On the Meaning of Life – John Cottingham

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What is our relationship with the universe – who are we and how did we come to be seems to be the ultimate question of the meaning of life. This question has always sparked powerful debates between the views of the religious and modern science. Many believe this topic is a one-sided issue where these views cannot co-exist with one another, either one’s a theist, believing in God as the soul creator and ruler of the universe or an atheist, disbelieving of a supreme being or beings.

But in actuality, modern science does not count against the nature of a divine creator behind the universe. So as modern science offers an account of how things happened, religious beliefs account for a certain aspect of “why,” aiming towards finding significance and value. In On The Meaning of Life, John Cottingham argues in order to have meaning, you must not eliminate one theory from the other; modern science and religion must co-exist together. First, what’s the meaning of modern science, and why does it contribute to the meaning of life?

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Philosopher Rene Descartes believed in mechanism, a theory holding that organisms are machines in the sense that they are material systems, therefore explains biological processes, within the framework of science. In order to discover a fundamental set of principles that is “based ultimately on the universal laws of mathematical physics that governed the behavior of all natural phenomena, celestial and terrestrial alike,” (6) Descartes banish teleology (any system attempting to explain a series of events in terms of ends, goals, or purposes) from science.

He believed in order to conceive this unified theory there was no room for purposiveness, and since this universal law was made of mathematical physics, “there was no attainable answer to the question why” (6). But Cottingham thinks if we were to achieve and complete a [super-theory linking gravity and quantum physics] together to answer the ultimate question, we still would [fall short of explaining why there should be a universe at all]. Cottingham’s belief is acceptable because if this super-theory was completed, that included all observable phenomena in the universe, this theory still would not answer the question to “why is it so. This is where science has reached its limits. Religion takes off of where science can no longer be held accountable to the meaning of life. Why should there be a universe there to explain? Unlike the language of science, religious language “grapples with the task of addressing what cannot be fully captured by even the most complete scientific account of the phenomenal world” (8). Instead of finding significance in terms of physical quantities and mechanical interactions, religious language reflects on the universes power, beauty, rhythm, and harmony.

Therefore, religious discourse pushes the limits of the observable, towards uncovering something beyond the phenomenal world, in hopes of giving meaning to the universe and to our human lives. Cottingham believes religion “adds a framework within which that nature is revealed as more than just a set of characteristics… encourages us with the hope that the pursuit of virtue… contributes to the establishment of moral order that the cosmos was created to realize” (72). In other words, the religious perspective offers a possibility for human purposeness by providing a powerful focus on moral goodness.

Religious discourse is important because since science accounts for how the universe and humans were made. We feel that we are thrown into this world where nothing ultimately matters, but religion offers hope, value and significance towards life. After examining the different aspects modern science and religion brings to the ultimate question, Cottingham urges to combine the language of science and religion together in order to have meaning. Cottingham states “in strict logic there is nothing to prevent such a purely mechanical system (of efficient causality) coexisting with a purposive system (of final causality)” (48).

Therefore we must not eliminate the possibility of the two systems (modern science and religion) existing together. Philosopher Leibniz’s envisioned a world of spiritual purposes functioning in harmony with the world of physical mechanisms. This is also known as blind mechanical systems, “whose outputs, at the same time, constitute the purpose planning and doings of conscious agents” (48). Believing mechanisms and purposes could together provide an instance in support of the ultimate question of the universe. In addition, Spinoza had a parallel vision to Leibniz. He believed the universe of physical mechanisms (under the ttribute of extension) exactly corresponds to spiritual ideas linking meaning and purpose to a willed creator (under the attribute of thought). Thus, we are dealing with [one and the same thing but expressed in two ways]. This showed Cottingham that since there has been no evidence to favor modern science of being the explanation of a divine nature, it does not logically eliminate the possibility of a divine creator of its meaning. So where science accounts for our human nature and origin, saying we have no ultimate significance, spirituality offers human life a sense of value.

Darwin’s theory of natural selection opposes the possibility of linking modern science and religion together in one system. In order to get a sense of what threatens the framework of religion, this is the standard account of our human nature and origin: About fourteen billion years ago, the cosmos…including matter, radiation, space and time somehow began, exploding from a tiny concentration of matter-space energy…gravitational effects caused matter to clump into hydrogen masses…fusing into helium. Explosions caused new heavier elements, which formed into plants.

On at least one planet, a self-replicating molecule arose…evolved into living organisms, which diversified into all kinds of plants, animals, microbes etc. , all solely as a result of natural selection. After millions of years one such species became intelligent. Man is a product of these blind forces. The main conclusion from this theory is that the universe and everything in it is a result of natural selection, including humans therefore Nottingham presumes “there is no ultimate significance to the universe or to human life,” (42) throwing out the idea of any religious significance.

Darwin believed that human origin came from a purely accidental chain of blind natural forces. His view gave no choice or purposiveness in the divine nature, because everything was an entirely impersonal process. But Cottingham argues although this discovery has been scientifically accounted for, it is based on interwoven interpretation, an “interpretation that goes far beyond the truths and hypotheses that pertain strictly to the natural science” (43).

And that viewing religious thought as something able to be replaced by modern science is strictly a metathesis “-a claim that operates at one remove from the claims of science itself” (43). As a result, Darwin’s theory cannot be taken very seriously because the standard account of human nature and origin is dependent on interwoven interpretation that has exceeded far from the fundamental principles of science. In essence, in order to account for the meaning of life, one must not choose modern science over religion or religion over modern science.

Having one theory over the other does not manifest to the ultimate question of the meaning of life. Instead, we must link the two frameworks, divine nature and creator into a unified system. In Cottinghams words, we “must leave the door open for the theist as indeed it does for the atheist. ” For where modern science can be longer contribute its findings to the meaning of life, religious language ascends from it bringing significance and value to human life. Beckie Chung

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On the Meaning of Life – John Cottingham. (2017, Mar 01). Retrieved from


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