Category Archives: Evolution & Meaning

John Stewart’s, “The Meaning of Life in an Evolving Cosmos”


John Stewart is a member of the Evolution, Complexity and Cognition Research Group at The Free University of Brussels, and the author of: Evolution’s Arrow: the direction of evolution and the future of humanity. In his essay “The Meaning of Life In A Developing Universe,” he argues that evolution and meaning should be understood together.

Evolution has produced an organism that has begun to model and understand cosmic evolution, as well as the possible future evolution of life. The models reveal that there is a trajectory to evolution, specifically the increasing scales over which living processes evolve into organized cooperatives. For example, molecular processes were organized into cells; cells into organisms; and human organisms into families, bands, tribes, cities, and nations. Evolution favors cooperation because of the advantages bestowed upon organized cooperatives; in turn larger cooperatives have a greater ability to adapt to changing circumstances. Uninterrupted, this should lead to global and interstellar cooperatives, with a concomitant increase in intelligence that would eventually lead to a nearly omnipotent command of matter and energy.

While the trajectory of evolution has moved largely of its own accord, at some point it will probably continue only if we direct or steer it—an act Stewart calls intentional evolution. Intelligent beings such as ourselves must be committed to intentionally directing evolution, driving the development of life and intelligence even though our ultimate destination is unknown. This transition, from passive recipient to active participator must be taken in order to further evolve. “If humanity goes on to complete this great evolutionary transition, we will have embraced a role that provides meaning and purpose for our existence.”[i]

Summary – The meaning of life is to direct evolution to new heights.

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[i] John Stewart, “The Meaning of Life In A Developing Universe,” http://www.evolutionarymanifesto.com/meaning.pdf., 14.

Michael Shermer, “The Meaning of Life, The Universe, and Everything”

Michael Shermer (1954 – ) is an American science writer, historian of science, founder of The Skeptics Society, and Editor in Chief of its magazine Skeptic, which is largely devoted to investigating pseudoscientific and supernatural claims. He is also the author of numerous well-received popular books. He received his PhD in the history of science in 1991 from the Claremont Graduate University.

In his commencement speech at Whittier College in May of 2008 titled, “The Meaning of Life, The Universe, and Everything,” Shermer makes his case for the relationship between evolution and meaning. He asserts that while the question of the existence of an afterlife is an open one, we should live as if this life is the only one, treating others and each moment as the most important thing. In this way our lives become meaningful by valuing things in the here and now, as opposed to treating this life as a prelude to another one. The values and purposes and meanings we create are provisional of course, since we have no access to ultimate truth. In this way they are analogous to the provisional truths of science—facts confirmed to such a degree we give them our provisional assent. The self-correcting nature of science determines provisional scientific truths, while life itself shows the way to provisional purpose.

The most basic purpose of life is survival and reproduction, and we are the product of those billions of years of evolution. We might conclude that there was a cosmic destiny or divine providence that led to us, but in fact the existence of life was contingent on a billion circumstances. If an asteroid like the one that destroyed the dinosaurs had hit the earth a million years ago, if a few Homo sapiens had not migrated from Africa a hundred thousand years ago, if Neanderthals had killed our ancestors thirty thousand years ago, if any of these or countless other perturbations had occurred, we would have vanished. We are contingent.

But from our humble beginnings, a sense of purpose and the desire to achieve goals has evolved. We love, work, play, become involved, and transcend, finding transcendent meaning in the world revealed by science and the awe it inspires. Shermer experiences awe by looking at the Andromeda galaxy through his backyard telescope, by contemplating that the light of that galaxy took three million years to reach his retina, and by the fact that this galaxy was unknown until recently. The vastness of deep space and time are themselves more than enough to generate awe, and what generates awe is a source of meaning. Evolution has produced creatures with meaning built into them, and with the ability to experience it, if they choose to do so.

Summary – Evolution has built meaning and purpose into us.

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.

Does Evolution Imply That Life is Meaningful?

All the past is but the beginning of a beginning; all that the human mind has accomplished is but the dream before the awakening. ~ H.G. Wells 

Mankind is still embryonic … man is the bud from which something more complicated and more centered than man himself should emerge.
~
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

I have argued previously in this blog that it is helpful to be optimistic about the meaning of life in the face of death—thus there is a pragmatic justification for believing that life has meaning. I have also argued that there are good reasons to believe that death can be defeated—thus there is a scientific justification for believing that we can erase an essential impediment to a meaningful life. And I have argued that it is desirable to defeat death—thus there is a moral justification for defeating death inasmuch as a completely meaningful life is otherwise impossible. In the conquering of death lies our most immediate hope of making life more meaningful.

Still, none of this guarantees that our life or cosmic life is meaningful. Why? For one thing, a positive attitude says nothing about the reality of our situation. For another, we cannot know if the technology to defeat death will ever come to fruition or, if it does, that it will do so in our lifetime. Not knowing if the technology will ever come to fruition, or be developed in our lifetimes, our best response is optimism. But even if technology does defeats death in our lifetime, or revives us after death, a meaningful life is still not assured because a long life is no guarantee of a meaningful one. In other words, immortality is only a necessary condition for full meaning, not a sufficient one; we need quality as well as quantity for fully meaningful lives.

But if immortality is not enough for full meaning, what is? It is audacious to attempt to answer this question, since we probably do not possess the intellectual wherewithal to specify all the necessary and sufficient conditions of full meaning—assuming the question even makes sense. Fortunately the inability to capture the essence of meaning need not impede our search, an insight noted also by Thaddeus Metz:

Fortunately the field does not need an extremely precise analysis of the concept of life’s meaning … in order to make progress on the substantive question of what life’s meaning is. Knowing that meaningfulness analytically concerns a variable and gradient final good in a person’s life that is conceptually distinct from happiness, rightness, and worthwhileness provides a certain amount of common ground.[i]

So while we cannot apprehend meaning with precise conceptual clarity, we can assume that it is some good in addition to, enmeshed in, intertwined with, or emergent from being, truth, joy, beauty, and all the other good things. Meaning is a variable and gradient good that is desirable, something we want desperately. Therefore we will not pursue further abstruse questions about the essence or logical possibility of complete meaning.

In the next few posts I ask if the idea of evolution supports the claim that life is meaningful, or is becoming meaningful, or is becoming increasingly meaningful. Does evolution add to the case for meaning? Is there anything about evolution in general—as opposed to technological evolution specifically—which sheds light on meaning? Is there anything about evolution—cosmic, biological, and cultural—which implies that life is meaningful, or that meaning emerges, or that, given enough time, complete meaning will be attained, actualized, or approached as a limit? Does an a posteriori analysis of past evolution allow us to draw positive conclusions about the meaning of life?

Perhaps there is a progressive directionality to evolution, perhaps the meaningful eschatology of the universe will gradually unfold as we evolve, and perhaps we can articulate a cosmic vision to describe this unfolding—or perhaps not. Essentially, what we want to know is: are there any other good  reasons to believe that life meaningful besides the practical effects of optimism and the possibility of technological immortality? It is to such concerns that we now turn.

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[i] Thaddeus Metz, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/life-meaning/

Cosmic Evolution, Transhumanism, and the Meaning of Life

(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.