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The search for meaning


What is it that makes us seek a deeper purpose to our lives? Are we mistaken to do so?

Ben Okri

Meaning-seeking beings

‘Apart from storytelling beings, we are also meaning-seeking beings; we're purpose driven being. You give people everything and they still feel something's missing.’



David: The other thing that [John] Cottingham said… he said look we're the only creatures who when you've fed us and watered us and given us somewhere to live we still feel incomplete, there's still a yearning, which he described I think as wanting to know what's over the horizon, wanting to know why, and I wondered what you thought of that because I was very taken with that when he said it.

BO: Apart from storytelling beings we are also meaning-seeking beings. We're purpose-driven beings. You give people everything, and they still feel something's missing. Many of the great stories are just about that: you have everything but something is missing, and one day you leave your home to go find out what it is.

BO: Meaning is a very, very strange thing. Meaning is… I can see how it's a problem for science. I really can see that. But meaning is essential for us humans. If you were to ask me the relationship between meaning and truth, which is really another problematic area, I would say that meaning is like the temporary resolution of certain psychological, philosophical and spiritual tensions that we have inside us at any given point. I don't think meaning is ever final. I think meaning is evolutionary. I think it's continuous. I think it unfolds, it grows, it opens out into doubt and confusion again, and then is resolved again and it continues like that: like a flower constantly opening.

David: Do you think it's lesser because it doesn't have that absolute certainty which truth and proof claim to have?

BO: Well, you see, proof can have certainty, because it's dealing with something that is objective. But meaning, you cannot have certainty because you're dealing with the numinous nature of being alive and of being human. It would be wonderful if we could apply the scientific method of proof and certainty to our moral dilemmas, all of those questions… but there is no scientific way of dealing with the questions of life, there isn't.

All we have are these grey things that we sometimes feel we wrestle over, we have intuitions about, we make mistakes and we try and correct them. It’s very fluid. It's this fluid nature of life, and of our moving through it, that puts it in an order, very different from that of science, which is why we envy science. We envy science its objective certainty. The fact that you can manipulate, and move with, and deal with, these things that you can look at with absolute certainty. It's enviable, but bring that into the realm of life and it dissolves. It's meaningless; it's of no help to us whatsoever.

John Cottingham

Our urge for transcendence

‘In the human case, no matter how comfortable, no matter how much our wants and needs are catered for, we have that human hunger to reach out for more.’


Our urge for transcendence

David: Is this thing that, I assume, bothers you… is it saying, ‘All things will have a scientific answer, and that the scientific answer is the complete answer.’ Is that what it is?

JC: In a way, I think this question has to do with the notion of transcendence. I think there’s something in the human spirit – the human mind, our human nature, if you like – that will never be content with residing within fixed parameters, so this is a unique human characteristic. For any other animal, if you give it the right environment – food, nutrition, exercise – then it will flourish within those limits.

But in the human case, no matter how comfortable, no matter how much our wants and needs are catered for, we have that human hunger to reach out for more, to reach beyond the boundaries. And so, in a way, that’s an analogy for my objection to scientism.

I think the scientistic theorist will say, ‘Here are some rules and procedures: the rules and procedures of science – these exhaust reality.’ And I think our urge for transcendence will, even if there wasn’t other good evidence that there are truths and realities that are not scientifically explainable. But even if there wasn’t that, we would still say, ‘Wait a minute, I’m not convinced that human life and human reality and human understanding can be kept within those confines.’

Ard: So, basically, you’re saying you just don’t think scientism is true?

JC: I think there’s good reason to think that many areas of human activity, what we’re doing now when we’re discussing these issues, philosophising, scientific inquiry itself, not to mention poetic sensitivity, the way we respond to the beauties of nature, to love, to music, all these areas which have… which are partly to do with meaning, they’re to do with our human capacity for engaging in meaningful experience and meaningful dialogue. And meaning and value, those two things, I think are different from anything that we could conceive of as being explicable through some scientific equations, however sophisticated.

If one was to say, ‘Well, here we are. This is our human nature. There it is. We’re on this planet. We must live in this way because that’s the way it’s evolved. We find ourselves here; we find ourselves with a certain biological structure, with a certain atmosphere and a certain set of relationships. So that’s it. There is no further question to be raised, just get on with it.’ That that might work if you were a clever primate, but our particular species of primate, the human, won’t accept that. We always have this… St. Augustine famously referred to it is as ‘the restlessness of the human spirit, the restless heart’. We want to ask why. And I think the way you put it is right: we have an urge to find a reason, to find meaning. The answer, ‘It just is that way, so forget about it.’ I think there’s something in our nature that rebels against it.

Ard: Yes.

David: It seems a little bleak.

JC: It seems… Yes.

David: But also, where does meaning come from, then? I accept, you know, what any physicist will tell me: that the universe is made up of stuff. But this stuff has apparently made creatures that mean things, because I mean something and you’re nodding because you understand what I meant.

JC: Yes.

David: So, there is meaning in the universe, isn’t there? I just put some in it, surely? Or have I misunderstood this completely?

JC: No, I think that’s a very fair point, but that parallels our discussion about morality, I think. What essentially you’ve been saying is that we create meaning.

David: Well, you are, right now.

JC: Well, yes, but that would be parallel with saying we create morality. And…

David: Ah, okay.

JC: …what I would want to say is that we don’t create morality; we don’t create value: we respond to value. We recognise something not of our making…

David: But that’s already there?

JC: Similarly, if there is a meaning to the universe, or if there is a meaning of human life, it’s not just a matter of our making certain decisions. It’s something that we, in principle, might respond to. We might find our lives to be meaningless or random or wasteful, but then there would be a call to make them more meaningful, to orient them towards something rational and good.

David: When you say ‘orient’, it’s like the other compass example. There is a north, a ‘good’, in this example.

JC: Yes.

David: And therefore you orient yourself because it’s already there. We don’t make up north, it’s there.

JC: Yes, precisely.

JC: I mean, this desire for ultimate meaning and value might just run into the brick wall of contingency. There’s nothing that tells us it must be so, but it is nonetheless a remarkable fact about us, I think, that we do have this yearning for meaning and rationality and purpose which will validate our lives. And if that’s just a fantasy, then it’s pretty tragic, perhaps, that humans are absurd. Our lives are ultimately absurd, which, of course, is the view that some of the existentialists, like Camus, took. He compared human life to Sisyphus, just rolling the stone up the hill. It’s just going to crash down and just keeps going: there’s no ultimate point to it.

David: Wouldn’t it be slightly absurd, though? Well, maybe absurd is s not the right word – tragic – if we’re creatures created by this universe, and we have a need to find meaning, and we seem to have the capacity to imagine we have found it, and if that takes place in a universe where there is no meaning. That’s at least tragic, isn’t it?

Ard: Yes.

JC: I think it would be, yes. There would be a sort of mockery.

Peter Atkins

Can science make life meaningful?

David: ‘Do you subscribe to that? That ultimately you should look at the universe and say, “Look, it’s a meaningless accident, and therefore everything that happens in it is a meaningless accident.”’ Peter Atkins: ‘That would be such a barren view.’


What is a meaningful life?

David: What kind of things do you find meaningful?

PA: The growth of understanding. I think understanding is an entertainment for getting through life, because it enriches the living experience. Maybe I’m speaking just as an academic now.

David: Well, no, but your house has books in it, but it also has art.

PA: Yes.

David: You collect art and you go on holiday and you learn about Impressionists.

PA: Well, it’s enrichment, isn’t it? And I think we’re given these few decades between one form of dust and another form of dust. And I think it’s such a privilege to be interdust – interdust, not into dust! – that we should make full use of it. And so one is turned on by the joy of understanding, and I, as a scientist, I put that right at the heart of being alive.

David: Some people say ‘Science is always saying that everything is meaningless and that life is meaningless.’ And they balk at this and say that life has to have a meaning.

PA: Life is not meaningless, ultimately, because we are contributing to civilisation and all the joys, and maybe the pains, that that brings.

Ard: So David doesn’t believe in God, but he wants to find purpose in the physical universe.

PA: Purpose is…

David: What is meaning?

PA: Meaning is, I think, deeper enjoyment when you are alive. There’s no point in worrying about what enjoyment you’ll get when you’re dead. There’s no point in worrying about, you know, what enjoyment you missed before you were born.

David: Fair enough.

PA: So what you’re really doing is looking for the joys in these few decades that each of us has of being alive.
David: I’m trying to get something else, I suppose.

PA: And that joy is not just… By joy, I don’t mean selfish joy. I mean there is joy that comes from contribution to other people’s joy.

David: Right. But I suppose it’s… When Boltzmann and Zermelo come along with heat death, with entropy, it’s all ultimately… all the great works of art and all the joys and all the poetry and all the science and all our understanding will eventually end in a big, universe-sized cold soup. And the reaction was, ‘It makes everything meaningless. It’s all ultimately futile and has zero meaning.’

Do you subscribe to that? That ultimately you should look at the universe and say, ‘Look, it’s a meaningless accident, and therefore everything that happens in it is a meaningless accident.’

PA: That would be such a barren view.

David: Yes. But sometimes one gets the feeling that that’s what’s being pushed by some people in science.

PA: Well, if I were a cosmic being and stood back and looked at the lifespan of this universe over a span of a trillion years, I would see it as a mere flea on the cosmic entity. In which case, we’d be totally meaningless. But we’re not that sort of being, and I think that we see life on the scale of millennia, if we think big enough. We can see joy and delight and all those things that contribute to the pleasure of being alive. So grasp the moment. Carpe diem. The diem might be a trillion years, but it’s still there to be grasped.

George Ellis

Forbidden questions

‘When they say the universe is meaningless, the hidden agenda is to ignore all of the data from human life, human history, from the great literature, the great art, all the rest.'



David: I wanted to ask a related question, because it’s come up a lot. There’s the reductionist side of things. They’re also fond of saying, ‘Look, there’s no such thing as meaning; things don’t mean anything. There’s no meaning in this, no ultimate meaning in the universe.’ And I’m just wondering what you think about that?

They paint this picture saying, ‘You know, our position is meaningless, and we’re one species, on one planet, round one sun, and the laws the universe is governed by have no meaning.’

GE: The laws have no meaning. What actually is happening here is the following, and I’m seeing it with a lot of my scientific colleagues. There’s a lot of data about the universe. Basically what is happening with these guys is they’re saying if you want to understand the universe, you must take data from microscopes, telescopes, particle accelerators. You must take that scientific data, and that will tell you the nature of the universe.

When they say the universe is meaningless, the hidden agenda is they are saying, ‘We choose to ignore all of the data from human life, human history, from the great literature, the great art, all the rest of it. We choose to say that that has nothing to tell you about life and the universe, because we think the only evidence that matters is the matter that the hard science can tell you.’ They’re arriving at that position by ignoring all of the data they find inconvenient.

David: Yes. So their conclusion is already there in their assumptions about what counts as evidence.

GE: Yes. And, of course, with these people, they either live a totally bipolar life where they have these theories over there, and then they go to their family and say, ‘Hello’, and life is all meaningful, and they pat the dog and play with the child, and all the rest of this. Or they don’t, in which case their home life must be bloody hell.

I think one of the things which is a simple fact is that there is meaning in the universe. Now, where or how that meaning arises is something we discuss, but the fact that there is meaning in the universe is, I think, absolutely…

David: And it gets back to fine-tuning, because I always imagine all the universes, and I was thinking if your god had to find the universe again, it would need to have little signs by them: ‘This is the universe that’s got life in it.’ And I think the word that God would write down on the flag attached to our universe would be meaning. It’s not just fine-tuned for life, it’s got meaning in it.

GE: Well, you see, it starts off much earlier than that. All of biology is to do with function and purpose in some sense. What is that information for? That information is all for a purpose. It’s for a purpose of reproduction, of getting food, of sensing things. So life is about purpose.

David: So not only is there meaning in the universe, you’re saying there is purpose as well?

GE: There is purpose in the universe. I’m not saying it’s built into the laws of physics. It’s not built into the laws of physics, but it comes into existence, and there isn’t any question it comes into existence. How does it come into existence? Well, my position on that is that the possibility of meaning is built into some of those possibility spaces. The possibility of meaning was there before the universe came into existence, and so therefore, in a sense, the universe was expecting meaning to arrive. And I think that that is, once you start thinking about it, a logically incontrovertible position. There is meaning in the universe. That is only possible if it’s possible to have meaning, which means one of those possibility spaces I’m talking about had the possibility of meaning in it.

So the deep question, the deep question of cosmology, is why are those possibility spaces what they are? And the theological position is very persuasive in many ways for this, because the purely physical argument doesn’t begin to touch a lot of what is going on in the universe we see around us in our daily lives.

Ard: I think that’s right. You need to think theologically.

David: No! No! George is saying the opposite! I don’t need to think theologically. I don’t need God. I just need to have this realm of ideas, which is where…

Ard: But the question is, where did this realm of ideas come from? The theological explanation makes the most sense.

GE: I think you can defend with absolute certainty, as it were, once you’ve thought this through, the existence of these possibility spaces. If you ask where do they come from, you’re then in a realm of speculation where everything is right open and I…

Ard: We think a theological explanation is a good one but you don’t, yeah, as long as you… you don’t have to buy into that if you don’t feel it.

GE: If you have someone who says there is no meaning in the universe, I can only say they are just ignoring all of everyday life.

David: That’s the feeling I’ve had all along.

GE: If you want to ignore all of everyday life, that’s fine, but then don’t tell me you’ve got an adequate theory of the way the universe is because you haven’t.

David: Yeah, that’s exactly how I felt all along because it does feel like just explaining away the things which your present bit of science has a difficulty explaining, it just seems to be not…

GE: It’s one of those tricks: someone tells you what questions you’re allowed to ask and what you’re not allowed. Where do they get the authority to tell you what questions you’re allowed to ask and what you’re not allowed to ask?

Martin Nowak

Life, meaning and God

‘The complete opposite of Platonistic view in philosophy would be nihilism, but then nothing has any meaning, and I don’t understand the usefulness of that position.’


Life, meaning and God

David: You’ve used the phrase several times, that something should make sense. Is that important to you in your view of the world or science, that it… that you think things should make sense in addition to just being factually correct?

MN: Yes, I believe that the actual understanding in science is always there when we have a mathematical description of it. So mathematics is somehow a rigorous language, it’s a mysteriously rigorous, efficient language of science that if we have a mathematical description of something, we understand it. If we don’t have a mathematical description, we are just talking around at a level which is less precise.

David: But how does that link up with this idea of meaning and making sense? Because there are scientists who said to me, ‘Look, with science we find the rules that make the world work, but they don’t have any meaning, and so there is no meaning.’

And then here you a mathematician that works at Harvard, who freely uses the word meaning. Why is that?

MN: I think the rules that make up the world, they have a meaning. I don’t understand what it says to have no meaning.

Ard: Yeah. What do you mean, they have no meaning? I don’t understand that either.

David: Well, I don’t, but they said it to me. I mean, I suppose they’re just saying, ‘Look, meaning is… We think things mean things. You think… human beings, we attribute meaning to things, but there is no meaning. There is just one thing that causes another thing that causes another thing, and it’s all meaningless.

Ard: Ah, is what you’re saying maybe this: you’re saying once we’ve come up with a mechanistic system, then that is it.

David: Yes.

Ard: The story ends there.

David: Yes, precisely, and that therefore the universe doesn’t have a meaning.

MN: So, for example, you discover a formula that explains something and then you explain your formula to me, and then I understand your formula, so the meaning of your formula is transmitted to me. If there was no meaning, that conversation wouldn’t have any meaning.

David: Yeah.

MN: So, for me, like the complete opposite of a Platonistic view in philosophy would be nihilism, but then nothing has any meaning, and I don’t understand the usefulness of that position, because then there’s no need for any kind of conversation.

Ard: But some scientists would argue that is what science is telling us.

MN: I don’t… I think science doesn’t make a statement one way or the other about those two philosophical positions. So, for me, the philosophy, the perspective, the world view, is something that you have to choose. And then, once you have chosen this, you can argue with somebody else about it and we can compare our world views, and we can see whether your world view is consistent. As long as your world is consistent with what we can measure scientifically and can understand mathematically, and mine is also, then this method cannot allow us to choose.

David: Right, so you do have the world view first. It’s not that science will give you the correct world view?

MN: Exactly. I think science is not an objective, ultimate description of reality. It is like something that emerges at the interface of the human brain that asks questions, certain kinds of questions, and nature that gives answers.

David: Yes, but that view which is often promulgated by science: we are totally objective and we come with no assumptions…

MN: Yeah. You can prove…

David: You’re saying that that is just not right?

MN: Yeah, you can prove mathematically that this is inconsistent.

Ard: Okay. Which is quite a strong way of saying it’s wrong.

David: It’s a posh way of saying that’s wrong.

Alex Rosenberg

Does science make life meaningless?

‘Science is in the position to explain why it is that human beings, once you feed us and clothe us and shelter us, should begin to begin to worry about the nature of reality.’



David: Can I put something to you that one of our other interviewees said? He, I think, took a very different view from you. He said, ‘Look, we’re the only animals that, once you’ve fed us and watered us and given us a house, there’s still a restlessness. And that restlessness is, I think, probably a search for meaning.’

So he felt that once you’ve dealt with all of the physical reality, this left unaddressed something very important to human beings, and felt that that’s why a purely material scientific view wasn’t enough.

AR: I don’t think that follows at all. I’m just sort of amazed at this. Science is in the position to explain why it is that human beings, once you feed us and clothe us and shelter us, should begin to worry about the nature of reality. It suggests strongly that this concern is a consequence, a by-product, of the kind of cognitive equipment that we really needed in order even to begin to survive at the bottom of the food chain on the African savanna.

One of the other consequences of that cognitive machinery is that many of us engage in these kinds of concerns: about the meaning of our lives, about moral value, about aesthetic issues. But that seems to me no reason at all to think that either there’s no good explanation for why we do so, in the sciences, or that what we come up with – simply as a result of the feeling of discomfort, the itch of curiosity that we scratch in all the ways we scratch – represents anything like the truth about the reality that produced it.

Ard: So what you’re saying is we have this desire to look beyond ourselves, but science has explained that as a kind of misfiring of our…

AR: Misfiring is the wrong word. Science explains it, and what it produces is a set of cultural institutions of tremendous value that produce the enjoyment and the satisfaction and the happiness and the grief of human life that move us to action ‒ okay? ‒ but which can’t be taken seriously as descriptions of what’s really out there.

Ard: But when you use the word, you say, ‘They’re made of great value.’ What does that mean?

AR: I mean they are fun. They are entertaining. They are enjoyable. It’s like when you listen to Beethoven’s Ninth and you hear the Ode to Joy. It makes you cry, okay? Nobody can deny that it makes you cry. Scientism doesn’t deny that it makes you cry. But to think that there’s some world-historical meaning beyond the emotional impact of a great work of art on us, that’s what I think is the mistake, and the mistake that science reveals to us.

Ard: And science tells us that when we’re moved by Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, that’s nothing more than an emotional response.

AR: It’s the acoustical disturbance produced by the condensation and rarification of oxygen and nitrogen molecules in the atmosphere pushing on our eardrums.

Ard: And when you say ‘value’, the value that it has is, for example, its ability to emotionally give us pleasant experiences.

AR: Yes, right.

Ard: But nothing beyond that?

AR: No. And now, I’m not a utilitarian. I don’t think that moral value consists in happiness or pleasure or satisfaction. The thesis is more radical. These great works of art produce such feelings in us, but there’s nothing morally special about those feelings.

Ard: And that’s what science tells us?

AR: That’s right.

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