Category Archives: Meaning of Life – The Basics

Science and the Meaning of Life

1. Facts and Meaning

All the truths of modern science are at least somewhat relevant to considerations of meaning. But why? What it is about scientific facts that make them especially germane? Consider that the decline of influence the Christian worldview in the 17th century West was the catalyst for the meaning of life question taking on a new significance. And what precipitated that decline? While there were certainly many factors, the rise of modern science was a prominent one. The removal of humans from the physical center of their universe with the rise of heliocentric, and their further demotion as the center of biological creation with the rise of evolutionism undermined much of what had previously given life meaning—specifically, the view that humans were central in the creation and design of reality. In contrast, modern science advances a radically different world-view whose foundation is an unimaginably large body of overwhelming evidence, one which continually grows and deepens the original insights of cosmology, biology and other sciences. One ignorant of such ideas has no chance to construct a realistic worldview.

For our purposes then, we must take into account the truths of modern science. One simply cannot have a coherent picture of what the world is like without knowing something of modern science because science is the only cognitive authority in the world today. Yes, there are an infinite number of things that science has yet to discover, there may be truths that science cannot by its nature uncover, and there may be other means by which to tease truth from reality than the scientific method. Furthermore, science is not dogmatic, and no matter how well confirmed its theories they are always provisional—open to change in light of new evidence. Nonetheless, we insist that the well established truths of science must be a starting point for our inquiry, as theoretical musings and introspection are no substitute for hard-won empirical evidence. Science consists of an immeasurable amount of knowledge—which is daily confirmed by the wonders of the technology it spawns. We simply must begin with the best knowledge of ourselves and our world that we have—the knowledge provided by modern science.[i]

But, as the body of scientific knowledge is vast, which parts of it are most relevant to our inquiry? I think cosmology and biology would be those sciences. Both are precise and both have important things to say about the meaning of life. Cosmology, broadly conceived as referring to the current state of the universe as well as to it origin and fate, is obviously applicable to our concerns. Biology is also most important; it is the science that tells us what human nature is. Given the particular importance to our inquiry of the origin, evolution, and fate of the cosmos, I suggest we focus on what science tells us about these issues to see the importance of scientific knowledge to our inquiry. Surely what we know, and do not know, about these issues is significant to our pursuit.

2. The Origin and Fate of the Universe

Our universe began about 13.81 billion years ago. (That humans have discovered this fact with such great precision is itself a testimony to the power of science. It is truly an astonishing discovery if you stop to think about it, and we are the first living people who have known this.) Cosmology is very speculative as to what happened before then—assuming it even makes sense to talk about a before-–but competing ideas include: 1) the universe emerged from nothingness, space and time were created in the big bang and thus there was no space or time before the big bang; 2) the universe resulted from the movement or collision of membranes (branes), as in string theory; 3) the universe goes through endless self-sustaining cycles where, in some models, the universe expands, contracts, and then bounces back again; and 4) that the universe grew from the death of a previous universe. The last three proposals all argue that the Big Bang was part of a much larger and older universe, or multiverse if you will. Hence such models don’t consider the Big Bang to be the literal beginning.

Although the details of these and other competing models go beyond the scope of our inquiry, suffice it to say that none of them, or any other variants likely to be proposed, have any place in them for supernatural gods nor do they say anything about meaning. The universe is indeed mysterious, but gods apparently will not play a role in explaining it.[ii] Furthermore, scientific cosmogonies have generally replaced the religious cosmogonies that preceded them, at least among the scientifically literate. The main differences between the two types of cosmogonies are first, that the scientific accounts are supported by good reasons and evidence, and second, that there is no obvious place in scientific accounts for meaning, as there was in religious creation myths. It is not surprising then that so many are threatened by a scientific worldview. Even if we are uncertain which if any of the scientific cosmogonies is true, the damage has been done; what we now know of the origin of the universe undermines our previous certainty about meaning.

When we turn to the future of the cosmos the issue is also highly speculative. The most likely scenarios based on present evidence are that the universe will: 1) reverse its expansion and end in a big crunch; 2) expand indefinitely, exhausting all its heat and energy ending in a big freeze; 3) eventually be torn apart in a big rip; 4) oscillate, contract, and then expand again from another big bang, the big bounce; or 5) never end, since there are an infinite number of universes or multiverses. (There are other versions of this basic story.) Needless to say, in none of these scenarios do the gods play a role nor do any of them appear especially conducive to meaning. As was the case with the origin of the universe, the important point is that there are alternative scenarios concerning the fate of the universe that were inconceivable to our ancestors, and these alternatives are not obviously comforting. The mere knowledge of these alternatives undermines our certainty about the meaning of our lives.

However, it should be admitted that science is highly speculative on such matters; these are defeasible scientific claims. Nonetheless, I would not bet against the ability of science to eventually unravel these great secrets, as the march of scientific knowledge is inexorable, and no positing of a “god of the gaps” is likely to help.[iii] Until then, the good news is that views such as the multiverse theory at least give us reason to reject universal death. If universal death was assured, the case against meaning might be overwhelming, but since it is not we may have a window of meaning left open to us. The bad news is that none of the scientific theories look obviously conducive to objective meaning. To be fair, we probably don’t know enough about these highly speculative areas of science to draw strong conclusions about meaning, except to say again that scientific theories about the origin and fate of the cosmos undermine the previous certainty people had regarding these issues.

3. Evolution

In between the beginning and end of the cosmos is its evolution. If you think of this inconceivably long period of time it is easy to understand that things must evolve—they change over time. From 13.81 billion years to today there is a long story of cosmic evolution, the outline of which we know in great detail. The important point for our purposes is that human beings, an incredibly late arrival on the cosmic scene, were forged through genetic mutations and environmental selection. This is beyond any reasonable doubt, and anyone who tells you differently is either scientifically illiterate or deceiving you.[iv] Ernst Mayr, widely considered the twentieth century’s most eminent evolutionary biologist, and sometimes called the Darwin of the twentieth century, put it this way: “Evolution, as such, is no longer a theory for the modern author. It is as much of a fact as that the earth revolves around the sun.” He added: “Every modern discussion of man’s future, the population explosion, the struggle for existence, the purpose of man and the universe, and man’s place in nature rests on Darwin.”

In short, there is simply no way to understand anything about ourselves without understanding evolution—not our bodies, our behaviors, or our beliefs. This is why biology is so crucial to making sense of the human condition; it is the science that makes the study of human nature potentially precise.[v] This does not mean that knowledge of evolution tells us everything about the meaning of life, but that the process of evolution is the indispensable consideration for any serious discussion of the meaning of human life.

In our limited space we cannot discuss all of the implications of evolutionary biology for understanding human life and nature. Suffice it to say that the evolutionary paradigm has been gradually extended by various thinkers since Darwin to apply, not only to our bodies, but to the evolution of minds and behaviors. When we move the application of the evolutionary paradigm from body to mind we find ourselves dealing with the mind-body problem and evolutionary epistemology; when we move the paradigm from mind to behavior, we are in the realm of the fact-value problem and evolutionary ethics. Possibly we will find in the course of our study that we can apply an evolutionary model to meaning as well. Meaning may be something that evolves as the species and ultimately the cosmos evolve.

The importance of evolution for our understanding of meaning extends obviously then from biological to cultural evolution. The future that comes about as a result of cultural evolution may itself be the purpose of life; where we are going, more so than where we came from, may provide meaning. Could it be that the process by which we go from the past to the present is itself an unfolding of meaning?


[i] I would argue that philosophy does not discover truth, science does. Philosophy should concern itself with values and meaning. For more see Jean Piaget’s The Insights and Illusions of Philosophy (New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1977).

[ii] God may be a problem in astrophysics that will stand or fall on the empirical evidence. For more see E.O. Wilson’s “The Biological Basis of Morality” in the Atlantic online April 1998.

[iii] The phrase “god of the gaps” refers to the idea that the gods exist in the gaps of current scientific knowledge. The term is generally derogatory; i.e., critical of the attempt to use gods to explain phenomena that as yet do not have naturalistic explanations.

[iv] This claim is so easy to verify one could construct a separate biography of thousands of works by experts to justify the claim. You could begin simply by consulting the multiple publications and statements at the website of the National Academy of Sciences. http://www.nationalacademies.org/evolution/Reports.html

[v] For an introduction to this idea see E.O. Wilson’s On Human Nature (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988), and Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (New York: Vintage, 1999).

The Meaning of Life in a Nutshell

All my life I struggled to stretch my mind to the breaking point, until it began to creak, 
in order to create a great thought which might be able to give a new meaning to life, 
a new meaning to death, and to console mankind. ~ Nikos Kazantzakis

The Question and Possible Answers – The question of the meaning of life is the most fundamental question of human existence. It asks “what is the meaning, significance or purpose of an individual life in the context of all that was, is, or could be?” Answers to this question come in many varieties: supernaturalists argue that meaning derives from a god or gods; skeptics doubt that an answer to the question exists, or that we could know the answer even if it did; nihilists claim that life has no meaning; while naturalists claim that we create our own meaning (subjectivists), or that we find meaning in the good things in the world (objectivists). None of these answers is entirely satisfactory.

Religious Answers – Religious (supernaturalist) answers are the most popular, but they depend on problematic assumptions about the nature and existence of a supernatural realm. Religious claims may be false. And even if religious claims are true, it isn’t clear how a god grounds meaning. For instance, if you are told that you are a part of a god’s plan you might ask, how does being a part of some god’s plan give my life meaning? Being a part of your parent’s or your country’s plan doesn’t necessarily do that. If you are told that the gods just radiate meaning you might ask, how do they do that? If you can’t be the source of your own meaning, how can something else be? If you are told that a gods’ love gives your life meaning, you might wonder why the love of people around you can’t do that. If you are told that life is meaningful because you will live forever with the gods after you die, you might wonder how that makes life meaningful. (Reading my website for all eternity wouldn’t be meaningful!) You might also question why you would want to live forever with beings responsible for so much evil. So even if there are gods life may still be meaningless.

Philosophical Answers – Turning to philosophical replies to our question, we cannot straightforwardly accept skepticism, since we are forced by constraints of consistency to be skeptical of skepticism. Nihilism haunts us and no amount of philosophizing is palliative in its wake. Yet we reject it too. Why accept such a depressing conclusion when we can’t be sure of its truth? Subjectivism provides a more promising philosophical response—we can create limited meaning without accepting religious, agnostic, or nihilistic provisos. The problem is that the meaning created isn’t enough. We want more than subjective meaning, and the task of creating our own meaning is enormous. This leads us to consider the objective values and meanings found in the natural world—things like truth, goodness and beauty. In the meeting of subjective desires and objectively good things, we find the most meaning available  to us in this life.

Death – Yet this is not enough—because we die. How can anything truly satisfy, even subjective engagement in objectively good things, if all leads to nothingness? Death limits the meaning we can experience, since fully meaningful lives necessitate that we live forever. Lives can be meaningful without the proviso of immortality, but they cannot be fully meaningful since they would be limited in quantity. Death puts an end to our meaning and our lives. The defenders of death may claim that death is for the better, but we know in our bones that it is not, as the wailing at funerals reveals.

Transhumanist Answers – Fortunately science and technology may provide our salvation. We might overcome death in the near future using some combination of nanotechnology, genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, and robotics. But this is not enough, for immortality is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for full meaning. Complete meaning requires infinite qualitative goodness as well as an infinite quantity of time. Yet science potentially solves this problem too. If science can overcome death, why can’t it infinitely enlarge consciousness? With oceans of time for future innovation, it is plausible to think that science could make fully meaningful lives possible; it could make a heaven on earth. Still we have no guarantees. Cosmic evolution reveals the emergence of consciousness and meaning, as well as the possibility of their exponential increase, but it doesn’t imply that a more meaningful reality will necessarily unfold or that a state of perfect meaning will inevitably ensue. We don’t know if science and technology will bring about a utopia or its opposite, or hasten our destruction. And even if a glorious future awaits our descendants, we don’t know if we’ll be part of it.

Hope – Uncertain that life will ever be completely meaningful, or that we will participate in such meaning if even it does come to pass, we can still 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. Hope is useful.

The Purpose of Life – The possibility of infinitely long, good, and meaningful lives, along with the hope that this possibility can be realized, brings the purpose of our lives into focus. The purpose of life is to diminish all constraints on our being—intellectual, psychological, physical, and moral—and to remake the external world in ways conducive to the emergence of meaning. This implies embracing our role as protagonists of the cosmic evolutionary epic. We should work to increase the quantity and quality of knowledge, love, joy, beauty, goodness and meaning in the world, while diminishing their opposites. This is the ultimate purpose of our lives; this is what we should do; it is the moral imperative. In practice, this implies being better thinkers, companions, artists and parents. It means acting to promote human flourishing, and ultimate the flourishing of all being. Naturally there are disagreements about exactly what this entails, but the way forward should become increasing clear as we achieve higher levels of being and consciousness.

Is Life Meaningful? – Yet knowing the purpose of our lives doesn’t ensure that they are fully meaningful, for we may collectively fail to give life more meaning—we may not achieve our purpose. Thus the answer to our question 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. If we are successful, our efforts will culminate in the overcoming of all human limitations, and our (post-human) descendants will live fully meaningful lives. If we 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.

Hope Revisited – For now though, forced to live with uncertainty about the future, we must have hope that life can be made continually more meaningful. Hope provides the impetus for our efforts, and makes the continued emergence of meaning possible. Through hope the possibility of meaning emerges. Our hope is no small thing.

The Struggle – The kind of hope we advocate is akin to wishing or dreaming or longing for. It motivates action. It is not a passive hope. Because we believe it’s possible to create a better world, we work for that. In this struggle we find the meaning of lives.

Answers To The Question of Life’s Meaning

(reprinted as “Multiple Answers to ‘What is the Meaning of Life’ — are any Satisfactory” in the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, June 5, 2015)

All my life I struggled to stretch my mind to the breaking point, until it began to creak, 
in order to create a great thought which might be able to give a new meaning to life, 
a new meaning to death, and to console mankind. ~ Nikos Kazantzakis

Answers to the question of the meaning of life fall into one of three categories:

  1. Negative (nihilistic) answers—life is meaningless;
    1. Affirmation—it is good that life is meaningless;
    2. Acceptance—it is bad that life is meaningless, but we accept this;
    3. Rejection—it is bad that life is meaningless, and we reject this;
  2. Agnostic (skeptical) answers—we don’t know if  life is meaningful;
    1. The question is unintelligible;
    2. The question is intelligible, but we don’t know if we can answer it;
  3. Positive answers—life is meaningful;
    1. Supernatural (theistic) answers—meaning from transcendent gods;
    2. Natural (non-theistic) answers—meaning created/discovered in natural world
      i.      meaning is objective—discovered or found by individual
      ii.     meaning is subjective—created or invented by individuals.

 

The Question of the Meaning of Life

All my life I struggled to stretch my mind to the breaking point, until it began to creak, 
in order to create a great thought which might be able to give a new meaning to life, 
a new meaning to death, and to console mankind. ~ Nikos Kazantzakis

Albert Camus opens his essay “The Myth of Sisyphus” with these haunting lines: “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.”[i] Karl Jaspers wrote: “The question of the value and meaning of existence is unlike any other question: man does not seem to become really serious until he faces it.”[ii]Victor Frankl said: “man’s search for meaning is the primary motivation of his life” and “… concern about a meaning of life is the truest expression of the state of being human.”[iii] The contemporary philosopher Robert Solomon considered the question of life’s meaning to be “the ultimate question of philosophy.”[iv] While major philosophers in the Western tradition have had much to say about the goal or final end of a human life, most have not—until the twentieth century—specifically addressed the question of life’s meaning, and many have avoided it altogether.

In the Western world this lack of concern with the question of the meaning of life was in large part due to the domination of the Christian worldview. During the long period from about the 5th through the 18th century, the question of life’s meaning was not especially problematic, since the answer was obvious. That answer was, roughly, that the meaning of life was to know, love, and serve god in this life, and to be with him forever in heaven. According to this view all the suffering of the world would be redeemed in the afterlife so that the sorrows of the world could be seen to have been worth it in the end, when we are united with god. However, with the decline of the influence of this worldview in subsequent centuries, the question of the meaning of life became a more pressing one, as we see beginning with nineteenth century thinkers such as Nietzsche and Schopenhauer. In the twentieth century the question took on a new urgency and western philosophers have increasingly written on the subject. Thus, with the exception of Schopenhauer, our text will concentrate exclusively on twentieth and twenty-first century thinkers.

My own view is that the question of life’s meaning is the most important philosophical question, and possibly the most important question of any kind. This is not to say that it should be the only thing one thinks about, or that noble things cannot be done or happy lives cannot be lived without thinking about it. In fact one can think too much about it and, in the worst cases, compulsive analysis may lead to or manifest mental illness. Socrates claimed that “the unexamined life is not worth living,” but the over-examined life is certainly not worth living either. Life may simply be too short to spend too much of one’s life thinking about life. (The Latin “primum vivere deinde philosophare,” translates to “First live, later philosophize.”)  Many persons in all walks of life have lived good and happy lives without thinking deeply about meaning, or without answering the question even if they have thought much about it. In short, philosophers should not overestimate the importance of their ruminations.

Still, such an important question demands some reflection. Without a tentative answer to the question there seems to be no ultimate justification for any action, or even a reason to be at all. To put it somewhat differently: What is the point of living, if you don’t know the point of living? Why do anything, if you don’t know why you should do anything? You might answer that you live because you have a will to live or a self-preservation instinct; but that merely explains why you do go on, it does not justify why you should go on. Of course you can certainly remain alive without thinking about these questions, and circumstances force many people to spend their lives trying to survive, leaving little time for philosophical contemplation. But for those with sufficient leisure time, for those that have their basic needs met, do they not have some obligation to think about the meaning of their lives, and by extension the meaning of life in general? Might not such thinking improve their lives and benefit others? If so, then thinking about the question of meaning is certainly worthwhile.


[i] Albert Camus, “The Myth of Sisyphus,” in The Meaning of Life, ed. E.D Klemke and Steven Cahn (Oxford : Oxford University Press, 2008), 72.
[ii] Karl Jaspers, Nietzsche (Tucson: University of Arizona, 1965), 333.
[iii] Victor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning (New York: Beacon Press, 1963).
[iv] Robert Solomon, The Big Questions (Boston: Wadsworth, 2010), 44.

 

The Search For Meaning

(reprinted in the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, May 30, 2015)

Insignificant mortals, who are as leaves are,
and now flourish and grow warm with life,
and feed on what the ground gives,
but then again fade away and are dead.
~ Homer

Life is hard. It includes physical pain, mental anguish, poverty, hatred, war and death. Life’s problems are so significant that humans try desperately to alleviate and avoid them. But mere words cannot convey the depth and intensity of the suffering in human life. Consider that persons are starving, imprisoned, tortured, and suffering unimaginably as you read this; that our emotional, moral, physical, and intellectual lives are limited by our genes and environments; that our creative potential is wasted because of unfulfilling or degrading work, unjust incarceration, unimaginable poverty, and limited time; and that our loved ones suffer and die—as do we. Contemplate the horrors of history, and lives so insufferable that death was often welcomed. What kind of life is this that nothingness is often preferable? There is, as Unamuno said, a “tragic sense of life.” This idea haunts the intellectually honest and emotionally sensitive individual. Life sometimes seems not worth the trouble.

Of course the above does not describe all of human life or history. There is love, friendship, honor, knowledge, play, beauty, pleasure, creative work, and a thousand other things that make life, at least sometimes, worthwhile, and at other times pure bliss. There are parents caring for their children, people building homes, artists creating beauty, musicians making music, scientists accumulating knowledge, philosophers seeking meaning, and children playing games. There are trees, flowers, mountains and oceans; there is art, science, literature and music; there is Rembrandt, Darwin, Shakespeare, and Beethoven. Life sometimes seems too good for words.

Now assuming that we are lucky enough to be born without any of a thousand physical or mental maladies, or into bondage, famine or war, the first problems we confront are how to feed, clothe, and shelter ourselves. Initially we have no choice but to rely on others to meet our basic needs, but as we mature we are increasingly forced to fulfill these needs on our own.  In fact most human effort, both historically and presently, expends itself attempting to meet these basic needs. The structure of a society may aid us in satisfying our needs to differing extents, but no society fulfills them completely, and many erect impediments that make living well nearly impossible. We often fail to meet our basic needs through no fault of our own.

But even if we are born healthy and into a relatively stable environment, even if all our basic needs are met, we still face difficulties. We seek health and vitality, friends and mates, pleasure and happiness. Our desires appear unlimited. And presuming that we fulfill these desires, we still face pressing philosophical concerns: What is real? What can we know? What should we do? What can we hope for? And, most importantly, what is the meaning of life in a world that contains so much suffering and death? This is the central philosophical question of human life. Fortune may shine upon us, but we ultimately suffer and perish. And if all our hopes, plans and loves ultimately vanish, then what does it all mean? This question is not just academic; it penetrates to the core of the human existence.

Given the gravity of our query everyone, if they are lucky enough to have the chance, should think deeply about questions of meaning. And they should be honest in their quest, never cheating like the youths that Kierkegaard described: “There are many people who reach their conclusions about life like schoolboys: they cheat their master by copying the answer out of a book without having worked the sum out for themselves.” If we work out the answers for ourselves then perhaps we will find that Rainer Marie Rilke was right when he said: “Live your questions now, and perhaps even without knowing it, you will live along some distant day into your answers.”