No objective meaning

Two almond biscotti
Biscotti (CC) Joey Doll

Rumcake and Rainbows” suggested that meaning is neither objective nor subjective, but interactive. So, we could dismiss nihilist complaints that nothing has any objective meaning, simply by saying “yes, and that isn’t a problem, because it doesn’t imply anything is meaningless.”

But “Rumcake” swept several significant issues under the rug, to simplify the explanation near the beginning of the book.

We’ll have three goals for investigating objectivity of meaning, here and in more detailed discussions later:

Objectivity does not grant certainty

“Objective meaning” is often understood as as special type of meaning that should deliver on eternalism’s promises: perfect certainty, understanding, and control. It is the special sort postulated by rationalist eternalism, whereas “eternal meaning” is beloved of dualist religious eternalism, and “cosmic meaning is found mainly in monist eternalism.

There is no sort of meaning about which we can be completely certain, so in this sense it is true that there is no objective meaning.

This proves too much, though. “Perfect objectivity” is unattainable for pretty much everything, even in the hard sciences.1 So it can’t be right that anything about which we can’t be perfectly objective should be rejected. There are no facts about which we can be perfectly certain, and there is no perfectly objective method that could produce such certainty. Demanding those for meaning, but not for other sorts of knowledge, is unreasonable.2

In chemistry, exercising objectivity can produce confident knowledge, short of absolute certainty. This is also true for meaning, although meanings are more nebulous than molecules, and we have to accept lesser degrees of confidence.

Objectivity is a virtue

Objectivity is a vague concept. It’s surprisingly hard to pin down when you think about it.3

Often objectivity is defined mainly by contrast with subjectivity: how things appear from your personal viewpoint. Unfortunately, you are unreliable. What seems true to you may not be, due to your perceptual limitations and distortions, the influence of your idiosyncratic and unstable emotional responses, your fantasies, preconceptions, opinions, ignorance, irrationality and faulty reasoning, self-interest, social group bias, ideology, et cetera ad nauseam. So objectivity can be understood just as any attempt to do better than that.

Even though we can’t quite say what it is, we rightly ascribe virtues to objectivity, opposites to the vices of subjectivity: trustworthy, far-seeing, transparent, impersonal, stable, level-headed, realistic, dispassionate, fact-respecting, rational, unselfish, even-handed, open-minded, and so on. Like other virtues, none of these can be absolute, and there is no general method to guarantee any of them. There are often ways to exercise these virtues in specific situations, however.

Degrees of objectivity

A meaning is objective to the extent that it’s independent of observer, broadly recognized, and publicly verifiable. A meaning is subjective to the extent that it depends on the peculiarities of a particular observer in a particular situation.

It may be helpful to think of all observers organized in concentric circles around yourself, at distances representing their dissimilarity to you. The further out a meaning extends, the less subjective it is. It is unclear whether there are any perfectly subjective, or perfectly objective, meanings.

A perfectly subjective meaning would be one that was entirely arbitrary, and couldn’t be communicated at all, let alone shared. An example might be my taking a particular tree as sacred, in “At the Mountains of Meaningness.” I’m not sure I could have said anything, on that occasion, to explain why or what that meant. On the other hand, many cultures take some trees as sacred, and there are particular objective properties—such as being unusually large, ancient, solitary, and oddly shaped—that correlate with sacredness. It may be that if I took you to that tree, you might get a sense of what I was trying to communicate, even if you didn’t share the perception.

A perfectly objective meaning would compel all possible observers to agree. At minimum, you’d have to get buy-in from the eldrich abominations in the Andromeda Galaxy. But hey, they’re not so different, basically people like us, probably pretty reasonable once you get to know them. It’s imaginable that much more radically different entities are possible, and even if they don’t actually exist anywhere, to be properly objective you’d need to get them on board too. Elementary mathematical truths are candidates for perfect objectivity; not much else. (And can you be sure the eldritch abominations don’t have different and better ideas about mathematics than we do?)

Most meanings occupy different points in the middle ground. The circle of your benevolent political ideology is further out (more objective) than the circle of your egocentric concerns, but nearer in (more subjective) than the circle of cross-cultural moral universals.

“Interactivity” spans this entire space, except for the endpoints. Apart from perfectly objective and perfectly subjective meanings (if those exist), every meaning involves an observer and the phenomena observed, and its details depend to some degree on the peculiarities of both.

How objective is enough?

“No objective meaning” comes in 190-proof and lite versions. 190-proof versions insist that anything that isn’t objective doesn’t exist. Typically, they also assume things are objective or not, usually without clarity about which or why. This could be rash. If eldritch abominations don’t agree with you about how gravity works, does that make gravity non-existent? How about potato mashers, which they refuse to accept as an objective category, due to living in a galaxy sadly devoid of potatoes? If you grant that meaning is not always entirely subjective, you can’t use “not objective” to claim it doesn’t exist. That is the common nihilistic error of equating nebulosity with non-existence.

Lite versions concede that some non-objective meanings exist in some weak sense, but treat them as defective. They might say that claims about ethics, purpose, and value may have some sort of necessary social function, but are inherently arbitrary, unreliable, biased, evanescent, and based in emotion rather than evidence. Therefore meaning is not real. It is utterly inadequate, and you should be depressed about it.

It’s true that some meanings are defective and inadequate. This is sufficient reason to find or create better ones. That often requires taking a broader view of some dimension of meaning, thereby treating it more objectively.

There’s no all-purpose threshold for “objective enough.” Meanings have functions (or we wouldn’t bother with them). By way of analogy, it may always be possible to make a better potato masher, but if the one you’ve got is doing the job, it’s good enough. If you learned about a much better type, you might decide yours wasn’t good enough after all, and you’d replace it. Likewise, more-objective meanings are often better, but if one isn’t available for whatever you are doing at the moment, or switching seems like too much trouble, you’ll probably do OK with the one you’ve got.

You could still complain that, overall, meaningness is more subjective, or more nebulous, or less certain than you’d like. But there doesn’t seem to be any rational basis for claiming no meaning is ever “objective enough” to count as existent, or to be willing to engage with it. So this lite nihilism is untenable other than as griping, in the same way you might gripe about the imperfection of your potato masher.

Is more objectivity always better?

It is possible to be outright mistaken about meanings, which is bad. And, unresolved disagreements about meanings can lead to harmful conflicts when they have practical implications for group interests.

But individual and group differences in perception and understanding of meaning are often good. The difference between your view that making perfect biscotti is a major purpose in life (I don’t agree) and mine that writing about meaningness is a major purpose (eccentric, at best) could benefit both of us, if I enjoy eating your biscotti and you enjoy reading Meaningness.

I probably think your religion is wacky, and you almost certainly would think mine is. In a country that guarantees freedom of religion, this doesn’t need to be a problem for either of us. Plus, if I find your temple rather off-putting and you find it deeply moving, our interactions there may expand my range of appreciation and perception of sacredness.

Objectivity can be a vice if taken too far. The sales pitch in “No cosmic meaning” tried to get you to consider your life from point of view of a distant galaxy, from which it would appear meaningless. That is taking objectivity too far by several quadrillion miles. Objectivity becomes dysfunctional when it results in refusing to admit the existence of useful meanings that aren’t universal. That is nihilism.

Skilled use of objectivity

Some meanings may be built into human brains. However, as small children we begin to learn meanings that go beyond the innate, both through direct experience and by observing family interactions. This process continues, with increasing sophistication, throughout life.

Most meanings are publicly observable, to varying extents, and are communicable to varying extents through language, art, physical demonstrations, and other means. You may be told, as a child, that lying is wrong. You may observe harms that come from lies, and the ways people react when they are revealed. You may gain insight into the ethics of lying from fictional narratives.

Learning new meanings in these ways increases your objectivity, developing skill with a wider range of meanings. That rescues you from a narrow egocentricity, and later the parochial concerns of your community. You can imaginatively stand outside your own viewpoint, and then outside that of your group. Remember the “zoom outs” of the “Broader perspective” section of “No cosmic meaning”? Taking successively wider views reduces how important differences seem, while increasing your accuracy of perception of their details. Realistic humility grows; conceit diminishes. You come to relate accurately and effectively to a broader variety of situations that are meaningful in more different ways.

Further development usually requires more deliberate, explicit, and reflective effort. You become curious about the nature of meaningness itself, and what it means to understand it.4 You come to appreciate the specific virtues of objectivity enumerated above. The “view from nowhere” is impossible, but attempting to approximate it can be valuable for some purposes in some contexts.

Considering meaningness objectively is not so different from considering the material world objectively. There is no overall method that guarantees objectivity, but many specific tactics are useful in some situations. The main thing is the attitude of wanting to understand what’s actually going on, and what works or doesn’t. That makes you reluctant to accept claims without justification, or to invent meanings as self-indulgent fantasies. You strive to explore and acknowledge your personal, group, and ideological biases, and to compensate for them or set them aside. You try to gather and take account of relevant details, to think clearly, to avoid getting unduly swayed by your feelings, and to maintain an open mind when considering alternatives.

Looking at things from multiple conceptual viewpoints is entirely possible even when looking at them from multiple literal ones isn’t. Recall the discussions of unpicking systems and of metasystematicity in “Vaster than ideology.” Greater objectivity comes with recognizing what system or systems of interpretation you use, how they function, and what they do well and badly. Where do they agree/disagree? Why? Are syntheses possible? Are they desirable? Is it useful to regard particular meanings from one standpoint, and others from another? Are there meanings that are best viewed from several at once?5

Skilled use of subjectivity

Your personal understanding of meaningness is unique and valuable. You cannot eliminate it or fully avoid it, nor is there any good reason to.

Realizing this, you can regard your distinctive, eccentric takes on meanings with affectionate amusement. They are limited, peculiar, vaguely absurd when viewed from a distance; but (if you have done the work of objectivity) mostly not wrong, and they are your own.

Subjectivity enables you to discover or create personal meanings; ones which you, at least, enjoy. Skillfully expressed, others may come to enjoy them as well. This is the function of art (in the broadest sense). Others, if open-minded, may also find them inspiring or practically useful.

If I had to opine about “the purpose of life”—a dubious proposition!—it is this.

  1. 1.See the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article “Scientific objectivity” for an overview of why strong versions of objectivity are impossible. In realistic practice, all scientific experiments involve some human judgement and interpretation. There are also theoretical reasons to think this is unavoidable. We’ll return to this point later in Meaningness; see also my book In the Cells of the Eggplant.
  2. 2.Some nihilists do convince themselves that all knowledge, even of what color socks they are wearing, is impossible. This “epistemic nihilism” is silly as a philosophical theory. However, a common route for rationalists into nihilism is realizing that there is no universally reliable method for reasoning from evidence (so no knowledge can be certain), and misunderstanding this as knowledge being impossible or mostly unavailable. This can be a horrible loss-of-faith experience.
  3. 3.The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article “Scientific objectivity is a good starting point for understanding the diversity and nebulosity of the meanings of “objective.” Two classic works are Thomas Nagel’s The View From Nowhere (about objectivity of meaning) and Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison’s Objectivity (about objectivity in science). The next Meaningness page discusses “Some other varieties of objectivity.”
  4. 4.This curiosity should motivate practical inquiry, not detached theorizing. Nihilism often tries to avoid difficult details by escaping into abstractions. It is dangerously easy to get lost in space by philosophizing without frequent reference to specifics of obviously visible everyday concerns.
  5. 5.I’ve discussed these questions in many other places, from different angles. See for instance the discussion of the fluid mode in “Developing ethical, social, and cognitive competence,” and of political ideology in “Understanding,” in “Tribal, systematic, and fluid political understanding,” and in “Completing the countercultures.”