Tuesday, June 02, 2015

How we fashion meaning and purpose.

This is a brief post about some material I thought I might get to cohere, maybe something along the lines of purpose as an evolved means of generating order, part of the big story of order evolving from chaos in the universe. I was wrong about the coherence, but I think the links are worth mentioning. The “Big History Project” is an effort to generate a modern origin story that transcends previous stories because it is global. From David Christian:
...in modern science we've gotten used to the idea that science doesn't offer meaning in the way that institutional religions did in the past. I'm increasingly thinking that this idea that modernity puts us in a world without meaning….may be completely wrong. We may be living in an intellectual building site, where a new story is being constructed. It's vastly more powerful than the previous stories because it's the first one that is global. It's not anchored in a particular culture or a particular society. This is an origin story that works for humans in Beijing as well as in Buenos Aires...it sums over vastly more information than any early origin story….across so many domains, the amount of information, of good, rigorous ideas, is so rich that we can tease out that story.
The Christian's Big History project reminds me of the Natural Sciences 5 course originated by my mentor George Wald, which I taught in when I was a Harvard senior and then graduate student in 1963-67. These efforts have started with cosmology, the origin of the university, the solar systems and earth, the appearance and evolution of life, and finally the human story. I had a look at Chapter 5 of the online Big History Project (aimed at middle and high school level, 13-17 year olds) and found it reasonably engaging.

The second source I want to mention is a piece by Worthen titled "Wanted: A Theology of Atheism." The title is an oxymoron [Greek Theos (god) + logia (subject of study)], presumably intentional. It discusses efforts, of the sort described in some previous MindBlog posts, to form secular (godless) forums, churches, or assemblies that meet our human need for communal settings that reinforce kindness and moral behavior, that balance the needs of the community against self interest. Worthen quotes Sam Harris's:
...promoting science as a universal moral guide. This proposal is an old one. The 19th-century French philosopher Auguste Comte and the American intellectuals Walter Lippmann and John Dewey all wrote that moral progress depended on the scientific method.
Morality depends on “the totality of facts that relate to human well-being, and our knowledge of it grows the more we learn about ourselves, in fields ranging from molecular biology to economics,” Harris has stressed the special role of his own field, cognitive science. Every discovery about the brain’s experience of pleasure and suffering has implications for how we should treat other humans. Moral philosophy is really an “undeveloped branch of science” whose laws apply in Peoria just as they do in the Punjab.
Pragmatist philosophers like Philip Kitcher offer a different approach to the question of atheist morality, one based on “the sense that ethical life grows out of our origins, the circumstances under which our ancestors lived, and it’s a work in progress,” he said. In the pragmatist tradition, science is useful, but ethical claims are not objective scientific facts. They are only “true” if they seem to “work” in real life.

No comments:

Post a Comment