Existential “meaning” is partly the telling of a story featuring ourselves that is available and consistent with our higher-level representations of the world. It is not, generally, rational; it is more a narrative correlated with a feeling of “selfness” and “correctness”.
For example, think of how you feel when you hear your own internal voice as opposed to hearing another person speak. You feel that the internal voice is somehow “you”. This is not a rational thought, indeed the language of rational thought may be seen, in part, to *be* the internal voice. This feeling breaks down in certain brain diseases, such as schizophrenia. With these diseases, the “me” feeling is lost or broken, and hence the internal voice of “you” becomes an auditory hallucination, a voice of “them”.
Concentrate on this feeling of “you” for a moment, try to explore what it feels like.
Now think about a feeling of “correctness”. This can also be seen as a feeling of “truthiness”. For example, try to concentrate on how the feeling of “1 + 1 = 2”, differs from the feeling of “1 + 1 = 5”. The latter invokes a feeling of uneasiness, an itching to correct. It has tones of unpleasantness. It induces a slight anxiety, a feeling that action is needed. The former invokes a feeling of contentment, that no action is required; it may be contemplated for an extended period without unease of additional thought. It’s a similar feeling to artistic “beauty”, the way we can contemplate a great painting or a landscape.
Both feelings may arise from a common mechanism in the cingulate cortex, a medial layer of cortex that sits between older brain structures such as the thalamus and the higher cortical layers. Indeed, certain forms of schizophrenia have been traced back to this structure. The cingulate cortex may be considered to be the emotional gateway between complex neural representations in the upper cortex and structures that manage low-level sensory input and co-ordinate physiology response. “Sensory input” in this context also includes “gut feeling”, sensory input from internal viscera. Work, such as that performed by Antonio Damasio, shows that this input is important for the embodied feeling of self, e.g. “self” may in part be a representation formed from signals from these viscera. In a not dissimilar manner, “correctness” may be based on a representation of error or inconsistency between a sequence of activated cortical representations. At a very naive level this could be built from familiarity, e.g. at a statistical level, does this sequence match previously activated sequences? Over a human life this is a “big data” exercise.
So, back to “meaning”. Our higher-level cortical systems, e.g. the frontal lobes, create narratives as patterned sequences of goal-orientated social behaviour, which may be expressed in various media (stories, plays, comics, dance, songs, poems etc). For “meaning” to be present, we are looking for strong positive correlations between these narratives and the emotional representations of “self” and “correctness”. What form could these correlations take?
First, let’s look at “goal-orientated behaviour”. The frontal lobes build representations of sequences of other representations. These sequences can represent “situation, action, outcome”. There is some overlap with the methods of reinforcement learning. Over time we learn the patterns that these sequences tend to match (google Kurt Vonnegut’s story graphs). The frontal lobes are powerful as they can stack representations over one to seven layers of cortex, allowing for increasing abstraction. Narratives are thus formed from hierarchical sequences of sequences. (There may also be a bottom-up contributions from lower brain structures such as the basal ganglia, which represents more explicit cause-effect pairings without abstract, e.g. “button tap: cocaine”.)
Second let’s look at activities that are widely reported to be “meaningful”, and those that are not. “Meaningful” activities tend to be pro-social. For example, imagine you are an artist on your deathbed; what feels more meaningful, that you produced a work of art seen by no one or that you produced a work of art seen by millions? I’d hazard that the second scenario provides greater “meaning”. We need a sense that we have affected others in a positive manner. Similarly, does “1+1=2” feel “meaningful”? Do your tax returns feel “meaningful”? Does the furniture in a new home feel “meaningful”? I’d hazard “no”. These things do not elicit a strong emotional reaction. The furniture example is a good one; the furniture in your family home may come to have “meaning”, but only because it forms the background of your social memories. We are social animals, like parrots, dolphins or baboons, and so the social realm forms a bedrock to our emotional states.
For correlations to stick in the brain we need two things: 1) for correlations to be present in the outside world (or at least some situations that form a sensory base to those correlations); and 2) for us to regularly experience these external situations. Here “regularly” means at a daily or at least weekly.
Religions have long been aware of these aspects, indeed we often define “religion” as a structured practice built on a common mythological framework. It is widely reported that it is not possible to feel “faith” without practice. In Islam this is explicit, “Islam” means to submit or surrender; you have to practice to believe. The structure of religion provides the regular experience of 2): daily prayers, weekly worship, and annual festivals.
To provide correlations between feelings of “self” and “correctness” and particular narratives, we need to experience them all collectively. It is important that the narratives are at least analogous to our daily experience. If they are not, we cannot experience them as being “correct” or “true”. All of this also needs to take place below a level of conscious awareness.
Again, we can learn a lot from religion. Rituals light up the brain of those experiencing them. You are the one experiencing the ritual, you are taking in heavy sensory stimulation, and are performing actions within the world. Rituals often involve singing, collective and stylised movement, repetition of motifs. These activate common neural representations each time the ritual is performed. The connections that are formed fuse the self and the experience.
The last part of the puzzle involves fusing the narrative and the experience. The self is thus fused with the narrative via the repeated experience.
In religion, rituals tell a story. The Eucharist is rooted in the story of last summer, Passover the liberation of the Israelites, and Ramadan commemorates the receipt of the Quran. It is important that the faithful act in a manner that is consistent with the story. Although many stories are based on an echo of history, historical fact is not important. More important is that the story, or an abstraction of the story, mirrors experience outside of the ritual. For example, many religious stories are based on familial relations, which most can instantly relate to. Many religious stories acknowledge suffering and struggle, as well as moments of joy and exhilaration, which again people regularly feel in their daily lives. The stories are also dynamic, they emerge from history through retelling, emphasis, interpretation. Like our own memories they are recreated every time they are retold. A key role of clergy is to draw parallels between these stories and our daily tribulations.
Having considered these points, we can see why the rational secularism of modernity often leaves people cold and lacking meaning. Science is not a vehicle for creating human meaning. Indeed, I would go as far to say that the factors that make science successful move us in a direction away from meaning. The workaday stories of science need to be sterile for science to work; they need to be objective, unbiased and unemotional. They then provide us with predictive power. But predictive power is not emotional resonance. The predictive stories of science, equations and theories, are not human-centric in a way that matches what we feel. If they were, we would all be reading scientific papers as opposed to watching Netflix.
If people lack meaning in their lives, they quickly fall into nihilism and despair. The challenge of Western post-modernism, having largely ditched religion, is thus to fill the void and create something we can use in our daily lives. Science and engineering could provide the tools and understanding, but they will not provide the solution themselves.