Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy, Vol 3, No 1 (2007)

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History, Narrative, and Meaning

Roberto Artigiani


Recent developments in the natural sciences make a renewed dialogue with the humanities possible. Previously, humanists resisted transferring scientific paradigms into fields like history, fearing materialism and determinism would deprive experience of its meaning and people of their freedom. At the same time, scientists were realizing that deterministic materialism made understanding phenomena like life virtually impossible. Scientists escaped the irony of describing a nature to which they did not belong by also discovering that their knowledge can never be complete and that descriptions of nature at the subatomic level were essentially random. These developments, as Monod said, weakened the “Modern” paradigm sufficiently to make life scientifically possible. To understand how life might actually exist, however, scientists had to move beyond laments about observations losing information and concentrate on how nature creates information. Nature creates information in the process of reducing thermodynamic gradients and stores created information in self-organized systems. Nature thus becomes historical, for it is defined by qualitative changes accumulating over time because of unpredictable contingencies. This paper will explore the possibility that the patterned processes by which nature changes apply in the human realm, where interactions can change people and created information can be stored in self-organized societies. Values, Ethics and Morals (VEMs) are the qualitatively new information stored in social systems. VEMs script the actions structuring societies, demonstrating there is meaning in history and solving the problem of how sequences of events –“chronicles”–become narratives. Moreover, when societies compete, their system-structuring information is tested in the same way natural selection tests DNA. Thus, the succession of social systems suggests there is a meaning of history. The meaning of history need be no more transcendental or intended than Darwinian evolution. But if organs and traits can have biological value without implying design, socially constructed attributes like morality, consciousness, and freedom can be valued without supposing history has an ultimate or eternal purpose. Aspiring to show how the cacophony of historical events becomes a cosmos, a “well-ordered” context in which changes become meaningful, this sketch suggests a new understanding of nature may provide a basis for ethics.

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