A human being creates a world like a spider spins a web. As an innate impulse of the mind, this need to construct meaning is irresistible, and the prospect of living without meaning – of living a meaningless existence – is widely regarded as a fate worse than death. We are ready to give up on life, and willing to take the lives of others, when our meaning is lost or threatened.
Like other propensities and reflexes of our deeper nature, this impulse to make meaning carries the authority of reality. That is to say, we can easily assume that the meaning we construct and the habitations of meaning (or worlds) we live in are a property of the way things really are, independent of us and inherent to reality itself.
This assumption has been part of the “mental lens” of our mind as a species for many thousands of years, and it is responsible both for our cultural progress around the planet and the natural disasters following in its wake. It’s only been very recently that we have begun to realize that how we see reality is much less about the way things really are, and more about our need for security, identity, purpose and significance.
Constructivism is a philosophical approach to understanding meaning as a product of human nature rather than a fixed property of reality itself. Meaning is made, not discovered in the traditional sense of finding it “out there,” buried beneath the facts or dropped out of heaven and waiting to be found.
Of course, this means that constructivism is itself a construct of meaning. It does not presume to offer any kind of “final theory” or last word on the subject. Indeed, if this approach is valid (and I believe it is), then a final theory or last word is a self-contradiction – unless we are referring to the theory that finally takes out our species, signaling the end to a nuclear age and the likely extinction of life on Earth.
What needs to happen in order for that scenario not to happen is that we individually learn how to be more responsible creators of the worlds we inhabit. How can we step out of the naiveté that is accelerating us to the edge of extinction – ironically for the sake of our precious meaning – and into a more adult mode of creative authority?
Part of the answer is that we need to understand the relationship of meaning to belief, which is the insight of constructivism. Another part of the answer moves deeper into an understanding of how beliefs form and then fuse together into the webs of meaning we live in and are all too willing to die or kill for. Let’s start with the question of what it means to believe something.By definition a belief (from the root meaning “to love or hold dear”) is an emotional commitment to a judgment you make about something. Some judgments are tentative and provisional until you make an emotional investment in them, which effectively personalizes these judgments and makes them meaningful to you.
When someone makes a statement and you don’t believe it, you are withholding emotional investment from that statement and choosing not to take it personally. Very likely you are simultaneously forming a judgment about the person who just made that statement, investing yourself emotionally in a conclusion about him or her. You have constructed a belief.
A belief, then, is a conclusion or a closing-down on something with your mind in order to render a judgment about it, together with some degree of emotional commitment to its truth. Some beliefs might be true, while others must be true. These different emotional values determine where a particular judgment resides in your belief system.
As my diagram above illustrates, a belief that holds less emotional commitment (and which only might be true) is called an opinion. Because you take them less personally and their truth-value is not essential to your web of meaning (or “world”), you likely enjoy sharing your opinions with others and hearing theirs in turn. With a lower charge of emotional commitment, opinions are characteristically flexible, experimental, and easily modified or abandoned.
Whenever someone presses on your belief system by engaging you in conversation about a topic you find interesting but not essential to your life’s meaning, you can be open-minded and tolerant where your perspectives don’t quite match up. Your conversation partner might know more about the topic than you, and you can accept what he or she has to say without getting offended, even modifying or updating your opinion as the conversation progresses.
But then this person, with whom until now you’ve been receptive and open-minded, says something that you find incredible, offensive, or blasphemous. You have a history with this particular belief and you take it much more personally. The umbrage or horror you feel, along with the felt need to debate the statement and defend your truth, indicates that this belief is more deeply situated in your web of meaning and has a lot more riding on it. In pressing on this belief, the other person has poked deep enough to activate a conviction.
Convictions don’t allow open-minded dialogue. As the word suggests, a conviction is a belief that incarcerates thought and holds the mind hostage. Whereas once upon a time you may have held this belief as an opinion, over years of anchoring other opinions to this one and thereby making it more essential to your life’s meaning, it now holds you captive.
The certainty it provides is really a rationalization of how secure the conviction makes you feel, and security is not something you want to risk. Pulling on that thread might cause the entire web to tear and unravel, which could result in a global crisis of meaning and world-collapse. Your strategy, whenever a conviction gets poked, will either be to lash out in retaliation, debate your challenger into submission, move quickly to safer ground, or dismiss your opponent as ignorant, impious, and simple-minded.
In fact, you are deluded, and the same can probably be said of your opponent as well. The nature of your delusion lies in the degree in which you have stopped actively thinking and instead given your mind over to the closed loop of a mental script. You can tell when this intellectual bypass is occurring by how irrational you become in defending your conviction. Again, by this time the argument is not about how reasonable, coherent, or evidence-based your belief might be, but about how much is at stake in its truth for you.
By closing down active thought and conscious engagement with the way things really are, convictions separate your mind from reality. An unavoidable consequence is that your life’s meaning is always several steps (or several decades) behind the way things presently are. When we move our consideration to the societal level, this means that entire traditions and cultural worldviews can be hundreds or thousands of years out of date, promoting mandatory belief systems (or orthodoxies) that are wildly out of touch with the concerns and opportunities of contemporary life.
You might think that a belief system is composed only of lightweight, variable opinions and these deeper-set, mind-locking convictions. But there is a third level of beliefs, which are difficult to talk about for the simple reason that they are invisible to your normal conscious operations. This invisibility of your assumptions has nothing to do with secrecy or sophistication, but is rather a function of their role as primary support structures in your web of meaning.
While opinions can be shared and exchanged in your circle of friends, and convictions are either recited in unison among fellow believers or strenuously defended against ideological opponents, assumptions typically never make it to the surface of conversation. Like the lens of your eye which filters and skews the visual information coming in, assumptions are the unquestioned beliefs that determine your most rudimentary mental grasp on reality.
Should someone challenge one of your basic assumptions of meaning, if it even registers at all – and quite often the mind is mentally deaf and blind to such profound challenges – it will likely strike you as literally incredible and not open for discussion. You will probably blink incredulously and shake your head as if to dislodge the strange idea, then abruptly change the subject or quietly walk away.
The key insight of constructivism is an example of just such a challenge to our core assumptions, with its suggestion that meaning is what human beings “make up” and is really a kind of necessary delusion that our nature (and sanity) requires. To press on belief to the point where such assumptions are poked will predictably agitate an all-or-nothing response. Most often it is nothing, so you just dismiss the challenge and move on.
Of the three types of belief comprising your web of meaning, assumptions change least and most slowly – and it should be obvious why this is so. Because many assumptions (probably the vast majority) were adopted and set in place very early in life – indeed, your deepest assumptions were installed into the default state of your autonomic nervous system and preceded the acquisition of language, putting them beyond words (ineffable) and direct conscious access – the very groundwork of what you are is at stake in their preservation through time.
But assumptions can change. Even more importantly you can change assumptions, however longstanding, that have been separating you from the present mystery of reality in unhappy, maladaptive, or pathological ways.
Instead of only playing it safe at the surface where opinions come and go, or occasionally digging deeper into the convictions that electrify the cage around your mind, you might tap open a few of those sacrosanct assumptions that are restricting your soul and keeping you from being fully present to life in this moment.
As you learn to let go and just relax into the grounding mystery, you will find that meaning isn’t all it is made up to be.