What Does It All Mean? Philosophy Can Help

Dr. Larry Dossey for The Huffington Post considers the question of meaninglessness and the science that appears to drive it. A strict read of many of the conclusions of science would seem to demand that life is ultimately meaningless and that the human brain creates meaning where none exists ostensibly as a survival mechanism. But if the human brain creates meaning, then there is meaning in the universe even if there is no meaning to the universe. Dossey’s article bounces from a survey of theistic articles based on the anthropic principle to questions about consciousness. Perhaps, he concludes, science cannot answer the question of meaning and this presents a boundary for the types of questions science should even attempt to consider.

Purists insist that science is neutral on matters of meaning; the world is what it is. Whatever meaning we find in the world comes from us, not the world itself. We read meaning into the world, not from it. This sword cuts two ways; if meaning should not be imputed to the universe, neither should meaninglessness.

As science continues to assert its dominance in just about every academic endeavor, questions about boundaries are coming more to the fore. Philosophers specifically are considering ways to create a rapprochement by carving out a niche here and there. There seems something psychologically dishonest (and certainly sociologically suicidal) about imposing a priori limits on the explanatory power of science and I think these drive the modern conversation about limits. In many ways, science is taking the place religion held for centuries. As Dennett has said in Breaking the Spell, religion has had a very special explanatory status culturally and he, along with many others, believes it’s time to break the hold religion has had. 

But Dennett’s call to arms seems to me to be a bit anachronistic. Science already has the loudest voice at the table and the momentum is certainly on the side of the scientist. As I look at the situation though, I’m not entirely sure why. It goes almost without saying that the hard sciences are enormously successful—and thankfully so. I often reflect how easy physical life is for those of us in the technologically-enhanced West. My wife recently had major surgery and was home within the hour. The medication she took kept the pain largely at bay and she was back to her routine in days, not weeks or months or never.

Yet regarding the topics Dossey raises, I’m not convinced that science has made all that much progress, or could make all that much progress. I recently finished Steven Pinker’s fine book The Blank Slate. It’s a testimony in some ways to outstanding research that is being done in all fields to help us better understand humanity. While the book demonstrates the success of biology, chemistry, brain science, and genetic research, I found it completely flat in describing anything new about what it means to be human. Throughout the book, he makes almost triumphal statements about what “science has shown” but what seem to me to be common sense and common knowledge. (For example, he writes, “And scientists can show, and have shown, that siblings are as similar when reared apart as when reared together and that adoptive siblings are not similar at all . . .” (p. 393). Did we really need a series of scientific studies to learn that?). I suppose he might defend such statements with a general claim that while we may have known many of these facts, we now Know them because we have the data to back them up. This is all well and good but are we not just going deeper not broader in our understanding?

As Dossey suggests, a strong argument could be made that science since Darwin has made little progress in explaining some of the most important things we want to know about human beings. The progress of which I speak is the type that should interest us the most. It is the type of progress that tells us more about the things we don’t know than about the things we do. Explanatory progress in biology particularly has been, without a doubt, deep. But it has not been broad. It has made much progress in explaining how but it has not made any progress in explaining what or why. It continues to deepen and reinforce what we know to be true but has not enlightened us on what we wish to understand.

Prior to Darwin, the scope of what men knew about animals is essentially what we know today. Men knew prior to Darwin that animals resembled one another. Men knew that mammals were similar in the way they had sex and bore offspring. Men knew that animals had a heart and a brain and lungs and eyes and could affirm the similarities of the creatures possessing them while acknowledging their distinct differences. Men knew of the symbiotic relationship between man and beast. One might even say men then knew better than men today of the essential dependence of the created order. Before the modern age of machines, men depended on the animal kingdom for transportation, to save labor, and for food. They depended on the horse and the ox and the horse and the ox came to depend on them. They spoke of the brotherhood of all living things. Men knew that animals are born and that they die.

After Darwin, men still know these things and much more (we now have studies that prove all these things). But in an important sense we know little more. Darwin has, ostensibly, allowed us to observe the foundations of the things we formerly only observed. But what explanatory power has Darwin’s theory given science? Men still know that animals are similar. Darwin has simply allowed us to add the additional phrase, “because all animals descended from a common ancestor.” While this phrase is certainly not trivial, it may also not be all that important depending on what one is interested in discovering. Knowing the mere fact that all animal descended from a common ancestor did not change what we think about animals. We now just know additional fact. It is only with the addition of a philosophy- -a philosophy that describes what animals are- -that changes our understanding of animals. And evolution per se does not provide this description.

I, for one, am reticent to impose any a priori limits on the explanatory power of science. But I’m also not at all convinced that everything philosophy, the arts, traditional psychology, and religion have attempted to tell us about who we are is in any way at risk by a thoroughgoing science. I get the sense that Dossey would agree.

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