The taboo against meaning

(An improved and updated version of this essay has appeared in my book Brief Peeks Beyond. The version below is kept for legacy purposes.)

Philosopher in Meditation (detail) by Rembrandt. Public domain image.

Many people, scientists included, believe the greatest taboo in science to be the taboo against "magic." After all, science is a method for deriving explanations for everything in terms of other things. Nothing happens "by magic," but is the outcome of a long, and sometimes nearly unfathomable, chain of causality.

However, there are many historical examples in science of what we would today call "magic." For instance, during the Renaissance scientists attempted to explain electrostatic attraction by postulating the existence of an invisible substance, called "effluvium," stretching out across bodies. Strange as it may sound today, at the time effluvium was considered as legitimate an explanation for empirical observations as subatomic particles (equally invisible) are now. As the Renaissance gave way to the Enlightenment, scientists began trying to frame every phenomenon in terms of the action of small corpuscles interacting through direct contact. Any explanation that did not conform to this template was considered "magic" and, therefore, invalid. That is why the ideas of an English scientist called Isaac Newton were ignored and even ridiculed for decades: Newton dared to propose that objects attracted one another from a distance through an invisible, mysterious force he called "gravity." Yet we know how that story developed.

You see, magic is not really a taboo in science. It has never been. After all, the chain of reduction has to end somewhere. One cannot keep on explaining one thing in terms of another forever. Eventually, one must postulate fundamental properties of nature that are not reducible to, or explainable by, anything else. These fundamental properties are what they are simply because that's how nature is; period. This is where science legitimately accepts "magic." Electromagnetic waves vibrating in a vacuum sounds pretty much like magic (after all, what is it that vibrates, given that it all happens in a vacuum?) but that's just how nature is. Imagining the fabric of space-time twisting and bending in the presence of condensed energy (what is energy, by the way?) also sounds like magic, but who are we to judge it? It's just the way things are. In the course of the history of science, we have chosen different things to label as "fundamental properties." Each time this choice changed, the previous one was made to look like silly "magic." But at all times have we accepted "magical," fundamental properties of nature; indeed, perhaps never more so than today, with the advent of quantum mechanics and the new multiverse cosmologies.

No, magic has never been the real taboo. The real taboo is meaning.

Once scientists thought that the Earth was the center of the universe. Ptolemaic astronomy could explain nearly all astronomical observations of its time, based on just such an assumption. That gave us humans a sense of being special, significant, meaningful: we were the center of existence, after all; the heavens turned around us. But it was not to last. And once scientists realized that our planet was just a rock going around the sun along with countless other rocks (i.e. the other planets, moons, and the asteroid belt), a great sense of shame must have ensued. How ridiculous and stupid astronomers must have felt; all their aspirations of meaning and significance shattered beyond repair.

And it happened again; and again. For instance, for centuries we believed that living creatures differed fundamentally from inanimate objects in that we were powered by a special force later called "élan vital," or "life force." Indeed, we were special because, out of all of creation, we were animated by this divine force. Our existence must, therefore, have had a special meaning to motivate such distinction. Life had a purpose; we had a purpose. But again, it was not to last. Today, the vast majority of scientists extrapolate the little we know of molecular biology and assume that life is merely a mechanical process at a molecular level. In other words, we are just machines, not fundamentally different from rocks except in that metabolism operates slightly faster than crystallization or erosion. Again we fell flat on our faces. We are not special or meaningful; we're just like everything else.

Psychologically, these are very powerful experiences. When you have aspirations of significance and the world conspires to show you, very publicly, how deluded you have been and how unimportant you are, the shame and sense of inappropriateness that ensues can be devastating. It is easy to imagine how this could have built right into the culture and values of science a deep phobia against delusions of meaning. No, it is better to assume the very worst and be positively surprised than to expect some kind of meaning and be, again, ridiculed. Let us thus assume, as a matter of principle, that there is no meaning, and then let nature prove to us that we are wrong. This way, we turn the tables on nature: we challenge her to try and humiliate us again, if she can! For this time we are ready with our shields of skepticism and cynicism. Never again will we be made to look like fools... or so the subconscious thought might go.

The problem is that, over time, such cautious value system can (and, in my view, did) turn into a taboo. Don't get me wrong: having spent time with some of the greatest bastions of science, I do not think this is, in any way, a Machiavellian conspiracy. Scientists are overwhelmingly honest in that they do believe they are following the correct intellectual avenues. The taboo against meaning is a cultural value that has been unconsciously taught and learned over generations, and which is now so deeply ingrained in the way-of-thinking of most scientists that it goes undetected.

Nonetheless, and leaving aside its built-in bias, a taboo against meaning has the potential to be as naive and delusional as the aspiration of meaning itself. The idea behind the taboo is that we are not special: Who are we to assume that our existence has any meaning anyway? But you see, who are we to decree that it does not? What do we know anyway? The historical instances where our aspirations of meaning were proven hollow represented very naive conceptions of meaning. Today, who would associate the idea of meaning to being physically located in some kind of cosmological center? Our conception of meaning has become much more sophisticated and subtle.

The fact is, the universe exists; life exists. Assuming that it all came out of nowhere for no reason is, I believe, as much a leap of faith as anything else.


  1. Your new website makes it possible to find gems like this, which I obviously missed originally!

    I agree, the taboo against meaning, rules out a whole range of possibilities, based on nothing more than prejudice. My hunch is that the élan vital is not gone for good. It just doesn't lie at the level of organic molecules (Wöhler's synthesis of urea from inorganic starting materials) but at a slightly higher level - perhaps that which Rupert Sheldrake has dubbed the morphogenetic field.

    Nevertheless, I tend to think that human consciousness isn't unique, but part of a continuum of animal consciousness. Even single celled organisms seem capable of something like conscious behaviour - attacking and devouring food, and avoiding noxious stimulae - consciousness seems to be part of life as a whole - the new élan vital?

    1. Thanks David! And I agree: it's all in mind, so consciousness is a continuum.