Ultimate, Universal, Objective Meaning Is The Only Kind That Matters

Some places, you drive on the left of the road;
Some places, you drive on the right
There isn’t one side that is better or worse
(Though I’m sure some are willing to fight)

It doesn’t much matter which side we might choose
So long as the drivers agree
When here you choose right, but when here you choose left,
Or else there’ll be trouble, you see.

There isn’t one standard that everyone follows
And thus, there is no global law
Because left may be right (which means right would be wrong)
But this, see, exposes a flaw!

If it’s not universal, apologists claim,
It’s fiction, and doesn’t exist!
Or doesn’t exist “in an ultimate sense”
As a thing that omniscient God missed

With no ultimate reason for right or for left
You could drive like you’re mad as a hatter
Since there’s no right and wrong in the ultimate sense
Then the local rules really can’t matter!

So drive where you like—and take comfort in knowing
You can’t be objectively wrong…
And if there’s a flaw in my reasoning here,
It won’t last. Well, at least, not for long.

I’ve written about this before, using other metaphors. But this one asserted itself just yesterday, as I was driving along a narrow road, well on the proper side of that road, on a stretch that featured a bunch of blind curves with a rock face about 20 feet high on one side, and a newly frozen pond on the other. I was staying on my side because anyone who has driven that road more than a handful of times knows that it is populated entirely by idiots. (…pause, while the joke sinks in…) So those of us who drive it know to stick to the proper side.

I think you know where this is leading. A big white panel van comes around a blind curve, straddling the middle of the road like any sane person would do if you had the chance of hitting a giant rock on one side or driving into a pond on the other. So the driver, clearly in the wrong, has to swerve over to where the van should have been all along, and I test my brakes, steering, nerves, and bladder all at the same time. I am happy to report that all passed the test.

A bit later, I am reading something my aggregator throws at me, and it’s someone arguing that the fact that life has meaning proves that death is not final (because something can’t ultimately be meaningful if it is temporary, and since life is meaningful, it can’t be temporary). I’d find it now and link it, but the cuttledog is giving me a Very Meaningful Look. Which, although I expect (and hope!) to be a temporary condition, does not mean that I can therefore ignore it at this moment.

Temporary, transient, ephemeral meaning is all that we know, and all that we can know. It is impossible that mortal beings can know (rather than believe) that ultimate, universal, timeless, objective (and I mean the intersection rather than the union of those adjectives) meaning can exist. The very fact that we (more or less) understand one another when we talk about meaning, means we are talking about the kind of meaning we are familiar with. The kind the cuttledog is reminding me of right now.


  1. Randomfactor says

    “(because something can’t ultimately be meaningful if it is temporary, and since life is meaningful, it can’t be temporary).”

    To be fair, you should wait for him to finish his argument before answering. Oh, what’s that? His argument is over? That’s it? No wonder it’s meaningless.

  2. Die Anyway says

    > “the fact that life has meaning”
    Speaking of “meaning”, what does that even mean? I don’t consider it a ‘fact’ that life has meaning. Is there a Law of Meaningfulness that proves that life has meaning? Really, I hate these religious arguments that rely on wordplay with vague concepts.

    p.s. driving on the right is *right*. I know because I rented a car in Grand Cayman where they drive on the left and I found driving that way to be difficult to the point of being dangerous. ;-)

  3. johnhodges says

    Meaning is the story that you choose to join. There are many stories available, and if you don’t like any on offer, you can make up your own. The story that you choose to join does not have to include supernatural elements in order to give you meaning.

  4. says

    This reminded me of a joke Steven Pinker told in a talk he gave on his recent book about style in writing. (I found it again here: http://www.jokeindex.com/joke.asp?Joke=1940)

    As a senior citizen was driving down the freeway, his car phone rang. Answering, he heard his wife’s voice urgently warning him, “Herman, I just heard on the news that there’s a car going the wrong way on 280. Please be careful!”

    “Hell,” said Herman, “It’s not just one car. It’s hundreds of them!”

  5. says

    “There isn’t one side that is better or worse”

    As a person who grew up in the UK and maintains that citizenship (too), I can assure you that I always drive on the correct side of the road. This is in spite of you ex-colonists theoretically driving on the right side (rather than the correct side).
    Of course since I now live in Texas it really doesn’t make a ha’porth of difference to road safety.

  6. Kate Jones says

    Here’s the principle, ultimate, universal and objective:
    Drive without colliding, the do-no-harm directive.
    Local protocols evolved from ages ago
    (Just an ancient, well-spread meme, don’t you know),

    Whence right is right and good and clean and proper
    While left is gauche and dirty, wrong, a cropper,
    ‘Cause the right hand handles what you ate
    While the left hand’s used when you defecate.

    This sanitary metaphor has much effect:
    We shake with right hands to show respect,
    We place right hand on heart in loyalty,
    We raise right hand to swear with fealty.

    The root of “right” in sundry languages is found,
    And to correct and good and just and fair is bound.
    And all because at some point in the past
    For lack of soap the left as sinister was cast.

    And as for why the Brits veer to the left to ride,
    Well, they just sit and steer — haven’t you noticed? — on the dexter side!

  7. sailor1031 says

    ” since life is meaningful….”

    sez who? citation required, I think. As for driving where you please – this concept is already implemented in India.

  8. John Morales says

    sailor1031, you just quoted from the OP and then asked who said that!

    (Cuttlefish did)

    More seriously, meaning is necessarily a subjective thing.

    Which, BTW, is why I disapprove of the International Humanist and Ethical Union’s Minimum Statement on Humanism on the basis of one word (my emphasis): “Humanism is a democratic and ethical life stance, which affirms that human beings have the right and responsibility to give meaning and shape to their own lives. […]”.

    I don’t think I do have that responsibility, and they therefore don’t speak for me.

  9. sailor1031 says

    well I thought that CF was just quoting….I’m with you on the IHEU statement. I wonder if I can be arrested and imprisoned for my failure to take this responsibility they thrust upon us unasked? It’s my life and I’m the only one who can decide whether or not it has meaning. But then I’ve found it’s best, as far as possible, to ignore religious organizations – even the secular ones.

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