Sam Ghandchiسام قندچيٍModernism and Meaning of Life

Sam Ghandchi


Persian Version



"To frame a philosophy capable of coping with men intoxicated

with the prospect of most unlimited power and also with the apathy

of the powerless is the most pressing task of our time." 

Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy, 1945, p. 729


Negating modernism with mysticism is not a step forward.  My goal in here is not to write another critique of postmodernism, which I did last year, in Dec 2003.  Here I examine some philosophical views, that trying to go beyond the scientific paradigm of the last 300 years, have ended up in retrogression to mystical philosophy, their efforts reminiscent of F. H. Bradley's mystical Hegelianism of 100 years ago, in England of the turn of the last century, rather than offering a philosophical outlook more viable than modernism.


In the View of Reality, I noted that Bradley's Hegelian mysticism, was challenged by *realism* of G.E. Moore and Bertrand Russell, who emphasized the need for *empirical* evidence and *verification* in science. In fact, later on, Bertrand Russell, who was an agnostic, was asked what he would do if he died and saw actually there exists afterlife and God. He responded that he would ask Him (ask God), why He (God) had not provided enough evidence for Bertrand Russell to believe in him (God), when he (Russell) was living back on Earth!


After Bertrand Russell, *verification* versus *falsification*, *induction* versus *deduction*, as the methodology of science, had been argued for, among philosophers of science like Karl Popper, nonetheless,  such differences were basically within the scientific paradigm, and the objective knowledge was upheld, as the only reliable scholarship. [See the text of my lecture in Persian entitled Philosophy of Science in the 20th Century]


In 1989, I wrote an article entitled "Meaning of Life", where I examined the views of two thinkers of our times, who challenged the scientific paradigm of the last 300 years, namely Morris Berman and Willis Harman. 


Morris Berman in his The Re-enchantment of the World, reports that prior to the scientific revolution, in the Middle Ages, the belief in the Divine Purpose, which was shared by society, made every action meaningful within a cosmic picture.  Thus, the meaning of life for the medieval individual, supported ethics and morality.  The decline of religion and the abandonment of the belief in such grand designs, transformed the meaning of life to the meaning of this and that event in life. 


In the last few decades many forefront scientists and philosophers have recognized the ethical dilemma of the scientific paradigm stated above, and many of them are renouncing the scientific paradigm, and some like Berman, are embracing mysticism. 


In Berman's opinion, the only way society can regain a general meaning, is to develop a participatory approach to knowledge, in contrast to the detached Cartesian dichotomous outlook.  That is, to replace Descartes' separation of the observer and observed, with a world outlook that would regard the observer as part of the observed world or vice versa.


Berman , contrary to some others with the same viewpoint, does not try to prove his viewpoint by generalizations of quantum physics beyond its boundaries, and rather takes a historical approach.  He thinks of participation as the core principle of medieval philosophy, which is true as far as the mystical and esoteric traditions in that period are concerned , but in the other Medieval philosophies, such as Scholasticism, not participation, but servitude to the Divine Scheme guaranteed the meaning.  For Scholastics, in God's Mind, there was a Purpose for everything, and our ignorance of that Purpose, was no reason to think that it did not exist. (See Sufism and Fatalism)


For the Medieval mind, we were at the mercy of the Divine, and our search was to attain an awareness of God's Purpose, rather than to change it, or to devise our ownThis is the reason for the endless Medieval arguments about determinism and free will in theology and philosophy. 


Although this approach provided a meaningful existence for those who were happy to live according to the Design, for others who did not like to be a pawn in the Divine Scheme, such existence was more meaningless rather than making life more meaningful.


A similar situation developed among the scientific philosophers.  The materialists, just like the Scholastics, faced the same problems of determinism and indeterminism.  The problem of justifying meaning was even harder to resolve for the materialists than the Scholastics.  The latter's appeal to God's Design had a more powerful grip on the pious mind than the power of fatalistic Necessity on the secular mind. 


Only mystics believed in some kind of participatory pantheism.  In other words, for a mystic, consciousness is everywhere prior to time and space, and even the material world is a form of consciousness in the eyes of a mystic, once the separation of the observer and the observed is overcome, there is no meaning separate from the actual existence.


For example, the last major work of Willis Harman entitled "Global Mind Change," proposed consciousness as the fundamental stuff of the universe as prior to time and space.  Harman thought that his metaphysical scheme will put an end to the lack of meaning in the contemporary world, and would support the formation of a planetary interconnectedness. 


In Harman's view, participation would end the arrogance of the observer who sees himself detached from the "external" world.  In short, in view of Harman, the distinction between the observer and the external world was a matter of perspective, just like the pre-Copernican picture of the universe.


I think all the generalizations of quantum effect to the higher levels of the world, done by the mystics, are not warranted, and will not get us to the better understanding of the world. 


In fact, overcoming the dichotomy of human existence and the external world is not even desirable.  It would reduce the possibility of trustworthy knowledge and an uninformed mind would be happy to think of her/his subjective feelings, as truth, without seeing the need for verification.  In the modern industrialized world, the destructive power of such confusions about knowledge, has been constrained by the grip of the scientific paradigm on our rational thinking. 


Treating knowledge as a private enterprise, and dropping verification from our common sense, may replace knowledge by ignorance, especially in the more backward parts of the world.


We need to remember that the dichotomy of the scientific paradigm, by emphasizing verification, has created an unprecedented depth in our understanding of the universe and life.  Nonetheless, if we retain the epistemic dichotomy, the question remains how we can overcome the dilemma of meaning!  I agree with the above noted thinkers that what our scientific institutions are doing, i.e., adding more knowledge of the external world to our repertoire, does not solve this dilemma, although I do not support their solution of mysticism as the answer.


The reality is that some who are trying to go beyond science, are in reality going below science in their search, by regressing to old views such as mysticism, when they write of the *information* element of sub atomic particles, as if these subatomic particles *hear* and *see*.  In other words, using anthropocentric views of reality, to extrapolate the quantum effects and vice versa, thinking that they are going beyond the science of the last 300 years, whereas in reality, to go beyond the science of the last 300 years, means to enter the post-anthropocentric viewing of the universe, and also to envision the post-gravity view of our world, which I previously discussed in Post-Anthropocentric Production and in Space and New Thinking.


The easy way of mystical parables is not the hard work of going beyond the science of the last 300 years, rather it is a regression to the traditions of the Medieval world, albeit with the emphasis on the spiritual side of life, instead of looking for new solutions for these new problems, and this is the most dangerous disease especially for the backward countries, where the scientific paradigm had never taken roots in the first place, and its institutionalization can be impeded this way.  In those countries, we are not suffering from the authority of dogmatic scientific institutions such as the universities, rather we are faced with the convening of religious Friday prayers  in the corridors of the universities, to undermine even the little authority of scientific community in the scientific institutions, let alone the society at large.


Sam Ghandchi, Editor/Publisher


December 7, 2004


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