(This is the first in a series of posts I am writing about the aesthetics of ideas. In it, I will put forth my theory about the emotional grounding of symbols, and describe a practical method for associating beliefs with emotions.)
I Will Show You Fear in a Handful of Atoms
When I was young, it seemed that life was so wonderful,
A miracle, oh it was beautiful, magical.
And all the birds in the trees, well they’d be singing so happily,
Joyfully, playfully watching me.
But then they sent me away to teach me how to be sensible,
Logical, responsible, practical.
And they showed me a world where I could be so dependable,
Clinical, intellectual, cynical.
There are times when all the world’s asleep,
The questions run too deep
For such a simple man.
Won’t you please, please tell me what we’ve learned
I know it sounds absurd
But please tell me who I am.
— “The Logical Song”, by Supertramp
Science has brought us many incredible things, but it’s also shattered our beliefs in God and the supernatural, which provided primitive man with beauty and with comfort in the face of the unknown. In particular, primitive worldviews infused the world with meaning and life.
Before we go any further, let us ask: what is meaning, exactly? (Here, I’m using the word in the existential sense rather than the semantic one, though this series of blog posts will try to identify the relationship between the two.) I define existential meaning as a link between external and internal experience. Meaning is a way of relating the vast and inhuman movements of the cosmos to our own individual struggles in life.
When primitive beliefs and myths were interpreted literally, they gave the universe literal meaning: the sun did not cross the sky indifferent to humanity; it was created by the same gods who carefully crafted people. Perhaps it was placed there solely to warm the earth. So when you’re raised all your life in this belief system that’s saturated with meaning, and suddenly you discover that the world actually works a different way (the sun is a flaming ball of gas flying through space, utterly indifferent to the earth), then all of a sudden the universe seems to lack meaning; vitality drains from the landscape and all beauty crumbles into dust. Note that here I mean “lack of meaning” in a very concrete way, as per my definition above. When the sun was placed in the sky by a human-friendly deity (or when the sun was an anthropomorphic, human-friendly deity itself), it was obvious how it related to the struggles of mankind. But when the sun is just a giant nuclear furnace that doesn’t have a mind with which to care about humanity, its relation to humanity becomes a lot less clear and objective. Sure, the sun is necessary for us to survive, because it casts its light on our planet – but it doesn’t do it on purpose. It doesn’t care about us. It’s not an agent.
Thus, when moving from this primitive belief system to a modern scientific one, a feeling of disorienting dissonance arises between one’s perceptions of the sun as friendly and anthropomorphic, and the knowledge that such beliefs do not reflect reality. The mind’s way of perceiving the world emotionally (e.g. looking at the sun and feeling loved) must be retrained to accomodate the new worldview; these emotions no longer correspond with the facts, and so must be discarded.
These days, we often think of primitive, animistic beliefs as childish. After all, children are likely to personify inanimate objects, and to attribute events in nature to an anthropomorphic cause. The fact that children naturally gravitate towards these primitive-style worldviews suggest that such worldviews are more in line with how our minds naturally think, and that it takes some forcible redirection to push them into a different way of thinking, such as the logical, analytical mentality that currently predominates. If this is true, then every childhood contains a loss of innocence; each individual life echoes the Fall from the Garden of Eden, when we eat from the tree of knowledge of modern science, and the world ceases to be magical as we learn to view it in mechanistic terms. I suspect that the disillusionment I described in the previous paragraph, when a primitive man suddenly learns that the sun is just a flaming ball of gas, happens to all children in our society at an early age, as they are taught the basic truths that modern science reveals to us. Perhaps this is when we first begin to trust reason over intuition, to separate the mind from the body; perhaps this is when we move from embodied to disembodied consciousness. (Note that, presumably, a similar kind of disillusionment happens to those who move from a theist to an atheist worldview, as they grapple with a newly godless world.)
This “death of God” and loss of spiritual beauty has caused many an existential crisis. In the absence of God, humanity is on its own. No longer do we have the protection of a cosmic father figure watching us from on high. Instead, we wander, alone and abandoned in a universe that lacks any objective meaning or purpose. And the more we explore this universe, the deeper we delve into the cosmic mysteries, the more mysterious they become. Searching for the clear light of truth is like trying to find one’s way out of an infinite maze, a House-of-Leaves-like labyrinth of unanswerable questions, the chasm of the unknown only widening the more information we attain, so that we can’t even see across it to the distant shore of truth.
Primitive man was spared these existential and epistemological crises by his simple, orderly beliefs, which flowed down to him from the clear and ancient fountain of tradition. But in the modern age, we don’t have that luxury. In light of our modern scientific discoveries, it’s folly to accept these comforting beliefs as literal truths. And so we must face the harsh reality of the universe (and of modern thought) and come to terms with it. As the existentialists say, it’s up to us to find meaning in our lives; society and religion can no longer provide it for us.
Two Perspectives on Atheism and Science
For centuries now, people have been grappling with atheism and modern scientific beliefs. In what ways have different people come to terms with it? In this section, we’ll look at two different perspectives that people have taken with regard to these beliefs. In my introductory post, I claimed that worldviews were not just beliefs, but beliefs paired with emotional and perceptual experiences. According to that definition, the perspectives I am about to describe are two very different worldviews, though they contain very similar beliefs.
The first worldview is what I’ll call “hard-headed realism”. Hard-headed realists are usually materialist atheist reductionists, and they often accuse religious people of using their beliefs as a “crutch” because they “can’t handle the truth”. As suggested by their name, the hard-headed realists value “realism”, which they equate with cynicism: “The world is an unpleasant place; now suck it up and deal with it.” They think that human society needs to grow up from its childhood games of religion, stop playing pretend, and “face the facts”. This is considered unpleasant, but necessary for attaining any kind of intellectual maturity. It is worth observing that this worldview acknowledges that the beliefs set forth by religions are more aesthetically pleasing than their particular brand of materialist atheist reductionism.
And yet, when we look at the people who actually devote their lives to studying science, we often find a very different worldview. These people don’t find the knowledge revealed by science to be ugly. On the contrary, many scientists and mathematicians find an almost mystical beauty in the subjects they study. Far from stripping away unpleasant illusions and shattering comforting beliefs, scientific discovery helps to reveal the glory of nature. The world is huge and beautiful and complex. Learning how things work does not make them feel less magical to the scientist. If you tell a man who adheres to this worldview that emotions correspond to chemicals in the brain, he won’t feel disillusioned with emotions because they’re “less real” somehow. Instead, he’ll be even more impressed with the brain for working in such an interesting way; this new knowledge will deepen his appreciation of the complexity of nature. For him, this new knowledge will enrich the beauty of the world, not detract from it.
The Aesthetics of Ideas
The contrast between the two worldviews highlighted above suggests the main theme of this series of posts: abstract facts, such as the absence of God or the unattainability of truth, are not inherently beautiful or ugly. It is possible to find beauty in any belief system. There’s no need to live in a disillusioned world that lacks all feeling of magic or awe. The scientific quest for truth does not require disillusionment.
Certainly, it may be easier to find meaning in some belief systems than others. For instance, the primitive beliefs described above are perhaps inherently meaningful, and need no existential interpretation. But it’s still possible to find beauty in any belief system. It may take some work, but it’s possible. And this series of posts will attempt to explain how to do it.
But perhaps you don’t believe me yet, so let’s take a look at another example.
Case Study: Materialist Reductionism
Can materialist reductionism possibly be beautiful? I picked this example because I was once firmly convinced that it couldn’t be. Materialist reductionism seemed like the epitome of ugly ideas. It’s a belief system which separates us. We’re all isolated bits of matter floating around in space; we’re the ten thousand things instead of the one. And materialist reductionism depletes the world of life and makes people doubt that their own consciousnesses exist. How could such a worldview be beautiful? To quote David Zindell’s The Broken God on the ugliness of materialist reductionism:
The first science had resigned human beings to acting as objective observers of a mechanistic and meaningless universe. A dead universe. The human mind, according to the determinists, was merely the by-product of brain chemistry. Chemical laws, the way the elements combine and interact, were formulated as complete and immutable truths. The elements themselves were seen as indivisible lumps of matter, devoid of consciousness, untouched and unaffected by the very consciousnesses seeking to understand how living minds can be assembled from dead matter. The logical conclusion of these assumptions and conceptions was that people are like chemical robots possessing no free will. No wonder the human race, during the Holocaust Century, had fallen into insanity and despair.
But I have found that even materialist reductionism can be beautiful, because it highlights the fundamental unity of all matter, and it emphasizes that humanity is part of nature and not separated from it. Regarding the fundmental unity of all matter, the multifarious objects in the world are not as different as they might seem. I am a chunk of matter and the chair I’m sitting on is a very different chunk of matter, but we’re both built out of the same fundamental particles. You and I are just pieces of the universe, constructed of the same building blocks that were used to make all the other pieces of the universe. We humans, made of matter, participate alongside the material stars and planets in the dances of the cosmos. We are of one substance with nature; we are not the sole souled creatures, isolated from the world by our unique possession of some kind of dualistic spirit.
Here’s one of many relevant passages from Joseph Campbell, this one taken from Pathways to Bliss, though he emphasizes the physical nature of the universe rather than its material nature. However, the two are closely enough connected that I consider this worth including here, especially considering the relevance of its final sentence to my definition of meaning:
The laws of time and space and causality are within us, and anything we can see or know anywhere will involve these laws. What is the universe? Space. Out of space came a coagulation that became a nebula, and out of the nebula, millions of galaxies, and within one constellation of galaxies, a sun, with our little planet circling it. Then out of the earth came us, the eyes and the consciousness and the ears and the breathing of the earth itself. We’re earth’s children, and, since the earth itself came out of space, is it any wonder that the laws of space live in us? There’s this wonderful accord between the exterior and interior worlds.
So you see, reductionism can be either beautiful or ugly, depending on how it’s depicted. The description is what matters: it connects the abstract concept (“materialist reductionism”) to its aesthetic and emotional implications. The description gives us a way of grounding the abstract concept in our emotional experiences. This is, of course, how the aesthetics of ideas relates to symbol grounding. A description of an abstract concept relies on metaphors; the metaphors we choose will define our emotional experience of the concept.
Furthermore, observe that we can use the contrast between the two descriptions above to figure out what humans find inherently meaningful. Reductionism was ugly to me when I associated it with uncomforting things like isolation and aloneness, and beautiful to me when I related it to beautiful ideas like the mystical unity of everything, and our connection with nature. By analyzing many different beautiful and ugly descriptions, we can figure out which things we find beautiful, and which things we find ugly. Then, we can use this knowledge when designing new descriptions of ideas. Equipped with these tools, we can make abstract concepts as beautiful or as ugly as we choose.
This skill is necessary for truth-seekers in the age of science. Before science, knowledge was handed down through the ages. Factual and aesthetic knowledge were intermixed; the belief systems came pre-infused with meaning. But now we are in the scientific age, and science provides us with a method of discovering truth for ourselves, individually. But (as Joseph Campbell has observed) spirituality lags behind; spiritual truths are still taught by religious authorities, still handed down from on high, and they typically rely on outmoded cosmologies. This makes them unsatisfying to the scientifically minded individual; thus, many people have rejected spirituality altogether. But what we need is not a rejection of spirituality. Instead, we need a method for spirituality akin to the one we have for science: a method of individually discovering religious or spiritual truths or meaning. This series of blog posts is an attempt to provide such a method.
Furthermore, we live in a world where new knowledge is available daily. The intrepid truth-seeker must be willing to have all his beliefs shattered, and must be willing to accept strange and unpleasant things as true (at least until that model is replaced by one with even better predictive power). These blog posts are intended as an aid to such truth-seekers.
To summarize, spirituality and meaning are not a set of beliefs, but an emotional, intuitive, and aesthetic perspective on beliefs. Two people can believe the same factual claims, yet have very different emotional interpretations of those claims. This series of blogs posts is about learning to frame arbitrary abstract philosophical claims in terms of specific emotions. It’s also about stripping away the accidents of culture to reveal what humans truly find meaningful.
In the next post, we will begin to explore the technical details of my model, starting with some assumptions I am making about how the mind works.