The Quest for Understanding and Meaning: From Process and Complexity to Meaning and the Transcendent

The Quest for Understanding and Meaning: From Process and Complexity to Meaning and the Transcendent

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In this presentation I shall explore some of the key ways we engage reality,  the reality – the universe and nature – which gives us birth. I shall begin by reflecting briefly on how we achieve understanding, how meaning is constructed, and the mystery which embraces both understanding and meaning. “Mystery” does not connote that we have no knowledge or understanding of ourselves or of reality, but rather that, although we continually grow in our understanding, the reality we are and of which we are a part is inexhaustibly rich, and we never get the bottom of it. Included in this will be a brief characterization of the natural sciences, philosophy and theology as forms of knowledge.

Next, I shall give a thumb-nail sketch of the principal characteristics of the universe – of reality – and of its evolution from the Big Bang to the present, including some important reflections on the processes involved in emergence and evolution, and the different meanings of “the laws of nature.” Connected with this, I shall indicate the constraints our scientific understanding of  nature and cosmic and terrestrial history place on philosophy and theology, as well as the limitations of the natural sciences in achieving a comprehensive and full understanding of reality.

This will segue to a discussion of C. S. Peirce’s “retroduction” as the foundation of scientific rationality, and by extension as an inferential basis of human rationality in general. Its unqualified success within the sphere of the natural sciences strongly supports the competency of rationality beyond that sphere – beyond “the cosmological limit” – in philosophy and theology. Thus, intelligibility is attainable as questions of meaning, purpose, value, and ultimate origin are posed – not complete intelligibility but a gradual sifting out of the less inadequate answers from much less adequate responses. Mystery is successfully probed – partially — but continually deepens.

This surplus of understanding and meaning which we encounter in the mystery of reality leads to realization of the Sacred – to that which somehow connects us to the underlying unity and depth of nature and the universe – to our origin and end. Though we only dimly understand these aspects of reality we must take a personal stance towards them – which involves respect, reverence, contemplation, commitment and participation. Is our self-engagement and our engagement with the larger reality of which we are a part ultimately fruitful and life-giving or not – for ourselves and others?

  1. Understanding, Meaning and Mystery

There are several different strategies for increasing our understanding of something. We can analyze the object or system into its components, and try to model adequately the relationships among them. We can also situate it within the larger system or context of which it is a part, and explore all its connections to – and dependencies on — this context. We might call this “the synthetic approach.” Finally, we can determine the origins (both intermediate and ultimate), together with the purpose or ends, of the object or system under investigation – what functions it fulfills, why it exists, what it will become. These three strategies are complementary, and all of them are important in the long run. As we explore the world around us our central challenge is to understand through these approaches the rich diversity we encounter within the overarching unity of nature. Though we may understand something, we may not really know what it means. Thorough understanding leads to meaning, but the two are very different concepts. “Meaning” has different meanings! But here I shall use this term to denote the significance of an object, event, pattern of behavior, etc. relative to the larger systems or contexts in which it functions, and relative to the overall relationships it enjoys within them. It implies an openess to, and an engagement with, reality – and an orientation towards certain ends or goals. Meaning is constructed on the basis of our limited understandings, experiences, sense of relationship, and yearnings. It gradually evolves and undergoes testing and modification, as we use it to guide our individual and community lives within the world and within society.

We formally pursue our  quest for understanding and meaning within the natural sciences, philosophy and theology. Properly conceived they complement one another in attaining these goals. This can be seen more clearly if we venture a description of each set of disciplines.

The natural sciences are disciplines oriented towards a detailed qualitative and quantitative understanding and modeling of the regularities, processes, structures, and interrelationships (the laws of nature) which characterize reality – relying on rigorous, repeatable analysis and experiment (observation). In contrast, philosophy – going beyond the important area of philosophy of language – deals with ultimate questions and the pervasive aspects of reality – and not with well-defined, easily isolated phenomena. It often involves investigation of those features of nature and the universe which are presupposed by the specialized sciences.

Before briefly discussing theology, we must first say something about religious faith, upon which theology is based. The best definition of faith I have heard is that of Avery Dulles: Faith is our ongoing positive response to perceived divine revelation in discernment and commitment.1 Theology, then, according the famous definition of Anselm of Canterbury,2is “faith seeking understanding.” It is the discipline directed towards understanding God, the presence and action of God in our world, and our response to that transcendent reality.

But in all this we must recognize “mystery.” The universe, life, ourselves, and the reality in which we are immersed defy any adequate, complete or full understanding – and present themselves to us as inexhaustibly rich. We always have more questions. We do come to understand a great deal through the natural sciences, philosophy and theology — and other less formal reflections on reality – and we gradually arrive at deeper understanding and meaning. We find ourselves continually invited to go even deeper – beyond where understanding is reliable. But we never come close to achieving full understanding – and it’s clear that we never shall.

For instance, we know a great deal now from the sciences about intermediate origins and ends, but, when we pose the question of ultimate origins and ends, we encounter dense mists. Much of what is Mystery is deeply experienced and intuited – and is essential for constructing Meaning. But at the same time, it is only dimly comprehended (e. g. the Particular as particular).

  1. The Key Features of the Universe

If we stand back for a moment and survey all that the sciences have revealed to us about reality and the universe at large, what are its key general features? Certainly, one thing we immediately recognize is that is is evolving – changing and developing on all scales – with new systems and organisms emerging within it. That’s true biologically, but it is also true cosmically. In fact, cosmic evolution puts the building blocks in place for  the initiation of  biological evolution.

But there are also other more pervasive important characteristics. Certainly one of them is the universe’s order and intelligibility. Though it is very complex in some ways, it is also simple enough to be modeled and precisely described by us. It could have been otherwise! Furthermore, it is marked by pervasive relationality. At every level relationships among components (e. g. atoms within molecules) and with the larger immediate context are central to its microscopic and its macroscopic structure – and essential to the innumerable nested levels of organization and complexity, which in turn enable the rich differentiation and continual emergence of systems, organisms, persons, communities, and ecologies. In fact it appears that the interacting and overlapping relationships which objects and systems enjoy with one another is precisely what makes each one what it is. Many of these relationships – whether internal or external – are therefore constitutive.

Along with this relationality and hierarchical structuring are two other notable features: the formational and functional integrity3 (relative autonomy and intrinsic dynamism) and  the unity and solidarity that nature manifests. Given the existence and intrinsic order of  the universe and nature, there is no need – and no evidence – for any extrinsic control of natural processes, nor for any micromanaging intervention. The emergence of new systems and organisms occurs as a result of the laws of nature themselves – those we understand, and those we don’t.

Other closely associated characteristics are contingency – understood both as the dependence of each system on something else (its lack of necessity) and as involving a certain amount of chance (but chance always within a larger framework of dynamic order) – and the transience and fragility of all the systems and organisms which emerge in the course of cosmic and terrestrial evolution. There is certainly emergence, but emergence inevitably rests on the demise and dissolution of earlier systems and organisms. Nothing lasts forever. In fact, a very good case can be made for the absolute necessity of fragility and transience in an evolving universe. Evolution would quickly come to a halt, if everything that emerged were eternal.

Directionality is also notable within the universe – not a fixed unique endpoint – but rather at any particular juncture an orientation towards a limited range of outcomes – based on the given conditions at any initial point we consider and the laws of nature dominating then. The universe itself has been continually evolving towards cooler, lumpier, and more complex configurations over the last 13.7 billion years. Thus also, since the Big Bang, time has obviously been very, very important.

Finally, the universe appears to be fine-tuned for complexity – the “anthropic principle.” From what we know of physics and cosmology, very slightly different values of the fundamental physical constants or the key parameters characterizing the universe would have rendered the universe completely sterile. We do not yet know how best to explain this apparent fine-tuning. Connected with it, of course, is the important recognition that our universe is life-bearing. Life and consciousness have emerged in at least one locale – and therefore are possible elsewhere, especially when we consider the staggering number of stellar systems in the universe. At an intermediate level of explanation, such cosmic fine-tuning can be explained by a really existing collection of many universes – a multiverse – which represent a wide range of possible values of the fundamental constants and cosmic parameters. At the ultimate level of explanation, however, the sciences cannot provide an answer – why is this universe, and this multiverse, the way it is, such that life and consciousness have emerged in at least one location within them. At an even more fundamental level, they cannot provide an account for the existence of the universe or multiverse, nor for its intrinsic order.

  1. The Stages of Cosmic Evolution

Before quickly summarizing the various stages of cosmic and biological evolution, it is important to recognize that the continual emergence of novelty and complexity which has occurred in the 13.7 billion year history of our universe has required a stable dynamical order. The relationships, processes, regularities and structures which constitute that order – as described by physics, chemistry and biology – have enabled the overall cosmic system, and all the subsystems which have emerged within it, to function as wholes, to maintain their organization and integrity, to develop and differentiate, and to provide secure plateaus from which further novelty and complexity have been achieved.

We often refer to the collection of these relationships, processes, regularities and structures as “the laws of nature.” In appealing to them as explanations for what has emerged in the universe, it is important to distinguish between the laws of nature – the relationships, processes, regularities and structures – as they actually function in reality, and the laws of nature – our laws of nature – as we imperfectly understand them and have modeled them.4 The reason for this distinction is that, as we well recognize, our understanding – even with our sophisticated scientific expertise – falls far short of  an adequate or complete comprehension of all the relationships, processes and regularities which are actually involved in nature, and in what has and is emerging from our evolutionary history. In fact, it seems clear that some of these relationships and regularities are not vulnerable to investigation by the natural sciences, but only by other modes of inquiry – for instance those of philosophy and theology.

In this very brief outline I shall situate biological evolution within the larger context provided by cosmic evolution. This is in recognition of the essential, absolutely necessary conditions for the emergence to life which cosmic evolution establishes – honoring the fact that it sets the stage for complexity and life and produces the building blocks and the environments (e. g. the chemical elements, the simple molecules, and the stars, planets, moons and comets) needed for the emergence of life. We need cool, highly structured, complex and richly differentiated chemical environments for life to be even possible.

Cosmic evolution itself can be described very simply. The universe, during its history from the Big Bang to the present, has been continually expanding and cooling. And, as it expands and cools, global and local conditions change, and new things become possible. Thus cosmic evolution involves going from earlier, hotter, smoother, more simple states to ever cooler, lumpier, more complex and richly differentiated states. Very early in the universe’s history – until about 300,000 years after the Big Bang – the universe was a very simple system of  smoothly distributed gas expanding and cooling, with no stars, galaxies, or any discernible structure at all. And it was chemically impoverished – with just hydrogen, helium and a little bit of lithium, the lightest metal. As is now very well known, it is only with stars that all the heavier elements were produced.

The general stages of cosmic evolution are the following:

  1. From the Big Bang to the end of the Planck era – during this extremely short period of time (much less than a millionth of second after the Big Bang) the universe was so hot that space and time as we know them did not exist, and the four fundamental interactions of physics were unified. We have no adequate understanding or model of this period. At the end of this period, space and time – and gravity – as we know them emerged.
  2. Inflation: Extremely rapid expansion and supercooling of the universe – still well within the first second after the Big Bang —  which generated the primordial density fluctuations, the seeds for the formation of galaxies and stars.
  3. Exit from inflation and the reheating of the universe.
  4. Early “classical” cosmological evolution: Gentle expansion and cooling of the universe as an almost homogeneous, undifferentiated system.
  5. Late “classical” cosmological evolution: Structure formation (galaxies, clusters of galaxies, stars), leading to the synthesis of all elements heavier than helium and lithium.
  6. Uninstructed chemical evolution5: Synthesis of simple and complex molecules.
  7. Instructed chemical evolution6: Reproducing systems of information carrying molecules (RNA, DNA, proteins) and the initiation of natural selection.
  8. Biological evolution: Natural selection, prokaryotes, eukaryotes, multicelluarity, etc.
  9. Cultural evolution: Social , political, religious, economic structures, along with ideas, literature, arts, sciences.

The natural sciences have given us a fairly reliable – and increasingly precise – account of all these stages of cosmic evolution, and the incredibly intricate and complex achievements within each of them, especially with regard to biological evolution. Again the laws of nature – not only as we understand them but particularly as they actually function – are fundamentally responsible for this remarkable history of emergence. This leads us to consider the strengths and limitations of the natural sciences themselves, which will lead us to considerations which take us beyond them.

  1. The Constraints Imposed by, and the Limitations of, the Natural Sciences

Other modes of reflection and inquiry – particularly philosophy and theology – insofar as their investigations touch on the natural world must respect and honor the competencies and reliable conclusions of the natural sciences. As a particular example, consider philosophy’s and theology’s discourse concerning God’s action in the world. It is obvious that the findings of the natural sciences impose severe restrictions on how theology can conceive God’s creative action in nature, and God’s special action in history. This is actually a significant contribution to both philosophy and theology, as it forces both disciplines to purify their concepts and their language, as well as the considerations they employ in arriving at their conclusions. On this subject, it has become clear that the understandings we have from the sciences help reinforce some of the best traditional formulations of divine action that we have – in terms of  “primary causality,” “creation from nothing,” and “continuing creation,” as long as these are properly understood. At the same time the findings of the natural sciences push us towards radical formulations of divine action – consistent with these earlier insights – in terms of divine immanence, kenosis and incarnation (and other strongly Trinitarian perspectives).

Although we are deeply impressed by the competencies and strengths of the natural sciences, we also become aware of their limitations. For instance, as we do more and more fundamental work in physics and cosmology, we realize that these disciplines cannot really deal with ultimate questions – for instance, why there is something rather than absolutely nothing, or why there is this type of order, rather than some other type of order. The natural sciences presuppose existence and order, then attempt to describe and model the order they find. They may raise the question of its ultimate origin, but are unable to use their methods to search for an answer. Therefore, physics and cosmology cannot shed light directly on the ultimate origin of the regularities, relationships and processes we find in nature.

Other limitations of the natural sciences are:  their inability to deal directly with values, or with what endows our lives with value, orientation and meaning (they presuppose certain values, but are not capable of investigating or delving into the notion and basis of values as such); their inability to deal with events or situations which cannot be subsumed under a general law (the particular precisely as particular), or with personal relationships precisely as  personal; and their blindness to the transcendent – they cannot deal directly or critically with experiences or patterns of experience which might indicate or constitute divine revelation.

As many have emphasized, it is very helpful to specify both the strengths and weaknesses, the competencies and limitations, of the various disciplines, in order to facilitate dialog among their practitioners and to help each of them function more effectively within our complex and intricately interacting society.

  1. Retroduction and Scientific Rationality

Now we shall discuss the inferential basis of scientific rationality, and how it leads us to a validation of human rationality in general – and in particular to its quest for understanding and meaning beyond the limits of the natural sciences.

Over the last 25 years or so there has been considerable research done on the basis of scientific rationality. Among these efforts Ernan McMullin compellingly argues7 – philosophically and historically – that C. S. Peirce’s concept of “retroduction”8 comes closest to describing how successful science is actually done.

What is retroduction? According to Peirce it is a “movement of invention” that involves “moving backward in thought from observed effect to unobserved cause.” Using the informed imagination we construct hypotheses, often employing or appealing to  hiddenstructures, relationships or realities, and then examine what consequences these have. We then see if we can observe these consequences, and therefore determine to what extent the hypotheses “work.” In practice, of course, under the pressure of careful experiment and observation, these hypotheses are gradually modified and fine-tuned – and some cases completely replaced. However, in this process, retroduction is the inferential guide.

In retroductive reasoning it is the criterion of the long-term fruitfulness and success of the hypotheses which gives the assurance that something very much like the content  of the hypotheses (theory) actually exists, even though we may never be able to detect it directly.

There are two closely related central meta-conclusions that we can draw from our reflections on retroduction, which have been strongly emphasized by McMullin, and especially by Paul Allen.9 The first is that the “universe as a whole” is the “ultimate” and most comprehensive object of the natural science’s retroductive inquiries. These have led to concluding to the existence and the characteristics of the physical system(s) within which all else fits and it to be understood – including ourselves. The second meta-conclusion is that the cosmology’s, physics’ and the other natural sciences’ successful use of retroductive inference directly leads to an understanding and particularly a validation of human rationality in its search for knowledge. These two conclusions provide a basis for rationally transcending the limits of the natural sciences themselves.

  1. Intelligibility Beyond “the Cosmological Limit”

As Allen10 stresses, in cosmology and in quantum field theories – however advanced they become – the limit of scientific critical realism and scientific rationality is reached, what he refers to as “the Cosmological Limit.” However, cosmology and physics, having successfully attained their object, raise further questions which they themselves are not equipped to answer, but which certainly seem legitimate: Questions about deeper meaning, purpose, ultimate origin and destiny, the role of consciousness, value. These immediately move us from the natural sciences to philosophy, psychology, sociology, the humanities, theology. Furthermore, the unqualified success of scientific rationality as evidenced in the natural sciences, including quantum theory and cosmology, validates the quest of the informed imagination and retroductive inference on issues going beyond the natural sciences. Their capabilities are not limited to scientific questions.

What takes us beyond this cosmological limit? As Allen points out,11 despite the limitations of the natural sciences, retroduction does not cease. Informed imagination still operates and searches – further questions are posed. “Scientific rationality is retroductive and imaginative, and therefore transcendent of science altogether, once the cosmological limit is defined.”12

Thus. there is a surplus of understanding and meaning revealed in the self-transcending operations of scientific inquiry which invite the extension of retroductive rationality and inquiry beyond the cosmological limit,13 to embrace issues of meaning, purpose, ultimate explanation, etc. The key insight is that human rationality is self-transcendent and heuristic.14 This means that it is always moving beyond where it has arrived – even if it has to employ new approaches, methods, and criteria of evidence in its quest – and that it is, as a formulator of hypotheses, radically but flexibly anticipatory in that quest – constantly “trying new models and approaches on for size.”

  1. Encountering Mystery and the Sacred: How We Engage Reality

As we realize that we have arrived at the cosmological limit, and then continue to strive to move  beyond it with our concerns and questions, we quickly begin to sense that there are aspects of reality which are fundamental, incredibly rich and profound that we shall never be able to comprehend adequately or master. And yet they exist, are very insistent and demand our attention. In a very real sense, we cannot grasp them – they grasp us. This is the dawning – and eventually consuming – awareness of Mystery, of the inexhaustible richness and depth, at the heart of the reality that embraces us.

Along with this sense of Mystery is an evolving awareness of the Sacred – of that which reveals, and connects us to, the underlying unity of nature and the universe, to our origin and our destiny, inviting reverence, contemplation, commitment, participation. The Sacred overlaps Mystery – the inexhaustible depth and richness we encounter as we search for further understanding and meaning. It is experienced in deeper and deeper ways, is partially understood, but is often inarticulable. Furthermore, it almost always involves personal, social, cultural, religious and spiritual dimensions. Most importantly, in its authentic forms, it provides personal and social orientation and meaning, and moves us towards an awareness of a unity which relishes diversity.

One of the crucial outcomes of the personal and communal integration of  all of our understandings, meanings, and of our growing appreciation of Mystery and the Sacred is how it strongly affects the way we engage reality. It has passive, actively passive, and active dimensions, and in its fully developed form enables an openness to what is revealed by the full range of our experience. It is constantly enabling us to see more deeply into ourselves and into the reality around us with appreciation and with a sense of the distinctiveness we possess in the overall unity of nature. Finally, it guides our participation in, and the attitudes we bring to, our projects and our relationships and involvements. Among the criteria which nourish and authenticate our engagement are: wonder, humility, respect, care, communication and reconciliation.

Here I have moved from a general consideration of the natural sciences, and the knowledge and understanding of ourselves and our world they enable, to a consideration of the foundations for our rational  encounter with aspects of reality beyond the sciences, and what types of engagement with reality that leads to. Mystery and the Sacred are important aspects of what we encounter in that quest – not that there is no understanding or critique possible, but that the every growing partial understandings we attain invite  – and even demand – that we engage at levels and in ways that which go beyond what rationality can securely and clearly establish, but which lead to fruitful and ultimately successful courses of action and behavior.



1Dulles, S. J., Avery, “The Meaning of Faith Considered in Relationship to Justice,” in The Faith That Does Justice, John C. Haughey, editor (New York: Paulist Press, 1977), pp. 10-46.

2Anselm of Canterbury, Proslogion, Preface (Prooemiium), in St. Anselm’s `Proslogion’ with `A Reply on Behalf of the Fool’ by Gaunilo and `The Author’s Reply to Gaunilo,’ trans. by M. J. Charlesworth (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965), pp. 101-105.

3Coined by Howard J. Van Till. See his The Fourth Day: What the Bible and the Heavens Are Telling Us About Creation  (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986). The essence of functional and formation integrity goes back to Basil of Caesarea (Hexameron) and Augustine (De Genesi ad Litteram), as Van Till stresses.

4William R. Stoeger, S. J., “Contemporary Physics and the Ontological Status of the Laws of Nature,” in Quantum Cosmology and the Laws of Nature: Scientific Perspectives on Divine Action, Robert John Russell, Nancey Murphy and C. J. Isham, editors (Vatican City State and Berkeley, CA: Vatican Observatory and The Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences, 1993), pp. 209-234.

5B.-0. Ku”ppers, The Molecular Theory of Evolution (New York: Springer-Verlag, 1983), p. 2.


7See for instance Ernan McMullin, The Inference that Makes Science (Milwaukee, WI: Marquette University Press, 1992), 112 pp.

8See C. S. Peirce, in his Collected Papers, Vols. 1-6, C. Hartshorne and P. Weiss, editors (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1931-1935), Vol. 1, para. 65, and Vol. 5, para. 188; also in his Collected Papers, Vols. 7 & 8, A. Burks, editor (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1958), Vol. 7, paras. 202-207, 218-222.

9Paul L. Allen, Ernan McMullin and Critical Realism in the Science-Theology Dialogue (Aldershot, Hants, England: Ashgate Publishing Co., 2006), 201 pp.

10Ibid., pp. 103-120.

11Ibid., pp. 122-125

12Ibid., p. 124.

13Ibid., pp. 116-117, p. 153.

14Ibid., p. 123, p. 153.