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Finding meaning everywhere

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• Is the world eternal? YES
• Do humans have contra-causal free will (i.e., can humans do otherwise)? NO
• Is beauty in the eye of the beholder? YES
• Do humans have souls? YES
• Are there natural rights? YES
• Is it morally permissible to eat meat? NO
• Is the unexamined life worth living? NO
• Is truth subjectivity? YES
• Is virtue necessary for happiness? YES
• Can a computer have a mind? YES
• Can humans know reality as it is in itself? YES
• Is hell other people? YES
• Can art be created accidentally? NO
• Can we change the past? NO
• Are numbers real? NO
• Is it always better to know the truth? YES

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First read this article by Michael Shermer, about the human propensity to hear meaning in all sorts of meaningless noise. We are good at finding patterns; but not so good at detecting when we have superimposed a pattern on something meaningless. In Shermer’s words:

Unfortunately, we did not evolve a Baloney Detection Network in the brain to distinguish between true and false patterns. We have no error-detection governor to modulate the pattern-recognition engine. (Thus the need for science with its self-correcting mechanisms of replication and peer review.) But such erroneous cognition is not likely to remove us from the gene pool and would therefore not have been selected against by evolution.

Then have a look at this YouTube featuring “Stairway to Heaven.” It’s played first forward, with lyrics, then BACKWARD, with lyrics. Does this prove the satanic genius of Led Zeppelin? Or simply our lack of a Baloney Detection Network?



  1. Kleiner says:

    Interesting, but the big question is where do we go from here? That we sometimes hear meaning in meaningless noise does not mean that we always do. Maybe I am reading too much between the lines here, but it seems a hidden presupposition here (one that I agree with) is that sometimes we do recognize real order, and that is what makes our superimposed patterns noteworthy. In other words, their are real patterns and an underlying causal order – this is why apparent patternity is so seductive.

    Cases of apparent teleology are not, then, a disturbance in the natural order of things. Spontaneity (apparent teleology in nature) and chance (apparent teleology in human affairs) both presume an underlying causal order. Those merely apparent patterns do not arise out of nowhere. The bird crap falls to the ground because it ‘seeks its natural place’ (to use Aristotle’s lingo), as it were. If the bird crap hits my newly washed car, then it would be wrong to say that it pooped ‘in order to hit my car’.
    If you run into someone who owes you money at the grocery store, you might think that they went to the grocery store in order to pay you back. But it might just be chance.

    Point is this – that we sometimes find only apparent meaning does not mean that all meaning is only apparent. Rather, it is simply a call to be better thinkers. We should ask careful questions – where did it come from (efficient cause), what is it (formal cause), what is it doing (final cause)?
    In the case of the Led Zeppelin song, whether or not the satanic message is chance or not depends – in this case entirely – on the intent of Led Zeppelin. If they intended the message, then it was meaningful. If they did not intend it, then it was chance (apparent teleology, only a ‘superimposed pattern’.


  2. Huenemann says:

    I didn’t mean to suggest that we never pick out meaningful patterns. Sometimes we get the pattern just right. And sometimes we think we discern a pattern, and there is a pattern there to be seen, but what we think we see and what’s there are two very different things. Teleology, for example. We think we see natural objects striving toward certain ends, and there truly is a regularity in behavior, but the regularity is not striving toward a particular end — it is instead a pattern of behavior that has been selected for by natural selection.


  3. Kleiner says:

    Well, this is the debate – is teleology a real pattern or not? That we can pick out meaningful patterns is a step in the right direction (and a move away from total skepticism). But I would think that most of those patterns we recognize travel with telic significations. Your giving the natural selection account puts us right back to our old argument – can you provide a merely material account of intentionality?
    But I have too much grading right now to revisit that whole issue!


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