What makes life meaningful? How is it that we can wake up in the morning and feel like jumping out of bed, rather than hiding beneath the covers?
A sense of purpose. Our life seems like it has a direction. We have a reason for being. Goals, intentions, to-do's.
In the "Faith" chapter of his book, On Being Certain, Robert Burton, M.D. (a neurologist) says:
By now it should be apparent that deeply felt purpose and meaning are exactly that -- profound mental sensations. Though the underlying brain mechanisms that create these sensations aren't known, the biggest clue comes from those who've undergone "mystical" moments.
A common thread of such descriptions is the sudden and unexpected appearance of a "flood of pure meaning" or an inexplicable feeling of knowing of what life is about without the awareness of any preceding or triggering thought.
Whether or not it is appropriate to use the word faith to describe a feeling of "now I know why I'm here," or "this must be what it's all about," it is impossible to overlook the shared qualities of the feeling of knowing, a sense of faith, and feelings of purpose and meaning.
All serve as both motivation and reward at the most basic level of thought. All correspond to [William] James's idea of felt knowledge -- mental sensations that feel like knowledge.
(This visceral sense of faith is not to be confused with the cognitive potpourri of conscious but unsubstantiated ideas that become articles of faith, such as beliefs in religion, alien abduction, blueberries as a prevention for Alzheimer's disease, and a six-thousand-year-old universe.)
I love Burton's way of looking at science and religion. And anything else that offers up a sense of meaning in someone's life. Like he said, that sense is like any other sense -- such as sight, hearing, touch.
It's just there. Or, not.
A second line of evidence comes from descriptions of when the feeling isn't present. Though not necessarily aware of when we feel purpose and meaning, we are nearly always aware of the sickening feeling when we don't possess them. This isn't an intellectual misapprehension; it is a gut sense of disorientation and a loss of personal direction.
Scientifically-minded people have a sense of purpose and meaning just as much as religiously-minded people do.
Burton talks about how Richard Dawkins, a noted atheist scientist, is ferociously dedicated to debunking mythologies and irrationality -- such as a denial of how evolution has guided the course of life on Earth.
Dawkins lives for this, just as the Pope lives to serve the cause of Catholicism, or a woman lives to raise her children, or a man lives to become the best at some sport.
So a felt sense of meaning and purpose is the root out of which grow stalks of action and commitment. Scientists do science because it is meaningful to them. Religious people do religion for the same reason.
Different strokes for different folks. Whatever turns you on.
We should force ourselves to distinguish between separate physiological categories of faith -- the basic visceral drive for meaning that has real purpose versus the unsubstantiated cognitive acceptance of an idea. Compassion, empathy, and humility can only arise out of recognizing that our common desires are differently expressed.
Nicely said, Dr. Burton. Both science and religion need to recognize that their common ground is a sense of meaning and purpose.
Fairly frequently a commenter on this blog will argue, "science is a form of religion." That's wrong. He or she says that because scientists are deeply devoted to the pursuit of truth about the physical universe.
But devotion grows from a sense of meaning. It doesn't need religion. People can be devoted to all sorts of non-religious things, such as improving one's golf game.
So religious believers should differentiate between the cognitive and non-cognitive aspects of their faith. Meaning, the feeling they have toward divinity, the meaning they derive from religiosity, is shared by scientists (and everyone else on Earth aside from the deeply clinically depressed).
However, the cognitive side of their faith is something different. These are the concepts that accompany the feelings. "Jesus is the Son of God." Well, you think so. But where is the proof?
I'm not justified in questioning the meaning someone gets from his or her religion. I am justified, though, in questioning their purported facts about the cosmos.
Burton ends his chapter with some good suggestions:
We can strive for objectivity; we cannot reach the shores of dispassionate observation. The problem is that to play according to the rules of scientific method, we must concede the possibility that we cannot know if one day contrary evidence might appear and overthrow a cherished theory.
Faith-based arguments, by invoking irrefutable divine authority that will always be right, do not have to make this concession. This uneven playing field isn't going to go away.
...If science is to carry on a meaningful dialogue with religion, it must work to establish a level playing field where both sides honestly address what we can and cannot know about ourselves and the world around us.
...If possible, both science and religion should try to adopt and stick with the idea of provisional facts. Once all facts become works-in-progress, absolutism would be dethroned. No matter how great the "evidence," the literal interpretation of the Bible or Koran would no longer be the only possibility.