Finding Meaning in a Meaningless World

Deep Science, Part I

This is the first in an occasional series on “deep science,” an attempted antidote to the “absent-minded science” I’ve written about in many previous columns.

Science has defined the modern era in many ways and is truly the reigning knowledge paradigm in the modern era – even if it’s not always acknowledged as such. The key features of modernity, specialization and technology, were made possible primarily by the remarkable development of scientific techniques and knowledge over the last 400 years, since the time of Galileo and Kepler.

Tam Hunt

But while science has brought us the modern world, in a very real and direct way, it has also brought us to a point where man’s perennial search for meaning is imperiled. This is the case because today’s scientific worldview seems to deny the importance of many inquiries that humans have perennially found important, including questions about our place in the universe, the nature of consciousness, and questions about God, purpose, and many other deep topics. And where it doesn’t deny the importance of such questions the answers it provides are increasingly dissatisfying and, frankly, depressing.

Science is the basis for “scientific materialism,” the worldview shared by most scientists and philosophers. Scientific materialism holds, essentially, that the universe is nothing but matter and energy in motion. Humans evolved through random processes, as did all life. Human minds emerged at some point in our development as our nervous system became sufficiently complex to support the interior world of our minds that we all know intimately.

Much of this is surely correct, but there are a number of problems with this worldview. For example, scientific materialism is unable to explain coherently when and why mind/subjectivity emerged. How far down the evolutionary ladder does mind extend? When did mind first appear in the universe? We shouldn’t expect science to be able to provide firm and specific answers to these questions because such answers are probably impossible to produce. But we should expect the intellectual architecture of our modern world to provide at least an outline of coherent answers to such questions. Thomas Nagel’s recent book Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False makes a very similar point.

I’ve argued argued in past columns that today’s science is an “absent-minded science” because of this failure to adequately explain the role of mind in nature. The prevailing theory of emergence argues that mind simply appears with the development of sufficient biological complexity but no one today can provide a good answer as to when and why mind emerged when it did. These major questions remain unanswered within the materialist paradigm and its philosophy of “emergentism.” This inability to explain the most primary feature of reality for each of us — our own minds — undermines the intellectual edifice of modernity.

Perhaps even more importantly, scientific materialism cannot be the basis for much in our search for higher meaning in our lives. As human beings, we have an innate need for a life-affirming mythos. By mythos I don’t mean fantasy; rather, I mean we need a subtextual narrative that supports our sense of self and our place in the world. The more accurate this narrative is, in terms of its congruence with events in the external world, the better it works. Scientific materialism falls short in providing such a mythos.

The key challenge of our time is to reconcile the truths and methods of modern science with this need for personal meaning, for personal legends – as Paulo Coelho puts it in his wonderful book about the meaning of it all The Alchemist. The new alchemy will turn the lead of scientific materialism into the gold of a new deep science.

Scientific materialism’s mythos was summed up well by the Nobel Prize winner Steven Weinberg: “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.” If this is the case, why don’t we all just commit suicide? Well, we don’t because each of us has a personal mythos that justifies the space we occupy and the air we breathe.

We are, it seems, in need of a more life-affirming worldview than today’s scientific materialism can provide. This new series of essays will flesh out my thoughts on 1) how science can and should change to become more scientific, but also 2) how a new type of science can act as the foundation for a new mythos to better sustain our lives.

This is what I mean by “deep science.” A new deep science will be more scientific than today’s surface-oriented endeavor because it recognizes the internal aspects behind the world of surfaces. Deep science is also more holistic than today’s overly narrow science because it can help us more comprehensively describe the universe and its amazing contents, and allow us to create coherent and useful theories about these contents.

Ken Wilber coined the phrase “deep science” in his insightful book The Marriage of Sense and Soul: Integrating Science and Religion. Wilber’s suggestions in this area are a great basis for additional inquiry. I will use Wilber’s framework as the basis for my own discussion in these essays, but will expand and amend a little here and there.

The key point of Wilber’s deep science is that all scientific and spiritual inquiries — which are united methodologically in his deep science, at least in an overarching manner — consist of three strands: 1) an injunctive method, which is a set of how-to instructions specific to the field at issue; 2) data gathering, in terms of direct experience, through use of the injunctive method at issue; 3) community confirmation or negation of the data gathered. Wilber states in Marriage:

The three strands of deep science separate the valid from the bogus … helping us to separate not only true propositions from false propositions, but also authentic self-expression from lying, beauty from degradation, and moral aspirations from deceit and deception.

Part II of this series will explore some applications of the three strands of deep science and will also flesh out how Wilber’s approach might be a useful and fair reconciliation of scientific and religious ways of viewing the world.

If we are to find a way out of the existential trap of scientific materialism, we need not reject science; rather, we should look deeper into scientific method and reexamine its foundations.

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