There’s a lot of confusion about the term Postmodernism. To people on the far left, it’s their shadow religion—basically a healthy disregard for any value system that has exerted influence (and caused suffering) in the last few thousand years.
To the far right, it’s a rejection of all that is good in the world—like tradition, family, piety, and conservative (see Good) culture.
So let’s discard those definitions and start with something less biased. Let’s go with: a system of questioning traditional meaning structures that are based on claims of objective truth.
Postmodernism is basically pushback against the idea that science and reason deciphered reality enough to inform how we should live.
To me both interpretations are incorrect, but I think there is something to the idea that discarding traditional meaning structures can be harmful.
By ultimate I only mean until we can re-program ourselves.
I think the three concepts above—goals, struggle, and success—represent the foundation of human happiness. These three things are the meaning loop given to us by evolution, which represents our (currently) unalterable firmware.
All three are essential to happiness. You have can have one or two, but unless you have all three you’ll be unfulfilled. Let’s look at each of them.
- Goals determine what we’re ultimately trying to achieve in life. If you don’t have something that you’re striving for, then you won’t be able to struggle to attain it, and you won’t be able to succeed in that struggle.
- Struggle is deeply meaningful when you’re chasing something that matters. Struggle is often associated with suffering, which—again—can actually be positive if it’s associated with a meaning structure that’s important to you.
- Success is only valuable if you had significant goals and also had to work to get the prize. If it wasn’t a meaningful goal, or if it came to you easily, the reward will be hollow.
Evolution gave us the ultimate versions of these three tentpoles.
- Goals: Survive and reproduce
- Struggle: Fighting and courtship
- Success: Winning in battle, sex, children, financial prosperity
These three things were hardcoded into us so that we would do our best to keep our genes alive. That’s why this is the standard for happiness—because it’s the rawest form of our programming.
But we live in a modern society where killing people in battle and having sex with as many people as possible isn’t encouraged anymore.
We have to find new goals, struggles, and successes that serve as useful proxies for those given to us by evolution.
So we have to adapt. Our modern-day Meaning Loops include things like:
- Having a career as an engineer, or a doctor, or a bricklayer
- Being a homemaker and mother
- Discovering new things about the world and universe
- Dedicating your life to God
In all these cases, you set your goal as something distant—like creating something new, or being the best in your field, or providing for your childrens’ futures. And then you work towards that goal. You grind. You suffer. You toil. And then eventually—after a number of decades—you accomplish what you set out to do.
These are pretty good proxies. They’re not nearly as pure as struggling on the plains of Africa like in the beginning, but they’re about as close as we can get without abandoning civilization and living in the mountains.
The key point here is that we cannot forget our programming from evolution. We need to do something that emulates that 1, 2, 3 of Goal, Struggle, Success. And that’s where Postmodernism comes in.
Postmodernism questions structure
The primary function of Postmodernism is questioning. It challenges things. And most important is that it challenges structure, truth, and convention. Unfortunately, this also attacks one of our three pillars directly: goals.
Think about all the different concepts that Postmodernism can undermine:
- The idea that religion is useful
- The idea that we’re subordinate to evolutionary psychology
- The idea that men and women might want different things from life
- The idea that science can reveal good ways to live
What happens when you learn so much about the world that you discard most ways of life as misleading or harmful?
You can’t be religious because it’s not true. You can’t be a capitalist because it’s evil. You can’t be a housewife because you could be so much more. You can’t be an entrepreneur because you’re becoming part of the income gap problem. You can’t disappear into the woods because you’d be giving up on humanity.
So what are you supposed to do? What does a meaningful life look like once you know the flaws in every belief systems?
The path forward
There isn’t any one answer, of course, which ironically is something you learn from Postmodernism. But what I can say is that I see people struggling with emptiness. They’re lost. They are moving through life without a meaning loop.
We’ve discarded so much false meaning in our lives that we’re left with no meaning at all.
I actually think Church-going Fox News watchers have an evolutionary advantage in that they receive evolution’s rewards by having 1) goals (a conservative world), 2) struggle (against the liberals), and 3) victories (getting Trump elected).
What that world provides is golden in a fundamental way—it’s clear. You know what to believe. You know what to pursue. And you know what victory looks like. That’s the opposite of Postmodernism, and that’s why so many people are unhappy.
If you’re reading this you probably see being a FoxNews person as a horrible benchmark for success, but remember—evolution doesn’t care what you’re doing. It just wants you to want something and to pursue it. If you do that, and get any sort of success, it will gift you with happiness.
So find your Fox News somewhere—just hopefully not on Fox News.
Find your meaning structure. Find your goals, your struggle, and work towards success. Tap into this need for a meaning loop that that exists within all of us, and resist the urge to discard all loops just because they’re imperfect.
Evolution doesn’t play fair, and it literally controls whether you’re fulfilled or miserable.
So adjust accordingly.
- Evolution hardcoded us to need three things: goals, struggle, and success.
- Back in Africa it was obvious what we needed to do, but not anymore.
- Find a meaning loop that has these three components, even if it’s not perfect.