I have recently previewed a forthcoming book, The Beginning and the End: The Meaning of Life in a Cosmological Perspective. The author is Dr. Clement Vidal, a young scholar and member of the Evolution, Complexity and Cognition Group at the Free University in Brussels, Belgium. Vidal investigates a most important question–whether modern scientific cosmology can satisfy our search for meaning in life. The book is a carefully and conscientiously crafted work of immense scope and daring imagination, one of the most important and timely books of the last few decades.
A briefest overview is as follows. Chapter 1 conducts a broad study of the philosophical method whose major aim, Vidal concludes, is to construct worldviews–comprehensive and coherent answers to big questions. Where do we come from? Where are we going? What should we do? What does it all mean? Chapter 2 develops criteria to test the strengths and weaknesses of these worldviews; Chapter 3 applies these criteria to various religious, philosophical and scientific worldviews; Chapters 4-6 investigate the question of the origin of the cosmos; chapters 7-8 study the question of the future of the cosmos; chapter 9 the question of whether we are alone in the cosmos; and Chapter 10 the possibility of a cosmological ethics.
Vidal is aware of the speculative nature of his work, but he reminds us that speculation plays a large part in the scientific and philosophical enterprises, it aims to solve scientific or philosophical problems. He knows his speculations could turn out to be wrong, but given the choice between careful speculation or silence, Vidal chooses the former. And we are glad he did. For his assiduous scholarship reveals the possibility that a scientific cosmology can provide a narrative which gives life meaning. A narrative so desperately needed as the old mythological ones become increasingly passé. And we are privileged to journey along with a well-ordered and visionary mind as it contemplates perhaps the most important question of our time–how do we find meaning in the cosmos revealed by modern science.
Clement Vidal is a member of the Evolution, Complexity and Cognition Group at the Free University in Brussels, Belgium. Vidal investigates a most important question–whether modern scientific cosmology can provide insight and perhaps even answer the question of life’s meaning. It is a carefully and conscientiously crafted work of immense scope and daring imagination, one of the most important and timely books of the last few decades. Below I will discuss the work in more detail.
Chapter 1 – Vidal begins by arguing “that having a coherent and comprehensive worldview is the central aim of philosophy.” (Vidal, 2) This contrasts sharply with (Continental) philosophy’s investigation of subjectivity, or (British) philosophy’s logical analysis. To better understand his synthetic philosophy Vidal introduces six dimensions of philosophy. Those dimensions are the:
1) Descriptive – What exists? Where did it come from? Where is it going? Describing or modeling reality depends on our current scientific understanding.
2) Normative – What should we do? What is good and what is evil? How do we live well? What is a good society? What is the purpose and meaning of life?
3) Practical – How do we act in accord with our values to solve practical problems?What is our theory of action?
4) Critical (epistemological) – What is true and false? What is the nature and limits of knowledge?
5) Dialectical – How do we answer the previous question? By engaging in a debate or dialogue with opposing positions–a dialectic.
6) Synthetic – This final dimension of philosophy provides the comprehensive and coherent synthetic worldview–a synthesis.
Following the Belgian philosopher Leo Apostel, Vidal argues that a complete worldview will comprise these six elements. And it is crucial to have a worldview because they sustain us and give meaning to our lives. Individuals lacking worldviews suffer psychologically, and without rational worldviews irrational ones will arise to fill the need. Yet it is so difficult to express a rational worldview that many philosophers have been content to reject them all–skeptics–or accept them all–syncretists. Nonetheless Vidal will try to articulate a synthetic worldviews.
Chapter 2 – While Chapter 1 conducted a broad study of the philosophical method whose major aim is to construct worldviews–comprehensive and coherent answers to big questions like: where do we come from? Where are we going? What should we do? What does it all mean? Chapter 2 develops criteria to test the strengths and weaknesses of these worldviews.
In order to derive criteria to evaluate worldviews, Vidal takes three perspectives into account. The 1) objective or scientific; 2) subjective, existential, or phenomenological; and 3) intersubjective, social or cultural. These perspectives mirror the concerns of Kant’s three critiques, Popper’s three worlds, and Weber’s cultural spheres of value. The three perspectives distinguish between the objects of knowledge, the subjects who assimilate knowledge, and the communication process to transmit knowledge among subjects. “… the criteria can be seen as tools for philosophers to describe the history of philosophy, to work out their own philosophical position, or to clarify disagreements.” (Vidal, 18) Vidal draws heavily on Nicholas Rescher’s standards for evaluating philosophical theories to derive the criteria:
Objective consistency – The worldview exhibits internal and systemic consistency.
Scientificity – The worldview is compatible with science.
Scope – The worldview addresses a broad range of issues and levels,
in breadth and in depth.
Subjective consistency – The worldview fits knowledge and experiences individuals already have.
Personal utility – The worldview promotes a personally rewarding outlook on life.
Emotionality – The worldview evokes emotions, so that it is more likely to be
assimilated and applied.
Intersubjective consistency – The worldview reduces conflicts between individuals.
Collective utility – The worldview encourages an outlook on life and mobilizes
for what is socially beneficial.
Narrativity – The worldview presents its messages in the form of stories.(Vidal, 20)
Vidal’s subsequent discussion points out the strengths and weaknesses of each criteria. For instance: objective consistency informs a good worldview but overemphasizing it leads to a formalism that limits creativity; we must take modern science into account, yet dismissing the unscientific or non-scientific leads to a scientism; if the scope of a worldview is too narrow the resulting worldview becomes overspecialized, but as the scope expands synthetic integration becomes more difficult. Similarly the breadth or depth of the worldview can be too narrow or too broad.
When discussing the subjective and intersubjective criteria, Vidal also highlights how each component is an important part of a worldview, but that no criteria is sufficient by itself. He concludes by arguing that these criteria allow us to judge some worldviews as better than others. For instance continental philosophy generally ignores objective criteria while analytic philosophy often ignores subjective criteria.
Here are some things the three basic criteria illuminate. “… we humans are involved in three kinds of conflicts: against nature (objective), against ourselves (subjective), and against others (intersubjective) … objective criteria require that the worldview not be in friction with the outside world; subjective criteria require that the worldview not be in friction with an individual’s common knowledge and actions; and intersubjective criteria require that the worldview minimizes friction between individuals … A worldview that fits well in the three worlds has more chances to be accepted, appealing, and useful. Ideally, it would give rise to the following benefits: A consistent conception of the world (objective benefit); a lifeworld providing a meaning for life, useful for living a good life (subjective benefit); and a worldview whose foundations are fit for a well-organized society, where few conflicts arise arise (intersubjective benefit). Most importantly, those three worlds would be synthesized as far as possible in a coherent and comprehensive framework, thus forming a synthetic worldview. If we sum up the use of the three-perspectives criteria, we come to the goal of minimizing friction: a good worldview has a minimum of friction within and between objective, subjective, and intersubjective worlds.” (Vidal, 36-37)
The review, Part 2, continues here.
John G. Messerly, Ph.D taught for many years in both the philosophy and computer science departments at the University of Texas at Austin. His most recent book is The Meaning of Life: Religious, Philosophical, Scientific, and Transhumanist Perspectives. He blogs daily on issues of futurism and the meaning of life at reasonandmeaning.com