Denying the second fact is existentialism: the stance that meanings are subjective, and so can be chosen at will.
Denying the third fact is nihilism: the stance that nothing means anything.
Each of these confused stances is mistaken and harmful. The proper and useful conclusion from the three facts is that meaning is neither objective nor subjective.
Kumquats are neither just nor unjust—and yet, amazingly, they exist! Kumquats are neither triangular nor square—yet, astonishingly, they exist! How on earth can this be!
Kumquats are not a sort of thing that can be just or unjust. Meanings are not a sort of thing that can be objective or subjective.
Triangular and square are not the only shapes. There is also oval. Objective and subjective are not the only ways of being. There is also interactive.
Physical analogies for meaningness
Concepts about meaningness all rest on physical analogies.1 Physical analogies are the basis both of physical explanations of meaning, and of theories that deny meanings are physical.
Unfortunately, these analogies are misleading. That is not because meaningness is non-physical—the explanations I give later in the book are physical. They are misleading because the wrong sorts of physical phenomena get used as analogs.
Nihilism rests mainly on a bad analogy: that meanings have definite locations, like little physical objects. A marble is either in the jar, or out of the jar. Meanings, most people assume, are either inside your head, or outside your head.
But meanings are not specifically located. Neither are some better-understood physical phenomena: reflections, rainbows, and mirages, for instance. At the end of this page, I’ll suggest these are better (though still imperfect) analogies for meaning.
Putting meanings in things
A natural view is that meanings are objective: inherent in things. Consider purpose, for instance, one of the main dimensions of meaningness. The purpose of a pot is cooking. The purpose of wheat is nutrition. The purpose of your stomach is digestion.
This is the way everyone thinks about purpose most of the time, because it’s simple and mostly works. If we left it at that, it would rarely cause problems (despite being wrong). Unfortunately, there are philosophers, who want to make up stories about how things work. So how do inherent meanings work?
Well, humans make things for purposes. So apparently the maker of a pot gives it its purpose. But what about natural things like wheat? Here, we need God, who created the natural things, and gave them purposes. In the Medieval worldview, all things had fixed, intrinsic purposes, according to their kind. Things not obviously useful were created by God to provide moral lessons. The pelican, for example, stabs its own breast to draw blood to feed its children:2 a paradigm of compassionate self-sacrifice.
Likewise, every kind of object has an intrinsic degree of value, according to the Great Chain of Being decreed by God.
On this view, God puts meanings in objects, like marbles in a jar. Or, a better analogy would be the jelly in a jelly donut: you can’t see the meaning just by looking.
Actually, if you cut things open, you can’t find the meaning inside. It doesn’t ooze out. So maybe meaningfulness is more like a fluid that suffuses objects. If you soak a sponge cake in rum, that invisible essence pervades the dessert, and you can’t specifically locate it—although you can taste it.
How does this work? God works in mysterious ways, but how exactly does a human potter put the meaning in the pot? What is this meaning made of, and where do you get it from? If a potter puts a pot-meaning into a hammer, what then? If you always use a pot to hold marbles, instead of for cooking, have you changed its inherent purpose?
As the scientific worldview developed, it became clear that physical objects are “just atoms and the void.” There’s no place inside objects for meanings to hide.
Nothing is inherently meaningful. Nihilism is quite right about that.
This does not mean everything is inherently meaningless! Meanings are not a sort of thing that can be inherent, because they have no specific location. As we shall see.
Putting meanings in minds
A potter cannot put a purpose in a pot; but the potter knows the purpose of the pot. Perhaps the purpose is inside the potter, not the pot. The potter can explain the purpose of pots to their users, and then it lives inside them too.
Probably in their heads. Like marbles. Although, if you cut open people’s heads, you can’t find any.
So, we invented “minds,” which are metaphysical jars for putting meanings in. Despite being immaterial, the mind is also somehow in the head. Maybe it’s one of those subtle fluids, which pervades the brain, like rum.3
The problem with putting meanings in people’s heads is that people disagree. If meanings were in objects, we could resolve conflicts by determining the objective truth. But disagreement is fatal for all subjective accounts of meaning. This is most obvious in ethics. If I consider eating people OK and you consider it morally wrong, and if what it means to be right or wrong is nothing other than our opinions, then we cannot even begin a discussion. We cannot state any reasons, and there is no way to change someone’s mind. (How would this work in educating children? “Stop biting your sister!” “Subjectively, it is right for me to do so.”)
So, we could put the marbles in God’s head. His job was to keep track of all the meanings for us; and it was jolly decent of him to work so hard at it. Sadly, after a protracted illness, he died in the 1880s. A series of attempts to construct other eternal ordering principles, as replacement meaning-keeping golems, all failed.
Since God joined the choir invisible, most people have held individualistic, subjective theories of meaning.4 Two popular ones are existentialism and the representational theory of mind.
Existentialism says you have to craft your own marbles by hand. It’s frightfully important that yours be different from everyone else’s. You must be creative and artistic and intuitive when making your very own meanings. Also, romantically rebellious and resolute and heroic and stuff. Unfortunately, this project proves impossible: at most, a tiny fraction of personal meanings can be distinctive.
The representational theory of mind says that meanings are like little slips of paper, with the meanings written on them, that live in your head. A cookie fortune is meaningful if you can read it and what it says creates a new relationship between you and the world. Who reads the meanings in your head? How do they create relationships? It takes a billion tiny spooks to do that.
If you are a nihilist, you have understood—correctly—that subjective theories of meaning cannot work. Subjective meaning is none at all.
If you believe in a subjective theory, you may balk at that claim. I’ll give detailed arguments later in the book. Few of those are new or likely to surprise you, though. Subjectivism appears plausible only when it seems the least bad of the three bad alternatives.
So, you may be better persuaded by explanations of how meaning can be neither objective nor subjective, but interactive. Like… a rainbow.
Like a rainbow
A rainbow is a three-way interaction among the sun, water droplets, and an observer.
A rainbow is a physical phenomenon, but not a physical object. It has no specific location. Two observers standing a hundred feet apart will see “the rainbow” in different places. If you drive toward a rainbow, it appears to recede just as fast, so you can never get to it.
Rainbows are pretty fully understood, and guaranteed 100% metaphysics-free.
Although an observer is necessarily involved, a rainbow is not subjective. It is not “mental,” not an illusion, and does not depend on any magical properties of brains. The observer can just as well be a camera.
The rainbow is not in your head, or in the camera. But it is also not an object-out-there. It is not in the mist, and not in the sun, although both are required for a rainbow to occur.
A rainbow is not “objective” in the sense of “inherent in an object.” It is “objective” in a different sense: the presence of a rainbow is publicly verifiable. Rational, unbiased observers will generally agree about whether or not there is a rainbow.5
To make the analogy explicit, meanings:
are interactions among people and circumstances
are physical phenomena, but not physical objects
have no definite locations (whether inside or outside heads)
are observer-relative, to varying extents
are usually well-understood, and 100% metaphysics-free
are mostly not subjective, mental, illusory, or dependent on magical properties of brains
are not inherent in objects
mostly are publicly verifiable, so reasonable observers mostly agree about them
This analogy makes plausible the claim that meanings can be non-objective, non-subjective, and existent. That is good enough for this chapter, because nihilism mostly seems plausible only if you accept the forced choice among objectivity, subjectivity, and non-existence.
In nearly every other way, meanings are unlike rainbows, so it’s important not to take the analogy literally. One important difference is that a rainbow’s observer (whether animate or artificial) is mainly passive.6 Observation does not affect the sun or mist. Meanings are activities, in which causality typically runs in all directions.
Rainbows once seemed magical, mysterious, and metaphysical. Now we have a pretty complete understanding of them. Meanings may now seem magical, mysterious, or metaphysical. They’re more complicated than rainbows—but I think we can gain a pretty complete understanding of them too.
I will replace the rainbow analogy with much more detailed and accurate explanations later. These too draw on physical analogs, such as the chaotic pendulum; but mainly on observing meanings directly. As background, the explanations require considerable conceptual machinery that will be unfamiliar to most readers, but fortunately that is not necessary for this chapter.
1.Later in the book, I suggest that metaphysical intuitions about matters other than meaning are also misplaced physical intuitions. This may explain why people defend metaphysical intuitions so strongly, despite their often differing dramatically from person to person, and despite their having no empirical basis.
2.Or so it was believed. Presumably no one has ever observed a pelican doing this, but that doesn’t seem to have been a problem.
3.The mental fluid idea goes back at least as far as Galen, in the second century AD, who called it “psychic pneuma.” Descartes promoted a similar model of “animal spirits”: “a fine wind, or lively and pure flame.” That was highly influential, although conceptually incoherent and anatomically ignorant even for his day. Maybe no one believes this theory now, but it’s still a common way of thinking. For instance, explanations of the extended mind theory are commonly misunderstood as promoting some sort of ectoplasm that oozes out of your skull and goes on astral adventures.
4.Many religious people do commit to the marbles-in-the-mind-of-God theory, of course. I gather that living in a predominantly secular culture makes this difficult to maintain consistently, however. Slipping into a relativist, subjective view is a constant danger.
5.Later, I’ll explain how nihilism and eternalism exploit such ambiguities in “objective” and “subjective” to render plausible reasoning that would otherwise seem plainly false.
6.Although, perception is actually an active process. This turns out to be important in understanding how meaningness does work, and I’ll come back to it in the discussion of objects and boundaries later.