Like most scientists, I doubt that there is some ultimate, transcendent, foundational purpose to our lives, or to the universe, whether we interpret this in terms of a personal God or a mystical metaphysics. But certainly we can point to sources of real meaning in our actual human lives as we live them.
One classic kind of spiritual intuition is awe: our sense of the richness and complexity or the universe outside our own immediate concerns. It’s the experience of standing outside on a dark night and gazing up at the infinite multitude of stars. This kind of awe is the scientific emotion par excellence. Many scientists who are otherwise atheists point to it as a profound, deep, and significant reward of their work. Scientists are certainly subject to ambition, the lust for fame, the desire for power, and other dubious motivations. Still, I think all scientists, even the most domineering Harvard silverbacks, are also motivated by this kind of pure amazement at how much there is to learn about the world.
I’ve argued that babies and young children experience this kind of feeling, this lantern consciousness, all the time. They may feel this way gazing up at a Mickey Mouse mobile instead of at the Milky Way, but the experience is very much the same. And it’s more than just a feeling for both the scientist and the children. The universe at every level, from Mickey Mouse to the Milky Way and beyond, is indeed wonderfully rich and complex and, well, just awesome. And our capacity to appreciate this richness is entirely genuine. Not everybody engages in science or even cares about it—but almost everybody shares in the learning of young children.