As humans, we have this pathological need to find meaning in things wherever possible. We are arguably the most intelligent and yet the most confused species on the planet. Whenever we cannot identify the meaning or purpose behind any phenomena, we feel anxious and insecure. In the midst of that anxiety and insecurity, we grasp the closest explanation of purpose or meaning we can assign to that phenomena – no matter how far from rationality it might be. As Nate Silver would call it – we try and find signal in white-noise, or patterns in pure randomness. It was perhaps this urge to find meaning in things, that led ancient Greeks and Hindus to believe that stars and planets and the sun have some transcendental meaning and created abstractions of Gods to represent these planetary and other natural entities like wind and water. This ‘leap of faith’ helps us explain the Whats and the Whys of things, while comfortably bypassing the Hows. Like when earthquakes or droughts occurred, our religiously evolved ancestors had an explanation for its meaning and purpose (Whats and Whys), albeit not of its nature (Hows). Note that the explanations to Whats and Whys were also inaccurate – yet something that cured their anxiety and satiated their need for meaning. One might think that with the progress we’ve made in science, our ability to find meaning would’ve improved significantly. As The Signal and the Noise points out, that’s actually far from the case. Instead of fooling ourselves with dogma and mythology, we today use data and technology to do the same. Yes, we might have more ‘logical’ explanations to the Whys and Whats, given all the data that they’re substantiated by – but hey, that’s what I believe our Greek and Hindu forefathers must’ve claimed as well, in their times.
Philosophy often carries the burden of existential questions that pertain to finding meaning and purpose in life. However, even in our pragmatic day to day interactions with people and things, we encounter this quest to find meaning. ‘Why did she do this?’, ‘What was his motive?’ etc. and we again grasp the easiest possible and available explanations. This analysis is often clouded by our own nearsightedness of emotions or desires and misguided by our craving for choice and certainty. We assign labels to people and things. ‘She’s a bitch!‘ ‘He’s a snob‘ Over time we substantiate and feed these labels with our biases (both intellectual and emotional). We also do this as a group – ‘They are terrorists’, ‘They are killers and murderers’ and so on. This clarity of meaning often makes it easier for us to take actions that we otherwise might consider immoral or unethical – ‘Smoke em out!‘, ‘Wipe them off the face of the earth!‘. The way the presence of biological weapons in Iraq was used as aide to add meaning to the assault on countless folks, is a great example of the same. Meaning and purpose certainly helps unite people (because of this shared pathological craving we have as humans), by providing justifications and reasons that may be right or wrong. This ability to assign meaning to insignificant things (as insignificant as a collection of used bullets), also inspires some amazing pieces of art, like this beautiful song from Passenger (of ‘Let her go’ fame)
So where does this leave us? Clearly, not searching for reasons or meaning or purpose behind things isn’t a great idea. To a great extent, we owe our progress as humanity to this quest for meaning. What I’m alluding to here, in relation to meaning, is what Nate Silver alludes to about certainty in data analytics. There are cases where we have enough signal in the noise to be able to identify it and claim and understand it with a great deal of certainty. That leads to progress and is in general, good. However, artificially inducing meaning in things, and signal in noise, when none exists is generally a bad idea. In those cases, we blind ourselves with unjustified arguments and unsubstantiated motives. Instead, we should try and cure the root of our malaise – our insecurity and anxiety in the absence of meaning. We must learn to appreciate that there would always be things in this chaotic world, that we either cannot explain (within the limitations of our time and resources) or that don’t require an explanation. We must develop the ability to recognize that people around us are more complex than pictures in an alphabet book to which we can assign adjectives or labels. Meaning, when wrongly attained, can give us a false sense of ethical justification. Only when we begin to be comfortable in the lack of meaning, can we really be truly ethical, by recognizing our limitations instead of taking decisions based on blinded ethics.
So the next time you’re confronted with a Why she did what she did? type of problem or any of it’s corollaries, you have two options. You can either embark on a signal in white-noise type of analytic search, where you try to assign meaning to her actions from your past experiences with her, on the causality of which, even ‘she’ wouldn’t have a clue. And then find purpose and motivation to create unreasonable plans of vindication or vengeance in response. Or, you can convince yourselves using the arguments I’ve laid before you, that it was just another eruption in the volcanic terrain of chaos that is better left unexplored. And that you’d be better suited if you head out on a new voyage instead – a voyage to nowhere, in quest of nothingness. For in that voyage, you’d be lighter and freer from the weight of assigning meaning to every experience and be able to enjoy and cherish any and every moment without the burden of purpose and meaning. Some of the most blissful moments in life are often the most meaningless, whimsical and trivial.
At a meta-level, this view may also perhaps help us come to terms with our existential question of Being. This view suggests that there might be no reason or purpose to our existence after all. We should learn to accept that (or at least our current inability in finding that purpose) and live around it, instead of trying to frame divergent answers, none of which can be proven absolutely and yet for which, we create war and separation and pain in justifying the correctness and supremacy of one over the other. In such a world, our acceptance of this notion of the lack of meaning in certain things, and our ability to live comfortably in the absence of meaning and purpose, may actually be a stronger unifying force than the separatism caused by our search for meaning.