It is a truth of nature that we yearn to make sense of nature, often with the profound sense that there is more to things than meets the eye. “Religious faith”, wrote the celebrated psychologist William James, is basically “faith in the existence of an unseen order of some kind in which the riddles of the natural order may be found and explained.” Human beings long to make sense of things – to identify patterns in the rich fabric of nature, to offer explanations forwhat happens around them, and to reflect on the meaning of their lives. It is as if our intellectual antennae are tuned to discern clues to purpose and meaning around us, built into the structure of the world. “The pursuit of discovery,” the philosopher of science Michael Polanyi noted, is “guided by sensing the presence of a hidden reality toward which our clues are pointing”. Small wonder, then, that men and women have pondered what they observe around them, alert to the possibility of deeper levels of meaning lying beneath the surface of experience.
This quest for meaning transcends historical and cultural boundaries, even if cultures and individuals within them may offer very different accounts of what that meaning of life might be. For example, based on extensive personal interviews, psychologist Roy Baumeister suggested that basic needs – purpose, efficacy, value, and self-worth – appear to underlie the human quest for meaning, understood as “shared mental representations of possible relationships among things, events, and relationships.”
So why is this quest for meaning so important? Social psychologists Stefan Schulz-Hardt and Dieter Frey suggested that three main reasons may be identified as lying behind the universality of this quest. First, it gives stability to existence, allowing people to orientate themselves in life. Second, it offers a rationale in the face of a perceived threat of meaninglessness, which can overwhelm individuals and leave them unable to cope with life. The perception of meaninglessness can thus lead to distressing negative outcomes, such as depression, attempted suicide, alcoholism, or addiction. And third, it can be understood as the subjective response to an objective reality, in which we attempt to realign their internal world to conform to a deeper order of things, which is believed to exist independently of us. The subjective quest for meaning is thus grounded in a conviction that such a meaning exists objectively, and can be discovered by those with the will and ability to do so.
Indeed, history reinforces our appreciation of the importance of this quest for meaning for human identity. Our distant ancestors studied the stars, aware that knowledge of their movements enabled them to navigate the world’s oceans and predict the flooding of the Nile. Yet human interest in the night sky went far beyond questions of mere utility. Might, many wondered, these silent pinpricks of light in the velvet darkness of the heavens disclose something deeper about the origins and goals of life? Might they bear witness to a deeper moral and intellectual order of things, with which humans could align themselves? Might nature be studded and emblazoned with clues to its meanings, and human minds shaped so that these might be identified, and their significance grasped? The emergence of the discipline of semiotics has encouraged us to see natural objects and entities as signs, pointing beyond themselves, representing and communicating themselves.
To find the true significance of things requires the development of habits of reading and directions of gaze that enable the reflective observer of nature to discern meaning where others see just happenstance and accident. Or, to use an image from Polanyi, where some hear a noise, others hear a tune.
Alister McGrath is Professor of Theology, Ministry and Education at King’s College, London, and author of The Future of Atheism, with Daniel Dennet, and A Fine-Tuned Universe: The Quest for God in Science and Theology, among several other books.