Daniel Dennett: Evolution and Meaning in Life

In his book, DARWIN’S DANGEROUS IDEA: EVOLUTION AND THE MEANINGS OF LIFE, Dennett describes evolution as a universal acid that eats through everything it touches; everything from the cell to consciousness to the cosmos is best explained from an evolutionary perspective, as is metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, religion, and the meaning of life. To better explain his ideas, Dennett considers the “great cosmic pyramid.” Traditionally this pyramid explains design from the top down—from god down through mind, design, order, chaos, and nothingness. In this interpretation, god acts as the ultimate “skyhook,” a miraculous source of design that does not build on lower, simpler layers. By contrast, evolution reverses the direction of the pyramid explaining design from the bottom up, by what Dennett calls “cranes.” Here physical matter and the algorithmic process of evolution explain the evolution of more complex structures from simpler ones, and they do so without miraculous intervention.

Now applied to meaning, evolution implies that no godlike skyhook is needed to derive meaning; instead, meaning must be created from the ground up, as subjectivists like Sartre argue. So if we abandon the idea that god or mind comes first, we see that meaning can evolve from the bottom up as order, design and mind are created. At one time there was no life, mind, or meaning, but slowly, imperceptibly each emerged. Meaning does not descend from on high; it percolates up from below as mind develops. The meaning that mind now experiences is not full-fledged meaning, but it is moving in that direction as mind develops. From a mind that was built by cranes—composed of molecules, atoms, and neurons in ever more complex arrangements—meaning evolves.

The mental states that give rise to meaning are themselves ultimately grounded in biology. Darwin showed us that everything of importance, including our minds, evolved slowly from below, and all is connected in a tree of life. The tree of life created by evolution is no god to be prayed to, but it inspires awe nonetheless. It is something sacred.

Thus we summarize Dennett’s position thus: Life is not now completely meaningful, but it is becoming progressively meaningful as mind evolves.

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