Materialism, scientism, and meaning

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.


  1. sonofrojblake says

    I think there’s something wrong with me (quiet, ye chorus of people agreeing). I’m in my mid fifties, and I’ve never in my life expected the universe to have meaning or expected that there had to be some purpose to it. It just is.

    I get that it’s something that happens to other people, like being right-handed or colour-blind or Tory, but it seems to just be one of those things my brain doesn’t/can’t do.

    Thank God. 😉

  2. billseymour says

    What always bothers me about discussions like this is that they throw around the word “meaning” willy nilly.  Does “meaning” have some technical definition in philosophy that I’m unaware of?  If not, then phrases like “meaning of life” do not themselves mean anything.

  3. larpar says

    “What I’m feeling is my presence within a larger system. And, as an integral part of that system, my life matters.”
    Sorry, but you are not “integral”. Nobody is. The “system” will carry on with or without you.

  4. Matt G says

    I also experience the world as a materialist, but that doesn’t prevent me from loving my friends and family, enjoying a crisp, fall morning, or feeling contempt for ignorant, bigoted people. If she -- or anyone else -- needs to find “meaning” outside of things like these, more power to them. But they shouldn’t assume others need to fabricate a “systems theory” to address their existential crises, or that others even experience such crises.

  5. Rob Grigjanis says

    In moments of existential crisis, I comfort myself with the words of that estimable philosopher, Popeye the Sailor Man;

    I yam what I yam, and dat’s all what I yam.

  6. says

    @larpar, No. 3 you wrote:

    Sorry, but you are not “integral”. Nobody is. The “system” will carry on with or without you.

    More correctly, I would suggest, “A system will carry on with or without you.” The presence or absence of any individual has unforeseen, possibly unforeseeable, consequences and the magnitude of those consequences are most likely unpredictable given our limited understanding at present.

    If I get hit by a car tomorrow, the world as I’ve known it, I think, will carry on quite nicely, thank you very much. If a car runs over Vladimir Putin tomorrow, there will be global consequences (and celebration).

  7. johnson catman says

    hyphenman @6:

    If a car runs over Vladimir Putin tomorrow, there will be global consequences (and celebration).

    Or if he fell out of a window. ;-P

  8. Pierce R. Butler says

    Wow -- haven’t heard Gregory Bateson mentioned all this century (despite his fame 50-odd years ago (in large part as husband of Margaret Mead)).

    He got a lot of things right -- systems theory means a whole more than we’re-all-one sense-of-wonder -- and some wrong (turns out there is a biochemical component to schizophrenia, not just contradictory cognitive models).

    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 ..

    Basic recycled/popularized Alfred North Whitehead -- Prof. Tracy might do well to open his Science and the Modern World (1925) and other works.

  9. flex says

    I wonder if another identified personality trait maps to this one. The internal/external locus of control.

    I have an internal locus of control. I get my feelings of accomplishment, my feelings of value, from me. I don’t rely on others to feel like I’ve accomplished anything. I don’t expect to get praise, or criticism, at work or anywhere else. I will judge my life against the criteria I’ve set for myself, not against values set by other people.

    My wife has an external locus of control. She gets her feeling of worth through interactions with other people. She wants praise, she hates criticism. She can be very critical of her workplace when they don’t acknowledge how valuable her contributions are. If she tries something a few times which doesn’t work, she stops trying, forever. She has a hard time forgiving people who hurt her.

    Now, I recognize that no one is fully one or the other. At different times in our lives, and in different situations we find ourselves in, we can be exhibit either an external or internal locus of control. But could this trait be related to the occasional search for meaning in the universe?

    For people who with an external locus of control, who already are looking for approval from others, and adjust their behavior based on their understanding of the likes and dislikes of others, could they have epiphanies where the entire universe much have some meaning to justify their own existence? Is the Professor of Applied Anthropics at the Unseen University correct, the universe exists so that there could be a Professor of Applied Anthropics?

    I don’t think so, but what do I know?

  10. Jean says

    So she goes from what she calls scientism to what I call ‘woo’ and declares that we all need ‘woo’…

    The way I see it, the universe is a big self-organizing, self-operating and perpetual Rube Goldberg machine and we’re just along for the ride. We don’t have a say in how it goes on (no free will) and we’re just as meaningful as an infinitesimally small part of the machine. But what we do feel is real (even without free will) and that’s meaningful enough for me (but I don’t have a real choice in feeling that…).

  11. John Morales says

    I see Pierce also thought of Whitehead, as this seems to be a form of process theology.

    Of course, it is meaningless to talk about meaning in itself; it only exists in relation to some perception by someone. No mind, no meaning.

    (Tree falling in the forest stuff)

  12. birgerjohansson says

    Fans of Douglas Adams will Immediately remember the infinite perspective vortex, the device that shows the Universe, and yourself in perspective to it (the second book in the Hitch-hiker series).
    Captured enemies of the Frogstar Fighters were forced to look into it, and the shock would inevitably destroy them.
    Having an existential chrisis where you evaluate yourself in relation to the cosmos is like *voluntarily* looking into that vortex.
    No wonder that people find religion.

  13. birgerjohansson says

    Sonofrojblake @ 1
    Soething that happens to other people like being Tory.
    Or being fond of lotteries where you give away money in the hope that you on rare occasions will get it back.
    BTW what is the meaning of being an ant, or a reef-building organism?
    The pope was a bit optimistic when he stated that “all of god ‘s creatures ” would find a place in heaven. Yes, you can bring your dog to heaven. But you will be shoulder to shoulder with trillions of invertebrates.
    In the Riverworld SF novels by Philip Jose Farmer (I am really dating myself) aliens resurrected every humans that had ever lived. And even by excluding those who had died before adulthood (they got a separate planet) it required the entire surface of a terrestrial planet.
    By I assume god will use some pan-dimensional space, or infinite space habitats to house everyone.

  14. Alan G. Humphrey says

    Rubbing shoulders between a couple of yeasts, a heaven of pizza and pilsner…

    … now I’m thinking of a hike down into the city just for that. I think next Monday will be a grand day to have the real thing.

  15. sonofrojblake says

    It was the Total Perspective Vortex, invented by Trin Tragula. Odd I can pick that from my memory without looking it up.

    being fond of lotteries where you give away money in the hope that you on rare occasions will get it back

    I always say this about a lottery:
    The chances of winning are tiny, but not zero. The cost of one ticket gives you the dream of what you’d do if you hit it big. That could be worth it -- to convert your chance of winning from zero to one in 45 million (current UK rules) for a couple of quid. What’s NOT worth it is another two quid to convert your odds from one in 45 million to one in 22 million. On that basis, unless you’re in absolutely poverty, I see buying one ticket per draw as essentially harmless. People who buy loads of tickets? Paying a voluntary tax on poor maths skills.

    (I am really dating myself)

    Well, if nobody else will… 😉

  16. lanir says

    Defining yourself by some concept of meaning you don’t define is just an emotional shell game you play with yourself. Most of the time, and I suspect that prof Tracy was in the same boat here at first, people define meaning by what makes their lives better in some way. The day to day things that make you feel good.

    The crisis seems to come when this runs up against a concept of mortality. How can events in my life provide any meaning once I’m not alive anymore to have them? There’s often a lot of talk at this point about the universe but I think that’s a red herring. I don’t think many people wonder about the worth of their life while considering their impact on some random rock or patch of dirt. Mostly they’re thinking of their impact on other people (which somewhat includes other animals for some people) or some grand monument type impression they’ll make upon the world. But monuments are kind of meaningless in themselves. Even the great pyramids are just an orderly pile of stone blocks. They don’t do anything, they just sit there. Their meaning is in the minds of the observers.

    If you don’t define meaning then it’s kind of arbitrary whether you look at various things. Is love meaningful because of how you feel or is it not because you won’t be there to feel it at some point? Are monuments meaningful because they make their audience feel something or are they not because they mean nothing without an audience to experience and interpret them?

  17. rockwhisperer says

    Rubbing shoulders with marine invertebrates, at least, would be my kind of heaven. “That’s a beautiful shell. Where did you live, and when did you stop living on Earth?” I would ask in my fantasy, and (since sedimentary geology uses invertebrate fossils as markers for certain things) I would learn so much. Alas, I wouldn’t be able to share it with living colleagues, though dead ones and I would have a ball together.

    Of course, that’s merely more fantasy. At 64, I’m a content materialist. I’m invested in people and personal interests. I love, I have good experiences, I celebrate people I care about having good experiences. I take my responsibilities, both as a citizen of the US and of our planet seriously, and do what little bit I can to make other lives better. I suppose I’m a human speciesist, though I am staff to cats and find the torturing of animals under the guise of corporate husbandry to be problematic. But people matter, whether I know them or not, whether they are citizens of my city, county, country, planet. Freeing myself from religious belief and unreasonable expectations did wonders for my egalitarian, progressive, empathetic worldview, and I see that as a great blessing from life, the universe, etc.

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