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The Context Of Meaning

Nick Chater—

In an ever more mechanized world, and with science revealing the hidden processes of nature with ever more precision, the desire to reassert the value of the non-mechanical, the spiritual and the emotional can seem increasingly urgent. We humans struggle to find meaning in a world apparently governed by the iron laws of Newton’s (or Einstein’s) physics – even if those laws are leavened with a sprinkling of utter randomness from quantum mechanics. 

Puzzling over the meaning of life is a particularly pressing and personal instance of puzzles about the meaning of things more broadly. Why does the word dog mean (very crudely) ‘furry, carnivorous, domesticated, middle-sized animal, which barks and is commonly a pet’; why do double yellow lines mean ‘no parking’ on British roads; why does a dollar bill, a pound coin, or a 20- euro banknote have a monetary value (rather than being mere objects that can be weighed, thrown, burned or melted)? In these cases, it seems natural to assume that meaning comes, in some roundabout way, from patterns of relationships. The word dog has developed its meaning because of the way we use it – its role in the language, in our lives, in its connections to the world (e.g. the existence and nature of dogs), the way our perceptual systems classify the world, and much more. But it is clearly a hopeless strategy to look for the meaning of the word by closely scrutinizing the word itself. The same goes for money: the value of physical currency is a product of enormously intricate relationships between people. It is a remarkable mutual agreement, backed by individuals, shopkeepers, manufacturers and governments, to treat currency in lieu of goods and services; it is supported by a rich pattern of norms, laws, anti-counterfeiting strategies and trust in the economy. The last place to look for the meaning of money (at least after the demise of the gold sovereign) is ‘within’: it is not the paper or metal that has value – no matter how closely we examine the patterns on banknotes or the precise alloy from which the coins are minted. Words are not mere sounds; money is not just the paper it is written on. 

And the same is surely true for the search for meaning in our own experiences and in our lives. Emotions, then, have their meaning, not through some elementary properties of ‘raw experience’, but through their role in our thoughts, our social interactions and our culture. To be ashamed, proud, angry or jealous is not to experience the welling up of some primitive feeling – we are ashamed of specific actions, proud of particular achievements, angry at individual people for concrete reasons, and so on. Of course, such feelings are associated with a bodily state (just as words have physical form, as acoustic waves or patterns of ink; and just as money is embodied in paper and metal), but the bodily state – the rushes of adrenaline, the pounding of the heart – should not be confused with the emotion itself. 

The same pattern surely applies to the meaning of our lives more broadly. The meaning of pretty much anything comes from its place in a wider network of relationships, causes and effects – not from within. So wondering if you are in love, whether you really believe in God, or whether you find a sentimental pop song charming or mawkish, should be a prompt for you to consider how your thoughts and feelings fit together; how they link with your actions and the actions of other people; how they compare with situations you have experienced in the past, and more. Such questions are not answered by a futile attempt to carry out a microscopic analysis of one’s inner sensations, or still less one’s soul.

From The Mind is Flat by Nick Chater. Published by Yale University Press in 2018. Reproduced with permission.


Nick Chater is professor of behavioral science at the Warwick Business School and cofounder of Decision Technology Ltd. He has contributed to more than two hundred articles and book chapters and is author, coauthor, or coeditor of fourteen books.


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