Is there more to this world than meets the eye?
One way to answer this question is with the tools of philosophical materialism, which would clearly say “no” — what you see is what you get. The totality of reality can be measured scientifically. That is all there is. Plain and simple.
There is something appealing about this view. It is worthwhile to pay close attention to the world around us. After all, that is how gravity was discovered, how the car was invented, and how we sent astronauts to the moon. That’s even how a vaccine to COVID-19 was created.
To be sure, a scientific attentiveness to the world around us contributes to human flourishing. But the view that the material world is all there is seems incomplete. Here’s an analogy to help me explain why.
In high school, my brother helped construct the sets and props for the school plays. This work was essential for the productions, but no one would argue that the set and props were the fullness or totality of the play. Rather, the set and props are merely the backdrop or setting where the meaning and fullness of the play unfolded.
The material world isn’t everything, just like sets and props for a play aren’t everything. In life, the physical and material world is merely the stage upon which the meaning of life unfolds. As it turns out, there is more to the world than meets the eye.
There are two important ideas to pursue here. The first is to unpack this question: If the totality of reality is not just about atoms and molecules, then what else is there? Speaking about meaning is one way to describe what we’re missing with a materialist view.
The second idea follows the first: If we can look at reality as a combination of matter and meaning, then what is the best way to find our way in this world? How should we engage reality thoughtfully?
Our guide through these two questions will be a Canadian Jesuit priest, philosopher, and theologian named Bernard Lonergan. His work is really helpful for clarifying these ideas.
Idea 1: We live in a world of meaning
The human story includes achieving remarkable feats of scientific innovation. But that’s not the whole story. In fact, human achievement has a wide-ranging story: the work of a mathematician, chemist, biologist, or physicist is very different from the work of an artist, baker, musician, or poet. These are all important disciplines, but if we are tempted to conclude that the totality of reality is scientifically measurable, then we would be missing out on the beauty of a symphony or the stirring words of poets like Amanda Gorman. These kinds of beauty are truly real and stir something within us.
Here’s where Lonergan comes in. His central claim is that we live in a world mediated by meaning. There is the world of immediacy: what can be tasted, touched, smelled, seen, and heard. This is the world of things that can be measured by science. But there is more to the world than what we can sense or deduce. We experience the world through meaning.
For example, my grandmother’s homemade apple pie has a very real meaning to me in the context of family gatherings. But let’s imagine that this same apple pie was taken out of this context and sold at a grocery store. There’s no doubt that it would still be delicious. But here’s the thing — the full range of meaning associated with the apple pie would be different, and maybe even lost.
We move about our day in a reality mediated by meaning. This meaning is nourished by our relationships and the communities we belong to. Meaning is inherited, created, and discovered — sometimes we find joy in the places we least expect it. We are also stewards of meaning as we pass it along. But how can we do this well?
Idea 2: How we should engage the world of meaning
When a car mechanic fixes a car, he or she will: 1) assess what is wrong with the car; 2) seek to understand the various solutions that can address the problem; 3) make a judgment about which solution is most likely to fix the problem; and then 4) attempt to fix the car based on this judgment.
Lonergan pointed out that no matter what activity or discipline we are engaged in — whether it’s fixing a car or deciding on a job offer — we move through a consistent and repetitive pattern: 1) experience; 2) understanding; 3) judgment; and 4) decision. These levels map perfectly onto the pattern a car mechanic follows. An artist, baker, lawyer, doctor, musician — and everybody in between — follows this pattern, too.
With this repetitive pattern in mind, we can tease out some guidelines that will keep us on track: Be attentive to your experience; be intelligent in your understanding; be reasonable in your judgment; be responsible in your decision. This is what it means to engage reality, or the world of meaning, well.
Be in love
The totality of reality is not merely the world we can see and measure. Rather, it is made up of the most important things in life, and these are very, very real: our family and friends, our hopes and dreams are good examples. These meaningful connections are what drive us onward. To be fully faithful to the meaning life presents to us, Lonergan gives us one last insight: Be in love. Love is the truest and fullest ground of reality. Be swept away by it. Be taken up into it. Then give it to the people who need it.