In which Kate Hughes attempts to discover the meaning of life.

It was no surprise that the room was filled entirely with older scholars, the types of people who actually have the time to contemplate life. Chins perched thoughtfully in their elbows, they listened with interest to Charles Taylor, philosopher and Professor Emeritus at McGill. Dr. Taylor explained two accepted methods of reducing human actions into a single underlying princple and then voiced his dissatisfaction with both methods.

The first “reduction” method was described by Taylor as “vulgarized Marxism,” which divides human goals into a lower and higher tier: reproduction and survival versus ethics and aesthetics. This type of reduction places immediate needs, like general survival, above loftier goals. By this argument, the race for survival explains human actions in most cases; the goals of aesthetics and morals carry little importance.

The second set of goals corresponds to a theoretical life, akin to that describe by Aristotle, becuase they are goals that require a great deal of thought. Here, Taylor chose an example sure to resonate with college students: choosing a career. Some people feel that they are meant to be artists and that they could not bear being something as pedestrian as a lawyer. This internal argument is based entirely on self-imposed meanings.

To answer the question of the foundations of morals, Taylor referenced the work of David Hume, an 18th-century Scottish philosopher. Hume argued that sentiment is more important to moral judgement than reason, and Taylor added that people can be trained and conditioned to new moral sentiments. This “feelings” approach creates universal moral sentiment that is generally good for society, therefore morals are both about how we treat others and about their utility for society.

The second type of reduction, “explanatory reduction,” reduces all human behavior to “efficient causes.” This is the physics approach to understanding life: human actions are controlled by the brain, which is composed of particles. All matter can be explained through efficient causes. Taylor disagreed with this mechanistic explanation of life. Separating mind and body is an ineffective means of analysis because we are creatures with a sense of being; mind and body must always be joined. Theories that contradict this can have no practical applications.

In the discussion period following the lecture, Taylor advised the attendees to exercise caution when trying to discern an objective knowledge or truth. One should make a distinction between “wisdom” and “expertness,” for one cannot understand what is of “humanly” importance without first being emotionally moved.

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