THE SCIENCE OF MEANING

According to the mainstream, traditional notions, science cannot answer life’s big questions, such as how one can find meaning in life; that is the domain of religion. Using science to address life’s meaning and purpose may seem surprising to many nonreligious people. However, there has been a wave of recent research in psychology, cognitive neuroscience, sociology, history, and other material as well as social science disciplines on life meaning and purpose. To be clear, the research does not what life is all about. It does not answer the question “What is the meaning of life?” objectively. Instead, the research addresses how to gain a personal and rich sense of meaning and purpose in life and how to answer the question “What is the meaning of life for you?”

Thinkers on Meaning and Purpose

Faith – based, mainstream perspectives perceive the meaning and purpose of life to be found only in the divine. An example of a prominent recent religious thinker is Karl Barth, one of the most important Protestant thinkers of modern times. In his The Epistle to the Romans (Barth 1933), he calls modern people’s attention to God in Christ, where the true meaning and purpose of life must be found. Another example is The Purpose Driven Life, a popular book written by Rick Warren (2002), a Christian mega church leader. His book powerfully shaped the public dialogue on life meaning and purpose.

Nevertheless, some thinkers disagree with the notion that religion is the only way to find meaning and purpose in life. Jean – Paul Sartre, in his Existentialism and Human Emotions, advanced the notions of “existentialism,” the philosophical perspective that all meaning and purpose originates from the individuals, according to Sartre, is to face all the consequences of the discovery of the absence of God. He argues that people must learn to create for themselves meaning and purpose (Sartre 1957).

Another prominent thinker is Greg Epstein. In his Good without God What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe, he advocates striving for dignity as a means of finding “meaning to life beyond God.” According to Epstein:

We are not wicked, debased, helpless creatures waiting for a heavenly king or queen to bless us with strength, wisdom, and love. We have the potential for strength, wisdom, and love inside ourselves. But by ourselves we are not enough. We need to reach out beyond ourselves – to the world that surrounds us and sustains us, and most especially to other people. This is dignity. (Epstein 2009, 93)

Likewise, Sam Harris, in his book, waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality without Religion, states that:

Separating spirituality from religion is a perfectly reasonable thing to do. It is to assert two important truths simultaneously: Our world is driven by dangerous religious doctrines that all educated people should condemn, and yet there is more to understanding the human condition than science and secular culture generally admit. (Harris 2014, 6)

Are they correct? Can we have meaning and purpose, which fall within the sphere that Harris refers to as spirituality and Epstein terms dignity, without belonging to a faith based community?

Meaning and Purpose: Health Benefits

Before moving onward, I would like to establish the value of meaning and purpose. Research shows people who have a clear answer have better lives (Seligman 2002, 30 – 44). They can deal much better with both every – day life and the most challenging situations. The classic research on meaning and purpose comes from Victor Frankal, an Austrian psychiatrist who lived through the concentration camps of the Holocaut. He described how those who had a sense of meaning and purpose in their lives were most likely to survive and thrive in the camps. He conducted research demonstrating this both during and after his concentration camp experience (Frankl 1964, 101 – 36).

Recent studies illustrate that people who feel that their life has meaning and purpose experience a substantially higher degree of mental well – being. For example, Michael F.Steger, a psychologist and director of the Laboratory for the Study of Meaning and Quality of Life at Colorado State University, found that many people gain a great deal of psychological benefit from understanding what their lives are about and how they fit within the world around them. His research demonstrates that people who have a strong sense of meaning and purpose have greater mental well – being in general. They are more satisfied on a day – to – day basis, as well as at work (Steger et al. 2012). Adolescents, in another study, are shown to feel less depressed and anxious, and are less likely to engage in risky behaviors, the greater their search for and sense of meaning (Brassai et al. 2011).

A deeper sense of life meaning and purpose also predicts better physical health. Greater meaning and purpose has been associated with a reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease (Boyle et al. 2010). An increased sense of life meaning and purpose correlates with reduced risk of heart attack, the leading cause of death in the United States, and stroke, another of the top five leading cause of death (Kim et al. 2013a and 2013b). With such benefits for mental and physical well – being, it is no wonder that a strong sense of life meaning and purpose predicts longevity, whether in the United States or around the world (Boyle 2009).

Research on Life Meaning and Purpose

So now that the health and well – being value of a rich sense of meaning and purpose are established, we can proceed on determining how to gain this sense from a research – based perspective. First, it is vital to recognize that studies show that a strong sense of meaning and purpose correlates with strong religious religion illustrates that “for many, the most salient core psychological function of religion is to provide a sense of meaning and purpose in life” (Batson and stocks 2004, 149). Survey – based studies affirm such individually oriented psychological research. For example, a study of the population of Memphis, Tennessee, found that the extent to which religion has salience in a person’s life correlates with a heightened sense of meaning and purpose (Petersen and Roy 1985, 49 – 62). Another study used the General Social Survey, which tracks demographic, behavioral, and attitudinal question across the United States. The researcher investigated how the degree of belief in God relates to a personal sense of life purpose. The data showed that people who indicated they are confident in the existence of God self – report a higher sense of life purpose compared to those who believe but occasionally doubt, and to nonbelievers (Cranney 2013, 638 –46)

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Yet from a skeptical perspective, we need to be wary of any claims suggesting correlation implies causation. One of the most widely known examples of this problematic thinking error is the irrational belief that autism is caused by vaccination. The correlation between the facts that autism begins to appear in children at the same time in their life that they get vaccinated does not at all mean that vaccination causes autism (Godlee et al. 2011). Can the same problematic thinking error be plaguing the studies showing correlation between religion and life meaning?

It can and does. Studies indicate that to gain life meaning and purpose, and its benefits; one can pursue a number of paths, with religion being only one of those paths. Frankl’s classic research suggests the crucial thing for individuals surviving and thriving is to develop a personal sense of individual purpose and confidence in a collective purpose for society itself, what he terms the “will – to meaning and purpose.” Frankl himself worked to help people find meaning and purpose in their lives. He did so by helping prisoners in concentration camps and later patients in his private practice as a psychiatrist, to remember their joys, sorrows, sacrifices, and blessings, thereby bringing to mind the meaning and purposefulness of their lives as already lived. According to Frankl, meaning and purpose can be found in any situation within which people find themselves. He emphasizes the existential meaning and purposefulness of suffering and tragedy in life as testimonies to human courage and dignity, as exemplified both in the concentration camps and beyond. Frankl argues that not only is life charged with meaning and purpose implies, but this meaning and purpose inplies responsibility, namely the responsibility upon oneself to discover meaning and purpose, both as an individual collective (Frankl 1964, 101 – 36).

Frankl’s approach to psychotherapy came to be called logotherapy, and it forms part of a broader therapeutic practice known as existential psychotherapy. This philosophically informed therapy stems from the notion that in ternal tensions and conflicts stems from one’s confrontation with the challenges of the nature of life itself, and relate back to the notions brought up by Sartre and other existentialist philosophers. These challenges according to Irvin Yalom in his Existential Psychotherapy include: facing the reality and the responsibility of our freedom; dealing with the inevitability of death; the stress of individual isolation; and, finally, the difficulty of finding meaning in life (Yalom 1980, 6 – 10). These four issues correlate to what existential therapy holds as the four key dimensions of human existence – the physical, social, personal, and spiritual realms – based on extensive psychological research and therapy practice (Cooper 2003; Mathers 2001).

Science – Based Strategies for Gaining Life Meaning and Purpose

So why do studies show that a sense of life meaning and purpose correlates with religion? One reason is that so much of the research on this question has been conducted in the United States. And it just so happens that in the United States, religious communities has come to provide the kind of things that contribute to a sense of life meaning and purpose. Churches provide the main Venus for Americans to reflect on their sense of meaning and purpose, by themselves in prayer and together with others in bible study and other similar group activities.

However, correlation is not causation. Research shows that the important thing for our mental and physical health and well – being is simply to have a sense of meaning and purpose in life, regardless of the source of the purpose (Steger 2012, 381 – 85). What are research – based meaning – making activities that we can do without going to a church to gain life meaning and purpose? One way to do so is through intentional self – reflection. We can take the time to stop and think about our lives and experience, to help us gain an individual sense of life’s purpose and meaning through the lives we’ve already led. A great way to do so is through journaling, which has a variety of benefits beyond helping us gain a richer sense of life purpose. For example, a 2005 study found that writing about traumatic, stressful, or emotional events for fifteen to twenty minutes on three to five occasions has resulted in clear improvements in both mental and physical health (Baikie and Wilhelm 2005, 338 – 46). A 2014 study on journaling about previous life experiences for which we are grateful, in which participants were asked to keep daily gratitude diaries for three weeks, found significant psychological and physical improvements in people’s lives (UC Davis 2014).

Here are some specific prompts to use in journaling about meaning and purpose in life, as informed by logo therapy:

1.    What were important recent events in your life?
2.    Which of them involved stresses and adversity, and how can you reframe them to have a better perspective on these events?
3.    What did you learn from these events?
4.    What are you grateful for in your life recently?
5.    What was your experience of life meaning and purpose recently?

Consider journaling about these topics for a week, and see what kind of benefit you get, what kind of challenges you run into, and what you learned about how this journaling can be adopted to your own particular preferences and needs.

This and many other science – based strategies are described in my workbook, Find Your Purpose Using Science. Based on my own academic scholarship (Tsipursky 2012, 1 – 67) and that of others, the book combines academic research, an engaging narrative, and stories from people’s everyday lives and provides a set of exercises you can do to help you figure out your own sense of meaning and purpose.

Believing in God and going to church are not the only ways to attain a strong sense of life purpose and meaning. You can gain it through journaling about your own sense of life purpose. You can also join venues that are secular, such as local chapters of the Center for Inquiry, and gain an opportunity for community ties and a chance to reflect on life purpose and meaning from a reason – based perspective together with other secular folks. Such activities, according to the scientific literature, are very likely to increase our sense of life meaning and purpose.


SEARCH FOR EXTRATERRESTRIAL LIFE

Stephen Hawking

 

SCIENTIFIC progress is almost certain to bring disaster to planet Earth within the next few thousand years, according to top cosmologist Professor Stephen Hawking.

He predicts that as new technologies are developed, the number of threats to the human race will increase until some kind of global cataclysm is virtually inevitable.

In the time period before humans manage to escape to the stars, they will have to be “very careful”, he says.
His prophesy of doom came when a member of the audience asked him: “Do you think the world will end naturally or will man destroy it first?”
“We face a number of threats to our survival from nuclear war, catastrophic global warming, and genetically engineered viruses,” the research director at Cambridge University’s Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics replied.

“The number is likely to increase in the future, with the development of new technologies, and new ways things can go wrong. Although the chance of a disaster to planet Earth in a given year may be quite low, it adds up over time, and becomes a near certainty in the next thousand or 10,000 years.

“By that time, we should have spread out into space, and to other stars, so a disaster on Earth would not mean the end of the human race. However, we will not establish self-sustaining colonies in space for at least the next hundred years, so we have to be very careful in this period.”
Most of the threats the human race faces come from progress in science and technology, he said.

 

Courtesy : Skpetical Inquirer – January/February 2016.

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