Motherhood as Meaningful

Kathryn Rombs // Metaphysics of Motherhood


February 7  

Steven Weinberg, a theoretical physicist at the University of Texas, is a Nobel laureat in physics and has been called the pre-immanent theoretical physicist alive today.  Having discussed the ambiguity around the end of the universe, whether it will collapse or fizzle out, he writes:


However, all these problems may be resolved, and whichever cosmological model proves correct, there is not much of comfort in any of this.  It is almost irresistible for humans to believe that we have some special relation to the universe, that human life is not just a more-or-less farcical outcome of a chain of accidents reaching back to the first three minutes, but that we were somehow built in from the beginning.  As I write this I happen to be in an airplane at 30,000 feet, flying over Wyoming en route home from San Francisco to Boston.  Below, the earth looks very soft and comfortable—fluffy clouds here and there, snow turning pink as the sun sets, roads stretching straight across the country from one town to another.  It is very hard to realize that this all is just a tiny part of an overwhelmingly hostile universe.  It is even harder to realize that this present universe has evolved from an unspeakably unfamiliar early condition, and faces a future extinction of endless cold or intolerable heat.  The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.

But if there is no solace in the fruits of our research, there is at least some consolation in the research itself.  Men and women are not content to comfort themselves with tales of gods and giants, or to confine their thoughts to the daily affairs of life; they also build telescopes and satellites and accelerators, and sit at their desks for endless hours working out the meaning of the data they gather.  The effort to understand the universe is one of the very few things that lifts human life a little above the level of farce, and gives it some of the grace of tragedy.


This physicist is saying that it is a “farce” that we human beings think that there is some meaning to our lives.  His view is that most people live in a delusion that there is anything really important, since the world is bound to extinction.  It is so certain that the human species will become obsolete as the universe itself comes to an end, he says, that all human affairs regarding meaning and purpose for our lives are “pointless.”  To him, it is a cosmic jokethat we humans feel so important, that we were “somehow built in” to the universe, while in fact, we are not important at all.

The logical consequence of this view is that all value systems are equally worthwhile: none is intrinsically better than the next.  We might adopt one over another because it is more functional, for example, but it is not inherently more correct, since all value systems are like myths: to Weinberg, they are fictional.

That would mean that fascism is not any worse than democracy; that Stalin, Hitler and Mussolini are no worse than Jefferson, Roosevelt and JFK.  It would simply mean that we have overcome fascism for the most part because it does not suit us.  On this view, exterminating masses of human beings is not in and of itself wrong, but we “make up” a system of values that says that it is wrong.

Conversely, doing something good, such as helping the homeless, educating a child, or healing a sick patient is not inherently good.  On this view, we are under an illusion that these things are valuable, but the real truth, on this view, is that there is no meaning in these apparently good things because we are all going to die anyway, and when the universe dissolves, there will be no record of who was good, who was bad, who was a hero, and who was a villain.  All behaviors are thus ultimately meaningless, and our desire for happiness and fulfillment is a delusion, it is the “cosmic joke” with which we live.

I like Wienberg’s honesty, even though I disagree with him. So many people reject religious belief as mythological; so many people pride themselves in not succumbing to these illusions.  But these very same people do not accept the logical consequence of their view: they cannot admit that the abolition of slavery is essentially worthless, or that human rights are actually meaningless.  America’s most “progressive” cities and communities are swept by the current of promoting human rights, yet rights that are untethered to any religious or ideological framework.  I believe that Weinberg is correct: when we forgo metaphysical or religious perspective (as he does), all human values, ambitions and rights are fiction.  After all, what makes human rights so sacrosanct?  If it is a godless universe, as they say, then what makes human beings so special?  We can, as by a democratic vote, decide to agree that human rights are sacrosanct.  But in fact, it is just a majority vote determining something random and made up, as though by majority vote we decide that only blondes should be allowed to hold public office, or only black people can be property owners.  They, then, are living a life that makes no sense: they are working for equality and human rights, having accepted a world view that deems their own work worthless.

Again, Weinberg writes:


Toward the close of the essay I had a little to say about what I do believe, or really, as I see in rereading it, about what I do not believe.  I do not believe in a cosmic plan in which human beings have any special place, or in any system of values other than the ones we make up for ourselves.  I ended with a description of our world as a stage, onto which we have stumbled with no script to follow . . . .  But the tragedy is not in the script; the tragedy is that there is no script.


Again, Weinberg is claiming that to his mind, human beings have no special place in the universe.  All value systems are the ones we make up for ourselves.


This is the metaphysical question—is there more than physics, more than matter? Is there meaning? A structure of reality that we cannot see or sense but know?


“Metaphysics” means “beyond matter”, meta- meaning beyond and physis meaning the natural, visible order. Is there just physis, as Weinberg believes, or is there something beyond it?

This has bearing [*] on motherhood because if Weinberg is right, then all that is important to mothers is a myth. What matters to a mother? The value of the person: that this seven-pound creatures she holds in her arms is a priceless person, not just a lump of cells and molecules. Also, the thriving of the person: that her child is worth the investment of her life to love, bond, discipline, scold, educate, inspire, re-direct, and encourage, so that her child can eventually enter the vast matrix of society as a contributing member, as an asset not a liability. To a mother, this matters. To Weinberg, we may think it matters, but it is really a myth, because in several million years, the sun will swallow the earth and nothing will have mattered. To him and other materialists, it is a lie that any of what matters to a mother matters in reality.

Motherhood Matters: Myth or Reality?


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