virus: Truth and Meaning

Wed, 2 Jul 1997 11:51:54 -0700

There have been some long and thought provoking posts in the last couple
weeks, so it is with some reluctance that I add one more lengthy post to
the pile. I've got enough things out of the other posts to keep me in
thoughts for weeks, but I need to write this down or it'll fade away.

So, I hope the audience has not grown too restless. You would do me a great
service by taking the time to read and consider this...


The question has been raised as to what, if anything, the word "heart"
refers to in the phrase "head and heart". And further whether there is in
fact an inherent conflict between head and heart (whatever those are) or
whether it is a "false dichotomy", i.e. an artifact of imprecise thinking.

This post represents my answer to these two questions and builds on some of
the thinking from my "Belief and Knowledge" post. It'll take a little bit
of time to get there so please bear with me.


In "Belief and Knowledge" I defined four terms, three of which I want to
resurrect here in slightly different form:

1. Knowledge ... a belief in accordance with the evidence. (Belief and
2. Credulity ...... belief in the absence, or in the face of, the evidence.
(Belief and No Evidence)
3. Skepticism.... lack of belief despite supporting evidence. (Evidence and
No Belief)

(note: All three of these terms refer to regions in the upper right hand
quadrant of the T-Grid. I am not considering the "Blind Faith" or "Insane"
regions of,

My purpose in defining the terms is not to force anyone to /use/ my
definitions, merely so that others may understand how I intend my words to
be understood. I could strip all connotations by making up new words but
the connotations of the existing words can act like a mnemonic.

As David pointed out, there are others who, for example, would use the word
"Skepticism", where I am using "Knowledge" -- that's fine. The definitions
are not /arguments/ in of themselves. (Though of course loaded terms can
indeed be used that way in rhetorical writing. I am trying my best to use
suggestive, but not loaded terms.)


I now want to introduce a new term into the discussion: Meaning.

As in "What is the meaning of life?" and such.

I am going to rely on people having some notion as to what is meant by the
term as it applies to themselves, and to contemplation of what gives life
"meaning" in general. Some may be totally confused as to what the "answer"
might be, others may have a firm idea of what the answer may be, but most
have some idea of what it is that the question is trying to ask.

For now, I'm not interested in the answer, I'm interested in the
/question/. For example, I am neither accepting, nor refuting David's
definition that Meaning equals Effect. It is considering the different ways
that people try to answer the question that is of interest to me here.

Or to be more precise, I am focusing on the observed evidence that most
people find the concept of meaning (or a different word with similar
connotations) to be important to the consideration of what makes for a good

The M-Grid

Now imagine a new graph, similar to the modified T-Grid, only with
"Purpose" on the x-axis instead of "Evidence". Call this the M-Grid.
Strength of belief, or commitment, remains as the y-axis variable. (Again
I'm only dealing with the upper right hand quadrant of the grid)

Purpose is a rather vague term, but my intention is to consider a
proposition with respect to how much it addresses the universal questions
of the proverbial "meaning of life". Whether it is potentially /important/
in considering how one ought to live their life. Normative statements may
rank high on the Purpose scale but be zero on the evidence scale.

In this light consider three new definitions:

1. Frivolity .......Commitment to things which lack purpose.
2. Meaning ..... Commitment to purposeful things.
3. Emptiness... No commitment to anything.

FRIVOLITY is the characteristic of a life firmly dedicated to trivial and
pointless endeavors. There is activity, there is interest, there is even a
club full of like minded individuals, but at the end of the day there may
be a realization that something is missing; that there are more important
things in life.

MEANING is a deep commitment a purpose in one's life. Each spiritual
tradition has deemed different things to be meaningful -- that's what makes
them different. But there are often common themes of "making a difference",
"service", "friendship", "connectedness", "charity", "love", and so on.
Usually they are things which are not easily defined and analyzed, which
means they often simply get ignored in intellectual discussion.

EMPTINESS is the characteristic of a life that isn't committed to anything.
We are all familiar with this description being applied with a broad brush
to modern culture. Other possible terms for this region might be cynicism
or nihilism. It represents a position that is full of ironic detachment and
is incapable of being earnest about anything. (Allen Bloom describes this
beautifully in _Closing of the American Mind_ but I don't have my copy with
me to quote it.)


Consider a couple famous references that are rife with purposeful language:

"For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son,
that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have
everlasting life." (John 3:16 KJV)

"Men esteem truth remote, in the
outskirts of the system, behind the farthest star, before Adam and
after the last man. In eternity there is indeed something true and
sublime. But all these times and places and occasions are now and
here. God himself culminates in the present moment, and will never
be more divine in the lapse of all the ages. And we are enabled to
apprehend at all what is sublime and noble only by the perpetual
instilling and drenching of the reality that surrounds us. The
universe constantly and obediently answers to our conceptions;
whether we travel fast or slow, the track is laid for us." --Thoreau,

Contrast these with a less famous quotation I found more or less at random
by searching on "Darwin":

"Life is the cumulative product of interactions among the many kinds of
chemical substances that make up the cells of an organism." -- Neil A.

If a person commits to the first proposition, thus becoming a Christian,
they are squarely in the "Meaning" area of the M-Grid. This would coincide
with the observed evidence that religion appears to give meaning to
people's lives.

What about the last proposition? It is the cumulative result of thousands
of years of pre-scientific and scientific endeavor. But what would it even
mean to "commit" to this, let alone find any "meaning" in it?

OK. Let's pause. I've used extremely loaded examples here to drive home the
point I'm trying to make.

The point is that a statement that is supported by evidence and believed,
and is therefore Knowledge by my definition, can nevertheless be devoid of

And a corollary is that a statement that is purposeful and is believed
gives Meaning by my definition to the believer's life, regardless of
whether it is supported or refuted by the evidence.

Head and Heart

Head is about truth and evidence and reason, Heart is about meaning and
purpose. [T-Grid = "Head", M-Grid = "Heart"]

They are not the same thing, nor is one inherently superior to the other.
Knowledge has the benefit of being a cumulative memetic heritage that is
built upon over the generations. It is about progress and is our collective
inheritance, and we have an opportunity to add to it before we pass it on.
It is solely because of accumulated ("factual") knowledge that we have
different lives than those who lived 10,000 years ago.

But, meaning is what matters to the individual. That's the bottom line. Why
am I here and what should I be doing?

Of course knowledge and meaning (as I've defined them) bear on one another,
but it is my contention that they are fundamentally /different/ things.
Here's some examples of the interaction:

1. One could find meaning in the devotion to learning and teaching and
discovering new knowledge. Indeed I think this is very common, and because
it is possible to find meaning in the search for truth, it is easy to
mistake them for the same thing.

2. Since meaning is the name of the game, and meaning requires belief, and
belief requires (or is at least a lot easier if not opposed to) evidence,
then ....there is the potential for a conflict between head and heart if
the evidence is not supporting the propositions that one is committed to.
One "solution" is provided by the "Fundamentalist" meme.


We could combine the T-Grid and the M-Grid by putting Knowledge on one axis
and Meaning on the other. Any meme can be located on the grid by
considering how much evidence supports it (in the form of a network of
other memes), and how much purpose and importance in possesses in giving

For example:

The equation "e=mc^2" has abundant evidence but provides little in the way
of meaning. It has a high K-value, but a low M-value.

The Thoreau quote has a lot of meaning for me but is not really supported
by evidence the way Einstein's equation is. Thus it has a high M-value but
a low K-value.

Again we could identify the three regions of interest with convenient and
suggestive definitions:

Wisdom ...... Knowledge and meaning together.
Mysticism ... Meaning, but lack of knowledge (lack of evidence).
Science ...... Knowledge, but lack of meaning.

(note: I enjoy playing with these triads of definitions, but please don't
feel encumbered by my choice of words. Use other ones if you prefer; play
around with it and see what makes sense for you.)


Here are my answers to the two questions posed at the beginning...

1. The phrase "head and heart" is a poetic way of expressing "truth and
meaning", or "reason and emotion". (The demonstration that meaning is a
concept founded in the emotions is left as an exercise for the reader. :)

This mailing list may seem to be about the "head", and only tangentially
about the "heart", but a moment of reflection will show that is not so. It
is when we get _excited_ by the ideas and start to _care_ about them that
we are finding meaning in the endeavor and _connect_ with other people.

2. There is no conflict between head and heart if we are careful to commit
to meaningful things that are supported by lots of evidence. Unfortunately,
the evidence can change very quickly.

How many scholars can recant their entire life's work when the evidence
mounts against their theories? And even if they do, is it not a terrible
blow for the perceived meaning in their life?

Thus there is an inherent potential for conflict between the head and
heart, between meaning and truth, because our knowledge is always shifting.

Other Thoughts

1. Richard stresses the "usefulness" of a meme a lot, and not so much (or
at all) the "truth" of a meme. I know that this is partly because the truth
is somewhat, or even largely, incidental to the memes success. But thinking
about this post gave me a new way of thinking about it as well.

I have read (and enjoyed) Richard's book _Getting Past OK_. It is about
finding a purpose and committing to it. In other words it is about the
things that matter on the M-Grid and not so much the T-Grid. Things are
useful if they are aligned with one's purpose, and not otherwise. Truth
won't get you into the "Wow" zone, only meaning will. "Useful" literally
means purposeful.

2. Reed has stated that morality is a technology. In the context of this
post, I interpret this as saying that we can discover /meaningful/ truths
using "scientific" methods, just the same as discovering factual truths. It
is when we have meaningful truths to believe in that there is no conflict
between head and heart.

3. The T-Grid is symmetrical about the origin. In other words a strong
disbelief in a proposition is identical to a strong belief in its negation.
I have been uncomfortable with the connotations of that all along, and now
I think I see why. It is because we cannot get meaning from disbelief, but
only from belief. (This is not a criticism of the grid, because the grid is
logically consistent; it is merely a linguistic reaction to the terms.)

4. Eric wondered about the morality of trying to "enlighten" his Christian
friend. In contemplating this post, I am even more wary of the act of
destroying meaning, especially without having something to replace it with.
Using the sword of truth to hack at the tree of meaning. (Tim described
this much better than I can in his post on the matter).

I hope that I still have some readers at this point :).

I welcome your comments.



The Quote:

Siddhartha said: "I have had many thoughts, but it would be difficult for
me to tell you about them. But this is one thought that has impressed me,
Govinda. Wisdom is not communicable. The wisdom which a wise man tries to
communicate always sounds foolish....knowledge can be communicated but not
wisdom. One can find it, live it, be fortified by it, do wonders through
it, but one cannot communicate and teach it." -- H. Hesse, _Siddhartha_ [1]


[1] I wrote the rest of this post last night and then came across this
passage in Siddhartha this morning. I like the convergence of terms! Also
the implicit recognition of the difficulty of talking precisely about
meaning the way we can about knowledge.