Meaning and Purpose Beyond Reason and Science

Mental health is variously described as an epidemic and a crisis. The number of individual sufferers is rising and healthcare providers in the western world are experiencing chronic under-resourcing. The rise in mental health problems has been explained in many ways. Some argue that it is a consequence of a loss of religious faith, that there is growing desperation about the declining state of the world and that an altogether waning sense of meaning and purpose in society has left many searching. Yet, we are cautioned, there is less and less to be gloomy about. Without a proper account of our historic progress, we are susceptible to nihilism, existential malaise and even serious mental ill health. After all, as Steven Pinker suggests in his paean to progress Enlightenment Now, “an obliviousness to the scope of human progress can lead to symptoms that are worse than existential angst.”

However, whilst reading Pinker’s book will make you aware – in immense data and detail – of all the ways we have made progress to be sanguine about, it has also been criticised for failing to address the problem of suicide and other existential issues in society which are harder to quantify. Whilst the author recently pointed out that, with the exception of the United States, suicide rates are falling globally, the unquestionable rise of mental health problems more generally leaves some questions unanswered. Is there something scientific and statistical descriptions of the world miss when they talk about the positivity to be found in progress?

For example, how might we construct meaning and purpose in our lives without belief in God, or more accurately, with only confidence in science? Answering this has prompted Jordan Peterson to speak of meaning as such:

“The feeling of meaning is an instinct, it’s not a thought, it’s not a secondary consequence of rational processes; it’s way deeper than that, it’s something that drives rationality itself.”

Indeed, part of Peterson’s appeal is that he taps into the unarticulated sense that reason, science and progress can fail us on matters of the existential. Often, he muddies this critique by waging the ‘primacy of faith’  – and subjective experiences of the world and God – against attempts to rationalise meaning. Nevertheless, there are some pitfalls to the hard-nosed, verificationist approach to wellbeing that is often termed ‘scientism’. This statistical and po-faced address see’s a meaningful life as being inevitably downstream from promising data about global progress.

Recently, Andrew Sullivan crystalized the longstanding argument that the sense of community that religion fosters has no secular equivalent. This is not for lack of time or effort in trying to build one, but for the lack of metaphysical clout one has to coalesce about in secular circles. Uniting in agnosticism, scepticism and rationalism is much less rewarding than uniting in faith, certainty and earnest reverence for the divine, or so it seems. And so the argument against scientism goes further: in our quest to get closer to truth, to verify our judgements about the world, to decide what course of action can make a difference, we have lost touch with the rich, emotional, subjective aspects of the human experience which truly constitute the meaningful. In unravelling an objective, empirical reality, we have relegated the metaphysical to a quaint and inconsequential role. Philosophy has less to say about morality than social statistics about progress. Meaning is quantifiable, reducible and merely a matter of what can be proven to produce good outcomes vs. bad ones, what is worse vs. what is better.

What we should judge to be ‘good’ in the first place is not totally clear. What, of the myriad experiences to have in a life, will be ‘better’ for us even less so. What are the constituents of ‘wellbeing’ beyond an absence of material suffering? At its most absurd, scientism answers this with an appeal to our evolutionary purpose or to the neurological constituents of wellbeing. What defence would this calculated and fatalist form of scientism have against, say, guaranteed reproductive success followed by an eternity of wireheaded-bliss? That we can’t shake the doubts that we’d lose something special if we were hooked up to the happy machine in perpetuity tells us there’s something more meaningful to a human life.

In any case, addressing concerns about the loss of purpose and meaning with a purely scientific description – ballasted by statistical likelihoods about potential progress – might be possible, but certainly not without an element of nihilism creeping in. As Ben Sixsmith puts it, when describing the ineffable nature of art. when we try to quantify the idiosyncrasies of experience – what is beautiful, desirable, meaningful –  “the shiver that ascends one’s spine in the presence of beauty shrinks before the presentation of scientific data.”

A Modern Malaise

Nonetheless, we do have more reasons to be happy now than we did not so long ago. Indeed, amongst western nations, the U.S. is the only outlier in self-reported wellbeing, stagnating in levels of happiness whilst western Europe’s happiness increases. We are guided to the conclusion by reams of data that by almost every measure worth our attention, everything is getting better on average for more and more people.

However, part of the spike in reports of mental illness is still undoubtedly due to a general sense that things are getting worse. On a global level, people cite Brexit, Trump, the rise of the far-right, threats of nuclear war or the refugee crisis. On the personal, fatherlessness, loneliness, the opioid epidemic…one could go on and on. Whatever one puts it down to, it has been undoubtedly difficult to remain optimistic. And in our conversation about this and every other remotely political issue, tribalism, partisanship and parochialism runs amok. Friendships are torn over disparate political opinions. It becomes much more difficult to acquaint yourself with new people who have different affiliations to you, especially when it would be futile to isolate the conversation from the flow of breaking news trickling down one’s twitter feed like melancholic raindrops down a pane of glass. On the occasion that these distressing news stories begin to flood, it is no surprise some feel at risk of drowning.

Amidst all this, it can be hard to shake off the desperation one notices during conversations about the utility of reason, especially as we are caught in a tide of global instability for which statistical answers about the decline of violence are poor consolation. As it goes, convenient answers about God’s cosmic plans and divine justice are also an insufficient emollient to the scars of global conflict. What’s more, the unifying moral fabric we dearly need is disintegrating. Partisan tribes see a world of common enemies, rather than searching for common humanity. Postmodernist ideas deconstruct humanism and universalism into an unstable relativism, leaving us powerless to assert what we know is wrong just because diverse cultures cannot agree on what is necessarily good or right. A feeling that our societal bonds are more fragile now, that existential problems consume us and that we have reached an important moment in our search for identity and meaning in the world is not unfounded.

Although Pinker reminds us we have done a remarkable job of staving off material suffering, the consequences of this are not altogether clear, existentially or spiritually. “Carving out beneficial refuges of order” – as Pinker advises us to attempt in the face of dizzying disorder, entropy and suffering – is one thing. But what happens when the refuge is too sheltering, modern society too comfortable, or if the order becomes too compulsively arranged and maintained? How might we spiritually fulfil ourselves once we’ve staved off suffering, carved out the refuge and now have nothing really left to do but to play in it?

The young are in jeopardy, more aware of – but less resilient to – mental ill-health. Millennials are overrepresented in anxiety and depressive disorders. Why might this be? What Camille Paglia has called ‘meaning-destroying post-structuralism’ is in ascendency at universities, such that children who have already grown up sheltered from phantom problems become anxious students, lack the resilience to navigate challenging topics, have narrow-minded worldviews and an unstable, relativist version of truth. Where might one begin to construct meaning from all of this?

Older generations fare little better. The disproportionate prevalence of depression in successful, wealthy people – especially millionaires – tells us something about how joyless this refuge and freedom can sometimes be, bringing with it unique problems of managing our time and money, avoiding both isolation and distraction and managing our newfound interconnected power to, for example, tweet to a global audience without perpetrating or receiving some form of public shaming. We should remember that to populations of the past our relative freedom, safety and material security makes us all millionaires in spirit now. Our daily lives are so free from inconvenience, struggle and unnecessary suffering that we are untested and complacent in our refuges of order, heady with the instant satisfaction on offer all around.

Netflix, Instagram and Twitter scarcely existed a decade ago and now rule some of our lives more than we’d like to admit. Our existential sublimation has been swift, from substance to vapour, from the physical to the digital, from cherished photo albums to the digital selfie-generation in merely a few decades.  People quickly noticed this was having an effect on mental health, and so anti-social-media hashtags and movements prevailed, often packaged in the ‘cleansing’ language of self-care.

Though this suggests we might be beginning to moderate our reliance on our smartphones, it is not clear that the innovative power of social media will win out over the way it exploits our human foibles and insecurities. The refuge, the order, the endless possibilities, the overwhelming abundance of newly-created and curated content to drown into, satisfying our thirst for Shakespearean tragicomedy with every article, tweet and Netflix original. The choice is paralysing. Our fixation with one thing segues with effortless clicks into an addiction to the next. We become everyday aficionados in everything but valuable experts in nothing. It’s unadulterated fun, but meaning is more ambivalent than that. Recognising this, modern self-help gurus and influencers have begun to reassert, in their stoic streaks, that suffering, discipline and delayed gratification are key ingredients in the recipe for happiness, and they have done so with psychological evidence on their side.

How can we still find meaning?

Sadly, though I am heartened greatly by books like Pinker’s, a friend of mine once argued it is my bleakly scientific view of humankind that is in part responsible for the lack of meaning and purpose in my own life. Once you reject creationism, accept some form of determinism, appreciate the force of our genetic imperatives and accept how little, if any, free will one has…well how hard it is not to be nihilistic. And the scientific answers to this nihilism are poor consolation. ‘What is the point of it all’ is the question one still asks after acknowledging that avoiding suffering, reproducing wellbeing and progressing on all metrics of global welfare are good ideas. Arguably, my friend’s by no means oblique observation about my worldview reflects a common criticism of both secularism and scientism; the loss of purpose, meaning and beauty as a consequence of po-faced rationalism.

What to do about this? Firstly, perhaps we shouldn’t have to isolate ourselves or organise into ideological tribes for fear of disagreement with others. It is worth reminding ourselves that for most of us the stakes of disagreement are trivial, as our lofty opinions go unactioned whilst politics subordinates itself to family, friends and hobbies. After all, owing to more than fifty years of what Pinker calls ‘a cascade of Rights Revolutions,’ we are now united in bipartisan agreement on so many taken-for-granted aspects of a modern liberal democratic society that we should not pause to explore the extent of our accord with people. In this sense I agree with Pinker, who also argues that is only in the context of this widespread and under-championed progress that we could give succour to the narcissism of small differences, focussing in on our pet pessimisms about the world, outdoing each other with our cynicism, sanctimoniously signalling our progressive credentials by finding increasingly small problems to catastrophize.

Yet although progress – in the form of all the bad things that didn’t happen – makes for poor headlines, real bad news does affect our mental health, hard as we might try to be optimistic in the face of twenty-four hours of rolling reasons not to be. Information media has democratised and is now accessible to the point of being inescapable, often inseparable from life’s simple pleasures. One can’t merely catch up with an old friend online without reading some desperate headline or relax in a pub and gleefully sink into test match cricket without rolling news on an adjacent screen intruding on what sports columnist Simon Kuper once called ‘the soothing changelessness’ of the sporting script.

My father, a quasi-Jehovah’s Witness, often despairs at this daunting news cycle with the bittersweet glee of a man looking forward to the end of the world. It is sad to see his thin veneer of eschatological optimism held as a shield against his growing hopelessness, though it is clear to see that the sense of meaning he derives from this is anything but a fantasy. This is enviable in a way. To tell myself I am too rational to place faith in God, an afterlife and a New System does little to help me construct purpose in the one world and life I can be sure I do have.

Still, as I try to remind him when the latest awful news has him anticipating the end times, overall, everywhere, all the time, things are incrementally getting better. It also worth reminding ourselves of the powerful position we are in to continue aiding this progress. If we are to marshal our disposable income as to eschew greed and extend our sympathies globally, we can all be armchair philanthropists. We just have to know where to send our money, who to champion, what problems are really damaging and what charities are really effective in remedying them.

Overall, the gap left by what some see as the arrogance of scientism can sometimes feel like a chasm as vast and empty as the universe itself. Yet there are simple heuristics that can help. Without divine direction, we are free to construct our own meaning. By focusing on what we do know, and what we might be able to learn, we can concentrate on what provably improves our wellbeing. Without any tribal alliances in this quest, we are more likely to embrace our neighbours’ plight as ours, even if that neighbour is continents away and suffering in unimaginable ways that no amount of humanistic empathy could let us pretend we understand, and even if the only aid we can offer is bluntly financial.

Though I remind myself of this – and as a corollary of the immense privileges I am thankful for – depression can still feel like the unavoidable distillate of intense and repeated days where nothing at all goes wrong but still everything is not right. It can feel natural and inescapable. It can feel like the conclusion to the questions of our transience and insignificance in the world, so devastating that sanguine words no matter how heartfelt can’t usher in relief. And there is a way to acknowledge all of this, that – as Jordan Peterson doggedly repeats – life is suffering, but to do so as a means of showing how self-reflection and cosmic contemplation need not lead to desperation or nihilism. Instead, this acknowledgement should beget honest insight into one’s own real and significant capacity to act according to one’s deepest held motives and to improve not just your lot, but the real, meaningful, purposeful and important lives of those closest to us.

 

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