“There’s an awful lot of structure not explained. But complexity is the essence, and if you don’t capture it you’re not going to have a hope of understanding it.”
Scott Turner, commenting on social insects.
From Underbug by Lisa Margonelli, Scientific American/ Farrer, Strauss and Giroux, 2018, p. 48
In order to understand the question of matter, meaning, and Being, we need to begin by understanding the words as the three great questions that confront human beings in their effort to understand existence and consciousness.
The first question is, what is matter? The second question, what is meaning and why does it arise? And the third question, what is Being?
These three things are remarkably intertwined, as they must be, and can only be interpreted through what I call metaphysical humanism. That is to say, a humanism — an understanding of what it means to be a human being — founded in the idea that humanism itself, our very existence, extends beyond the bounds of what we call the physical world. The term metaphysical humanism implies from the beginning that to be human has dimensions that are greater than the physical dimensions we can see, measure, and evaluate.
This, of course, extends itself beyond the domain of the sciences, which are strictly physical and logical disciplines that attempt to explain everything simply from the perspective of what we call “matter” (which is really not matter at all, but a complex interaction of energetic waveforms) and how it interacts with itself according to lawful principles. So even though metaphysical humanism is founded, at its root, by some scientific understandings, it presumes from the beginning that these alone will not be enough to explain why we are here or what the meaning of it is.
In this series of essays, we’ll explore these three questions from the perspective of metaphysical humanism. While the essays may not center so much around our practical experience and what it means, or about the pressing matters of Grace and understanding that are so important to our religious efforts, they are still, in my view, quite important in order to understand just how the universe functions — a question I have had ever since I was a tiny child staring at preserved beetles in cigar boxes, relics of my mother’s college entomology classes.
I will never forget what it was like to stare at those beetles, their iridescent carcasses fixed with pins against a white card background. I could see with every fiber of my being that these creatures embodied something quite miraculous and extraordinary, something impossible that transcended their material nature. Their material nature alone alluded to a perfection of existence and reason that emanated from a realm beyond mortal comprehension. I can remember the sensation of it as if it had just happened today.
This is, of course, perhaps because I’ve spent a lifetime studying these questions and have actually reacquired some small measure of that innocence and ability to sense that is so easily lost as we grow up. But one might just as well say that it is Grace that brings it to me now, just as it brought it to me then. And that Grace, as it happens, is one of the most essential qualities of the universe, emanating as it does from God’s Mercy. God’s Mercy exists as a subordinate force related to the most essential law of the universe, God’s Love; and so, while they may seem technical to some, these essays are actually an effort to come to an understanding of Grace and its functional nature, as much as any other understanding. Love, Grace, and Mercy all work together to put us where we are; so everything we discuss is actually about those three forces, no matter how we interpret the things around us.
Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.