Sam Vaknin’s Psychology, Philosophy, Economics and Foreign Affairs Web SitesAbstract 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 in most cases) and still different to contemplate the “What for”. For instance: people often do something because it gives them pleasure or satisfaction however this does not endow the act with meaning. Meaningless things can be and many times, are pleasant and satisfying.
A prime example is human games. Games are structured, they are governed by rules and represent the results of negotiations, analysis, synthesis and forecasting. They please and satisfy. Yet, a few will dispute their 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. And even this does not make them meaningful.
It is easy to answer 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 FOR do people play games. Pleasure, satisfaction, money, fame, learning, simulating real life experiences in anticipation and preparation for them.
But al this does not draw us an inch closer to the answer to the question:WHAT IS THE MEANING OF GAMES? For meaning to exist, we must have the following (cumulating) elements:A relationship between at least two distinctive (at least partially mutually exclusive) entities (space-time is the result of such a relationship)This relationship must manifest itself as the ability to map important parts of the entities unto each other (“Important” without which the entity is not the same, an identity element)That one of the entities should be larger than the other in some important sense. One of the entities must be physically bigger, older, more encompassing, mappable to more entities, etc.
That there be an interpreter to discern and understand the relationship between the entities (therefore, an “intelligent” interpreter)That such observations would lead the interpreter (potentially) to explain and to predict an important facet of the identity and of the behaviour of one of the entities (usually, in terms of the other, within the context and while using the laws of mathematical logic)That the understanding of a “Meaning” will provoke in a human observer an emotional reaction and in a non-human observer, an alteration in its information content and / or in its behaviourThat the “Meaning” will be invariant (not conjectural and not covariant) in every sense: physical and cultural.
The Meaning of Life must also adhere to these criteria: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 Two Entities requirement.
Parts of the world can be mapped to 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 entities in the world to one another. This is the source of certain therapies (acupuncture).
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, potentially, bear infinite meaning.
We are intelligent interpreters. We are, however, aware of the circular argument involved in observing ourselves and our relationships with other entities. This is why we are looking for other intelligent observers preferably of a higher order of intelligence.
This has been the obsession of the human race: trying to decipher, understand, analyse and predict one entity in terms of others. This is the best definition of Science and Religion (though there have been other strains of human intellectual pursuits).
Every glimpse of ostensible meaning provokes great emotional turbulence in humans. The situation is different with machines, naturally. When we discuss Artificial Intelligence, we again confuse Meaning with Directional (teleological) behaviour. A computer does something not because it means anything to it, 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 intelligent observers, can discern direction, cause and effect and, ultimately, meaning (however limited see the end of this Article).
This is the big human failure : all the “Meanings” that we divined hitherto are of the covariant, conjectural, dependent, circumstantial types. We can, therefore, safely say that humanity has not come across one meaning yet. Since the above condition must ALL co-exist for Meaning to manifest human existence is meaningless.
For a 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. This means that it can never be invariant in the purest sense, it will always have a “privileged frame of reference”.
In other words, meaning can never exists. The Universe and all its phenomena are meaningless.