Thursday, October 04, 2007

Recognizing the immense costs of mortality for a meaning machine.

Trying to define "personess"- sometimes called philosophical anthropology- has occupied philosophers since Plato defined man as a featherless biped and Diogenes of Sinope held up a plucked chicken as a response.

I'm going to say we are meaning machines. This term was coined by Prof. Deb Roy of MIT and is used by artificial intelligence researchers to refer to computers that think.
In my case I'm trying to respect modern empirical science as regards human biology, while addressing our experience of, well, experience and how we interpret that experience.We are, from a biologist's point of view, organic machines. Yet we seem unable to go through life as if our choices were pre-programmed. We(I can't speak for chickens, featherless or otherwise) create meaning- we assign value to phenomena.We manufacture meaning and this seems safer to ascribe to a biological rather than metaphysical origin. My approach is that we are biological computers that create meaning. This has implications for both epistemology and ethics.

Meaning has both a linguistic sense such as when calling a dog, a dog, I'm attaching meaning to a generally four legged mammal. But meaning has its ethical dimension, as when a dog is a bad movie or a poorly engineered car. I wonder how much there is a difference between meaning as to identify and meaning as to evaluate. We experience both as we go through life, but unlike in critical, philosophical thinking we don't necessarily separate the objects of meaning strictly into is and ought as we create meaning for the phenomena we encounter.

How I greet my small son is different from how another greets him. A brief review of recent history reveals how the the beloved child of one person could be a toy to another and considered an evil affront to another. In each case a very specific identification and evaluation are attached to this child.

Often these values we create conflict both within us and amongst us. After all the Choice vs Abortion debate is keenly felt by people on both sides, and yet there are others who feel it isn't worth arguing about. On another issue I prefer to lead a simpler life with modest material assets- but I still feel envy for those who own a convertible, especially the late model T-birds with the retro paint jobs. Still, my conflict finds me saying 2 feet good, 4 wheels bad.

Moreover, the reasons why a person attaches a particular meaning can vary. Those reasons can even evince a 180degree shift in position.

Now, if life is finite then how does that inform the meaning that one brings to life? So how do we build an ethical system that reflects the creative nature of human values? How do we deal with a need to create meaning that doesn't dismiss that need as an epiphenomena of biological processes nor ascribe meaning as a metaphysical entity separate and ineffable from our biological nature?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

To comment in response to the questioning thoughts in your last paragraph, I’d say by appealing to selfish human nature. Understanding cause, effect and consequences.
If you look at the Christian Bible, there are 12 rules set out to be “believed” in and followed.
It can give ones life a true sense of meaning to follow the divinely ordered commandments, see the positive effect in ones life, and come away feeling “transformed”.
But if you really look at it, it’s 10 points of logic.
If you kill someone you will go to jail and your life will suck.
If you don’t honour your mother and your father you’ll be judged a disrespectful little snot and your life will suck.
If you always want what your neighbour has then you’ll never be content with what you’ve got and your life will suck.
And if you believe in some other God then you’ll stop believing in this which can help you to avoid your life sucking.
That’s just a few.
I’m quite sure, for some, applying an understanding of cause, effect and consequences can create quite a meaningful value system, in the very here and now, based on the selfishness of human nature... with all its creativity and flaws.
Actually, Christianity calls that whole line of thinking “The Way Of The World” and despises it.
They like to think that humanity is capable of better.
I’ll drink to that.

"If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country."
-E.M. Forster