Science and the Quest for Meaning

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In the absence of such a framework it is difficult to imagine how the universe could have any abiding purpose. We could have no sense that the temporal participates in the eternal, or that there is any transcendent value, importance or meaning to the evanescent physical universe and our own fleeting lives. Two characteristics of modern science have been especially instrumental in laying low the ancient hierarchical vision. If so, then there seems to be little if any room for a cognitively plausible religious sense of cosmic purpose. Atomism, by which I mean the ideal of explaining things in terms of elemental units—whether the particles of high-energy physics, molecules, cells, genes, memes, or whatever—makes the ancient cosmological hierarchy seem either illusory or irrelevant.

It does this by blurring the ontological discontinuities formerly deemed essential to hierarchy. If everything from rocks to brains is composed of atoms, can we draw sharp lines anywhere? That higher levels can emerge historically from lower levels all by themselves, without transcendent agency, would have been inconceivable to the proponents of the classic hierarchical metaphysics.

The idea that over the course of time lifeless matter by itself can give birth to life would have violated the principle that no effect can be greater than its cause. Formerly, causation was pictured as flowing downward from the highest level, that of the divine, to the lowest levels, and holding the chain of being up from above, as it were, so that first principles remained intact.

But all of this was before we came to realize how much time the cosmos has had to produce life and mind.

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In the absence of any sense of the vast epochs of natural history that seem now to allow for their gradual emergence by trial and error experimentation, the most efficient way of accounting for the complexity of higher systems was to postulate the connivance of the supernatural. In the absence of immense epochs of time, the emergence of life seemed improbable, and so it made sense to posit the exceptional intervention of a special creative agency. Then perhaps life does not seem so extraordinary.

After Darwin, vitalism seemed intelligible briefly because it apparently salvaged the ancient principle of causation, positing a supernatural force as the creative source of life. But today vitalism has been largely discredited, and time itself has become enshrined as a sufficiently creative principle in place of the divine. For if the enormity of time itself can provide ample opportunity for reshuffling physical stuff, then why would we need to appeal any longer to the idea of a timeless transcendent Reality that would draw physical stuff toward life and mind from up above?

As a consequence of the atomizing and horizontalizing of nature, for many intelligent moderns the traditional hierarchical vision, with its function of assigning various levels of value to corresponding levels of being, and of endowing the entire cosmic edifice with eternal meaning, is now defunct. Modern science need not look to a Platonic realm up above but only to the dead material cosmic past for the originating principle of all things, including those we value most.

Science and the Quest for Meaning - Baylor University Press

By flattening what used to be thought of as an essentially vertical arrangement of being and value, science seems to have destroyed the cultural, ethical and religious setting in which human life has carried on for ages. Many of us would reply that it is not science so much as scientism or other related ideologies that challenge hierarchy. Still we cannot exaggerate the enormity of the great drama of hierarchical collapse that has accompanied the rise of science.

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The most divine thing about us is scientific knowledge, and the most divine thing about science is its power to "second guess the divine modus operandi," figuring out the intelligent design in nature. It is natural for one with these views not to worry about the human future. We are too godlike for an ignominious slide into extinction. Experimentation is released from a priori limitations. Anything is allowed. There are no immoral experiments. For Fuller, the overarching problem of social epistemology is to define the relationship between moral and epistemic values.

On his account there is no real difference.

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No moral values are not ultimately served by the good of knowledge. If something is valuable for knowledge yet immoral, that is because we have applied the wrong moral time scale. If the scale is appropriately long term, then it is impossible for an immoral deed to contribute to knowledge. We are admonished against demonizing Nazi-like scientists who have the audacity to see far. Fuller takes all time as his moral horizon. That is the view he calls Left Creationism, and with which he self-identifies.

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He does not explain why he thinks morality can be discussed in terms of terms like long and short. Apparently he does not think that what people do is right or wrong, good or bad, at the time they do it. Wickedness can only be judged from the long term. Only then will we know what was irredeemably wicked and not just seeming so due to short term pain and suffering. But is that not to excuse all wickedness? Keynes said that in the long term we are all dead. So we will have no way of saying that the wicked-seeming experiment is actually what it seems. Unless, of course, we are immortal.

Fuller wants a great goal to restore the lost philosophical ballast he thinks the sciences formerly enjoyed. Like Plato, Bacon, Comte, and Spencer, Fuller has a plan to get all the scientists and philosophers together in one enterprise. For Plato, the godlike quality of our nous was the contemplative power to enjoy a vision of the things themselves. Fuller wants the godlike nous , but interprets it biblically as the legacy of creation in the image of God.

God is a creator, and we activate our divinity not in pure contemplative theory but rather by creation, construction, technical artistry, and scientific engineering, carrying on the unfinished work of divine creation. The mighty works of science now and especially in the future are "outright performing -- that is, acting out -- of divine intentions in materially novel ways ranging from socially engineered utopias to bio-engineered transhumans.

Fuller wants more of that. He wants "Humanity 2. Fuller somehow knows or believes and wants to tell us that the "role" of humanity is to be "the entity that God delegates to do the 'dirty work' of creation, which may include sacrificing some current forms of life in the name of some improved future forms. The long-term welfare of humanity is the highest good. What Is Science? Nineteenth-Century Positivism 3. The Fall of Positivism 4.

In this Book

The Science Wars 5. Science assumed an importance hitherto unimagined prior to the Soviet challenge, and to prepare the country for possible assault, beside air raid simulations, I studied new math and was enrolled in advanced science courses. Drilled in facts, disciplined in scientific method, and buoyed by the wonder of nature, I saw a future bright with the scientific enterprise. Perhaps I too would become an investigator.