It is occurring to me more and more often that you can achieve much here – that is, you can, under our paradigm of meaning, lead a great life – and ultimately have nothing to show for it. I can have a PhD., or a thousand lovers, and have nothing to show for it. That probably sounds funny to most people – to have nothing to show for a PhD. Degrees are thought to be, in the academic world, what you have to show for your effort. To ask most people what they have to show for the symbol of their accomplishment is a meaningless question, but that’s not because the question itself is odd; not even grammatically so.
The confusion in the question lies in the confusion between symbols and their meaning. The physical realm is the realm of symbols. As a matter of fact, the physical world could even be considered language. The language of here expresses the truth of meaning, which lies in the transcendental. So, if the physical is a sort of language that refers to the abstract, then we can call that one-way referential relationship meaning. To inquire of something’s meaning then is to ask what, in the realm of notions and values and forms, it speaks of.
This dualism is what maintains a definite line between what is meaningful, and what is meaning per se. The conclusion here is that no physical thing is meaningful in itself. That is, no physical thing or event can appeal to itself for justification – the circularity is obviously impotent to bestow meaning. No one for instance would say that money is, in itself valuable, or that beating women is wrong because beating women is wrong. More difficult to see, but even more important, is that no physical object or event can appeal to any other object or physical event for its justification. That is, just as a physical object or event isn’t self justifying, neither is a system of objects or events. This is probably a pretty uncontroversial statement written down here, but it is one that is disputed every day in our practical lives. We ask the meaning of a thing in this world, make an appeal to something else in the physical system, and stop there without returning to the original question – asking, “why is that meaningful?”.
We can see this by returning to the two examples above, money and abuse. Money, we agree is not valuable because it is valuable – that, we agree, is silly. But few people have a problem believing that money is valuable because money is backed by (that is, it refers to) gold, which is valuable. With wife-beating we see the same thing. Wife beating is not bad because wife beating is bad. Got it. Wife beating is bad though, because it hurts people, or because it has negative domestic consequences for the family unit, etc. Why don’t these answers solve the problem? Because they appeal to other events or objects which, we all agree, aren’t justified in themselves.
So, where do we go? What about the PhD? Why is money valuable, or wife-beating bad?
Well, we first have to appeal to something immaterial. The idea of something existing without being made of matter is strange or silly to some people, but few of them would deny that the following list of things exist: denials, numbers, concepts, properties, reasons, beliefs, ideas, goodness, principles, values, virtue, evil, justice, rules, or relationships between things. Some people (nominalists) would disagree that properties exist, and some would violate their intuitions and say that there’s no such thing as evil, but those who have a habit of denying intuition ad hoc to support a belief lack something out of the list – virtue.
So, immaterial things exist, and they are the first key to finding meaning in this world. But what to appeal to? This is a difficult question for me – not because it is a complex one though. This question is difficult like climbing a huge mountain is difficult, not like working your way through a labyrinth is difficult. Here intuitions play a role for me. I intuitively know that no physical thing is meaningful in itself, and that a collection of inherently meaningless things does not all of a sudden become meaningful when gathered and systematized. So, I know that meaning is found where it naturally lies, in the abstract immaterial since meaning/value itself is an abstract, immaterial thing.
This appeal to the immaterial by the material for justification makes sense, but what happens when we ask the question of abstract things? What makes kindness any more meaningful than money, or unkindness any more abhorrent than cancerous cells? How is it that kindness just is good, but things made of matter can’t ever be? I can understand how the skeptic asks here, if anything can be valuable in itself, why not material things? If kindness is, per se, valuable, why not money? My only answer so far is that it is somehow immediately obvious to me that a piece of cotton paper with a picture of a dead government official has no inherent worth, while it is not so obvious to me that an abstract thing like kindness cannot in itself possess value and meaning. Any thoughts? I haven’t taken a value theory class, so, if anyone has a book recommend, I’d definitely check it out.
Back to thinking about lust now…..