Religion Today

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Meaning of the Natural World

February 22, 2012 — "Religion Today" is contributed by the University of Wyoming's Religious Studies Program to examine and promote discussion of religious issues.

The goal of the Enlightenment, that intellectual movement of the 18th century, was to establish human reason as the highest arbiter of knowledge, as opposed to divine revelation, the Christian Church's source of truth.
Although the accuracy of this claim is still debated among philosophers and theologians, it is clear that Reason and its offspring, "Science," have become important arenas of knowledge in our intellectual and cultural worlds. Indeed, wherever religion and science have offered differing explanations of the natural world, or even the cosmos, our society nearly always treats the scientific view more seriously than the religious one.
But even as religion's descriptions of the world have seemingly been beaten back before the unrelenting onslaught of science, there is one question where the roles are absolutely reversed. This is the question of meaning. Put in large-scale terms, what meaning does nature, the universe and the cosmos, hold? Placed in a smaller scale, what is the meaning of a flower's blooming in the spring?
Science can answer the questions of how a flower blooms, why a flower blooms, and even why it blooms in the spring. But it cannot assign an ultimate meaning or purpose to that event. In fact, science cannot even assign ultimate meaning to its own explanations. The theory of evolution, for example, gives strong explanatory power to biology, enabling it to tell us why and how new species of animals and plants develop, why some disappear, and so on. But evolution does not, even cannot, reveal its own ultimate purpose.
This inability is not restricted to biology. Astronomy, for instance, can describe the formation of black holes and develop a theory of gravitation to explain it, but trying to specify the purpose of a black hole is almost nonsensical in scientific terms. Physics can explain why water is the only compound that expands as a solid form rather than contracts, but it does not tell us what that means.
Does this mean that "Life, the Universe, and Everything" (as Douglas Adams would describe it) is meaningless? Absolutely not. Instead, meaning must come from outside of science itself.
It turns out that religions have been doing a pretty good job at answering the question of ultimate meaning. As the biologist Kenneth Miller argues in his book, "Finding Darwin's God" (Cliff Street Books, 2000), "Our human tendency to assign meaning and value must transcend science and, ultimately, must come from outside it. The science that results can thus be enriched and informed from its contact with the values and principles of faith. The God of Abraham does not tell us which proteins control the cell cycle. But he does give us a reason to care, a reason to cherish that understanding and, above all, a reason to prefer the light of knowledge to the darkness of ignorance."


  • Sorry, but this comes across as a desperate attempt to find some "meaning" in religion, ill-defined as the term "meaning" was in this post. "Meaning" in religion all to often comes down to the whimsy of the most charismatic blow-hard of the era, not some supernatural truth written in the stars.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2/22/2012  

  • As a natural scientist, I have to agree that science does not have all the answers. Mainly, with respect to the particular issues raised, because there are no answers.

    Making up some meaning (id est following the way shown by religions) does not create meaning, it creates unfounded opinion. Meaning is a soft issue that is human made.

    Furthermore, when we compare the issues apples to apples, that is, compare 'can science explain the why of the universe' with 'can religion explain the why of god' (both disciplines explaining the root causes of their view of the world) or, 'can science explain what the purpose of a flower is' with 'can religion explain god's purpose of a flower' then it becomes clear that religion harbors no such advantage as was proposed. It simply adds an unnecessary level of complication to any possible answer.


    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2/22/2012  

  • Why does life have to have a meaning? Can't we appreciate it and care for it without that? That fact that it IS should be enough for us to care for life and all of creation.

    By Anonymous Jo Aelfwine, at 3/05/2012  

  • I think the main problem with this topic as usually cast back and forth by theists and atheists is the assumption that static categories like “the Divine” and “natural” or the “material” exist other than as our dualistic semantic projections upon the whole of reality as we can perceive it. Our experiences are never reductionistically “materialistic,” even in the proverbial “hard, cold” lab. Process theism, by whatever name (Whitehead, Hartshorne) seems a better way of thinking about our “reality” even if “God” might not be the word one choses to use given the connotations from “Classic” theism. Bottom line, the very nature of reality presents us with what appear to be “mechanistic” “time and chance” “atoms and the void” phenomenon, but also “mind” “thought” and other transcendent phenomenon as well, that seem to exhibit will, reason, and the aesthetic–hence this very blog, this topic, and the discussion thereof. These are no opposing realities (mind and matter) but of one whole “panentheistic” reality. Most of us agree that “magical” thinking is not a credible casual factor in our universe (angels, demons, fairies, and projected illusions) but who among us can reduce to “normal,” i.e., our wondrous and marvelous minds and experiences of reality to what is normally described as “the merely material,” i.e., strong and weak nuclear, gravity, and electromagnetic “forces”?

    By Blogger James D. Tabor, at 6/14/2012  

  • do you have cite work for this? I would like to use this in my essay, I do really hate essay, anyway, I do agree with you regarding the meaning of nature, meaning of life, etc. IT has been revealed in Holy Bible, the meaning of life, that is. If someone wants to find the meaning, read the bible, and they will have their answers, because there are many answers. For me, I have found few answers, and I still am looking for more. Do you know any more verses that can support your questions in your post? Can you give me some ideas?? I'm sorry it is not my intention to question your opinions. However, if I want to prove my opinions with strong point, I have to have cite works, credential ones.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7/24/2015  

  • At the top it says the meaning of natural world yet you have not defined it once.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2/18/2016  

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