Are Science and Meaning Compatible?

Clarifications on Title and Terms

I must clarify before going into the subject too deeply, the title I have chosen. I ask if science and meaning are compatible not because I believe they are necessarily incompatible, but because modern science tends to learn towards a worldview which makes it incompatible with meaning. I will explain that worldview in more depth within another section of this article.

Moreover, I will also mix and combine terms within this article, because I believe there are a handful of worldviews which accurately characterize modern science; that is, I believe a mix of physicalism, materialism, verificationism, and naive realist views compose most of the views within modern science. So, after I explain, briefly, those different worldviews, I will use the phrase “modern science” as a catch all phrase for those worldviews. Again, it is not that modern science is heavily biased toward one or the other of those worldviews, but that modern science is instead a mix of them all.

And now, we can begin with explaining the different worldviews involved in the making of modern science incompatible with meaning.

Referential and Materialist Worldviews

There are a handful of views that predominate much of modern science, and those are varieties of physicalism, materialism, and referential. Each variant of course has one extra axiom here or there, but in general they are the same; much how cars are cars, despite their being different from one another, and thus all have the same problem of requiring energy for motion.

A materialist and a physicalist are similar but different, and for us their differences are not that significant. Their main differences have to do with their view on the physical nature of the universe, but for us that is irrelevant because both agree that everything is indeed physical. Whatever exists does so in a physical world.

The other sort of views that are most popular in modern science are referential theories; theories that require words and statements to refer to something in the world in order to be meaningful or true. For example, notions of good and bad lack a clear reference to the world, and thus, as a result, are not involved in the conveyance of truth statements about the world. In other words, because there is no referent for “bad” in the statement, “John is a bad person,” the statement is not meaningful. When we have a clear reference to something in the world, we can produce a meaningful or true statement.

These are the three primary views found in many modern scientific outlooks; they sometimes appear as verificationism, naive realism, and etc., but a variant of these three views indeed appears. And many have trouble with the notion of “meaning,” particularly with psychological accounts of meaning.

For instance, modern neuroscience tends to view the mind as nothing more than whatever the brain is doing; which means our beliefs and emotions are simply matters of biochemistry. Furthermore, many psycholinguists view language as an empty series of sounds which we are conditioned to use in accordance to specific situations: a language without content. However, there is a strong contrast to these views, which are important to understand for our problem of meaning.

Some believe the realm of consciousness is itself a reality, and that it is entirely self-contained; and some believe there is both a material and an abstract realm, and psychological categories like good and evil are derived from the abstract. These theories are much different than the material and referential theories, and for good reason.

Many of these more abstract theories attempt to solve problems related to consciousness. That is, in the materialist and physicalist worldviews, consciousness proves to be a massive problem. And that is so much so that the notion of “meaning” even becomes problematic for modern scientific views. These other theories of reality, in contrast, start with consciousness rather than “world”. That is not what modern scientific theories do, and it is precisely why they struggle with meaning and the gap between consciousness and “the world”.

Meaning and the Gap of Consciousness

There is clearly a difference between what our brains are doing and what we experience something as. When I experience myself seeing the color red, it is not quite the same as when I see the physiological reactions of someone seeing the colour red; there is a qualitative difference there: a gap if you will.

In order to circumnavigate this gap, there are worldviews that suppose the gap is intended to be there; and that any attempt to collapse the gap is a mistake. We experience our beliefs differently than how they are measured because beliefs are themselves abstract, and neurons are physical; both are correlated yet in distinct planes of existence. In such a view, the gap makes sense.

But if you are someone who finds the modern scientific views quite compelling, then appeals to abstract realms and emergent processes that rely heavily on non-answers don’t appeal to us.

How can one genuinely believe in the modern scientific view yet at the same time have things like personal meanings?

If we genuinely believe that things can only be known when referenced or verified via empiricism, then how can we at the same time believe in our non-referential personal meanings? I believe it to be true that I find meaning and purpose in life, but how can I rely on a referential and materialist view while likewise believing personal meanings? I cannot verify or demonstrate to be true my personal meanings because I cannot refer to their extended properties. And in addition to that, if we are to believe that there are only objects which mindlessly enact causal influence upon one another, then my sense of “meaning,” for the modern scientific view must itself refer to a thing which possesses no meaning.

We are left with a few options once we accept the tenets of modern scientific thinking: appeal to emergence (which is a non-empirical notion), reject non-materialist language on grounds that it cannot be meaningful or truth conveying, or make some sort of compromise between the language of folk psychology and science/

For example, some authors have supposed that folk-psychology categories and beliefs should be left out of the scientific picture entirely because of this problem. That science is a language of physical things which can be referenced, and that folk-psychology is a language that is only used for practical purposes such as understanding ourselves and others on a folk-psychology level. In other words, the language of folk psychology cannot convey truths about the world.

That provides a quasi-solution, but it definitely does not make the modern scientific view and personal meaning compatible. At most, it proposes to ignore the incompatibility by separating the domains in which the language is used.

Another option is to suppose that personal meaning can indeed be referenced but that humans are simply too limited in their understanding to figure out how it works. But that might not satisfy anyone, as it brushes past the issue.

As far as I can tell, no one has as of yet provided a real solution yet.


So, when we accept the modern scientific worldview, we have a problem of incompatibility with our own worldviews; that is, personal meanings and things like purpose cannot be verified, referred to, or empirically measured without unjustified assumptions intended to circumnavigate the binding problem. In other words, modern scientific views are incompatible with meaning.

What we make of this, however, is entirely in the air and will be left to you to decide.

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Ideasinhat is a business development analyst and longtime reader of academic literature. He writes books and essays on science and philosophy, and posts them to this website. The essays, as with the books, cover topics from psychology, philosophy, and cognitive science to economics, politics, and law.

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