My favorite story with that question: A father tells his daughter that it is nine o’clock — she asks, “What does that mean?”

It illustrates the difference between fact and application, the need for interpretation. It shows how humans need more than physical data.

Sciences tell us a lot about the ways of nature, the predictable, repeated procedures of atoms and animals. But human beings are not entirely subject to natural law and make decisions inconsistent with chemistry and physics. There are those who insist that human life is only a matter of natural processes. That sounds to me like confusing Beethoven with the CD.

The daughter wants to know about events, schedules, appointments, intentions and social reactions. Meaning is the mental connection of a phenomenon, signal, or sentence to the past and future of human beings.

Meaning is a special kind of thing to study because ambiguity, or polyguity, is always involved. There is rarely only one meaning possible; mistakes or jokes are inevitable. Some of them are amusing but some deadly. Think of all the meanings if someone says “fire.”

A recent example is the Betsy Ross flag. For me, her flag means Revolutionary War history, the formation of our national identity. I did not know that some people today connect it to U.S. beginnings as a country with slavery. It surprises me that this meaning ignores the slavery in most of that period. Clearly George Washington could be repudiated as a slave owner, yet few people think that he “means” slavery.

What does life itself mean? No answer is immediately or obviously given. Some of us cherish an answer but others have different ones. Meaningless life seems sad, yet there are those who say that’s the most honest comment. Even asserting that there is no meaning is meaningful.

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