From: Damien Broderick (d.broderick@english.unimelb.edu.au)
Date: Fri Nov 02 2001 - 19:16:46 MST

At 02:34 PM 11/2/01 -0500, Alex F. Bokov wrote:

>Pro. http://www.everything2.com/index.pl?node_id=697549


>1.The universe is meaningless and chaotic.
> 2.We need meaning and structure in our lives.
> 3.We will therefore create this meaning and structure the best we can.

Let's think abt this. If the universe were meaningless and chaotic in the
sense of `entirely random', and we are critters from an evolved lineage in
such a universe, why would we `need meaning and structure in our lives'?

Surely we would tend to be fitted by selection to work happily without
contrived meaning and structure.

But the universe is chaotic in the dual senses that (1) simple regularities
when iterated result in immensely complex outcomes that are hard to `see
through' or predict, and (2) stuff outside any box is likely to burst in
and disrupt what is inside the box. Even so, moderately complex critters
are formed via iteration and retain a high degree of stability and
heritability. Meaning is therefore, in the first instance, the salience of
structure and noise to the persistence and growth of evolved critters. To
the extent that restricted model-making gadgets like brains have trouble
locating the relevant structures, true meaning will evade our grasp--and
might tend to be replaced by stopgap templates drawn from better-understood
situations (hence animism).

Here's a bit from my story `The Womb' (in Dann and Webb, DREAMING
DOWN-UNDER) which tries to catch some of this, although I don't agree
entirely with Daimon's somewhat solipsistic and delusional opinion:


        `The meaning of it all? Darling, let me tell you what I've learned, what
the greys have taught me. You won't enjoy hearing this, but it will,' he
said seriously, `set you free.'
        I was apprehensive.
        `You're going to say that human life has no meaning,' I told him. I knew
already that this was his scandalous doctrine, because I had gobbled up a
couple of potted and scathing magazine exposes of Scionetics in the
previous days, and I wasn't buying it.
        He popped the top on a stubby and sucked froth into his mouth. The sun,
burning down from the north of the sky, caught his UVA-machine-tanned
forehead, slipped down the laugh lines beside his eyes. He should have been
wearing a hat, of course, as I was, because the ozone hole was straight
overhead in Sydney, but he was protected against cancer, he said, by the
painful ministrations of the Harvesters.
        `No meaning? Not exactly,' he said. `Okay, the starting point is that
everyone gets everything arse backwards because they're always facing the
wrong way. I mean the philosophers, the theologians, the anthropocists, the
fucking quantum holists, everyone except for a handful of old-fashioned
semioticians. And even they squibbed when it came to the jump.'
        `Oh dear.' I pushed back the brim of my hat and gazed across the Pacific
ocean. Sea gulls circled, trying to snatch our fries. `Sorry, this reminds
me of Valentine and the great truth of Harmonic Resonance.' The comparison,
risen unbidden, made me shudder. Deems watched me. He did not put his arm
around me, which was wise at that moment.
        `Yes,' he said, `we all think we're the first and only ones to understand
the secret of the universe. I was always suspicious of people who thought
they knew it all. I loved to take the mickey out of the bastards.' He
sighed. `I'd still be running about like a perpetual adolescent if the
Harvesters hadn't told me what's what.'
        `And what is what?'
        A lolloping dog ran past, spraying us with sand. I threw him a cooling
chip, and he missed it. What was his notion of the good life? This, surely.
And what did his doggy mind imagine was the meaning of the world? But we
were not doggies. We made our own chips and beer and polluted our own
beaches and cleaned them up if we felt like it.
        `Look at the words we use when we ask the most poignant questions, Flake,'
my father said. `When your mother abducted you and ran off to the States, I
raved and flailed and ranted. Why? I screamed. Why did this happen to me? I
flew to America and tried to find you, and nobody would tell me, and then
the fucking guru went to ground with all his witless devotees, taking you
and your mother with him, and I had to come back to Australia, and then I
was snatched for three weeks by the Harvesters-- Christ, it sounds like a
bloody soap opera! Well, I ranted and flailed, when they brought me back,
and spent a lot of time screaming, Why? And when your mother was killed and
they told you she'd died in a car crash, you probably ran about asking Why,
why, why?'
        `I was five years old,' I told Deems. `Of course I did.'
        `Okay, what's the common element here? Three different strokes of ill
fortune, and we keeping asking Why? But that's a question that is only
appropriately addressed to an intention. Do you see what I mean? Why had
Margaret stolen you to America? I've thought about this a lot, Angel--'
        `Rosa,' I said.
        He gulped, and his eyes misted.
        `Rosa, I was a typical male of my era. Well, not typical, but even so. And
your mother was a confused but strong woman, and she wasn't going to put up
with my bullshit. Of course she had to go away. It wasn't me, precisely -
it was all of us, our stupid culture, the way we find meaning in attachment
to our kids... She thought Zelda and I were stealing you away from her, and
she was probably right.'
        `I don't even remember Zelda,' I said in a grainy tone.
        `You'll meet her tonight, she's looking forward enormously to seeing you.
But the point is, I wasn't asking for those sorts of answers. I wanted to
know Why is the universe doing this to me? Why has the plan of my life -
the central plan of the universe, after all - why has it gone so unfairly
off the rails? I'm the hero of this fucking movie, right? How dare the
extras screw with my happy ending?'
        `I suppose we all put ourself in the main role,' I conceded, because
that's what he wanted me to agree to. But I didn't, not really. My response
to disappointment and pain and, indeed, intolerable torment had been to
shrink myself, to split my soul into the colours of the rainbow and hide
most of the hues in darkness. That's why I've been able to construct this
history of my father and my mother and myself, don't you see? I'm the
perfect biographer. I have no self. I'm anyone's. I'm anyone.
        `Actors spend a lot of time obsessing about Why questions,' Deems said.
`Motivation. "What's my character's motivation?" They're looking for a few
simple codes, cues to the impulses and behavioural channels of the
personality they're about to impersonate. And it's not so strange or hard
to do that, because evolution built our brains to perform exactly that
function. It's why people love stories.'
        `We've evolved to be actors?' I stared at him. `I think you've been living
in Los Angeles too long.'
        Deems laughed gustily. `You're Margaret's daughter all right.' We both
stared at the horizon for a time. `If you're a horse,' he said then,
patiently, `your DNA built you to graze in a herd, and avoid lions. If
you're a lion, your DNA built you to hunt horses in the company of a small
squadron of other lions. In both cases, you need an internal model of
social life - your own, and your prey's or predator's. When a horse sees
the grass sway, it's a considerable benefit if she asks herself horsily,
Why did that happen? What's its meaning? Lion or wind? Sniff sniff. Freak,
shit, Lion! Lion! Meaning starts by interpreting as deliberate codes the
lumpy happenstances of the world.'
        I mused on this. `It's the other way round, isn't it? We interpret the
meaning that's there. I mean, if a Chinese translator interprets my words
from English, she's got to start by understanding my meaning and sort of...
carry it over to the other language?'
        `Okay, both processes entail each other. The grass means food to our
horsie, and its motion might mean danger, because our horsie means food to
the lions. So the nutritive values and the possibility of lions are both
there in the grass, I guess, before any act of interpretation takes place.
But you can't say they have any meaning, in that exact sense, unless the
horse is there to start with.'
        Some Aussie bravos were taking to the frothy water in gaudy wetsuits,
clambering on to windsurfers. We watched their antics. Their play was as
meaningless, as arbitrary, as open to an inpouring of significance as a
whale sounding, as the Budd Hopkins Guardians on my father's Los Angeles'
walls. For the surfers, its meaning was the joy of sinew and muscle and eye
doing their stuff, the body's balance sustained against the chaotic
turbulence of the sea. I sighed.
        `I mentioned two other cases,' Deems said. `My three-week abduction, and
your mother's death. Why did they happen? What was the meaning?'
        I sent him a sidelong glance. `Well, I don't even know if it did happen.
Your disappearance. Sorry.'
        He gazed back without expression. `It doesn't matter, you see. Call it a
metaphor, if you like.'
        I was relieved. `All right.'
        `The answer is, there is no meaning to either event - in the usual,
human-centred sense. Something happens, okay. A tree falls over in the
forest. All sorts of factors led up to that event - the rain has weakened
the soil, the tree's DNA program has closed down its growth cycle so it's
gone rotten inside, the wind has picked up because of the accidental
arrangement of snow and cloud halfway around the world. So it's all
explicable, down to the level of atoms if you had time enough to track it
all. But it's not part of any plan. And if you happen to be walking under
the tree at that moment and it squashes you flat, all we can say is - "shit
        `Or: don't walk under trees. That might be one meaning.'
        `A meaning we read into the sad event, sure. We don't draw it out, we put
it in. That's what our brains are good at - making up stories, scripts,
schemata. The cognitive scientists have a whole batch of words for this
stuff. All of it boils down to one hard fact: we love to write the universe
into a text, and then to interpret it as if someone else had written it.
That's okay. Horses do it, lions do it, the birds and bees do it.' He
grinned wickedly. `It's only when we start to fetishise our little knack
that it goes crazy and cancerous and eats us up from the inside. We start
looking for meaning everywhere, forgetting that we're the ones who put it
        It was getting chilly, and I felt sorry for those guys out there on their
windsurfers. But then nobody was forcing them to do it. We stood up and
stretched, shook sand off the blanket by holding one corner of it each,
handed the folded bundle to one of Daimon's patient bodyguards who took it
back to the car. In the froth at the edge of the sea I noticed two or three
limp, diaphanous jellyfish. I bent down to stir them with my finger, and
drew back in disgust. They were condoms, washing about in the sandy foam.
        `Daimon, this sounds like the crappy New Age solipsism I grew up with.
"You create your own universe". I'm sorry, but that's the worst kind of
        `No, no,' my father said placidly, placing his big-toed feet carefully in
someone else's line of footsteps in the sand. He had to hop a little. `All
we create is our own meaning. The world, other people, our own inaccessible
inward systems - all of that provides the building materials, and the
landscape for the architect to work in. But the meaning we end up with is a
construct of our minds. It has no necessary connection to the actual
priorities of the universe.'
        `Which are?'
        He laughed softly. `Which have nothing to do with us, I'm sorry to say.'


Damien Broderick

This archive was generated by hypermail 2b30 : Sat May 11 2002 - 17:44:17 MDT