Comments on “What is meaningness?”


mtraven 2013-05-09

Your “atheism as a given” link is broken, which is too bad, since it sounded like something worth showing to a few loud atheists I know.

Personally I would like a neologism like meaningness for a stance towards [the concept of] god that is not adequately captured by a/theism or other existing vocabulary. Don’t have it yet, and the stance itself is a work in progress.

atheism has not yet arrived

David Chapman 2013-05-09

Yes, sorry, that link is a forward reference.

The point of the page it will link to is that eternalism is (in my opinion) a bigger problem than supernaturalism. Having gotten rid of God, there’s a strong tendency to put something else in its place that is similarly eternalistic. Among loud atheists, that’s often scientism, or some conception of Rationality, or a political or ethical system. These are also factually wrong, and have many of the same malign emotional dynamics as theism.

I look forward to reading more about your alternative stance!

once and future atheism

Kate Gowen 2013-05-09

This is so obvious as to be probably trivial– but defining oneself in opposition to (whatever) is pretty much always “the road to nowhere,” isn’t it?

That’s why “agnostic” has more going for it, I think: a positive assertion of a lack of knowledge.

I have to say I'm very

Niv 2013-09-13

I have to say I’m very interested on what you’re writing. Please follow up.

In fact, it has inspired me to write something similar, not about meaning, but rather about various philosophical concepts that I think haven’t been explained to the layman with clear language and with actual examples on how it matters for everyday life.

One thing that puzzles me is your conception on whether meaning is not subjective. I do think it’s subjective, or should I say, intersubjective. I believe meaning to be created by our own “humanity” and by humanity I mean the quality of being human. (Intersubjectivity and the illusion of objectivity is one of the subjects I’d like to present to the common people with clear language)

Is meaning subjective?

David Chapman 2013-09-13

Hi, Niv,

Thank you for your enthusiasm!

I think meaning arises as an interaction between oneself and one’s environment—physical and social. Actually, there is no principled way of drawing a hard boundary, so “interaction” isn’t quite the right word—it implies that there are two objectively separate things that interact. But it’s more nearly right than “subjective,” which suggests that meaning is something that happens in your head alone.

Meaning isn’t a human thing. For starters, lots of things means the same to other animals that they mean to us. For another, it depends on non-animate circumstances.

I hope you do write those things you are inspired to!

I see. Like all communication

Niv 2013-09-14

I see. Like all communication, words can be a little fuzzy sometimes. What I meant with “subjective” is not that meaning is disconnected from reality, but that meaning always requires a subject (at least what I mean by the word “meaning”). I think any animal classifies as a subject. Of course they percieve a meaning that sometimes it’s the same. But also they can percieve a different meaning. For example, bird sing. We perceive it as singing, but I’m pretty sure the birds themselves attach a very different meaning.

So that’s what I meant by humanity. Most of the time we can sort of try to understand the meaning that another fellow human being also understands, because we’re similar. We can even have understading with animals like cats and dogs, and maybe if we study the bird hard enough we can sort of have a hint of what they perceive. But in the end our humanity marks the limit, the frontier of the meaning we perceive, it’s just that the human mind is pretty powerful and can perceive a lot of things.

That’s why I emphazised humanity and subjectivity.

Atheism and Agnosticism

I take atheism as a given

I think you meant agnosticism. Atheism itself actually declares an absolute certainty “there is no meaning, etc”. What’s required for this part to be reasonable to the reader is agnosticism “we have no way to prove that there is, or is not, a meaning in life”.

Atheism is about god(s)

David Chapman 2016-12-12

I think you may be confusing atheism (non-belief in God(s)) with nihilism (active disbelief in meaning).

It’s possible to believe in meaning without believing in any gods (and many people do).

Start Here

Raederle Phoenix 2019-10-02

This page sets the tone for the book better than the discussion of Eternalism and Nihilism before it, I believe. Also, as someone who already isn’t an eternalist or a nihilist, I found that section repeatedly triggering and somewhat confusing. Instead of trying to summarize my own current sense of meaningness in my life, I will say that beliefs align almost perfectly with Teal Swan’s (who you may or may not have heard of). I will probably be leaving more comments as I read, as this book is what we have chosen this month to read for our Polymath Club (a book club for reading non-fiction). Blessings. ~ Raederle (pronounced Ray-der-lee)

Neither religion nor philosophy

Shea Eugene 2020-04-07

What else is there then?
By no means can I defend every system of thought that calls itself “religious” but if one tries to erase the concept from life, one is left floating in a void. The etymology of the word suggests a tether to reality.
And again - lots of funk’d up philosophy out there… but to toss the concept entirely? How will one have any questions worth asking?
I found your article because I was hoping for some additional insight into the concept of meaning.
The question of Meaning, it seems to me, only has a couple of possible answers:
There is a meaning to life and it is defined by a source outside of the self.
There is no meaning to life and humans need to create meaning as they see fit.
Neither are fully satisfactory - the first feels like a violation, the second… A Noble Lie.
If a life has no value - innately - by which I mean “a life is valuable because it is a life” - it has no real meaning. I am searching for a reason why meaning and value feel so interconnected, and yet I am certain they are. Atheism, nihilism and other such ism’s strip life of innate value - reducing it a collection of cell structures that somehow mysteriously developed the ability to navel-gaze. Most religious systems withhold value from the person until they perform and earn their value. This states, if only in shadows, that life has no value unless we give it value through our actions and performance. In this core respect, Atheism and Catholicism are the same - they do not know how to assign value to the “me” that exists independent of my behavior - they can only offer a A Noble Lie. It is ultimately pragmatism in some not-so-clever disguise. Pragmatism cannot give my life real meaning - it can only give my life as utility to another who would use it and toss it in the heap when my behavior is no longer benefiting.
A gemstone does not sit in a quarry with value. It has value only when it is dug up and taken to market where a system of supply and demand is used to determine it’s worth. If a human life is like that gemstone - only valuable once the marketplace of society and civilization determines it’s worth - it has no real value apart from that system. If there are no other systems of determining value in existence (which the ism’s seem to say) then my value (and therefore the meaning of my life) is fully dependent upon a fickle system of human opinion. I can make up whatever junk I like to feed the need, but the Noble Lie will always flash like a siren from the corner of my vision.

The other alternative

David Chapman 2020-04-07

Shea, you have stated the problem exceptionally clearly!

This page addresses this conundrum directly. As you say, meaning cannot be either objective nor subjective—and therefore it may seem that it cannot exist at all.

Fortunately, it does exist, but is neither objective nor subjective. There is another alternative, which that page explains.

Learn to think concretely again

James 2020-04-07


I wrote a reply to your comment, but it got really long, so I’ve posted it on my Dreamwidth:

It helped me work out some of my own thoughts on the issue here, which is why it ran so long.

The overly-simplified tl;dr version is that you’re thinking in unhelpful abstractions, and that’s where your problem is coming from; learn to think concretely again and your problem should largely dissolve.

(PS to David: during this, I realized why the recent comment links weren’t taking me directly to the comment; commas are being inserted into the number part of the comment’s anchor tag. So the link that Shea’s comment should end with #comment-2422 but is getting mangled into #comment-2,422. Not sure if you’re aware of that issue.)

Meaningness is concrete

David Chapman 2020-04-07

Thanks, James, that’s clearly put and is in accord with my understanding!

I noticed the comma issue a day or two ago, and thought I’d fixed it. If you can point to a specific still-current instance, I will try and fix it harder?

Bigger hammer

David Chapman 2020-04-07

Ah, I think I’ve found the remaining problem and hit it with a bigger hammer. Please do let me know if you find this or other bugs, though!

Thank you!

James 2020-04-07

I’m quite pleased to hear you liked my response. I’ve been wrestling with your work here for a few years now, so I’m glad to see I’ve been understanding it at least a little bit.

And the link issue seems fixed now. Thanks for that.

Is there really different kinds of meaning?

Alexander Donets 2021-06-02

Hi, David! I guess that I hold the same idea of meaning, or maybe I should call it a concept, but somehow my vocabulary differs from yours. Nearly all the things I think about associated with high presense of this quality of nebulocity, as far as I remember myself exploring the world (especially at university and in communication with others).

I hope that my language is good enough to express some thoughts, but anyway. If it is hard to read and understand, please leave a comment and I’ll do my best to make my point clear again.

I wanted to ask some questions:

  1. First question: Do you think, is there really any conceptual difference between meaning of words (or other symbols) as you put it, and that what you call meaning of life?

  2. Second question: Have thought about the idea of definition and how it interacts with meaningness?

On 1.

I was a bit confused that you separated the quality of words being meaningful and some general meaningness in life.

In “my coordinate system” these two are parts of the same nebula (i call it idea or concept) and the same concept transforms from context to context. The way as it is in my mind, a single unifying concept retaines possibly meaningful connections and unite my experience. As a consequence, it gives me that feel of meaningness on different levels of thought: either when I try to make sense of my actions generally in life, or when I think about meaning of some text I read currently. It’s like, quality of meaningness seems tightly connected to such concepts as: understanding, learning, communication and thinking in general. I also think that we find and use meaningness not always consciously, often intuitively, and thus it is meaningful to analyse etymology of words to understand which ideas we rely upon to reason about the world.

On 2.

I’ve found some curious point of view on both the idea you call meaningness and the idea of definition. I think definition is as much as deep idea as meaningness is, and it’s kind of complementary idea. A definition closely related to the nature of abstract thinking, it seems. Somehow I discovered, that people can confuse those two ideas! For example, if you want to communicate with them, for sure they will ask for some definition. And that’s okay. But when you speak further with them, it feels like there is no nebulocity around definition you gave for them, and they try to interpret you just litereally (regardless the difference between your vocabularies which implies you should read a bit between the lines always). It looks like there is no difference for them between the idea of definition and the idea of meaning, at least to the extent that they don’t see any difference at times.

Somehow, the nature of definition mechanism is reflected upon nearly every aspect of human thought (like meaningness does). I use kind of linguistic gameplay to mine various contexts I remember for meaning of words. Here are some wordplay around definition, that connects different ideas: life goal, law, (mathematical or scientific) definition, formula, forma, formalization, (mathematical) limit, theory (as a system of definitions, from certain point of view; either scientific or rigorously mathematical), ethical standards, workflow, regulations, and so on. What is that common idea that makes those concepts similar? I think it is the idea of separation, restriction, giving a form to something. I also think, it is connected to abstract thinking, when you take your nebulous meanings and formulate something to create an abstract concept. It seems that when you do that, you use some very special cognitive ability: to strip away the idea from it’s intuitive meanings, revealed from different points of view (you may say that every context gives another point of view).

To me it seems a deep phenomena that we use the very same idea of definition to think about so many things in life. And it is even more fascinating that there is a kind of battle between definitions and meanings of things.

P. S.:

There is one guy, A. Redozubov, who is a general AI researcher and he gave some insight on what is the relationship between a meaning and a definition. You can check this page to understand his point of view, but I should warn you to filter out something that seems like too bold ideas. Because at the very least, his ideas of definition and meaning are pretty sound. I don’t really know if he is right about Torah, Sumerian myths and other stuff, it should be checked thoroughly. But his whole way of thinking seems to be honest and careful, resonating with my experience. Here is the link:

The Origin of Meaning |

His point of view helped me to connect many things together, if not to say… really made my life filled with more meaning(s). For example, I always loved to connect knowledge from different knowledge domains, but formal approach to math studies under my faculty made me blind to many connections between similar ideas from different contexts. Those studies stimulated a tendency to think more certain and literally, encapsulating ideas from branches of math: I inclined to think “it’s not precise thinking enough, it’s not proven, those associations are random, it’s not justified to link those ideas”. This is the power of definitions, which went of out control. As you said yourself (and i 100% agree) there is a lot more of informal reasoning that makes sense and solves the problem as you clarify implementation details for pretty nebulous idea.

It may sound like this “meaning vs definition” thing is kind of philosophy or religion to me, but it is not. It’s just too hard to explain how did it help me to connect separated experience, ideas abstracted away from each other in something more whole inside my head.

P. P. S.: I fear this already became too chaotic mess of my thoughts, but I wanted to say about some things that I think are crucial to understand meaningness, and if you can connect your views with those, feedback would be great:
1. Definition idea, and semantically related notions
2. Meaning idea itself, and semantically related notions
3. Context idea, and point of view on things it gives
4. The idea of obvious things (I feel that things we see as obvious may play the role of thinking context. For example, if we think something is obvious, we tend to rely on it without even noticing. Possibly it even creates some global context of thoughts, thinking paradigms of different scale).

Significance vs "meaningness"

Brent 2021-09-20

Is “meaningness” truly a different word than “significance”? I will reread the chapter again—I have probably missed a subtlety—but I’m not convinced.

It’s a shame that so many important words have become so over-used. I understand you want to limit the time spent mincing words (or stitching them back together). But ambiguity, vagueness, and contradiction are serious enemies that need to be fought back. It’s worsens the problem of making good choices in life, if our options derive from ambiguous descriptions.

We can start from the position that life, for all living things, is greatly concerned with relationships. We can characterize relationships in different ways. Their relevance varies along the axes associated with these ways, in a vector space of personal significance. We love or hate, desire or detest, need, fear, admire, and wonder about every distinct noun that we recognize. But it all fits under the term “significance”, I think. Purpose, too, is a kind of significance, in that it determines “usefulness”.

So why does “significance” not capture the linguistic meaning you seek?

Re: Significance vs "meaningness"

Alex 2021-09-22

Though im not the author of blog, to me those two words are related in an intricate way, but absolutely not the same.

In your speech I see that you characterize vague concepts as something bad, but it’s only one way to think about them which will not allow you to notice that literally everything you think about is “nebulous” to some degree. See the chapter for “nebulocity” here on the site, it explains more.

There are reasons people like to reject nebulocity and to close their eyes on its manifestations: strict concept definitions give an illusion of certainty that sought for, whereas it is meaningness of things that is significant for humans. I can think about insignificant things and yet to see meaning of them, to experience that feel of meaningness, but also I can think about significant things. No contradiction.

I anticipate that your dictionary and worldview somewhat differs from David’s, so my humble advice is to go deeper than first impression. There is a coherent sense in ideas throught the book and you will see it if you will aim at the original (meaningful) idea of the author and won’t be deceived by different use of words. Also, no idea “fits” completely into description in words, that is illusion, every thinking human connects something new to known words and so concepts evolve, change in individual’s head and then two differing understandings of the same word collide in conversation and here emerges ambiguity, nebulocity, vagueness of things we think of. Each person is accumulating in some aspects unique experience which then contributes into collectively taylored meaning of word, but never any single person see the whole picture in all minds - hence the vagueness of every concept in our minds, again. And there is more… deep consequences and connections - you will see throughout the book!


Alex 2021-09-22

I showed only one reason of why everything we think of is nebulous (from the point of view related to personal experience we associate with words and related to communication). But you probably noticed that regardless of how you wish to make your reasoning exact and precise (by means of abstraction, by the way) there is always ‘that something’ that is yet to grasp. That says something about nature of things in the real world - their meaning is vague every single time, if you just let yourself notice. That may be not psychologically comfortable due to increase in overall uncertainty of ALL of you knowledge, but it is a more vivid glance at how the world is operating. Love for strict borders between concepts, ideas (that is between meaning of words) compared to nebulous (yet patterned) worldview is like black&white pixelart compared to colourful vector graphics.

And meaningness is a key concept to all I’m talking about here.

Meaningness for Unembedded, Incapable, Depressed Individuals

An Undergraduate Seeking that "Anybody" 2021-10-29

What would you say to individuals who, due to their fault or not, find themselves in excruciating situations in which all the dimensions of meaningness listed here are in a violent flux, with no support from anybody?

Meaning is a number

Sergio DuBois 2023-06-22

Meaning is the computed position of inherently meaningless symbols in a space of imputed meanings. In large language models (LLM), meaning is a computed embedding vector in a multi-dimensional space of model parameters. You could say that to LLMs, meaning is number.

There are a few well known properties of the numberness of numbers that start the Peano Axioms:

Existence of an identity: Zero is the identity of numbers, and no matter what number you choose, that number plus Zero is still that same number.

Similarly, Meaninglessness (there is only one…) is the “identity” of meaning, and you cannot alter meaning with meaninglessness

Relexivity: Every number is identical to itself.

Similarly, Every meaning means itself (and nothing but itself).

You see where this is going. Or you don’t. Questions may be superfluous.

It was of interest to me that when Shardröl mentioned you had written a book called “Meaningness” that I was in the middle of telling her about my conversations with ChatGPT on the meaning of meaning. Wish we could talk someday.