Finding Meaning in a Material World

Thursday, February 18, 2016 -- 4:00 PM

Modern science tells us there are no souls and nothing transcendent.  There’s only dumb matter and energy, swirling aimlessly through the void.  We humans are nothing but temporary arrangements of such matter – gone and forgotten in the blink of the cosmic eye!  But what, then, is the point of it all?  What, then, is the meaning of human life?  That’s the question we’re grappling with today. 

It’s an urgent question.  But I do worry that it may lead us into a lot of anguished wailing and gnashing of the teeth. What if life really does have no meaning? 

We’re in good company with that worry.  Kierkegaard says that if there is no God, life is nothing but despair.  Dostoyevsky thinks that if God is dead, everything is permitted. Even that strident atheist, Nietzsche, believed that once we reject God and see the universe as nothing but dust and gas, we need a total rethink of human existence. He predicted that once we follow Darwin’s lead and turn the methods of science completely loose on the human animal, we’ll end up torching just about everything that supposedly makes us special -- freedom, morality, autonomy, self-consciousness, rationality. 

Nietzsche was actually pretty prescient.  Modern science -- especially the science of mind, casts a great deal of doubt about our most cherished beliefs about ourselves.
Now I’m a huge fan of science.  But it’s hard to abide a science that has nothing to say to us but “You’re nothing special! You’re just a soulless, selfless hunk of meat!”  Give me science, but give me science that affirms life!

But Nietzsche loved science too, and wondered, as he put it, “whether science can furnish goals of action after it has proven that it can take such goals away and annihilate them”. He was wise enough to recognize that in revealing the truth about our natures and the nature of the universe, science threatens to leave us completely disenchanted.  

So why even look to science to provide us with enchantment or with goals for action?  Well, science got us into this mess – the least it could do is tell us how to live in the glorious new universe that it has so graciously bequeathed us. But science can only tell us what is and what isn’t. It can’t tell us what to do or feel about what is or what isn’t.  Scientific questions are questions of fact, not questions of value. Science pulls the rug out from under religion and offers in its place -- what?  A stony silence.

And yet science isn’t nearly as destructive of the sources of meaning and value, as you might fear.  Sure, science undermines religions that posit spooky things – along with our notions of freedom, autonomy, the self. But even if that’s right, science still leaves lots of things standing -- art,  literature,  philosophy,  politics, morality, intimate human relations, even certain kinds of spiritual practices.  

If that sounds uncharacteristically optimistic, it’s because I think the meaning of life was never really located in the things that science has progressively torched in the first place.   Meaning isn’t something we find -- or fail to find -- in the universe.  It’s something we make.  Making meaning is a matter of what we do with what we find in the world. We find things like love and fairness that we value. We have visions of peace and the end of world hunger that we devote ourselves to. That’s what it is to make meaning. 

So can we just make up any old meanings we choose?  Not exactly.  Thanks to science and technology, our world is different from the ancient world, where so many of our cherished ideas were developed, along with stories to support them.  So what if the stories that worked for them won’t work for us?  That doesn’t show that science has foreclosed the very possibility of new stories.  And if we somehow fail to create new stories, we shouldn’t blame science, but the limits of our own imaginations. 

As Nietzsche commands, “Embark, philosophers! Create new moralities, a new justice, and new meanings!”

Comments (10)


Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Thursday, February 18, 2016 -- 4:00 PM

And just so. Without human

And just so. Without human consciousness, without the ability of homo sapiens to write its own beginning, middle and end, there would be no story. Without a story, there would be no meaning. Science, more and more, begins to recognize both its strengths and weaknesses. And as with human evolution generally, such illuminations take time, trial and error to refine. Science, after all, is a set of tools, enabling humans to manipulate and exploit their environment to best advantage. Science does not usually dabble in art or literature, but there have been some notable exceptions, some of which  led to unexpected outcomes with beneficial consequences. Science does not know it all. Nor will it ever. But that too is part of the meaning of life. I think so anyway.
Neuman.

MJA's picture

MJA

Thursday, February 18, 2016 -- 4:00 PM

The meaning of life is living

The meaning of life is living.
As for science, science is measure and measure is the flaw.
And the point of it all Ken is infinite eternal Oneness. Be one!
=

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Friday, February 19, 2016 -- 4:00 PM

Physicists regard matter as a

Physicists regard matter as a marvel. Its behavior is an astounding puzzle thsat cannot be reduced to the mundane. A photon from the beginning of time can and will interact with the last Photon at the last moment of time. This is not meaningless, There is no science that portrays matter as meaningless, or even "dead". We portray matter in this light to facilitate our designs upon it, just as some of us portray low-wage workers as undeserving, as part of a scheme to defraud them of their real worth. But the most enduring and pernicious sense in which matter is devalued is as a rhetorical device used by preachers in order to so dispirit us that we become susceptible to their lies. Their is no "point" because there is nothing unilateral worth is. Worth is the freedom the act of welcome loss is enabled in the response welcoming the responsibility of the worth of that loss being recognized. That is, worth is the drama differentiated that welcome from that welcoming. There is no interstice divided them, but neither is there any "point"  centering it. Love is eccentric. That's why "oneness" or some transcendence or divine unity cannot help us. Kierkegaard and Nieitzsche were both bent on having an effect on us. This puts them firmly in the camp of the preachers. Try Hume instead, a materialist of a much higher quality.

sageorge's picture

sageorge

Friday, February 19, 2016 -- 4:00 PM

I found Ken Taylor's essay,

I found Ken Taylor's essay, and the responses so far, all to be eloquent expressions of legitimate human yearning.  The opening description of what "science tells us" was probably an attempt - a successful one! - to catch readers' attention, but I would point out that it is really a piece of rhetoric, not an actual scientific finding or consensus.  
Most objects and processes that are recognized as legitimate objects of scientific study, whether surface tension, synaptic transmission, or sedimentary transitions, are emergent: they arise, and are explained scientifically, through interactions among smaller-scale or more basic components and forces.   Usually those more basic phenomena are in turned understood in terms of even more basic ones.  Journal articles and science textbook entries about emergent phenomena like the ones just mentioned never refer directly to quarks or string theory, though it is understood that ultimately those most basic features of the universe, or even more basic ones still to be discovered, could be described rhetorically as "all there is."  The most complex phenomena and activities we know of - human minds and their products such as art and literature and yearning for meaning - are also highly emergent in this sense.  Claiming that they are "nothing more than...,"  though, is another piece of rhetoric.
One current field that claims to be scientific and that I believe regularly does engage in the rhetoric of debunking, reducing, and eliminating is sociobiology / evolutionary psychology / human nature studies.  (Its practitioners seem to need to change the name of the field every decade or so).  It could be a good topic for this forum to ask whether these fields have anything more to say than the tautology that complex human behavior evolved.   (A tautology because the behavior is an attribute of humans, humans are organisms, and organisms evolved; therefore the behavior evolved.)  
- Steve George

Guest's picture

Guest

Sunday, February 21, 2016 -- 4:00 PM

Your article is very nice

nice

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Sunday, February 21, 2016 -- 4:00 PM

The Buddha's last words were,

The Buddha's last words were, reputedly: All accomplishment is transient, Strive unremittingly. Prior to those last words, the Buddha was supposedly with some of his acolytes, in the home of a compassionate host. They were dining and several of the acolytes noticed that the food did not taste all that wholesome. They stopped eating and warned the Master of the danger. He replied that he did not wish to insult his host by refusing the food offered and continued to eat the tainted meal. There were other matters pertaining to his actions that were associated with his beliefs regarding life and death---matters with which followers of the Noble Eightfold Path would be familiar. Anyway, The Buddha fell ill from food poisoning and died soon after. He was, or so it has been written, eighty years of age. Pretty good for an ancient ascetic, I'd say. So, his accomplishments were transient and he strove unremittingly. Right conduct (and food poisoning) led to his demise. Now the pragmatist's questions might be: had he heeded his followers' warning, could he have lived a bit longer? There is no way to know for sure. Would his having lived longer have made any difference in the totality of his accomplishments? Again, we cannot know.
Clearly, whether he would have admitted it or not, the Buddha's life had meaning. He eschewed the material world. In its transience, it was meaningless to him. Today, of course, people are enamored with the wonders of the material world and transience is merely business as usual. Striving is unremittingly pursued. Now is a long time away (2400 years, give or take) from the time of Buddha. Most of us do not think twice about avoiding tainted food, right conduct notwithstanding. Times and people change. So do the priorities of living. Some of this is meaningful in its own right. It all depends upon your point of view.
Neuman.

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Monday, February 22, 2016 -- 4:00 PM

Reject the world? Not so

Reject the world? Not so "nice"! The promise of time unworthy of us is the promise unkept. Time, however, keeps its promise. Which is more worthy? We should ask, are we worthy of time? But this does not fit the narrative. Just let "Jesus" into your heart! Follow the law (of Moses or Mohamed)! Follow the "path"! Be righteous! Be "mindful"! Obey and be free! Heard it all before.
Nope! Siddartha Gautama was just another spoiled brat who escaped his rich parents' cocoon to find the world full of the cruel effects of their privilege, but who then turns to excuses for that crime in a transcendence far less "mindful" than touted. One could almost say the Buddhist "mindfulness" is mindless. Insofar as it supervenes an unkept and unworthy promise upon a worthy and kept one, it indeed is mindless. The issue raised, 'Chief', is the result of not pressing the rigor of that promise to its final and most rigorous term. Indeed, not so "nice"!
 

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Wednesday, February 24, 2016 -- 4:00 PM

Platon Karatyev was Pierre's

Platon Karatayev was Pierre's "teacher", and look what happened to him! I think Tolstoy was making him, Pierre, the sap of the story; not the hero, the anti-hero.
American philosophy is indeed a shambles, but this needs far more explaining. Ever read Time in the Ditch, by John McCumber?

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Monday, February 29, 2016 -- 4:00 PM

Some of us find meaning in

Some of us find meaning in philosophy. Others seek solace in religious devotion of various breadth and depth. Several of my friends are into secular humanistic endeavors---or, at least, they pretend to be. Still other folks rattle around from one pathway to the next until they drive themselves quite mad with disenchantment and frustration. I enjoy parsing philosophy for those shorter or longer nuggets of rhetoric which either exhibit unfathomable depths of wisdom, clearly inane shallowness, or some paradoxical combination of both. Although according to some individuals he may not have been a real philosopher, Karl Jaspers' writings  lend themselves to the full continuum of entertaining possibilities. For example(s):

Only one who is consistent with himself can agree with others. To achieve harmony in oneself is to make friends with oneself and gain others as friends. ( a far cry from: to thine own self be true)
Understanding is present in every perception. (pretty simple--we all intuitively know this, yet tend to ignore it)
Categories have given form to the chaos. ( this one, found in a work from the 1950s, is particularly applicable to our 21st century society in which chaos appears to be worshipped rather than eschewed)
Everything that exists for us is an object of thought. (well, sure. Or pretty sure anyway.We are pretty sure that if we were unable to think, nothing would exist for us)
So, I can deduce that it is better to find meaning in things that are of lesser complexity, unless, of course you simply wish to rattle around, driving yourself mad with disenchantment and frustration. The choice is yours. Heck, you can even read philosophy written by those who are not really philosophers! Avoid Habermas, though. Unless you find solace in obscurantism.
HGN.

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Tuesday, March 1, 2016 -- 4:00 PM

Don't all personal choices

Don't all personal choices and "insights" have universal implications? If so, the idea of a purely personal "path" is fallacious. The case of Anne Hutchinson, in the early days of the Puritan colony at Boston, proved an intolerable disturbance to its faith. What pretended to be a purely personal devotion proved to be an insidious claim of divine voice. This was disastrous to the Puritan sect, since it's core belief was that a personal engagement with the text they deemed sacred would obviate a purely human edifice of devotion. The result was a fundamental disturbance that led to the gradual erosion of the idea of a personal "path", and the community in Boston would become the most secular, and most materialist, in the colonies. In terms of the "Family of Love" (Hutchinson's sect) they would evolve from the "covenant of grace" to the "covenant of works". The point is, the search for a "personal path" is an oxymoron. You see, if you come to some opinion or view, and look for reasons to believe it, you will find them. But this hardly means you have found truth. We can only reasonably believe we know anything if we have comprehensively searched for and impartially reviewed every reason not to believe it. In other words, knowledge is comprehension, not 'insight', not a sudden revelation on the road to Damascus, or any other 'path', but a slow trudge through all paths. You cannot cherry-pick your way to enlightenment! Habermas, by the way, is actually rather simplistic. But, like you and so many others, he assumes that synchrony, rather than responsible dissent, is the 'path'. And in doing so he condemns himself to the oxymoron of a personal universal.
By the way, Ophelia's dad, I don't remember his name, is intended as a buffoon, and the remark about 'to thine own self be true' is meant as a joke.

 
 
 

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