Emergent meaning

If something else had happened, life would mean something different now. But what happened is in the past, and the past can’t be changed. I have to accept what is.

Most of the time, we hear this as a truism. When we emotionally grapple with certain past events and their consequences, however, it’s a major personal victory when at long last we take a deep breath and resign ourselves to the realities.

Imagine I turn my vehicle left at an intersection and suffer an accident. My arm is broken. The car is totaled. My passenger is dead.

I might wonder what would have happened if I had turned right instead of left. Those thoughts might be intrusive, even obsessive. I will never find out the answer to What if something else had happened?

Some game pieces are still in play, and I can change those outcomes. I bounce back financially; I get a new car; my arm heals; survivors forgive me. But other outcomes are already set in stone. The old car, reduced to twisted pieces of metal, isn’t worth fixing and is sent to the scrap heap. The dead person does not come back to life. The meaning of these events is distressing; I resist the meaning, which leads me to resist the reality of the events that produce this meaning. I “know” the events were real and can’t be changed, but I wish that weren’t true and I search in vain for another workaround. The ultimate solution may be simply to accept what is.

In this hypothetical example, I am considering meaning as an emergent property of material reality. Emergence means that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. A certain confluence of events in my life doesn’t leave me only with the events themselves, but it also yields meaning: psychological, social, financial, and so on. Wanting to change the meaning means wanting to change the realities on which the meaning is based. If I’m stuck with the relevant realities, I may be distressed at finding that I am stuck with the meaning, too.

Book cover: C. S. Lewis's Christian Apologetics: Pro and Con. Edited by Gregory Bassham.

I recently heard this described using the example of a mosaic. (It happened to be a mosaic of Darth Vader, which is appropriately dark.) David Kyle Johnson says in “Naturalism Undefeated” in the anthology C. S. Lewis’s Christian Apologetics that “it makes no sense to suggest that you could subtract Vader and yet leave all the individual frames of the mosaic alone. If the tiles are arranged just as they are, Vader necessarily exists.” Johnson is writing about the mind arising from the physical brain. I’m applying the same idea to deriving meaning from the world, a more popular daily concern. The world has given us a bunch of mosaic tiles and we see that they form an image. Sometimes we don’t like the image. If we can rearrange some of the tiles, great; but if all the tiles are glued and dried, we’re stuck with what the overall image means to us.

“Emergence” (or, similarly, “supervenience”) is an academic term, but it yields a practical insight for dealing with emotional distress:

If I want to change what my situation means to me, I have to take action and do something differently.

If I can’t or won’t change my situation or at least allow in new information and experiences, then I have to accept that the meaning isn’t going to change, either.