We want to feel and act as if our lives have meaning

Sunday, June 3rd, 2018

When we say we want our lives to be meaningful, are we saying we want our lives to actually have meaning, or that we want to feel and act as if our lives have meaning?

Before virtuous people like ourselves slam our fists on the table and insist on actual meaning, keep in mind — don’t we have actual meaning already? Most of us would endorse something like helping others as being inherently meaningful — we might add things like creating great art, discovering new scientific truths, and the like. If we could reprogram ourselves like robots, a lot of us would just program ourselves to do whatever helps others or achieves some conception of human values most efficiently, then say “problem solved”. If there’s something left after realizing we can do that, it’s not wondering what the meaning of life is, it’s having some kind of vague emotional will to go on.

This is one reason I respect Jordan Peterson’s pragmatism on a pragmatic level, even as I think it’s a crappy theory of truth. I can imagine a version of him saying (I don’t know if the real one does) “Look, I’m giving you all of these inspirational slogans. You can pick my science and philosophy and mythography apart if you really want, but are you sure you want to do that? You’ll just ruin my attempt to inspire you, and go back to lying on the couch all day wishing you had a reason to get up in the morning.”

Maybe aliens would view it as a tragic quirk of the human psyche that we have to conflate inspiration and truth. Maybe to them, inspiration is just another genre, closer to art or poetry than to an attempt to describe the world as it is. Maybe to them, if there’s an intuitively satisfying explanation of the meaning of life, asking “Is that really the meaning?” or “Is that really true?” would be just as stupid and annoying as nitpicking the lyrics of Ode To Joy. “Ode to Joy says ‘all creatures drink of joy’, but some creatures are unhappy, and joy is not a liquid! Politifact rates your symphony FALSE.”

It’s disappointing that nobody frames it this way: “Inspiring things should be taken as a work of art and not judged on their truth value”. Instead, it’s always some formulation like “Inspiring things are true in a way different from the way factual claims are true”, at which point I have to interject that truth is a useful word and insist on defending its “factually correct” meaning.


If we can waffle between factual truth and inspirational things in a way that lets us blur the distinction, so that we feel suitably inspired without necessarily believing false stuff in a way that could ever be pinned down, is this good or bad? Should we interpret this as an intellectual failure, or a cool skill that lets you do more than rationality alone? What about the claim that “rationalists should win”?

My own position is to question whether anyone is really good enough at this not to let their inspirational beliefs bleed over into the factual world. I discuss this a little bit here.

And my position on the larger problem of meaning is to notice that my life always seems really meaningful and great when I have coffee. If I’m going to try to figure out what the actual meaning of life is, in some sort of deep principled way, I’m going to do it with as much attention to Truth as possible. And if I’m going to give myself some emotional hack that lets myself go on and continue finding life worth living, I think caffeine probably has fewer side effects than falsehood, and is just as effective.

And if you don’t respond to caffeine as well as I do, then I think the overall lesson is that the emotional problem of meaning is a basically biological one, that doesn’t connect with the philosophical problem of meaning nearly as much as you think. Get a good psychiatrist and you’ll solve the emotional problem. The philosophical problem might not be solvable, but “helping others” or “creating a positive singularity” or “[your ingroup’s political goals here]” are, though not Perfectly Objectively Grounded, grounded enough that most people don’t really want to question them once the emotional problem is solved.

I find some of Peterson’s non-truth-value-having writing effective in the same sense as caffeine; it makes me more emotionally willing to follow the truths I know I should be following. Since, jokes aside, I can’t literally be drugged 100% of the time, I appreciate that. And maybe the drug would be stronger if I were to swallow his truth-value-having claims too. But that’s not a risk-benefit profile I’m okay with right now.


  1. Ross says:

    There’s probably a deep and erudite answer to this.

    I’m even more sure I don’t have it and likely never will. Except for the caffeine part, with which I agree completely.

    For me there’s enough wiggle room between ‘factual truth’ and Truth to allow the pursuit of the latter to include a bit of mystery, inspiration – or even ‘error’ – and still be declared a success.

    Acknowledging that Truth contains error or ( permits factual incompleteness) and yet not forestalling life until factual truth is achieved is one of the defining characteristics of what it means to be human.

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