Banishing Boundaries in Thought

Science, philosophy and religion offer worldviews which have merit but exclude each other. Wisdom lies in banishing boundaries between these worldviews.

The big questions of meaning

We human beings feel a need to know more than just basics: we feel a need to understand things at a deeper level. We need to understand who or what we are, why things happen, what we can do to improve our lives, and where our actions might lead. This is important not just for day to day coping but for our very survival. In all functions of life, including thought, we organise ourselves by creating systems. We create disciplines of learning, with definitions, rules, methodologies and so on, all designed to help us proceed more clearly and solve problems. However, this in itself can create new problems. We tend to make systems an end in themselves, creating boundaries where boundaries are unnecessary, and becoming rigid in our ideas.

Different paths to knowledge

The answers to questions about “the meaning of life” come mostly from science, philosophy and religion, all of which give valuable and complementary insights. However, our understanding remains fragmented. Science gives us a factual framework, based on a strong methodology; philosophy attempts to find meaning, based on strong argument; and religion provides meaning and motive for action, based on feeling as well as methodology and argument. Unfortunately, however, science, philosophy and religion all tend to be mutually exclusive. And while the relative latecomer New Age seeks to transcend these traditional disciplines and be more holistic and free-thinking, it lacks their intellectual rigour and credibility.

Unnecessary boundaries in thought

The meaning of life is such an all-embracing topic that we have to banish boundaries in thought if we are to find answers. The most sensible way forward therefore is an inclusive approach, drawing on all sources. In some cases we might have to decide that a particular explanation, even though it is only partial, has to be accepted: a scientific explanation for a scientific problem, a religious explanation for a religious problem, and so on. But in the long run this will not do; we need a set of explanations that together make sense. Sadly, some leaders in science, philosophy and religion have been unhelpful, disparaging or neglecting each other’s achievements. However, in our increasingly interdependent world, there are real advances to be made through a more collaborative, cooperative or at least respectful approach.

Cultivation of wisdom

To get satisfactory answers to questions about “the meaning of life” we need to cultivate wisdom, which is the great meeting point for the different approaches to reality. Wisdom has many aspects, exercising the whole mind. It goes far beyond the exercise of reason; indeed, reliance on reason alone is unwise. We attain wisdom through cultivating right habits of thought, such as patience, humility, compassion, moral judgement, and the ability to deal with uncertainty. Wisdom also requires us to be open and inclusive. Happily, we live in the 21st century, when - at least in Western societies - openness and inclusiveness are two of the approaches to life that are most valued.

Acceptance of some limitations

When we undertake the search for meaning, most of us hope for answers that are soundly based, reasonably complete, simple and elegant. However, we have to accept that there are legitimately different ways of knowing, and different standards. Proof is often impossible, even in science, so we must settle for probability and possibility. We also must accept there are things we will never know. There are major barriers to knowing which are largely insuperable, such as loss of historical data, deeply embedded cultural differences, and inability of species to communicate. Even more to the point, humans by definition are incapable of fully apprehending absolute truth; we are bounded by our humanness. So, we will always face mystery.

And now, for a poet’s perspective, read We Are Like an Octopus

We are each a mass of contradictory ideas which are, however, somehow unified within our mind. Clearly, the more internal consistency we can achieve the better, for it means we can move more smoothly and confidently through everyday life. A somewhat unlikely metaphor for this is the octopus, an animal which is highly intelligent but limited in achievement because its decision-making capabilities are distributed throughout its body and well integrated by its brain.

Suggested further reading

Hall, Stephen S. 2010. Wisdom: From Philosophy to Neuroscience. St Lucia, Qld: University of Queensland Press.

Rowe, Dorothy. 2009. What Should I Believe? Why Our Beliefs About the Nature of Death and the Purpose of Life Dominate Our Lives. London: Routledge.

Wilber, Ken. 2001. A Theory of Everything: An Integral Vision for Business, Politics, Science and Spirituality. Boston: Shambhala.