Neither objective nor subjective

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How can meaningness be neither objective nor subjective? Doesn’t everything have to be one or the other? Either meanings are out there in the world, and properly objective, or inside you, and merely subjective or mental. Right?

As we’ve seen earlier in this chapter, the inside/outside, self/other distinction is nebulous, and often irrelevant, because meaning keeps crossing it. Meaningness couldn’t be either subjective or objective, because it extends freely between, across, and around self and other.

Not objective

It’s been obvious for more than a century that the universe is not inherently meaningful (eternalism). However, it’s also not inherently meaningless (nihilism). It’s neither inherently meaningful nor inherently meaningless because meaning is not the sort of thing that can be inherent.

Meaningness is an interactional dynamic that arises between oneself and one’s situation. The problem comes when we deny our part in that, and try to put all the responsibility for meaningfulness out in the situation. We want to do that because we don’t trust ourselves. We don’t think the meanings we co-create will be good enough. We want a solid, definite, separate, permanent, inherently existing meaning to be made available. (This is what people invent God for—to feed us that kind of meaning.) That kind of meaning would be reassuring and dependable.

However, there isn’t any meaning like that. The only kind that exists is nebulous: ambiguous, fluctuating, uncertain; like a dance, not like a statue. That might seem unsatisfactory at first. However, once you accept that meaning is like that, you can see that it’s actually much better than the hypothetical solid kind of meaning. It provides freedom and creativity and exploration and lightness, where the given-by-God kind of meaning would be restrictive, dull, heavy, boring, and inescapable. If the universe had inherent meaning we would all be living in a totalitarian prison.

Not subjective

If meaningness were merely subjective, or if it were a matter of individual or social choice, it would not be possible to be mistaken about it. Yet we make mistakes about meaningness all the time.

This was the point of my casino story. I was mistaken not about what happened, factually, but about what it meant. You can’t say that “the universe loves me” was “true for me”. It was just plain false.

Meaningness in the complete stance

Meaning is a collaborative, improvised accomplishment. We re-make meaning in every moment, through concrete, situated meaning-making work.

Even the most simple, mundane meanings (like the meaning of breakfast) are interactional—they involve you, your yogurt and jam, the spoon and table, the people you are eating breakfast with, and (to decreasing extents) everyone involved in creating that situation, and all the non-human actors who were also involved. The more of that stuff you remove, the less meaning is there.