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.