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).

8 thoughts on “Science and the Meaning of Life

  1. 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.

    There are principles (or heuristics if you like) with scientific labels, like the anthropic principle. It is debated in multiple levels. How about that?

    One ignorant of such ideas has no chance to construct a realistic worldview.

    Interesting. Why dont ditch elitism in science circles, which leaves out others from accessing and evaluating data and knowledge?

    [..]science is the only cognitive authority in the world today.

    Science and authority are conflicting approaches. Authority by definition is based on command, science is based on knowledge. These are conflicting approaches. When science is based on authority (or variations, like consensus, “expert” elitism and so on), it ceases to be science. Science is about the METHOD. Truths and facts can be temporal, mutable, changeable. Authority does not acknowledge this (how could it? it would be opposite to what is the actual purpose and function of “authority”).

    Science is to be understood and experienced. If it is found wrong or not valid or applicable any more, just drop it. Else it is NOT science.

    The purpose of science is to ditch “absolute truths”.

    (paraphrasing physicist Niels Bohr)

    The Origin and Fate of the Universe
    ..

    The whole section is mostly speculation. Is it good speculation? Yes it can be. Yet speculation. Should we not speculate? Nope, speculate if needed. Yet this is speculation. Period.
    If you think this sounds “unscientific” and “inaccurate” (after all, we “measured” or “calculated” 13.81 billion years, didnt we?), One can expand on this further and make the above even clearer (although some hints have already been given).

    Evolution
    ..

    You dont know what evolution means. Ok, wrong, you do know what (a variant of) evolution means. It means Darwinian Evolution. So what is the problem here? The problem is that Darwinian Evolution is not the whole evolution, or, if you like, it is not the whole functionality of evolution process. Saying otherwise is wrong.

    All the best,
    Nikos M.

  2. It seems to me that you are elevating certain branches of science to an almost religion-like status; and by doing so you seem to be saying that we can only find the meaning of life through understanding and believing in the basic tenets of those branches. This excludes most of the people who have ever lived and are currently living. I believe that people can find meaning in life through many disparate activities and beliefs – whether based on scientific knowledge or not.

  3. I think that most of the ways that people find meaning have nothing to do with science. But I do think that having a world-view that most closely approximates the truth about the actual world demands familiarity with basic scientific truths. The extent to which a reasonable world view is connected to meaning is another question.

  4. I suggest that there is a way to perceive meaning that combines both cosmology and evolution: the thesis that the substance of the universe is information. I use the term “information” in its rigorous sense as defined the physical sciences. Here’s a simple explanation of the universe:
    The universe began with an intense release of vast amounts of information; owing to the Uncertainty Principle, that information began “degrading” instantly, forming matter and energy. Some of the matter condensed into galaxies and stars, which radiate information in the form of high-temperature light. That information, in turn, can be intercepted by a rotating planet in such a manner as to permit it to be captured by complex chemical structures — which we call ‘life’. Thus, a tiny percentage of the information radiated by the sun is used to create highly organized structures: the biosphere. One species, Homo Sapiens, has learned how to tap additional information through energy-harvesting machines, which it then uses to create its own information-rich structures.

    Another way of perceiving this is to ask, “What is meaning, other than information?”

    My interpretation of this is to perceived myself as a component of a huge information-harvesting system. I am one with the grass, the trees, the birds, the worms, and all of life; we are all fundamentally the same. The lama who says “Make me one with everything” is not ordering mustard, pickles, onions, and ketchup on his hot dog; he has missed the fact that he is ALREADY one with everything.

    Lastly, I sense from Mr. Nikosms a resentment — or perhaps merely resistance — to science. I remind him that there is a necessary elitism in science, just as there is a necessary elitism in medicine — do you really want to be treated by a fellow who never went to med school? There is a necessary elitism among car mechanics — do you want your car repaired by some bozo like me? Elitism is undifferentiable from specialization. There’s nothing wrong with that; it’s how humanity has achieved so much.

    Also, you are not correct to insinuate that cosmology is speculation. Much of cosmology has been confirmed with observations. The driving force behind cosmology is the underlying physics. We have figured out a great deal about how the universe works; we can apply that knowledge to a different field such as cosmology to understand a great deal more.

    Next, your distinction between science and authority is misplaced. If a thousand scientists devote decades to studying a phenomenon that nobody else understands, then they can properly be termed “authorities” on the subject. Any single one of these could be wrong — the history of science teems with examples of great scientists being disastrously wrong. Genuine consensus can never be obtained, because scientists are such a heterogeneous group that there will always be at least one person contesting almost any thesis. Yet if the vast majority of those scientists agree on a hypothesis regarding their specialty, then you should take it on their authority that this hypothesis is correct. That doesn’t mean that it is necessarily correct, but it does mean that the conclusions they have drawn from the existing data are almost certainly valid. If the data changes, but if they’ve compiled vast amounts of data perceiving the issue from a wide range of angles, then you can also place a lot of confidence in their conclusions.
    In other words, for all practical purposes, if the great majority of scientists endorse a hypothesis, then you can place a great deal of confidence in that hypothesis. Authority it indeed meaningful.

  5. Chris – As usual you have zeroed in on the main issues. And your defense of scientific rationalism in your last two paragraphs is worthy of Carl Sagan. I thank you very much for your thoughts. Unfortunately people don’t listen to truly educated people like yourself. Sometimes I just want to give up. As E.O. Wilson taught me so long ago: most people don’t want to know they want to believe.

  6. A small followup: if you’re interested in the overall subject, the book I recommend is “The Information”, by James Gleick. It was a bestseller five years ago. However, it covers far more than the topic I discussed; it is a general introduction to information theory. It has 4.2 stars at Amazon.com.

  7. My previous comment should be deleted. It veered off course into unwarranted speculation. My apologies to Chris.

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