What Does A ‘Science of Meaning’ Mean?
Hard Science tells two Creation stories. One about the emergence of Space, Time and planet Earth (Let there be Light); the other about the emergence of Animals and Plants (Let there be Life). But Science has a third Creation story to tell – about the emergence of meaning itself (Let there be Creation stories). And this is a story that has never been told.
But first, are we ready for this third story? Because if the physical and biological sciences are anything to go by, its impact could be as huge as that of the preceding two. In fact, greater, because whereas the ‘Book of Light’ and the ‘Book of Life’ look at the relatively neutral territory of the world around us, this third book will look directly at us. So the potential for conflict between this new creation story and the creation stories of the past will be massive. Pushing us into the dilemma suggested by this hypothetical t-shirt below.
As you can see, this t-shirt does the opposite of damning science with faint praise, by ‘praising science with faint damn’. But the slogan is a serious one. For it addresses a predicament that faces the whole human race. A dilemma that is the result of the increasing education of mankind, and our increasing efforts to understand not just the nature around us, but our own human nature as well. Out of which comes a choice, and one that really does put us between the devil and the deep blue sea. For if we stay with religious belief, then we lose out on much of the illumination that comes from science, and if we move to a third creation story about the nature of meaning, then we incur at least a partial loss of the very thing that we cherish most. Meaning meaning.
This is not to say that a life without religion is a life without meaning, as that is demonstrably false. But it is to say that religion is the main source of meaning for a large percentage of the human population, and that to remove it may leave many of us without the hope and comfort that we seek in life. So although some of the chief proponents of atheism bravely claim they are not afraid of death, and are happy to face the reality of the human condition on their own two feet, and that science therefore does not ‘suck’, this may not be representative of the rest of us. After all, we can see that it must be quite easy for such independent and important figures to think in this way, surfing as they are on the crest of a wave high above the rest of us, where the meaning removed by science is replaced by the undoubted success of their own lives. But for those of us down here on terra firma, it can be less easy to face the idea that meaning is merely a man-made thing. That is, that in our short and often difficult lives, there is nothing more to life than the physical world, and what we ourselves make of it.
Having said that, it is also likely that none of us will have much choice in this matter in the long term, because just as the powers of the hard sciences made them ultimately irresistible (despite huge religious opposition in both the past, and now the present), so too will the third creation story pursue its inevitable destiny, whether we like it or not, and like its elder and highly successful brothers, create a brand new dawn.
So let us look at what this new story might be about, and do so by going back to a different sunrise: the dawn of human intelligence. A dawn that began with the evolution of the imagination on one hand, and of language on the other. A co-evolution that was, it seems, always bound to lead to the following, and inevitable reflection that: ‘There must be more to life than this!’ The ‘this’ being our increasing awareness of our physical condition, and the ‘must’ being the unstoppable desire to transcend it. Because it is when ape turns to man, that the unavoidable and increasing consciousness of our condition is bound to lead to stories about how we got here, and where we are going, all in order to imbue our physical existence with greater meaning. Stories that will inevitably transcend our physical limitations by creating heros that rise above the natural world to do things far beyond what is actually possible. Stories that will exalt a scale of values that denies our animality, in order to idealise a set of behaviours that makes us quite distinct from the world of creatures around us. And finally, stories that propose a super being, so that the meaning we have in our lives is no longer seen as a merely man-made something, but rather as a matter of human destiny, on a scale and grandeur with the stars themselves.
So where does human meaning come from? Well, it emerges from the interaction between the physical reality of the world outside, and the imagined world inside our heads. Leading to the point where, once a group of imaginations has established this virtual internal world, then many of those aspects of the natural world that are deemed undesirable can be excluded, or at least reinterpreted (as long as this remains consistent with physical survival). All of which leads to a new and different reality that may be totally at variance with the world outside, creating strange beliefs and values that can flourish nowhere else, but in the virtual world inside our heads. And all of this comes down to the fact that we live in not one, but two places.
Because we live in two worlds, the fast developing world inside our heads was always bound to lead to conflict with the world outside. A conflict that in one way was to generate better ways of coping with our biological imperatives, and thus enjoy a major selective advantage through the sciences it is true. But it was also a conflict that was to generate new beliefs that were largely at variance with the base physical world outside. Ways that were nonetheless entirely compatible with the developing needs of human meaning inside our heads. Creating, as a result, an uneasy balance between on the one side an acceptance of this physical reality, and on the other, a radical denial of its dominion over our new world of ‘what might, could, and should be’ inside our heads.
Thus it was that these two worlds would collide with each other in a way that would change both of them for all of time. A collision that was fast leading to an increasingly developed world of meaning that had its feet in the physical reality beneath it, but its head in the clouds of the virtual space inside our skulls. A virtual world that was at such variance with the physical reality outside, that it sometimes even led to the death of its participants, so strong was its rivalry with the bio logic of animal existence. But a whole new world of meaning was in the creation, and for a very long time now, that world has been dominated by the creation stories of religion, and the rest of human meaning, including morality, and art and the embryonic sciences, was forced to accept this dominion as its only way of survival. And then everything changed.
Humans have always been clever about Nature, mastering what they need, and being curious about how it all fits together. But its ‘great works’ were so imbued with the mythology that informed all of their perception, that little of great moment was revealed until, that is, a new philosophy started to gain position in the human cosmology. A new culture that was based on a gradually increasing number of people who had learnt how to actually talk to, and interrogate Nature. People who knew how to have a dialogue with Nature not in their own human language and terms, but in the ‘language’ laid down by physical reality itself. All based on a belief that there was a truth out there that was independent of human perception and existence. And yes, it’s time for another t-shirt.
The idea that scientists are people who have learnt to talk to Nature provides us with a powerful image. Suddenly the graph that results from an experiment turns into a real life dialogue between the scientist and the physical world (the x axis, with its ‘independent variable’, turns out to be the question posed by the scientist, and the y axis, with its ‘dependent variable’ turns out to be the answer supplied by Nature). And this is a conversation that only works if we exclude the hubbub of voices that might otherwise drown out our dialogue – so we shut them out, by closing the lab door on them (all other variables must be kept constant). So science is not so much a belief as a kind of conversation with the outside world, and the result of this interrogation of Nature has been utterly spectacular (nowhere near as spectacular as Nature itself of course, but hugely impressive even so).
Nevertheless, most of the human race still finds it useful, or at least normal, to take much of the substance of the physical world as a substrate to be transmuted, like water to wine, and then wine to the blood of a christ (or other mythical figure). For it is in this way, and for millennia, that people have given a hostile world both point and the purpose. Not just because they were born into such beliefs, and not just because these beliefs could offer a simple access to hope, but also because these ideas were intellectually and emotionally exciting – going beyond the literal world is what we do all the time in stories and daydreams, and how much more exciting if it were all true. Because such thinking really did allow us to face both the problems of loss intrinsic to our physical condition, and to revel in the exciting possibilities that arise from thinking that things might be otherwise than they are. However, this unfettered subjectivity was also at odds with the world outside, and when people learnt how to ask questions of nature, and how to understand the answers that nature gave, the powers released by an objective understanding of the universe became an unstoppable force. A force which led to the two creation stories that we have ironically entitled ‘Let there be Light’ and ‘Let there be Life’. A force that we now recognise as the unstoppable intellectual vitality and physical wizardry of the Natural Sciences.
Now though, it seems that the social sciences are in the same position as the physical and the biological sciences were some centuries ago. For example, just as early biologists knew very little about the range of life around us, and even less about where it came from, so now, the social sciences have made no discoveries on the scale of a Darwin, Mendel, or Watson and Crick. Why is it then that the social or human sciences are so silent on such matters as the nature of meaning, purpose and the human condition? Because surely it is the nature of meaning, together with its origins in our animal past, that presents us with the greatest question of all?
This leads us to a bit of a problem. Because if the world inside our head is the one place on this planet that we know really well, then how come we have never succeeded in mapping it? How is it that we have so far failed to chart the virtual contours of the landscape inside our heads, and produce an objective map of human meaning? (Not to be confused with the neurophysiological mapping of the brain by the way). How is it that we have failed to achieve such a critical scientific goal when we are all of us such experts in the detailed semantic topography of our everyday life? Because clearly the social sciences; the one area of science that should speak to us about ourselves, has signally failed to tell us the one thing we all surely want to hear: which is the story of human meaning. So whilst the physical and biological sciences are now impressively mature bodies of insight and application, it seems that the social sciences have yet to come of age.
It is a real challenge to explain how it is that we can we do such amazing things as track the nature of distant suns, map tiny viruses, and locate elementary particles, but not know the geography of our own mental home; our own intimate and inside world of meaning. And not surprisingly, the answer to this question is as interesting as it is important, and it is pursued in a later section in this website (so please excuse this temporary ‘brush off’ – and look in ‘Off the Map’, section two). But let us be clear about what ‘Meaning’ means in the context of this quest. Simply put, meaning is about what matters to us, and although what matters to us humans may be of little, or no interest, to the rest of the universe, it is, to us (and this is no exaggeration), Everything.
So yes, this does indeed make the quest to map meaning a major challenge. Where even to start one might ask? Because given the scale and undoubted complexity of this all encompassing ‘Everything’, the prospect of finding a point of leverage looks daunting. Especially given that this ‘Everything’ ranges from the most apparently specific and trivial issues (such as ‘What Made Us Laugh Today?’) to the most pervasive and profound (such as ‘What is the Point of Existence?’). So where then, in all of this hugely complex, rich and varied landscape, where can we possibly make a start? Well, let’s begin with what makes us laugh. And here’s why…
Imagine going back in time, and hovering over the forests of Earth, in a search for the first signs of intelligent life on this planet. Suddenly, amidst the usual sounds of the jungle, far down in the clearing below, we hear something extraordinary. ‘Did we hear it right? Yes, there it is again. There’s no question – that was definitely the sound of laughter.’ Upon which, and without a moments reflection, we identify this sound for what it really is: the vital sign we’ve been looking for all along. Because laughter IS the sound of intelligence. The one and instant sign that tells us we are in the presence of something really special and unique. For it is humour, perhaps more than anything else, that marks the point of change from animal to man. The point where the sparks from the glowing embers of our animal past have ignited into that new, and flaming power of intelligence that is nothing less than the creative power and energy of the human imagination.
Well, the sound of laughter down below in the forest clearing does make for a powerful image of the dawn of intelligence. But it also happens to offer us a rather neat alternative to the ‘Let there be Creation stories’ in our opening paragraph. Because now we have an alternative version of the starting triplet:
Let there be Light – Let there be Life – Let there be Laughter
And ‘Let there be Laughter’ is better than ‘Let there be Creation stories’ for two reasons. Firstly, the sound of laughter really does make for a compelling symbol of the power of the imagination, and thus the dawn of human intelligence. And secondly, ‘Laughter’ begins with the letter ‘L’, which means that it fits in nicely with the other parts of our three part declaration, as they also begin with the same letter. All of which amounts to a new and satisfying way of summarising the three levels of reality on planet Earth. Satisfying because all three steps echo each other in a resonance based on the same sound, twice repeated, and this in turn suggests that there is an underlying pattern to the whole formulation. Which, as we shall see in a later section, is indeed the case.
Okay, this is all very fine, and the echo of the alliterative ‘L’ is certainly quite pleasing, but we still have to answer the basic question that lurks behind all of this. Which is, why on earth should we start our quest to chart the landscape of meaning by enlisting the help of humour? After all, it is perfectly well known that jokes are indefinable, and don’t take kindly to analysis. Furthermore, the basic code that underlies any joke is still a complete mystery. So surely the idea of taking a jester on as our official guide is bound to lead us into trouble? In fact, given there are so many other aspects of meaning to choose from, why go for humour at all? Why not choose fiction, or religion or morality? Well, the answer to this question lies in the way jokes work.
Humour is special. We all sense that to some degree, and understand its role in both entertainment and normal interaction. But the most exciting thing about humour is not its importance as a form of entertainment, nor its importance as a form of social exchange, nor even its importance as an intellectual challenge to the geographers of meaning. No, the real and fundamental importance of humour lies in the fact that it is a ‘science’ of the human mind in its own right. Or, to put it another way, humour is an intuitively inspired, colloquially expressed, and yet highly analytical precursor to the sciences of psychology and sociology. So it is for this reason, and for this reason particularly, that the joke deserves our full attention. Indeed, any scientific attempt to analyse meaning that focuses closely on the logic of humour is likely to be a success just because of this special feature. But this point only become clear when the nature of the joke and its action are considered more closely…
Jokes attack the boundaries and contour lines of the human landscape, momentarily twisting our cherished perceptions of the physical and social spaces that we live in. They do this by coaxing the objects and values of this combined experience into unfamiliar postures, positions and alliances. All of which means that the ‘twists’ that form the basis of this attack provide us with a graphic silhouette of the logic of human thought itself. Because by giving us a pointer to our most hidden perceptions, they furnish us with a clear and high-powered focus into the underlying nature of the human condition.
In fact, it is almost as if we humans have been looking at, and examining ourselves, from the very start of our evolution as conscious beings, and greatly enjoying our observations through this altered viewpoint in the process. A process that has probably employed many of the best creative minds in each generation, all of whom have sought to express their findings in the thousands of neat, recognisable units of simple language and design that we now call jokes. And together, these jokes comprise one of the biggest, and perhaps most objective body of material on the workings of the human mind in existence. A body of meaning that is especially useful to us not only because of its relative simplicity, but also because it has no other agenda than a loyalty to our intellect – which is to say that humour amounts to a relatively objective focus on our own human subjectivity, albeit expressed in the terms of colloquial language and behaviour.
How then can humour survive as an objective force, especially when, as it sometimes does, it attacks the established order of things? Well, it is surely the perceived triviality of the joke that enables humour to pursue this dangerous path, unchallenged by the interests it so often attacks. Which is to say that the surface shimmer of inconsequence that seems to characterise so much of humour is probably what has always protected its existence in the past. But where in turn does this perception derive from? Why do we look on humour as a harmless activity? The answer seems to be that humour is seen as a benign force because it is almost entirely devoid of practical directives, has no particular agenda, and is far too fragmented to look like any kind of a serious movement. So humour has never been seen as a real threat to the power structures of society (except by those so rigid that any infraction anywhere is stopped at birth). That is, the shimmer of inconsequence that arises from this non threatening and chaotic identity is precisely the factor that has allowed humour to survive successfully, and without any really major constraints, throughout our entire human history. Meanwhile allowing us such jokes as an important outlet for our self awareness, and giving us the freedom to be almost ruthlessly objective about our foibles and cherished logic and traditions, whilst at the same time taking it all with a pinch of salt, because none of it actually poses any danger to what we value most.
To conclude then. Jokes twist the contours of our landscape of meaning, and through this action they reveal, at least for the moment of the joke, the underlying logic of human meaning. Which is why this quest takes on humour as its guide, and why much of this website is concerned with the nature and logic of jokes.
So. All we have to do is break the secret code of the joke (this has never been done before), and the underlying logic of the colourful domain of meaning will be revealed. That is, as long as we avoid the traps set by our jester guide along the way. And we really do have to break that code…