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.