Surprise! Life isn’t empty or meaningless
Heidegger answers the two age-old questions of being with a single insight.
The following article is a “work in progress”. Just a thought I had while I was lying in my bath. As such I haven’t provided any references to original or secondary sources to back up my assertions, nor have I added links to related materials. If you are happy to put up with that, then you are welcome to read the following.
Two difficult questions have plagued intellectuals (and interested bystanders) for at least a couple of millennia: (1) How does the world work? and (2) How should we behave? Jordan Peterson uses the pithy expression: “What is matter, and what matters?” to capture these two questions.
Thortspace - Jordan Peterson - Personality and Transformations
View this journey in Thortspace.
And at least since the time of the Greek philosophers, Socrates and Plato, these questions have been running down a mountainside like snowballs gradually accumulating more and more weight until they have crashed into our present day philosophy as scepticism about the scientific enterprise (even though we can see the results of it all around us) and nihilism in respect of the meaning in our lives.
If you follow along the lines of thought which thinkers and writers have pursued over the last couple of millennia it is really easy to get caught up in their arguments and start to wonder about questions like:
- How do my descriptions of the world connect up to the world? Are “atoms” real things, or just useful metaphors?
- Since every scientific world view up to now has been over-thrown, why should we suppose that modern science is better than Greek science? Perhaps the Greeks just wanted different things from their science than we do.
- Could we all be living in simulation constructed by a super-intelligence for their entertainment and amusement?
- Why should I suppose that what I care about matters? Does anything really matter?
- In a world with no gods, and only human authority, who gets to say what is right or wrong? … Doesn’t it just come down to who has got the most powerful weapons, or the most wealth, or the most control over the media and so on?
- What is there to save us from thinking that nothing really matters, and it doesn’t even matter that it doesn’t matter? Why should we not think that life is empty and meaningless and its empty and meaningless that it’s empty and meaningless?
It turns out that the answer to both these intellectual mistakes is the same answer: human beings are embedded-in-the-world. Human beings are active agents, acting-in-the-world.
The reason we are able to do science is because our actions are in a non-explicit hermeneutic circle bound up with the world in which we act. So although, when you are any good at doing something, you may find it difficult to articulate all of what you take for granted, the reason science works is because we work; our actions in the world are in a non-arbitrary “dance with” (i.e. correlation with) the world inside which we find ourselves; the world which at the same time, in some sense, I am.
The reason that life is meaningful is because our bodies, our biology and psychology is perfectly correlated with the world in which we are embedded and additionally in social groups we are embedded in and on whose mutual inter-dependencies our survival and flourishing depends. Multiple millennia of evolutionary unfolding have carved out our neurological, physiological and psychological propensities. And the sociological narratives that arise in the culture that builds on the foundation of this neurology, physiology and psychology is consequently anything but arbitrary.
So science arises from our non-arbitrary actions in the world (for example an experienced technician looking through a telescope or down a microscope) and what matters to us arises from our non-arbitrary neurology, physiology, psychology and sociology.
Scepticism and Nihilism both refuted in a single stroke of genius: we are embedded agents: agents who act-in-the-world (and whose action and being therefore is constrained by and correlated with the world in which those actions occur).
And it turns out that our naive intuitive appreciation that science basically works and that our lives are obviously meaningful was fundamentally correct after all. The intellectual confusions of scepticism and nihilism that have been rolling down our intellectual mountain since Plato were simply mistakes; conjuring tricks that we couldn’t quite fathom out how they were misdirecting us, but that both were, in the end, simply misleading.