How The Science of Awe and the Search for Meaning Relates to Liberty and Happiness: Discussing Kant and Keltner

I recently engaged in a discussion from one of the online groups I’m a part of that had to do with the following quote by Immanuel Kant:

Everyone is entitled to seek his own happiness in the way that seems to him best as long as it does not infringe the liberty of others in striving after a similar end for themselves.” – Immanuel Kant

I agreed and disagreed with the quote, suggesting that the idea might be saying something about the relationship between these two fundamental ideas- happiness and liberty- but it feels to me to be insufficient when it comes to saying something about what happiness and liberty in fact are in the truest sense of the words. In my opinion, the phrasing above gives us a way to locate what a lack of liberty is (oppression of the other, or infringement of another’s liberty). And it does offer us a definition of liberty which reads as “the ability to seek one’s own happiness”, thus suggesting that a truly liberated world is simply one where such seeking happens without infringement. I suggested that I remain skeptical of the idea that anyone is actually ever truly free in this way, and that while do think it is fair to say a world where oppression of the other exists is not a world that is truly liberated, we cannot assume that a world where everyone seeks their own happiness without infringement is in fact a liberated or true one. It is in this sense that I think the quote gives us a way to define a lack of liberty (infringement of liberty as oppression of the other), but it does not give us a way to make the positive claim about what liberty and happiness are.

I had some pushback on this, and thus I had been seeking out helpful resources or angles that might aid me in articulating, if only in my own mind, what it is that I was attempting to say in better and more coherent terms. This Podcast episode from The On Being Project was one such source, titled The Thrilling New Science of Awe and featuring author Dacher Keltner.

I had heard Dasher Keltner speak before regarding his work for Pixar as part of the research team for Inside Out. His recent book titled Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life is the result of years spent chasing after the idea of awe from a position of science and as a scientist. Awe, he argues, is the central and fundamental force of life and human experience. It is the central force of human meaning and that thing which has the power to grant us meaning. Awe sits at the center of our nervous system in the form of connective tissues, integrating a mass of ancient evolutionary functions into experiences which we (our bodiies) translate into sources of meaning, using this as a way to make sense of a world which otherwise would not make sense nor have any inherent meaning. For Keltner, Awe is the transcendent reality that we are describing when something seemingly moves us to see outside of ourselves, and it is rooted in the materiality of our bodies as a necessary means of connecting us back to the larger world. And if you pare back the essential role of Awe to its most basic and fundamental parts, even beyond any questions of what it means to thrive, it’s all rooted in a single driving force- survival.

One of the reasons he believes the science of Awe to be so crucial, even as the science remains resistant to exploring such an idea typically relegated to the fields of philosophy and religion, is that human function appears to be deeply tied to the question of meaning. In this interview he describes a crisis of meaning inherent within our present state of being as a society, specifically in the West where the language of Awe has largely been abandoned or reconstituted, and this is due to the rise of individualism in western nations relating to governing notions of liberty such as the one described by Kant. The way we relate to the world around us, to the technology we use, to societal structures and systems, to others, it all works in this libertarian fashion to narrow our sense of the world into a clearer sense of self, thus creating this assumption that happiness must mean the self operating without infringement from and by external realities. This in turn creates a crisis of meaning, as meaning, described as it is above, is something that exists external to us and which necessarily sets us in relationship to these external realities in a meaningful way. This in turn feeds what we could begin to describe as true happiness. If we simply define infringement as the inability to seek happiness however we want we are actually undermining the very liberty we think we value. This is something we can quantify and measure using science. Keltner, then, argues that the science of awe can help us regain a truer sense of meaning and thus a greater sense of happiness or joy framed by a defintion of liberty that actually has the power to say something about both its absence and its reality.

It’s worth restating here that what this highlights is that simply being free to seek our own happiness does not make us more happy. In fact, studies, or the science, can show the opposite is true. What we can draw from the science of awe is that happiness is less a choice than it is a by-product of our biological systems functioning in relationship to these experiential outcomes of our interaction with the world. That is: when we relate in proper ways to the truth about reality, This is precisely why I think the above quote is insufficient. Whether we want it to be true or not, what makes us happy is both inherent to our nature but also largely counterintuitive to competing desires of the self and subsequent addictions to the cult of the individual. In truth, truth is revelatory in nature. That’s what it means to experience it and thus gain knowledge of it. It, by its nature, imposes itself onto matters of the will which can then reform or conform it to a broadened sense of reality.

Its worth noting here that even with the helpful observations Keltner brings to the table by breaking open and introducing the science of Awe as a legitimate scientific exercise and interest, I don’t think even he pushes far enough in reestablishing the parameters for the larger discussion of meaning. There were a number of points of concession and potential inconsistencies that I noted in Keltners talk that I thought were interesting to consider in light of the crisis of meaning he is addressing:

  1. He notes that as a scientist, the more he learns the more reductive he is forced to be when it comes to defining what reality is purely in scientific terms. If you have an experience of awe on a mountain top for example, and you learn to locate that experience within the functional and material processes of the body as evolutionary tools developed for survival, this forces one to adhere to a necessary progression of reductive reasoning. The meaning question on the other hand requires us to find a way back up the mountain, which is where the experience of Awe directs us. This creates a tension within our rational faculties that is not easily reconciled, something Keltner tips his hand towards.
  2. He concedes that meaning is merely a narrative built from our experiences of Awe, which in turn can be manipulated (I’m thinking in terms of the whole made in the image of God versus making God in our image adage). This creates a tension for how it is that we can speak of liberty beyond the limiting and insufficient terms of the above quote by Kant, which relegates liberty to the idea of “seeking (ones) own happiness in the way that seems to him best as long as it does not infringe the liberty of others.” If happiness is rooted in our experience of Awe, and the science of Awe is able to establish proper boundaries for describing what true happiness is within that experience, then what must follow is redefining liberty in terms that allows the reality of Awe to infringe on our freedom to seek happiness in the way that seems best to us. This is where the problem arises in Keltners premise. Since he affords Awe a kind of godlike position over our existence, and since our experience of it can be manipulated, how do we then appeal to Awe as an authoritive voice in our lives and in this world in light of this present crisis of meaning without it simply tumbling back into the trappings of Kants quote which created the crisis of meaning in the first place?
  3. He concedes that Awe must play the role of the transcendent for it to be relevant, even though it is located functionally in the body. He even goes on to say that people experience awe in different ways, relegating a relationship to the divine (church or religion) as simply one of many ways to experience and express what is in fact a singular material reality (nature, the arts being other examples). And yet he admits that, just as this can be manipulated into illusionary narratives of meaning, it requires an irrational leap in the faculties of our reason to place awe in the role of the transcendent, an agency that is able to give and afford meaning into our lives apart from the boundaries of the human will.

I have to think that when it comes to discussions about liberty or happiness, it is in their necessary reduction that they naturally lose their meaning and their power, which is why we formulate these narratives and allow ourselves to make these irrational leaps in reason to reclaim that sense of Awe. We intuitively know where Awe comes from (outside of ourselves), even if we can locate our ability to access it within the function of our bodies. In a very real sense this is why the Christian idea of incarnation still holds so much power for me. God came down the mountain at Sinai and dwelt with/in creation. God descended from above and took on flesh. God is the transcendent reality that now dwells within. Thus meaning making narratives become our means of making sense of our experiences of the Divine, using the limiting nature of human language and experience to set ourselves in relationship to the Divine as the source of our meaning. This allows us to locate ourselves properly within the very human structures and systems that afford us a way to live meaningfully lives in this present reality. When we assume that liberty is bound to the ability to define happiness in our own way we detach ourselves from the very thing that gives life meaning.- the idea that Awe actually has the power to shape and form our lives into truer forms of happiness and liberty. Sure, the caveat “as long as it does not infringe the liberty of others” might allow us to define the negative properly as oppression of the other, but the world this affords the supposed “liberties” of the individual or illusion of the liberated self, remains mired in falsehoods and untruths. In terms of the science of Awe, meaning emerges from persons and societies and communities existing in necessary relationships which do in fact infringe on our liberties, defined as it is above. This is what Awe naturally drives us towards.

Published by davetcourt

I am a 40 something Canadian with a passion for theology, film, reading writing and travel.

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