I'm a fan of David Chapman's Meaningness site. I haven't read all of Chapman's writings, but what I've perused has impressed me.
(See my 2011 post, "David Chapman's dizzying writings on Meaningness and Buddhism.")
Recently he sent out an email to those who have signed up to get updates on changes to his site. Chapman included a link to his page So how does Meaningness work?
I may have read it before. Regardless, I enjoyed reading it again. The writing is clear; the reasoning persuasive. Here's an excerpt:
The natural human view is that meanings are inherent in external things. Thunder means the gods are angry, and that’s a fact about thunder and gods, not about people. So on this view, meanings are objective: external to us. They are the same for everyone.
When “same for everyone” ran into differences of opinion, monotheism moved all meanings into God instead. God gives everything ultimate meanings, that no one may disagree with. God is external, so monotheistic meaning is also objective.
Then God died, and the world was disenchanted, so objects all became inherently meaningless dead matter. That meant meanings can’t be objective. The obvious alternative—developed in the 1700s—was that meanings are subjective. They live in the minds of individual people.
250 years later, versions of this idea are still taken for granted by most sophisticated people. Unfortunately, the subjective theory of meaning doesn’t work. It verges on nihilism—outright denial of all meaning. Fortunately, the theory is also not true.
When you are hungry, the meaning of food is not subjective. You, personally, are hungry, but the meaning is shared with everyone else (and probably all other vertebrate animals). It’s not particularly “mental”; it’s as much in your sensory organs, and digestive system, as in your brain. And it’s in the actions of your hands and mouth as you eat.
The meaning of a handshake is partly arbitrary, but it is not subjective. You can’t redefine it to make it mean what you want. When you shake hands, the meaning depends on a huge amount of cultural background, involving millions of people. It probably also depends on evolved biological functions we don’t know much about.
The subjective theory of meaning is not full-blown nihilism, but tends to slide into it. That’s because we actually can’t mean anything much by ourselves; meaning is mostly a social and cultural activity. Narrowing one’s focus to supposedly personal meanings leads to social and cultural alienation, and then to nihilistic depression.
A meaning is neither objective nor subjective; it is not inside your mind, nor outside. It requires both subjects and objects, and it doesn’t dwell in either. It takes time and space, but it is not precisely located.
Especially, a meaning does not live in your brain. That popular pseudoscientific idea is the “representational theory of mind.” It is internally contradictory and unworkable. Meaning may require a brain, but usually many brains, and also non-brain stuff.
Meaningness is a dynamic, interactive process. Any particular meaning involves a complicated history of many creatures and things; a network of involvement that we only ever partly understand.
This seems to fit with an interesting New York TImes article, "Does Everything Happen for a Reason?" Along with Chapman's piece, it also is well worth reading in its entirety. Here's a sample:
ON April 15, 2013, James Costello was cheering on a friend near the finish line at the Boston Marathon when the bombs exploded, severely burning his arms and legs and sending shrapnel into his flesh. During the months of surgery and rehabilitation that followed, Mr. Costello developed a relationship with one of his nurses, Krista D’Agostino, and they soon became engaged. Mr. Costello posted a picture of the ring on Facebook. “I now realize why I was involved in the tragedy,” he wrote. “It was to meet my best friend, and the love of my life.”
Mr. Costello is not alone in finding meaning in life events. People regularly do so for both terrible incidents, such as being injured in an explosion, and positive ones, like being cured of a serious disease. As the phrase goes, everything happens for a reason.
Where does this belief come from? One theory is that it reflects religious teachings — we think that events have meaning because we believe in a God that plans for us, sends us messages, rewards the good and punishes the bad.
But research from the Yale Mind and Development Lab, where we work, suggests that this can’t be the whole story. In one series of studies, recently published in the journal Cognition, we asked people to reflect on significant events from their own lives, such as graduations, the births of children, falling in love, the deaths of loved ones and serious illnesses.
Unsurprisingly, a majority of religious believers said they thought that these events happened for a reason and that they had been purposefully designed (presumably by God). But many atheists did so as well, and a majority of atheists in a related study also said that they believed in fate — defined as the view that life events happen for a reason and that there is an underlying order to life that determines how events turn out.
...WHATEVER the origin of our belief in life’s meaning, it might seem to be a blessing. Some people find it reassuring to think that there really are no accidents, that what happens to us — including the most terrible of events — reflects an unfolding plan. But the belief also has some ugly consequences.
It tilts us toward the view that the world is a fundamentally fair place, where goodness is rewarded and badness punished. It can lead us to blame those who suffer from disease and who are victims of crimes, and it can motivate a reflexive bias in favor of the status quo — seeing poverty, inequality and oppression as reflecting the workings of a deep and meaningful plan.
Not everyone would go as far as the atheist Richard Dawkins, who has written that the universe exhibits “precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.”
But even those who are devout should agree that, at least here on Earth, things just don’t naturally work out so that people get what they deserve. If there is such a thing as divine justice or karmic retribution, the world we live in is not the place to find it. Instead, the events of human life unfold in a fair and just manner only when individuals and society work hard to make this happen.