Overall, I am impressed with Baumeister and von Hippel’s analysis in this essay (this issue), but I am less satisfied in “the special issue of applying meaning to life, culminating in the modern existential debates about the meaning and purpose of life itself.” Yes, human lives are full of meaning because only humans are meaning-seeking and meaning-making beings living in a world of meaning; but millions of people still suffer from a sense of meaninglessness and I have witnessed this deficiency in existential meaning almost daily in my clients. In this commentary, I raise a number of issues related to the meaning of life and propose a two-factor model of search for meaning as an alternative way to understand meaning and evolution.

Is personal sacrifice necessary for achieving meaning?

Reading Baumeister’s paper on meaning and evolution (this issue) immediately brings to my mind Jordan Peterson’s recent book on meaning of life (Peterson 2018). It also reminds me of the International Conference on Personal Meaning (International Network on Personal Meaning and Meaning of Life, 2008) when I invited both Baumeister and Peterson to speak in a symposium on the nature of evil.

It is amazing how two social psychologists can both start from evolution biology but end with completely different conclusions regarding human evil and meaning of life. Baumeister’s analysis is at the level of humans as cultural animals, while Peterson’s analysis is at the level of humans as spiritual/religious beings (Wong 1991).

Peterson argued that human beings are by nature religious and spiritual in order to survive in a world full of dangers and uncertainty. Meaning primarily comes from the everyday heroism of taking responsibility for making the necessary sacrifice and aiming at the greater Good in the face of widespread evil.

The recent massive protest in Hong Kong is a case in point. In a CBS 60 Minutes report (CBS 2019), Holly Williams asked newspaper publisher Jim Lia why he took part in the protest, which cost him millions of dollars in advertising money. His answer: “I take the responsibility to fight because this gives me a meaning to my life.”

In a nutshell, the protest in Hong Kong, primarily by young people, can be best understood in term of their willing to sacrifice their personal safety and future to take a stand for a free Hong Kong against the increasing totalitarian control from Beijing. I am wondering how Baumeister’s animal model would explain this paradoxical behavior of finding meaning through personal sacrifice for the greater good.

Is there a connection between evil and meaning?

The elegance of Peterson’s model is that it can place both evil and meaning through the same evolved mechanism of protecting our own vulnerability as finite and fragile human beings in the face of an infinite, powerful force and awareness that “pain and suffering define the world” (Peterson 2018).

Peterson argues that one has the freedom and responsibility to choose either (a) intentionally making the necessary personal sacrifice and aiming at the highest good as a spiritual/religious person or (b) following the primitive instinct of “fight or freeze” reflex as an ape in a tuxedo.

To Peterson, evil is the conscious attempt to attack others with anger and arrogance in order to overcome one’s own vulnerability and insecurity, even when it means sacrificing millions of innocent lives as in the case of Hitler or Stalin. Peterson declares that sacrificing oneself voluntarily to serve the common good is the necessary and sufficient condition for existential meaning.

There seems to be a missing link in Baumeister & von Hippel’s analysis in explaining one’s search for meaning and one’s murderous impulse. There appears to be a blind spot in overlooking existential meaning in their focus on cognitive meaning. Their computer model has the same limitation as their animal model with respect to the human quest for meaning.

Do we need a high view of human nature?

Carrying the logic of the computer model to its extreme would be Yuvah Noah Harari’s controversial book Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (2018); it gives us a chilling future when dataism becomes our new god and our faith will be placed in the power of data processing & algorithms. “Having raised humanity above the beastly level of survival struggles, we will now aim to upgrade humans into gods and turn Home sapiens into Homo Deus,” Harari boldly declares.

Both Gordon Allport and Viktor Frankl have pointed out that the unique human quality of a human being were disregarded by the machine model or animal model (Allport 1981; Frankl 1988). I want to echo their view that it matters whether we take a high or low view of human nature.

Without a high view of humanity, with its unique human dimension of responsibility, self-transcendence and spirituality, our worse fears will come true – we will either have a planet of apes with dark destructive instincts and computer-assisted god-like intelligence, or a totalitarian state that controls every aspect of our thoughts and behaviors with AI and robots. In both scenarios, how do people find meaning and purpose if humans are nothing but animals and machines?

What is meaning?

This complex question can be answered in many ways (Wong 2012b). For example, Peterson identified three levels of analysis: (1) At the first level, meaning emerges to help us understand what happens in our everyday routine. (2) At the second level, meaning emerges because of our encounter with something negative, unexpected and threatening, resulting in frustration, anger and anxiety. Meaning emerges in overcoming obstacles, conflicts and re-examining cherished beliefs. (3) At the final level, meaning emerges because our beliefs and endeavours are no longer adequate, setting the stage for exploration, imagination and creating metanarratives in order to restore meaning (Peterson 1999).

The present authors only focus on information and the main thrust of their analysis is on “a new kind of resource” that enhances survival and adaptation. Their cognitive emphasis fails to address Peterson’s two higher levels of meaning and seems less relevant to the application of meaning to life than Baumeister’s earlier formulation of meaning in life in terms of purpose, value, efficacy and self-worth (Baumeister 1991).

Towards the end the essay under review, they again emphasized that “meaning is a powerful resource that minds evolved to understand and use to master their environment”. The need for prediction and control and organization is indeed important for the human as an information agent and a lay scientist, but the human as a lay philosopher or religious believer is missing in their analysis.

I propose that meaning of life may be unique for each person, but it always involves these four essential elements:

1) Purpose – the life goal perceived as fulfilling something worthwhile and greater than oneself.

2) Understanding – the cognitive awareness of the intrinsic and extrinsic value of one’s action.

3) Responsibility – the conviction that one has the social obligation, moral accountability and needed efficacy to pursue a certain goal within a community.

4) Evaluation/Enjoyment – the positive evaluation of having done something that increases one’s self-worth and life satisfaction.

It is self-evident that Wong’s PURE model (Wong 2012a) of meaning incorporate Baumeister’s four needs for meaning (Baumeister 1991) and provides a fertile ground for meaning applications and interventions (Wong 2017). I am eager to learn from the authors whether there is a more comprehensive definition about the basic constituents of meaning.

Meaning is real

The present authors made a good case that meaning is not physically real in the same sense as rocks or trees, but real nevertheless in “the causal power of ideas.” Meaning is useful as an idea or plan before it materializes in physical reality.

Their analysis can also be applied to deeply rooted spiritual yearnings and beliefs of human beings, which are powerful sources of meaning and adaptation evolved since the beginning of Homo Sapiens. Spiritual meaning is real, and faith is rational and necessary to fill gaps of information.

Both Miller and Routledge provide compelling empirical evidence that meaning in life depends on our belief that there is more to reality than the material world (Miller 2013; Routledge 2018); furthermore, supernatural beliefs and feelings of transcendence are an important source for meaning. I wonder why the present authors paid so little attention to spirituality – the uniquely human dimension. I also wonder how they would explain that the spiritual practice of worship and prayer in terms of animal instincts.

A two-factor model of search for meaning

I propose that one cannot understand the meaning of life without knowing the difference between two types of search for meaning, which together enable us to survive and flourish:

(1) Negatively oriented search for meaning – the Why and How questions that increase our ability to understand the cause and reason of unpleasant & unexpected events in order to meet our needs to predict, control and justify them. It represents the lay scientist and lay philosopher in each of us (Wong 1991; Wong and Weiner, 1981).

(2) Positively oriented search for meaning – the What questions that fulfill our responsibility to do the right thing and pursuing the right life purpose according to our beliefs, conscience, and abilities. It represents the moralist (saint) and idealist (dreamer) in each of us (Frankl 1985; Wong 2016).

The cry of “Why” could be heard from our ancestors: Why is my child taken by a beast? Why is God angry with by punishing us with natural calamities? This cry for meaning has never stopped.

In real life, a moment of rude awakening is needed for transformation. Most people just go about their daily business until they are unexpectedly awakened to the dark side of human existence ؘ– the horrors of human evil, suffering and death.

The “Why” questions of “Why is life so painful?” will push people to search for a reason or purpose for living. One does not need to understand of use the word meaning to live a meaningful life. The reality of life and the human nature conspire to nudge us to search for a deeper and more fulfilling way of life.

Baumeister and colleagues have documented that bad is stronger than good (2000). Our cognitive negative bias is more adaptive value than focusing on the positive. I believe that this is still true even in affluent society because we still have to contend with all kinds of evil and suffering in our lives (Wong 2019b).

Frankl often quotes Nietzsche that “to live is to suffer, to suffer is to find some meaning in the suffering.” Thus, one’s search for meaning most likely originated in one’s natural need of discovering the cause and meaning of suffering. Paradoxically, all the research has shown that the only life purpose that can give them meaning and fulfillment is some goal that is bigger than oneself and is worth dying for (Frankl 1988; Wong 2012c).

Future research needs to explore the role of negatively oriented search of meaning in achieving meaning and wellbeing. We also need to explore the interplay between these two types of search for meaning as suggested by Wong’s dual-system process of wellbeing (2012c) and conception of meaning as walking the tightrope between good and evil (Peterson 2018).

Works Cited

Note: the references and entire text are in Chicago style formatting since this review was submitted to Evolutionary Studies in Imaginative Culture.

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Wong, P. T. P. (2020). Meaning and evil and a two-factor model of search for meaning [Review of the essay Meaning and Evolution, by R. Baumeister & W. von Hippel]. Evolutionary Studies in Imaginative Culture, 4(1), 63-67. DOI: 10.26613/esic/4.1.170