Category Archives: Book Reviews-Meaning of Life

Review of Aaron James’ “Surfing with Sartre”

Aaron James, Professor of Philosophy at UC-Irvine, has written a new book, Surfing with Sartre: An Aquatic Inquiry into a Life of Meaning. It addresses major questions in philosophy from his unique perspective as both a philosopher and former surfer. James argues that the surfer mentality offers a unique perspective on philosophical issues because:

Surfers often have a certain natural lightness about being, about the meaning of their personal existence. Those more at sea existentially can certainly appreciate the surfer’s good fortune. And it is hard to dislike people so thoroughly enthralled by living … Surely most of us could learn to live lighter, by sliding over life’s problems. (4)

 One of his salient themes is that “what the surfer knows suggests that we should … get used to an even more leisurely, surfer-friendly style of capitalism, in which we all work, but a lot less …” (5) He claims that working less is an ethical imperative because work “as we now practice it emits gases … that are steadily warming the planet. So … as long as we do something less consumptive of ecological resources than working … we contribute to society by making the climate change problem a little less terrible … ” (6-7) Leisure activities are thus “a new model of civic virtue. The real troublemaker is the workaholic, whose labor-intensive striving makes the problem of global warming worse …” (8)

And these issues are of profound ethical importance: “If climate science is even roughly correct … would it be morally okay for us to further enrich ourselves in work, without limitations, if many billions of living or future people are thereby put at grave risk of profound injury? Or are we obliged to adapt?” (8)Would it really be so hard to work less, and enjoy life more he wonders.

While most of us derive a sense of self from our work, it doesn’t have to be that way. The Protestant work ethic nurtured capitalism, but now we should reject both and use our time more productively than for destruction of the ecosystem. This is the main point of the book, that the surfer mentality is “on the right side of history.” (9) We should adapt our lifestyles to a changing planet.

The book devotes most of its pages to the surfer mentality’s insights regarding philosophical problems, using Sartrean philosophy as its foil. Key insights include that: 1) being in the moment provides more comfort than material possessions; 2) we should choose the surfer mentality; 3) intense pleasure and self-transcendence can be experienced by being in the flow; and 4) a hyper competitive society destroys humanity and nature. This leads James to state:

In a more leisurely capitalism, we’d have a less competitive way of life … and we’d spend more of our time getting attuned, living from love, practicing for its own sake, and transcending status preoccupation for a happier contentment. (288)

The book’s epilogue relates its insights to the question of life’s meaning. But he changes that question to: “What are the meanings, plural, of life. If that’s the question … then we just enumerate the many different ways life can have meaning … Friendship. Worthy projects. Creative activity. Music. Surfing. Nice parties. Or whatever … ” (292) James rejects the view that there must be one meaning to explains all these multiple meanings. So for James the meaning of life “can be nothing more than the various ways life is meaningful to us …” (292) The hard part is choosing from the many ways that life can be meaningful.

Of course this analysis ignores the question of the meaning of the cosmos itself. But even if we could discover such a super meaning—say the super meaning was to enjoy an eternal feast in heaven—then we could just ask about the meaning of heaven. Maybe we would like heaven, maybe we wouldn’t. But independent of our answer to the question of universal meaning, James points out that there is already plenty of meaning in life.

Still James admits that many people won’t be satisfied because they want to be “part of something bigger ….” (293) Here he recommends that we just add that meaning to our list, and connect our daily activity with that meaning: “being part of a collective enterprise could never be more than one source of meaning among many on a long list … So our list of meanings can grow longer … to cover big parts of history.” (295) In fact, “… many of our activities would come to seem much less important to us if we came to know that an asteroid would destroy the planet soon after our death.” (298) So being part of history is already an important part of meaning in our lives.1

Considerations about the future are connected with James’ concern about the destruction of the biosphere.

We living people are enjoying the carbon-based prosperity party. And though we’ll be dead before our emissions completely befoul the global ecology, if we don’t take rather dramatic steps to control their production, our story will be one of having indulged in the feast and skipped out on the check, without paying our bit, let alone helping with the dishes.

This really would not be cool. It would be a gross human failure, or, if you will, a great stain, or sin. (299)

Capitalism has produced great things, yet it encourages the self-interest that contributes to the destruction of the planet. So should we continue to enjoy the party and despoil the environment, or live a more leisurely, happier lifestyle? The sun’s light and heat brought us a planet teeming with life, but we now trap its heat in our atmosphere. Will we continue to bury our heads in the sands, or will we make a heroic effort to change things and save the world for future generations? Let’s hope we do the latter.


Samuel Scheffler made a similar point about our concern for future generations.

Review of Massimo Pigliucci’s, Answers For Aristotle: How Science and Philosophy Can Lead Us to a More Meaningful Life

Massimo Pigliucci.jpg    

(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, July 1, 2017.)

I just finished Massimo Pigliucci wonderful book: Answers for Aristotle: How Science and Philosophy Can Lead Us to A More Meaningful Life. Pigliucci was born in Monrovia, Liberia and raised in Rome.[1] He has a PhD in genetics from the University of Ferrara, Italy, a PhD in biology from the University of Connecticut, and a PhD in philosophy of science from the University of Tennessee.[10] He is currently a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry.

In the first chapter, which serves as an introduction to the work, Pigliucci explains what he calls “sci-phi,” which is short for the wisdom that comes from thinking about the world and ourselves using philosophy and science, the most powerful approaches to knowledge that humans have discovered.

The basic idea is that there are some things that ought to matter, whatever problem we experience in life: the facts that are pertinent to said problem; the values that guide us as we evaluate those facts; the nature of the problem itself; any possible solutions to it; and the meaningfulness to us of those facts and values and their relevance to the quality of our life. Since science is uniquely well suited to deal with the factual knowledge and philosophy deals with (among other things) values, sci-phi seems like a promising way to approach the perennial questions concerning how we construct the meaning of our existence. (p.2)

Pigliucci traces his idea that sci-phi gives us the best chance to understand the world and ourselves to the classical idea of scientia, a Latin world meaning knowledge, and he argues that Aristotle was the first philosopher in the West to take this concept seriously. For Aristotle life was a project in which we search for eudaimonia—a Greek word best translated as flourishing—and we have the best chance of flourishing or living well if we take into account both scientific facts and philosophical values. (I have written elsewhere about Aristotle’s notion of the good life.)

This sci-phi approach aids us in having an informed, rational position about a variety of issues including: ethics; epistemology; self-knowledge; love and friendship; politics; and the gods. Yet this approach assumes that “you are interested in using reason and evidence to guide your life and make it better. If you’d rather be led by mysticism, superstition, or “other ways of knowledge” … this book is not for you.” (p. 17) In short, he assumes that living well entails using human reason as best we can.

In Part I of the book, “How Do We Tell Right From Wrong?” Pigliucci investigate ethics. He is generally critical of deontology and consequentialism and more receptive to Aristotelian virtue ethics. But he argues that combining the best elements of these three ethical theories may ultimately be the wisest course, although he is cognizant that elements of the three ethical theories are in tension. For we need to heed the insights of all the great moral philosophers and then, after careful reflection, do the best we can.

Part II of the book considers epistemology: “How Do We Know What We Think We Know?” His main theme here is that while science is imperfect and its knowledge always provisional, it is still  the best means we have for uncovering the truth about ourselves and reality. So science works—as the success of technology demonstrates—yet most scientific theories have at some point be shown to be wrong. How do we resolve this tension?

To answer this we should remember that science is both objective and subjective. There are objective facts about our experience of color–electromagnetic radiation, wavelengths, retinas—and there is a subjective experience of color. Similarly, science results from the subjective perspective of human beings interacting with an objective world. Now what does all this have to do with living well? The key is to realize that:

Scientists are not objective, godlike entities, dispensing certain knowledge. They have a human perspective on things, including the field in which they are experts. But other things being equal, your best bet—particularly when the stakes are high—is to go with the expert consensus, and if a consensus is lacking, you’re better off going with the opinion of the majority of experts. (p. 124)

A particular area of scientific interest that informs us about living well is cognitive neuroscience, which is the subject of Part III of the book titled, “Who Am I?” The first half of this third part explores free will and Pigliucci advocates for compatiblism—the idea that free will and causal determinism are compatible.

free will is … our (demonstrable) ability to consider information, balance it against our desires, and take a particular course of action among several available to us. So compatibilism is a compromise between the undeniable fact that we are a particular type of biological being … and our sense that we own our decisions and can therefore
—within limits—be held responsible for them and praised for them. (p. 140)

The issue of free will provides a good example of how our best understanding is informed by sci-phi. Philosophy helps clarify the conceptual issues, while science helps settle the empirical ones. So we can say, for example, that what we call free will has a neural basis, but that doesn’t mean the phenomenon is illusory.

The remainder of Part III considers our sense of self. Pigliucci is skeptical of arguments that our conscious self controls the subconscious, being more receptive to Hume’s famous remark that “reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions.” Moreover, “modern neurobiology seems to vindicate Hume when it portrays reason as the instrumental tool deployed to achieve our desires, with the fundamental engine generating those desires lying much lower than the cerebral cortex.” (p. 151)  Such considerations should minimize our hubris about how much our conscious selves dictate our lives.

Part IV applies these insights about human nature to something that gives our lives meaning—love and friendship. Pigliucci begins by acknowledging what science has learned about the hormones of love, and how philosophy informs this knowledge.

Neither biology nor philosophy will ever be able to substitute for the first person experience of feeling what it is like to be in love, but they certainly give us plenty of ideas and empirical evidence to begin to answer the Bard’s question [What is it to love?] in a broader sense—and hence to use our new knowledge to further enhance our enjoyment of a purposeful life. (p. 172)

As for friendship, it has a large impact on our happiness.  As Aristotle noted: “friends hold a mirror up to each other; through that mirror they can see each other in ways that would not otherwise be accessible to them, and it is thus (reciprocal) mirroring that helps them improve themselves as persons.” (p. 179)

Part V looks at politics. As with so much else about us, our politics and political views often have less to do with rationality and more to do with our biological origins and cognitive biases. Our sense of fairness and justice are similar to those of chimpanzees, where in-group loyalty and out-group hostility reign supreme, and our cognitive biases are well-documented. How then might we bring about a more just and impartial society? Pigliucci suggests that John Rawls best describes such a society in his monumental work, A Theory of Justice. This leads him to conclude that the best governments producing the most just societies are those of the Scandinavian countries.

Part VI looks at belief in a god. He begins by noting how science can induce mystical experiences. While this doesn’t preclude the existence of supernatural beings, it does seem likely that mystical experiences probably result from malfunctioning brains. Why? Because, while evidence of a meteor on the night you thought you saw a flying saucer doesn’t prove there was no UFO, the meteor is a more reasonable explanation.

Nonetheless people have a hard time letting go of supernatural explanations for a variety of reason: brain chemistry, the psychology and sociology of human being, and our evolutionary history. As for religion’s evolutionary origins:

Genetic evolution provided the building blocks of pattern-seeking and agency projection behaviors, getting the process started as a by-product of behaviors that were adaptive for other reasons … The move from superstitious and simple religious beliefs to the bewildering variety and complexity of modern religious cultures, however, was a result of cultural evolution, a process that takes place on top of and by distinct mechanisms from the standard genetic-Darwinian one … Needless to say, gods are not actually excluded from the picture … but they are also very clearly not required. (p. 261-62)

Pigliucci adds to the case against religion by showing how Euthyphro’s Dilemma demonstrates that god can’t be the foundation of morality. All of this leads to the conclusion that religion is most likely a human invention that doesn’t reflect a supernatural reality. And this means that we should use sci-phi to understand morality.

The book’s conclusion is titled, “Human Nature And The Meaning Of Life.” Here Pigliucci elaborates on an idea found in Aristotle—we all share a fundamental human nature. By this Pigliucci doesn’t mean what some evolutionary psychologists do, that very complex cultural phenomena are completely explained by biology. For while some human behaviors obviously have a partial genetic basis, it is ridiculous to think that biology completely explains complex cultural phenomena: “… it is increasingly clear that what has mattered most for human evolution and the shaping of human nature during the past tens of thousands of years wasn’t genes, but culture (as well as how the two interact, the so-called gene-culture coevolution.)” (p.277)

Insight into what makes our lives meaningful generally comes not from evolutionary biology but from the social sciences. We know for example that seeking pleasure or wealth for their own sake doesn’t bring happiness or meaning—a result that wouldn’t have surprised Aristotle. “Psychologist have found that what really satisfies people instead is lifelong happiness—which comes only through the search for meaning.” (p. 279) In addition we have discovered that our emotional lives are enhanced by experiencing states like gratitude and mindfulness.

Pigliucci now turns to wisdom, which isn’t factual or technical knowledge, but something that comes with age and experience and philosophical reflection on life’s meaning. Here he adopts Vivian Clayton’s view that wisdom entails the cognitive function knowing things, the reflective function of analysing that knowledge, and the affective function of being able to filter our knowledge through our emotions. What we do know is that research has shown that older and wiser people: better distinguish situations that call for action from situations that don’t; focus more on meaningful goals;  exercise greater control their amygdala with their prefrontal cortex; and spend more time on positive emotions. Perhaps William James was right when he said: “The art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook.” (p. 284)

So what has sci-phi told us about the meaning of life? It may not seem like much, as science is provisional and philosophy isn’t in agreement about life’s meaning. Compare this to the certainty that religious fundamentalism supposedly gives. Why prefer the uncertainties of sci-phi to the certainties of the Bible or Koran? Pigliucci responds that religious texts need to be interpreted by humans so they admit to no literal reading of them nor is certainty to be found in them. Such texts are open to far more doubt that science or philosophy. Moreover the uncertainty of sci-phi is a virtue not a vice. I’ll let Pigliucci have the final word:

We need to wrap our minds around the fact that as human beings we are inherently limited in our ability to reason and to discover things about the world. These limitations do not give us license to arbitrarily “go beyond” reason and evidence into religion and mysticism. On the contrary, they are reminders that nobody has final answers and that the quest is open to all people who are willing to use their brains intelligently. Our limitations also give us a reason to cut ourselves a bit of slack for not getting life exactly right, for failing here and there, as humans are bound to do. This is why the eudaimonic life is always an imperfect and incomplete project, all the way until the moment of our death. But it is by far the most important of our projects, and one for which sci-phi is far better equipped to help us along the way than common sense, political ideology, or religious mysticism. We are social and (somewhat) rational animals, and we can reflect on how to employ our rationality to improve our lives and our societies. Seems like the meaningful thing to do.

Reflections – This is a wonderful and readable book. Virtually no rational person can deny that sci-phi provides the best, though imperfect, means to understand our lives and the world. His conclusion is (roughly) that meaning can be found by satisfying our nature. This happens when we use sci-phi to find the happiness and wisdom that are ultimately constitutive of a meaningful life. This is a good description of a meaningful life.

We are limited in time so we must choose our books wisely, and this work is definitely worth our time.  I thank Professor Pigliucci for his work.

Review of Dreyfus and Kelly’s, All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age

The late Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Kelly‘s book, All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age, addresses the question of finding meaning in the contemporary world. Here is a brief recap with some reflections to follow.

The preface sets out the book’s project:

The world doesn’t matter to us the way it used to. The intense and meaningful lives of Homer’s Greeks, and the grand hierarchy of meaning that structured Dante’s medieval Christian world, both stand in stark contrast to our secular age. The world used to be, in its various forms, a world of sacred, shining things. The shining things now seem far away. This book is intended to bring them close once more. (xi)

The first chapter, entitled “Our Contemporary Nihilism,” focuses on the angst caused by the many choices we now have compared to previous generations. In response people typically adopt a self-confident persona to mask their insecurity, or they become paralyzed by their obsessions and addictions. But neither mollifies our existential anguish, as anxiety pervades western civilization, as our former religious moorings have been lost. In the Middle Ages, for better or worse, nearly everyone believed that God created them and determined their fate. One could choose to turn away from God and sin in medieval times, but being an atheist or rejecting religious ethics altogether wasn’t an available choice. But today ethical prescriptions are tenuous, and nihilism is a viable option. The faith that once comforted does so no longer—today even fervent believers face existential questions.

Chapter 2, “David Foster Wallace’s Nihilism,” discusses Wallace’s sense that something is amiss for millennials in American today:

There’s something sad about it, something that doesn’t have very much to do with physical circumstances, or the economy, or any of the stuff that gets talked about in the news. It’s more like a stomach-level sadness. I see it in myself and my friends in different ways. It manifests itself as a kind of lostness. (24)

While the authors grant that Wallace’s depression informs his views, they also think he offers perceptive insights. Perhaps his depression makes him uniquely sensitive to the vacuity of our culture, and his lesson is that if we pay attention to life we can find in it something sacred and meaningful. But Wallace’s thinking manifests the sense in which the twentieth century forces us to respond to the death of God, and the shared virtues and values this once implied. So we live in a time when God’s existence and all that entails is problematic. Wallace accepts that God is dead, and that our only hope for meaning is found in our individual’s will.

For Wallace we can find some meaning by creating value in a mundane world—creating something that substitutes for the sense of the sacred we have lost. But the authors don’t think this suggestions helps ameliorate our nihilism, for creating our own meaning is too demanding. Yet we can any longer passively accept meaning from God. So then, is there something between the individual creating meaning, or receiving it from the divine?

Chapter 3, “Homer’s Polytheism,” begins with a discussion of Helen of Troy’s affair with Paris that ignited the Trojan War. The authors note that Homer admires Helen, although modern commentators typically argue that Homer didn’t understand the immorality of Helen’s adultery. But what if Homer had a more profound understanding of the situation—that Helen’s eroticism was an admirable human excellence to be valued independent of moral concerns. In other words, Helen is admirable as a “shining example of the sacred erotic dimension of existence.”(62)

The authors then turn to the issue of fortune or luck. For Homer good luck means the Gods favor you, which implies life’s meaningfulness. We should be grateful to the Gods, as fate is no mere statistical aberration. This contrasts harshly with the contemporary view that life is meaningless and ruled by randomness. Moreover, we live better when we think of ourselves, not as agents responsible for our own actions, but as vehicles through which the Gods or fate work. “The Greek’s of Homer’s era lived intense and meaningful lives, constantly open to being overwhelmed by the shining presence of the Olympian gods. As happy polytheists their world … was filled … with wonder and gratitude …” (88)

Chapter 4, “From Aeschylus to Augustine: Monotheism on the Rise,” traces the descent from Homer’s enchanted world to our disenchanted one. It isn’t that progress has left wonder behind, nor that wonder existed only in a long ago past, but that we have lost touch with the wonder that still surrounds us. The story of losing touch with wonder is a long one, but it begins with the Christianity’s emphasis on faith and religious experience, and continues with Augustine’s increasing emphasis on reason and our inner lives. This emphasis on the inner life will lay dormant until the philosophies of Descartes and Kant.

In Chapter 5, “From Dante to Kant: The Attractions and Dangers of Autonomy,” the authors argue that Dante and Aquinas’ attempt to reconcile Aristotle with Christianity moves us closer to nihilism. The key is that the emphasis on the self implies that it must be the sole source of meaning. So Descartes “established our Modern World in which we understand ourselves as self-sufficient subjects standing over against self-sufficient objects. (137) And, given our self-sufficiency, Kant argued that we must take responsiblity for our own actions, and (largely) be the our own source of meaning. Nihilism beckons.

The main thesis of Chapter 6, “Fanaticism, Polytheism, and Melville’s ‘Evil Art’,” is that Herman Melville saw clearly both that nihilism results from the death of Christianity, and a way out. For Melville there is no meaning hidden behind the surface of life, behind the quest for his whale. But this is enough for us, and we can still find meaning in a godless world. However the authors reject this solution, for them this doesn’t seem to be enough.

The final chapter, “Lives Worth Living in a Secular Age,” suggests that we can still get in touch with the sacred through such diverse shining things as an insightful speech, athletic excellence, or scientific breakthroughs. Everything in the world doesn’t shine, but its shining beauty can be found for those who look. “All things aren’t shining, but all the shining things are.” (224)

Reflections – Nihilism haunts our modern world in a way it didn’t haunt ancient Greece or medieval Christendom. Something has been lost between those times and our own. But I don’t share the authors regret about this, and I certainly have no desire to return to these previous epochs. Our history represents (hopefully), a maturing of the Western mind. We have left the gods behind and must create our own meaning in the context of what we know about ourselves and our current place in the universe.

No, all things don’t shine. And we shouldn’t focus exclusively on only the shining things, thereby ignoring all the world’s ills. Instead I’d say that we should appreciate the shining things and try to polish the dull things. But this project will only be successful if we recognize the good and evil, and the knowledge and ignorance, that are inside us all.

Review of E.O. Wilson’s: The Meaning of Human Existence

People … yearn to have a purpose larger than themselves. We are obliged by the deepest drives of the human spirit to make ourselves more than animated dust, and we must have a story to tell about where we came from, and why we are here. ~ E. O. Wilson

Eighty-five year old E. O. Wilson, one of the world’s most important living scientists, has written another wonderful book. I have just finished reading it, and recommend it highly.

The Meaning of Human Existence

Wilson begins by telling us that if we truly understand our evolutionary history, we will realize that:

We are not predestined to reach any goal, nor are we answerable to any power but our own. Only wisdom based on self-understanding, not piety, will save us. There will be no redemption or second chance vouchsafed to us from above. We have only this planet to inhabit and this one meaning to unfold.  (15-16)

We must choose where we are to go as a species, nothing else will choose for us. Wilson thus reiterates a theme which goes all the way back to the opening pages of his Pulitzer prize-winning book, On Human Nature. He makes a similar point a few pages later.

Demons and gods do not vie for our allegiance. Instead, we are self-made, independent, alone, and fragile, a biological species adapted to live in a biological world. What counts for our long-term survival is intelligent self-understanding, based on a greater independence of thought than that tolerated today even in our most advanced democratic societies. (26)

Wilson proceeds to tell the story of human evolution as only a great biologist and prose stylist could. Self-understanding requires that we accept, once and for all, our biological roots—an animality. Without this truth we deceive ourselves and expedite our extinction. We are thoroughly mammalian; we are connected to the ecosystem. This is the truth, and we reject it at our peril.

Yet reject it we do, for “the evolutionary innovations that made us dominant over the rest of life also left us sensory cripples. It rendered us largely unaware of almost all the life in the biosphere that we have been so heedlessly destroying.” (90) That may not have made much difference when we were small in number, but today it makes a great difference. We are destroying our only home.

Wilson continues to take us on a fascinating journey, telling us about ants, microbes, and ETs. His impassioned plea for our attention to collapse of biodiversity is perhaps the most moving section of all. We are destroying life because of habitat loss, invasive species, pollution, population growth, and overharvesting. When you read these heartfelt sentiments from a wise sage like Wilson, it is hard not to contrast them with the short-sighted, self-interested, ignorance of most politicians.

Our choice will be a profoundly moral one. Its fulfillment depends on knowledge still lacking and as sense of common decency still not felt. We alone among all species have grasped the reality of the living world, seen the beauty of nature, and given value to the individual. We alone have measured the quality of mercy among our own kind. Might we now extend the same concern to the living world that gave us birth? (131-132)

In the penultimate chapter, “Idols of the Mind,” Wilson uses his biological expertise to explain why human life is so mysterious and how we might solve that mystery. The key to understanding the mystery is to accept that our minds are products of natural selection, and thus instruments of survival. Our minds are a curious mix of reason and emotions, influenced by instincts and environment, by nature and by nurture. We typically fear snakes, and like music. “Human nature is the ensemble of heredity regularities in mental development that bias cultural evolution in one direction as opposed to others and thus connect genes to culture in the brain of every person.” (143)

Music releases dopamine, as does food, sex, and religion. In fact, the neurosciences suggest strongly that religion is largely instinctual; it is hard-wired. Of course religion has evolved beyond its biological roots. Today religion typically postulates a deity, hopes for eternal life, provides an extended community and more. The deity “is the final and forever alpha male, or She is the alpha female. Being supernatural and infinitely powerful, the deity can perform miracles beyond the reach of human understanding.”  (149)

For most of history the gods explained natural phenomena, but with the coming of modern science better explanations became available. Still the instinctive appeal of religion remained, as does the comfort it provides to so many. But the cost of religion is staggering.

They are impediments to the grasp of reality needed to solve most social problems in the real world. Their exquisitely human flaw is tribalism. The instinctual force of tribalism in the genesis of religiosity is far stronger than the yearning for spirituality. People deeply need membership in a group, whether religious or secular. From a lifetime of emotional experience, they know that happiness, and indeed survival itself, require that they bond with others who share some amount of genetic kinship, language, moral beliefs, geographical location, social purpose, and dress code… It is tribalism, not the moral tenets and humanitarian thought of pure religion, that makes good people do bad things. ( 150-151)

Moreover religious groups define themselves in large part by their creation myths, which assure them that they are favored by the gods. These myths also put them in conflict with other religious tribes. Accepting the myths and miracles constitutes faith, which is “biologically understandable as a Darwinian device for survival and increased reproduction.” (151) Religious conflicts “were widespread through the Paleolithic Era and have continued unabated to the present time. In more secular societies faith tends to be transmuted into religionlike political ideologies.” (152)

Despite all the suffering it causes, religion offers psychological benefits. It gives people an explanation for existence, tells them they are loved and protected by the gods, binds them with other members of the tribe, gives them rules of conduct, and provides meaning to their lives. If the faith is lost, the tribe disintegrates, so myths must be set in stone and dissidents punished. Scientists are generally cautious about religion, so as not to offend. But sometimes they can’t help themselves. When a distinguished scientist heard the 1950 edict by Pope Pius XII that the Virgin Mary ascended bodily into heaven. he replied “that he couldn’t be sure because he wasn’t there, but of one thing he was certain, that she passed out at thirty thousand feet.” (153)

Wilson thinks this is all very important because tribalism causes so much evil in the world today. “The principal driving force of mass murders … is tribalism, and the central rationale for lethal tribalism is sectarian religion—in particular the conflict between those faithful to different myths.” (154) Tribalism, of which religion and religionlike ideologies are expressions, is the real culprit.

Nowhere do people tolerate attacks on their person, their family, their country—or their creation myth. In America … it is possible in most places to openly debate different views on religious spirituality … But it forbidden to question closely, if at all, the creation myth—the faith—of another person or group, no matter how absurd. To disparage anything in someone else’s sacred creation myth is “religious bigotry.” It is taken as the equivalent of a personal threat. (154-155)

Wilson says “that faith has hijacked religious spirituality.” (155) Religions have come to be dominated by myths, rituals, and gods who oppose homosexuality, contraception, female clergy, abortion, evolution, etc. The founding fathers of the United States recognized that tribal religious conflict was abhorrent. But today politicians must profess a religious faith, almost always Christianity, however little they actually believe in it or how ridiculous that faith is.

Serious Christian thinkers don’t accept creation myth or miracles literally, but tend to think of them as insightful myths nonetheless.

Intellectual compromisers one and all, they include liberal theologians of the Niebuhr school, philosophers battling on learned ambiguity, literary admirers of C.S. Lewis, and other persuaded, after deep thought, that there must be Something Out There. They tend to be unconscious of prehistory and the biological evolution of human instinct, both of which beg to shed light on this very important subject. (156-157)

But all Christian compromisers face what Kierkegaard called the Absolute Paradox—that the infinite, eternal truth could become finite in time. (Other religions face a similar paradox.) For how can a perfect deity have human-like emotions like “pleasure, love, generosity, vindictiveness, and a consistent and puzzling lack of concern for the horrific Earth-dwellers endure under the deity’s rule. To explain that ‘God is testing our faith’ and ‘God moves in mysterious ways’ doesn’t cut it.” (157-158)

Wilson is doubtful the religious problem can be solved, it can only be outgrown.

The problem is not in the nature or even in the existence of God. It is in the biological origins of human existence and in the nature of the human mind, and what made us the evolutionary pinnacle of the biosphere. The best way to live in this real world is to free ourselves of demons and tribal gods. (158)

Wilson next tackles free will. He doubts that free will exists in an absolute sense, but admits that our ability to explain consciousness is limited. This allows many to go on believing in free will which, he says, “is a very fortunate Darwinian circumstance. Confidence in free will is biologically adaptive. Without it the conscious mind, at best a fragile dark window on the real world, would be cursed by fatalism.” (170) A belief in free will seems necessary for our sanity.

In Wilson’ final chapter, “Alone and Free in the Universe,” he brings his beautiful book together. What is the story of our species, he asks? It is the story, not of divine creation, but of biological evolution. And what is the meaning of our lives? Wilson tell us: “… it is the epic of the species, begun in biological evolution and prehistory, passed into recorded history, and urgently now, day by day, faster and faster into the indefinite future, it is also what we will choose to become.” (174)

Wilson proceeds to tell the story with vigor. We are a single lineage of Old World primates, who easily could have been something else, or not been at all. Humans are not necessarily wicked, but they are dysfunctional.

We are hampered by the Paleolithic Curse: genetic adaptations that worked very well for millions of years of hunter-gatherer existence but are increasingly a hindrance in a globally urban and technoscientific society. We seem unable to stabilize either economic policies or the means of governance higher than the level of a village. Further, the great majority of people worldwide remain in the thrall of tribal organized religions, led by men who claim supernatural power in order to compete for obedience and resources of the faithful. We are addicted to tribal conflict, which is harmless and entertaining if sublimated into team sports, but deadly when expressed as real-world ethnic, religious, and ideological struggles.  (176-177)

And there is more—we destroy the environment at an alarming rate. People, including our so-called leaders, care mostly about themselves or their own family or tribe. Few speak for the species or the environment. The cause of all this is that our brains are poorly wired, infected with mental parasites. A creation myth is a mental parasite, but it is hard to dislodge. Believers fight challenges to their mythology, although Wilson hopes that we might one day put the dignity of the believers above the dignity of the beliefs.

In an especially prescient passage Wilson says: “It might eventually be possible to hold seminars on the historical Jesus in evangelical churches, and even to publish images of Muhammad without risking death. That would be a true cry of freedom.” (182) And the argument applies to dogmatic political ideologies as well.

The same practice might be adopted for dogmatic political ideologies … The reasoning behind these secular religions is always the same, a proposition considered to be logically true followed by top-down explanation and a handpicked checklist of evidence asserted to be supportive. Zealots and dictators alike would feel their strength diminished if they were asked to explain their assumptions (“speak clearly, please”) and verify their core beliefs. (182)

Religious opposition to evolution is a particularly virulent parasite. Such ignorance is:

a triumph of blind religious faith over carefully tested fact. It is not a conception of reality forged by evidence and logical judgment. Instead, it is part of the price of admission to a religious tribe … The cost to society as a whole of the bowed head has been enormous. Evolution is a fundamental process of the Universe … Its analysis is vital to biology, including medicine, microbiology, and agronomy. Furthermore psychology, anthropology, and even the history of religion itself make no sense without evolution … The explicit denial of evolution … is an outright falsehood, the adult equivalent of plugging one’s ears … ” (184)

Still science doesn’t explain everything; we also need the humanities. “If the heuristic and analytic power of science can be joined with the introspective creativity of the humanities, human existence will rise to an infinitely more productive and interesting meaning.” (187) I would summarize Wilson like this. We must grow up, and accept our role as the protagonists of the evolutionary epic. Making life more meaningful is the meaning of our lives.

Review of Paul Thagard’s, The Brain and the Meaning of Life

Paul Thagard (1950 – ) is professor of philosophy, psychology, and computer science and director of the cognitive science program at the University of Waterloo in Canada. His recent book, The Brain and the Meaning of Life (2010), is the first book length study of the implications of brain science for the philosophical question of the meaning of life.

Thagard admits that he long ago lost faith in his childhood Catholicism, but that he still finds life meaningful. Like most of us, love, work, and play provide him with reasons to live. Moreover, he supports the claim that persons find meaning this way with evidence from psychology and neuroscience. (He is our first writer to do this explicitly.) Thus his approach is naturalistic and empirical as opposed to a priori and rationalistic. He defends his approach by noting that thousands of years of philosophizing have not yielded undisputed rational truths, and thus we must seek empirical evidence to ground our beliefs.

While neurophysiology does not tell us what to value, it does explain how we value—we value things if our brains associate them with positive feelings. Love, work, and play fit this bill because they are the source of the goals that give us satisfaction and meaning. To support these claims, Thagard notes that evidence supports the claim that personal relationships are a major source of well-being and are also brain changing. Similarly work also provides satisfaction for many, not merely because of income and status, but for reasons related to the neural activity of problem solving. Finally, play arouses the pleasures centers of the brain thereby providing immense psychological satisfaction. Sports, reading, humor, exercise, and music all stimulate the brain in positive ways and provide meaning.

Thagard summarizes his findings as follows: “People’s lives have meaning to the extent that love, work, and play provide coherent and valuable goals that they can strive for and at least partially accomplish, yielding brain-based emotional consciousness of satisfaction and happiness.”[i]

To further explain why love, work, and play provide meaning, Thagard shows how they are connected with psychological needs for competence, autonomy, and relatedness. Our need for competence explains why work provides meaning, and why menial work generally provides less of it. It also explains why skillful playing gives meaning. The love of friends and family is the major way to satisfy our need for relatedness, but play and work may do so as well. As for autonomy, work, play, and relationships are more satisfying when self-chosen. Thus our most vital psychological needs are fulfilled by precisely the things that give us the most meaning—precisely what we would expect.

Thagard believes he has connected his empirical claim the people do value love, work, and play with the normative claim that people should value them because these activities fulfill basic psychological needs for competence, autonomy, and relatedness. Our psychological needs when fulfilled are experienced as meaning.

Summary – Love, work, and play are our brains way of satisfying our basic needs for competence, autonomy, and relatedness. In the process of engaging in these activities, we find meaning.


[i] Paul Thagard, The Brain and the Meaning of Life (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010), 165.