Category Archives: theory

Should You Perceive Meaning in Nature?

If humans can manipulate some aspect of nature—in other words, if humans find a way to perform godlike miracles with the building blocks of, say, biology—does that mean whatever’s manipulable has no meaning? And, implicitly, has no divine origin? Along those lines, I recently found a quotation from one of the Inklings, and I thought the idea was worth wrestling with.

In the 1970s, Owen Barfield—a close friend of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien— wrote: “Amid all the menacing signs that surround us in the middle of this twentieth century, perhaps the one which fills thoughtful people with the greatest sense of forboding is the growing sense of meaninglessness. It is this which underlies most of the other threats. How is it that the more able man becomes to manipulate the world to his advantage, the less he can perceive any meaning in it?”

Isolate the assumption in that question and convert it into a statement: “The more able man becomes to manipulate the world to his advantage, the less he can perceive any meaning in it.”

I’m inclined to agree, probably because I’ve read enough of Lewis to get an inevitable splash of Barfield, but how true is that statement, really? Is it true often enough, generally enough?

Probably, but then why?

Maybe the more “we” (some group within the human race) find nature manipulable, the more we assume its value is reducible. In other words, maybe humans once assumed nature was set by God in some inviolable way, and when we realized we could manipulate it, suddenly nature seemed violable, therefore less valuable, less absolute, less a reflection of divinity.

The more it can be manipulated, we assume (perhaps unconsciously), the less it must be a creation of a divine power, and if something has less value, it seems to mean less (the way value is applied and understood and designated is a lot to think about). If some divinity made nature, why would mere mortals be able to mess with it?

But along those lines, the ability to manipulate is not a simple either-or situation. It has matters of degree. Should our ability to manipulate nature (a big, abstract ability) be any more surprising than our ability to make a salad from wild vegetables? To make a shelter from trees and branches?

But then there’s that popular Internet meme: “The sciences can tell you how to clone a T-Rex. The humanities can tell you why that might not be a good idea.”

At any rate, I’m not sure Barfield was precisely correct in the above quotation. It could be that, on a popular level, certain assumptions about nature, science, and progress became “viral” before the Internet was part of our daily lives. (Late evangelical thinker Francis Schaeffer, decades before the Internet, once suggested that Americans get their opinions like they catch cold viruses—they’re not sure where they got those opinions, but they certainly got them.) So certain assumptions—and maybe inclinations of attitude—made Western people less likely to perceive meaning, but maybe not less able. Not less able, just less inclined.

Furthermore, whether from a metaphysical point of view or a naturalistic point of view, wouldn’t nature have to be meaningful?

Conor Cruise O’Brien: A forgotten article

One of my favorite National Review pieces was the cover article for the April 22, 1996 edition. It was “Liberalism and Terror” by the late Conor Cruise O’Brien, who died last Thursday, and the article was an outstanding example of insightful and intellectually vigorous writing. In his honor, I offer two paragraphs from “Liberalism and Terror.”

Liberalism and terrorism appear as opposing concepts. But they have something in common. Both belong to the large and heterogeneous family of the devotees of freedom. Freedom is the most powerful and the most ambiguous of abstract ideas. There are two main divisions within the massive ambiguities. There is freedom combined with order and limited by law. This is the freedom of England’s Glorious Revolution and of the American Constitution. This is the “manly, moral, regulated liberty” which Burke defended in Reflections on the Revolution in France. This is the freedom of the mainstream liberal tradition in the English-speaking world. And it is also the freedom of the mainstream conservative tradition in the same world. In their philosophy of freedom, the common ground between the two traditions is more important than the differences. Edmund Burke belongs to both those traditions, and no one should seek to wrest him from one of them in order to monopolize him for the other.

Outside the zone of ordered freedom, now more or less coextensive with the Western world, the idea of freedom and the love of freedom take starker and more elemental forms. Freedom is thought of as the appurtenance and rightful heritage of a particular group of people defined by nationality, religion, language, ancestry, or territorial affiliation, and usually by some combination of several of these elements. Some other group or groups of people are felt to be denying freedom to us, who must have it. Freedom so understood is one of the most powerful of human motivating forces and the most destructive, impelling large numbers of people to risk their lives for it and to take the lives of others, the enemies of freedom. Serbs and Croats cut one another’s throats, and all for freedom’s sake.