Religion: the Next Version
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Mark F. Sharlow

Thu, 05 Nov 2009

The Meaning and Beauty of the Universe

In my first post to this blog I pointed out three ideas basic to a religious outlook. In later posts (here, here and here) I discussed and evaluated two of these ideas. In this post I will turn to the third idea: the view that existence is meaningful.

People often find that their lives, and the events happening in their lives, have meaning. I'm not talking about the kind of "meaning" that words or pictures have when they refer to something or convey a message. I'm talking about a completely different kind of "meaning" - the kind that people might have in mind when they say "a meaningful experience" or "a meaningful relationship." With this kind of meaning, to be meaningful is to matter - to be significant. We feel that some events, deeds and situations matter, for better or for worse. What is more, people normally feel that this meaning is real and not just imaginary. We feel that there are things that don't just matter in our opinion; instead, some things really do matter. People often disagree over the details of meaning; different individuals can have different insights about what is meaningful and to what degree. However, these differences of detail do not change the fact that people perceive meaning - just as the differences in what people see and hear in the physical world do not change the fact that people perceive a physical world. Despite all the differences of detail, the awareness of meaning is a universal human experience. Meaning is a property, or at least an apparent property, of things and events in the world.

The universal human insight that some features of life are meaningful disagrees with the so-called "scientific" view that people, and other things in the universe, are meaningless hunks of matter. This so-called scientific view isn't the least bit scientific. Science can't disprove the reality of meaning, because science can't make any judgments of meaning at all. When skeptics call the denial of meaning scientific, they are practicing pseudoscience. However, the very existence of this skeptical view leads us to an important set of questions. Is the meaning we find in our world real? Is this important property of the world merely an illusion of our minds, or is it at least sometimes a real feature of the world?

To begin answering this question I will quote from my ebook Poetry's Secret Truth. The following two excerpts from the book are about subjective feelings and beauty as recorded in poetry. However, we can apply these same ideas to the perception of meaning in life - another supposedly "subjective" experience.

An advance warning about these quotes: When I mention modern physics in these excerpts, I am not claiming that physics says anything about beauty or the value of poetry. I am only mentioning physics to set up a useful analogy about beauty and subjective experience. I give this warning because self-appointed skeptics are likely to pounce on these excerpts and write something like "Sharlow thinks poetry is based on the theory of relativity ha ha ha ha ha." I do not think this. Any skeptic who claims that I do is being careless, dishonest, or both.

Now for the two excerpts. (Note: The term "subjective fact" here refers to a fact that is purely about how things seem. I deal with subjective facts in detail in one of my other books.)



[from Poetry's Secret Truth, pp. 2-3:]


The subjective facts that poetry can evoke are inner facts of sensation, feeling, and perception. These facts can encompass a wide spectrum of contents, ranging from familiar emotions (happiness, longing, concern) and sensations (colors, sounds, scents), to content of a far subtler and more enigmatic sort. These subtler contents include such things as the elusive, almost indescribable sensations that fill one's awareness when one encounters a flowering apple tree in spring.

Anyone who has fully and deeply experienced an apple tree in full flower in a rolling, rustling spring meadow will know what I mean by this.

Anyone who has become fully aware of the mysterious looming of the clouds in the hours before rain, or of the charged, green freshness after the rain, or of the almost audible silence of some warm summer afternoons, will know whereof I speak.



[from Poetry's Secret Truth, pp. 6-7:]


Another, related, philosophical problem is the question of whether the subjective facts can be said to be facts about the external world at all. Think about the flowering apple tree again. Don't the subjective facts evoked by the tree come from processes in the observer's mind or brain, instead of from anything in the apple tree? My answer to this question is twofold. First, the existence of subjective facts does indeed depend upon the state and presence of the observer. Second, the subjective facts are not just features of the observer's mind or brain. They are real features of the observer plus the object being observed. The whole system, observer plus object (in other words, you plus apple tree), is the source or seat of the subjective fact. The experience is an experience of the object, not only an experience in the observer.

Subjective facts are not "only in the mind." They are characteristics of the observer-object couple. They are relative, but only in the same way that certain measurable features of the physical world are relative. According to modern physics, the size and mass of an object depend upon the state of the observer (specifically, the observer's state of motion) as well as upon properties of the object in itself. But this relativity of size and mass does not mean that an object's size and mass are unreal or are "all in the mind." Subjective facts, like facts of size and mass, are simply relative to the state of the observer. However, in the case of subjective facts, it is the observer's state of mind, not state of motion, which matters. In spite of their dependence on the observer's mental state, the subjective facts about the apple tree are every bit as real - or as unreal - as the tree's size or mass.

This relativity of subjective facts also encompasses what happens when people experience very different things during encounters with the same object. A particular scene may seem happy to one person, sad to another - perhaps due to the observers' past experiences, mental associations, and the like. This only means that the subjective facts depend on the state of the observer as well as upon the state of the object. It does not mean that the subjective facts are unreal.

One can think of the many possible subjective appearances of an object as possibilities inherent in the object* - all of them equally real features of the object, or perhaps of the world. Some possibilities may be more crucial, or more important to our understanding, than others. Yet all of the possibilities are there, and all of them are parts of reality. (Philosophers belonging to the school of thought called phenomenology have argued that we should take into account the multiple possible ways of perceiving things. What I am proposing is different, with a different range of possibilities, and involves something more - an additional element or factor.)


[end of excerpts from Poetry's Secret Truth]



What does all this amount to? It suggests that our subjective experiences of the world, such as experiences of beauty and of the felt qualities of nature, reveal genuine objective facts. Which objective facts? Facts about the whole, or couple, made up of the experiencing observer and the object of the experience.

Think of it this way. The beauty of an apple tree on a spring day might seem to be merely "in the eye of the beholder." Not everyone who observes the tree will experience this beauty; those who do experience it will not all experience it in the same way. However, when you observe the tree at a particular moment, the fact that you find the tree beautiful in that particular moment is an objective fact. It is a fact that science cannot dismiss.

When other observers encounter the tree, they might experience the beauty of the tree in other ways. Some might not even experience the beauty at all. However, the fact that the tree seems just this way to a particular observer at a particular moment is an objective fact.

The beauty of the tree, and other "subjective" properties of the tree, can just as well be called objective properties of the tree. These properties depend on the state of the observer, but this does not mean that these properties are imaginary or are only "in the eye of the beholder." To explain this distinction, I have used an analogy from the special theory of relativity in physics. Now I am going to expand on this analogy. Needless to say, relativity theory is not a theory about beauty or aesthetic properties. However, relativity theory provides some excellent examples of properties that are real but that still depend on the state of the observer.

According to the special theory of relativity, certain measured properties of an object, like length and mass, have different values for different observers. These properties depend on the way the observer is moving relative to the object. An object's measured length and mass are observer-dependent properties of the object. They depend on the observer's state. However, these properties are objectively real; they are not illusions and are not only in the mind. Clearly, an object's mass and size are not only "in the eye of the beholder"! These are real physical properties - but unlike some other properties, they depend on the state of the observer. Relativity theory makes it clear that objects can have properties that are real, yet observer-dependent. There is nothing illogical about this. The length and mass of an object depend on the state of motion of the observer; that state of motion is only one part of the overall physical state of the observer.

Stepping outside theoretical physics for a moment and into the world of art, we find that the beauty of an object is a property that depends on the state of the observer's brain. This dependence on the observer's state is what leads people to claim that beauty is only subjective or "in the eye of the beholder." However, the state of an observer's brain is objectively real. The neural state of an observer, like the observer's state of motion, is part of the observer's overall physical state. An observer's brain state is a real part of the state of that observer. So why do we say that beauty is only subjective while we call mass and length objective? All of these properties depend on the physical state of the observer. Why do we call mass and length "objective" even though they depend on the observer's physical state, while we call beauty "subjective" or even "unreal" just because it depends on the observer's physical state? There is no good reason for this difference in treatment. Of course, someone might try to escape this conclusion by assuming that the observer's brain state is not really part of the state of the observer. However, this assumption doesn't make much sense, no matter what views one holds on the nature of mind.

If we think of the beauty of an object as a function of the observer-object couple (the whole composed of object plus observer), we find that beauty is an objective property of this couple. If Harry finds the Mona Lisa beautiful at a particular time, then it is a fact that Harry finds the Mona Lisa beautiful at that particular time. Someone might want to argue about whether the Mona Lisa really is beautiful, but it still is a fact that the Mona Lisa seemed beautiful to Harry at that moment. The fact that the painting seemed that way to Harry is simply true. It is a fact that depends on the state of Harry's brain, but still it is true - regardless of whether we want to consider Harry's judgment right, wrong, or purely subjective.

Perceptions of beauty cannot be mere illusions of the mind. Even if our minds create these perceptions, the perceptions still reflect facts about the real world. Thus, experiences of beauty reveal real truths about the world. The first truth we discover this way is the fact that there really is some beauty in the world. This is a fact even though beauty is an observer-dependent property.

If two observers have incompatible feelings about what is beautiful, both observers can be right. The difference is simply a matter of state dependence.

For those who are interested, I explored this line of argument in an ebook (now freely available) called The Unfinishable Book. Download this ebook and read Talk 12, titled "Art, Imagination and Truth."

The argument I have presented here is about beauty, not meaning. However, it is easy to make the same argument about meaning instead of beauty. If you modify the argument this way, you end up with a rational argument for the objective reality of meaning. Meaning, like beauty, is an observer-dependent property. (Indeed, meaning is intimately related to beauty; experiences of great beauty are prime examples of meaningful experiences.) If you perceive meaning in the world, then that meaning really exists in the world - even if an observer in a different mental state would perceive the meaning differently. Meaning can be understood as an observer-dependent property of physical objects, events and situations, and as a function of the observer-object couple. Despite these dependencies, meaning is objectively real.

The meaning in life really exists. It is real, but it is perceived differently by observers in different mental states. If two observers disagree about whether something is meaningful, this doesn't imply that the meaning is unreal. It simply illustrates the fact that meaning is observer-dependent. Just as with beauty, it is possible to have partial and incomplete perceptions of meaning - but meaning itself is real.

Now we have rational support for the third basic idea of religion: the existence of real meaning in the world. If we find meaning in the universe, then there really is meaning in the universe. Even if meaning is "in the eye of the beholder," it still is part of objective reality. The universe is a truly meaningful place.





* The asterisk in the second Poetry's Secret Truth excerpt pointed to an endnote in the ebook. The note said: "The possibilities I have in mind here may include, but are not restricted to, the imaginative possibilities noted by Kilby (pp. 57-59)." The reference is to Clyde S. Kilby, Poetry and Life (reprint ed.; Plainview, NY: Books for Libraries Press, 1975).

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