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Getty/Mikhail Dmitriev

Kevin Anderson, PhD, answers questions from S&H readers. “With COVID-19, the existential threat of climate change, terrorism, and the continuing threat of nuclear war, I’m feeling more and more like nothing makes sense and maybe life is just meaningless.”

I’m a scientist, so believing in things that can’t be proven is difficult for me. With COVID-19, the existential threat of climate change, terrorism, and the continuing threat of nuclear war, I’m feeling more and more like nothing makes sense and maybe life is just meaningless. This seems scientifically defensible, but it makes me feel depressed. How do I keep both my commitment to science and my mental health?

Kevin: Your letter made me think back to my first research-methods class in graduate school. We were looking into empirical evidence for whether watching televised violence affects children’s behavior. One article said that by age 18 the average child has seen 100,000 murders on television. I spoke up and said, “I think it’s obvious any child would be affected in some way by watching all that violence!”

The professor said, “Anderson, you’ve got your scientific fly open right now! I don’t give a damn what you think is obvious. Science is about looking at the data before coming to conclusions.” He was right. I was deeply impacted by my scientific training, so much so that by age 40 my agnosticism had led to a worldview that was consistently dark and depressive.

Over time it occurred to me that science is a fantastic tool for scientific questions, in just the way a Phillips screwdriver is the right tool for Phillips-head screws. But other screws require a flathead screwdriver, just as there are non-scientific questions that cannot be adequately addressed by science. These include: Is there a purpose to life? How do I live my best life? What is love? Is there life after death? Why does life include suffering? How can I best be present to my own and others’ suffering? and many more.

In an essay called “The Will to Believe,” William James argued that human beings’ ultimate questions about life are not answerable in any final, definitive way. Well-informed people of goodwill can arrive at very different answers to the same existential questions. He suggested we let go of thinking we can find The Truth and instead choose answers to such questions that lead to our best lives. Questions about life and death that require something in addition to our logical, scientific brain are the seedbed of spirituality.

After a period of prolonged darkness in my early 40s, I decided to embrace James’ philosophy. I stopped valuing depressive skepticism over perspectives that energize me for my best life, even if those non-scientific answers cannot be proven right or wrong. I embraced James’ approach to questions of meaning and purpose: “Believe that life is worth living and your belief will help create the fact.”

When I live as if love, compassion, service, kindness, and creativity matter—as if I am a filament for
a source of energies bigger than myself—I feel hopeful and energized. When I fall back into thinking life has no ultimate meaning, I’m like a lightbulb removed from its socket.

While writing about transformative quotations in The Inconceivable Surprise of Living, I discovered these words of Voltaire: “To believe in God is impossible; not to believe in God is absurd.” I love the oxymoronic nature of this quote. It lays out the choice—either God is real or not—and it clarifies that we are stuck with a finite mind trying to understand the infinite, regardless of how we answer the God question.

Over time it occurred to me that science is a fantastic tool for scientific questions, in just the way a Phillips screwdriver is the right tool for Phillips-head screws.

I have great respect for science and know that it cannot adequately address many of the questions that appear in my consciousness, including What is this consciousness I experience in my thoughts and emotions and spiritual longings? I feel a sense of camaraderie with great scientists who have valued science highly and written eloquently of its limitations. Isaac Newton wrote:

“I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore ... whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”

Einstein expressed a similar thought this way:

“One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery every day. Never lose a holy curiosity.”

When I see life as meaningless or absurd, the awe-filled energy I hear in Newton’s and Einstein’s words becomes inaccessible. I lose my holy curiosity. The scientific purist in me would rather have verifiable answers than holy curiosity. But if Newton and Einstein understood that many questions remain beyond our finite minds, you and I are not living with our scientific fly open when we’re energized by a sense that reality is much bigger and more mysterious than any human mind can comprehend.

For reflection:

What if never losing a holy curiosity is not just for world-class physicists?

Have I lost my holy curiosity about how I can move toward making a life more than just making a living?

Do you remember feeling something you could call holy curiosity as a young child exploring a not-yet-habituated world? How do you keep that childlike awe alive?

Writing this piece inspired by a Hindu parable helped me loosen my sense that science has an exclusive claim to truth and honor other ways I and many other finite human minds try to explore what Einstein called “the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality.”

Scientists have the Truth.

Scientists have the Truth
by the tail, theologians have it by the trunk.

Scientists have the Truth
by the tail, theologians have it by the trunk, philosophers by the head, and poets by the ears.

Scientists have the Truth
by the tail, theologians have it by the trunk, philosophers by the head, and poets by the ears, but no one has the eyes.

Scientists have the Truth
by the tail, theologians have it by the trunk, philosophers by the head, and poets by the ears, but no one has the eyes
to see the whole elephant.

From Now is Where God Lives © 2018 by Kevin Anderson