All there is in the world is physical stuff. That is the fundamental assumption of the materialist standpoint, and the picture given to us by science.
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!”