A simple argument from meaning

I’ve been involved in some discussion on the argument from purpose over at SCAE. During this discussion, I formulated and refined a brief argument from meaning. I’m posting it here for critique:

  1. The statement ‘there is no meaning to life’, or some variant thereof such as ‘the universe in toto is meaningless’, presupposes meaning and is thus false by definition.
  2. Therefore, there is meaning to life (by excluded middle).
  3. This meaning exists necessarily (from 1 and 2).
  4. But meaning exists only in minds.
  5. Therefore, necessarily existing meaning implies a necessarily existing mind.
22 replies
  1. Keith
    Keith says:

    Bnonn,

    I see some serious problems with the argument.

    1. When people say that the universe as a whole has no meaning, they generally mean that it has no overarching purpose. It just is. That doesn’t mean that there are no instances of meaning within it.

    Same with life. If someone laments that life has no meaning, she won’t feel better when you point out that she managed to order a cup of coffee that morning. She means that life has no overall meaning, not that every utterance or act within it is meaningless.

    2. Meaning (of the sort you intend) does not exist necessarily. It depends on the existence of a mind or minds, and is therefore contingent.

    To put it differently, it’s possible to imagine a reality devoid of minds, in which case nothing is about anything else. It just is.

    3. Even if meaning (of the sort you intend) did exist necessarily, thus implying the existence of at least one mind, it would not follow that that single mind must be God.

  2. Stuart
    Stuart says:

    Hmm…

    Premise 1 would be better stated “the statement ‘the universe in toto is meaningless’ presupposes meaning and is thus false by definition.

    Even stated like this I think it is confusing ontology with semantics, which I think is Keith’s point in 1. If so, the argument breaks down. If not you should…

    restate premise 2 as “Therefore, the universe in toto has meaning” and,

    put 4 before 3 (I know it doesn’t matter but it reads better, I think),

  3. Stuart
    Stuart says:

    Re Keith’s point 2:

    Meaning (of the sort you intend) does not exist necessarily. It depends on the existence of a mind or minds, and is therefore contingent.
    To put it differently, it’s possible to imagine a reality devoid of minds, in which case nothing is about anything else. It just is.

    It doesn’t follow that meaning is contingent. To put it differently…
    Keith say’s:
    If there is no mind/s, there would be no meaning (in the epistemic and ontological sense). In a reality where there are no mind/s therefore, meaning is contingent.

    Logically it should be:
    If there is no mind/s, there would be no meaning. In a reality where there are no mind/s therefore, meaninglessness is necessary.

    If Keith wants to get that meaning is contingent in a valid way, then some premises need to be added, namely, “if meaning is not necessary, meaning is contingent.” (which is false), or the other option is to add two more premises, “If no necessary mind exists, all meaning is contingent,” (which is true) and “there is no necessary mind.” (which is, I believe, false).

  4. Stuart
    Stuart says:

    Re Keith’s point 3:

    3. Even if meaning (of the sort you intend) did exist necessarily, thus implying the existence of at least one mind, it would not follow that that single mind must be God.

    If meaning exists necessarily, there must be one necessarily existent mind. Who else but God has a necessarily existent mind?

  5. Stuart
    Stuart says:

    Here, do you believe in argument evolution.

    1) If there is no mind/s, there would be no meaning.
    2) If there is no meaning, there is no necessary meaning.
    3) If there is no mind/s, the is no necessary meaning (HS 1, 2)
    4) There is necessary meaning.
    5) Therefore, there exists a mind/s (MT 3, 4)
    6) If there is necessary meaning it exists in a necessary mind.
    7) Therefore, there exists a necessary mind/s. (MP 4, 6)

    That’s valid. I just don’t know how you’d get the crucial premise (4) out of pure logic – you’d need to appeal existentially to the person. So you could recast the argument to conclude if the universe has meaning (ontologically), that meaning exists within a necessarily existent mind. So it’s not as grand an argument as one might for.

  6. Stuart
    Stuart says:

    Possibly a better way to approach would be;

    1) If there is no God, there is no ultimate meaning or overarching purpose.
    2) If there is no ultimate meaning or overarching purpose, there is no meaning or purpose.
    3) There is meaning and purpose.
    4) If there is no God, there is no meaning or purpose. (HS 1, 2)
    5) There is a God. (MT 3, 4)

    The controversial premise would be 2. But if you wanted to advocate it you’d be in good company with the all the existential philosophers.

  7. Simon
    Simon says:

    To be sure there is some merit to the argument that the statement “There is no meaning to life” is self-undermining.

    The statement “There is no meaning to life” does not, of course, refer to the logic(meaning) we all know which exists within life. It is a meta-postulate about that set of logic itself; an attemt to apply the term “meaning” – as it is meant WITHIN life – to the totality of life itself – from an OUTSIDE perspective.

    This is a valid thing to do only in the Godelian sense. Logical systems CAN be forced to talk more and more universally about themselves. It is therefore quite possible that the logical system of life is meaningless in the sense of the word “meaningless” that that logical system itself holds to. But it is also ostensibly possible that the statement “Life has meaning” is just as robust!

    Moreover, if there really were an external (i.e. not just a meta-statement, but an external) “meaning” to life, and if that meaning could be deduced from within life, then the statement “Life DOES have meaning” would no longer be truly an external-statement; it would be an internally logical one. One that is discernable and understandable. It would be empirical, observable, objective, repeatable, in theory. The ‘objective’/external statement “Life has meaning”, then, is equally absurd or equally discernable!

    The fact that so very many people come to so very many differing conclusions about the meaning of life (on the cosmological, cosmogonical scale) would suggest that “Life is meaningless” is the more valid statement for any reasonable definition that the word “meaning” can be held to at that cosmological scale.
    On the other hand, it is not that people find life meaningless at all. They mostly find it very meaningful! But for diverse reasons such that that the entity ‘meaning’ that they each refer to cannot hold a robust and consistent definition. One must either bury one’s head in the sand and deny some(many!) people pespect for their personal ‘meanings’ OR come to a more mature view of what the meaning of life is. But, of course, if that meaning were obvious it would cease its pretence at being an objective, external meaning……….

    Why is it that ultimate meaning is forever in the unknown?

  8. Stuart
    Stuart says:

    Your response Simon reminds me of when I saw the animation film Waking Life in 2001. :-)

    I remember walking out of the dark cinema weighed down with heavy thoughts, wondering how I was to make sense of the complicated ideas in the film, about life and it’s meaning. As I ambled up the aisle, I remember clearly the white light streaming in from outside and the relief that followed the revelation I received then. It restored me to high spirits and I said to myself, “Thank God, . . . Life is simple.”

    In the same way, I think meaning in life is simple. If God exists then there really is deep and profound meaning to life. I have a purpose. Moreover, what we do with our lives counts for something. Personal improvement is really worthwhile. Moral accountability makes sense. And we are precious and highly valued entities.

    On the other hand If God does not exist, then all those things are doubtful. I’m with the existential philosophers on this one, and think that if there is no Meaning (with a capital M) then there is no meaning (with a little m). If there is an ultimate meaning, that means my life (and everyone’s life) is imbued with value and meaning. But if there is no ultimate meaning, the logical result is nihilism.

    To avoid despair we need to either take a leap into the non-rational realm and create meaning for ourselves, or find the reasonable God who can bring us into a life of great meaning.

  9. Simon
    Simon says:

    I agree that humans need to make sense of their world. It is just a question of how ignorant we want to be. The more ignorant we are prepared to be the simpler our worldview can afford to be.
    It might be more pleasant to build a worldview (e.g. via an argument like the one you put forward here) in order to explain away chaotic reality; we all must necessarily do this to some degree; but this does not mean that reality is not chaotic!

    Ultimately, I think in 1. you are reducing “Life is meaningless” to “This statement is false”. This is a straw man. Of course no one who claims life is meaningless is really claiming that this extends to the statement they have just made!
    4. is extremely problematic. For a start, what does it Mean to say that “meaning only exists in minds”? This is a declarative statement designed to be independant of mind. For if it is not, it might not be independant of your mind!

    This does remind me of the “DNA is information, and information is a product of mind” argument. There is no definition of ‘information’ for which this makes any sense. Similarly, I don’t think there is a sensible definition of ‘meaning’ for which your argument makes sense, save a metaphysical/magical one which would make this argument work.

    Anywho…. fun!

  10. Stuart
    Stuart says:

    Simon

    Actually “information” does have a decent definition that means it very plausibly is a product of a mind, so the analogy is not a good one. If you take “meaning” to mean something like an objective existential purpose your criticism of 4. breaks down.

    I’m not sure if your criticism of 1 works either, but I don’t think that premise, written as it is, is a good one anyway.

  11. Simon
    Simon says:

    No, there is no sensible definition of information that anyone can come up with so as to place it in minds only. I invite you to try, though! DNA has information, a glass of water has information, the light coming from distant galaxies has information…. I tried very strenuously, once, to argue that DNA contains information (and that it is therefore the product of mind) but, as I say, there is no such definition without unwittingly including every physical thing in the universe.
    (Have you read any Douglas Hofstadter)
    Ultimately I think all that the human mind is doing is a best-fit approach; when we see something and try to determine whether it is intelligently made, it is not unlike attempting the Turing test. We can never be entirely sure, but we can make a good guess.

    Not sure if you mean my premise or yours? What I was trying to say was that no one is claiming that the statement “there is no meaning to life” applies to itself! And equally a statement like “Life is great” is an attempt to bring the word “great” outside of the context to which it applies: life. And equally, no one can validly apply “great” to the universe anymore than they can “meaningless”.

    P

  12. Stuart
    Stuart says:

    Simon, I’ll quote myself again

    Actually “information” does have a decent definition that means it very plausibly is a product of a mind,

    Emphasis on very plausibly. So…

    No, there is no sensible definition of information that anyone can come up with so as to place it in minds only. I invite you to try, though!

    is a characterisation of what I actually said.

  13. Stuart
    Stuart says:

    Though its off topic I look at the definition of information.

    Information theory is a highly sophisticated and developed discipline. Part of its broader application is in detection of information and so a definition is necessary for this. Information, I would say, is not just coding in highly improbable sequences, but a highly improbable sequence that conforms to an independently given pattern. Consider an example from language:

    A man jumps up in the middle of a medical conference on the biological repercussions of too much caffeine. Into the crowded room he shouts out “Uurhhg.” That is gobble-de-gook and meaningless to everyone, not to mention totally random. But then another person jumps up and shouts “Luurg.” Something strange is going on. Then the first one shouts back “Blurrg” at the top of his lungs and sits down. All the attendees think this behaviour is rather odd, but as there are no further interruptions from the two the presentation carries on.

    Now suppose we find the same two men, half an hour after the meeting at a coffee house around the corner sitting and talking animatedly in plain English. Though we didn’t initially understand we intuitively grasp something is going on here. On further investigation we find out that what was gibberish to us during the meeting, was to the two men legitimate communication with words that had predetermined meanings. “Uurhhg” meant I’m thirsty and going to Starbuck’s afterwards. “Luurg” meant I’m a coming with you. “Blurrg” meant I’m buying.

    An independent pattern, in this case the prearranged meaning of words, has caused this random sequence of outbursts to become informative language. So if DNA is to be information then it needs to not only be highly improbable in sequence but also conform to an independently given pattern. From there I think it is a short inference to design and a designer.

    The crystalline structure of glass and the chemical properties of water are not information bearing in the above sense because their structure is not highly improbable but seems physically determined, and though it does conform to a pattern it is not independently given. Now the glass of water could come to mean something if it conformed to an independently given pattern, say my telling my fictional wife I was always thirsty when I got home after work, and the next day it was there on the table. The glass or water then doesn’t by itself bear information, but is the vehicle used to bear information. And that information is a reasonably a product of a mind.

    To bring it back to the meaning of life, my life would be meaningless if it did not conform to an independently given pattern. What is this pattern? I struggle to think what an atheist can say, but a Christian can immediately reply we are made in the image of God. We all therefore have an inherent worth as image-bearers and can hold that there is great meaning to life. On atheism a person is ultimately only highly improbable collection of molecules with no independent pattern. To achieve meaning in any sense, let alone a grand sense, it seems to me the non-theist has to take an irrational leap above the line of despair.

  14. Stuart
    Stuart says:

    Ultimately I think all that the human mind is doing is a best-fit approach; when we see something and try to determine whether it is intelligently made, it is not unlike attempting the Turing test. We can never be entirely sure, but we can make a good guess.

    I’m happy with this assessment, if by “best fit” you mean the best explanation. As long as it is the bast explanation I think we are rational in making the inference to the existence of God.

  15. Simon
    Simon says:

    “So if DNA is to be information then it needs to not only be highly improbable in sequence but also conform to an independently given pattern. From there I think it is a short inference to design and a designer.

    The crystalline structure of glass and the chemical properties of water are not information bearing in the above sense because their structure is not highly improbable but seems physically determined, and though it does conform to a pattern it is not independently given. “

    DNA is not highly improbable and the glass and water ARE information bearing; they are both completely physically determined, I’m sure you’d agree with that.

    Now, I want to agree with you when you say “…in the same sense…”, but the trouble is that one cannot define what that ‘sense’ is; that was my point, here.
    The only hope is if “independantly given” actually amounts to “the ghost in the machine”.
    But if there IS a ghost in the machine, the only way to insist upon it is to point at the gaps in our knowledge.

  16. Stuart
    Stuart says:

    Now, I want to agree with you when you say “…in the same sense…”, but the trouble is that one cannot define what that ’sense’ is; that was my point, here.

    But I spelled out what sense I meant – both highly improbable and conforming to an independently given pattern.

    DNA is not highly improbable and the glass and water ARE information bearing

    But not in the same sense. Glass and water are not rich in highly improbable information, and do not conform to an independently given pattern. DNA on the other hand is extremely improbable and yet also conforms to an independent pattern, namely as a code for the construction of the body. In salt for instance, the information is like 1, 2, 2, 1, 2, 2, 1, 2, 2, 1, 2, 2 . . . on and on forever. DNA is more like the letters and words that form this sentence. The “words” have assigned meaning. But more wondrous is the code than just that, because its also redundant, over-lapping, error-correcting and self-replicating.

    The gap in our knowledge is the origin of that rich information, and I think the best explanation is an intelligent mind. That DNA’s origin is physically determined is highly unlikely, as the information scientist will attest.

  17. Simon
    Simon says:

    But I spelled out what sense I meant – both highly improbable and conforming to an independently given pattern.

    Improbability does not enter into it. DNA might seem to you to be highly improbable, but it is not; it is entirely contingent on physical law (or are you denying this?) – probability just does not feature: molecules just do what they do what they do, just like a glass of water.
    By “Independantly given pattern” I thnk you mean something like that you can read the DNA and ‘independantly’ give the pattern. Well, for a start this is not independant, but mainly: I can read the glass of water, too, and predict what it will do. I can read moon craters and infer what the asteroids were like, and I can read the topography and “independantly give” what the water will do.

    Don’t get me wrong, I agree with you that DNA is somehow different from, say salt, but only qualitatively so. There is simply no way to draw a demarcation line which is robust. Until that line can be drawn, and Dembski for one has tried, your assertion is but of-the-gaps.

  18. Stuart
    Stuart says:

    Improbability does not enter into it. DNA might seem to you to be highly improbable, but it is not; it is entirely contingent on physical law (or are you denying this?) – probability just does not feature: molecules just do what they do what they do, just like a glass of water.

    I clarified it was the origin of the information content of DNA. To say that was physically determined is presumptuous. How can you know that? Probability does feature as chance is an explanatory option alongside an intelligent mind and physical necessity.

  19. Stuart
    Stuart says:

    Yo Bnonn,

    Ravi, on his latest “let my people think” podcast, took a question from the audience. It was how do you deal with the statement “Life has no meaning” and he explained why it is self-refuting. So there may be more merit to the first premise than I thought.

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