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.

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center

37 thoughts

  1. I guess I feel the same way about this as I do about everything you write, which is that you have made a massive bet, a bet based on your certainty considering certain scientific or pseudo-scientific claims– the ability of economic growth to deliver people out of poverty and into abundance, the ability of everything in life to be quantified, the ability of the human consciousness to escape the massive web of language in which its caught. You are so certain. But it's a big gamble. Often I wonder if you recognize how big.

  2. A “science of meaning” is an oxymoron. Modern science is a set of conceptual tools to screen out the axis of meaning from the cosmos, in order to interrogate it purely along the axis of cause/effect. All well and good, as long as you remember you can take the blinkers off once in a while.

  3. It is an argument not a bet. If one were to bet, they might discount based on p<1 of the argument being valid, but why do that in ordinary discourse, especially when (i) it's hard to quantify what you think p might be, and (ii) it doesn't affect the validity of the argument.

  4. Adam Gurri – Collector of Stories. Co-founder of Sweet Talk. Follow me on <a href="">Twitter</a> or at <a href="">my personal blog</a>.
    AdamGurri says:

    Fact is, one can blather about meaning any time one’s preferences or prejudices come under pressure from science.Ah yes, that blanket term, “science”.Walk with me for a minute here:There are a lot of problems with the methodology behind political polls. But when push comes to shove, one guy gets elected and one guy doesn't–so these polling agencies have a level of accountability for their results; it's pretty clear when they're mistaken and by how much for straightforward questions like who people are going to vote for.Studies involving “happiness” or “meaning” are subject to no such constraint. You don't really know when they get it wrong, and as a result they have no real reason to try and improve their accuracy. The only yardstick is what the mainstream studies have already said, so you either increase your odds of acceptance by ending up with similar results or you try something different on the offchance that you might be a trendsetter, or at least get some attention.Just because you perform a study that involves statistics and gets peer reviewed does not mean that the results are “science” putting “pressure” on some set of beliefs.Explain to me how a study of “happiness” or “meaning” could ever have the right incentives for those conducting to be held accountable for error.

  5. I don't know if I agree with you, but I prefer this sort of thing to muttering that auto bailouts are “flirting” with “in vitro fascism” (who flirts with embryos? Ewww. Methinks, the fascist Kochtopus has mixed his metaphors.)

  6. I am all for developing a, um, meaningful science of meaning if it provides me with some hard data to throw at every condescending twit that gives me the old “you'll feel different when you're older” when I mention my utter lack of interest in having children. Particularly given that I'm in my 30s.

  7. 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.”

    Then why should we try to quantify it? I just wonder if perhaps we're too quick in our attempt to replace philosophy with statistics. If people are going to have children no matter what, why even attempt to quantify how happy they will or will not be once they're parents? Is this the right question to even ask when pondering parenthood? Maybe. That's a question I feel better leaving up to philosophy than to science. Please, bring science to the hospital with you when you deliver my baby, when you administer care for my child….but I do not believe that meaning can ever be truly measured. There are limits to our understanding which inhibit our ability to bring science to the depths necessary to quantify all the universe….and there is no compelling reason I've heard so far in favor of quantifying meaning or happiness.

  8. I'm saying that YOUR point ought to be that you're going to do it no matter what. Lots of people care about what the science says. I know of people (including me) who take the happiness research into account when making choices about having kids. It may not get a lot of weight, but it gets some, and that can matter at the margin. There are no doubt limits to human understanding, but where that limit is is another damned empirical question. I think the probability that we've approached that limit when it comes to the mind or human subjectivity or morality or the conditions of human flourishing is approximately zero. I think science is hard, but it's just laziness or complacency to think the science of X is impossible or pointless. I think I'm trying to argue that your kind of typically conservative (intellectually, not politically) “mysterianism” is motivated by the assumption that if we actually learned something about a putatively ineffable subject matter, it might matter to how people live. Otherwise, why NOT just say, “I don't care what we learn, I'm going to do this?” Why else the undermotivated yet dogged attachment to unquantifiability?

  9. “I'm all for developing a meaningful science of genetics if it provides me with hard data to support my belief that I'm genetically superior to you.”Embarking on a line of inquiry to support a predetermined conclusion…this is “science”?

  10. I know this wasn't supposed to be a post about the happiness effect of having children, but isn't all such research utterly useless, since it can only do retrospective analysis on self-selected samples?

  11. What is so mysterious about the idea that we do it because it feels good now, and we don't really understand it's consequences until it's too late?

  12. Meaning, value, worth. An experience or item has meaning, value or worth “points” with very different scores for different people. Science deals in facts. Meaning is obviously a product of the very subjective opinions of those who look for meaning in whatever. The happiness one derives from the experience of raising kids (and it's accompanying “meaning”) fluctuates madly from one day (hour?) to the next. Is it rewarding? Another word that describes something too subjective to answer with any broad accuracy.I personally feel that my children are 2 of the best things that have ever happened to me. Can I measure my emotions? Would someone else with the same children or same experiences as me feel the same? No.

  13. I understand that, Will – and wow, nobody has ever leveled the “mysterian” charge against me before; I'm going to have to track down John Derbyshire for that one – but the point is happiness and meaning are both extraordinarily subjective. I can't imagine even being able to properly set up a study unbiased enough to truly quantify either; thus we inevitably leave the realm of science and enter the realm of “self-help.” After all, just about every self-help book out there is based on some “study” of happiness and then uses that study to give directions on how to create meaning and happiness to our lives. Are these manifestos all rooted in bad science, or is this one area where the science is simply not plausible or applicable?This might be laziness on my part, sure. I just place a whole lot less value on the “soft” sciences compared to the “hard” ones, and when we begin placing scientific values on happiness we're sure to be utilizing the softest of soft-sciences in order to make such claims. It strikes me that the best the soft sciences can do is shed some light on a murky subject; they are anything but definitive.

  14. Will, I'm trying to absorb your argument in as clear-eyed a way as possible, but it's hard when you seem to take so much relish in tweaking us parents. We “blather” about meaning while you judiciously subject your decision about whether to have kids to the evidence of science. We're “fine folks” while you're out there taking intellectual care. The implicit meaning of rhetoric is, in theory at least, empirically knowable, and my guess is that, if we had access to a mature science of implicit meaning decryption, we'd find that you're saying a bit more than you're saying you're saying.I think that your explicit point is that we can, in theory, measure something like whether having children is a net positive in terms of meaning, but I feel in my bones that there's an implicit argument that's saying that you're pretty sure, in your smarty pants science-y bones, that once we have such a science, we'll discover that it says what the happiness research already says, which is that parenting kinda sucks. Or, to put it another way, is it possible to make your point without being so smug about it?

  15. Daniel's post is great. Let me add to it by saying that parenting “kinda sucks” in the same way that building your own house, garden or career does. The end product can be terrific or it can be incredibly frustrating. The “journey” can be maddening at times and greatly satisfying at others. All true and all very subjective.

  16. Breeders?! Reg-u-LATE!Having kids sucks. Sex stops. Spontaneity vanishes. It's draining. And I wouldn't trade my two daughters for all the tea in China.

  17. Will, in order to maximize your utility in old age you must have the most number of children you can afford to have. Which is not just a pure money equation, and has always been true for all men across time. For our civilization, children provide company, comfort, protection, and security when we are too old to care for ourselves, they are an insurance policy against lonely senior years, and at times a lottery ticket on our personal hopes and dreams we are unable to acquire. Everything else is a cost or external benefit. The total cost of having an additional child from day to day is actually quite small thanks to economies of scale, and considering the possibility of a huge long term payoff for most people it is one of their most important assets. In the first world we have some alternative programs that one could consider, but they probably aren't as good.

  18. There should be more discussion of meaning, but I'm not sure studies or 'science' are going to tell us all that much.What's meaningful to one person (say, writing the Great American Novel) might be boring and an utter chore to someone else.People find meaning in a myriad of different ways (having children, doing good deeds to get into heaven, ranting on the internet, devoting copious amounts of time to a spouse, devoting copious amounts of time to a business or career, etc.)Most of the elemental things in life trace back to a search for meaning. People should be more aware of this and how this affects their behavior and choices.

  19. Does intellectual virtue allow you to assume that everything real can be quantified- that is, that differences in quality do not exist?

  20. On Aaron's point, I forgot to ask a question that occurred to me when I first read your piece in Culture11. Can you elaborate on what you meant when you wrote, “There is certainly more than one way of winning an argument, but there's just one way of knowing: the empirical way.”This seems to mean, in the context of the article, that the only way of knowing something is to verify it through the scientific method, and that anyone who says he knows something in the absence of strong, scientifically sound evidence, is essentially blathering, but that seems like an awfully arguable point to make in such a knowing way. Haven't philosophers been arguing about the nature of knowledge, and the different kinds of knowledge, and what if any access we have to knowledge, for thousands of years? Did I miss the memo where that debate was resolved?

  21. There is something incredibly eerie about quantifying the decision to have children, and there is a similar eeriness about quantifying human happiness and meaning. Questions about meaning are many thousands of years old, and still, fortunately for the diversity of humanity and world literature, unresolved. As for happiness studies, if there is one thing certain from science during the past five hundred years it is that whatever quantification of happiness results from the current studies, it will be found to be utterly wrong five hundred years from now. If we've gotten physics wrong at least three times by the most brilliant minds on the planet, how much more likely will it be that we will get the quantification of happiness wrong?This is not an argument to stop happiness studies (because they are illuminating, to say the least) , or to stop the multi-millennia ruminations about meaning. However, it is an argument that solutions to the human predicament or quantifying human happiness are part of the never-ending, wonderful conversation of philosophy, without permanent resolution. The study of humanity is not the study of sterile mathematics. Those of us who believe it is, are sometimes regarded as being, “eerie.”

  22. “I know of people (including me) who take the happiness research into account when making choices about having kids.”I've got to say, this is a troubling proposition.Whether meaning and (your) happiness can be truly quanitified is irrelevant. What can be quantified is the eradication of your particular genetic makeup from the human species. I agree that the “meaning” rebuttal is a dodge, but to ask that proponents of reproduction admit they are “just going to do it anyway,” happiness be damned, is to dismiss the biological rationale (i.e. the science) for reproduction to begin with. Many of us accept reproduction as a necessary component of life – and we understand the consequences of large-scale circumvention – of reproduction (and by default natural selection) by a specific group of people.What you are advocating for is an acceptance of the happiness research into the decision making process on human reproduction. What you are (unintentionally) causing is the increased likelihood that these people who accept the research don't reproduce, terminating their inclusion in the human gene pool. I don't see how this aids your long-term project in slightest.Maybe this is where E.D. Kain's “meaning” discussion belongs. There is a clear, scientific meaning to reproduction (to reproduce.) When we focus on outcomes outside this meaning to justify our decision to not participate in reproduction, we invite the prospects of unintended consequences. Imagine if a large portion of the community of scientists and empiricists took the happiness research at face value, determined that their individual happiness could be improved (or at least not negatively affected) if they chose not to have children, decreasing the overall birthrates amongst scientisits/empiricists at some statistically significant level versus the rest of the population. Then 25 years later we wonder where all the young scientists are. There are somethings, biologically, that we are intended to do. Keep it simple and do them; eat, breathe, and make babies.

  23. I don't know, I think that a lot of the cheerleaders of “science” have a tendency to view it as a way of deciding facts, of ending speculation, of becoming certain. Which is not how I find it to be at all. It seems to be more about becoming less and less certain over time. Finding out how much you just don't know. But that doesn't mean it's pointless, because it does expand our understanding in very crucial ways, but it's easy to get a big head about it and pretend you understand something more than you actually do.In regards to meaning, I find that it is literally a “personal narrative”. It's a person's place in a story, the story of their lives. It's an interpretation of the events in one's life as having to do with something bigger than themselves. It's an important part of a person, the ability to create meaning, the lack of which can be seen all around us in a world where such things are taken for granted, even actively suppressed.

  24. Will, like a lot of people here, I'm just having a hard time wrapping my head around this.Say there's a study that says kids, without question, tend to make people less happy.This study would not affect my decision to have children. Is this your point? That I need to be up front about this?A second question: isn't this 'meaning dodge' really just a play on the ambiguity in the notion of “happiness”? I think what most people are reacting to here is the idea that there is any quantifiable or otherwise reasonably concrete notion of happiness–one that holds, not only across diverse individuals, but across…ahem…time slices of the same individual. I'm just having a hard time understanding the notion of happiness outside of some notion of time. If you asked me if my kids made me happy, my response would probably change depending on what day it is. The same can be said of any long-term project–philosophy, for example.

  25. “Meaning” is a nonsense place-holder world. We can talk about the varieties of emotional significance involved in certain activities, but to say that you do something because it is meaningful is about as informative as saying that opium puts people to sleep because of its dormitive virtue. The science of happiness is just beginning, and the science of emotions hasn't moved much past the limbic system theory, so there's plenty of areas to be mined as long as people don't get skittish when we encroach on that last area of secular mysticism: meaning.

  26. Most of the things that provide meaning are hard. The fact that they are hard is part of what gives them meaning. If something's easy, it feels meaningless. Nevertheless, things that are hard are often frustrating and filled with irritation– see raising children, for one– and so we are forced to the view that what makes us happy is having achieved something meaningful which, by definition, made us unhappy most of the way.Now measure that.

  27. I think what's more important here is the idea that meaning leads to purpose leads to motivation leads to action. I've consistently seen the vast majority of those who fail in life and are unhappy lack purpose. The real debate comes when discussing our individual and collective interpretation of purpose and whether that purpose serves the cause of “good” or “evil”. Charles Manson had purpose. So, most importantly for individuals and society is finding meaning and deriving purpose which motivates us to “do good”. That generic statement applies to all and it's up to us to figure out our own details.

  28. Will,I'd be interested in your take on Charles Murray's speech to the American Enterprise Institute. Here is a (notorious) quantifier employing the “meaning dodge” to defend politics you're sympathetic to. If you are going to defend liberty, even when it comes in conflict with satisfaction, then don't you have to distinguish the good life from the pleasurable life?John Stuart Mill tells you it's better to be Socrates unsatisfied than a pig satisfied. Are you saying Mill's “better” is just an arbitrary preference or that it is an arbitrary preference unless someone comes up with a way of measuring it?

  29. Wil, a few points.1. Happiness is not the only thing which is intrinsically valuable. There are other things like striving and struggling and acting and other experience independent stuff which is intrinsically valueable. I don't think I have to rehash Nozick's experience machine argument for everyone here right?2. We may or may not be able to quantify how much we value these things. Given that we find a variety of things meaningful, is there any way to compare these things with eachother.3. what is the use of these studies? None of us are the average person. The rationality of the action depends on how much the action satsifies your values/ meanings vis a vis other actions. Maybe if the science found a way to quantify how much we value various different kind of stuff, discovered how much different courses of action fulfilled those values, then weighted everything and churned out a reccomendation, you would have a much more quantified decision procedure.4. Will you have to show how that a world where suh a procedure is used ubiquituously is actually a better state of affairs than one where it isnt.

  30. I don't think there is any special problem with quantifying the value that people put on having children. You add up the values of the various things they give up in order to have children (income, leisure time, health, and so on) just like you would for any other good.The problem here is just that a lot of people say that children pay off in terms of happiness, but happiness research isn't showing that. Perhaps this is because a lot of people have false expectations about what will make them happy (often the case). However, it also might be that a lot of people are using the term 'happiness' in a different way to happiness researchers (also often the case).That would explain all the hand waving about 'meaning'. The hand wavers are really trying to say “well you might not get *that* kind of happiness out of having children, but there are still lots of other good things you get.”Meanwhile I'm curious about an entirely different point. Presumably we are all down with the idea that more money will make us happier. And we know that having children involves taking a huge financial hit. And apparently having children turns out to be a wash in terms of happiness, or perhaps a slight negative. Doesn't it follow that, ceteris paribus, having children will make you happier? It has to be adding enough happiness (perhaps nearly) make up for the huge financial loss.

  31. What is all of this about? Why does any of this matter? Why should anyone have a problem with people wanting to study how often certain actions bring more happiness on the one hand, and on the other, why should we doubt a person who reports deriving happiness or a valued type of meaning from parenting or any other activity? Is this all just about natalist policies? If we concede that point, is there any issue here whatsoever?

  32. Well I know only one meaning of this dodge word. I found it many times in games especially and it mean avoidance or something similar. Here is another good example that a few games are making good also and not only bad as many people say.

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