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.