Meaning, Quality and Determinism. Oh my!
I found the following in my mailbox this morning …
You know, I'm wondering if we're completely hardwired to believe in
determinism. Our obsession with "why" implies a cause and effect
relationship. From "why" comes science, religion, politics, art.
Where does "why" come from? Perhaps the perception of time has to do
with it. I dunno.
I believe it was David Hume who dispelled the myth that "cause and effect" are
merely our own expectations. But that isn't necessarily a bad thing, we have
to believe in it otherwise we couldn't act. I can believe that.
Quantum Mechanics have effectively buried the Newtonian notion
that if we knew all of the variables, everything in the universe could be
accurately predicted. So without determinism (and its religious
counterpart, pre-destination), what are we left with?
Technically, we are left with a foundation of sand… of probability, where
nothing is sure, and everything we observe is there based solely on a
better statistical chance (see this recent podcast interview with
Michio Kaku for a better overview). This form of randomness leads many
to state that the universe is meaningless.
As Steve Weinberg wrote in his book, The First Three Minutes, "The more
the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless."
Stephen Jay Gould comes to a similar conclusion after noting that evolution
isn't about progress as much as it is about favoring blind successes.
But how people, even cosmologists, hate this. It was this entire concept
that prompted Albert Einstein's famous rebuke, "God does not play dice with
the universe." While I don't necessarily agree with his conclusion, Paul
Davies, described a debate on this subject:
Cosmic pointlessness has also been argued on philosophical grounds on the
basis that the very concept of a "point" or "purpose" cannot be applied to a
system like the universe because it makes sense only in the context of human
Some years ago, I took part in a BBC television debate with Hugh Montefiore,
then Bishop of Birmingham, and the atheist Oxford philosopher AJ Ayer.
Montefiore declared that without God all human life would be meaningless. Ayer
countered that humans alone imbue their lives with meaning. "But then life
would have no ultimate meaning," objected the bishop. "I don't know what
ultimate meaning means!" cried Ayer. His objection, of course, is that such
concepts as meaning, purpose and having a point are human categories that make
good sense in the context of human society, but are, at best, metaphors when
applied to non-living systems.
In discussing this age-old debate with Peat, we came up the idea that the
reason why people are afraid of a meaningless universe is that since they equate meaning
with value , and that the opposite must be true… That is, if the universe
doesn't have a meaning or purpose or what-have-you, then it has no value… no
But that statement isn't true, for Meaning has no correlation with Quality.
Quality, as Pirsig has demonstrated, exists without human intervention, but
Meaning, on the other hand, is nothing more than a human projection on the
world. I love this quote from this website:
We are not accidental beings so much as the product of accumulated
accidents; the universe is not meaningless because we impart to it all the
meaning we'll ever need.
And that, boys and girls, theists and non, is how lives can be filled
with wonderment and magic, science and reason, love and vitality.
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