How can life have meaning in a mechanical universe?

Discussion in 'General Philosophy' started by Magical Realist, Mar 2, 2013.

  1. Yazata Valued Senior Member

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    MR quotes Carl Sagan (one of my heroes, back in the day):

    The question there is what the word 'spirituality' is supposed to mean. It's clear that Sagan isn't using it in the ancient sense of 'touched by the holy spirit'. He seems to be using the word in the modern sense, where it refers to an emotion. Specifically to the kind of subjectively exalted emotion that religious people have felt when contemplating God. Sagan's saying that he thinks that one can feel the same kind of emotion when contemplating the universe. I think that's true.

    We seem pretty small when imagined in a frame that large. Many people have felt nothing more than insignificance when they think that way. Many people recoil away from it in horror.

    So what makes Sagan's cosmic vision so fulfilling to him? That's the question. My own sense is that astronomy kind of stimulated Sagan's personal religiosity. Astronomy was almost a substitute church for him. But what was it about astronomy that justified that?

    Contemplating the scale and the intricacy of the universe is beautiful to Sagan and it gives him a soaring feeling. He's elated. But why? What is it about big and complicated that feeds the same kind of emotion in Sagan that contemplating God does in others?

    Put in terms of the subject line of this thread -- a mechanistic clock-work might be big and intricate too. It might even be beautiful in a way. But where does all the spiritual elation come from?

    Obviously I never knew Sagan personally and never had the opportunity to talk to him. But my guess is that he felt, perhaps in some unspoken way, that the astronomical universe contained a mystery. A mystery that, if he could only penetrate it, would pay off for finite human beings like him in the same way that faith in God is supposed to pay off in the lives of religious believers. In a sense, I think that Sagan's elation at doing astronomy was his own personal version of what other people would call the search for the divine.

    In other words, for all of Sagan's avowed atheism, it was his religious quest. I have come around to the view that Sagan was a highly religious person, albeit religious in a highly personal and unorthodox way.

    It remains an open question whether his imagining the universe almost pantheistically, as if the immensity of the universe was somehow divine, was justified. (And if so, how.) That's basically the question of this thread, and in my opinion it's a valid and an important question in the philosophy of religion.
     
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  3. Yazata Valued Senior Member

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    That suggests what might be the fundamental question of the thread, really.

    What is it about believing ourselves to be part of a much larger whole that justifies the kind of emotion that the word 'spirituality' implies?

    Believing ourselves to be nothing more than insignificant specks doesn't seem to be all that uplifting. Believing ourselves to be nothing more than components in an unthinking and unfeeling clockwork doesn't really stimulate exalted emotional ecstasies.

    There seems to be something else hidden in there, an additional assumption, unstated but implicit.

    I'm not sure what it is.
     
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  5. Magical Realist Valued Senior Member

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    Wynn, not to sidetrack this thread to far, but I think it's naive to say mental illness isn't a real biologically-caused problem. My mother has been bipolar type 2 most her life and scientists now know bipolarism, as well as other disorders such as schizophrenia and depression and ADD, all spring up from the same gene complex and involve an inability to synthesize certain proteins in the brain. You really should research this on your own if you're not entirely adverse to scientific research. Now back to our regularly scheduled program...;-)
     
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  7. Magical Realist Valued Senior Member

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    Yazata, here's another quote by Sagan that swings back more to the "self-created meaning" pov. He's recognizing purposelessness while simultaneously leaving the door open to meaning. It's a subtle distinction but one most spiritual seekers can identify with I think. Does a tree have a purpose? Does a star have a purpose? Why would they need one, as if they were mere objects to be used and discarded. Their meaning is inseparable from their being. The same holds true for human beings imo..


    "The trap door beneath our feet swings open. We find ourselves in bottomless free fall. If it takes a little myth and ritual to get us through a night that seems endless, who among us cannot sympathize and understand?"


    "We long to be here for a purpose even though - despite much self-deception - none is evident. The significance of our lives and our fragile planet is determined only by our own wisdom and courage. We are the custodians of life's meaning. We long for a parent to care for us, to forgive us our errors, to save us from our childish mistakes. But knowledge is better than ignorance. Better by far to embrace the hard truth than a reassuring faith."


    "Modern science has been a voyage into the unknown with a lesson in humility waiting at every stop. Our commonsense intuitions can be mistaken, our preferences do not count. We do not live in a privileged reference frame. If we crave some cosmic purpose, then let us find a worthy goal."-- Carl Sagan --
    (1934-1996)
     
  8. Grumpy Curmudgeon of Lucidity Valued Senior Member

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    Magical Realist

    It is a FEELING, it may or may not be meaningful. But our feeling of spiritual connection with the Universe is only a subjective thing, it has no relevance to the question of universal meaning or purpose. Subjective meanings exist, universal meaning or purpose do not. It's all relative to the being who sees the meaning.

    Yes, all those things exist in subjective form. But the Universe is not looking back at you(though there may be other lifeforms who are, but they have their own subjective ideas of meaning, too.

    No question, but it is not Universal Meaning(TM), which is what you are trying to piggyback onto the very real subjective meanings we generate ourselves.

    I have already said(ad nauseum)that is what scientists mean by spirituality, and I have that in spades(though I would use other terms than reverence, it has too much supernatural baggage). The regard is even greater when you realize it was not meant to be that way, it just is that way.

    I don't, have you even read anything I have posted, again and again? I'll type slower so you can keep up. It gives me a feeling of awe, wonder, mystery to contemplate these things. BUT THAT FEELING OF MEANING IS PURELY SUBJECTIVE. THERE IS NO UNIVERSAL MEANINGS TO BE FOUND IN THE UNIVERSE.

    We are only part of that whole, the ONLY part of the Universe that sees or has meaning(that we know of so far). Even the vast majority of life is incapable of conceiving of a meaning, other than to reproduce(the only OBJECTIVE meaning we know of). Any meaning we see was constructed by us, the Universe just is.

    Yes, it actually does. We know of no reason why the Universe's constants are the way they are, but they were established early and may or may not have been random. Within those boundaries of the behavior of the Universe, it's all been random since then.

    And this is where your logic train derails, there is no higher order directing events in the Universe, just clockwork and random chance, just it's own inherent laws and constants. There are no purposeful acts besides our own anywhere to be found. The "higher order" is where the theists depart for their journey, not where spiritual scientists want to go(they know it is a mirage).

    Again, so you finally get the point, all meaning we see is subjective to us. No meaning, purpose or intent is evident in the Universe(IE no UNIVERSAL meaning, purpose or intent), and scientists don't create or add one to it, though theists do. Both feel a spiritual connection, but the scientist doesn't usually believe spirits exist. Therefore, spirituality is not the exclusive domain of those who believe in spirits(higher powers, gods, demons, UFOs, whatever).

    Grumpy

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  9. Trooper Secular Sanity Valued Senior Member

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    I think that we have to be careful to not give too much weight to the affect that humans will have on a grand scale. It’s elevating humanity to an unrealistic level and simply masquerades as being spiritual. Is the Universe divine, sentient, or self-aware? No, and the universe does not require love, respect, or worship. We respect it for our own sake, and strive to prolong life...best, longest, most pleasantly, but the universe does not care about us.
     
  10. Magical Realist Valued Senior Member

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    Grumpy, I know that in a materialistic purely objective worldview such as your's "subjective" equates to "unreal." But it is not. In fact all of life is a subjective experience. All of consciousness is a subjective state opened up to exploring a transcending reality. When one is having a subjective experience of meaning, they are having a REAL experience of meaning.


    This is not to say that subjective meaning can't be generated with delusions and with chemical intoxicants (you're familiar with that one aren't you?). But feeling connected to the universe in the sense that it is meant to be therefore you are meant to be IS REAL meaning based on a real consciousness of one's objective existence in an objective universe.

    You can't legitimately separate "subjective" and "objective". They are fused together in every experience we have. Everything, even your view of a meaningless universe, is a specific belief formed from a specific subjective pov. IOW, it gives you subjective feelings of pride and courage and moral virtue to believe this. That you can handle the unbearable truth of living inside a meaningless machine. That's fine. But at least admit that you too are experiencing all this subjectively no less than the mystic experiences himself to be one with it all. Your's is the heroism of Sisyphus who, condemned to an eternity in Tartarus, must push the giant stone uphill only to have it roll back down again. That is indeed admirable. But it is a myth nonetheless..
     
    Last edited: Mar 14, 2013
  11. Magical Realist Valued Senior Member

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    True..Carefully must we trod that thin line between anthropocentric specialness and cosmic identity. Perhaps we can best think this as Blake did, as two opposite poles in a spectrum:

    “If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro' narrow chinks of his cavern.”
    ― William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell
     
  12. Trooper Secular Sanity Valued Senior Member

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    Perhaps...
    Good day to you, Magical Realist.

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  13. jayleew Who Cares Valued Senior Member

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    What does it matter if life has meaning in a mechanical universe? What use is meaning? The meaning to life has and always is what you make of it, in a mechanical universe or not.
     
  14. Magical Realist Valued Senior Member

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    It matters to most humans that their life is more than the product of random movements of particles. It matters because people are not machines but freethinking persons full of dreams and hopes and aspirations that feel they have a purpose in the scheme of things. To others it may not matter. Which is fine too. There's certainly no obligation here to have meaning when you don't want any.



    Meaning isn't a means to an end. It is an end in itself. Asking what use is it is like asking what is the use of a great work of art or beautiful symphony. It's reason for being lies totally in itself.



    Yep..meaning's a choice. And meaninglessness is a choice too. We are all free to pursue the path that suits us best. To each their own and to each event its own time. It's all good..
     
  15. Crunchy Cat F-in' *meow* baby!!! Valued Senior Member

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    Some people have a deep rooted emotional need for objective meaning.

    It satisfies an emotional need.

    That is subjective meaning. It's very healthy too.
     
  16. Balerion Banned Banned

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    I'm not so sure. Do you really think there's a functional difference between subjective and objective meaning?
     
  17. Magical Realist Valued Senior Member

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    "From primal mist of matter to spiraled galaxies and clockwork solar systems, from molten rock to an earth of air and land and water, from heaviness to lightness to life, sensation to perception, memory to consciousness-man now holds a mirror, spirit sees itself. Within the river currents turn back, eddies whirl. The river itself falters, disappears, emerges, moves on. The general course is the growth of form, increasing awareness, matter to mind to consciousness. The harmony of man and nature is to be found in continuing this journey along its ancient course toward greater freedom and awareness."---Allen Wheelis
     
  18. Crunchy Cat F-in' *meow* baby!!! Valued Senior Member

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    Only to the person whom perceives that they need one or the other (or both).
     
  19. Balerion Banned Banned

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    I don't think that's true. I think people who feel the need for purpose are driven by the same thing, and the question of whether it's "higher" meaning or just "local" meaning is incidental.
     
  20. Grumpy Curmudgeon of Lucidity Valued Senior Member

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    Magical Realist

    You "know" nothing of the sort. Subjective purpose is not universal purpose. Subjective meaning is not Universal Meaning(tm). Subjective purpose is real and it exists. Subjective meaning is the only kind there is. How many times do I have to say it before you quit trying to construct a strawman out of things I am saying. Your statement above was not only a lie, it was a damned stupid lie(obvious to anyone following along). Stop it.

    Do you not even KNOW the difference between Objective meaning and subjective meaning. And you need to define real, lest you slip the Universal into that concept, or some concept that a real feeling is a real piece of evidence for something. When a theists says there is objective meaning to the Universe he means it was created for the purpose of giving him a nice place to live(in one way or another), by his super-powered magic fairy freind in the sky. That is a type of meaning that just doesn't exist. Subjective meaning is generated solely in the mind who feels it, it is unique to the subject holding it(thus subjective). That you see meaning is not evidence of anything but your opinion, even if others agree with you and see the same meaning. A real subjective experience of meaning does not translate to saying the Universe has meaning. It only says you see a meaning in the Universe, an opinion, nothing else. And all purpose in the Universe is a choice by it's inhabitants, individually or in concert, not something the Universe told you to do.

    "If we crave some cosmic purpose, then let us find a worthy goal."-- Carl Sagan

    Carl used metaphors similar to religion, but he agreed with me, we must choose our own purpose if a purpose is what we seek. The Universe has no purpose or meaning to give us, we must make it for ourselves.

    Grumpy

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  21. gmilam Valued Senior Member

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    I disagree. It appears to me that people would prefer to be told what to do as opposed to figuring it out for themselves.
     
  22. Balerion Banned Banned

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    I don't see what that has to do with what I said.
     
  23. gmilam Valued Senior Member

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    Objective - external, handed down from above.
    Subjective - personal, up to the individual

    Another intuitive leap that appears obvious to me. :shrug:

    I'm happy with deciding my own purpose. Others seem to have a need to be told what they are supposed to be doing.
     

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