(Reprinted as “Cosmic Evolution and the Meaning of Life,” in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, September 19, 2015.)
Cosmic Evolution and the Meaning of Life
Earlier this year I published a piece in Scientia Salon entitled “Cosmic Evolution and the Meaning of Life.” Then a few days ago I wrote about my friend Larry Rifkin’s beautiful video about evolution and the meaning of life.
All of this got me to thinking about the many online comments about my paper and the many emails I exchanged with other academics who responded to it. In the paper I concluded, roughly, that while cosmic evolution leaves me awestruck, we have good reasons to doubt that a more meaningful reality is unfolding. And this implies sobriety and skepticism regarding the claim that cosmic evolution provides meaning for our lives.
Generally my peers thought I had been too cautious in linking cosmic evolution and the meaning of life, as did this prominent European philosopher:
I agree that the best rational strategy is to oscillate between hope within a cosmic vision, tempered with skepticism. However, to maximize well-being, I’d rather argue that most people should believe in something like a grand cosmic vision (e.g. à la Teilhard de Chardin), and to leave the critical, skepticism, to the more learned, curious and academic scholars. I don’t think it makes any good to people to preach the heat death of the universe.
The best email I received was from an English psychologist who said, “I might go so far as to say it was almost a religious experience reading your essay.” When I asked him to further explain, he replied,
The things I liked the most about your “cosmic vision” were that it removed both God and Man from centre stage while still providing the genuine possibility for personal meaning and that is genuinely cosmic in scope looking forwards more than backwards. I found it to be more optimistic than skeptical. It allowed the possibility that progress is a real thing through biological evolution (and whatever comes next). I thought the ending was more about sobriety than skepticism.
All our small attempts to make our world and ourselves better might amount to naught and people are free to think that. But they might well amount to something more. We can never know for sure but ‘meaning’ or progress seems to provide a heuristic by which to steer our own baby steps on the long path into the far, far future. It doesn’t bother me that I won’t be there. But it does inspire me to think that it is important to that future that enough of us are striving towards it. It’s a bit like Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker without recourse to a Star Maker.
Then, after seeing Rifkin’s video, I asked myself again: Can I find meaning as a part of cosmic evolution? Is there something about being a part of this larger thing that gives my life meaning? Can I take comfort knowing that the future might be better than the past?
There is a lot to say about all this but let me begin here. While the story of cosmic evolution reveals the emergence of consciousness, beauty, and meaning, as well as the possibility of their exponential increase, it doesn’t imply that a more meaningful reality will necessarily unfold or that a state of perfect meaning will inevitably ensue. For example, we don’t know if our science and technology will bring about a utopia, a dystopia, or hasten our destruction. We don’t know what the future holds. This is reason enough to be skeptical about cosmic evolution providing a meaning to life.
Still we can 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, 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.
Transhumanism and the Meaning of Life
The possibility of infinitely long, good, and meaningful lives 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 remake the external world in ways conducive to the emergence 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, pleasure, beauty, goodness and meaning in the world, while diminishing their opposites. This is the purpose of our lives.
In a concrete way this implies being better thinkers, friends, lovers, artists, and parents. It means caring for the planet that sustains us and acting in ways that promote the flourishing of all being. Naturally there are disagreements about what this entails and how we move from theory to practice, but the way forward should become increasing clear as we achieve higher states of being and consciousness. As we become more intellectually and morally virtuous.
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 don’t fulfill our purpose, then life wasn’t 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. Life can be judged fully meaningful from an eternal perspective only if we fulfill our purpose by making it better and more meaningful.
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. If we are successful our efforts will culminate in the overcoming of human limitations, and our (post-human) descendents 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. In the interim we can find inspiration in the hope that we can succeed.