Finding a balance between science and meaning.

Photo by Madhav Rajesh on Unsplash

“If you know that I am an unbeliever, then you know me better than I do myself. I may be an unbeliever, but I am an unbeliever who has a nostalgia for a belief.”

Pier Paolo Pasolini
Episode 77- Human Beings: Romantic Meatballs in Space
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One could argue that a human being is essentially a meatball. That is, we are just a specific conglomeration of matter. I sometimes prefer the term meat robot or meat skeleton, but they all invoke the same realization; our bodies and our brains are comprised of atoms. Oxygen, Carbon, Hydrogen, and Nitrogen make up the majority of the “meat” in the human meatball, and well over a dozen other trace elements also contribute.

I first heard this meatball description—a funny way to describe the scientific and materialistic perspective — in an interview between Ben Shapiro and Neil deGrasse Tyson. While Ben is a conservative leaning media personality who is openly religious, Neil is a famous astrophysicist and communicator of science literacy. As you might expect the conversation quickly found itself circling around the conflict between science and religion.

Early on, Ben asked Neil how a person who has a strictly materialistic perspective can still find meaning and purpose in life. Neil responded with the astrophysics discovery that—something he has referred to in the past as the most astounding factthe atoms in our bodies were fused together billions of years ago in the cores of high mass stars. Those stars became unstable and eventually exploded their chemically enriched interiors throughout the galaxy. These star guts then became the next generation of stars, planets, and, in at least one case, life.

I’ll admit that I do personally find that fact beautiful. Think about it, or rather feel it, next time you’re having a quiet moment looking at the stars. This fact helps me find a sense of spirituality and connection without betraying my naturalistic and materialistic viewpoint. But Ben pushed back by asking “isn’t that just a romantic way of saying that we are meatballs in space?”.

Ben does not think that facts alone, no matter how awe inspiring, can provide us with purpose and meaning; it is our moral systems and values that guide our purpose in life, and you can’t ground those moral systems in the cold hard facts of science. As David Hume has famously pointed out, there is an epistemologically impassable gap between an “is” statement (the cold hard facts about the world) and an “ought” statement (a claim about how the world should be).

The tension between these viewpoints is multidimensional, and it is something that I’ve grown to respect as I get older. It is the tension between science and religion, and it is also the tension between the natural and the supernatural. It exists between facts and values as well as between literal and metaphorical interpretation. And finally, this tension exists between the objective view of humans as meatballs, and the subjective view of humans as moral beings acting out a story.

This episode and blog post, far from being an exhaustive philosophical analysis of the problem, is more of a layperson’s exploration of where some of these tensions take us. Is objective reality the only truth that we should believe in? Can you fully capture the beauty, meaning, and mystery of the human experience with only the objective and fact based world of science?

Science vs. Religion

The methods and tools of science are one of the greatest discoveries ever made by humans. The scientific method allows us to understand the natural laws that govern reality. Although aspects of scientific thinking go back thousands of years, it was not until the Scientific Revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries that the scientific method was codified. This revolution did not only lead to the emergence of modern science, but it also provided a reliable basis from which one could view the world objectively.    

Most of us consider the notion of objective truth as self-evident, but for many thousands of years, human beings did not conceive of the world in this naturalistic way. People instead, through mythology and story-telling, conceived of the world as a forum for action. Religions codified these mythologies into worldviews that gave human beings guidance on what this life is and how to live it. From this view of the world, we see ourselves as part of a story in which we can (and should) act in certain ways.

This view of the world as a forum for action is in contrast with the objective approach to reality that science gives us. Science views the world materialistically as a place of things. It is grounded in an axiom of naturalism which states that the universe is governed by natural laws that we can understand through experimentation. Everything that happens in the universe—no matter how confused about it humans might be at any given time—is a matter of causes and effects that follow these natural laws.

The success of science created a shift in perspective towards the objective world view. By probing reality through experimentation, humans have slowly chipped away at the workings of the universe. From Newton’s equations to Einstein’s relativity, and from quantum mechanics to the standard model of particle physics, we now have a detailed and highly predictive model of the objective world. It’s the main reason why we enjoy so many technological innovations in the 21st century.

As much as I like right answers, I do not have an answer that resolves the tension between science and religion. When I was younger I more confidently wrote off religion as ridiculous and I didn’t take any arguments from that side of the debate seriously. But as I get older, my mind seems to understand the religious perspective in a different way.  

I’ve noticed that in most science vs. religion debates, people tend to confuse these two different modes—a forum for action vs a place of things— that one can construe the world with. Materialistic people tend to equate “truth” with “objective reality”, without considering that there can be multiple layers to truth. And many religious people tend to confuse their ethics, values, and stories as being empirical and literal.

I think we should admit that there is no obvious solution or winner in this debate because they are playing different games— we are dealing with two different domains of truth. I personally think of myself as being grounded in a materialistic perspective, but I have also come to appreciate the term “metaphorical truth”; it refers to something that is not literally true (a story or an ethic) but that still leads to the survival of the people believing in and acting it out.

I have almost no doubt in my mind that the events in the Bible are literally false. And I also have almost no doubt in my mind that the strongest theories and laws in science are objectively true. But I think that we should allow for two domains of truth to exist, and we should not confuse them. Much like the tension between Einstein’s and Newton’s conceptions of gravity, both forms of truth work in their respective domains. Until a larger and more encompassing framework comes along, we should probably respect and utilize the best parts of both science and religion.

Scientific Spirituality

My personal version of dealing with this tension is a kind of scientific spirituality. Inspired by thinkers such as Neil deGrasse Tyson, Carl Sagan, and Sam Harris, I’ve learned to appreciate spiritual experiences while maintaining a grounding in science.

A spiritual experience for me is not something supernatural. Phenomenologically, it an obvious shift of consciousness; it is a shift from the small sense of self in the head to a larger and all-encompassing sense of connection, love, acceptance, and gratitude. As someone who practices meditation, I often experience it as a dissolution of the body and the ego. The center of consciousness drops away, and you feel a sense that, instead of being separate from the world, you are a part of everything.

And it is scientifically true that we are actually a part of everything. We are made of the same atoms as anything else in the universe. We are meatballs made of universe meat. Knowing that you are essentially made of star dust can give you scientific permission to feel a commune with the cosmos—to feel that same spiritual sense that you are a part of everything.

I think many people have these spiritual experiences but then frame them with some kind of religious description. But the scientific way to frame it would be that there are many possible states of consciousness and the spiritual experience is one of them. The many types of psychedelic experiences clearly show that the mind is capable of producing these states. And perhaps the human brain even evolved to have and seek out these experiences. Maybe we evolved a kind of “religious module” to help us find meaning and overcome the suffering in life.

Whatever the case, consciousness is still fundamentally a mystery. We’ve learned so much about how the brain works, but we still have no idea how the firing of neurons gives rise to first person subjective experience—the so called hard problem of consciousness.

A religious person might bring in a supernatural sense of the soul to explain away this mystery. But if you’re scientifically minded, you should believe that consciousness somehow arises from brain matter, and we just don’t understand how yet. And that brain matter is reducible to atoms, and those atoms are themselves reducible to quarks and electrons. You could say that a human being is just a particular arrangement of up quarks, down quarks, and electrons—aka we are just a meatball. But we are clearly so much more than that.

This is why I think the phrase “romantic meatballs” captures the idea of scientific spirituality. This type of spirituality is a way of appreciating the mystery of being without betraying science. It allows you to exercise the religious module of your brain— the part that yearns for meaning and connection—while ultimately grounding yourself in a naturalistic world view.

There is no doubt that religion can and does cause so much harm throughout the world, but as we adopt a materialistic perspective, we should be careful not to throw out the baby with the bath water. Perhaps there are metaphorical truths within the religions that can’t be proven scientifically but that can help us lead an ethical life with meaning and purpose.

When you first learn the scientific origin of human beings, it can sound as ridiculous as a religious story. The vast size and timescale is mind blowing and humbling. Over billions of years, the universe naturally organized itself into intelligent apes that could figure out where they came from and contemplate the meaning of it all. We are not just atomic meatballs—we are highly intricate, self-aware, and romantic meatballs.

Or as Carl Sagan famously said: “We’re made of star-stuff. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.”

Thanks for reading/listening. -Luke from Thunk Tank Podcast
If you enjoy our blog/podcast, I hope you’ll consider supporting us on Patreon by clicking here.