© Francis Paul Heylighen – (Reprinted with Permission)
Francis Heylighen is a Belgian cyberneticist investigating the emergence and evolution of intelligent organization. He presently works as a research professor at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel where he directs the transdisciplinary research group on “Evolution, Complexity and Cognition” and the Global Brain Institute. He is best known for his work on the Principia Cybernetica Project, his model of the Internet as a global brain, and his contributions to the theories of memetics and self-organization.
Below is the final section of his notes for the course he teaches called, “Mind, Brain and Body: a systemic perspective on the human condition.” It is a most worthwhile read.
Part 1 – The need for meaning
The problem of self-uncertainty is not solved just by developing an accurate self-concept. You not only need to know who you are, but how you fit in with the larger social and natural world, what you should do, and why. Happiness research, as well as philosophical reflection, has made it clear that people need a sense of purpose or meaning that gives direction to their life.
The psychiatrist Viktor Frankl wrote an influential book, Man’s Search for Meaning in which he describes his experiences as a prisoner in a Nazi extermination camp. He observed that in these extremely harsh circumstances, in which people were robbed of any remains of their social identity, many just gave up and did not care anymore to survive. For them, without all the social values, norms, and things like status and possessions that gave them self-esteem, life seemed meaningless, and no longer worth clinging to. Those people were the first to die.
However, some people, including Frankl himself, managed to find meaning even in a
situation where they apparently had no control whatsoever over their fate. For example,
they might reflect about what they had achieved in their life before they were imprisoned,
or how they might use their painful experiences if ever they would be released (like writing a book about them, as Frankl did). Those were the people most likely to survive and to remain psychologically healthy. That inspired Frankl after the war to develop his “logotherapy” approach to help people with psychological problems find meaning in their
Part 2 – What is meaning?
But what precisely is this meaning that people are looking for? What is it that makes
something meaningful or significant? How do we make sense of things?
The problem can be illustrated with a situation that is easy to imagine. Suppose that you walk into your office and discover a large, weirdly shaped contraption sitting on your desk. You do not know what it is, how it got there, what its function is, or what you are supposed to do with it. It simply does not fit into your understanding of the kind of situation that you expect to encounter in an office. Your natural reaction will be to ask: “What is the meaning of this?”
The question is simple, spontaneous and intuitive. However, it is not obvious to specify
what precisely would constitute an adequate answer. Describing the contraption is easy
enough: it has a specific shape, colors, parts, material… These properties can be established more or less objectively, by careful observation. But the meaning of the contraption is not in these visible components: it needs to emerge from the mind of the person that is confronted with it. Yet, meaning is not just a subjective impression: most of the time people agree about what things mean. While difficult to define or delimit, meaning is something we can recognize when we find it, and communicate it to others.
For example, suppose your colleague tells you that the contraption is an artwork that the
director received as a present. Knowing your interest in art, the director wanted your
opinion whether this piece would be suitable to exhibit in the entrance hall of the building.
That is how it ended up on your desk. Suddenly, the whole situation makes sense. While
you still do not know who made it, or what the creator’s intentions were, the contraption
has acquired a basic meaning. You know how to interpret it and how to react to it.
Thus, people are engaged in an on-going process of sense-making, of constructing ever
more refined and elaborate meanings for the phenomena and situations that they encounter. This process takes place simultaneously at different levels, from simple sensations (what was that sound I heard?), words (what did you say?), expressions (what do you mean by that?), more complex situations (what is going on here?), to a broad, global appraisal (what is the meaning of (my) life?). This process is the essence of cognition, mind and life: in order to survive, we need to make sense of the phenomena that confront us, so that we know how to deal with them. In order to advance and develop, we need to create new meanings, make new connections, see known things in a new light so that we discover novel ways to deal with them.
Part 3 – Existential meaning
More generally, we try to understand how our own life fits into the larger whole formed
by our natural and social environment. We also look for a direction in life, a system of
goals and values that tells us what to do, what to strive for, what to avoid. This leads many
people to ask the existential question: why do we exist? What is the meaning of life?
The existentialist philosophers, such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, concluded that life is intrinsically absurd or meaningless. We just exist. There is no a priori reason or essence that explains who we are or why we are here. This rather depressing answer was inspired in part by the absurdities of the two world wars, including the extermination
camps that had marked Viktor Frankl. Another reason was the insight that philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche had formulated much earlier as “God is dead”. By this he meant that modern science has created a picture of the universe in which there is no longer any room for a God that tells us what we should do, and controls whether we obey His commandments.
In the older, religious worldview, purpose and meaning are imposed from the outside. We are supposed to follow God’s plan without doubting or questioning. If we do not, we will get our deserved punishment and suffer in Hell. If we do, we will be rewarded by an eternal life in Heaven. The world around us was created by God, and thus reflects His designs. This establishes an explicit system of values, norms, and explanations, or what we will further call a worldview (Vidal, 2012).
The worldview of science, on the other hand, may provide explanations, but it does not
provide norms or values. These scientific explanations seem to imply that we do not really
have a choice in how to behave, since events are either fully determined by the laws of
nature, or merely random and accidental. Therefore, to many people it seems as if science
implies that there is no meaning in life.
The solution proposed by Camus is that even though life is absurd, you need to rebel
against this absurdity and choose a purpose for yourself, leading your life as if there were
no absurdity (Camus, 2018). While Frankl formulates his philosophy in a more positive
way, his message is essentially the same: meaning is something we create for ourselves,
not something we can find in some big book of scriptures. Maslow and other humanists
formulate it even more positively: our nature as human beings is to maximally grow and
develop ourselves. We are free in choosing how to do this, but the drive to grow and to
seek and find meaning is already built into our mind and body. If we want to be happy, we
should follow that drive.
My own position (which I develop in more detail in my course on “Complexity and Evolution” (Heylighen, 2014b)) goes even further: this drive for growth and development is
not just part of human nature, but of life, and even the universe, in general. Contemporary
science shows that evolution has a preferred direction towards greater synergy, complexity
and intelligence. Therefore, life is intrinsically meaningful. Nevertheless, we are still free
in choosing how best to develop, and we must make sense of each new challenge we are
confronted with. Let us then try to understand more precisely what this sense-making
process consists of.
Part 4 – Components of meaning
To understand more concretely what meaning is, we must go back to our initial understanding of people as agents that interact with their environment. As we saw, agents are confronted with external phenomena that they perceive (challenges). They must make
sense of these phenomena in order to decide about the right action to take. That action
affects the phenomenon, triggering a new perception that leads possibly to a new action, in an on-going feedback loop between agent (subject) and phenomenon (object). This already defines three fundamental aspects of sense-making or meaning:
1) perception or knowledge acquisition: the agent should be able to gather information
and thus find out more about the phenomenon.
2) values or goals: the agent should be able to compare the situation as it understands it
with its preferences or desires, so as to decide whether the situation is OK as it is, or
should somehow be changed to make it better. That requires an evaluation of the phenomenon in terms of how positive (good) or negative (bad) it is. For example, seeing
an apple is good, but having the apple in your mouth to eat it is even better. Feeling
your hand being burned by a flame is bad, and therefore you should do something to
get your hand away from the heat.
3) action: once the agent has decided in what way the situation requires improvement, it
needs to find out which actions it could perform on the object to bring about that improvement. In the case of the apple, a possible action is to climb a ladder so that you
can grasp the apple and bring it to your mouth.
These three components are sufficient for a simple agent, such as bacterium, that functions according to simple condition-action rules. The bacterium should be able to sense its situation (1), evaluate to what degree it is good (e.g. being in the presence of food) or bad (e.g. being in the presence of poison) (2), and perform some action to make it better (e.g. move away from the poison and towards the food) (3).
More intelligent, “mindful” agents, such as human individuals, moreover need a deeper, more objective understanding of the situation or phenomenon independent of themselves. That allows them to better predict what will happen under different conditions or actions. That implies three more fundamental aspects of meaning:
4) properties: what kind of thing is it? What does it consist of? How would it react to different kinds of actions?
5) consequences or future: what is likely to follow? What will it lead to? To answer these questions, we normally need to first ask the following question:
6) origin or cause: where does that phenomenon come from? Why is it there? What caused it to happen?
Let us illustrate this 6-component scheme with an example we discussed in the context of
the brain. Suppose you see some movement underneath a bush in your garden, but it is not clear what is going on there. Your natural reaction is to try and make sense of the situation, so as to know what you should do.
First, you need to acquire more information (1): you will look more carefully and possibly push away some branches to get a better view. That may give you a better understanding of what it is (4) there under the bushes: a cat. Your next questions are likely to be: where did that cat come from (6), and what is it going to do (5)? If it is the cat of the neighbors, it is likely to just return to the neighbors’ garden, and you don’t need to do anything. But perhaps the cat looks miserable and frightened, so it may be lost. Your sense of values (2) tells you that that is not a good situation, so you need to do something about it. Therefore, you consider which actions would be appropriate in this situation (3), such as feeding the cat some milk, calling the animal rescue service, or asking around to check whether anybody has lost a cat.
Part 5 – Worldviews
The sense-making process as we just described it is very general. It is something we automatically apply to any kind of issue we are confronted with. This goes from immediate, local ones, such as a cat under the bush, or a contraption on the desk, to more general ones with consequences that extend over a longer period, such as the new requirements at work, or the political situation, to more global, long term ones, such as the impact of climate change. In each case, we interpret the situation in terms of the six components of meaning. At the largest scale, the issue is existential, about the meaning of life in general.
More concretely, the existential issue is to understand the role of humankind (the agent) with respect to the world (the phenomenon). “World” here means the totality, everything that exists around us, including the physical universe, the Earth, life, mind, society and
culture. A worldview can be defined as a global meaning-producing system. That means a general framework that helps us to answer the six sense-making questions. Thus, it would give direction and meaning to life.
This conception of a worldview was developed by the Belgian philosopher Leo Apostel (photo) and his colleagues in the “Worldviews” group (Aerts et al., 2002). Let us reformulate the six aspects of meaning as the six components of a worldview according to Apostel (using a different order from the sense-making scheme):
Ontology (model of the world):
This answers the question: “What is the world?” (4) It should provide a description of the
fundamental constituents and properties of the universe, such as matter and energy. In
philosophy, this corresponds to the domain of “ontology”, or the theory of what is or what
exists. It should allow us to understand how the world functions and how it is structured.
This answers the questions: “Why is the world the way it is? Where does it all come from?
Where do we come from?” (6). This is perhaps the most important part of a worldview. If
we can explain how and why a particular phenomenon (say life or mind) has arisen, we
will be able to better understand how that phenomenon functions and what it will lead to.
Futurology (model of the future):
This answers the question “Where are we going to?” (5). It should give us a list of possibilities, of more or less probable future developments.
Axiology or ethics (theory of values):
This answers such questions as: “What is good and what is evil? What should we strive for
and what should we avoid?” (2) This component includes morality or ethics, the system of
norms that tells us how we should or should not behave. It also gives us a sense of purpose, a direction or set of goals to guide our actions.
Praxeology (theory of action):
This answers the question “How can we act effectively?” (3) It is intended to help us to
solve practical problems and to implement plans of action.
Epistemology (theory of knowledge):
This answers the question “How can we acquire reliable knowledge?” (1). It should allow
us to distinguish better explanations or theories from worse ones. It should answer the
traditional philosophical question “What is true and what is false?” Actually, Apostel also listed a seventh component: integration of the different fragments of knowledge. This does not correspond to a specific part of the sense-making scheme, but rather reminds us that all elements are to be connected into a coherent view of the whole.
Part 6 – Assimilation and accommodation
The function of a worldview is to help us make sense of the important events in our life.
Such events may include a new job or project, the death of a loved one, a new relationship,
or a serious illness. When we manage to explain and evaluate such an event on the basis of
our worldview or some other meaning-producing scheme, then the event has been assimilated into the scheme: it is made to fit into our understanding of how the world functions.
However, if that fails, then the worldview itself may need to change in order to understand
what has happened. In such a case, sense-making requires accommodation of the worldview to the event, rather than assimilation of the event into the worldview. Such a drastic event that triggers a change of the meaning-producing system has been called a “cosmology episode” by the sociologist Karl Weick, since it implies a new perspective on the world (cosmos) (Weick, 1995).
Meaning-making is necessary when some event happens of which the initial interpretation
is discrepant with the global beliefs and values, so that it does not fit within the standard
scheme. For example, a hard-working employee who is proud of his achievements may be
suddenly dismissed from his company. Assuming this person believed that productive
effort leads to advancement, and that career advancement is the major goal of his life, the
dismissal will not only not make sense to him, it may put into doubt his very conception of
his life in relation to the world as he knows it. The natural reaction is to try to reduce the
discrepancy between the initial interpretation of the event (“I was dismissed in spite of my
hard work”) and the global meaning system (“I should work hard to achieve a well-deserved advancement”).
This can happen by changing the initial interpretation, thus making sense of the situation
in a different way (e.g. “the company is financially in dire straits, so they had to let some
of their best people go”). In this case, the dismissal is attributed to a cause that does not
clash with the “working hard” value. The apparently discrepant situation has now been
assimilated into the worldview (“as long as finances allow, hardworking people are rewarded with advancement, so I should not let this setback stop me from continuing to
work hard”). Assimilation means that meaning has been found without the worldview
needing to change.
Accommodation is the more drastic process in which making sense of the situation requires a reorganization of the worldview itself (a “cosmology episode”). For example, the
dismissed employee may suspect that he was cheated by a competitor, who blackened his
name in order to get him dismissed and take his job, and conclude that “to reach my goals
it is better to cheat than to work hard”. Here a new meaning is created not just for the local
event, but also for the person’s global appraisal of life.
For another example, imagine that a person has a religious worldview according to which
good people are rewarded by God with a long and happy life, while bad people are punished. When that person’s beloved younger sister is killed on the road by a drunk driver, while the driver escapes punishment, this assumption comes under severe stress. One option is to still assimilate the event into the worldview, e.g. by assuming that the sister will anyway live happily in Heaven, while the driver will go to Hell, and that God intended this episode merely to test the family’s faith in Him. Another option is to accommodate the worldview, and conclude: “the benevolent God I believed in would never allow such an event to happen, therefore I must have been mistaken and God does not exist”.
Part 7 – The need for a new worldview
We live in a time that is characterized by very rapid, confusing, and difficult to understand
changes. We suffer from information overload and constant interruptions, caused by the
ubiquitous Internet, smartphones, and a globalized society, where faraway events can
immediately affect what happens here and now. The situation can be described by the
VUCA acronym. That means that it is:
Volatile: most things change rapidly, while very few things are permanent
Uncertain: we rarely can predict what will happen next
Complex: all these changes depend on each other in a way very difficult to grasp
Ambiguous: we do not really know what these changes are or what they mean
In sum, it is difficult to make sense of what is presently happening in the world. The resulting lack of meaning produces stress, alienation (feeling as if you don’t belong), and a
general sense of insecurity and self-uncertainty. As we saw, this is a basis for unhappiness.
It also tends to trigger a variety of psychological problems, such as depression, anxiety,
violence or even suicide.
We further saw that people suffering from self-uncertainty tend to compensate for this by
adopting social norms that are clear but simplistic and rigid. Thus, the situation makes
people attracted to worldviews that promise the opposite of the VUCA properties, by
proposing explanations, norms and values that are:
Eternal, rather than volatile,
Absolute, rather than uncertain,
Simple, rather than complex, and
Strictly defined, rather than ambiguous.
Such worldviews can be found e.g. in fundamentalist religions, nationalistic ideologies
and totalitarian systems. However, such worldviews merely deny the obvious VUCA
nature of our society, rather than addressing its challenges. That typically makes the problems worse rather than better—just like denying global warming would stop us from
developing policies that can mitigate its effects.
While such a rigid worldview can make people temporarily feel better, it does not propose
a strategy to reach a true understanding of unusual phenomena, because it will always
have an ad hoc explanation that can apply to anything. For example, in a religious worldview, like in the example of the sister killed by a drunk driver, any unexpected event can be explained by God’s inscrutable intentions that we just have to accept. Nationalist political worldviews, on the other hand, tend to attribute all problems or failures to some conspiracy by enemy forces. If no evidence of the conspiracy can be found, this merely
confirms that the conspirators are very powerful in hiding the evidence.
An effective worldview must provide a realistic description of the world, and a strategy to
deal with it that actually works. That means that we need a worldview that accepts change,
uncertainty and complexity, but that focuses on the positive aspects of how we can use
that complexity and change to work for us and make the world better. That is why I advocate an evolutionary-systemic worldview. Here people are seen as complex systems interconnected and embedded within other systems, including society and the ecosystem.
These systems through their interactions mutually adapt, discover synergies, and thus
develop, self-organize and evolve.
Part 8 – Creation of new meanings
No worldview can ever be finished or complete: we will never be fully certain, and there
will always be new phenomena, changes and mysteries to explore and make sense of.
Therefore, the evolutionary-systemic worldview is open-ended: permanently ready to
accommodate new insights. Thus, we need to continue searching for meaning. The traditional way is through symbolic reasoning: using language and logic to develop new explanations that relate known concepts (symbols) in a novel way, while using intuition to
select the most plausible and meaningful ones. But this is not sufficient (Heylighen, 2019).
The ambiguities of language and intuition can be overcome to some degree by the methods of science. By formalization (expressing symbols in an explicit, context-independent manner, like in mathematics), we can make our descriptions more precise and less subjective. By operationalization (grounding symbols in physical operations, such as experiments or measurements, that specify how the symbol is related to an external phenomenon), we connect these abstract descriptions to the real world. By testing our theories in that real world, we make sure their predictions are reliable.
However, not all meaning can be expressed in a strict, formal and operational manner.
Philosophy helps us to address questions as yet left unanswered by science, in particular
by searching for the deeper concepts, assumptions or foundations that support our theories, and by questioning conventional wisdom or seemingly obvious parts of our worldview. Philosophy also should help us to integrate the often-disconnected insights from science into a worldview that helps us answer all the “Big Questions” (Vidal, 2012).
Art can support us in this meaning-creating enterprise through its power to evoke feelings,
experiences and intuitive insights that cannot be expressed in words or conventional symbols. Thus, it stimulates our senses and imagination, making use of our “situated and
embodied” cognition to better grasp complex phenomena, such as shapes, movements or
sound sequences (Johnson, 2008).
Meditation, mindfulness and other “spiritual” techniques further open up our consciousness to the more subtle sensations and associations that tend to be ignored by rational, symbolic thinking (Heylighen, 2019). This makes us ready to transcend our individual, self-centered perspective, and to feel more connected to the larger whole—humanity, nature and the cosmos.
Thus, we feel awe in the face of the unimaginable complexity of the universe, and fascination for the mystery of everything that is still unexplained. But this mystery is not locked away as something that we could and should never try to comprehend, the way it is often portrayed in religions. On the contrary, it should stimulate our imagination and curiosity, and inspire us to question conventional assumptions and discover new meanings.
Still, the complexity of the universe is not just something negative, which casts doubt on
everything we know. It should also be seen as a source of growth and self-organization.
This may give us faith in the power of evolution to always find creative solutions to whatever challenges may appear. For this, we can find inspiration in what is nowadays called “Big History”, i.e. the story of the universe’s evolution from the Big Bang to contemporary civilization, and beyond.
As an overall conclusion, the meaning of human life is to live, develop and grow, while
seeking more harmony and synergy with the surrounding social, ecological and cosmological systems. For an individual human that means self-actualization, in the sense of maximally developing your talents, and self-transcendence, in the sense of applying these talents to help develop something bigger than your self.
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Heylighen, F. (2019). Transcending the Rational Symbol System: How information technology integrates science, art, philosophy and spirituality into a global brain. In A. Lock, N. Gontier, & C. Sinha (Eds.), Handbook of Human Symbolic Evolution. Retrieved from http://pcp.vub.ac.be/Papers/TranscendingRSS.pdf
Johnson, M. (2008). The meaning of the body: Aesthetics of human understanding. University of Chicago Press
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