"We Had the Experience but Missed the Meaning." - Evolution News & Views

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"We Had the Experience but Missed the Meaning."

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Roger Kimball at PJ Media:

In one sense, as [English philosopher Roger] Scruton notes, philosophy is the helpmeet of science. It aids in the task of putting our conceptual household in order: tidying up arguments, discarding unjustified claims. But in another sense, philosophy peeks over the shoulder of science to a world that science in principle cannot countenance. "The search for meaning and the search for explanation," Scruton writes, "are two different enterprises." 

The problem is that we do not, cannot, inhabit the abstract world that science describes. Reason allows us to distinguish between appearance and reality; but our human reality turns out to be rooted firmly in the realm of appearance. "This worry is not just philosophical," Scruton observes,

it is also spiritual. The meaning of the world is enshrined in conceptions that science does not recognize: conceptions like beauty, goodness and the soul which grow in the thin top-soil of human discourse. This top-soil is quickly eroded when the flora are cleared from it, and nothing ever grows thereafter. You can see the process at work in the matter of sex. Human sexuality has usually been understood through ideas of love and belonging. ... The sexologist clears all this tangled undergrowth away, to reveal the scientific truth of things: the animal organs, the unmoralized impulses, and the tingling sensations. ... The meaning of the experience plays no part in the scientific description. 

It is "naked truth": in [T.S.] Eliot’s words: "We had the experience but missed the meaning."

The scientific attempt to explore the "depth" of human things is accompanied by a singular danger. For it threatens to destroy our response to the surface. Yet it is on the surface that we live and act: it is there that we are created, as complex appearances sustained by the social interaction which we, as appearances, also create. It is in this thin top-soil that the seeds of human happiness are sown, and the reckless desire to scrape it away -- a desire which has inspired all those "sciences of man," from Marx and Freud to sociobiology -- deprives us of our consolation. 

Consolation? Indeed, more: it threatens to deprive us of our humanity. In Plato’s phrase, philosophy turns out in the end to be an effort to "save the appearances."

Bertrand Russell (no theist he) made the point quite emphatically in his theory of the mind, which he called Neutral Monism. Russell pointed out that we make a great error in understanding the mind when we assert that it is the material aspect -- the brain, neurons, neurochemicals -- that are most tangible, and the mind that is ineffable. The opposite is true, Russell insisted. The mind is the only thing of which we have direct experience. It is the most tangible, the most real, experience we have. We know our mind directly -- not through our senses, unlike any other aspect of the natural world, including matter. The material world is always experienced through the senses, and is removed a step from our experience.

Materialist reduction is never the whole truth. It always leaves out that which is most human and most real.

Materialist reductionism is a deeply flawed philosophical enterprise. There is obviously a place for reductionism in natural science, as long as the severe limitations of the reductionist program are understood. Reductionism is of some value in understanding restricted material and efficient causes in nature, but it is not the truth.

Materialist reduction is a limited enterprise, with a tangential relation to the truth. Reduction is a constricted abstraction that leaves out the essentials of human experience, and can never be the basis for a genuine understanding of man.

Image credit: Davide Restivo/Flickr.