The Law of Probability (part one)
My apologies for the delay in this blog being written. I came down with the nasty flu and it somewhat wiped me out.
So, where did I leave off last time? There is an infinite number of experiences (contexts) that are possible throughout our lives and the meaning of our lives continues to unfold (all be at a slower pace) even after we have departed. There is no central truth or meaning that will make all the experiences that come after meaningless, quite the reverse because infinite context means infinite possible meaning or meanings. Hopefully that provides a useful summary.
Before I explain The Law of Probability I need to provide a working definition for what is meant by meaning itself and I can do so via another personal experience.
What is Meant by Meaning
That was a chapter title in one of Viktor Frankl’s books I read over and over soon after I had read Man’s Search for Meaning. I had actually been struggling to grasp the previous chapter when I saw this title and while it excited me (it felt like the “truth” was just around the corner) I did not have the mental energy to read it straight away. I found it necessary to read Frankl’s work one chapter at a time so my unconscious mind could absorb its content, a little like my stomach needs time to absorb the food I eat.
Throughout my life I have frequently woken at 2-3am with a sudden burst of meaning. It was often a sense of connection to an idea, theme or hypothesis that felt very real and very alive. The struggle was to interpret what felt important into a thought or series of ideas that were useful to me and potentially others. I would go as far as to say I have managed the conversion from “felt meaning” to “thought meaning” about 20% of the time. Although I do feel I have strengthened my capacity to achieve this as I have aged and by following another principle I learnt from Frankl - that it is often important to remain patient and not force the meaning out but to let it evolve in its own time.
Some days passed before I read the chapter titled “What is Meant by Meaning”. At that time in my life I was a house husband (I learnt more about myself by performing this role than in nearly all of the other roles put together). The book sat on a chair in the living room and each day seemed to call out to me. I was eager to read it because I was sure some major truth lay in the pages of that chapter. After all it was entitled “What is Meant by Meaning”. The excitement grew and grew but I also knew I needed to set aside a good 2-3 hours to read it.
Eventually an afternoon came, my lovely daughter Hannah was having an afternoon nap and I couldn’t wait anymore so I settled down with pen in hand to read it. Well, I read, and read and read. Ten pages, then twenty, then forty and finally got to page fifty. At the time most of the chapters’ meaning was lost on me because I was searching for a specific and enduring truth that I felt I must find, otherwise how could Frankl justify such a title. Then came the killer line, after some 51 pages of tough, brain challenging, reading Frankl wrote the words “the meaning is what is meant by any given experience”.
I sat shocked and said out loud “is that it!” I couldn’t believe it, all that effort for that. I literally threw the book across the room in disgust and stormed out. I wandered up and down the back garden pondering what that seemingly simple phrase meant – it just didn’t make sense and felt underwhelming. I was then snapped out of my personal procrastination by my daughter and promptly resumed my most important role – that of chief carer.
The next day was Wednesday and that meant a morning walk. I did the walking and Hannah was in the back pack, generally bashing my head with a wet soggy biscuit, as we wandered out into the country lanes. When I look back I think these walks were my most favourite of times as a house dad, I would chat to Hannah about what I saw and she would contribute with her wonderful gurgle (she was around 7-8 months old). On this particular day I was ranting about the chapter I had read the day before, trying to get my head around what it all meant. After a while I didn’t feel I was getting anywhere and so went back to my normal routine of describing what I was seeing, hearing and feeling to Hannah and passing her up leaves and sticks to look at (and often try to eat but don’t tell her mum). Then I was hit by a sense of unconscious understanding, a strong sense of what Frankl was getting at bubbled up from deep in my brain. “Of course” I thought – it did make sense and while the statement (“the meaning is what is meant by any given experience”) seemed so simple at the time I now believe it is one of the most powerful statements I have ever read. I felt a fool to have not understood the beauty of the definition and it was the deeply meaningful walking experience I was having with Hannah that shifted my thinking.
Over time I have come to interpret Frankl’s definition as promoting the idea that for any human being to find meaning two elements are needed. Without them both no meaning can be found:
The human … what I will term “I” or the “self”
The experience … what I term “do” or the “context”
To fully understand what a person’s life means I must understand the person and the context (the experiences that have shaped their life). I cannot remove the person from the context in some hope that I will see their true and enduring self. Quite the alternative, I must place the person in multiple contexts if I ever have hope of understanding them or what their life means. We can certainly describe the traits of a person but those traits become “real” when we see those traits in action.
I have also altered the original statement that Frankl wrote to: “the meaning is what we discover and shape when we go forth into the world and experience it”. Humans automatically seek to make sense (find meaning) in all the life experiences they have – it is one of the most fundamental tasks of the human brain and will happen unconsciously unless we choose to conscious influence it.
Next week I will define and discuss what I mean by the Law of Probability.