Meaning or Nothing

Synchronicity strikes again, as usual.

A week after posting my essay on the resolution – or rather, prevention – of the so called mind/body problem – also known as the Hard Problem of Consciousness – by the simple expedient of treating the state of the brain at any given moment as the fossil or relic or trace or artifact of the state of its mind a moment before, I came across a quote from CG Jung, which demonstrates – to my great deep satisfaction – that this insight was by no means really and only some jejune puerile feeble attempt peculiar to me, but was rather in the Library of the Forms present already – which is to say, eternally – where I had stumbled upon it by accident, long after another far greater mind had found it.

Excursus: Not that Jung is without error. Don’t get me started. Same for me, though. And you, right? Despite his errors, Jung is far, far, o so far ahead of me in his penetration. So, to find him already long camped upon the summit I had so recently attained: joy!

Perhaps he is more orthodox than I had thought. Perhaps, indeed, he died in the Church. So may we hope.

I had been reading a book by Bernardo Kastrup: Decoding Jung’s Metaphysics: The Archetypal Semantics of an Experiential Universe. On page 78, he writes:

Jung does acknowledge that at least some psychic functions are, in some way, closely related to parts of the nervous system (cf. On the Nature of the Psyche: 108). However, he accounts for this relationship in a surprising way:

… it is always the [psychic] function that creates its own organ [!] and maintains or modifies it. (On the Nature of the Psyche: 102-103, emphasis added)

Remarkably, here we have Jung completely inverting the logic of mainstream materialism: it’s the psychic function that creates, maintains and modifies the organic structure, not the other way around.

A hah!

Jung took the psychic as basic, and as characterizing the whole of reality; so that everything that is, is at bottom at least a bit psychic, or as we might here be more wont to say, is somehow at least a bit mental: is a subject of phenomenal experience – experience being, perhaps, what it feels like to suffer causes. His rationale: our experience is the only evidence we can possibly have about what it is like to exist.

Whitehead made exactly the same point in support of his proposal of panpsychism. We know very well what it is like for us to exist – indeed, we know it better than we know anything else – and because we can have no idea what it might be like to be something unlike us, we simply cannot have any evidence whatever that any other sort of being is not like us in this basic respect – albeit of course in a way apt to itself in its peculiar circumstances and in its own distinct way of being – also a subject of phenomenal experience. All the evidence we have, and might have, tells us that to be just is to feel.

That reality is not basically and universally somehow psychic is then an utterly unfounded inference. It is at best a heuristic, a handy and useful map or model, that furnishes to us some intellectual economy or leverage as we peruse our experience and try to make sense of it, so that we may get on with the work presently at hand.

Excursus: It is worth letting that sink in for a moment. Materialism is a wild ass guess, not at all supported by any evidence we might ever possibly have. Compared to materialism, fairies at the bottom of the garden are a guarded, careful hypothesis. They are incomparably more likely to be veridical than materialism.

So it is that Jung took the fundamental currency of causal order – not just mental, but physical – to be meaning. He took physical events to be first and foremost meaningful – which is to say, intensional, about something other than merely themselves, thus communicating information – and, only then, and only therefore, actual (thus physical). This, in just the way that the most important, most essential thing about Lear, without which there is no such thing, is, not the paper of the books it is printed upon, not the characters or language in which it is written, indeed not even its performances, but the meanings thereof: its effects in the phenomenal experience of its audiences (and a fortiori upon its players). Without that meaning – without what Shakespeare and all his players down through the centuries intended by the play, and without all the manifold meanings their audiences took from it – there would be, simply, no such thing as Lear. There would be rather of what we have been so long so pleased to call Lear only scurrying particles banging about in the void, communicating nothing, and constituting nothing. No one in that case would ever have had anything to do with Lear. No one would have thought of it.

No one would ever have put together a set for its presentation, or assembled players, or sewn their costumes. There would have been no theatre. No one would have sold or bought tickets to see it. No one would ever have taught Lear. It would not be an element in the economy of this world.

Each meaningless atomic collision of what we have been in our delusions accustomed to call Lear would then be an event, to be sure. But the events would add up to … nothing. There would be no Lear, and no one would ever have gone to see a performance of the play, or played it, or written it.

We cannot but see that Lear has really, actually happened, in all the ways I have just noticed. So, too bad, materialism must be false. And, what is far more: Jung must be right about meaning. Not just Jung, of course, but most of the great thinkers of the West, and indeed of all other cultures.

If you take reality to be basically meaningless, you pretty much stop yourself from mattering. “This statement is nonsense” is not a philosophy that can last. And so, nihilism is not a sturdy basis for a resilient culture. No wonder then that none of the traditional cultures of Earth are nihilist – not even Buddhist culture, which in its highest noblest forms is the purest acosmism ever carried into practice. Not when push comes to shove, and a reason must be found to engage in such things as Buddhism.

How do we wrap our minds around the notion that events must first be meaningful, if there is to be anything of them – including even mass or velocity, charge or charm or spin, or anything that is properly physical – at all?

Here we may perhaps get a clue from a wonderful trenchant line from The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, by CS Lewis.

“In our world,” said Eustace, “a star is a huge ball of flaming gas.”

“Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is but only what it is made of.”

Think now of neural events in your brain, that reflect its sensory experiences of a moment earlier. You apprehend those neural firings not as events that are massive, or energetic, or electrical, or chemical, or any of the other characteristics of things we (rightly) abstract from raw experience by means of physics – which are, as it were, and at least in principle (leaving aside for the nonce what such a principle might be, or how it might function) what those neural events are made of – but as what those events mean – and, thus, what (to their successors) they are. You don’t feel neural events, which are as it were nothing more than telegraph lines; you feel the message they convey. This, in just the way as that when you watch television you don’t see pixels (or retinal firings) but what those pixels (and retinal firings) are so arranged by some artifice to intend; this, in just the way that when you listen to Lear you don’t hear phonemes (or deformations of the ear drum) but what as assembled by some agent they intend you to understand. You hear, not the medium, but the message.

Notice that if there is no message, then neither is there any medium, but rather only chaotic hurries of particles that, as meaningless – as, that is to say, inconsequential to each other, unimportant to each other – can have nothing really to do with each other, at all. If there is no signal traversing the telegraph line, the line is not telegraphing anything, and so it is not in fact at that moment a telegraph line. It is, rather, just some stuff hanging about incoherently, for no reason, that might fall apart at any moment, again for no reason.

Such was the pure pitiless vision of Democritus. The eliminative materialists of the present day are but his puny mimics, blathering on as they do for hundreds of pages to say what he said in a few dire horrid turns.

The shocking consequence of all this is simple: the behavior of your physical surroundings is always a message. It is a message to you. It is made of physical fields, but it is what those fields mean.

The world – the world inside your head, and the world without it – is always talking to you.

And that is why there is this odd thing that both Jung and Pauli together noticed: synchronicity. That is why meanings come at us coordinately both from within and from without the central nervous system.

Indeed, it is why meanings come at us coordinately both from within and from without the system of this world.

The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork. Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night sheweth knowledge. There is no speech nor language, where their voice is not heard. Their line is gone out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.

Psalm 19:1-4

18 thoughts on “Meaning or Nothing

  1. Materialism is a wild ass guess, not at all supported by any evidence we might ever possibly have

    If I may play the devils advocate, Materialism has always struck me as a logically sound conclusion if your starting point is “There is no God and creation was random”. What else is there? It’s like teaching math to someone who hasn’t grasped that the symbol “2” matches the meaning of “two”. 2+2=4 would be a totally incomprehensible expression, yet it’s one which we take to be basic and obvious.

    Not to insinuate that you are lacking in charity for the Materialists, but rather that it wouldn’t be so sticky a philosophy if it didn’t make sense on some level.

    Here’s another analogy. A colleagues nephew was driving for doordash and making some amount of money. And then when they increased unemployment benefits for covid, he realized that he would make more money on unemployment than he would driving for door dash. So he quit his job. This logic makes economic sense if your starting point is that maximizing present income is always the best decision. It’s only when you add additional dimensions that the decision starts to sound foolish: Cultivating a work ethic, dignity of being a worker, aspirations for the future, etc.

    All this to say that I agree with you that Materialism is false. The hard part isn’t proving that it is false, but it is getting materialists to embrace the additional dimensions that make “materialism is false” an obvious and basic assertion.

    • I understand the appeal of materialism. We want to understand, and it helps if we can treat of the complex aspects of experience under the terms of the simple. A billiard ball is simpler than a mind, so it seems easier to understand the mind in terms of the motions of billiard balls than the other way round. But that turns out not to work: the Hard Problem of Consciousness is that there appears to be no way to arrange inanimate billiard balls so as to get animate subjects of experience. The frustrating thing is that treating the rest of the world in terms of the motions of billiard balls seems (at first, second, and third glance) to work amazingly well. So, one very much wants the billiard ball treatment to work for everything. One hangs on to it desperately, madly adding epicycles as need be, or even – as with the eliminative materialists – insisting that the things the billiard ball model can’t accommodate (life, consciousness, models, and so forth) don’t actually exist.

      Planck discovered that the billiard ball treatment can’t work for anything. But people still hang onto it.

  2. I have always been fixated on meaning. My BA was in English and Philosophy. One thing you were not supposed to ask in English was “What does the book, the play, mean?” Even my PhD dissertation was on the meaning and value of instrumental music. Meaning has to do with connections to context. Formalism, which ignores context, thus makes meaning invisible.

  3. the Hard Problem of Consciousness is that there appears to be no way to arrange inanimate billiard balls so as to get animate subjects of experience.

    Dualists gonna dualize.

    IOW: if you divide the world into “inanimate” billiard balls (a misleading term, since they are certainly in motion) and “animate” subjects, then yes, it is hard to connect those two severed halves of reality back together again. On one side machines, on the other side ghosts.

    The answer is to not do that.

    • “Animate” doesn’t mean “in motion.” It means “self-moving.”

      Nevertheless, you are absolutely correct: if you characterize the world as made not of dead things, but rather of animate things, why then it’s not nearly so hard to see how to conjure a composite animal out of the basic atomic constituents of all things.

      But to do this is to leave the Enlightenment behind, in favor of a model much like the traditional Platonico-Aristotelian ontology that prevailed through most of Western history right up to the Enlightenment.

      • The answer is to not do that.

        Pack up shop Kristor, he’s solved metaphysics. Time to go home! Wish I’d thought of this earlier!

      • Funny. But usually it is in fact just as simple – in hindsight – as a.morphous suggests. Most of what moderns consider intractable metaphysical perplexities simply vanish if we take the advice of a.morphous and jettison modernity. Take for example the supposed paradoxes of QM. Modernity has no way to untangle them. Classical ontology on the other hand has no problem understanding them.

        The same goes for supposedly intractable political and social problems. Modernist moral relativism is never going to be able to resolve them, because on moral relativism there are no truly real problems.

        Unfortunately, shedding modernist categories and climbing back into classical metaphysics and morality is *hard;* for, modernist categories are the only sort a dyed in the wool modern has to work with, and classical metaphysics simply cannot be understood in terms of modernist categories.

      • There’s no going backwards from modernism; god is dead and not coming back, no matter how much you guys like to cosplay as reactionaries.

        The present world is cybernetic; we know that mind and nature are “a necessary unity” in Gregory Bateson’s phrase, but our concepts (both post- and pre-enlightenment) haven’t caught up yet.

      • … we know that mind and nature are “a necessary unity” in Gregory Bateson’s phrase, but our concepts (both post- and pre-enlightenment) haven’t caught up yet..

        Like almost all moderns, you appear to be ignorant of the classical ontology prevalent prior to the Enlightenment, which had for 2,000 years at least treated mind as natural, and was not therefore perplexed about the relation of mind to body.

        No one proposes to go backward from modernism. We propose to go forward from it. Leaving modernism behind will entail a rehabilitation of classical ontology – adapted of course for the discoveries of the last 500 years, with which it agrees without difficulty; so much so that they all converge upon it – as do many of the epicycles tacked on to modernism over the last century to try to keep it going.

        The replacement of modernism with what we could justly call neoclassicism is already underway. Enlightenment materialism is dying a slow, hard death. QM was the mortal blow. Modernism is not as adequate to reality as its classical predecessor; it is not as adequate to reality as its classical successor.

        The lineaments of modernism’s neoclassical successor are already clear. Bateson was one of the early delineators, about 40 years into the process.

        God is dead? Where’s your proof? You’ll have to show us your work. You don’t have to use the mathematical notation of symbolic logic – standard English is OK – but you will need to cast the proof as a syllogism.

        One of the interesting things about the abandonment of modernist materialism now underway is that it entails sooner or later – some thinkers are more reluctant to realize or admit it than others – the abandonment of modernist atheism.

      • You may be right, but this does not mean there is any going forward. When Nietzsche said “God is dead,” he meant that “God” was no longer a vital concept in the consciousness of Western man. Nietzsche says nothing about the actual existence of God. We here at the Orthosphere agree with N. God is not a vital concept in the consciousness of Western man, and that is why Western man is dying of self-loathing and despair. Atheism ends in a morass of nihilism, hedonism, and suicide. It is an evolutionary dead end. At present barren atheism survives by sucking in the children of the fecund creeds, but eventually humanity must develop herd immunity to atheism or perish altogether.

  4. Dear Kristor

    Beware to not go to the other extreme. Modernity’s materialistic monism that only matter exists makes it tempting to go to the other extreme, to a Platonist monism that only information exists. But no, far more likely that Aristotle had it right and both matter and information (form, idea, substance, essence, prayer, thought, whatever) exist. Which is (hylomorphic) dualism. Not elegant. Dualisms are not elegant. Monisms are more elegant. But beware the temptation of elegance over interpreting the world as it common-sense is, even if it requires inelegant dualism.

    • To be sure. But hylemorphism is not dualist. It treats mundane substances as integrations of four sorts of cause: material, efficient, formal, and final. The different sorts of cause are distinguishable analytically, but are integral in each fact. So there is in hylemorphism only one sort of mundane substance.

    • As the Philosopher (“Aries Tottle,” thanks, Dr. TB!) himself noted, the mean seen by a man close to one of the extremes appears much like the opposite extreme. So, a correction to our dirty age — Plato isn’t the opposite extreme. For that, we have Parmenides, who laid out the plain logic of metaphysics. It was the Socratic mission to find a way to save the appearances, more or less, while making a coherent account how becoming is something other than total gibberish. Plato and his illustrious student both took a stab at the problem. It remains controversial who was the better butcher. Regardless of where you buy your meat, though, without them, the only dive in town would be the vegan Sunyata’s . . . you know, Eleatic dishes with rice. It suits many folks, but I find it a bit unsubstantial.


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