The Scientific Mindset and the Exclusion of Meaning

Nihilism

The scientific view of the universe isn’t wrong, but it’s not complete. What’s missing is meaning.

Excluding the Subjective

Even a stopped clock is right twice a day. Even though I suspect Jordan Peterson’s average is lower than that, he made a remarkably perceptive comment in his discussion with Stefan Molyneux earlier this year.

(I’m not going to link the video; if you really need to see and hear two right-wing gasbags backslap each other for an hour and pretend to solve the problems of the world by ridiculing feminists and lefties, look it up on Molyneux’s YouTube channel.)

Early in the video, Peterson set the stage by describing the cultural problem with equating scientific knowledge with reality:

The methodology of science by definition excludes the subjective from consideration. And the problem is that you can’t exclude the subjective from consideration without excluding the subject, and since we’re all subjects that’s a major problem. (…) The reduction of the world of Being to the objective world has reduced people’s ability to believe in the reality of meaning in life. And that’s an awful catastrophe. It’s more accurate to say that it’s reduced people’s ability to believe in the positive meaning of life, because the negative meaning of life announces itself. And no amount of rational disbelief will rid you of anxiety and pain. But you can certainly subject anything positive you do the sort of critique that you might sum up stupidly by saying something like, “Well, in a million years, who the hell’s gonna know the difference?” Or, you know, “We’re just dust specks on this little dust mote of a planet in an infinitely large galaxy and who the hell cares what we do, or what I do today or tomorrow. Why is it relevant? Why is it meaningful?” And because we can’t get a sense of the meaning of meaning or the reality of meaning, it leaves us adrift and lost in a world of nihilism and pain. Not psychologically tenable. Truly not.

Peterson’s host quickly steered the discussion away from this cogent point to a discussion of the wealth production scientific progress has made possible.

The Meaning of Meaning

Regardless of my disagreement with Peterson on politics, I think he’s made a very important point here. I’ve talked before about the way scientific endeavor excludes the subject and creates an illusion of de-humanized reality. But it’s interesting to see Peterson make the point in discussion with a guy whose audience wouldn’t otherwise tolerate ideas critical of science.

People in these discussion boards have dismissed the idea of meaning as sentimental nonsense because science isn’t equipped to answer “the why questions.” Others say meaning is just a function of language, so it’s a human construct that’s ultimately illusory because it wouldn’t exist if there were no humans.

However, Peterson appears to be saying that the if-there-were-no-humans canard is beside the point because we’re here and constantly introducing meaning into phenomena; scientific inquiry itself is a process of imposing order onto reality to make it comprehensible (that is, meaningful) to human minds. In other words, meaning is part of reality, just not an empirically verifiable part.

What do you think? Is the way we see the universe through science the only “real” way, or is our subjective experience part of reality too? Is meaning an illusion, or is it impossible to define the universe without making it meaningful?

"Not for nothing, but people in the 15th century didn't think the Earth was flat."

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