Meaning will take care of itself

Science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke:

A wise man once said that all human activity is a form of play. And the highest form of play is the search for Truth, Beauty and Love. What more is needed? Should there be a ‘meaning’ as well, that will be a bonus?

If we waste time looking for life’s meaning, we may have no time to live — or to play.


First, I find a contradiction in “all human activity” not including “looking for life’s meaning.”  If I try to find implications in his juxtapositions, I might conclude that “to live” is “to play”, looking for life’s meaning is not-play (not living) as though the two are mutually exclusive activities by virtue of word choice.

I believe he’s saying that “looking for life’s meaning” is a meaningless extraction on its own, being done apart from searching for Truth, Beauty, and Love.  But he seems to have extracted searching for those things from searching for life’s meaning (why or how any of those three things matter) as though they aren’t a part of “life.”

To “search for” something to me implies that the object of the search is a target.  On one hand, the target can be defined, and you’re looking to find it.  On the other hand, the target is ethereal and you’re looking to establish its existence for some reason.  And “for some reason” implies some purpose or objective, which then implies meaning: what is Truth, Beauty, and Love such that they can be play; and why is searching for them worth expending playtime for?

For the sake of play?  That can’t be.  Too shallow.

Play is the quintessential example of “living in the moment” or the present. Living in the present does not mean living in ignorance of meaning beyond the present. It means being totally present in the now, with consciousness of interconnectedness and “meaning”…a meaning that forms awareness.  Without this, “play” is reduced to nothing more than a bubble of self-indulgence or enacted daydreams, whereas it could be about exploration of consciousness.  Play can be about the meaning of life and the magic that meaning makes possible.

Let’s focus on Beauty for the moment.

In Strong’s Systematic Theology, he argues that beauty, for it to be recognized, requires a recognizer — a being with the capacity to appreciate and enjoy aesthetics and masterfully applied design.  And that being has some relationship to the abstract of beauty, some chemistry that produces joy of beauty in its recognition.

As the science of aesthetics is a product of reason as including a power of recognizing beauty practically inseparable from a love for beauty, and as the science of ethics is a product of reason as including a power of recognizing the morally right practically inseparable from a love for the morally right…we recognize beauty not by logic, but by passion (affection).

We cannot know an orange by the eye alone; to the understanding of it, taste is as necessary as sight. The mathematics of sound cannot give us an understanding of music; we need also a musical ear. Logic alone cannot demonstrate the beauty of a sunset, or of a noble character; love for the beautiful and the right precedes knowledge of the beautiful and the right. Ullman draws attention to the derivation of sapientia , wisdom, from sap’re , to taste. So we cannot know [the divine] by intellect alone: the heart must go with the intellect to make knowledge of divine timings possible. “Human things,” said Pascal, “need only to be known, in order to be loved; but divine things must first be loved, in order to be known.”

Otherwise, things like truth, beauty, love would be “like the letters of a book to a child that cannot read.”  “Love for beauty” requires a source and is what allows “searching for” beauty to even exist.

Nothing can be revealed to us which has not been revealed in us.  The eye does not see the beauty of the landscape, nor the ear hear the beauty of music.

So we ask ourselves: do we enjoy beauty toward no end?  Can we investigate whence the chemistry and why we would want to seek it out (besides base stimulation)?  Can we build on base beauty to rise to transcendental beauty, like a child that goes from making mud pies in an easy-bake oven to becoming an adult Pastry Chef?  Why can’t this discovery and pursuit of higher, more nuanced recognition be part of play?

Beauty has “meaning” to “life” in how it might reveal our relationship to the author of our souls or about the divine itself. Otherwise, why search for it beyond indulgence.

Truth definitely is meaning.  Why would we be concerned with truth if not for the meaning it gives to us or to us in searching for it. Truth as it concerns evaluating a direction toward … what? If we care about truth, we care about the ‘what’, right? And the ‘what’ is in living toward some end. And the end is more than the present, unless you’re a cabbage.
Beauty requires some pre-existing internal “beauty” for recognizing it to be possible and for appreciating it to move us.  Cuteness in babies or sweetness of sugar are examples: with sugar, we have the physiological factors in place to perceive sweetness.  If there is a problem with tasting sugar, it is a problem with our faculties not the sugar.  With cuteness in babies, there is a faculty within us that allows for perceiving cuteness.  Some studies have shown that our appreciation of beauty in humans relies heavily on the ability to perceive proportion and symmetry.   What is it about symmetry that triggers a  response within us that, when aggregated with other features with their own appreciableness, sum to beauty?
Love is more than an emotion, it’s a perspective on relationships, whether between two humans, within a human population, between humans and objects, between humans and nature, between humans and the divine.  Why would we care about a type of relationship that we consider nurturing, caring, and reflecting the highest order of the human soul if those things did not have meaning?  and meaning to our life.

If we limit ourselves to “searching for” these three things, meaning will form because it must. We can’t recognize them without affection for them; we won’t pursue them without real or perceived benefit; and, mostly, because they are pillars of higher consciousness that, when realized together, causes us to see beyond the present and into the eternal.  That would be the “meaning of life.”

But “meaning” is more than implication. It is more than understanding trajectory and cause & effect.

I once had a conversation with young fella who asked me, “How do we listen to God?” I replied that one of God’s words can take several years to form in a way in which we can “hear” it, and getting a sentence out … well, you do the math.

Meaning involves messages from an author. If the message be encrypted, then then we must learn the language. If its comprehension require experience, we must gain it.

But for sure, “meaning” comes in layers: grammar, syntax, experience, competence, definitions. I too often see humans yell commands at their dogs with the expectation that the dog will somehow comprehend the “meaning” beyond associating a human bark to some current circumstance.

Meaning can continue as long as the story lasts, adding more fullness to the “meaning” and thrilling us with twists and turns — discovery. Our story. The human story. The story of the universe.

You can’t force meaning, for then it is contrived. You can’t assume meaning, for then you arrogate. You cannot truncate meaning, for then your comprehension is stunted.

Best to be as a child learning language, and listen & observe, and following some basic commandments. Meaning will take care of itself.

3 Responses

  1. “cuteness is not a property of babies. Perception of cuteness is a property of humans. “

    I’m not so sure about this: “Sweetness is not a property of sugar; Perception of sweetness is a prperty of tasters.” That’s right in one way, but quite wrong in another: if you fail to taste the sweetness of sugar that is known to be present, there’s something wrong with your tongue, not the sugar.

    When we perceive the cuteness of the baby, there is presumably some objective feature of the baby that triggers the cute-response.



  2. Brilliant response to Clarke. By the way, can you be found on Facebook?

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