This Sunday’s NYT had a great essay by Richard Polt, professor of philosophy at Xavier University in Cincinatti, challenging determinist and behavioural claims by scientist’s such as Edmund O. Wilson that our huamnity is much less unique and exalted than has been traditionally supposed.

Polt’s basic claim is that our actions are not simply driven by genetics or behaviour, but occur within the “lifeworld”, the realm of meaning.

“So why have we been tempted for millenniums to explain humanity away? The culprit, I suggest, is our tendency to forget what Edmund Husserl called the “lifeworld” — the pre-scientific world of normal human experience, where science has its roots. In the lifeworld we are surrounded by valuable opportunities, good and bad choices, meaningful goals, and possibilities that we care about. Here, concepts such as virtue and vice make sense. Among our opportunities are the scientific study of ants or the construction of calculating machines. Once we’ve embraced such a possibility, it’s easy to get so absorbed in it that we try to interpret everything in terms of it — even if that approach leaves no room for value and meaning. Then we have forgotten the real-life roots of the very activity we’re pursuing. We try to explain the whole in terms of a part.”

As Polt writes, the idea of the lifeworld is not necessarily a justification for religion. One can have a meaningful life without religion. But the lifeworld is the realm where ethics, choice, morality, identity, and spirituality manifest themselves, and it is a realm, he notes, that cannot be simply explained by a reductionist science.