Devastated by the American Presidential Election

But man, proud man,
Drest in a little brief authority,
Most ignorant of what he’s most assur’d;
His glassy essence, like an angry ape,
Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven,
As make the angels weep.
~ Shakespeare, “Measure for Measure

Like most of my readers, I am devastated by the 2016 American Presidential election results (and by the Congressional election results as well.) I have waited a few weeks to write about it so as not to be reacting too emotionally to the results. Since that time my usual focus on philosophy has faded into the background as the country in which I was born and lived all of my life finds itself in perhaps its greatest existential crisis. I hope that I am wrong, but the possibility of a fascist, authoritarian, banana republic with the power to inflict worldwide catastrophe is now a real possibility. At this time obtuse philosophical speculation feels superfluous and indulgent. So for the foreseeable future I will write about the grave situation in today’s America.

First, a bit about my background. I have followed politics closely since I was a small boy discussing the issues of the day with my father, who himself was an ardent student of politics. I grew up in the Midwest and my father was a blue-collar worker with a union job. I remember him first explaining to me that the Republican party of the 1960s in the USA was the party of the wealthy, while the Democratic party represented the populist alternative. (No doubt a lot has happened in the intervening 50 years, but to a large extent that analysis still holds true—Democrats give you affordable health-care, Republicans can’t wait to take it away.) I remember reveling in his stories about the honesty of Harry Truman, the intellect of Adlai Stevenson, the oratory of Everett Dirksen, and the whining of Richard Nixon‘s “last press conference.”

I also recall watching the entire TV coverage of both parties political conventions in 1964 at the age of 9, something I’d bet my contemporaries didn’t do. As an undergraduate I had courses in American government, American history, and political philosophy. Later, as a graduate student in philosophy, I had to pass oral exams on a required reading list that included: Plato’s The Republic; Aristotle’s Politics; Hobbes’ Leviathan; Locke’s Second Treatise of Government; Rousseau’s The Two Discourses and the Social Contract;Marx’s The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844; Hegel’s The Philosophy of Right; Lenin’s The State and Revolution, and many others.

I also had a graduate seminar devoted to the study of the radical libertarian thinkers of the Austrian school of economics like Joseph SchumpeterFriedrich Hayek, and Ludwig von Mises. Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations was also required reading there. And, as a young assistant professor I taught a class called “American Political Thought,” where I read most of The Federalist papers and was introduced to, among others, the economist Milton Friedman.

I don’t claim to have mastered the above material, nor do I claim to specialize in political or economic philosophy. Thousands of scholars of political science, political philosophy and economics know infinitely more than I do about these subjects, so I’m not bragging. I simply want to suggest that I’m not a low information voter, and that I have some familiarity with various economic and philosophical theorizing.

Of course I recognize that in the USA today, acknowledging that you know even a little bit about a subject results in being labeled an elitist. My own take on this is that sometimes experts are too sure of themselves, sometimes people are jealous that others know more than they do, sometimes people are just ignorant, and sometimes people can’t distinguish between a real expert and a fake one. As for myself, I know almost nothing about auto mechanics, programming a computer, playing the piano, and a million other things, yet I’m happy to have experts fix my car, program my computer, or teach me how to play the piano if I am so inclined.

What I have done in the last year or so—as our political situation has become more dangerous—is read literally thousands of articles about the current state of politics from reputable and intellectually sophisticated sources The New York Times, The Washington Post, and dozens of others. (Not from fake sources forwarded from facebook.) I’ve probably read more than a hundred in the weeks since the election. What I would like to do in the coming posts is summarize some of the best pieces I’ve read. As I go along, or at the end of that journey, I will try to reflect about what is most troubling in our current situation. Stay tuned if you’re interested.

H. L. Mencken: On Politics (Bayard vs. Lionheart)

“As democracy is perfected, the office represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. We move toward a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.” ~ H. L. Mencken

H-L-Mencken-1928.jpg

Henry Louis Mencken (1880 – 1956) was an American journalist, satirist, cultural critic and scholar of American English.[1] Known as the “Sage of Baltimore,” he was one of the most influential American writers and prose stylists of the first half of the twentieth century. On July 26, 1920, Mencken published an op-ed in the Baltimore Evening Sun titled “Bayard vs. Lionheart,” which was later included in a volume of his essays: On Politics: A Carnival of Buncombe.

Mencken’s essay ponders how it is that political candidates are so often the worst of people—without honor or conviction. As Mencken puts it:

It is not often, in these later days of the democratic enlightenment, that positive merit lands a man in elective office in the United States; much more often it is a negative merit that gets him there.

One of the main reasons that the voters often choose the worst people to lead them is that the masses fear thoughtful people, people with deep and sophisticated ideas:

In the face of this singular passion for conformity, this dread of novelty and originality, it is obvious that the man of vigorous mind and stout convictions is gradually shouldered out of public life.

And the voters have themselves to blame for the incompetent and immoral people they choose for public office. Voters are:

 … unreflective and timorous men, moved in vast herds by mob emotions. … when a candidate for public office faces the voters he does not face men of sense; he faces a mob of men whose chief distinguishing mark is the fact that they are quite incapable of weighing ideas, or even of comprehending any save the most elemental—men whose whole thinking is done in terms of emotion, and whose dominant emotion is dread of what they cannot understand. …

The larger the mob, the harder the test. In small areas, before small electorates, a first-rate man occasionally fights his way through, carrying even the mob with him by the force of his personality. But when the field is nationwide, and the fight must be waged chiefly at second and third hand, and the force of personality cannot so readily make itself felt, then all the odds are on the man who is, intrinsically, the most devious and mediocre—the man who can most adeptly disperse the notion that his mind is a virtual vacuum.

The Presidency tends, year by year, to go to such men. As democracy is perfected, the office represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. We move toward a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.

To be honest, I think that it is every bit as much moral vice as intellectual vice that will doom the American empire in our present moment. I truly fear that we are moving to an even more more fascist, plutocratic state than the one we are already in. I hope I”m wrong. But it is hard just so hard to see how the situation will change without radical intellectual and moral enhancement of human beings.

“Be as a page that aches for a … a theme that is timeless …”

“Be as a page that aches for a word which speaks on a theme that is timeless …”
(words and music by Neil Diamond)

This blog focuses primarily on the meaning of life, especially the role that future technologies will play in answering the question. The above line captures the sentiment which motivates our thinking and writing.

I think we should write, talk and think about timeless themes, at least as far as circumstances admit. Yet it is hard to constantly do this. Sometimes we want to discuss current affairs, daily experiences, questions from readers, or important topics not directly related to the meaning of life. Therefore the blog often reflects on these other topics, which allows a break from thinking about more substantive questions about life’s meaning. Still, regarding any issue, I will try to bring to bear a reasonable amount of analysis and insight.

There are two disclaimers I would issue regarding my blogging on topics other than the meaning of life. First, when I venture in areas in which I lack expertise, my thoughts are less measured and thorough. Regarding issues other than academic philosophy, I can only speak as a reasonably intelligent layperson. Second, I often do not have the time to fully research topics about which I’m not an expert. Many topics I address demand book-length treatment, but I have only limited time and blog space. Thus my conclusions about topics not thoroughly research are provisional.

Still there is something valuable in thinking about topics about which one lacks expertise. First it forces you to keep thinking and to practice writing at the same time. Second such thinking grounds one to reality. For instance, if loved ones ask for practical advice or one reads about some important practical matter, then one should think about these things. Finally, virtually any topic connects to questions of meaning at least in some way, so thinking about almost anything is indirectly relevant. And it is easy to see why.

Consider topics which I sometimes blog about such as politics, society, work, art, education or economics. It is easy to see why the meaningful life depends on a good society and a decent education, as well as on a just political and economic system. It is also easy to see why issues of religion, science, technology, ethics, personal relationships and philosophy are directly related to questions of meaning. In fact these are the primary areas from which most persons derive meaning. So one can connect almost anything I blog about with the question of meaning, no matter how tangential my subject matter may appear from my primary concern.

I hope this explains why I sometimes deviate from writing directly about the most fundamental question for me, the question of life’s meaning. Evolution, transhumanism, science and technology, and all topics that have most influenced me do so ultimately because of my deep concern with life’s meaning. But life’s meaning is not only a theoretical or even existential question, it is a question that demands attention to the details of living. Oftentimes then, I will thus direct my attention to what may seem like more mundane matters. Perhaps this is what Wittgenstein had in mind when he wrote: “… we could say that man is fulfilling the purpose of life who no longer has any purpose except to live.”

The Meaning of Life in Brief

Answers to the question of the meaning of life fall roughly into one of three categories:

  1. Negative (nihilistic) answers—life is meaningless;
    1. Affirmation—it is good that life is meaningless;
    2. Acceptance—it is bad that life is meaningless, but we accept this;
    3. Rejection—it is bad that life is meaningless, and we reject this;
  2. Agnostic (skeptical) answers—we don’t know if  life is meaningful;
    1. The question is unintelligible; it makes no sense
    2. The question is intelligible, but we don’t know if we can answer it;
  3. Positive answers—life is meaningful;
    1. Supernatural (theistic) answers—meaning from a transcendent god or gods;
    2. Natural (non-theistic) answers—meaning created/discovered in natural world
      i.     meaning is objective—discovered or found by individual
      ii.    meaning is subjective—created or invented by individuals.
      iii.   meaning is both objective and subjective

The Question and Possible Answers – The question of the meaning of life is the most fundamental question of human existence. It asks “what is the meaning, significance or purpose of an individual life in the context of all that was, is, or could be?” Answers to this question come in many varieties: supernaturalists argue that meaning derives from a god or gods; skeptics doubt that an answer to the question exists, or that we could know the answer even if it did; nihilists claim that life has no meaning; while naturalists claim that we create our own meaning (subjectivists), or that we find meaning in the good things in the world (objectivists). None of these answers is entirely satisfactory.

Religious Answers – Religious (supernaturalist) answers are the most popular, but they depend on problematic assumptions about the nature and existence of a supernatural realm. Religious claims may be false. And even if religious claims are true, it isn’t clear how a god grounds meaning. For instance, if you are told that you are a part of a god’s plan you might ask, how does being a part of some god’s plan give my life meaning? Being a part of your parent’s or your country’s plan doesn’t necessarily do that. If you are told that the gods just radiate meaning you might ask, how do they do that? If you can’t be the source of your own meaning, how can something else be? If you are told that a gods’ love gives your life meaning, you might wonder why the love of people around you can’t do that. If you are told that life is meaningful because you will live forever with the gods after you die, you might wonder how that makes life meaningful. (Reading my website for all eternity wouldn’t be meaningful!) You might also question why you would want to live forever with beings responsible for so much evil. So even if there are gods life may still be meaningless.

Philosophical Answers – Turning to philosophical replies to our question, we cannot straightforwardly accept skepticism, since we are forced by constraints of consistency to be skeptical of skepticism. Nihilism haunts us and no amount of philosophizing is palliative in its wake. Yet we reject it too. Why accept such a depressing conclusion when we can’t be sure of its truth? Subjectivism provides a more promising philosophical response—we can create limited meaning without accepting religious, agnostic, or nihilistic provisos. The problem is that the meaning created isn’t enough. We want more than subjective meaning, and the task of creating our own meaning is enormous. This leads us to consider the objective values and meanings found in the natural world—things like truth, goodness and beauty. In the meeting of subjective desires and objectively good things, we find the most meaning available  to us in this life.

Death – Yet this is not enough—because we die. How can anything truly satisfy, even subjective engagement in objectively good things, if all leads to nothingness? Death limits the meaning we can experience, since fully meaningful lives necessitate that we live forever. Lives can be meaningful without the proviso of immortality, but they cannot be fully meaningful since they would be limited in quantity. Death puts an end to our meaning and our lives. The defenders of death may claim that death is for the better, but we know in our bones that it is not, as the wailing at funerals reveals.

Transhumanist Answers – Fortunately science and technology may provide our salvation. We might overcome death in the near future using some combination of nanotechnology, genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, and robotics. But this is not enough, for immortality is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for full meaning. Complete meaning requires infinite qualitative goodness as well as an infinite quantity of time. Yet science potentially solves this problem too. If science can overcome death, why can’t it infinitely enlarge consciousness? With oceans of time for future innovation, it is plausible to think that science could make fully meaningful lives possible; it could make a heaven on earth. Still we have no guarantees. Cosmic evolution reveals the emergence of consciousness and meaning, as well as the possibility of their exponential increase, but it doesn’t imply that a more meaningful reality will necessarily unfold or that a state of perfect meaning will inevitably ensue. We don’t know if science and technology will bring about a utopia or its opposite, or hasten our destruction. And even if a glorious future awaits our descendants, we don’t know if we’ll be part of it.

Hope – Uncertain that life will ever be completely meaningful, or that we will participate in such meaning if even it does come to pass, we can still hope that our lives are significant, that our descendants will live more meaningful lives than we do, that our science and technology will save us, and that life will culminate in, or at least approach, complete meaning. These hopes help us to brave the struggle of life, keeping alive the possibility that we will create a better and more meaningful reality. Hope is useful.

The Purpose of Life – The possibility of infinitely long, good, and meaningful lives, along with the hope that this possibility can be realized, brings the purpose of our lives into focus. The purpose of life is to diminish all constraints on our being—intellectual, psychological, physical, and moral—and to remake the external world in ways conducive to the emergence of meaning. This implies embracing our role as protagonists of the cosmic evolutionary epic. We should work to increase the quantity and quality of knowledge, love, joy, beauty, goodness and meaning in the world, while diminishing their opposites. This is the ultimate purpose of our lives; this is what we should do. This implies being better thinkers, companions, artists and parents. It means acting to promote human flourishing, and ultimate the flourishing of all being. Naturally there are disagreements about exactly what this entails, but the way forward should become increasing clear as we achieve higher levels of being and consciousness.

Is Life Meaningful? – Yet knowing the purpose of our lives doesn’t ensure that they are fully meaningful, for we may collectively fail to give life more meaning—we may not achieve our purpose. Thus the answer to our question is that we know how life could be ultimately meaningful, but we do not know if it is or will be ultimately meaningful. Life can be judged fully meaningful from an eternal perspective only if we fulfill our purpose by making it better and more meaningful. If we are successful, our efforts will culminate in the overcoming of all human limitations, and our (post-human) descendants will live fully meaningful lives. If we achieve our purpose in the far distant future, if a fully meaningful reality comes to fruition, and if somehow we are a part of that meaningful reality, then we could say that our life and all life was, and is, deeply meaningful.

Hope Revisited – For now though, forced to live with uncertainty about the future, we must have hope that life can be made continually more meaningful. Hope provides the impetus for our efforts, and makes the continued emergence of meaning possible. Our hope is no small thing.

Science and the Meaning of Life

1. Facts and Meaning

All the truths of modern science are at least somewhat relevant to considerations of meaning. But why? What it is about scientific facts that make them especially germane? Consider that the decline of influence the Christian worldview in the 17th century West was the catalyst for the meaning of life question taking on a new significance. And what precipitated that decline? While there were certainly many factors, the rise of modern science was a prominent one. The removal of humans from the physical center of their universe with the rise of heliocentric, and their further demotion as the center of biological creation with the rise of evolutionism undermined much of what had previously given life meaning—specifically, the view that humans were central in the creation and design of reality. In contrast, modern science advances a radically different world-view whose foundation is an unimaginably large body of overwhelming evidence, one which continually grows and deepens the original insights of cosmology, biology and other sciences. One ignorant of such ideas has no chance to construct a realistic worldview.

For our purposes then, we must take into account the truths of modern science. One simply cannot have a coherent picture of what the world is like without knowing something of modern science because science is the only cognitive authority in the world today. Yes, there are an infinite number of things that science has yet to discover, there may be truths that science cannot by its nature uncover, and there may be other means by which to tease truth from reality than the scientific method. Furthermore, science is not dogmatic, and no matter how well confirmed its theories they are always provisional—open to change in light of new evidence. Nonetheless, we insist that the well established truths of science must be a starting point for our inquiry, as theoretical musings and introspection are no substitute for hard-won empirical evidence. Science consists of an immeasurable amount of knowledge—which is daily confirmed by the wonders of the technology it spawns. We simply must begin with the best knowledge of ourselves and our world that we have—the knowledge provided by modern science.[i]

But, as the body of scientific knowledge is vast, which parts of it are most relevant to our inquiry? I think cosmology and biology would be those sciences. Both are precise and both have important things to say about the meaning of life. Cosmology, broadly conceived as referring to the current state of the universe as well as to it origin and fate, is obviously applicable to our concerns. Biology is also most important; it is the science that tells us what human nature is. Given the particular importance to our inquiry of the origin, evolution, and fate of the cosmos, I suggest we focus on what science tells us about these issues to see the importance of scientific knowledge to our inquiry. Surely what we know, and do not know, about these issues is significant to our pursuit.

2. The Origin and Fate of the Universe

Our universe began about 13.81 billion years ago. (That humans have discovered this fact with such great precision is itself a testimony to the power of science. It is truly an astonishing discovery if you stop to think about it, and we are the first living people who have known this.) Cosmology is very speculative as to what happened before then—assuming it even makes sense to talk about a before-–but competing ideas include: 1) the universe emerged from nothingness, space and time were created in the big bang and thus there was no space or time before the big bang; 2) the universe resulted from the movement or collision of membranes (branes), as in string theory; 3) the universe goes through endless self-sustaining cycles where, in some models, the universe expands, contracts, and then bounces back again; and 4) that the universe grew from the death of a previous universe. The last three proposals all argue that the Big Bang was part of a much larger and older universe, or multiverse if you will. Hence such models don’t consider the Big Bang to be the literal beginning.

Although the details of these and other competing models go beyond the scope of our inquiry, suffice it to say that none of them, or any other variants likely to be proposed, have any place in them for supernatural gods nor do they say anything about meaning. The universe is indeed mysterious, but gods apparently will not play a role in explaining it.[ii] Furthermore, scientific cosmogonies have generally replaced the religious cosmogonies that preceded them, at least among the scientifically literate. The main differences between the two types of cosmogonies are first, that the scientific accounts are supported by good reasons and evidence, and second, that there is no obvious place in scientific accounts for meaning, as there was in religious creation myths. It is not surprising then that so many are threatened by a scientific worldview. Even if we are uncertain which if any of the scientific cosmogonies is true, the damage has been done; what we now know of the origin of the universe undermines our previous certainty about meaning.

When we turn to the future of the cosmos the issue is also highly speculative. The most likely scenarios based on present evidence are that the universe will: 1) reverse its expansion and end in a big crunch; 2) expand indefinitely, exhausting all its heat and energy ending in a big freeze; 3) eventually be torn apart in a big rip; 4) oscillate, contract, and then expand again from another big bang, the big bounce; or 5) never end, since there are an infinite number of universes or multiverses. (There are other versions of this basic story.) Needless to say, in none of these scenarios do the gods play a role nor do any of them appear especially conducive to meaning. As was the case with the origin of the universe, the important point is that there are alternative scenarios concerning the fate of the universe that were inconceivable to our ancestors, and these alternatives are not obviously comforting. The mere knowledge of these alternatives undermines our certainty about the meaning of our lives.

However, it should be admitted that science is highly speculative on such matters; these are defeasible scientific claims. Nonetheless, I would not bet against the ability of science to eventually unravel these great secrets, as the march of scientific knowledge is inexorable, and no positing of a “god of the gaps” is likely to help.[iii] Until then, the good news is that views such as the multiverse theory at least give us reason to reject universal death. If universal death was assured, the case against meaning might be overwhelming, but since it is not we may have a window of meaning left open to us. The bad news is that none of the scientific theories look obviously conducive to objective meaning. To be fair, we probably don’t know enough about these highly speculative areas of science to draw strong conclusions about meaning, except to say again that scientific theories about the origin and fate of the cosmos undermine the previous certainty people had regarding these issues.

3. Evolution

In between the beginning and end of the cosmos is its evolution. If you think of this inconceivably long period of time it is easy to understand that things must evolve—they change over time. From 13.81 billion years to today there is a long story of cosmic evolution, the outline of which we know in great detail. The important point for our purposes is that human beings, an incredibly late arrival on the cosmic scene, were forged through genetic mutations and environmental selection. This is beyond any reasonable doubt, and anyone who tells you differently is either scientifically illiterate or deceiving you.[iv] Ernst Mayr, widely considered the twentieth century’s most eminent evolutionary biologist, and sometimes called the Darwin of the twentieth century, put it this way: “Evolution, as such, is no longer a theory for the modern author. It is as much of a fact as that the earth revolves around the sun.” He added: “Every modern discussion of man’s future, the population explosion, the struggle for existence, the purpose of man and the universe, and man’s place in nature rests on Darwin.”

In short, there is simply no way to understand anything about ourselves without understanding evolution—not our bodies, our behaviors, or our beliefs. This is why biology is so crucial to making sense of the human condition; it is the science that makes the study of human nature potentially precise.[v] This does not mean that knowledge of evolution tells us everything about the meaning of life, but that the process of evolution is the indispensable consideration for any serious discussion of the meaning of human life.

In our limited space we cannot discuss all of the implications of evolutionary biology for understanding human life and nature. Suffice it to say that the evolutionary paradigm has been gradually extended by various thinkers since Darwin to apply, not only to our bodies, but to the evolution of minds and behaviors. When we move the application of the evolutionary paradigm from body to mind we find ourselves dealing with the mind-body problem and evolutionary epistemology; when we move the paradigm from mind to behavior, we are in the realm of the fact-value problem and evolutionary ethics. Possibly we will find in the course of our study that we can apply an evolutionary model to meaning as well. Meaning may be something that evolves as the species and ultimately the cosmos evolve.

The importance of evolution for our understanding of meaning extends obviously then from biological to cultural evolution. The future that comes about as a result of cultural evolution may itself be the purpose of life; where we are going, more so than where we came from, may provide meaning. Could it be that the process by which we go from the past to the present is itself an unfolding of meaning?


[i] I would argue that philosophy does not discover truth, science does. Philosophy should concern itself with values and meaning. For more see Jean Piaget’s The Insights and Illusions of Philosophy (New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1977).

[ii] God may be a problem in astrophysics that will stand or fall on the empirical evidence. For more see E.O. Wilson’s “The Biological Basis of Morality” in the Atlantic online April 1998.

[iii] The phrase “god of the gaps” refers to the idea that the gods exist in the gaps of current scientific knowledge. The term is generally derogatory; i.e., critical of the attempt to use gods to explain phenomena that as yet do not have naturalistic explanations.

[iv] This claim is so easy to verify one could construct a separate biography of thousands of works by experts to justify the claim. You could begin simply by consulting the multiple publications and statements at the website of the National Academy of Sciences. http://www.nationalacademies.org/evolution/Reports.html

[v] For an introduction to this idea see E.O. Wilson’s On Human Nature (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988), and Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (New York: Vintage, 1999).