42 October 12, 2014

If you were watching “Jeopardy” and this title were the answer, your question would of course be, “What is The Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything?”  As we’ll see, this answer may actually be as good as any other that someone might offer.

Obscure literary allusions aside, what is the meaning of life?  For behavior analysts, the answer may be found by answering another question: How must we search for an answer to the first question?

What is the meaning of anything?

It may help to reduce this question further: What is meaning?  We have been given a guide (hint about the title) by B. F. Skinner in his discussion of operationism (Skinner, 1945).  In this famous paper, he is writing about our verbal behavior, but let’s not get into the weeds quite yet.

First, is there meaning without verbal behavior?  If the earth were not populated by human beings – verbal ones, anyway – would things have meaning?  Would the events assured by physical laws mean something?  What does it mean when the sun rises or a tree falls or the snow comes down?  Does it mean something when a stoplight turns red?  When we eat an ice cream cone?  When a newborn baby cries?  Is there meaning in the events of everyday life?

Our unschooled inclination is to insist that these ordinary events do indeed mean something.  When the sun rises, it means the earth is turning on its axis. When it is snowing, it means that it is too cold to rain.  When a stoplight turns red, it means we’re supposed to stop.  When a baby cries, it means it is probably experiencing aversive stimuli.

But, where does such meaning come from?  Doesn’t it come from asking the questions in the first place?  If there were no one to ask and answer such questions, would there still be meaning attached to these events?  On an earth devoid of human beings, there would just be events, but no one around to ask about their meaning.  There would be no meaning because it is entirely an aspect of our verbal repertoire.

True, you could argue that the meaning of an event is simply its cause and effect – its relationship to other events.  In this sense, the meaning of the sun rising would lie in the rotation of the earth on its axis.  From this perspective, every event would have a meaning, but it isn’t saying much to make this argument.  All this position does is redefine every physical event as a meaning of some sort.  And look who is making this argument – verbal humans!

Back to meaning as verbal behavior

So, absent our verbal behavior, there would be no questions about meaning or anything else, just events.  In other words, we can’t talk about meaning without talking about verbal behavior.  When someone asks about what something means, acceptable answers are inevitably in the form of verbal behavior.  The meaning of anything seems to take the form of what someone says.

As discussed in Chapter 2, among other places in the book, the issue of what we mean when we talk or write has always been a big problem for psychologists, not to mention everyone else, especially when the topic is human nature.  Skinner’s solution was nothing short of brilliant, though endlessly challenging to those who aren’t prepared – or inclined – to play his game.  The trick is to define meaning without involving more verbal behavior, especially of the mentalistic variety.  A previous post titled, “What I hear you saying” (June 1, 2014) reviewed the basics, so I won’t go very far here.  The essence of his position is that the meaning of our verbal behavior lies in the controlling contingencies.  The meaning of our verbal behavior is not in a searchable lexicon or some kind of logical or mental domain, but solely in its environmental influences.  What we mean when we emit a bit of verbal behavior, whether a little or a lot, has everything to do with our contingency history for engaging in such behavior.  (If you’re confused at this point, read that earlier post.)

This approach to meaning is frustrating for everyday purposes because it is awkward and laborious, however scientifically sound and enlightening it may be.  Nevertheless, this methodology is required if we are to avoid the quicksand of mentalism.  Besides, it really is brilliant, and it works.  Although it leaves the vernacular sense of meaning entirely behind, it reveals the influences on our verbal behavior in a way that is ultimately satisfying, at least to the intellectually curious.  To everyone else, it is merely a meaningless way of figuring out what we mean.

So, what is the meaning of life?

The question here concerns what it is we asking about.  What is the reason for my existence?  What difference does my life make?  How should I live my life?  These are some of the usual “meaning of life” mysteries, rendered in everyday dialect.  Not surprisingly, the focus of such queries isn’t very clear or specific, which doesn’t help people find broadly accepted answers.

Of course, in a fundamental sense questions about our existence can be answered by biology realities.  We exist as a result of well-understood biological processes summarized by the concept of evolution.  Most would find this kind of answer unsatisfying, however.  We know how we got here, but few would find this a satisfactory explanation of why we’re here.

As behavior analysts, we escape the unyielding elusiveness of these questions assured by everyday dialect by turning instead to the question of why such questions are being asked in the first place.  Where is this verbal behavior coming from?  What are its influences?  What is our history of asking these or similar questions?

When we ask about what something means, the question could be translated as asking about the reasons something happens – its causes.  Our experience with the causes of events in our lives – large and small – is as ubiquitous as the word “because.”  As discussed in Chapter 3, even young children quickly learn about the mechanical causation that surrounds everything they do and experience, for example, and this learning never stops.  We also learn to tact relations between events, sometimes labeling them as causal.  We learn to respond to “why” questions by describing these relations.  Sometimes the events are simple and discrete, such as when we drop a dish in the kitchen and it breaks.  However, they can also be complex, as when we ask about the ocean tides or citizen uprisings in another country.

So, the answers to questions about why things happen are about causes, but this is the same outcome for questions about the meaning of events.  After all, what other kinds of answers could there be?  What it means when the tides ebb and flow can be no more than the explanation of what makes it happen, at least if we’re sticking to natural phenomena.  These answers presumably function as reinforcers, especially given our lifelong history of such references to causes.  The answers to our questions may often be true and may help us deal with the world around us more effectively.

This reinforcement history may generally explain why we ask “meaning of life” questions, which could arguably be in the same response class as other questions about the meaning or causes of events.  There is little reason to wonder about the veracity of the answers we receive, however.  In the first place, we know that accepting the everyday dialect in which answers are expressed often leads to a hopeless mentalistic muddle.  The answers are just more verbal behavior anyway, and the necessary behavioral translation requires the exercise of examining their sources of control.

What this exercise reveals will naturally depend on the verbal histories of speaker and listener and the particular context of the interchange.  For example, one person’s answer may reference religious considerations, whereas another’s may lean in a scientific direction.  Unfortunately, the challenge of analyzing controlling contingencies makes it tempting to evaluate answers or compare one to another in the dialect in which they are offered.  Whether one seems true or better or worse than another unavoidably buys into the everyday sense of meaning.

Focusing on the influences on either asking or answering questions about the meaning of life misses the larger point, however, which is that the colloquial sense of meaning is itself meaningless.  The idea that events have meaning is merely an aspect of our verbal repertoire.  Meaning is not an independent standard by which events can be explained or judged.  Asking about the meaning of life or anything else is simply not a meaningful kind of question.  It is more useful to ask about why things happen, and worthwhile answers will be entirely about the relationship among physical events.

So, if “42” isn’t a satisfying answer for you, here is another.  Life has no meaning because there is no meaning in the conventional sense.  There is merely life and its physical circumstances.  The idea that events have something called “meaning” is entirely a construction of our verbal histories.  Have a good day.



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Jim Johnston

Dr. Johnston received his doctorate from the University of Florida in 1970 and held faculty positions at Georgia State University, the University of Florida, and Auburn University. He has published both laboratory and field research with both human and non-human species on a variety of topics. He has longstanding interests in the area of developmental disabilities and founded the Master’s Program in Applied Behavior Analysis in Developmental Disabilities at Auburn University. He has served as editor of The Behavior Analyst and on the editorial boards of the Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior and the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, among others. He has served as president of the Association for Behavior Analysis International, as well as for the Florida, Alabama, and Southeastern behavior analysis organizations, and was the first president of the Behavior Analysis Certification Board and the Association of Professional Behavior Analysts.

42 October 12, 2014