This post discusses whether transcendental meaning exists and if it exists, what we should do about it.
Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) had a series of Transcendental Arguments. In these arguments, he posited that there is something a priori, that doesn’t depend on your culture, religion, race and whatsoever. For example, the concept of time and space ought to be the same for everybody. Math is also a priori. It doesn’t change its axioms, laws based on who is thinking about it. In addition, math also transcends time. True math laws shouldn’t hold truer in our time than in a hundred years. But is there transcendental meaning?
By meaning I mean the meaning that appears in sentences like "what is the meaning of life?", "it is meaningless", "it is meaningful to help others", and "justice per se is meaningful." In addition, transcendental is synonymous to "objective" and "universal". (I am obsessed with the word transcendental because the fact that great philosopher Kant used it make me feel happy.)
2. There is no transcendental meaning
Meaning is subjective
Please have a look at this video before continuing reading: https://youtu.be/Ebt0X5ybm9Y (5 mins)
We have to admit that meaningfulness is by and large a subjective term. Firstly, it is subjective to the human being. In the eyes of nature, nothing is meaningful and everything is meaningful at the same time. Nature, qua the whole physical world, has no subjective feeling of everything. It is only human being, thanks to its qualia [^1] (the thing that allows us to feel), who can give meaning to both physical things and virtual things like concepts. Other animals may also have qualia. But their qualia might be different from ours. (Hereafter I substitute qualia with feeling to make it easier to read.) The way we feel about certain things could be very different from animals. Some animal can hear sounds that we can’t hear; for example, bats can hear ultrasound to help it navigate. Some animal can see colours that we can’t see. Snakes can use their ultra-red-sensitive eye to identify living animals. As animals and we feel differently, the meanings they give to things could be very different from ours.
Secondly, meaning is also subjective to individuals. Some people see red as green and vice versa. For some people doing math is fun whereas many others find boring. As for meaning, some think it is more meaningful to become a teacher than a programmer (though the latter normally earn a lot more than the former, in our time). Some also think a career as a teacher is more meaningful than a teacher. So, for the same thing, individuals can hold different feelings.
To sum up this huge block, meaning is never going to be like math concepts, it is subjective. Therefore, transcendental meaning doesn’t exist, if we apply "transcendental" strictly.
Our feeling about meaning can be changed
We would all agree that when we do something meaningful, we feel happy. For example, we think protecting the environment is meaningful. We feel happy about saving resources and recycling. But our idea that it is meaningful is not a priori; we weren’t born to think it is meaningful. Instead, we were educated to think that it is a meaningful thing to do. In this case, we can see what we are able to acquire the ability to feel meaningful of something. That is, we can change our way of thinking about meaning.
This also implies another direction of change. Even if we were born to feeling meaningful about something, we could try to get rid of that feeling. But this is difficult. If you don’t feel happy reading, it is hard to force yourself loving reading. Luckily, you have read so far, which is a clear evidence of your future intellectual potential.
3. But we can know what has more transcendental meaning
We have found that meaning is subjective, thus there is no real transcendental meaning, and that we can change the way we feel meaningful; in the light of these findings, we revise our goal here: let’s try to find the most transcendental meaning, among all the meanings that we can conceive, instead of insisting on finding out the truly transcendental meaning.
Our question becomes: what deeds are transcendentally meaningful? Not only should we find the deed meaningful, but also should our ancestors and our future generations. Not only should Americans find it meaningful, but also should Indians, Africans, Chinese and Europeans.
Essentially, we are making value judgments. We want to decide which meaning is more transcendental than the other. When it comes to value judgments, the criteria and priority of criteria are also subjective. Therefore, warning ahead, this is a very muddy undertaking.
All worries aside, let’s start.
What should be transcendentally meaningful?
Truth is transcendental and hence its discovery, dissemination and preservation are transcendentally meaningful. Let’s revisit the cave of Plato. We can draw a parallel of our world to the cave of Plato. People doing all sorts of thing that makes them happy and feel meaningful. Yet the truth discovery is transcendentally meaningful as it makes progress in a substantial way. Truth makes human being become higher than it is. Similarly, preserving and spreading truth are also transcendentally meaningful.
Again, not all truth is born equal. The value of truth varies. In addition, some truth is more transcendental than others. The universal truth is more valuable and transcendental than specific truth.
Some might argue that there is no truth. Everything exists in our mind and the so-called truth is just a collection of our ideas centred around the human being. This is too extreme a view, and I shall say that we can be close to truth if we use our logic, reasoning and experiment.
Increasing people’s liberty is transcendentally meaningful. Liberty is valued and should be valued by all people. Liberty is a complex term but here let’s simply take the idea of Mill: people should have the liberty to do whatever they want as long as they won’t cause physical damage to other people. Anything that increases people’s liberty as a whole, without compromising other people’s liberty, is transcendentally meaningful. For example, creating an AI or robot can free people from unessential work, without reducing other people’s liberty.
Objects or things can be transcendental as well. So the design and production of transcendental objects are of transcendental meaning. Truth is abstract and non-physical and objects are tangible and physical. For example, the Voyager Golden Records carried by the Voyagers, two space spacecraft, were meant to be transcendental. The designer wanted it to be understandable for any "intelligent extraterrestrial life" who may find these records one day and learn about us, children of planet Earth. (It is sad to fathom that when they are discovered, we might exist any more.)
What else can be a transcendental object? Is a phone transcendental? It can’t be. In fact, it is hard for an individual object to be transcendental, whereas the collection of them could be. For example, computer chips are transcendental. It is valuable for everyone in any time (even in the ancient time). On the other hand, the things that derived from computer chips aren’t necessarily transcendental. For instance, smartphones. We don’t really need phones. In the future, we might be able to implant a chip into our brain to do the tasks a mobile phone is doing for us now. Thus the transcendental tend to be fundamental.
The cover of the CD featured many mathematical shapes; they were meant to communicate to foreign life how much we had know about our world.
Picture credit and more info: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voyager_Golden_Record?oldformat=true
4. What do we do with our newly acquired knowledge?
Here is what I think we should do, among others: focus more on the things that carry transcendental meaning. If we are ready to go more extreme, we can shape our and our next generations’ value to place higher importance and prioritise on these things. For example, they should pursue or spread truth, they should make us freer, or they should make transcendental things.
Why should I care whether something is transcendental?
I often ask people, what do you think is meaningful to do in your life? What do you think is the meaning of life? Some say, I just want a normal life with family, friends and I want to help others. Remember the Harvard study about happiness? It concluded that relationship is perhaps the most important source of our happiness. When they say this, they are implying that they want more happiness by cultivating better relationships. This is not a happy result for relationship, because it encourages people to tread relationship as a mean to happiness, not an end.
With this happiness notion in mind, we see people going around fostering relations, spending time together, and feeling happy and content about their life. Certainly, this society is happy and perhaps meaningful, but it is not transcendentally meaningful.
A society focuses too much on in-built-sense of happiness progresses slower than a society that focuses on fostered-sense of happiness. Yes, we naturally feel happy when we are with good friends, when we are reassured, when we are connected, when we feel that we are important to someone. This is what I call the in-built-sense of happiness, a natural and granted and imposed and inherited sense of happiness. But we can change it. We can tell ourselves that red is green and the first impression is often wrong. In terms of meaning, we should make ourselves and our next generations feel happy and meaningful more about transcendental things. We should all be doing transcendental things.
Some may say no to this artificial change of our value. They think that what we already have is great and we have no right to change other people’s preference. We are, however, already doing this. Almost every parent want their kids to enjoy reading. Not many kids like reading. But reading is important. We want our kids to be able to derive joy from good books. Another example: nowadays many people think it is meaningless to vote cause they had been so many times disappointed by the politicians they elected. As more and more people became indifferent towards politics, government tends to transgress more. We want to make ourselves and kids see the meaningfulness of every single vote. When everybody can do this, we will gain more freedom.
Meaning is subjective, so there is no such thing as transcendental meaning. Despite so, we could still figure out that something has more transcendental meaning than others. I think they are related to truth, liberty and those fundamental objects like computer chips. The implication of this discussion is that we (ourselves and our next generations) should commit much more time and resource on things that carry transcendental meaning. Ideally, we should all be doing these transcendental things.
In Kant’s argument, the transcendental is the foundation and the evidence, the support, the reason of things. Math is the foundation of very science. Our ability to think of space and time is the foundation, support and reason of everything that exist in our mind. In the same vein, transcendental meaning is the foundation of every other meaning. Other meaning should all be made meaningful by the extent to which they are transcendental.
The next time you wonder what is the meaning of your life, what is the meaning of what you are doing, think about truth and liberty and transcendentalness. Is what you are doing related to truth and liberty?
[^1]: if you are interested in finding out more about qualia, find a book about the philosophy of mind.
Can you think of anything that has transcendental meaning? Let me know!
My previous post on what is intrinsically meaningful and important: https://zhoubeichen.com/what-things-are-intrinsically-meaningful-and-important/24/02/2020/
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