Can Naturalists Believe in Meaning?

By Sean Carroll | October 7, 2011 12:56 pm

I have my answer (“yes, but not by finding meaning `out there’ in the world”), which I hope to write about more soon. In the meantime, listen to a great conversation between philosophers Owen Flanagan and Alex Rosenberg from Philosophy TV. “What there is, and all there is, are bosons and fermions.”

Both discussants have written really good books. Rosenberg recently came out with The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life Without Illusions, while I very much enjoyed Flanagan’s earlier book The Really Hard Problem: Meaning in a Natural World.

Empirically, of course, naturalists often lead very enjoying and fulfilled lives. Here’s a great profile of newly minted Laureate Brian Schmidt, in his capacity as a cook and winemaker as well as an astronomer. And here’s Bob Kirshner, writing to the NYT from Friendship, Maine, about the meaning of dark energy.

  • Stephen Crowley

    just what is a “naturalist” anyway? Seems like just another suit or label to me. At least it sprung to mind visions of humans frolicking around having a good time in their birthday suits for me :)

  • a postdoc

    Basically, the belief that natural laws are all there is. Science, as a discipline/practice, basically is “naturalist”, but that doesn’t mean that all scientists are personally naturalists.

    As for as the post title’s question goes… I’m not even sure what it means to “believe in meaning”.

  • Ted Bunn

    It seems obvious to me that meaning is a human construct, as opposed to something “out there in the world.” That is, it makes no sense to say “X means Y” without at least implicitly meaning “X means Y *to someone*”. The idea that meaning exists independent of a “meaner” seems so self-evidently incoherent to me that I can’t work up much interest in it.

    Of course that’s not the same as saying that I don’t believe in meaning, unless by “believe in” you mean “consider to be an element of objective reality independent of humanity,” which seems like a cramped and unnatural usage to me. I believe in the beauty of sunsets and the deliciousness of chocolate too.

    Another great example is probability. To a Bayesian (that is, to anyone sensible) probabilities describe states of knowledge, not objective facts about the world. But I still “believe in” them.

  • Arun

    In some religions, God or equivalent provides the objective reference for “meaning”.
    In others, it is clear that even God or equivalent does not provide meaning.
    E.g., this story,

  • AI

    I don’t understand what is meant by “meaning” in the OP. Of course every sane person believes in meaning the way it is popularly understood, without meaning associated with symbols like words there can be no communication. That makes me think some other interpretation of “meaning” is intended here, but what is it?

  • Sith Master Sean

    “Naturalists believe that the world is scientifically intelligible (at least in principle). Thus, naturalists doubt the reality of anything that cannot fit into a scientific worldview.”

    What is the basis for this belief? Why should the world be remotely comprehensible to human minds? To me this kind of thinking is a relic of theistic worldviews which were prevalent among early natural philosophers who still believed in an orderly universe made by a rational creator. As the scientific facts have revealed an increasingly absurd universe which couldn’t possibly have been made by any sane or reasonable god, doesn’t one need to abandon this kind of thinking?

    My impression is that we are living in a Lovecraftian cosmos now, something incomprehensibly alien, vast and terrifying, the study of which is no longer a pleasant exercise in mathematical theology, but a mind-destroying descent into netherworlds of arcane theories and cosmological abysses. Have you ever actually listened to Ed Witten speak? He may be brilliant, but he is also obviously quite mad…

  • Steve

    “What there is, and all there is, are bosons and fermions.”

    So… no love for anyons?

  • Douglas Watts

    Since they are in Friendship, Maine maybe they could ponder why the Gulf of Maine has very little of its biota left and what can be done to bring it back.

  • Jim Lippard

    Al: Take a look at Flanagan’s book–it’s “meaning of life” or, alternatively, “purpose of life.” It’s a question of whether there are objective or merely subjective values, purposes, and significance of consequences (as opposed to linguistic meaning). Do our lives matter in any ultimate or absolute sense?

  • Sean

    Steve — not so long as we live in four spatial dimensions.

  • Doug

    Well, are quasi-particles such as anyons any less real than the virtual particles that we use in conventional perturbation theory?

  • James

    Solitons? Instantons? (Non-perturbative field configurations?)

  • Avattoir

    There is conjecture that this (a variant from the First Folio of Hamlet, Act V):

    “The rest is silence. O, o, o, o. [Dies]”

    whereupon Hamlet then, finally, does what he’s told to do,
    was intended by Shakespeare, or whoever, to be presented as
    (in the order of the Folio):

    O, where it conveys the sense of the person’s consciousness being surprised by receipt of a message, or messages, from his sensory apparatus, of Something Dire And Final At Hand;

    o, where it conveys the sense of that person’s consciousness having arrived at consensus as to the meaning of that message, or messages, that This Is Really It, The End, Right Here Now;

    o, where it conveys a sense of action, whereby the person’s consciousness is in transit, turning away from life in the form in which he’s become familiar and towards another form, complicated by emotions of regret and reluctance at what’s being turned away from, and of dread, or resolve, or both, at what is being turned to; and

    o, where it conveys the person’s sense of surprise that what is being turned to is not at all like what he’d been urged to believe, yet rather more-or-less what he’d suspected.

    I think the goal of science is to narrow that last sense of surprise, such that we don’t end up concluding we’ve been played.

    (As to the “meaning of life”, I’ve been thinking that had been resolved, by that Finnish father-son team that concluded it was to dissipate energy, more particularly by the fellow who concluded that it was to hydrogenize carbon dioxide, and more generally by Monty Python.)

  • AI

    Thanks for clarification Jim.

    In that case the answer is no. There is no objective meaning or purpose to life. Life is just a complex self replicating pattern, there is no more objective meaning to human life then there is to bacterial life or an existence of a rock.

    All meaning is subjective, invented by humans and for human consumption only. What’s more all meaning is constructed from our experiences (often abstracted and highly processed), and therefore it only works if it can be decoded back through our experiences.

    In case it’s not clear what I mean let me clarify where meaning comes from – why some electrical pattern of brain cells firing can have some meaning to us? It can only have meaning if it can be related to something we once experienced. For example when we see a tree, our brain region responsible for vision is stimulated in a particular way, our memory can encode some general aspects of this pattern of stimulation and associate it with another pattern of neural stimulation resulting from hearing the word “tree” if the two coincide often enough. This is how we learn language. The two patterns become linked and invoking one will invoke the other, when we hear the word “tree” the association kicks in and we have a vague and processed impression of a tree fed up to our processing center by memory.

    Of course our brain can slice and dice our experiences in countless ways to define quite abstract meanings and can also use already known concepts to define new ones, but in the end all this very complex structure of meaning has it’s roots in our experiences, and it’s the only source of meaning.

    That should make it clear why the idea of an objective meaning is patently absurd. How would that work? Even if some alien agent were to implant some neural firing patterns directly into our brains, those patterns would not be derived from any past experiences and when executed by memory would only produce gibberish. The brain would still try to interpret it in terms of past experiences but the result would be completely incoherent.

    It would be like an attempt to encode sound in a bitmap image, sure you can copy some mp3 data and splice it into a bitmap, but the result will still be an image only now it will show random gibberish. The meaning here is encoded in the associations a decoding algorithm makes between byte values in bitmap and colors of pixels. In the same way the meaning of concepts in our memory is encoded in associations between neural firing patterns representing their names and those stimulating our sensual centers to reproduce certain aspects of our experiences.

    All meaning is subjective and derived from past experiences of an individual.

  • Chad

    If an alien force were guiding our evolutionary process (as in the movie 2010 with the use of the monoliths), would THIS give us some sort of objective meaning and purpose while retaining Naturalism? I write code on the side. The programs I create have a meaning only because I gave them one. Couldn’t we say the same thing of us if we discovered some sort of 2010-like guidance?
    (This question is purely hypothetical by the way)

  • Sister Y

    It’s nice that some naturalists cheerfully find meaning in life. But what should the naturalist’s position be toward a fellow naturalist who fails to find meaning?

    Is a naturalist entitled to prevent a well-considered suicide by using force (such as forced hospitalization), the way religious people feel entitled to do?

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Empirically, of course, naturalists often lead very enjoying and fulfilled lives.

    Be that as it may, there are a lot of people who simply do not look good without clothes.

  • spyder

    Only if they don’t think about money:

    Money, get away.
    Get a good job with good pay and you’re okay.
    Money, it’s a gas.
    Grab that cash with both hands and make a stash.
    New car, caviar, four star daydream,
    Think I’ll buy me a football team.

    Money, get back.
    I’m all right Jack keep your hands off of my stack.
    Money, it’s a hit.
    Don’t give me that do goody good bullshit.
    I’m in the high-fidelity first class traveling set
    And I think I need a Lear jet.

    Money, it’s a crime.
    Share it fairly but don’t take a slice of my pie.
    Money, so they say
    Is the root of all evil today.
    But if you ask for a raise it’s no surprise that they’re
    giving none away.

  • Lab Lemming

    Best line from the linked Brian Schmidt winemaking article:

    `Schmidt’s winemaking and other activities take time, as you might imagine, from his astronomy, but, ”My astronomy career’s going just fine, thank you.”’

  • Tom Clark

    Rosenberg claims that we are *under the illusion* that we have purposes, find meaning, and have intentional states like beliefs and desires, etc. since you can’t find such things in fermions, bosons, neurons, neurotransmitters and other lower level physical constituents of ourselves. If it ain’t straightforwardly physical, it ain’t real, only illusory. But as Dennett points out, there are real *patterns* in nature as well as real physical constituents, and the reality of physically constituted patterns is established naturalistically by their playing robust and ineliminable roles in our explanations.

    So it is with behaviorally and verbally expressed intentional states and their objects (e.g., my beliefs, desires, purposes and hopes as an individual): whether or not neural states represent propositionally (and it isn’t clear they don’t at some level), attributed intentional states play an ineliminable role in explanations of human (and some other animal) behavior that permit reliable prediction and control, just as references to the denizens of physical and biological theory play essential explanatory roles in their respective domains.

    As naturalists, we can see there’s nothing immaterial or spooky going on in talk about purposes and meaning, since organisms and their behavior are fully physically realized. But there’s also no reason to suppose that we’re under an illusion in claiming to have purposes and pursue meanings in life, since referring to such things captures stable, brain-based behavioral patterns that can’t be captured at the level of our physical constituents. This allows us to understand ourselves in ways we otherwise couldn’t, where such understanding is cashed out concretely in prediction and control just as in any good theory. This qualifies intentional states as real as brain states. So I don’t see that the scientific story Rosenberg presents is a threat to the standard human-level account of why we do what we do, including the quest for meaning.

    More in response to Rosenberg’s “nice nihilism” is at

  • NChen

    Rosenberg admits during the talk that his provocative claim that all there is is just bosons and fermions is inaccurate. He admits additional objects such as chairs and persons etc but once you admit these objects, it’s not clear that the ontological pandora’s box isn’t opened allowing even weirder things like moral property in. In any case, I don’t believe Rosenberg’s defense of that provocative claim is convincing or even responds to the most serious objections to his kind of bare-bones naturalism.

  • kirk

    I am currently trying on the proposition that ‘belief’ does not exist even to a professed believer in something or other. This is an extension of Dan Dennett’s ‘belief in belief’. That is belief(1) in belief(2) indicates that there is at best a weak belief(1) in the object pointed to by belief(2). Dennett seems to mean on the surface that the authentic subjective belief(1) is merely a response to others verbal reports of a REAL belief(2) that the believer of belief(1) sincerely wishes, hopes or prays for at some later time but needs a rain check at present.

    What I have is a response policy to other folks behavior – including subjective verbal production. When someone tells me they ‘believe’ in Thor I can only try to discern compliance with Norse ethics and morality as evidenced by their behaviors. I can only respond to what they do. I don’t believe in meaning – I respond to meaning. I don’t believe in belief – I respond to the behavior of the professed believer. Believe it or not.

  • Count Iblis

    Things become easier by abandoning ontology altogether. All that really exists is pure math, we are all very complicated algorithms and we happen to find ourselves represented by simple mathematical laws. So, your brain right now exectutes some complicated algorithm that describes precisely who you are, but the way the brain works is described by the Standard Model, which can be formulated using only a few bits of information.

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About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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