In short, I'm interested in cognitive, neuroscientific, biological and/or computational perspectives on what we vaguely refer to as meaning seeking. Of course, this is a large topic, but any information would be highly appreciated.
Humans tend to desire meaning in their lives. While it would be hard to agree on a precise definition of meaning, it often refers to positioning oneself in a way that is compatible with one's beliefs, ambitions and values, allowing the individual to make sense of the world and of himself, and to pursue whatever (often transcendental) goals he considers worthy (i.e. meaningful). In simpler words, meaning could refer to making peace with the perceived reality of the world and with oneself. At first glance, it seems to me that a meaningful existence requires the absence of cognitive dissonances, but I wonder what science would have to say about this, and if there is any empirical basis for claiming this. Or perhaps the questions is misformulated and such behavior should not be put into the domain of meaning?
A simple evolutionary argument could be that meaning-seeking behavior originates from our impulse to belong (isolation means death), but how do we then explain hermits or dissidents or all other individuals who have effectively made themselves suffer/die in order to uphold meaning in their lives (i.e. dying for one's beliefs)? So the argument that meaning-seeking behavior is a purely evolutionary phenomenon that serves only to maximize one's potential for reproduction doesn't appear sufficient.
- Can meaning seeking be thought of as an optimization problem of some biological parameters on an individual level, e.g. in terms of energy required for various cellular processes, homeostatic gene expression dynamics etc.? For example, depression (which can have an existential origin) is damaging to health and has been linked to epigenetic modifications (Sun et al. 2012), so having a mechanism that would seek to minimize such damage would seem to be beneficial for an organism.
- Can we construct a more formal definition of meaning that would be less anthropocentric? In other words, how far would we need to curb the definition so that humans would no longer qualify as the only meaning-seeking organisms? Or are we indeed the only species with the required neural capacity to express such behavior?
- Could modern experimental methods such as EEG, fMRI, gene expression profiling and epigenome sequencing be used to answer some of these questions at least to a degree? E.g. would a comparison of individuals who claim to live a meaningful life vs those who don't make any sense? Of course, even if a some significant differences were observed, an obvious next question would be what caused them, i.e. a mind-body-environment problem ...
I'd be happy to know at least if there are some research groups or labs that try to tackle such questions.