Hey guys, as some of you might already know, yesterday was the Moving Humanities conference on finding meaning. This is a broad topic, so they asked philosophers and other faculties to share their perspectives on this intricate matter. I myself shared my viewpoint as well, and had a productive day exchanging ideas with my peers. Here is the video of my talk, and you can find a summary of the presentation underneath. Have fun!
Why Do We Want to Find Meaning?
First of all, why do we search for meaning so vigorously at all? What is the point of it? I think one of the fundamental purposes of finding meaning we need to keep in mind is that it enhances our chances for survival. Say you are living in the past in some hunter gatherer tribe. You are walking outside to collect some mushrooms so that people can eat. You didn’t find super much this time so you’re kinda bummed but on your way back you find 20 more with these weird brown spots on them.
Anyway you take them home and distribute the mushrooms, two random guys take the ones with brown dots. You’ve probably guessed where this is headed, the two guys are dead the next morning.
Now of course, we understand what happened, we are all gifted with the ability to reason. But animals can’t do this very well. And our early human ancestors were kinda in the middle of this. They were not completely primitive anymore animals, they were starting to develop language and so on. So, you can imagine, that people in this situation that were able to attribute meaning to events such as these are the ones that survived. If that gatherer sees the mushrooms with the brown dots again, and doesn’t realize that they mean death, she might be the next one to die. Thus, we can understand that over millions of years of evolution, the people that were most able to figure out what all the things around us mean, were the ones that passed on their genes. And when language started to develop, we were able to pass on the knowledge of what things mean to our offspring.
With our advanced brains and language capabilities, we are easily able to produce narrative accounts of things that happen around us. Now, here is where it starts to become problematic. We have so much trust in our own personal experience of the world, that we think it is authoritative beyond dispute. I saw it with my own eyes! And that is the end of that. But is it really that simple?
Turns out, that our brains unreliable beyond belief. When it receives a bunch of incoming stimuli, it automatically tries to integrate this in a coherent, meaningful unity. Our brains cannot compute every bit of information that it receives, so it must select pieces of information, and more importantly, it uses mental shortcuts to arrive at conclusions. These mental shortcuts are also known as heuristics. There are very many heuristics in existence, and they all lead us in the wrong direction some of the time. But our brains can deceive us in many other ways.
Finding Meaning: Pattern Recognition
Now, there is one fundamental way in which our brains are limited that I want to bring to your attention right now. One way in which we interpret information around us and attribute meaning to it, is by finding patterns. This is also known as pattern recognition. We are really good at connecting the dots between concepts, events or other things in the world. And when we find such a pattern, we usually interpret it as being meaningful, as having some deeper truth to it. But, it turns out that our brains are a bit too eager with this pattern recognition. Let us look at an example.
What do you see here?
Looks like a face doesn’t it. In reality it is just a regular doorbell. Us humans are really good at picking out faces in the environment, even when they aren’t really there.
Finding Meaning Gone Too Far
This is an instance of something called pareidolia. Pareidolia is our tendency to find patterns in random visual or auditory stimuli. This is part of a bigger concept known as apophenia, which is just our tendency to find patterns in other unrelated things, like between the stars and our personalities. We suffer from pareidolia and apophenia all the time. This is not always bad, but sometimes it can be.
Let’s look at another image:
Again we can recognize a face in it. Where is this picture from? Well, it is a rock formation on Mars. People in the past actually said that this face on Mars is evidence of a long lost alien civilization. There is this author named Richard Hoagland who wrote books about this, and also gained a significant following. Okay, so here is a higher resolution picture of the same rock formation.
Case closed. Or is it? Well for me it is closed, but perhaps not for Richard Hoagland and his followers. They might use all sorts of mental tricks to convince themselves that this image is doctored, or that it is some sort of conspiracy. As I said before if you have seen something with your own eyes, it becomes really difficult to let it go. It is easier for your brain to create all sorts of reasons of why it is still true. This goes to the heart of the problem.
Pareidolia or apophenia, if it is not nipped in the bud early on, it can spiral out of control and become a conspiracy theory. And once people believe in a conspiracy, it can be really difficult to talk them out of it. They form a closed belief system and are not open to feedback from the environment. Also, they rationalize their beliefs and draw conclusions by means of logical fallacies (errors in reasoning).
But What Is the Harm?
But now you might be thinking, okay Nico we get ya. We know our brains are limited, and sometimes this can lead us to think of somewhat crazy conspiracy theories. But what is the harm in that? A little conspiracy can’t do any harm. Okay, well, here is an example, that I think elucidates exactly how serious a problem conspiracies can be.
The antisemitism of the Nazis were based on conspiracy theories. The hostility towards Jews is a very old conspiracy, people in the past thought that all the Jews together plotted to kill Jesus, and that they are trying to take over the world and stuff. Adolf Hitler was an avid believer of such conspiracy theories about Jews.
Now, around 6 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust. 6 million. It is really awful. Who knows how many lives could have been spared if Hitler wasn’t experiencing apophenia, seeing patterns that weren’t there. And then rationalizing his ideas by moving the goalpost and using all other sorts of logical fallacies. But the problem is still here guys. It’s not that these things are in the past, and that nothing like that could ever happen again. Some of the world leaders are still people who believe in conspiracies and argue all the time by use of logical fallacies.
Solving the Problem
This is how it works now. First your brain perceives something. It receives all sorts of data from your senses, these are then processed and then finally something is produced that we experience as our stream of consciousness. Right, if some event occurs, your brain processes it with all sorts of heuristics, and then immediately produces a belief. This spider is scary! Again, useful for survival, not so useful for living in complex communities. And then, after we already form our beliefs, we look for evidence to support our already existing beliefs.
What we should do instead is the following:
We can’t stop this process of perceiving and applying heuristics, that is just how our brain works. It goes on mechanically and unconsciously. BUT, what we can change is consciously form our beliefs on the basis of evidence. When you experience an event, and all these automatic processes happen, what you end up with is not a belief. You have a hypothesis! We need to rename this. And then you need to find out if it is accurate by looking at evidence. Things like statistics, facts and logical thinking.