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May-08-2010 01:03printcomments

Life: The Project (1)

First part of a continuing series.

Courtesy: learningfromlyrics.org

(CALGARY, Alberta) - "Life is your project; there is nothing to tell you what it's all about, which of course leaves you feeling existential anxiety and dread,” says Jungian analyst James Hillman in his best-selling book The Soul’s Code:

It's all up to you, each individual alone, since there is no cosmic guarantee that anything makes sense. There is neither God nor Godot to wait for. You make a life out of the deepest feelings of meaninglessness."

Few of us actually notice that meaninglessness, or at least not often, because we construct patterns of meaning out of the experiences of our lives. We believe in an order and meaning to our lives that is unconscious and subsequently adopted unconsciously on faith—which is something not restricted to religion.

Harvard cosmologist Sheldon Glashow describes the uncertainty and insubstantiality of science: “We believe that the world is knowable, that there are simple rules governing the behavior of matter and the evolution of the universe. We affirm that there are eternal, objective, extra historical, socially neutral, external and universal truths and that the assemblage of these truths is what we call physical science. Natural laws can be discovered that are universal, invariable, inviolate, genderless and verifiable…. This statement I cannot prove, this statement I cannot justify. This is my faith.”

The failure of science

We live in a science-dominated society, but science does not, can not, give any humanly meaningful answers. As philosopher Alan Bloom noted:

All that is human, all that is of concern to us, lies outside of natural science .

Steven Weinberg is a Nobel physicist at the University of Texas. In his 1977 book describing the origin of the universe in the Big Bang, The First Three Minutes he said:

As I write this I happen to be in an airplane at 30,000 feet, flying over Wyoming en route home from San Francisco to Boston. Below, the earth looks very soft and comfortable—fluffy clouds here and there, snow turning pink as the sun sets, roads stretching straight across the country from one town to another. It is very hard to realize that this is all just a tiny part of an overwhelmingly hostile universe....The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.”

The comment about pointlessness dogged him for years, and in 1993, in Dreams of a Final Theory, he tried to clarify his statement:

I did not mean that science teaches us that the universe is pointless, but rather that the universe itself suggests no point. I hastened to add that there were ways that we ourselves could invent a point for our lives, including trying to understand the universe.”

This is pure sophistry. We can “invent” a point for ourselves, but in Weinberg’s world, in the world of science itself, the universe remains pointless.

Commenting on Weinberg’s statement, Allan Sandage, another cosmologist, said that our beliefs come from our psychology and that “nihilism finally ends up in insanity… To avoid that, I’m quite willing to believe there is a purpose. But it is a belief. Weinberg…also states a belief and why he’s driven to that is probably as complex as why I am driven to the opposite pole.”

Add the science up and it comes out the same. Biologist Richard Dawkins, a year before Weinberg, wrote in The Selfish Gene:

Much as we might wish to believe otherwise, universal love and the welfare of the species as a whole are concepts that simply do not make evolutionary sense.”

The societal result, says physicist Roger Jones is that: "Science is no longer a field of study—an 'academic' discipline. In our culture, it has become a way of life and a system of belief. At its worst, science is a form of idolatry."

The name for this idolatry is scientism, the belief that science can or potentially can, one day in the future, answer all questions. But, as Erwin Schrödinger, one of the founders of quantum physics said:

[The scientific picture] gives us a lot of factual information, puts all our experience in magnificent order, but it is ghastly silent about all and sundry that is really near our heart, that really matters to us. It cannot tell us a word about red and blue, bitter and sweet, physical pain and physical delight; it knows nothing of beautiful and ugly, good or bad, God and eternity. Science sometimes pretends to answer questions in these domains, but the answers are often so silly that we are not inclined to take them seriously.”

This was demonstrated by neuroscientist V. S. Ramachandran who pointed out that:

The distinction between fact and fiction gets more easily blurred in evolutionary psychology than in any other discipline, a problem that is exacerbated by the fact that most ‘ev-psych’ explanations are completely untestable: You can’t run experiments to prove or disprove them. Some of the proposed theories—that we have genetically specified mechanisms to help us detect fertile mates or that women suffer from morning sickness to protect the fetus from poison in foods—are ingenious. Others are ridiculously far-fetched. One afternoon, in a whimsical mood, I sat down and wrote a spoof of evolutionary psychology just to annoy my colleagues in that field. I wanted to see how far one could go in conjuring up completely arbitrary, ad hoc, untestable evolutionary explanations for aspects of human behavior that most people would regard as ‘cultural’ in origin. The result was a satire titled ‘Why do Gentlemen Prefer Blonds?’. To my amazement, when I submitted my tongue-in-cheek essay to a medical journal, it was promptly accepted. And to my even greater surprise, many of my colleagues did not find it amusing; to them it was a perfectly plausible argument, not a spoof.”

In a footnote he added; “If you think my theory is silly, then you should read some of the others.”

I am not trying to present a wholesale indictment of science per se. No one will deny the good that scientists have contributed to the betterment of mankind and to the increases in both length and quality of life all over the globe.

Still, science has its dark side, a shadow. As the philosopher George Santayana aphorized: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

In 1962 Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring exposed the dangers of pesticides, DDT in particular, and launched the environmental movement.

Scientists had invented DDT and, if it had been used sparingly, as necessary, it could have done more good than harm. But, in a short-sighted, instant-gratification, ends-justify-means, society, it was used indiscriminately and without forethought. Scientists, who had invented it, were not seriously asked about potential dangers. Nor did most, other than scientists like Carson, look for them.

DDT, dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, was first synthesized in 1874. In 1942 Paul Hermann Muller of Switzerland discovered its insect killing properties, for which he was given the Nobel Prize. By the early 1950s, offending insects had developed a tolerance for it and effective uses in places like cotton fields required double and triple doses. As Nobel geneticist Barbara McClintock observed,

It was thought that insects could be readily killed off with the spraying of DDT. But the insects began to thumb their noses at anything you tried to do to them.”

History is repeating itself as our society continues to not learn. Since being introduced in 1996, genetically modified crops have become widely adopted by American farmers. More than 80 percent of the corn, soybean and cotton grown in the United States is genetically engineered. They tolerate Roundup®, are resistant to insects, or both, allowing farmers to either reduce chemical spraying or use less harmful chemicals. Genetically engineered to be impervious to the herbicide Roundup®, farmers can spray the chemical to kill weeds while leaving the crops unscathed. But the use of Roundup®, or its generic equivalent, glyphosate, has risen to the point that weeds are rapidly becoming resistant to the chemical, rendering the technology less useful and requiring farmers to use additional herbicides, some even more toxic than glyphosate—similar to what happened with DDT.

This is the result of public policy left to the scientific viewpoint. (Actually, it’s the capitalists at Monsanto, who believe the scientists and it’s you and I, the ordinary public, who are left to shoulder and suffer the potentially harmful end results.) Just as the heavy use of antibiotics contributed to the rise of drug-resistant supergerms, American farmers’ near-ubiquitous use of Roundup has led to the rapid growth of tenacious new superweeds.

“The biotech industry is taking us into a more pesticide-dependent agriculture when they’ve always promised, and we need to be going in, the opposite direction,” said Bill Freese, a science policy analyst for the Center for Food Safety in Washington.

I won’t repeat all the details. You can read more here: “Invasion of the Superweeds” (including a map of where weedkiller doesn’t work): roomfordebate.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/05/06/invasion-of-the-superweeds/.

Albert Einstein, the humanist-scientist, retorted them all:

What is the meaning of human life, or, for that matter, of the life of any creature? To know an answer to this question means to be religious. You ask: Does it make any sense, then, to pose this question? I answer: the man who regards his own life and that of his fellow creatures as meaningless is not merely unhappy but hardly fit for life.”

Driving a stake through the heart of science, does not mean its cultural alternative, religion, is any better an answer. As a May 1-2 USA TODAY/Gallup Poll of 1,000 adults found, 92% of Americans believe there is a God and 83% believe that God answers prayers.

Next: The failure of religion.


Daniel Johnson was born near the midpoint of the twentieth century in Calgary, Alberta. In his teens he knew he was going to be a writer, which is why he was one of only a handful of boys in his high school typing class — a skill he knew was going to be necessary. He defines himself as a social reformer, not a left winger, the latter being an ideological label which, he says, is why he is not an ideologue. From 1975 to 1981 he was reporter, photographer, then editor of the weekly Airdrie Echo. For more than ten years after that he worked with Peter C. Newman, Canada’s top business writer (notably on a series of books, The Canadian Establishment). Through this period Daniel also did some national radio and TV broadcasting. He gave up journalism in the early 1980s because he had no interest in being a hack writer for the mainstream media and became a software developer and programmer. He retired from computers last year and is now back to doing what he loves — writing and trying to make the world a better place

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Becky June 1, 2010 9:57 am (Pacific time)

Just a postscript: The natural sciences are essential to understanding ourselves and all that's around us. What keeps us under ball and chain is what ppl do not understand, what ppl do not care about, what ppl contrive, and POLITICS. Ppl are always trying to prove something for some agenda, rather than to learn for the sake of understanding. Ppl are basically greedy control freaks. Live and Let Live!

Becky June 1, 2010 9:46 am (Pacific time)

The meaning of life. To live in balance with all other life. To efficiently utilize all gifts of life minimizing waste and maximizing benefit for all. Along comes humans, like a steam roller, killing everything in our way. We have truly missed the mark. We create our own meaning, our own God(s). We even try to patent life, the same life we devalue. Life doesn't get any better than a healthy balance, basic respect, and proper management of resources.

Douglas Benson May 9, 2010 10:42 am (Pacific time)

Dont I know it Dan .As a child of twelve I was told my white blood cell count was too high .You might make it to eighteen son. That really messed me up for a long time . Christ I hadnt even gotten laid yet[something really important to a twelve year old ] I learned something that has gotten me through many difficult situations from being homeless to being in prison ect. No matter where I am how much emotional or physical pain I endure it sure as heck beats being dead. I had a good friend that died from kidney failure and I asked him one day how do you do it ? His simple answer was just that,it sure beats being dead . Right up to the end untill he couldnt get out of the hospital bed he lived his life as fully as he could . Party on ! Which brings me back to my point why arent we content to simply live and die,why must there be more ? Will anything we do or build go on forever ? How arrogant . I think that is the point ,some people are unwilling to accept that everything has an end. They try to fill the need for more that can never be filled .When life throws them a beatdown they cry like a sissy instead of rising to the challenge of adversity they choose to hide in any escape drugs alcohol religion work ect ,or quit alltogether . My point is untill we learn to be happy with the life we have no matter how hard it may seem sometimes nothing is enough to give it real meaning it will allways come up short.

Natalie May 8, 2010 7:58 pm (Pacific time)

Well, I had a teacher that wanted me to stay away from my religious parents' views as far as possible. She used to say that they were old, soon they would be gone, and I need to take everything from my life, have some fun and nice career. I didn't see my parents as old, neither I wanted to live "to the fullest" without them. Every time I thought I was ready for the talk she seemed to find a weak spot to make me cry. Years passed by, once I decided to call her. The very first thing she said, was that she started going to church, 2-nd-she's white-jelous of my Mom, and asked to say 'hi' to her. She also said that I was her best student and she wanted me to succeed in life. I know that this person really wished me only good. Looks like we fight less with ourselves as we get older. As my grandpa said before his death to us "I know that it's time for me to go. I want you to know that I finally found peace with God, and it feels good". I hope you'll have at least just enough time for those words, too, DJ.

Douglas Benson May 8, 2010 7:04 am (Pacific time)

Good morning Dan .I think that the search for meaning to life is silly so I guess that makes me hardly fit .
When will we get it through our heads that we are not the center of the universe ?
The universe will hardly notice our coming or going and our insignificant doings will amount to allmost nothing in the grand scheme of things .
Life is a journey it has a begining and an end with adventure in between why cant we be happy with that?
Sure we impact our small bit of space and time but we will pass and others will start thier own journey .
Why cant the meaning of life be simply to be ,to live,explore,love,create, and die .
So while you all try to figure out the meaning of life I will simply live it with relish .

I think you're right in what you say, Doug, as far as it goes. But there's more to it than that. Most of us most of the time never ponder life's meaning. But it's different when we come across adversity which visits us all. It's then that we have to have an inner reason to get up in the morning and continue to put one foot in front of the other.

The example I use to make this point is that of Mark Hughes, the founder in 1980 of the multi-national diet supplement, weight loss and skin care company Herbalife based in Los Angeles. They sell in 73 countries and last year had sales of more than $2 billion with more than 4,000 employees and more than 2 million distributors.

Hughes died in 2000 at age 44 from an "accidental" overdose of a large amount of alcohol and an ante-depressant drug. He was still a young man and had every reason to live and be happy. And I don't mean his wealth. He could say that he was doing good in the world through his company; he had just remarried for the second time less than a year before.

 Here's my point.  He obviously didn't have real meaning in his life if he was dependent on alcohol and ante-depressants.  This goes beyond the trite saying that money can't make us happy.  Millions of people loved him and what he stood for. It was not enough for him to give him meaning; or, more likely, it was too much.

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