Opening Ourselves to Meaning and Purpose

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Mar 05, 2015

If it is true that many or most people in our time are frustrated by a lack of meaning in their lives (see Evangelization and the Gift of Meaning), then it makes perfect sense for Christians to try to open their neighbors to the possibility of meaning. This will serve both as a genuine human service and as a kind of preparation for the even greater gift of the Gospel.

But “meaning”, when you try to think about it, is a very strange thing. This is not just a question of figuring out what things “mean”; it is a question of figuring out what meaning is, where it comes from, and who or what is concerned about it or can grasp it. It is these deeper questions, in fact, which give the lie to any theory of life that claims meaning does not exist. The very fact that we persistently raise the question of meaning already proves that modern theories of meaninglessness are inconsistent with what it “means” to be human.

The chief source of this idea that meaning does not exist is really an abuse of modern science. I have mentioned before the modern tendency to focus only on material questions, and then to argue that anything we are not focused on does not exist. This fundamental category mistake has been committed so frequently over the past few centuries that one suspects it is a function of pride, a concupiscent rebellion against the obvious, or (at best!) weariness of philosophical debate.

Even the famous “randomness” that scientists have discovered in the material universe cannot be used to prove that the universe is meaningless. The very assertion is a gratuitous leap. It deliberately steps outside the realm of material causality which contemporary science is designed to explore. Moreover, scientists know that randomness in science does not mean what we take it to mean in ordinary speech. Randomness in material causality occurs always within a limited range which, overall, produces an eminently predictable result. Across the entire board of the universe, this “randomness” somehow keeps all material things exquisitely balanced on a knife-edge—a knife-edge so keen that the slightest deviation from perfect balance would quite literally destroy everything.

This is true of the universe as a whole, and of the conditions on earth necessary for life as we know it. So even what scientists call randomness has all the earmarks of design.

The Human Way of Knowing

But it is too soon to argue for design. The point here is that we must first step back from particular arguments and decide whether or not we are going to trust our own in-built human way of perceiving and interacting with the world—our fundamentally and uniquely human way of knowing.

Returning to this question of “meaning”, then, we see at once that meaning is of no interest to anything that lacks intellect and will—anything not a person. We are reminded by our very question that in all the material universe, the human person occupies a unique position. We are the only beings—that is, the only beings with material substance—who ask questions about what things mean, and about how we should act based on that meaning. Outside of our little human circle, things may be part of some overall pattern but, if so, they do not care. They cannot care.

This brings us sharply up against the decisive issue: Are we going to trust those who argue, without any discernible basis, that matter is all there is, that matter is completely random, and that therefore meaning cannot possibly exist? Or are we going to accept as fundamentally valid the universal human experience that we instinctively and inescapably perceive reality in terms of meaning? Instinctively and inescapably: We might as well have said “naturally”, that is, according to our nature.

The point is that we are who we are. As men and women we can no more apprehend reality purely in terms of what we can measure empirically than we can behold a loved one (love!) without being instantaneously aware when this loved one is unhappy, without wanting to know why, and without seeking to fix it.

However human nature came about, the human person is so constituted as to see things whole. We look at a rock and we see it as a rock, and not as a sequence of chemical bonds. We recognize that it is inanimate and that it does not move or grow by its own agency. We perceive that it is subject to our control and may or may not be useful to our own purposes. In the same way, when we encounter a living nose, eye, and fingertip we are not blind to everything else as if we are conducting a scientific experiment. We perceive the whole being and we quickly discern what sort of being it is. If it is human, we expect it to be rational—and therefore, perhaps, unpredictable.

We perceive patterns (or else no fruitful examination would be possible), and when we do perceive them we move immediately—always and inescapably—to the first thing we wish to know about them: Why? All of this is because we are persons. We have intellect and will. We exist in relationship to other persons and things. This is what it “means” to be human. And this includes a special connatural—that is, innate—mode of knowing.

Starting at the Beginning

Because we perceive patterns—including structure, causality, intention and purpose—we may break reality down into different aspects for closer study by techniques and methods proper to each aspect. We do not turn to modern science (for example) because material structures and material interactions are the sum total of reality, or to any other specialized discipline with a similar exclusionary attitude. If we did, or if any specialist responded in so foolish a manner, it would be evidence of forgetfulness of the whole, including forgetfulness of what it means to be human.

It is worth noting that the physical sciences are impossible without the presupposition of an ordered universe, the study of which can yield ordered results. But I single out science here only because, in our time, it is so frequently cited as a justification for denying the existence of meaning.

Human persons perceive reality whole—not always correctly (a discussion for another day)—but nonetheless whole. This is so true that we take it as a sign of the breakdown of our nature—a sign of malfunction or even insanity—whenever a person fails to see things whole, whenever he or she really cannot see the forest for the trees, whenever—for example—someone sees another person only as a nose or an eye, or (if we will be honest for a moment) only as a bundle of material reactions which mean nothing at all.

To get at this question of meaning, therefore, we must learn to trust ourselves again. We must recognize how and what the human person perceives and knows by virtue of his own unique form of being. We must understand that nothing that we do, no matter how specialized in its processes, can escape this fundamental structure of our being. We must learn to distrust those who claim such knowing must, or even can, be negated.

Even if we are not convinced, we might as well accept this. There is no other starting and ending point for anything we think or do. In philosophy, this is rightly called “realism”. Though wary of mistakes, we must begin the search for meaning by trusting that, fundamentally, we perceive reality as it is.

Incidentally, Christianity begins with a similar premise, though deeper and richer and closer to the end of our journey toward meaning. Despite sin and error, Christianity begins with the fundamental soundness of each human person, beloved by God.


Previous in series: Evangelization and the Gift of Meaning
Next in series: What is ‘meaning’ and where does it come from?

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: bkmajer3729 - Mar. 05, 2015 8:33 PM ET USA

    Plenty of meaning in the universe and through science. Design is all around and within us. Father Spitzer's book, "New Proofs for the Existence of God", is a great place to start in developing one's awareness and openness to this reality.