Among our growth needs are two which drive us to make sense of the world. They are the need to perceive order and the need for meaning. Meaning is of two types: everyday meaning, for example that imparted by speech or text, and existential meaning, or why we exist. It is my own understanding of the latter, developed over several decades, that I will discuss here.
Perceiving order in the world helps us to make sense of it. The universe follows physical laws, and, through curiosity, investigation, and reason, we can discern the order that these laws impart. This enables us to make successful decisions when faced with a threat or opportunity. On the other hand, if we cannot perceive order, then this increases our vulnerability. However, we often see order as being imbued by something other than physical laws. For example, rhino horn has been thought to provide sexual potency because of its shape and the strength of the rhinoceros.
Meaning is a different concept to order. To find meaning would be to understand the purpose of the world and our part in it. The search for meaning has a side effect in that it helps us to discover order and, so, to survive and procreate. However, whilst meaning is a need, and we can be strongly motivated to search for it, meaninglessness is an existential given or unavoidable contra-need. In other words, we can never truly find objective meaning because, in practice, the universe appears to have none. Meaning is, therefore, entirely subjective, and personal. Finding subjective meaning involves much effort, but ultimately it can be highly rewarding. On the other hand, effort to seek objective meaning, will rapidly run up against the limits of our knowledge and abilities. Unsurprisingly, therefore, it can lead to frustration, distress, and a readiness to accept “wishful beliefs”. Such beliefs are often “off the shelf” and include a super-natural or super-human element. Because they may be emotionally satisfying and superficially appear to fit the facts, they are often inadequately criticized. This can open us up to potential exploitation by their authors.
According to the British Psychologist, Frederic Bartlett, to understand the world we create schemata or mental models. This is as true in the search for meaning as it is in more practical matters. Our schemata determine the way in which we understand meaning and perceive order. Because of the mental effort involved, once a schema is established, it is resistant to change. We are more likely to remember information that is consistent with our schemata and less likely to remember, or may even modify, information that contradicts them. This process is sometimes referred to as “effort after meaning”.
Schemata are established in childhood by our parents and other close adults. They can include erroneous or “wishful” beliefs. For example, meaning can be seen to be something other than personal and subjective arising, for example, from a supernatural source. Schemata grow throughout our lives, becoming ever more complex. Although resistant to change, they can be affected by our cultural environment and, depending on its nature, can be either reinforced or slowly altered as we age. If they are reinforced, this can cause us to become set in our ways. If they are revised, this can cause any beliefs gained in early childhood or later life, to become unacceptable, leading to disappointment, dissatisfaction, and social difficulties. Nevertheless, realism does stand up to the test of time.
I would suggest, therefore, that finding meaning involves:
- accepting that we are naturally evolved organisms with all the limitations it entails. As the Chinese author, Cixin Liu says in his novel The Dark Forest: “It’s a wonder to be alive. If you don’t understand that, how can you search for anything deeper?”;
- recognising that finding meaning is a personal and subjective endeavour; and
- being critical of the numerous erroneous, “wishful” beliefs on offer.
We are motivated by needs for existence, procreation, relatedness, and growth. The satisfaction of most is necessary for a happy and meaningful life. However, there can often be obstacles in the way. When people find it difficult to satisfy their existence and procreation needs their focus is on these, and on relatedness. This means that “wishful beliefs” are often used as a way of satisfying their growth needs with minimum effort. This can lead to exploitation and the elimination of poverty would, therefore, have great societal benefit.
There can be contradictions between different needs. Ronald Inglehart, in his book “Cultural Evolution” identified that, since the 1980s, there has been great emphasis, in the West, on self-expression, a growth need, at the expense of relatedness. However, we are social animals, co-operation better enables us to survive and so a balance must be sought. Social connection brings with it the pressure to conform to a culture. If there is a conflict between this and the need to be oneself then, in extreme cases, according to the psychologist Karl Rogers, mental ill-health can result. Thus, we must reconcile our growth needs with our relatedness needs.
So far, I have discussed what might be referred to as “normal” human needs. In my next post I will discuss “abnormal” needs because of the powerful influence they have on human affairs.