Saturday, March 5, 2011

The Empirical Nature of "Meaning"

A body of research suggests that the subjective experience of "meaning" is a response to one's becoming aware of negative wellbeing.

Put another way, the phenomenon of meaning is reducible to a psychological response to suffering - suffering that cannot, for some reason, be remedied in the outside, extrapsychological world.

Studies have reported for years that parents report less happiness than those without children. However, some studies have shown an allegedly counterbalancing feature: parents report that their lives are more "meaningful" than do non-parents. So parents trade off happiness for meaning; seems rational.

That's not the whole picture, though. An ultra-recent study finds that meaningfulness is a function not just of parenthood, but of how much parenthood sucks. "Parents who had the high costs of children in mind were much more likely to say that they enjoyed spending time with their children, and they also anticipated spending more leisure time with their kids," say the study authors. While children used to have economic value - used to be a "good deal," we might say - parents had no need of a subjective sense of the meaningfulness of parenting. "As the value of children has diminished, and the costs have escalated, the belief that parenthood is emotionally rewarding has gained currency. In that sense, the myth of parental joy is a modern psychological phenomenon," say the study authors.

This same phenomenon is at work regarding hazing and group membership. The more suffering one endures in becoming part of a group, the more one subjectively values the group - whether it's an American street gang or a Japanese university. Suffering is a quantifiable predictor of the subjective experience of meaning.

Similarly, having a crappy life (low SES) is a good predictor of religiosity. Religion is a technology that allows suffering people in a very shitty, unfair situation to continue living and producing children - in the interest of nature, but against their own interests.

The Book of Job is an example of this technology. It demonstrates a way to respond to the uncompensated sufferings of life: love God (the system) even more. Find "meaning." Even the author of Job is disingenuous, though; he posits a little reward at the end for the ever-loyal, meaning-finding Job. As Ted Chiang shows in his story "Hell is the Absence of God" (and says explicitly in his story notes),
It seems to me that the Book of Job lacks the courage of its convictions: If the author were really committed to the idea tha virtue isn't always rewarded, shouldn't the book have ended with Job still bereft of everything?

The Book of Job is not logical or consistent; instead, it demonstrates a fitness-promoting response to unrecompensable suffering, and on another level, promises that this response will be ultimately rewarded on a non-psychological level. Therefore, I think the Book of Job is evil on two levels: trying to get people to engage in an irrational psychological response to allow them to ignore unfairness, and at the same time promising them that this defense mechanism will allow them to get compensated in the manner they really care about at a later time. It's like the con artist who preys on victims of his previous cons, promising to get their money back.

My predictions from this meaning-as-quantifiable-response-to-suffering theory:

  • Women who experience horrific body changes from pregnancy will report finding more meaning in childrearing than those whose bodies are less affected.

  • Women whose husbands leave them shortly after the birth of a baby will report more finding more meaning in childrearing than matched controls whose husbands do not leave them.

  • This need not be limited to personal suffering of the parents. Parents whose children suffer major birth defects or illness will report more meaning in childrearing and the child's life than matched controls of healthy children.

  • A sudden drop in SES will be a good predictor of the adoption of evangelical Christianity.

8 comments:

  1. People also tend to perceive difficulty in decision making as a sign of importance.
    http://marketing.wharton.upenn.edu/documents/research/Decision_Quicksand.pdf

    ReplyDelete
  2. Regarding the book of Job: I've been in three separate classes now wherein the professor or TA mentioned that there was once an alternate version of Job floating around in which the eponymous main character gets nothing at the end save for being left alone with his festering boils and ruined estate. God doesn't even give him a pat on the back for trying to figure things out - he just leaves. Of course, that kind of honesty doesn't sell, so the *real* book of Job didn't make it into the final cut.

    It's too bad that this alternate version of Job, the one that didn't make it into the Tanakh, is probably the only honest take on monotheism that there ever was. If anyone dives deeply enough down the spiritual rabbit hole, the only thing they get in the end is crushing surrender, the absolute and final end of all hope, period. Disillusionment is the only gift one should ever expect from God. Thus I think it's interesting that, at the end of the alternate version, Job still retains his faith. Why, aside from the faith of the author sneaking in, should he still believe in God?

    Absent a translated reading copy of the text, I can only speculate as to what exactly Job's retention of faith in the alternate version looks like - it seems wholly implausible that it would be the kind of faith one sees being sold like a drug at the tax-exempt megachurches that hawk drive-thru salvation. I imagine Job would feel something like the Zen master who finally woke up one day and burned all his scriptures and cursed the day he heard the Buddha's name, after wasting decades trying to square the spiritual circle. Your enlightenment may come, that is for sure, but it won't be the cheap dopamine perma-fix you thought it would be. Happiness is a high, but Truth is Truth. And the handmaidens of Truth are disenchantment, disillusionment, and death-awareness.

    I say that for the truly faithful, God must be seen as nothing other than a yawning void in place of an answer, an untouchable mystery which for no reason at all churns out gasping life, then drowns it in final eternity. This is not the God that anyone would ever go looking for, but the ones who look, who *actually* look instead of just trying to trap their cognitive dissonance in yet another layer of spiritual nonsense, will find this one. Only seek this God if, like Job, you have absolutely no other choice - if you're not ready to throw your entire terror management apparatus out the window, with all the suffering and despair that entails, you're better off at the megachurch.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Peter Zapffe wrote a wonderful essay about the Book of Job, which you can find translated into English here:

    http://sirocco.blogsome.com/2006/03/20/an-accusation-of-timeless-dimensions/

    I've never read the Book of Job, myself, so I don't know if Zapffe's version holds up to scrutiny, but I enjoyed it nonetheless.

    -MM

    ReplyDelete
  4. I think what you are talking about has to do with justification of effort. In fact, that's exactly what's happening with the parents from the study and members of groups where hazing is practiced.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Modern Man: You should read it!

    If you can't be bothered with boring plain text, this is a good place to brush up on bible knowledge.

    And this is particularly relevant.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Not that it's relevant, but I think the King James translation of The Book of Job is possibly the greatest piece of literature in the English language. The existence of an apocryphal version seems plausible, but even if no such text existed, it would be tempting to speculate. The "happy" ending feels false, and in a curious way -- like the epilogue in the film Taxi Driver, or for that matter, Observe and Report.

    ReplyDelete
  7. It's also interesting that many scholars consider Job to be the oldest book of the bible. Satan seems to be God's official prosecutor and right-hand man. The happy ending does seem tacked on, even more so when considered in the philosophical context of Ecclesiastes, whose message boils down to 'life sucks, then you die, so you probably ought to go ahead and worship God...just in case'.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Daniel Gilbert's book Stumbling on Happiness explores some of the same topics. One interesting concept in the book is the intensity trigger. Quoting the author, "Failed marriages and lost jobs are the kinds of large-scale assaults on our happiness that trigger our psychological defenses, but these defenses are not triggered by broken pencils, stubbed toes, or slow elevators. […] The paradoxical consequence of this fact is that it is sometimes more difficult to achieve a positive view of a bad experience than of a very bad experience." The example used to support this is the experiment in which two groups of students were initiated into a club with electric shocks of different intensity. The group that experienced greater pain, reported liking the club better.

    A related concept is the inescapability trigger, which posits that we are more likely to develop positive images of situations, things, and experiences that we cannot escape. "Inescapable, inevitable, and irrevocable circumstances trigger the psychological immune system, but as with the intensity of suffering, people do not always recognize that this will happen." To prove the point, the author cites an experiment in which photography students were offered the option to choose one photo that they keep at the end of the course. But one group was told their choice was irrevocable while the other was given several days during which they could change their minds. The students who were stuck with their choice reported higher satisfaction with their choice. Yet, most people fail to predict this outcome because they value freedom of choice over commitment.

    ReplyDelete

Tweets by @TheViewFromHell