Category Archives: Book Reviews – Cosmic Evolution

Summary of Steve Stewart-Williams’, Darwin, God and the Meaning of Life

Steve Stewart-Williams

Steve Stewart-Williams is a lecturer in evolutionary psychology at Swansea University in Wales. He received his PhD from Massey University in New Zealand in psychology and philosophy and was a post-doctoral fellow at McMaster University in Canada. His book, Darwin, God and the Meaning of Life: How Evolutionary Theory Undermines Everything You Thought You Knew, applies evolutionary insights directly to questions of ethics, religion, and meaning.

Stewart-Williams believes that evolution bears significantly on the issue of the meaning of life. Humans have a perennial interest in the question of life’s meaning, advancing religious and secular answers to the question but, as Stewart-Williams notes, there are difficulties with all the proposed solutions to the question of life’s meaning even before we take evolutionary theory into account. Let us look then more closely at the implications of evolution for meaning.

Why are we here? We are here because we evolved, but the purpose of our existence is not to survive, reproduce, or propagate genes; the fact that we evolved to do these things does not tell us what our purpose is now. So in this sense evolution is not relevant to questions of meaning. Nonetheless evolutionary theory is relevant to questions of meaning in another way. To see how we must understand that evolutionary theory offers historical explanations, not teleological ones. Teleological explanations explain apparent design, like the giraffe’s long neck, in terms of purposes—they have long necks to feed on tall trees. (Aristotle’s explanation of water running downhill to reach its natural resting place is another example of a teleological explanation.) Biology tells us instead that giraffes have long necks because in the past long necks helped them survive, reproduce, and thereby pass along their genes. In modern biology, all adaptations have historical rather than teleological explanations.

The important point is that explanations for why we are here—to get to heaven, be happy, help others, reproduce—are all teleological explanations. In evolutionary theory these are the wrong kinds of answers because again, in biology, there are no teleological answers only historical ones. From evolutionary theory it follows that we are here because we evolved, we are not here for a purpose. Notice that this does not preclude us choosing goals and purposes for ourselves from which we derive emotional or psychological meaning. “However, if we’re interested in the question of whether life is ultimately meaningful, as opposed to whether it’s potentially emotionally meaningful, well, after Darwin, there is no reason to suppose that it is.”[i]

Yet Stewart-Williams does not find this conclusion gloomy. Just because life has no ultimate purpose, it does not follow that life is not worth living—life can still be good although it is ultimately meaningless. Like the existentialists we might even find this idea liberating, inasmuch as this state of affairs allows us the freedom to give life meaning, rather than having it imposed on us externally. For many this subjective meaning may not be enough, but for Stewart-Williams we can appreciate beauty, kindness, and the other good things in life even if they don’t have an ultimate purpose.

Surprisingly, we should not draw from all this the conclusion that we have purposes but the universe does not. The minds from which purposes emerge are a part of the universe, and this means that if you have purposes then part of the universe does too. The universe does not have a single purpose, but the many purposes of the beings that are part of it:

… it is false to say that the universe is purposeless. It was purposeless before the first life forms with purposes and drives evolved, and it will be devoid of purpose once more when the last life form takes its final gasp of breath. However, as long as we’re here to contemplate such matters, to struggle and strive, the universe is not without purpose.[ii]

Finally, the fact our minds are part of the universe has an interesting implication—the universe is partly conscious. When we contemplate the universe, part the universe is conscious; when we know something of the universe, part of the universe is self-conscious. From an evolutionary perspective this means that after eons of unconsciousness, the universe is gradually becoming self-aware. As for the destiny of consciousness, Stewart-Williams is not optimistic. Given the shadow cast over us by universal death he expects the universe will lapse back into unconsciousness.

Summary – Evolution reveals that the universe has no objective purpose. However, we are part of the universe and we have purposes, so the universe has as many purposes as we give it. This means that the universe is partly conscious.


[i] Steve Stewart-Williams, Darwin, God and the Meaning of Life: How Evolutionary Theory Undermines Everything You Thought You Knew (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 194.
[ii] Stewart-Williams, Darwin, God and the Meaning of Life: How Evolutionary Theory Undermines Everything You Thought You Knew, 197.

An Overview of Clement Vidal’s, The Beginning and the End-Chapters 5-10

(This review was reprinted in Humanity+ Magazine, May 21, 2014)

I would now like to conclude my discussion of this important work.

Chapters 5 and 6 continue to investigate the question of the origin of the cosmos. Perhaps the most important result for the average reader is that  the argument for a fine-tuned universe is inconclusive. The discussion in chapters 4-6 leads to the question of the future of the cosmos in Chapters 7 and 8; the question of whether we are alone in the cosmos in Chapter 9; and Chapter 10 the possibility of a cosmological ethics..  There are simply so many profound and novel ideas in these chapters that I’ll leave them to the readers of the book to explore.

The crescendo of the work appears in the last section’s discussion of immortality, where Vidal distinguishes five kinds of immortality:

1) Spiritual – The belief in a supernatural realm where a non-physical soul “goes” after death. This belief is widespread and appealing, but anathema to the rationalistic mind.

2) Individual – The belief that we can be biologically or digitally immortal. Vidal suggests that motivation for individual immortality arises primarily because we are cultural creatures. Our genes survive to a large extent but “most of the information we gather during our lifetime is cultural and gets lost at the time of death. And this is pure waste.” (Vidal, 298) The way out of this problem is biological or digital immortality or some combination of the two.  Critics question whether cybernetic immortality is possible without embodiment, whether it’s worth it to live in a simulation, whether its cost will be prohibitive, whether death is good because it motivates us, etc. But Vidal suggests that immortality would force us to worry about things like climate change and the death of our sun and universe, since we will live into the far future.  Still we don’t need to be immortal to have transpersonal concerns–we can care about others who will live on after we have died. And the same with our projects, concerns and goals. If they take many generations to achieve, then our deaths do not undermine them.  Such considerations lead us to consider transpersonal immortality in three different varieties. 

3) Creative – The belief that immortality can be achieved by leaving a cultural legacy. The main problem here is that even the achievements of an Aristotle, Shakespeare or Darwin may be forgotten in thousands or millions of years.

4) Evolutionary – The belief that immortality can be achieved by leaving a biological legacy. For example we are almost immortal at the level of the genes and are potentially immortal as part of a global brain. But even this is not enough if there are cosmological constraints on the immortality of the universe.

5) Cosmological – The belief that true immortality can only be achieved by a connection between ourselves and the immortality of the cosmos. But can the universe continue indefinitely? Perhaps universes could reproduce other universes ad infinitum, or our descendants will become smart enough to determine the fate of the cosmos. Vidal believes that we can be concerned with the issue of cosmological immortality, we can see the immortality of the cosmos as our ultimate goal.

Let me conclude by stating my belief that only with cosmic immortality can complete meaning in life be found. And I agree with Vidal that this is our ultimate goal–the creation and continuation of a good, meaningful, immortal cosmos.

Finally let me reiterate what I said about this work previously. It is a carefully and conscientiously crafted work of immense scope and daring imagination, one of the most important and timely books of the last few decades. Vidal is aware of the speculative nature of his work, but he reminds us that speculation plays a large part in the scientific and philosophical enterprises. He knows his speculations could turn out to be wrong, but given the choice between careful speculation or silence, Vidal chooses the former. And we are glad he did. For his assiduous scholarship reveals the possibility that a scientific cosmology can provide a narrative which gives life meaning. A narrative so desperately needed as the old mythological ones become increasingly passé. And we are privileged to journey along with his well-ordered and visionary mind as it contemplates perhaps the most important question of our time–how do we find meaning in the cosmos revealed by modern science.

I have thoroughly enjoyed reading the book.

An Overview of Clement Vidal’s, The Beginning and the End-Chapter 4

(This review was reprinted in Humanity+ Magazine, May 21, 2014)

In Chapter 4 Vidal turns to issue of the beginning of the universe. Answers to these questions are no doubt found in the realm of  science. “Modern science can successfully connect physical and chemical evolution with biological and cultural evolution … Thus, it seems reasonable to assume that science is an effective method to understand cosmic evolution.” (Vidal, 59) But the multiple challenges for any ultimate explanations include:

a) epistemological – What are the epistemological characteristics of an ultimate theory? Are all ultimate theories either circular or infinite regresses?
b) metaphysical – Why not nothing? Why is there something rather than nothing?
c) thermodynamic – Where does the energy of the universe comes from, and how will it end? Can something come from nothing?
d) causal – What was the causal origin of the universe? Was it self-caused? Is its causal chain infinite?
e) infinities – Is the universe spatially finite or infinite? Is it temporally finite or infinite?

Vidal begins by discussing a foundational starting point for the universe–a cause which does not need another cause. Examples of points include a god or the big bang. By invoking a creator god one avoids an infinite regress (the idea that the chain of causation goes back infinitely) but one can still ask  questions like: “Where did god come from?” “What was god doing before he created the universe?” Theologians often answer that god is self-caused. Of course one could say the Big Bang was a self-caused starting point too.

To avoid these issues we might assume the origin of the universe has no foundation–that ultimate explanations are cyclical. Cyclical thinking is found in various disciplines: recursive proofs in mathematics and computer science; networks of meaning in linguistics; and feedback loops in systems theory. (Jean Piaget thought that all of the sciences ground each other in a “circle of the sciences.) Might cyclic cosmologies like those of the Stoics and Hindus better explain the origins of the universe? The problem with cyclic theories are many. Cycles appear to have no endpoint, and thus don’t supply an ultimate explanation. Cycles also imply an eternal return–an endless repetitive cycle.

To fully engage these deep issues Vidal encourages us to take current cosmological theories seriously. “It is crucial to take seriously our best theories to answer our questions about origins. Major physical theories like quantum mechanics or general relativity can have counterintuitive consequences, which nevertheless we must take into account. Such theories are more reliable than intuitions coming from our brains, which are mere products of biological evolution. The brain is well adapted to recognize cycles in natural environments, or to recognize starting points in human actions, but not to guess what happened in the Big Bang era.”(Vidal, 75)

Vidal concludes that building scientific models involves the interaction of the external system and an observer who constructs models of that system. And understanding how observers models the world gives us the best chance to avoid the cognitive biases that lead us astray.

Note – For a readable, in-depth discussion of the important topics introduced in this chapter see:  Jim Holt, Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story, (New York : Liveright Pub. Corp., 2012)




An Overview of Clement Vidal’s, The Beginning and the End-Chapter 3

Continuing our discussion from yesterday’s post we move to Chapter 3.

3.1 Religious Worldviews –  Vidal now invokes his criteria to test various worldviews. To demonstrate how the process works he compares intelligent design (ID) with flying spaghetti monsterism (FSM).  They are both objectively consistent and equally unscientific, although ID is larger in scope. ID does better in terms of subjective consistency,  since the designer of ID is amorphous, while FSM has a very specific designer. ID is also more useful and emotionally satisfying, as it is disgusting to think that a monster designed the world. FSM is more intersubjectively consistent since it has not killed millions, but ID is collectively more useful. ID’s narratives are more developed than those of FSM.  From this analysis we can conclude that ID is a better worldview than FSM. (Of course it may be a much worse worldview than others.)

Now that we have a sense of how these comparisons work we can consider religious worldviews in general. Religions usually excel in personal and collective utility, emotionality and narrativity. “… a religious worldview gives meaning, provides answers to fundamental questions, and has a pragmatic value in terms of both psychological benefits and social cohesion.” (Vidal, 43) Yet religions have few rational methods to resolve conflict–hence the ubiquity of religious conflict–and they are generally low on objective criteria, their tenets often contradict known scientific truths. They typically respond by invoking a god of the gaps, using god to explain current gaps in scientific knowledge. (This strategy is notoriously weak, as the gaps are continually closed causing religion to continually retreat.) In short religions are generally much better with subjective and intersubjective criteria than with objective criteria.

3.2 Scientific Worldviews – The strength of science is apparent–it constructs our best models of what is, where it came from, and where it’s going. It is strong in precisely those areas religion is weak. (I would say this is because science is the only cognitive authority in the world today.) But science often ignores integrating its models with questions of value, actions, knowledge, and meaning. Essentially, science is strong regarding objective criteria but less so regarding the subjective and intersubjective.

3.3 Philosophical Worldviews – In order to correct the flaws in their various worldviews, theologians try to develop theologies more consistent with science, while scientists may expand their worldviews to include values, emotions, and meanings. Building a naturalistic worldview entails starting with objective, scientific principles, and extending them to include the subjective and intersubjective. For Vidal this is the essence of a philosophical worldview.

Vidal now examines three analogies to help us grasp how to build comprehensive and coherent worldviews. First consider worldview questions as an axiomatic system where worldview answers are structures satisfying the axioms. Many philosophies and religions use axioms such as god, immortality, or freedom as postulates in their systems. In general scientific worldviews are coherent but incomplete; religious worldviews are relatively complete but incoherent. Second consider worldview questions as a system of equations. In this model solving philosophical questions about worldviews compares to solving intricate sets of equations.  Third consider worldview questions as problems to solve. In this case we might employ problem solving techniques to resolve these problems.

Now that we have some idea of what it entails to develop a philosophical worldview, Vidal’s next task is to reformulate worldview questions in light of modern science.


An Overview of Clement Vidal’s, The Beginning and the End-Chapter 1

Yesterday’s post briefly discussed a forthcoming book: The Beginning and the End: The Meaning of Life in a Cosmological Perspective. The author is Dr. Clement Vidal, a member of the Evolution, Complexity and Cognition Group at the Free University in Brussels, Belgium. Vidal investigates a most important question–whether modern scientific cosmology can provide insight and perhaps even answer the question of life’s meaning. It is a carefully and conscientiously crafted work of immense scope and daring imagination, one of the most important and timely books of the last few decades. Today I would like to discuss the work in more detail.

Chapter 1 – Vidal begins by arguing “that having a coherent and comprehensive worldview is the central aim of philosophy.” (Vidal, 2) This contrasts sharply with (Continental) philosophy’s investigation of subjectivity, or (British) philosophy’s logical analysis. To better understand his synthetic philosophy Vidal introduces six dimensions of philosophy. Those dimensions are the:

1) Descriptive – What exists? Where did it come from? Where is it going? Describing or modeling reality depends on our current scientific understanding.
2) Normative – What should we do? What is good and what is evil? How do we live well? What is a good society? What is the purpose and meaning of life?
3) Practical – How do we act in accord with our values to solve practical problems?What is our theory of action?
4) Critical (epistemological) – What is true and false? What is the nature and limits of knowledge?
5) Dialectical – How do we answer the previous question? By engaging in a debate or dialogue with opposing positions–a dialectic.
6) Synthetic – This final dimension of philosophy provides the comprehensive and coherent synthetic worldview–a synthesis.

Following the Belgian philosopher Leo Apostel, Vidal argues that a complete worldview will comprise these six elements. And it is crucial to have a worldview because they sustain us and give meaning to our lives. Individuals lacking worldviews suffer psychologically, and without rational worldviews irrational ones will arise to fill the need. Yet it is so difficult to express a rational worldview that many philosophers have been content to reject them all–skeptics–or accept them all–syncretists. Nonetheless Vidal will try to articulate a synthetic worldview.