsession of the human race is trying to decipher, understand, analyze and predict one entity in terms of others. This is what Science and Religion are all about (though there are other strains of human intellectual pursuits).

f.      Every glimpse of ostensible meaning provokes an emotional reaction in humans. The situation is different with machines, naturally. When we discuss Artificial Intelligence, we often confuse meaningful with directional (teleological) behavior. A computer does something not because it is meaningful, not even because it "wants" anything. A computer does something because it cannot do otherwise and because we make it do it. Arguably, the same goes for animals (at least those belonging to the lower orders). Only we, the Universe's intelligent observers, can discern direction, cause and effect – and, ultimately, meaning.

g.     This is the big human failure: all the "meanings" that we have derived hitherto are of the covariant, conjectural, dependent, circumstantial types. We can, therefore, safely say that humanity has not come across one shred of genuine meaning. Since the above conditions are cumulative, they must all co-exist for Meaning to manifest.

For meaning to arise – an observer must exist (and satisfy a few conditions). This raises the well-founded suspicion that meaning is observer-dependent (though invariant). Put differently, it seems that meaning resides with the observer rather than with the observed.

This tallies nicely with certain interpretations of Quantum Mechanics. It also leads to the important philosophical conclusion that in a meaningful world – the division between observer and observed is critical. And vice versa: for a meaningful world to exist, we must have a separation of the observed from the observer.

A second conclusion is that meaning – being the result of interaction between entities – must be limited to these entities. It cannot transcend them. Hence, it can never be invariant in the purest sense, it always maintains a "privileged frame of reference".

In other words, meaning can never exist. The Universe and all its phenomena are meaningless.

Of course, faced with our own mortality, we experience constant, albeit repressed, low-intensity anxiety and dread. Terror Management Theory teaches us that infusing life with (cultural) meaning, however arbitrary and irrational this may be, is a defense against this underlying unease and a cornerstone of our sense of self-esteem. This holds true also on the levels of collective and species as we face threats of extinction from pandemics and nuclear weapons.

Signifiers, Goals, and Tasks/Assignments

Signifiers are narratives that fulfill three conditions:

I. They are all-pervasive organizing principles and yield rules of conduct.

II. They refer to the outside world and derive their "meaning" from it.

III. They dictate goals (goals are derived from signifiers).

Life feels meaningful only when one has adopted a signifier: to have a family, protect the nation, discover God, help others in need or distress, etc.

Some signifiers are compelling and proactive. They call for action, provoke and motivate actions, and delineate and provide a naturally-unfolding plan of action which is an inevitable and logical extension of the compelling signifier.

Other signifiers are non-compelling and passive. They do not necessarily call for action, they do not provoke actions or motivate the actor/agent, and they provide no plan of action.

Goals automatically emanate from signifiers. They are the tools needed to realize the signifier.

If the signifier is "family life" - probable goals include buying or constructing a home, having children and raising them, and finding a stable and well-paying job.

If the signifier is "altruism" - possible goals may include acquiring relevant skills (as a nurse or social worker), writing a self-help book, or establishing a charity.

Assignments or Tasks are the steps that, together, comprise the goal and lead to its attainment.

Thus, the goal may be the acquisition of skills relevant or indispensable in the realization of the signifier. The resulting tasks would include applying to an appropriate educational facility, registration, studies, passing exams, and so on.

Only signifiers have the power to endow our lives with meaning. But most people confuse them with goals. They make money (goal) - but know not what for (signifier). They study (task) in order to get a job (goal) - but are not sure to what end (signifier).


“Nonsense” is an ambiguous word that conflates a lack of coherent meaning, a profound defect in the chain of reasoning (which excludes even falsity), and a flaunting of common sense. In literature, nonsense is often the outcome of a multiplicity of possible, usually mutually-exclusive meanings.

In certain disciplines (cryptography, information theory, communication theory) nonsense is described as “random noise” (as distinct from “signal”) with specific characteristics of randomness, repetition, and redundancy of the symbols comprising it as expressed via its specific frequency distribution. But all these definitions rely on an intimate acquaintance with the meaning of the nonsensical statement and on the ability to prove that it is not verifiable, confirmable, or, more fashionably, falsifiable. This is where the boundaries between nonsense and falsity begin to blur.

The principle of verifiability of statements veers dangerously close to circularity and even tautology. The meaning of a statement is the method for its verification. Yet, the (cognitive) meaning of a statement also depends crucially on its verification! To quote “The Oxford Companion to Philosophy”: “A statement is meaningful if and only if it is in principle verifiable.” Yet, of course, a sentence can be meaningful and false.

“To ask whether a claim is verifiable and conclude that it is not, it looks as though I have to first understand the claim, ie give a meaning to it. How then can I add that because it is unverifiable it is meaningless?” (Ian Dearden, Do Philosophers Talk Nonsense? – An Inquiry Into The Possibility Of Illusions Of Meaning”, Teller Press, 2005.”)

Moreover, it is fiendishly difficult to verify analytic statements (e.g., mathematical theorems) because verification often relates to observable facts (logical positivism, logical empiricism) rather than to algorithms and calculations. There is also the issue of context: “... (A)ny statement will have verifiable implications if con-joined with suitably chosen others.” (ibid.)

Nonsense relies on inconsistency and, therefore, unpredictability. Though it may be subject to implicit or explicit rules, nonsense obeys no logical constraints, whether internal or external. This is the main reason logical fallacies are nonsensical – not only because they are manifestly false.

Nonsensical statements – as well as the sense-less tautologies and propositions of logic and mathematics - do not correspond with reality (in Wittgenstein’s terms: do not refer to or represent facts or factual states of affairs; are not “in the world”, but at its limit; have no truth value.) They are statistically rare (extremely infrequently formed or used). Nonsense has to be verbalized. It cannot be “shown”, pointed at, or experienced directly. Nonsense must be said and, thus, is an artefact of language itself, one of its cornerstones and a boundary condition (“limit”.) Nonsense is where meaning stops.

Indeed, many puzzles and enigmas appear to be nonsensical because of this tension between structure/rule/abstraction and logic/meaning/reality. Solving the riddle, however, involves “outing” the logic that governs it, thereby rendering it perfectly “sensical” in the real world.

In all these considerations, nonsense is largely identified as such by its lack of reference to the world we know. Could some nonsense make sense in other, possible worlds? Would all nonsense perforce make sense somewhere, in one or more possible worlds out of the infinite number of possible worlds? Not if these universes are all ruled by logic, mathematics, and the Laws of Nature.

Disparate as these possible worlds may be, they must conform and adhere to a set of immutable, universal principles which give us meaning and coherence and yield truth and sense. Nonsense is nonsense across all possible worlds. Indeed, nonsense delineates the parameters and boundaries or limits of those worlds which are impossible. If some statement or claim is possible then it is not nonsensical. So, the useful test is not whether something we say corresponds to reality, refers to it, represents it, or “shows” it (points to it.) It is whether a statement or claim we make can, in principle, in some possible world, correspond to that world’s reality, refer to it, represent it, or “show” it (point to it.)

Nonsense can serve as useful background in contrast to which sense can be constructed, surmised, deduced, or construed. Nonsense can also function as the context within which sense is outstanding. Indeed, literary nonsense makes use of numerous devices to achieve precisely this contradistinction. In literary nonsense, formally impeccable literary forms purposefully sit ill with faulty cause and effect, portmanteau, neologism, reversals and inversions, imprecision, simultaneity, picture-text incongruity, arbitrariness, infinite repetition, negativity and mirroring, misappropriation, tautology, reduplication, and absurd precision. This incongruence forces the mind to seek meaning and order where there is merely structure.

Peter Schombert suggests these two cumulative tests:

(T)he best way to detect nonsense is simply by considering what the world would be like if the claim being considered was false, and some competing claim was true. If the world would be exactly the same, or the possibility of the claim being false is incoherent, then there is a good chance that the claim in question is nonsense.”

Also Read

The Definition of Definitions

Context, Background, Meaning

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