Science, Meaning & Spirituality

[Note: this is the text of a paper submitted to the 2016 International Meaning Conference held in Toronto and organised by the INPM

Although the paper was accepted, unfortunately circumstances prevented me from attending the conference. Much of what follows duplicates some previous blog posts, but perhaps in a slightly more condensed form.]

Science, Meaning & Spirituality:  Towards a new Epicurean ‘Moral Psychology’

 Mark Walker, Buckinghamshire New University


 PP theorists frequently cite the virtue ethics of Aristotle; for example,  Wong (2011) explicitly references him in the context of a proposed PP 2.0 model in which ‘moral psychology’ will figure prominently. But Aristotle is not the only Ancient Greek to have created an ethical-therapeutic system. Epicurus of Samos (341-270 BCE) grounded his own therapeutic moral psychology on a secure knowledge of the natural world, for only by banishing fear of the gods and of death was the Epicurean able to attain ‘tranquillity’ (ataraxia). Taking a modern neo-Epicurean perspective reminds us that the findings of the natural sciences ought to form the foundation of PP 2.0 moral-psychological theories. Specifically, the purposeless universe described by modern physics must be taken seriously by positive psychologists when using ambiguous and potenially ontologically-loaded terms such as ‘meaning’ and ‘spirituality’. The resulting worldview, in which science and spirituality are carefully distinguished but nonetheless compatible, still offers scope for experiencing Wong’s ‘Chaironic’ happiness.


 In his call for a ‘Positive Psychology 2.0’, Wong (2011) notes that, ‘moral psychology, at the intersection of psychology and philosophy, promises to be an area of substantial growth in PP’. The wisdom doctrines of the Ancient Greek schools provide us with ready-made templates for developing just such PP 2.0 models of moral psychology (Hadot, 1995, is a great place to review them). But while the virtue ethics of Aristotle are frequently cited by PP theorists (including Wong), the sometimes suprisingly different, sometimes  suprisingly modern ethical-therapeutic system of Epicurus of Samos (341-270 BCE) has received far less attention. In particular, I argue, the Epicurean insistence on grounding ethics in secure knowledge about the natural world has important implications for PP 2.0 models of moral psychology.

 Science & Ethics

 Wong (2011) is critical that so far PP has taken ‘an ambiguous stance with respect to moral values because of its emphasis on science.’ But the Epicurean theorist insists that science and moral values are in fact inseparable. Epicurus grounded his ethical theories on a materialistic atomic physics: everything that exists can be accounted for simply by the collisions of an infinity of atoms at motion in the infinite void. Not only is this Epicurean cosmos entirely material, it is devoid of purpose. No guiding hand is required to make the world.

 Epicurean moral psychology – the prescription for what counts as ‘the good life’ – takes as its starting point these empirical facts. Principal Doctrine #12: ‘It is impossible for anyone to dispel his fear over the most important matters [the heavens, death] if he does not know what is the nature of the universe’ (Epicurus, 1993). It is the Epicurean contention that psychological disturbances have two primary causes: anxiety about the whims of the gods, and fear of death. Both of which can only be dispelled by secure knowledge about the world – the kind provided by the  physical sciences – which forms the basis of a therapeutic teaching aimed at producing ‘tranquillity’ (ataraxia): we ought not to be disturbed by natural events, the cosmos is purposeless, the gods will not help you, there is nothing after death – so cherish this life above all else. As the Epicurean poet Lucretius (1951) wrote:

 ‘As children in blank darkness tremble and start at everything, so we in broad daylight are oppressed at times by fears as baseless as those horrors which children imagine coming upon them in the dark. This dread and darkness of the mind cannot be dispelled by the sunbeams, the shining shafts of day, but only by an understanding of the outward form and inner workings of nature.’ (De rerum natura, III.87-93)

 Surprisingly perhaps, the sturdiest foundation for a PP 2.0 moral psychology turns out to be physics.

 Meaning & Spirituality

 Although positive psychologists talk a lot about ‘meaning’, they tend to be vague about what they actually mean by ‘meaning’ – is it simply a subjective sense of contributing positively, or is it connected – if not actually conflated – with such quasi-religious and ontologically-loaded concepts as ‘spirituality’ (e.g. Lopez et al. 2015, who concede the ‘fuzziness’ of the terms)? The online Values In Action survey even defines spirituality specifically in relation to meaning: ‘having coherent beliefs about the higher purpose and meaning of the universe’ (my italics). Likewise, it is a truism of PP that faith groups who believe meaning derives ultimately from a deity report heightened subjective well-being (Lopez et al. 2015), which in turn encourages positive psychologists such as Sonja Lyubomirsky (2007) to make statements like, ‘an essential path to finding meaning in your life is, almost by definition, to work on developing your faith’ (my italics).

 But both ancient Epicurean cosmology and modern physics provide no good grounds for thinking there is any non-subjective ‘higher’ meaning or purpose in the universe. As Carl Sagan (1991) noted pithily:

 ‘The hard truth seems to be this: We live in a vast and awesome universe in which, daily, suns are made and worlds destroyed, where humanity clings to an obscure clod of rock. … We are the custodians of life’s meaning. We would prefer it to be otherwise, of course, but there is no compelling evidence for a cosmic Parent who will care for us and save us from ourselves. It is up to us.’

 Like the modern physicist, the Epicurean grounds their beliefs in reliable knowledge about the world. As Lucretius observed, it is science not religio (‘superstition’) that can banish pain and fear. Science provides an objective ‘reality check’ for our subjective psychological beliefs. So if our current best scientific models describe a universe as uncreated, purposeless and devoid of meaning as the one historically sketched by Epicurus (which they apparently do), then loose talk of external ‘meaning’, of ‘higher purpose’ can only serve to perpetuate what for Epicureans is a vicious interdependent cycle of ‘irrational desires’ and ‘terror of death’ (Konstan, 2008).

 This stance, it should be noted, in no way diminishes feelings of wonder, joy, awe while contemplating the natural order of the universe – as will be abundantly clear to readers of both Lucretius and Carl Sagan (1996):

 ‘Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light‐years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty, and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual … The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both.’

 Modern Epicureans will have no difficulty achieving Wong’s ‘Chaironic happiness’ (2011) – ‘feeling blessed and fortunate because of a sense of awe, gratitude, and oneness with nature …’ – just so long as they remain careful not to hold evidentially unsupported beliefs about the super-natural. This neo-Epicurean perspective reminds us that moral psychology ought to be based not only on what we believe to be true but on what we know to be true – and only good science can tell us that.

*        *        *


 Epicurus (trans. O’Connor, 1993). The Essential Epicurus. New York: Prometheus Books.

 Hadot, P. (ed. Davidson, trans. Chase, 1995). Philosophy as a Way of Life. London: Blackwell Publishing.

 Konstan, D. (2008). A Life Worthy of the Gods: The Materialist Psychology of Epicurus. Las Vegas: Parmenides.

 Lopez, S.J., Pedrotti, J.T. and Snyder, C.R. (2015, third edition). Positive Psychology. Los Angeles: Sage.

 Lucretius (trans. Latham, 1951). On the Nature of the Universe. London: Penguin Classics.

 Lyubomirsky, S. (2007). The How of Happiness. London: Piatkus.

 Sagan, C. (1996)  The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. London: Headline.

 Sagan, C. (1991). ‘The Meaning of Life’ in Friend, D (ed.) The Meaning of Life: Reflections in Words and Pictures on Why We Are Here. Boston: Little Brown.

 Wong, P.T.P. (2011) ‘Positive Psychology 2.0: Towards a Balanced Interactive Model of the Good Life.’ Canadian Psychology, 52(2), 69-81.



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