Facts and Meaning

Galileo Galilei, regarded as the father of modern science

Facts and meaning are related. We infer the meaning of our lives from facts about ourselves and the world, mindful that the conclusions we draw from facts are provisional. Yet modern philosophers hesitate to draw philosophical conclusions—especially about values—from facts. In the early twentieth-century many philosophers charged those who drew such conclusions with committing the naturalistic fallacy—inferring what ought to be the case from what is the case. For example, it may be a fact that humans are innately aggressive, but nothing follows from that about whether they should be. We cannot derive values from facts or get ought from is if the naturalistic fallacy is valid.

While it is generally agreed that we cannot deduce facts from values, facts are still relevant to values. From that fact of our humanity we infer that some things are good for us—like food, health, knowledge, and friendship. We also assume that some things are bad for us— like pain, starvation, ignorance, and loneliness. If our nature were different, our values would be too. If we were angels, we would not need food; if we were rocks, we would not need friends. The fact that projectiles can pierce our brains doesn’t by itself imply that shooting someone is immoral, but if projectiles hitting our brains made us feel good rather than harming us, then the moral prohibition against shooting projectiles at human brains would disappear. Facts tell us tell us something values.

Facts are also relevant to meaning. When modern science uncovered new facts—that the earth was not at the center of the solar system or natural selection rather than the gods made us—our confidence in meaning was shaken. New facts challenge our conception of meaning. Whether I am an angel, a modified monkey, or live in a computer simulation matters, whether I die or am immortal, are all facts that matter in evaluating the meaning of life. There can be no understanding of the meaning of life unless we consider known truths about ourselves and the universe. In our next post we will discuss why the truths revealed by modern science are especially relevant in our search for the meaning of life.

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