After studying Isaac Newton, the 20th-century economist John Maynard Keynes once claimed: “Newton was not the first of the age of reason, he was the last of the magicians.”
This reference has to do with the work Newton did on occult and alchemy, the latter of which took up more than one million of his words out of the ten million in total that we have today.
It’s a strange thing, knowing that perhaps the greatest scientist in history, the man who first detailed gravity, mechanics, optics, and calculus in his Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, lived a life with a level of superstition that would make it easy to discredit him.
Keynes, in fact, even argued that knowing this about him, we can’t make the claim that the Newtonian worldview is fully mechanical, as the man himself may not have seen it as such.
Nonetheless, his famous Principia is one of the most important documents ever produced by a single person in our history. Without it, the shape of the current world would be different.
It’s difficult to quantify exactly how different it would be, but given the foundation it laid for subsequent works of science, it’s not hard to see how those pages harbor real meaning.
Every moment in history is caused by a confluence of factors; not all valuable. Some moments, however, like every time Newton sat down to write his book, have enormous influence, one that ripples through the currents of culture to reshape everything we know.
But what exactly was it about Newton’s contributions that brought meaning into the world?
Meaning as an Action
When the question of meaning is usually brought up, we often find ourselves talking about one of the two different modes in which we assume it exists: the objective and the subjective.
The objective is the it, the world, the universe that exists independently of what we say about it. The subjective, however, is the I, the me, the person who lives to experience this universe.
If meaning is objective, then there is a grand purpose to it all, one we either know through God or a supernatural force of reason, or one that we don’t know but can sense in a way.
If meaning is subjective, then it’s up to us and our own experience to construct this meaning based on whatever it is that we happen to fill our mind with as we go through life in time.
This dichotomy is helpful in analyzing the world, to see its different masks, but when it comes to understanding it, ignoring the interactions that exist between the two is a mistake.1
Newton’s science didn’t bring meaning into the world because it existed “out there” (although that’s part of it) but also because Newton himself was there, with his unique brand of experience to uncover it, acting to embody it into the fabric of reality with his work.
Meaning is an action. It’s created when a subject with a certain function or purpose acts in such a way as to move matter about in the physical world so that they fit the environment.
Every outer environment has boundaries based on what is relevant to a specific subject with a particular function. Meaning, in this sense, is the process of harmonizing these two things.
You can’t create meaning in your mind entirely subjectively, nor is it about “finding” what is already “out there; it’s a process of coordination, one moment at a time.
The Vitality of Life
The architect Christopher Alexander has a philosophy of design which roughly states that the purpose of design is to give form to an object so that it better fits the context of its use.2
This is similar to meaning being an action, where you zone in on a particular and relevant environmental area to consider how a thing matches it when given a shape (or acted out).
Over the years, Alexander has created what he calls a pattern language, a mathematical approach to best capture what makes a good fit with an environment and what doesn’t.
One of his conclusions is that, in a sense, life is everywhere. If we look at nature, and the way it interacts, the patterns that it creates, we can see that some interactions make more sense than others, because they’re more beautiful, they fit better, and they have a vitality.
Even in our own human designs, it’s clear that certain buildings, certain ecologies, and certain cities have a zest that is lacking in other, more poorly-fitted places we have built.
Good design, then, – and we can argue the creation of meaning, too – is about combining the different elements you are working with so that it creates a pattern of universal harmony.
This pattern isn’t static, and it can’t be captured by a subject or an object alone, but its secret lies in how its interactions evolve, in each moment, with each new shape, with each action.
If life is a container, meaning is the vitality that you fill it with. If meaning is an action, then there is such a thing as a right and a wrong action at any given moment that correlates with the quality of your life – with how much you can give to and get from what’s around you.
Design provides a good analogy for life because, in a way, design is how we discover life.
We live in a reality of matter, but we also live in a reality of mind. If mind didn’t move matter, we wouldn’t have civilization. If matter didn’t influence mind, life would be a vacant dream.
For Newton’s laws of motion to exist, and for them to have the historical impact that they have had in reality, it’s not enough to just know that there is something like them “out there.”
Newton, the man, is just as important for grasping the mysteries of the universe as the laws of physics. And more importantly, there would be no written laws of physics if it wasn’t for the fact that Newton took the right actions, from day to day, when creating his body of work.
Meaning isn’t externally found or internally created, but it’s more like a real-life drama: acted out, in one space and another, over the course of one period and another, as we live.
Every contextual environment provides an opportunity that is unique to a subject with a particular function and purpose, and meaning emerges when there is a fit between the two.
Nature exemplifies this harmony better than we often do. It creates a life of vitality in the patterns and connections that it places together, organically growing out of its constituents.
At the end of the day, we are animals, living in a particular ecology, with internal drives and motivations, and meaning-making is the process by which we design our own reality.
To leave meaning to either the supernatural or the imagination is limited. Meaning is an act.
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