Rigor: Very quickly written.  I'm sure there's some academic work out there I missed, but I haven't yet found the right terminology. Comments with links appreciated.
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I think it's pretty clear that there's a big difference between:

  1. The "feeling of meaning": A cluster of specific emotional feelings people have of "meaning" (i.e. "meaning of life") [1]
  2. "Objective meaning". "Meaning" in the universe; or, "objective value". [2]

For example, someone who believes in a false religion might experience great emotional fulfillment by engaging in religious rituals. This could be deeply satisfying and greatly increase their well-being.

But later, if they were to deconvert, these feelings would be lost, even if they were to undergo the same ritual. It might be even worse; perhaps they'd associate the ritual with bad things now (lots of wasted time and what they feel as deception), and feel active displeasure around it.

Here, they experienced the meaning feeling, but not objective meaning.

Strangely, these two definitions seem to get conflated all the time.


  • "My relationships with my family made it clear what the meaning of the universe is."
  • "What our world needs more is more 'meaning', and this meaning will lead to dramatically more well-being. We have a meaning crisis."

I think it seems pretty clear[3] that (do feel free to push back in the comments):

  1.  The meaning feeling is a clear set of emotional states that exist in the brain. There's no magical link to some other entity in the universe or something.
  2. The meaning feeling has pretty obvious evolutionary purposes, and I'm very sure was evolved due to regular evolutionary pressure (to say otherwise would be quite provocative, scientifically).
  3. The meaning feeling clearly exists in lots of situations that are not objective meaning; arguably, the two are almost completely decoupled. ISIS recruits seem to experience a whole lot of meaning feeling in their work, for example, and so do the people fighting ISIS recruits.
  4. The meaning feeling is a really big deal! It probably makes up a great deal of human well-being for many people.

If this take can be accepted, I feel like it would lead to some interesting scientific and humanitarian questions. Like:

  1. What sorts of belief systems and cultures work best to maximize "meaning feeling", particularly in ways that strike a good compromise of strong epistemics? Can these benefits be measured?
  2. How exactly did "meaning feeling" evolve, and for what situations did it evolve for?
  3. Do people often resist the truth in order to keep on experiencing "meaning feeling"? For example, an advanced religious practitioner might experience a large decline upon deconversion. Can the expected emotional loss of "meaning feeling" be estimated, to help give a specific cost to an epistemic transition?
  4. How easy would it be to just technically induce "meaning feeling" in the brain?


[1] I think this might be part of what Eliezer calls "fuzzies", though I'm not sure if I find the term intuitive for this, as I see "fuzzies" often used for the "lighter pleasures".

[2] This is sometimes called an "ontological" truth in Philosophy.

Also, note that this definition of "meaning" is really weird. Like, people dramatically disagree about it, so on average people are dramatically wrong. It seems very possible that no human now is anywhere near smart or wise enough to understand if this is real, let alone what it really looks like. If you were to try to imagine what this meaning is, I have a picture of some bizarre lovecraftian alien from a separate dimension.

[3] This arguably assumes an athiest worldview with a certain epistemology (the LessWrong/EA epistemology would count)


5 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 11:11 PM
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Hey Ozzie, I've thought about this a little before and wrote about it here if you're interested! :)

Thanks! Good to see you also had similar ideas.

Yes I'm also interested in the feeling of having a purpose is important for well being. I think it's tied to social bonds. Since we evolved as pack animals we've evolved to want to serve a purpose in a group. As our societies has expanded our ideas of purpose has become more broad and we can know feel purpose in widely different things. But it still seems to be tied social bonds. Like with religion being part of the community gives the sense of meaning.

"Purposefulness" seems to be close to the meaning-feeling you explained, and though objective states can be described, those descriptions cannot in-and-of-themselves become normative statements ("better", "should",...). Does that sound close to a 'why?' for the difference between meaning-feeling and objective meaning - that "objective meaning cannot be converted on its own into meaning-feeling" due to the normative/declarative split?

I also see meaning-feeling wrapped in myths and expectation, while objective meaning concentrates on accurate metrics. While the two seemed a division between 'human/machine' thinking, we now have machines which are beginning to form vague intuitions and biases, expectations and myths.

Meaning-feeling may be less of an evolutionary necessity, and more an unintentional byproduct of a brain's attempt to find patterns. That is, because "finding pattern => usually a reward", our brains AND machine ones are biased toward pattern-seeking. Spurious correlations are common, as a result, though Darwin often lets them be.

I have a suspicion that even our greatest artificial intelligences will fall into many of our mental traps, because these stumbling blocks are a byproduct of statistical illusions, not evolution or perverseness. An example I keep in mind is Kahneman & Tversky's research on Israeli pilots. (Their instructors swore that punishment improved performance, though that improvement was really just a regression toward pilots' mean performance, after a bad day!)

Is this near to what you were saying?

"Purposefulness" is basically the same term, though it seems to often conflate the two definitions I pointed to.

Take this article on purpose, for example:

Select quotes:
"The Profound Psychological Benefits Of A Purposeful Life"

"A growing body of research finds that purpose in life leads to greater emotional and physical health, including increased happiness and enhanced work productivity."

"We can think of purpose as an organizing force in life, channeling our thoughts, feelings, and efforts. Indeed, the research review finds that purpose “is a central component of most leading conceptions of optimal human development and psychological well-being” (pp 15-16). For example, purpose fosters optimism and hope, as well as life satisfaction and positive social relationships."

"It may well be that it is purpose that enables us to access the hidden energy reserves of sisu and weather the risk and uncertainty that are intrinsic to navigating financial markets."

In each case, they refer to "emotional meaning", not "objective meaning", but they never bring up this distinction (and this is an incredibly important distinction!), and the word "purpose" can easily refer to either (I'm sure many readers will assume it means objective meaning).

those descriptions cannot in-and-of-themselves become normative statements

Yep, agreed. Though to be more clear, I think the feeling gives us almost no information about  objective meaning; it's not just the fact that it's a "loose" one.

objective meaning concentrates on accurate metrics

I think we directionally agree, but would flag that even our best metrics might only touch upon anything objective. This might require moral realism and a bunch of other very specific philosophical things to be true. 

Meaning-feeling may be less of an evolutionary necessity, and more an unintentional byproduct of a brain's attempt to find patterns

I don't think this would explain the reason why it feels so good. Generally, things that feel good, feel good for reasons.