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How we’re meaningless now: Projections vs. simulations

Back when I was a lad, we experienced the absurdity of life by watching as ordinary things in the world shed their meanings the way the Nazi who opens the chest in Raiders of the Lost Ark loses his skin: it just melts away.

In this experience of meaninglessness, though, what’s revealed is not some other layer beneath the surface, but the fact that all meaning is just something we make up and project over things that are indifferent to whatever we care to drape over them.

If you don’t happen to have a holy ark handy, you can experience this meaninglessness writ small by saying the word “ketchup” over and over until it becomes not a word but a sound. The magazine “Forbes” also works well for this exercise. Or, if you are a Nobel Prize winning writer and surprisingly consistently wrong philosopher like Jean Paul Sartre, perhaps a chestnut tree will reveal itself to you as utterly alien and resistant to the meaning we keep trying to throw on to it.

That was meaninglessness in the 1950s and on. Today we still manage to find our everyday world meaningless, but now we don’t see ourselves projecting meanings outwards but instead imagine ourselves to be in a computer simulation. Why? Because we pretty consistently understand ourselves in terms of our dominant tech, and these days the video cards owned by gamers are close to photo realistic, virtual reality is creating vivid spatial illusions for us, and AI is demonstrating the capacity of computers to simulate the hidden logic of real domains.

So now the source of the illusory meaning that we had taken for granted reveals itself not to be us projecting the world out from our skull holes but to be super-programmers who have created our experience of the world without bothering to create an actual world.

That’s a big difference. Projecting meaning only makes sense when there’s a world to project onto. The experience of meaninglessness as simulation takes that world away.

The meaninglessness we experience assigns the absurdity not to the arbitrariness that has led us to see the world one way instead of another, but to an Other whom we cannot see, imagine, or guess at. We envision, perhaps, children outside of our time and space playing a video game (“Sims Cosmos”), or alien computer scientists running a test to see what happens using the rules they’ve specified this time. For a moment we perhaps marvel at how life-like are the images we see as we walk down a street or along a forest path, how completely the programmers have captured the feeling of a spring rain on our head and shoulders but cleverly wasted no cycles simulating any special feeling on the soles of our feet. The whole enterprise – life, the universe, and everything – is wiped out the way a computer screen goes blank when the power is turned off.

In the spirit of the age, the sense of meaninglessness that comes from the sense we’re in a simulation is not despair, for it makes no difference. Everything is different but nothing has changed. The tree still rustles. The spring rain still smells of new earth. It is the essence of the simulation that it is full of meaning. That’s what’s being simulated. It’s all mind without any matter, unlike the old revelation that the world is all matter without meaning. The new meaninglessness is absurd absurdity, not tragic absurdity. We speculate about The Simulation without it costing a thing. The new absurdity is a toy of thought, not a problem for life.

I am not pining for my years suffering from attacks of Old School Anxiety. It was depressing and paralyzing. Our new way of finding the world meaningless is playful and does not turn every joy to ashes. It has its own dangers: it can release one from any sense of responsibility – “Dude, sorry to have killed your cat, but it was just a simulation” – and it can sap some of the sense of genuineness out of one’s emotions. But not for long because, hey, it’s a heck of a realistic simulation.

But to be clear, I reject both attempts to undermine the meaningfulness of our experience. I was drawn to philosophical phenomenology precisely because it was a way to pay attention to the world and our experience, rather than finding ways to diminish them both.

Both types of meaninglessness, however, think they are opening our eyes to the hollowness of life, when in fact they are privileging a moment of deprivation as a revelation of truth, as if the uncertainty and situatedness of meaning is a sign that it is illusory rather than it being the ground of every truth and illusion itself.

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