Monthly Archives: February 2014

The Meaning and Purpose of Life

Is Life ultimately Meaningful?

All my life I struggled to stretch my mind to the breaking point, until it began to creak, in order to create a great thought which might be able to give a new meaning to life, a new meaning to death, and to console mankind. ~ Nikos Kazantzakis

The question of the meaning of life is the most fundamental question of human existence. 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 (subjectively) create our own meaning, or that we find meaning in the (objectively) good things in the world. None of these answers is entirely satisfactory.

Religious answers are traditionally the most popular, but they depend on problematic philosophical assumptions about the nature and existence of a supernatural realm. In short religious claims may simply be false. But even if religious claims are true, it is not clear how religion grounds meaning. For example, you might say that being a part of a God’s plan give your life meaning, but how? Being a part of your parent’s or your country’s plan does not necessarily do that. Or you may say that your God just radiates meaning. But if you can’t be the source of your own meaning, how can something else be? Or if you may believe that you need a God’s love to give your life meaning. But why can’t the love of people around you do that? Even living forever with the gods doesn’t seem to guarantee meaning. You might find perpetual life unfulfilling. And why would you want to spend eternity with beings apparently responsible for so much evil? In short, even if there are gods life may still be meaningless.

Turning to philosophical answers, 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 cannot be anymore sure of its truth than of the truth of Pollyannaish religious assertions? Subjectivism provides a more promising philosophical response—we can create limited meaning without accepting religious, skeptical, or nihilistic provisos. The problem with subjectivism is the meaning created isn’t enough. We want more than just subjective meaning and the task of creating our own meaning is enormous. This leads us to consider objective values and meanings found in the natural world—good things in life like knowledge, love, friendship, honor, goodness and beauty. Many philosophers argue that we derive the limited meaning life offers us by being subjectively attracted to the objectively good things of life. For now this is the best we can do.

Yet this is not enough—because we die. How can anything truly satisfy, even subjective immersion 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. To be fully meaningful requires an infinite quality and quantity of meaning.  A happy, well-lived finite life of twenty years may be meaningful, but an identically well-lived life would be more meaningful if it were longer—it would contain more total meaning. Thus the possibility of meaning increases proportionately with the length of a lifetime. Death is bad for many reasons, but it is bad especially because death renders completely meaningful lives impossible. Death puts an end to our meaning, our knowledge, our love, 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.

Fortunately science and technology may provide our salvation. Science might overcome death in the near future through some combination of nanotechnology, genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, and robotics. But even 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 and technology potentially solve this problem too. If science can defeat death, can it not also infinitely enlarge consciousness as well? With oceans of time for future innovation, it is plausible to think that science and technology could make fully meaningful lives possible; they could make a heaven on earth a reality.

Still we have no guarantees. Cosmic evolution reveals the emergence of consciousness, beauty, and meaning, as well as the possibility of their exponential increase. But it does not 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.

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 or our descendants, 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 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 and, if possible, abolish all constraints on our being—intellectual, psychological, physical, and moral—and to remake the external world in ways conducive to the emergence and of meaning. This implies embracing our role as protagonists of the cosmic evolutionary epic, working 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.

In practice this implies being better thinkers, friends, lovers, artists, altruists and parents. It means acting in ways that 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.

Nonetheless knowing the purpose of our lives does not ensure that they are fully meaningful, for we may collectively fail in our mission to give life more meaning; we may not achieve our purpose. And if we do not fulfill our purpose, then life was not fully meaningful. Thus the tentative answer to our question—is life ultimately meaningful—is that we know how life could be ultimately meaningful, but we do not know if it is or will be ultimately meaningful. It can be judged fully meaningful from an eternal perspective only if we fulfill our purpose of making a better and more meaningful reality. Meaning then, like the consciousness and freedom from which it derives, is an emergent property of cosmic evolution; and we find our purpose by playing our small part in aiding its emergence. We are, hopefully, links in a golden chain leading upward to greater levels of being, consciousness, and meaning. If we are successful our efforts will culminate in overcoming of all human limitations, and our (post-human) descendants will live fully meaningful lives. If we do 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.

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. The feeble hopes of a dreamers on a lonely planet in the cold, dark, foreboding of space appear trivial. But they are the seeds from which new worlds might spring.

Should We Believe in Progressive Cosmic Evolution?

We now ask whether we should believe grand cosmic visions like those of Teilhard, Huxley or Wilson. Should we believe that cosmic evolution is moving in a progressive direction? Should we believe in orthogenesis? Probably not. For when we look to the past we see that evolution has produced meaning, but it has also produced pain, fear, genocide, extinction, war, loneliness, anguish, envy, slavery, despair, futility, guilt, anxiety, depression, alienation, ignorance, torture, inequality, superstition, poverty, heartache, death, and meaninglessness. Surely serious reflection on this misery is sobering. Turning to the future our optimism must be similarly restrained. Fantasies about where evolution is headed should be tempered, if for no other reason than that our increased powers can be used for evil as well as for good. Our wishes may never be fulfilled.

Moreover, it is not merely that we cannot know if our splendid speculations are true—which we cannot—it is that we have a strong reason to reject our flights of fancy. And that is that humans are notorious pattern-seekers, story-tellers, and meaning-makers who invariably weave narratives around these patterns and stories to give meaning to their lives. The patterns of progress we glimpse likely exist only in our minds! There is no face of a man on Mars or of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches. Finding patterns of progress in evolution, we may be victims of simple confirmation bias.

After all progress is hardly the whole story of evolution. Most species and cultures have gone extinct, a fate that may soon befall us. Furthermore, since this immense universe (or multiverse) is largely incomprehensible to us, we should hesitate to substitute an evolutionary-like religion for our frustrated metaphysical longings. We should be more reticent in advancing cosmic visions, and less credulous about believing in them. Humility should temper our grandiose metaphysical speculations. In short, if reflection on a scientific theory supposedly reveals that our deepest wishes are true, our skeptical alarm bell should go off. If our searching easily finds precisely what we are looking for, we are likely moved by our wishes, not the implications of our science. We need to be braver than that, for we want to know, not just to believe. In our job as serious seekers of the truth, the credulous need not apply.

In the end cosmic and biological evolution—and later the emergence of intelligence, science, and technology—leave us awestruck. The arrival of intelligence and the meaning it creates is important, an idea echoed by the physicist Paul Davies: “the existence of mind in some organism on some planet in the universe is surely a fact of fundamental significance. Through conscious beings the universe has generated self-awareness. This can be no trivial detail, no minor byproduct of mindless, purposeless forces. We are truly meant to be here.”[i] Similar ideas reverberate in the work of the Cambridge evolutionary palaeobiologist and evangelical Christian, Simon Conway Morris. Morris argues that if intelligence had not developed in humans, it would have done so in another species—in other words, the emergence of intelligence on our planet was inevitable. [ii]

We agree with both Davies and Morris that mind and its attendant phenomena inspire awe, but it does not follow that we are therefore meant to be here or that intelligence was inevitable. It is only because we value our life and intelligence that we succumb to such anthropocentrism. Homo sapiens might easily have never been, as countless events could have led to their downfall. This fact alone should give us pause when we imbue our existence with undue significance. We were not inevitable, we were not meant to be here—we are serendipitous. The trillions and trillions of evolutionary machinations that led to us might easily have led to different results—and ones that didn’t include us. As for the inevitability of intelligence, are we really to suppose that dinosaurs, had they not been felled by an asteroid, were on their way to human-like intelligence? Of course not, and such a view strains credulity. Dinosaurs were around for millions of years without developing greater intelligence. We want to believe evolution had us and our minds as it goal or central concern—but it did not—and we were not meant to be. We should forgo our penchant for detecting patters and accept our radical contingency. Like the dinosaurs, we too could be felled by an asteroid.[iii]

Thus we cannot confidently answer all of the questions. We can say that there has been some progress in evolution and that meaning has emerged in the process, but we cannot say these trends will continue or that they were good. And we certainly must guard against speculative metaphysical fantasies, inasmuch as there are good reasons to think we are not special. We do not know that a fully meaningful eschatology will gradually unfold as we evolve, much less that we could articulate a cosmic vision to describe it. We don’t even know if a truly meaningful reality is possible. We are moving, but we might be moving toward our own extinction, toward universal death, or toward eternal hell. And none of those offer much comfort.

We long to dream but always our skepticism awakens us from our Pollyannaish imaginings. The evolution of the cosmos, our species, and our intelligence gives us some grounds for believing that life might become more meaningful, but not enough to satisfy our longings. For we want to really believe that tomorrow will be better than yesterday and today. We want to believe with Kurzweil and Moravec, with Teilhard and Huxley, that a glorious future awaits but, detached from our romanticism, we know that the Monod may be right—there may be no salvation, there may be nothing over the rainbow, there may be no comfort to be found for our harassed souls.

Confronted with such meager prospects and the anguish that accompanies them, we are lost, and the most we can do, once again, is hope. That doesn’t give us what we want or need, but it does give us something we don’t have to be ashamed of. There is nothing irrational about the kind of hope that is elicited by, and best expressed from, an evolutionary perspective. Julian Huxley, scientist and poet, best conveyed these hopes.

I turn the handle and the story starts:
Reel after reel is all astronomy,
Till life, enkindled in a niche of sky,
Leaps on the stage to play a million parts.

Life leaves the slime and through the oceans darts;
She conquers earth, and raises wings to fly;
Then spirit blooms, and learns how not to die,
Nesting beyond the grave in others’ hearts.

I turn the handle; other men like me
Have made the film; and now I sit and look
In quiet, privileged like Divinity
To read the roaring world as in a book.
If this thy past, where shall thy future climb,
O Spirit, built of Elements and Time![iv]


[i] Paul Davies, The Mind of God: The Scientific Basis for a Rational World (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993), 232.

[ii] Simon Conway Morris, Life’s Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

[iii] Had the course of the asteroid 2005 YU55 that passed the earth on November 8, 2011 been slightly altered, millions might have died and this book not finished.

[iv] Julian Huxley, ‘Evolution: At the Mind’s Cinema’ (1922), in The Captive Shrew and Other Poems of a Biologist (London: Basil Blackwell, 1932), 55.



Evolutionary Visions

Now that we have examined grand evolutionary visions in previous posts about Teilhard, Huxley and Wilson we can draw some tentative conclusions.

We affirm that a study of cosmic evolution supports the claim that life has become increasingly meaningful, a claim buttressed primarily by the emergence of beings with conscious purposes and meanings. Where there once was no meaning or purpose—in a universe without mind—there now are meanings and purposes. These meanings have their origin in the matter which coalesced into stars and planets, and which in turn supported organisms that evolved bodies with brains and their attributes—behavior, consciousness, personal identity, freedom, value, and meaning. Meaning has emerged in the evolutionary process. It came into being when complexly organized brains, consisting of constitutive parts and the interactive relationships between those parts, intermingled with physical and then cultural environments. This relationship was reciprocal—brains effected biological and cognitive environments which in turn affected those brains. The result of this interaction between organisms and environments was a reality that became, among other things, infused with meaning.

But will meaning continue to emerge as evolution moves forward? Will progressive evolutionary trends persevere to complete or final meaning, or to approaching meaning as a limit? Will the momentum of cognitive development make such progress nearly inevitable? These are different questions—ones which we cannot answer confidently. We could construct an inductive argument, that the past will resemble the future in this regard, but such an argument is not convincing. For who knows what will happen in the future? The human species might bring about its own ruin tomorrow or go extinct due to some biological, geophysical, or astronomical phenomenon. We cannot bridge the gap between what has happened and what will happen.

And this leads naturally to another question. Is the emergence of meaning a good thing? It is easy enough to say that conscious beings create meaning, but it is altogether different to say that this is a good thing. Before consciousness no one derived meaning from torturing others, but now they sometimes do. Although we can establish the emergence of meaning, we cannot establish that this is good.

Still, we fantasize that our scientific knowledge will improve both the quality and quantity of life. We will make ourselves immortal, build ourselves better brains, and transform our moral natures—making life better and more meaningful, perhaps fully meaningful. We will become pilots worthy of steering evolution to fantastic heights, toward creating a heaven on earth or in simulated realities of our design. If meaning and value continue to emerge we may find meaning by partaking in, and hastening along, that meaningful process. As the result of past meanings and as the conduit for the emergence of future ones, we could be the protagonists of a great epic that ascends higher, as Huxley and Teilhard had hoped.

In our imagination we exist as links in a golden chain leading onward and upward toward greater levels of being, consciousness, joy, beauty, goodness, and meaning—perhaps even to their apex. As part of such a glorious process we would find meaning instilled into our lives from previously created meaning, and we would reciprocate by emanating meaning back into a universe with which we are ultimately one. Evolutionary thought, extended beyond its normal bounds, is an extraordinarily speculative, quasi-religious metaphysics in which a naturalistic heaven appears on the horizon.

In my next post I will consider whether such optimism is warranted.

E. O. Wilson and the Evolutionary Epic

Edward O. Wilson (1929 – ) is a biologist, theorist, naturalist, and two-time Pulitzer Prize winning author for general non-fiction. He is the father of sociobiology and as of 2007 was the Pellegrino University Research Professor in Entomology in the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University. He is also a Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, a Humanist Laureate of the International Academy of Humanism, and one of the world’s most famous living scientists.

In his Pulitzer Prize winning book On Human Nature (1978), Wilson extended sociobiology, the study of the biological basis of human social behavior, into the realms of human sexuality, aggression, morality, and religion. Deploying sociobiology to dissect religious myths and practices, led him to affirm: “The predisposition to religious belief is the most complex and powerful force in the human mind and in all probability an ineradicable part of human nature.”[i]Religion is a universal of social behavior, recognizable in every society in history and prehistory, and skeptical dreams that religion will vanish are futile. Scientific humanists, consisting mostly of scholars and scientists, organize into small groups which try to discredit superstition and fundamentalism but “Their crisply logical salvos, endorsed by whole arrogances of Nobel Laureates, pass like steel-jacketed bullets through fog. The humanists are vastly outnumbered by true believers … Men, it appears, would rather believe than know. They would rather have the void as purpose … than be void of purpose.”[ii]

Other scholars have tried to compartmentalize science and religion—one reads the book of nature, the other the book of scripture. However, with the advance of science, the gods are now to be found below sub-atomic particles or beyond the farthest stars. This situation has led to process theology where the gods emerge alongside molecules, organisms and mind, but, as Wilson points out, this is a long way from ancient religion. Elementary religion sought the supernatural for mundane rewards like long life, land, food, avoiding disasters and conquering enemies; whereas advanced religions make more grandiose promises. This is what we would expect after a Darwinian competition between more advanced religions, with competition between sects for adherents who promotes the religion’s survival. This leads to the notorious hostility between religions where, “The conqueror’s religion becomes a sword, that of the conquered a shield.”[iii]

The clash between science and religion will continue as science dismantles the ancient myths that gave religion its power. Religion can always maintain that gods are the source of the universe or defend esoteric arguments, but Wilson doubts the strategy will ultimately succeed, due to the power of science.

It [science] presents the human mind with an alternative mythology that until now has always, point for point in zones of conflict, defeated traditional religion … the final decisive edge enjoyed by scientific naturalism will come from its capacity to explain traditional religion, its chief competitor, as a wholly material phenomenon. Theology is not likely to survive as an independent intellectual discipline.[iv]

Still, religion will endure because it possesses a primal power that science lacks. Science may explain religion, but it has no apparent place for the immortality and objective meaning that people crave and religion claims to provide. To fully address this situation, humanity needs a way to divert the power and appeal of religion belief into the service of scientific rationality.

However, this new naturalism leads to a series of dilemmas. The first is that our species has no “purpose beyond the imperatives created by its genetic history.”[v]In other words, we have no pre-arranged destiny. This suggests the difficulty human society will have in organizing its energy toward goals without new myths and new moralities. This leads to a second dilemma “which is the choice that must be made among the ethical premises inherent in man’s biological nature.”[vi] Ethical tendencies are hard-wired, so how do we choose between them? A possible resolution to the dilemmas combines the powerful appeal of religion and mythology with scientific knowledge. One reason to do this is that science provides a firmer base for our mythological desires because of:

Its repeated triumphs in explaining and controlling the physical world; its self-correcting nature open to all competent to devise and conduct tests; its readiness to examine all subjects sacred and profane; and now the possibility of explaining traditional religion by the mechanistic models of evolutionary biology.[vii]

When the latter has been achieved religion will be explained as a product of evolution, and its power as an external source of morality will wane. This will leave us with the evolutionary epic, and an understanding that life, mind and universe are all obedient to the same physical laws. “What I am suggesting … is that the evolutionary epic is probably the best myth we will ever have.”[viii]  (Myth here means grand narrative.) None of this implies that religion will be fully eradicated, for rationality and progressive evolutionism hold little affection for most, and the tendency for religious belief is hard-wired into the brain by evolution. Still, the pull of knowledge is strong—technologically skilled people and societies have tremendous advantages and they tend to win out in the struggle for existence.

Our burgeoning knowledge of human nature will lead in time to a third dilemma: should we change our nature? Wilson leaves the question open, counseling us to remain hopeful.

The true Promethean spirit of science means to liberate man by giving him knowledge and some measure of dominion over the physical environment. But at another level, and in a new age, it also constructs the mythology of scientific materialism, guided by the corrective devices of the scientific method, addressed with precise and deliberately affective appeal to the deepest needs of human nature, and kept strong by the blind hopes that the journey on which we are now embarked will be farther and better than the one just completed.[ix]

[i] Edward O. Wilson, On Human Nature (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1979) 169.
[ii] Wilson, On Human Nature, 170-71.
[iii] Wilson, On Human Nature, 175.
[iv] Wilson, On Human Nature, 192.
[v] Wilson, On Human Nature, 2.
[vi] Wilson, On Human Nature 4-5.
[vii] Wilson, On Human Nature, 201.
[viii] Wilson, On Human Nature, 201.
[ix] Wilson, On Human Nature, 209.

Julian Huxley, Evolution and Meaning

Sir Julian Huxley (1887–1975) was an English evolutionary biologist,  humanist and internationalist. He was a leading figure in the mid-twentieth century evolutionary synthesis which united Darwinian natural selection and Mendelian genetics—one of the great scientific achievements of all time. Huxley hailed from one of the most famous intellectual families in English history. His brother was the celebrated writer Aldous Huxley; his half-brother a fellow biologist and Nobel laureate, Andrew Huxley; his father was the writer and editor Leonard Huxley; his paternal grandfather was the acclaimed writer and intellectual Thomas Henry Huxley, a friend and supporter of Charles Darwin; his maternal grandfather was the academic Tom Arnold; and his great-uncle the famous poet Matthew Arnold.

In his 1939 essay, “The Creed of a Scientific Humanist,” Huxley argues that much of our unhappiness derives from our asking unanswerable or ill-conceived questions, something philosophy, religion, and science often discover after much wasted effort. For example, asking what form of magic kills people is the wrong kind of question because nothing magical kills people. Similarly, asking who rules the universe is the wrong kind of question—all the scientific evidence points to it ruling itself, and besides, even if there were godlike rulers we could not know them. Gods have been created by humans from various elements of their experience; they are probably anthropomorphic idealizations without any basis in reality. As for the question of an immortal afterlife, it is irresolvable, and we waste time considering it. Real salvation is to be found in the possible harmony between ourselves and the external world. Huxley is not deterred by those who say repudiating god and immortality leaves life meaningless, pointing to Buddhists, agnostics, and Stoics as exemplars of individuals who have led noble and devoted lives without such beliefs.

According to Huxley science provides the best means of realizing meaning in the modern world. It explains forces that were once dark and mysterious; provides insights into our psychology; improves both us and our world; and reveals the vast immensity, history and future of the cosmos. From the scientific perspective we have reason to hope that the future will be better than the past, that we can expedite cultural evolution with our knowledge. Most importantly, “In man evolution could become conscious.”[i] While we have taken the first brief steps toward such consciousness, we should continue onward, as all of human history represents but the infancy of human potential. We should have faith is in life, in its potentially unlimited progress. Evolutionary biology thus has gives us a new view of human destiny. We are the protagonists of the evolutionary epic, agents of a process who can impose their principles to guide evolution. This is the purpose of our lives.

Man is that part of reality in which and through which the cosmic process has become conscious and has begun to comprehend itself. His supreme task is to increase that conscious comprehension and to apply it as fully as possible to guide the course of events. In other words, his role is to discover his destiny as an agent of the evolutionary process, in order to fulfill it more adequately.[ii]

Almost twenty years later in his 1957 book New Bottles for New Wine, Huxley presented a more complete account of cosmic evolution, akin to Teilhard’s, but without the religious overtones. He began with the now familiar idea that the universe becomes conscious of itself in human beings, given their awareness of the past history and possible future of that universe. Evolution is the history of the realization of new possibilities—the flight of birds; the social interaction of insects; the emergence of mind, intelligence, insight, and language; as well as self-conscious awareness of purpose. It is our duty to realize as many of these potentialities as possible or, as Huxley dramatically and insightfully puts it:

It is as if man had been suddenly appointed managing director of the biggest business of all, the business of evolution—appointed without being asked if he wanted it, and without proper warning and preparation. What is more, he can’t refuse the job. Whether he wants to or not, whether he is conscious of what he is doing or not, he is in point of fact determining the future direction of evolution on this earth. That is his inescapable destiny, and the sooner he realizes it and starts believing in it, the better for all concerned.[iii]

The process of evolution began with inorganic/cosmic evolution, followed successively by organic/biological evolution, and now psychosocial/cultural evolution. As we have seen cosmic evolution proceeded excruciatingly slow, but pockets of increasingly complex matter gradually coalesce. Living matter arose which imperfectly copied itself, and from this material natural selection initiates a faster process of change, eventually producing the staggering complexity of animals. (A rabbit or a dog is an amazingly complex organization of matter.) In our species mind arose, possessing the power of language and conceptual thought, with the capability of transmitting behaviors, ideas, and values from one mind to another. We now spearhead the evolutionary process. We are its trustees.

Huxley saw his vision of evolution replacing traditional religious views of human destiny. While historically the function of religion has been to cope with human ignorance and fear, and to maintain social and spiritual stability, new belief systems must utilize our knowledge to guide and advance our development. Huxley suggests his new belief system is a type of religion.

The religion indicated by our new view of our position in the cosmos must be once centered on the idea of fulfillment. Man’s most sacred duty, and at the same time his most glorious opportunity, is to promote the maximum fulfillment of the evolutionary process on this earth; and this includes the fullest realization of his own inherent possibilities.[iv]

Huxley’s evolutionary humanism prescribes both our present fulfillment and the progressive realization of our potentialities. This leads to his exaltation of the scientific spirit. We find fulfillment in our duty to understand, accumulate, and organized knowledge. “Thus scientific research in all fields is essential, and its encouragement is one of the most important tasks of civilization.”[v]Moreover science has discovered that truth is provisional, with science progressing toward that truth. The provisional nature of science invokes humility, yet at the same time takes pride in the extraction of knowledge from the ignorance that long engulfed us—science is progressive although incomplete. Most importantly, evolutionary humanism gave meaning to Huxley’s life.

[Evolutionary humanism] has enabled me to see this strange universe into which we are born as a proper object both of awe and wondering love and of intellectual curiosity. More, it has made me realize that both my wonder and curiosity can be of significance and value in that universe. It has enabled me to relate my experiences of the world’s delights and satisfactions, and those of its horrors and its miseries to the idea of fulfillment, positive or negative. In the concept of increased realization of possibilities, it provides a common measuring rod for all kinds of directional processes, from the development of personal ethics to large-scale evolution, and gives solid ground for maintaining an affirmative attitude and faith, as against that insidious enemy … the spirit of negation and despair. It affirms the positive significance of effort and creative activity and enjoyment. In some ways most important of all, it has brought back intellectual speculation and spiritual aspiration out of the abstract and isolated spheres they once seemed to me to inhabit, to a meaningful place in concrete reality; and so has restored my sense of unity with nature.[vi]


[i] Julian Huxley, “The Creed of a Scientific Humanist” in The Meaning of Life, ed. E.D. Klemke (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2000, 81.

[ii] Julian Huxley, Religion without Revelation, (London: Max Parrish, 1959), 236.

[iii] Julian Huxley, New Bottles for New Wine (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1957), 13-14.

[iv] Huxley, Religion without Revelation, 293.

[v] Huxley, Religion without Revelation, 304.

[vi] Huxley, Religion without Revelation, 310-11.