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Pot with beautiful blooming azalea and cup of tea on table
Pot with beautiful blooming azalea and cup of tea on table

How Science Points To Meaning in Life

The earliest philosopher of science, Aristotle, pioneered a way of understanding it

Neurosurgeon Michael Egnor did a recent podcast with Arjuna Das at Theology Unleashed, “where Eastern theology meets Western skepticism.” Among other things, he talks about how science points to meaning in life.

Earlier, he had explained why he ceased to be an atheist as he learned more about science and its dependence on mathematics, which is not a material thing. In this section, he talks about the importance of the concept of purpose in nature (teleology), with a hat tip to the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle (384–322 BCE)

Here is a partial transcript and notes for the fifteen- to twenty-minute mark:

Michael Egnor: I think teleology is the cornerstone of understanding nature. That whole system of understanding nature, that includes teleology really began with Aristotle. Aristotle proposed that… in order to understand any state of affairs, you can cite four causes and in order to completely understand that state of affairs, you have to understand all four.


Note: “Aristotle (384–322 B.C.E.) numbers among the greatest philosophers of all time. ” – Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy It is fair to regard him as the first philosopher of science. He sought to provide a rational basis for examination of the natural world.

Michael Egnor: The first cause is material. That is, what matter is this thing made of?

Note: Picture a potted azalea growing in a greenhouse. Its biochemical composition, the type of material of which it consists, is its material cause.

Michael Egnor: The second cause is formal. That is, what’s the structure of the matter? How has the matter organized?

Note: To be an azalea, the plant must have not only a physical existence but a complex structure that both gives it a shape and supports its continued life in the pot. That is its formal cause, it’s “form,” if you like.

Michael Egnor: The third cause is the efficient cause, and the efficient cause means how did the state of affairs get built? Well, what was the agent or mover that made this happen?

Note: Every day, the greenhouse employee stops by to check on the azalea to make sure it has enough water and fertilizer and to keep it free from pests.

Michael Egnor: The fourth cause is the final cause, which he called teleology (00:16:52)

Note: One day, the greenhouse delivery van driver takes the potted azalea, now wrapped in gift paper and ribbons, off to the home of the buyer’s mother, who is recovering from surgery.

Michael Egnor: He [Aristotle] even pointed out that the causes work in couplets. For example, material cause and formal cause work together in the sense that the form organizes the matter, and you can’t really understand material causes unless you understand formal causes because you can’t have matter without form. You can’t have matter without some kind of organization.

Pot with beautiful blooming azalea and cup of tea on table

Note: The matter of the azalea plant could not sustain life apart from its form (structure).

Michael Egnor: Efficient causes and final causes work together. You can think of efficient causes as the push and the final cause as the direction of the push, so, for example, if a pool player is hitting a pool ball into a pocket, the efficient cause of that action is the pool player hitting the pool ball. (00:17:55) … The final cause is the pocket that he’s aiming at. His intention to get the ball in the pocket … (00:18:54):

Note: In the same way, the efficient cause of the greenhouse employee caring for the azalea is in support of the final cause — delivery to the buyer’s mother.

The four causes, working together, help us understand meaning in life. They range from the material to the abstract.

But now: Understanding more about meaning in life requires that we think that our mental states are real.

Next: How can we know that our mental states are real? That leads Egnor and Das to discuss why materialist philosophy today is so bad.

Here’s a transcript and notes for the first fifteen minutes:

Why neurosurgeon Mike Egnor stopped being a materialist atheist. He found that materialism is just not working out in science. Most propositions in basic science are based on mathematics and mathematics is not a material thing.

You may also wish to read: Why the universe itself can’t be the most fundamental thing. Atheist biology professor Jerry Coyne is mistaken in dismissing my observation that proofs of God’s existence follow the same logical structure as any other scientific theory. (Michael Egnor)

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How Science Points To Meaning in Life