Collapsing Meaning and the Retreat into Identity

It has always been shocking to me that the very many insightful developments in philosophy during the 20th century have gone almost completely unheeded by the vast majority of people. The existentialists freed us from Medieval concepts of meaning decades ago, and yet most people would probably define the meaning of their lives in the same way as our ancestors from centuries ago. This isn’t proof that the old concept of meaning is durable; in fact, the entire enterprise of 20th century philosophy proves that our old concepts of meaning are bankrupt. It is simply that public opinion has not kept pace with academic philosophy.

Even despite broad differences in opinion on every subject, the overwhelming conclusion of 20th century philosophy is an existentialist one. Regardless of your thoughts on metaphysics or theism, we know today that meaning comes from within.

So why do so many people still believe their meaning or purpose comes from On High? Why do so many people exist as if the entire 20th century of philosophy never happened? Why would people be surprised, in 2021, to learn the basic conclusions of the 20th century’s biggest names?

The obvious answer is that existentialism is scary. It takes an enormous psychological and emotional toll. It asks more of us than the alternative. The reality of being is much harder than the lies humans fabricated over millennia. The very reason they fabricated those lies in the first place was to avoid having to confront the very issues which existentialism forces!

But the conclusions of the existentialists are inescapable, and decades later we’re seeing inescapable effects of their thought as it continues to infect our cultural consciousness. Lately, the collapse of meaning has lead to problematic epistemological problems, as bad actors have attempted to manipulate misinformation to their advantage.

We are also seeing an increasing fervor in replacing traditional concepts of meaning. As religion or God or authority slowly evaporates from our cultural concept of meaning, we’re seeing people supplant that with other external concepts. Because of its personal and individual nature, this takes the form of identity, even if it is identity prescribed by another (or worse, by the vague demands of an amorphous group).

Take the example of a super-fan: they desperately seek something to “grab onto,” a limb of meaning as they free-fall through the void of meaninglessness. Previously this was provided by religion, or for the non-religious by a cultural idea (rooted in old religion), but since those have faded in our public opinion, our super-fan is left only to grab on to things he likes. He feels an affinity to, say, Star Wars, and so he begins to build a sense of meaning around that. In fact, there is a community of people who already feel strongly, and so the blueprint to meaning is ready-made for him. Star Wars may not tell him how to live like religion, but it does tell him why to live, and with whom. Star Wars becomes like a religion to him, and he is a zealot.

Although there is a philosophical opinion expressed in something like Star Wars, it does not a metaphysic make. So the meaning of “Star Wars” to him simply becomes his whim; when something challenges him (for instance, a certain actress or director challenging his deeply ingrained misogyny) he unilaterally decides that this isn’t “his” Star Wars. He retreats deeper and deeper into fanaticism, arbitrarily assigning elements of his fandom to his worldview without any thought beyond what “feels good,” sometimes even ignoring the facts of the world around him.

But Star Wars isn’t even his! He appropriated someone else’s creation into his entire identity. His own identity becomes hollow, then, and his sense of meaning continues to avoid the difficult reality of existentialism.

This happens not just in fandom, of course, but in politics or national identity, in nationalism or racism or any group which provides identity. Worse, it is difficult to address, because identity is ultimately inviolate. So the way out of polarization isn’t to get people to stop identifying with their groups, but rather to face, culturally and as a whole, the conclusions of philosophers who have (mostly) all been dead for decades.

What Reza Aslan gets wrong on Star Trek: The Pod Directive

Two great tastes that taste great together: who wouldn’t be excited about the appearance of one of the most well-known Muslim-American religious thinkers on the new official Star Trek podcast featuring two great comedians? Reza Aslan is, admittedly, an unexpected choice for the second episode of this officially sanctioned interview podcast, but his insight into The Next Generation’s episode on allegorical language is interesting for Trekkers and non-Trek-people alike. His idea of the future of religion, though, seems to have some holes, and not only in the context of a Star Trek future.

I recognize that a casual pop culture podcast isn’t a rigorous academic argument, and that his rhetoric was decidedly targeted towards an audience who didn’t tune in to hear him pontificate on obscure religious topics. Aslan and I share a great many opinions about the state of religion in the modern world, but his vision of a Star Trek era of religion seems off, it isn’t even reflected in the Star Trek universe as it exists, and seems to miss key elements of his own religious definitions.

First, Aslan notes that early Trek was modeled after Gene Roddenberry’s atheistic inclinations, and that the lack of religion in the Roddenberry years was a reflection of his idea that it would become obsolete.

“For Roddenberry, when he imagined a distant future, that’s the assumption that he had [that science would render religion obsolete]. No one in their right mind makes those claims any longer, because they have all proven to be spectacularly false.”

He references data that there is not, in fact, an inverse correlation between economic or social progress and religion; the move to middle class causes more religion, not less. He’s referencing the World Catholic Encyclopedia, and the span of time involved is vast. Yes, viewed over a hundred years, we see that religions have spread, but this ignores the more recent trend away from organized religion. Religious “nones” are on the rise. In America, many may identify as spiritual, but not religious.

Of course, even this recent American trend is misleading, because, across the world population, religion is projected to increase significantly over time. This is basically because religious people tend to come from religious families, and religious families tend to have significantly more children. Projecting 40 years into the future, we see how religion continues to dominate world culture. But what about 200 years in the future? And what about American culture specifically? How might growing irreligiosity in the states influence worldwide trends?

His prediction is that the global population with continue to become scientifically advanced and technologically literate, which will eliminate the need for religion to answer those questions. The divide between religion and science, he claims, has narrowed over time; that, surprisingly, the mystics from 1000 years ago are now being shown to describe some of the most theoretical discoveries that science has to offer today.

“When you look in the distant future, […] what you are going to see is not the eradication of religion, or the dissociation of religion from society, or even more the complete separation of religion and science, you’re going to see the complete opposite. You’re going to see the convergence of religion and science.”

We’ve already seen this trend among the religiously affiliated and “nones.” Believers have been forced to reckon with their supernatural beliefs in the face of scientific evidence, just as non-believers have been forced to acknowledge that some of religion’s outlandish claims are, in a certain sense, borne out by evidence. As the amount of knowledge undiscovered by science continues to diminish, we’ll be further forced to recognize scientific answers to big questions over supernatural ones. This trend seems inevitable, and demonstrable with current trends, but Aslan loses me with the next step:

“If you ask me, ‘what will religion look like 200, 300 years from now?’ We’ll just call it science. There won’t be a difference between religion and science. That’s primarily because they answer two different questions: […] science’s fundamental question is ‘how?’ Religion’s fundamental question is ‘why?'”

What he’s describing is similar to the philosophy of Stephen Jay Gould, who conceived science and religion as “non-overlapping magisteria,” that is, two separate realms of thought which don’t infringe on one another. This way of thinking hasn’t stood up well to scrutiny over time, and for obvious reasons: things in the domain of science are frequently (and historically) appropriated by religion. For instance, if we wanted to study the efficacy of prayer, would this fall in the magisteria of religion or science? Certainly if we can conduct a study, this is a scientific pursuit; if science can be used to examine all physical phenomena we experience, where does the realm of religion even begin?

If, far into the future, science is able to chip away at the questions religion has historically answered, will that make science and religion converge? Wouldn’t that imply a unified world religion? There’s only one science, after all, yet many religions. If science leads us, universally, to the same conclusion, and we all understand that conclusion in the same way, there isn’t room for any religious interpretation. This converged science-religion isn’t much of a religion at all.

He seems to arrive at this conclusion by imaging a world where “how and why” are the same question, and he asserts that the Roddenberry idea that religion might be abandoned in the future (in favor of scientific discovery) is thus false. Host Tawny Newsome briefly mentions the robust religious identities of Klingons and Bajorans before the conversation pivots away from religion. These examples are, of course, post-Roddenberry and may not adhere to the same post-religious, scientific future that Roddenberry represented. But their example is actually a great counter to Aslan’s idea of a science-religion future.

The Klingons’ robust religious belief seems supernatural only in their concept of the afterlife, which provides a powerful psychological support as they frequently (and often recklessly) risk their lives in battle. The myriad customs surrounding their relationships (lots of hand slashing and bloodletting) all seem conducive to real-world applications for a warrior society. They don’t battle because “Khaless demands it” but because they have a cultural understanding that it is honorable, their God doesn’t demand sacrifice but rewards altruism. Outside of some lip-service paid to prayers, their beliefs seems remarkable non-supernatural. Their faith isn’t at odds with science.

The Bajorans believe lots of supernatural things, but these are, in the universe of Star Trek, actually scientific truths which are beyond the current understanding of their society. Their Gods are aliens in a spacial anomaly, and while no one quite understands their technology or non-temporal existence, it is made clear that these beings are constrained by the laws of the universe in some way. This is a demonstration of Arthur C. Clarke’s third law: any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

There are so many religions depicted over the several series, like the Vulcans who treat logic as a sort of deity, or the Romulans, close biological relatives of the Vulcans, whose major difference is that they have abandoned this religion. There are episodes where science is used to dispel religious myth (Audra the Devil comes to mind), but never is an entire culture’s religion invalidated by a scientific argument. These religions co-exist with scientific truth, not only because they don’t attempt to explain scientific truths but because they codify a cultural understanding of the relationship between religion and science.

Aslan’s conception of religion is fundamentally semiotic. Consider his definition:

“[Religion is] an institutionalized system of symbols and metaphors that provide a common language for a community of faith to communicate, with each other and to themselves, the ineffable experience of being.”

Which is the whole point of his analysis of “Darmok,” that semiotics influences our experience. We’ll always need a common language to discuss the things which we struggle to name, and this will be the case for as long as communication is as limited as we currently experience it to be.

Perhaps I’ve misinterpreted Aslan’s “religion becomes science.” Perhaps he’s saying the same thing I am, that even once we’ve discovered all there is to discover about science, we’ll still need a way to discuss the things which science cannot describe. Science and religion always intersect, they cannot be “non-overlapping,” but our personal experience of scientific truth can be described in a variety of ways, and the diversity of religious options provide us a number of structures by which to conceptualize these relationships. Science cannot be a religion in this way, even by Aslan’s own definition, because it doesn’t attempt to communicate anything about “the ineffable experience of being.”

I see the future of religion more or less in the way Star Trek depicts it: a huge diversity of religious belief, much of it central to cultural identity, but all subservient to scientific truth. Science and religion can never converge, but they can peacefully co-exist, much as they do now in people like Reza Aslan, or in myself, a Catholic Atheist.

A final thought: imagine far into the future where we’ve not only discovered all the scientific truth the material world has to offer, but we’ve also transcended linguistic communication as we know it today. Maybe we’ve developed psychic abilities, or created technology to merge consciousness without language. Will we still have a need for religion in this future? If in the beginning was the Word, once we dispense with the need for words, does that imply the end of religion?