Mattering and Meaning

We were talking about meaning the other day. I read something in Daniel Dennett’s Consciousness Explained that seems relevant:

So the conscious mind is not just the place where the witnessed colors and smells are, and not just the thinking thing. It is where the appreciating happens. It is the ultimate arbiter of why anything matters…It stands to reason – doesn’t it? – that if doing things that matter depends on consciousness, mattering (enjoying, appreciating, suffering, caring) should depend on consciousness as well.

Mattering is about caring – therefore (surely?) meaning is related to caring – perhaps is another word for the same thing, or both words name the same thing but from different angles. I said much the same thing in the Comment – ‘Yes of course, we want to think our lives (hence the world they take place in) matter, have significance and importance, ‘mean’ something – something more than what they mean to us.’ Meaning is about what matters to us: what matters to us is what we care about. (At least, that seems to be part of what meaning is. I’m not claiming it’s an exhaustive account, and I don’t think it is, I think there’s more to it. But it’s a part.) All these words and ideas circle around a common knot or core. What is important and significant is what we care about, what matters to us, what means something to us. We could think of meaning, caring, importance, as sorting-devices: this item matters and that one doesn’t, because of what I care about, what is important to me. All a bit circular and subjective, obviously, but then that was my original point: that subjective is exactly what meaning is, and therefore it’s a bit of a dodge to claim that religion ‘gives’ meaning – it only gives it because we decide it does.

Caring is also interesting in a slightly different (though related) way: as motivation, as the engine that keeps our forward momentum going. This is (I take it) what Damasio is talking about in Descartes’ Error: people who have a kind of brain damage that impairs their ability to care even though it leaves cognitive abilities intact, can’t function properly. They don’t do anything, because they can’t decide among possibilities – even though they can understand and state pros and cons – because they don’t care. Indifference is a paralyzer, it seems. Which we all probably know from experience with depressed people or with depression. Depression plays hell with motivation.

We also know it because we know that ‘I don’t care’ can be a terrible, an appalling thing to say. It’s mildly rude even as an answer to trivial questions (What shall we make for dinner? Coffee or tea? Red or white?), and it’s brutality or worse as an answer to non-trivial questions or statements – ‘I’m frightened,’ ‘she needs help,’ ‘you hurt him when you said that,’ ‘there’s a genocide going on.’ Or for that matter ‘I love you,’ ‘she won first prize,’ ‘he’s safe.’ There’s a reason ‘Don’t care was made to care, don’t care was hanged’ was such a popular nursery saying. We need to care ourselves, and we need the people we care about to care too, or at least not to tell us they don’t. About some things we need everyone on the planet to care.

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