Tag Archives: science

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?

Nothing Against Logicians! Promise!

A properly functioning mind can destroy itself. It can think itself, in a logical and rational pattern, into madness. But that’s really more about the motive than the mode. It’s not logic and rationality themselves that are the source of the problem. In that respect, my recent quotation of G.K. Chesterton might have been misleading in regards to my outlook. Chesterton wrote, “The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.” But I don’t have anything against logicians! Promise! I have no campaign against logic or rationality. From classical Stoicism to contemporary psychological therapies like logotherapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy, and rational emotive behavior therapy, logical and rational thinking has been a sturdy pattern for healthiness. But logic and rationality also could be used in an unhealthy way. In quoting Chesterton there, my point was to identify a problem that was once explained by an evangelical psychologist, Larry Crabb. “There is an enormous difference between the joy of discovery and the passion to explain,” Crabb wrote. “The former gives life a sense of adventure. The latter makes us hate mystery.” And, I think, as Chesterton suggests, that passion to explain gets exhausting, overwhelming, and eventually, devastating. So his single metaphorical dichotomy provides me inexhaustible help: I’m not trying to get the heavens into my head; I’m just trying to get my head into the heavens. And by heavens, I’m thinking figuratively. I’m thinking about all the questions and all the data and all the good theories and all the history and all the apparent unknowns—better to sit within it all than to insist upon a perfectly systematic account for it all. The former is wonderful; the latter is exhausting. I think someone could simultaneously say discovery in any field is an amazing, exhilarating journey, and logical, rational methods help discovery on its way. Motivation makes the difference.


Apologetic From The Earth


On ‘Some Practical Thoughts on Suicide’ from The Blog of Author Tim Ferriss

Tim Ferriss is one of the most interesting guys out there. In this long and worthwhile post, he talks about a time of depression and suicidal ideation.

I’m linking to and excerpting the post not merely as a public service announcement, although that aspect is certainly critical.

Ferriss’s post fits with the overall purpose of my blog. Unfortunately, the research is consistent and clear: for many who have suffered religious authoritarianism, spiritual abuse, or cult dynamics, suicide can be a real, substantial temptation.

Ferriss doesn’t seem to be a religious man in any traditional sense of the word, but he makes an interesting observation:

I personally believe that consciousness persists after physical death, and it dawned on me that I literally had zero evidence that my death would improve things. It’s a terrible bet. At least here, in this life, we have known variables we can tweak and change. The unknown void could be Dante’s Inferno or far worse. When we just “want the pain to stop,” it’s easy to forget this. You simply don’t know what’s behind door #3.  — via Some Practical Thoughts on Suicide | The Blog of Author Tim Ferriss.

Read the entire post: Some Practical Thoughts on Suicide | The Blog of Author Tim Ferriss.

Some Christian beliefs make matters worse, insisting that God ordains each sin (and suicide is considered a sin).

However logically and systematically consistent some theological thinkers might be, the idea of God ordaining horrible things is abhorrent.

At very least we could acknowledge that an impassible God becoming incarnate to die in place of his creatures is anything but logical. Perhaps loving, but not logical.

Here one of G.K. Chesterton’s quotes pops into mind: “The mad man is not the man who has lost his reason. The mad man is the man who has lost everything except his reason.”

Maybe some theological thinkers have been orthodox and mad.

Logical and insane.

Logic and analysis are good. Problems come along when a mind becomes so focused on and so obsessed with the parts that it can no longer see the connections and the wholes. No one can live while seeing only fragments and pieces.

Which reminds me of a thought that, I think, came from C.S. Lewis: for the modernistic scientist, a real bird is a bird opened on the dissection table, pinned down and pulled apart. In an earlier time, a real bird was a bird on the wing, with its song.

Everyone knows the bird has guts. But even in a natural order sparked by a blind watchmaker, who would think the bird exists merely in relation to the functioning of its internal organs? The bird exists in relation to the rest of the natural order — bugs, fish, soil, water, and trees, as well as humans and human culture. We appreciate these relationships — they’ve been there as long as we can remember, as far back as we can see in art and literature.

Endless dissection is useful, even helpful, but discoveries made through analysis are never for themselves, but for better understandings of wholes.

Over-analysis of a single situation leads into a singular focus, a mental microscope on a single cell, with no context for its wider circumstances, its situations and connections. The suicidal person might feel like this one bad circumstance is all there is. But there is so much more.

So for some scientists and some theologians, reasoning has been a force for good, for making connections and seeing wholes, for continuing to live in spite of extraordinary difficulties.

They use reasoning to see the connections and the wholes — in other words, the meaningfulness of everything that exists.

Also see:

Walker Percy’s passage on “the ex-suicide” from his book Lost in the Cosmos.

Ooh child, things are gonna get easier? Michael Shermer on his new book, ‘The Moral Arc’


Scientific convention and grammatical convention

“…scientific convention decides whether an eel shall be a fish or a snake, and grammatical convention determines what experiences shall be called objects and what shall be called events or actions.” — A. Watts, in The Way of Zen, quoted in Building a Bridge to the Eighteenth Century by Neil Postman

Creating religious experiences in the lab; is your experience of faith all in the brain?

In this video, Michael Shermer dons the “God Helmet,” and neuroscientists explain the experience.