Projection and Purpose (or, Meaning and Purpose in a Nihilistic Universe)

By Jin-yeong Yi

“The world is ambiguous. It does not come tagged ‘This is my Father’s world’ or ‘Life is a tale told by an idiot.’ It comes to us as a giant Rorschach inkblot. Psychologists use such blots to fish in the subterranean waters of their patients’ minds. The blots approach the patient as invitations: Come. What do you see here? What do you make of these contours? The sweep of philosophy supports this inkblot theory of the world conclusively. People have never agreed on the world’s meaning, and (it seems safe to say) never will.”

—Huston Smith, Why Religion Matters

“You have your way. I have my way. As for the right way, the correct way, and the only way, it does not exist.”

—Friedrich Nietzsche

Roland Barthes was on to something with his “Death of the Author”[1] concept, except that he apparently got it backwards: there is no such thing as inherent meaning in the text, only intended meaning, and intended meaning is not inherent meaning.

The best illustration of this fact can perhaps be found in language itself.[2] There is no intrinsic meaning to the collocations of lines, squiggles, and dots your retinae are picking up right now; the only reason why they mean anything to us is that we were trained to interpret them to mean something, that is, to refer to objects and ideas. In other words, we project meaning onto what is otherwise meaningless.

So while there is no inherent meaning in the sounds we utter or the symbols we put to paper, we can generally understand each other because we have a general agreement that certain sounds and symbols comprising a system of communication (what we call a “language”) denote certain things, and because we usually know what each other’s intentions are, given conditioning and context.

Needless to say, however, it is not always clear what someone is trying to communicate. This is why there are always clashing interpretations within literature, the conflict never being resolved when the author isn’t there to clarify what he or she meant by this or that.

Life is the same way, except that the story of life is written by no one, and its meaning and purpose are therefore open to infinite interpretations, which are, I daresay, equally true or false, because there is no inherent or intended meaning or purpose to it whatsoever. However, much as we can see sentences emerging from letters, and stories from sentences, we can see meaning emerge from the meaningless, and purpose from the purposeless. Though the meaning and purpose are, in the last analysis, merely human projections onto the black void of nothingness, I, for one, find them to be enough of a reason to get out of bed in the morning.

Notes

[1] See the eponymous essay.

[2] See Alex Rosenberg’s The Atheist’s Guide to Reality, Chapter 8 (“The Brain Does Everything without Thinking About Anything at All”), for a detailed discussion of this topic.

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