Academic journal article Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy

History, Science and Meaning

Academic journal article Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy

History, Science and Meaning

Article excerpt

Abstract: Recent developments in the natural sciences make a renewed dialogue with the humanities possible. Previously, humanists resisted adopting scientific paradigms, fearing materialism and determinism would deprive history of meaning and people of freedom. Scientists, meanwhile, were realizing that deterministic materialism made understanding emergent phenomena like life virtually impossible. Scientists also discovered that their methods interfered with their goals and that descriptions of nature at the subatomic level were essentially random. The latter development, Monod said, weakened the "Modern" paradigm sufficiently to make qualitative changes scientifically possible. To understand life, however, scientists had to grasp how information created through interactions reducing thermodynamic gradients is then stored in self-organized systems. The patterned processes by which a historical nature changes over time may apply in the human realm, where interactions can change people and created information can be stored in societies. The qualitatively new information stored in social systems includes Values, Ethics and Morals (VEMs). VEMs map the effects of actions on societies, demonstrating meaning arises naturally in history. Mapping what actions mean, VEMs script the behaviors structuring societies, which solves the problem of how sequences of events--chronicles--become causally linked narratives. Moreover, when societies compete, their relative performance tests system-structuring information in the same way the fate of organisms tests DNA. Thus, the succession of social systems suggests there is a meaning of history. The meaning of history need be no more transcendental or intended than Darwinian evolution. But if organs and traits can have biological value without implying design, socially constructed attributes like morality, consciousness, and freedom can be valued without supposing history has an ultimate or eternal purpose. Aspiring to show how the cacophony of historical events becomes a cosmos, a process in which actions become meaningful, this sketch suggests a new understanding of nature may provide a basis for ethics.

Keywords: Consciousness; Ethics; Evolution; Meaning; Narrative; Social System


For over a century historians have struggled to avoid the rock of determinism by wedging themselves into the hard place of meaningless contingencies. After decades of wriggling, the historians are still stuck. Fortunately a helping hand is available from an unexpected source, the science on which determinism once depended. Over the past hundred years, science discovered limits that challenge determinism (Sullivan, 1933/49) and now describes nature in probabilistic terms. Based in part on these limits, a way to restore meaning to history without dehumanizing it or privileging the winners may be found. A way to ground ethics in our understanding of nature may follow, as well.

To avoid determinism and save free will, humanists since the late 19th century (Rickman, 1961) have restricted the role of "covering laws" (Hempel, 1942). Their decision has been reinforced by observing the devastating effect that covering laws have when ideologues apply them to human societies (Popper, 1962). But while virtuous from a political perspective, the rejection of covering laws leaves a causal vacuum. Covering laws provide the logic that explains events. If covering laws exist, the law of gravity can explain how stones fall because all material objects attract each other and stones are particular material objects in gravitational fields. If, however, covering laws are denied, all that is left is description--telling the story of how one event succeeded another in time. In the absence of causal explanation, history is intellectually devastated, for there is no meaning in a sequence of isolated events.

Oddly enough, while historians were consciously rejecting nineteenth century "scientism" they were embracing radical empiricism, Modern science's most primitive notion. …

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