The Meaning of Life

In a conversation between Susan Blackmore and Jordan Peterson, both respected academics and published authors, the interviewer and moderator, Justin Brierley, asked Miss Blackmore the following question: Do we need God [i.e. the Judeo-Christian idea of God] to make sense of life? Her answer, decidedly brief and unsatisfying, as she was granted virtually no time to explain herself near the end of the conversation, was an emphatic “absolutely not.”

I shall attempt to expand on her answer against the relentless claim by Jordan Peterson that the cornerstone of all meaningful and moral discourse in the Western world is primarily the holy book, as an alleged repository of divine truth. Let me say for a start that my view chimes with that of Sam Harris (another respected academic and published author), who reckons that everything in the Bible could have originated from human observation, introspection, intellection, and imagination.

I must add, however, that I remain somewhat critical of Sam Harris and other detractors of religion like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennet, and Christopher Hitchens, regardless of their merit as brilliant and scholarly intellectuals who visibly delight in calling attention to the most indefensible aspects of Scripture, deemed archaic and replete with such delusions and barbarisms as creationism, transubstantiation, genocide, and slavery. I contend that Jordan Peterson, at the other end of the philosophical spectrum, brings a welcome balance in the debate between these men and the faithful by teasing out with insightful profundity the many gems of wisdom that have earned Scripture a special place in the development of Western culture.

The concept of collective unconscious, from the famous psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Carl Jung, permeates the philosophy of Jordan Peterson. According to the latter, such archetypal themes as the mother/child and father/child relationships define the innate structure of meaning peculiar to the human psyche—akin to the categories of understanding (e.g., existence/nonexistence and cause/effect) in the philosophy of Immanuel Kant that provide an inborn conceptual framework for apprehending reality. They are gateways of intuitive understanding that God employs in the sacred texts—the culmination of which is the New Testament—through the agency of select human intermediaries, dubbed prophets, to enlighten and edify us, and therewith inspire us with a steadfast willingness to embody the spirit of divine love. 

Firstly, the idea that over time the human brain has evolved to embed, in the deeper stratum of its constitution, basic structures of meaning and understanding that reflect equally basic structures of reality, thus facilitating their apprehension, makes intuitive sense, although this would suggest a form of Lamarckian evolution that can transfer acquired traits of the phenotype (at the level of experience and knowledge) into the genotype (at the level of heredity and instincts). Such a transfer has never been demonstrated empirically and remains controversial in evolutionary biology.

Secondly, if indeed such basic structures of meaning and understanding are innate, notwithstanding the difficulty of explaining how they came to be imprinted in our genome, instead of relying exclusively on cultural modes of transmission, they must remain sufficiently vague to allow change and creativity. The reverse would run counter to the plasticity and adaptability of the human brain that constitute the high point of its evolution.

Having said this, perhaps the most poignant aspect of Jordan Peterson’s philosophy is the criticism he levels at postmodern relativism in the matter of belief and values. He bemoans the loss of religious traditions—initially called into question by the Enlightenment and later dismissed by postmodernism as subjective human constructs—to the extent that they supplied an accessible archive of metaphysical and moral truths that was intellectually grounding, socially rallying, and spiritually uplifting. From this perspective, the excesses of materialism and consumerism, which often operate in tandem with nihilism or cynicism, are a pathetically vain attempt at filling the gaping hole that is now the postmodern placeholder of the soul. Likewise, through this philosophical lens, fascism and totalitarianism appear as forms of spiritual wastelands that brandish political dogmatism as contemptible ersatz of divine truths. 

What is Peterson’s remedy against these evils, contentiously attributed to the “death of God,” shockingly proclaimed by Friedrich Nietzsche? It is nothing short of individual heroism in carrying the burden of meaning with due diligence, under a new covenant with religious traditions, profoundly revisited and critically reevaluated, together with the courage to act virtuously, striking the right balance between human rights and social duties.

Now, at this time in history, when secular thought has gained enough maturity to provide rational underpinnings for a good life and a good society (at least in principle, while in practice humanity fumbles for these ideals with limited success, when it doesn’t simply fail, because of laziness, greed, stupidity, or ignorance), why should we turn our gaze to religious traditions as staple foods for thought, instead of homing in on science and Western or Eastern philosophies, from ancient times onwards? Examples of philosophies are those of Plato, Aristotle, and Zeno of Citium, the founder of stoicism, or those of Confucius and Buddha, together with those of John Locke or John Stuart Mill and his predecessor, Jeremy Bentham, the founder of utilitarianism, and more recently those of John Rawls—a champion of liberalism striving to reconcile individual freedom and distributive justice—and Sam Harris. It is worth noting that the latter’s essay “The Moral Landscape” argues against David Hume that affective facts of consciousness, such as desire and aversion or joy and suffering, hold implicit values that have normative force relative to ethics.

Actually, Jordan Peterson is not opposed to any soul-searching individual parsing such a vast corpus of philosophical meanderings, quite the contrary, but his insistence on restoring faith in the ideological relevance and narrative potency of Scriptures relates to a point made earlier. In contrast to the exceedingly dry, intricate, and abstract distillations of philosophy that interest a small subgroup of sophisticated thinkers, biblical stories that give expression to archetypal “maps of meaning”—as the subconscious bedrock of intuitive understanding—enjoy mass appeal. They speak directly to the heart and are therefore considerably more engaging than the brainy indulgences of reason, often lost in convoluted and bewildering expositions. 

In response to such an earnest effort to rehabilitate religious traditions, Sam Harris and like intellectuals are adamant in maintaining that these traditions are better tossed in the dustbin of history by reason of the tedious necessity to separate the wheat of universal truths they admittedly contain from their massive amount of chaff, which here symbolizes an exasperating array of delusions and barbarisms. While this may be too harsh a stance, in comparison to a more forgiving disposition to approach these antiquated traditions with a mix of open-mindedness and critical thinking, the question remains as follows: How can the largely unpopular wares of science and philosophy compete with the drawing power of creation myths and other profoundly inspired stories (as they leverage deep-seated structures of meaning, regardless of their genetic or experiential nature), not to mention the concomitant habits they induce? Truth is one thing; receptiveness to truth is another. The effectiveness of honesty hinges on a clear grasp of this important distinction. And the same can be said of education that strives to elicit the fundamental realities of the world.

So where do we go from there? My answer to this question should be taken with a grain of salt, as should any other answer for that matter, given our human condition of imperfection. While I have dedicated my entire adult life of approximately 40 years to such philosophical investigations, I remain an amateur, not an academic or so-called expert. I offer my readers this self-deprecating caveat to sharpen their critical sense, but I also invite them to give my answer enough benefit of the doubt to take it seriously, as an opportunity to think for themselves about the way forward and reach an answer of their own. I am of the opinion that the scourge of dogmatism and bigotry is the deadliest enemy of civilization.

To begin with, judging from the increasing number of atheists and agnostics who proclaim that they enjoy a personal form of spirituality that is distinct from religiosity and yet affords them a fulfilling sense of order and direction, along with a reliable moral compass, it appears safe to conclude the following: A meaningful life that is respectful of others and the environment is entirely conceivable without God, the latter understood in the context of the Judeo-Christian tradition.

The fact remains, however, that the exacting discourses of science and philosophy trail far behind religion and its fantastical narratives in terms of intuitive intelligibility and seductive power. There is clearly a trend in trying to bridge this gap by creating scientific and philosophical content that is accessible and appealing to the masses, but this effort is relatively new historically. There is still a long way to go before science and philosophy join forces and succeed in putting forth a compelling worldview that is both grounded in reality and intimately habitable—to wit, amenable to human concerns and aspirations.

In the end, absent any general consensus as to what this compelling worldview consists of, the onus is on us individually to pursue our own brand of wisdom with the help of luminaries who radiate with penetrating insights—which should be pondered at length, questioned at every turn, and adopted or altered according to our inner sense of truth. To that effect, social life must be characterized by tolerance: a balanced combination of freedom for all and mutual respect that favors this individual pursuit with nothing but the law imposing constraints. These constraints are the necessary requirements of civilization as a bulwark against a jungle-like (dog-eat-dog) form of pandemonium.

By way of conclusion, allow me to share with you in broad lines some of the salient aspects of my perspective on things (expounded in my essay Meditation Time, Know Yourself and the World Around You), which is decidedly secular. It may serve as a collection of signposts to guide you through your cogitations and help you devise your own map of reality and life path. Feel free to challenge what you will, although I believe that we should all be wary of both our convictions and reservations, without falling prey to chronic vacillation. The decisive point is to be diligent in giving whatever insight due consideration before accepting or rejecting it, either in part or in full.

1. There is no habit that is more instrumental in acquiring self-knowledge than mindfulness, as a disciplined attention to the unfolding of our lives in every dimension of our experience. Likewise, there is no skill that contributes more to this knowledge than adaptability or the ability to cope with difficulties. We then find our place in the world with some measure of composure and contentment, enough to accept our situation and see it for what it is instead of indulging in denial and wishful thinking.

2. Self-knowledge is in truth a mind-blowing concept, to the extent that it shatters the common illusion of a self that can be meaningfully abstracted from its natural and social context, on the one hand, and from its creative and nurturing foundation, on the other. 

Indeed, the self is embedded in nature and society or exists dynamically and interactively with everything. It is an unstable locus of interconnection and interdependence with our surroundings, which ultimately extend to the entire universe. It is destined to change and eventually perish as a temporal human form that proceeds from a timeless foundation whose creative and nurturing qualities can appropriately be portrayed as divine versus trivial.

Here the concept of divinity is a mere token of reverence toward the generative power of this foundation without which absolute nothingness would prevail. Additionally, in the current framework, the distinction between temporal form and timeless foundation is purely analytical; both refer to the two complementary aspects of a single reality. Furthermore, the representation of this foundation as one aspect of a twofold but unified whole is a logical conclusion drawn from a factual observation: The human form encompasses every force, element or structure of the universe as we know it scientifically, and yet it behaves as a single, unified entity, notwithstanding its complexity. It is a point of universal convergence that necessarily issues from a generative unity. In other words, no chaos of disjointed causes could beget the organically inclusive and cohesive reality of the human form as their natural effect. Lastly, this human form is a highly evolved organism whose living status implies the power to live and even thrive. Its divine foundation is equally creative and nurturing in the sense that it gives life and supports it, to the degree that it can. Similarly, a loving mother brings a child into the world and does her best to procure the means of living and thriving for this child.

3. Our human form is most likely to live and thrive if it fully embodies the creative and nurturing qualities of its divine foundation by acting responsibly and constructively in maximum accordance with life, for the purpose of a good life. We then adapt resourcefully and propitiously to change, day after day until death, which only concerns our temporal human form, not our timeless divine foundation. As such, death opens onto a transcendent eternity or inconceivable beyond.

The act of living in maximum accordance with life, for the purpose of a good life, is an act of self-care as an expression of self-love. However, self-awareness teaches us that our self is an unstable locus of interconnection and interdependence with our natural and social environment whose ambit stretches from our immediate surroundings to those that are remote or further still infinitely. Our act of self-care as an expression of self-love should therefore be universally inclusive, while keeping in mind that we cannot strive toward the common good in the broadest sense without being alive and relatively well to begin with. This means that the universal inclusiveness of our act of self-care as an expression of self-love demands a compromise that imposes limitations across the board.

4. Essentially, science methodically investigates the outward manifestations of the divine foundation in question. These manifestations constitute as a whole an evolutionary process that implies a perpetual transition from potentiality to actuality and vice-versa. Things that are presently manifest were not so at an earlier time and eventually will no longer be manifest; likewise, things that are not manifest but are potentially so may become manifest at a later time, and so on and so forth indefinitely. In its non-manifest or potential form, in contrast to its manifest or actual form, the divine foundation of all things and beings in the universe transcends experience. As such, it exceeds the empirical grounds of knowledge and therefore lies beyond every image or concept that is predicated on these grounds.

A crucial point—that I owe to the philosopher Philip Goff—about science is that the scientific method dates back in the first instance to Galileo who elected to restrict the scope of science to the objective and quantifiable aspect of the world (which could be translated rigorously in the language of mathematics), thereby leaving out the subjective and qualitative aspect of the scientists or any other sentient entity. Consequently, science proves intrinsically inapt to deliver the goods on the subject of consciousness proper, as opposed to brain states that correlate with consciousness and can be observed via functional MRI’s in the context of neurobiological studies. 

Some philosophers of science like Daniel Dennet conveniently dismiss consciousness as an illusion, which is self-defeating for the simple reason that consciousness is the seat of experience and thus of science itself. Indeed, if we assume that consciousness is an illusion (although this assumption is contradictory: An illusion presupposes consciousness), then experience and the science we derive from it follow suit and any scientific truth claim about anything is illusory. This is especially the case with consciousness, which is outside the range of scientific competency, at least in the current incarnation of science, framed in materialistic reductionism.

The philosopher David Chalmers appositely refers to consciousness as the “hard problem.” How can the inward reality of consciousness—or more generally sentience as the capacity for experience, no matter how elementary—be explained on the basis of a purely physical universe, reduced to the outward appearance of things? Arguably it doesn’t make ontological sense, even if we bring to bear the evolutionary process that introduces the concept of emergence in proportion to an increasing order of complexity. That is, the kind of novelty emerging from this increase should in the main be congruent with the nature of being observed at the lower thresholds of complexity. Similarly, the butterfly and the wormlike larva from which it grows into a winged insect of aerial beauty share a common seminal origin that operates within an internally consistent plane of reality. Therefore, the subjective quality of sentience cannot logically be derived from an objective quantity of stuff, reductively characterized as strictly physical, without invoking a miraculous singularity, no less outlandish than the story of God infusing spirit into matter that Abrahamic religions would have you believe.

In the final analysis, it appears that panpsychism is the most ontologically coherent theoretical option, although ironically it is largely untestable or unfalsifiable, and hence unscientific. Panpsychism posits tentatively that the universe is a twofold if unified whole comprising an intangible inner dimension of sentience, ranging from the most elementary to the most complex, and a perceivable outer dimension of physicality. This twofold if unified whole seems best described by the concept of logos as the divine language specific to the creative and nurturing foundation of the universe. Of special interest is the parallel that can be drawn between the sentience/physicality complex and its signified/signifier homolog, inspired by the linguist Ferdinand de Saussure who held that the union of form and content is the basic condition for a meaningful discourse.

5. When touching on the issues of the evolutionary process and the generative power that undergirds this process, from the most elementary phenomena to the most complex, we implicitly raise the question of universal determinism.

This brings me to a historical turning point in the exploration of this question, pitting Albert Einstein, whose theory of general relativity was in keeping with that of determinism  (“God doesn’t play dice with the universe”), against the Copenhagen duo, Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg, who gave a probabilistic interpretation of quantum mechanics. According to this interpretation, a quantum mechanical system occupies a closed field of open possibilities, which remain in a state of superposition—presented as a wave function in Erwin Schrödinger’s equation—until the intervention of a measuring observer collapses the wave function or reduces the system to randomly settle into one of these possibilities.

To connect intuitively with this odd marriage of randomness and necessity, reminiscent of improvisational jazz that loosely follows a melody (striking metaphor from the astrophysicist Hubert Reeves), picture yourself wanting to purchase a Gala apple as you face a display of equally palatable Gala apples at a grocery store. You hem and haw for a minute, failing to see any reason to prefer one of these Gala apples over the others, when suddenly a second customer intimates that they would also like to avail themself of this display. Pressed to choose at once, you arbitrarily grab any of the equally palpable Gala apples before your eyes. Your choice is thereupon both a product of definite intention and protracted indecision that is resolved under pressure. 

Interestingly, if you complete this thought experiment by picturing a group of customers like you whose count equals the number of Gala apples in the display, you stumble on this epiphany: Collectively these customers wind up purchasing all the Gala apples in the display, as though their choices were a matter of unadulterated determination. Only when you increase the granularity of observation to the individual level does the odd marriage of randomness and necessity become evident.

I submit that depending on the scale of observation the world is either probabilistic—not merely due to a problem of measure but as a fact of nature—or seems deterministic.

6. For the purpose of self-adjustment, human consciousness is a flexible attitudinal interface that mediates the emotional responses of the individual to his or her circumstances, which offer a unique combination of difficulties and opportunities. The key to effective coping is adjusting our attitude toward our circumstances in such a constructive and active fashion that we achieve within their confines an appreciable measure of serenity and contentment. To put it differently in the form of a simile, the art of coping is like the art of sailing. In the face of a wind that feels contrary at first blush, the secret lies in looking past this bad initial impression and adjusting our sail appropriately, in order to harness the kinetic energy of the wind and propel ourselves favorably.

I shall end on that positive note, in spite of the temptation to further cover this inexhaustible topic, hoping that I have reached an acceptable middle ground between the impossibility of completeness and the desirability of substance.

Laurent Grenier, 3 August 2020

2 Comments

  1. Very thoughtful analysis, Laurent. I have some aliens in my computer. They are very wise, being billions of years old, and although their explanations to my hero are necessarily simplified, they are in substantial agreement with you.

    Like

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