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We are the Meaning Makers

August 31st, 2006 | 2 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

If I were Jason Kuznicki, I'd be irritated.

Here's Jim's explanation of his "puzzle": It's all about trying to find a pattern that isn't real--when pathological, the condition is called apophenia--by relying on human design intuitions. All of the strategies are possible, even probable, modes of uncovering the structure of the puzzle--if the design is in fact designed.

It was, and it wasn't. In the vague, meaningless sense of "design," one often trumpeted by Salvador Cordova, an intelligent agent crafted the pseudopuzzle, first by noticing an instance of a possible pattern, then by combining words with similar endings, finally deceptively claiming a solution was possible. But the design was essentially random. Words were chosen using associations in memory (for all the -eese words, of which "Edwin Meese" is my favorite) and from a list of -ary words found here. There was no leitmotif other than "hmm, this word sounds nifty."

In other words, if I understand him, Jim created a puzzle with the appearance of design that was, in fact, "essentially random," leaving Jason to discern an order that wasn't really there. Jim's point is, as always, provocative: Pope Benedict XVI, soon to head a debate on the theological importance of intelligent design, has said, "We are not the accidental product, without meaning, of evolution." Indeed, for even if evolution is an accident, it has birthed creatures that are meaning-makers, able to fashion order out of randomness, for better or worse. This requires tentativeness and skepticism, for we see meaning everywhere, even where it isn't.

The notion that we can create meaning where it isn't is itself fascinating. It demonstrates, I think, the connection between evolutionary theory and the agression of reader-response hermeneutics. After all, there is no meaning in Jim's puzzle--it's up to the reader to determine the meaning for himself. Which, thankfully, we're hardwired to do.
But if that's the case, then Kuznicki is right and Jim is wrong. If Jim is right, then he has unfortunately ceded his authority as author to determine the meaning of his own puzzle. He has given over the right to say that it has no meaning, since it is the brute facts of the world and Kuznicki is the meaning maker. The fact that Kuznicki failed to find meaning doesn't matter at all--perhaps a greater genius (if there were such a thing) could have found a coherent meaning. Or a trivial meaning. If we are meaning makers, what does it matter?

But Jim's puzzle still rests, if I may, on a theistic view of the world. Jim is the author, and he has intentionally created his puzzle to confuse. It is, then, a text with a meaning, but not the meaning Jim led us all to believe it had. As an author, Jim has played the Cartesian demon, "finally deceptively claiming a solution was possible." The puzzle itself rests upon a theology that demands a malevolent God out to trick the reader.

In sum, Jim is caught in a contradiction. He tells us we are meaning makers (a la Kuznicki) but then rejects the meaning we might make out of this particular nonsense in favor of his authorial intent.
The post certainly teaches a lesson, but ironically not the lesson Jim wants.

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.