I am a materialist, in the sense that I believe the entire universe is made of matter that follows laws. I do not believe in the existence of anything supernatural or otherwise that can act in violation of the laws of science. As such, I do not think that the universe has any meaning in itself. The universe just is and any meaning that exists is what we construct. This does not bother me.
Jessica Tracy, a professor of psychology at the university of British Columbia, started out with beliefs similar to mine and was quite comfortable with them but then, at the age of forty, says that she suffered an existential crisis.
Suddenly, I was unable to stop thinking about the meaninglessness of my existence. Religious belief, the most obvious source of meaning available to many people when those big ‘Why are we here?’ questions come up, was not an option. As a scientist, I had always abided by the dictates of materialism: the central scientific doctrine holding that everything that matters is measurable. Materialism is largely responsible for the uncountable scientific advances our culture has accumulated over the past several centuries, from smartphones to vaccines. At the same time, it has placed a clear-cut kibosh on the possibility of a supernatural deity running the show.
In fact, one of science’s main draws for me was its airtight logic and appeal to rationality. I had no interest in seeking a source of meaning that requires abandoning – or at least setting aside – the critical thinking that my scientific background had instilled deep within me. And yet, as I hit midlife, I realised that science’s hardcore materialism was devastating me.
Fair enough. We all seek different things in life and for some people, the need for meaning external to themselves is essential. As the film cliche goes, they simply cannot handle the truth.
But then she extrapolates from her own experience to draw an unsustainable conclusion about human beings in general, that they all need a particular kind of meaning “that comes from existential mattering: the belief that your life is significant in the grand scheme of things; that your existence actually matters to the universe.” [My italics-MS]
She goes on:
[A]ccording to a study by Vlad Costin and Vivian Vignoles, existential mattering is not merely one of the three ingredients needed for a meaningful life, it’s the most important one. People whose lives feel coherent and purposeful but irrelevant to the universe are less likely to believe that their lives as a whole have meaning, compared with those who feel that their lives existentially matter, even if they lack coherence or purpose.
The scientific perspective I’d followed for most of my life says this is some tough luck: coherence and purpose are all we get in a world shaped by random chance and natural selection. We have no choice but to face the facts, accept that life has no intrinsic value, keep calm and carry on.
She then concludes that the idea that the universe has no meaning does not come from science but from what she refers to as scientism, a belief structure that she lays at the feet of Francis Bacon whose goal she says was to “predict, control and conquer nature” and that ‘why’ questions were irrelevant. The word scientism is usually used mildly pejoratively and can mean different things, such as “excessive belief in the power of scientific knowledge and techniques”.
She thinks that meaning can be retrieved via a field of study called ‘systems theory’.
Developed in the 1970s by a group of thinkers including the anthropologist Gregory Bateson, systems theory argues that patterns are as important and real as things. According to Bateson, cells, storms, ecosystems and families – each of which is obviously different from each other in terms of its material components – function according to the same patterns and internal feedback loops. Each of these complex systems includes both material components (in the case of a cell, that’s the molecules it’s made of) and a nonmaterial organising pattern (for a cell, that’s its metabolism). From the perspective of scientism, the material components of these systems are real but their associated patterns are mere conceptual tools that we use to make sense of the real stuff, such as matter and energy. But there is no reason – beyond the assumptions required by materialism – to draw this distinction.
The essay then becomes a little woolly as to why these patterns constitute a non-material meaning, and becomes yet another paean to the wonders of nature and the universe.
Knowing this has allowed me to navigate the crisis of meaning I experienced almost a decade ago. I am no longer the existentially anxious, hardcore materialist I was when I got tenure. Now I see the possibility of real, legitimate meaning in the wonder and intimacy I feel in a forest, or when I look up at the stars outside my bedroom window. I know that what I’m experiencing in these moments is not the result of a story I’ve told myself, but rather a true communion with my biological origins and relatives. What I’m feeling is my presence within a larger system. And, as an integral part of that system, my life matters.
It is no fun to go through an existential crisis and I am glad that Tracy has found some way to find meaning in her life. But I would argue that what she has done is create meaning for herself, the way that all of us do in various ways. Materialistic beliefs do not stop anyone from doing so. All that it says is that meaning is not something that the universe bequeaths to us.