Category Archives: Meaning of Life – Evolution

Meaning in Life as Being Part of Cosmic Evolution

(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, April 22, 2016.)

Below is an excerpt of comments from an astute reader of my  book, The Meaning of Life: Religious, Philosophical, Transhumanist, and Scientific Perspectives:

The scope of the universe is too large for one human life to have an impactful upon it … The story of life in general, however, is big enough to have meaning in the universe. And our role in the story of life could actually be quite large. Even if individually a life were not very important, we’ve evolved to feel pleasure at the scale we can affect life, so our lives can still feel quite meaningful … The big freeze or the big crunch are still possibilities for universal death within this universe, but maybe … dark energy, dark matter, or something else altogether unknown can be manipulated in such a way as to balance things for survival. Until we can do that, that is a goal which gives meaning to life. We may not be able to answer any ultimate questions now of why the universe and life exist, but maybe someone will be able to someday. It is our job to do what we can to get to that. Survival and scientific progress are prerequisites along that path. Just as Renaissance people (to take one example) could be said to have found meaning in supporting a society that lead the growth of the scientific method, which helped us get this far, we can find meaning today by doing our job to support a society laying the groundwork for future knowledge explorers too.

I think the reader has it about right. The only way our individual lives have objective meaning is if they are part of something larger. We hope then that we are links in a golden chain leading onward and upward toward higher levels of being and consciousness. The effort we exert as we travel this path provides the meaning to our lives as we live them. And if our descendents, in whatever form they take, live more meaningful lives as a result of our efforts, then we will have been successful. Hopefully there will be no end to this progressive, cosmic evolution. Walt Whitman put the point poetically:

This day before dawn I ascended a hill and look’d at the crowded heaven,
And I said to my spirit When we become the enfolders of those orbs, and the
pleasure and knowledge of every thing in them, shall we be fill’d and
satisfied then?

And my spirit said No, we but level that lift to pass and continue beyond.

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/