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January 7, 2014 / compassioninpolitics

Materialism, Reductionism, and the Fallacy of “we’re just atoms”

Critiquing the Logical Cul De Sac of the “We’re Just Atoms”
I don’t think we have to view life as meaningless because “we’re just atoms.” When we look into the sky and see “just atoms” we are amazed. When we look into an investigation of the human body (for instance for medical research) that are “just atoms” we are likewise amazed.

Viewing humans as “just atoms” is like viewing a painting as “just paint plus artful brush strokes.” It misses the point. The reductionist frame isn’t particularly helpful in terms of finding meaning–unless it intentionally wants to find none. A more meaningful look at what is going on or what is experienced is key here.

Even the materialist knows the difference between the quality of relationship and love created between two human beings–the experience of companionship, friendship, compassion, and family–are different than that created by a test tube or a rock or any other material object. To say that person imposed that meaning is pretty silly.

Humans recognize the emotional, the purposeful, and the transcendent (transcends atoms & transcends individual humans). To say that we grew into those values via evolution–doesn’t make them contingent–it just means it took us an epic journey to get here. Certainly we wouldn’t do that with our own lives. The experiences of art, music, beauty all point in this direction–the experience of a moment in time in which there is a resonance between human beings.

Philosophy has lots of thought experiments which simply don’t make sense in the real world 99.9999% of the time (is the chair really there?). They are interesting and thought provoking–but mostly intellectual parlor tricks in terms of how we actual view reality & any sort of meaningful pursuit of the goodlife requires. This isn’t meant to be a diatribe against philosophy–just that all insights that philosophy might provide aren’t equally valuable. That seems pretty intuitive.

Happiness & Meaning
In terms of pleasure and happiness providing meaning–certainly happiness does provide the appearance of meaning (perhaps even providing a cue of meaning). I think that joy and self-actualization might provide a deeper sense of meaning. Moreover, if you look to aristotle, he seems to anticipate the later debates between Jeremy Bentham versus John Stuart Mill. Aristotle’s definition of happiness–seems much more up to the task of providing foundational meaning (meaningful meaning, if you will) than a simple notion of happiness.

For more on the research on meaning and the good life (link).

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