The Meaning Dodge

E.D. Kain on the fact that kids don't tend to make us measurably happier:

The happiness we experience from our children is lasting, constant, omnipresent, and far deeper than any material gain.  It is also hard, and frustrating, and the most tiring experience of my life, which makes it all that much more meaningful. 


Fact is, you can’t break this sort of thing down into a nice, scientific study.  It’s not so simply quantified.

It is not simply quantified. But perhaps it is quantifiable. So we should try to quantify it. Fact is, one can blather about meaning any time one's preferences or prejudices come under pressure from science. But in the end it's mostly irrelevant whether something is quantifiable or not. There are some things some people are going to do no matter what. So that's what I think those people should say: “I am going to do this no matter what.”

As I wrote in the ill-fated Culture11:

Appeals to meaning are nice, but they just push the lump in the rug. What's so great about meaning, anyway? For that matter, what is it? How does one validate that x is in fact meaningful, or more meaningful than y? If meaning is going to carry a justificatory load in weighty personal and political deliberation, we can't just wave our hands about it. Intellectual virtue requires care. We need to get started on measuring meaning. There are many questions. How much is meaning worth to us in terms of happiness? How much is happiness worth in terms of meaning? There are no doubt many and varied sources of meaning. With science on our side, we are sure to discover that some of them are corrosive to other of our cherished values while some enhance them. Then we'll be well-situated to say goodbye to toxic meaningfulness. Goodbye national identity? Goodbye God? Who knows what we might find? Science is a source of excitement as well as wonder.

I don't anticipate the new field of “meaning research” will be warmly received by those with a refined taste for meaning. Many of these fine folks say that the very attempt to measure happiness scientifically — not to mention the effort to put meaning itself under the microscope — saps life of… meaning. But how do you know? Anybody can say this. You can say it while waving a copy of The Closing of the American Mind. You can say it smoking a pipe. But it doesn't help. 

I am going to continue making this point no matter what.