Category Archives: Science & Philosophy

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).

A Harvard Medical School professor makes the case for philosophy

In a recent op-ed in the Washington Post Dr. David Silbersweig made the case for the value of a liberal arts education and in particular a philosophy education. Dr. Silbersweig is the Chair of the Department of Psychiatry and Co-Director of the Institute for the Neurosciences at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and Stanley Cobb Professor of psychiatry and Academic Dean at Harvard Medical School. As a professional philosopher I found his piece interesting and I’d like to summarize his piece and comment on it.
Silbersweig begins by remembering how much he enjoyed being an undergraduate philosophy major and how philosophy,

has informed and provided a methodology for everything I have done since. If you can get through a one-sentence paragraph of Kant, holding all of its ideas and clauses in juxtaposition in your mind, you can think through most anything. If you can extract, and abstract, underlying assumptions or superordinate principles, or reason through to the implications of arguments, you can identify and address issues in a myriad of fields.

Originally drawn to issues in the philosophy of mind, he quickly realized that he needed to study the brain to understand the mind. And wanting to help those who suffered mentally, he realized the need to study medicine. Philosophy had led him to his profession. Moreover his interest in Eastern philosophy, “with its focus on the development of the mind to achieve well-being” led him to study behavioral neuroscience and eventually to the study of both psychiatry or neurology.

Further study abroad confirmed that specialists “without a liberal arts foundation, while often brilliant, generally had a narrower perspective.” But those with such foundations had “certain insights and nimbleness of thought” that those whose training was more vocation did not. Now Silbersweig has come full circle. “Through studies, writings, and symposia, I have been able to bring the knowledge and perspective of my fields to timeless and timely problems in philosophy of mind, including free will, consciousness, meaning, religious experience and self.”

His recent experience teaching “an advanced philosophy of mind seminar at Harvard,” led to the realization of how much his scientific training aided students who posed sophisticated philosophical questions but who “were unknowingly misguided by virtue of being under-informed by data.” So philosophical inquiry is valuable, especially if scientific truth informs it. To solve the most desperate problems facing our world, we need minds that find novel solutions, mind informed by both philosophy and science. As Silbersweig concludes:

We need to foster and protect academic environments in which a broad, integrated, yet still deep education can flourish. They are our national treasure and a strategic asset, whether some politicians would recognize that, or not — and philosophy is foundational, whether my old dentist would appreciate it or not.

Reflections – All of this reminds me of lessons I learned from my mentor in graduate school, Richard J. Blackwell. Professor Blackwell,  who had done graduate work in both philosophy and physics, told me that  good philosophy must be informed by science. Dr. Silbersweig piece also reminded my of the work of Jean Piaget, who in his book, Insights and Illusions of Philosophy, wrote:

It was while teaching philosophy that I saw how easily one can say … what one wants to say … In fact, I became particularly aware of the dangers of speculation … It’s a natural tendency. It’s so much easier than digging out facts. You sit in your office and build a system. It’s wonderful. But with my training in biology, I felt this kind of undertaking was precarious.1

Philosophical speculation raises questions, but it cannot provide answers; answers are found only in testing and experimentation. Knowledge presupposes verification, and verification attains only by mutually agreed-upon controls. Unfortunately, philosophers do not usually have experience in inductive and experimental verification. As Piaget put it:

Young philosophers because they are made to specialize immediately on entering the university in a discipline which the greatest thinkers in the history of philosophy have entered only after years of scientific investigations, believe they have immediate access to the highest regions of knowledge, when neither they nor sometimes their teachers have the least experience of what it is to acquire and verify a specific piece of knowledge.2

But how did it happen that philosophy became so separate from the scientific method? Piaget traces this separation to the 19th century, when philosophy came to believe that it possessed a “suprascientific” knowledge. This split was disastrous for philosophy, as it retreated  into its own world, lost its hold on the intellectual imagination, and had its credibility questioned. For Piaget, philosophy is synonymous with science or reflection upon science, and philosophy uniformed by science cannot find truth; at most it provides subjective wisdom. In fact, philosophy is not even about truth; it is about meaning and values.

But while philosophical speculation without scientific understanding is limited, so too is vocational or scientific understanding uninformed by philosophical understanding and reflection. And this is ultimately Silbersweig’s point. One can take blood pressure or perform surgery as a mere technician. But medicine, like so many fields, develops when minds think and see anew.  When they philosophize. I am happy to have lived a life in which thinking played a significant role.

Black Holes and Truth in Science

Theoretical Physics

Two days ago I wrote a post about “the recent discussion that black holes might not exist.” I was careful to use the word “might,” because I knew that preliminary scientific ideas are typically sensationalized in the media. As it turns out this was a classic example. While news reports made this out to be definitive, revolutionary discovery, it was actually no such thing.

As the theoretical physicist Sabine Hossenfelder, Assistant Professor for High Energy Physics at The Nordic Institute for Theoretical Physics in Stockholm wrote yesterday:

… the recent papers by Mersini-Houghton and Pfeiffer contribute to a discussion that is decades old, and it is good to see the topic being taken up by the numerical power of today. I am skeptical that their treatment of the negative energy flux is consistent with the expected emission rate during collapse. Their results are surprising and in contradiction with many previously found results. It is thus too early to claim that is has been shown black holes don’t exist.

As I pointed out in my post, many ideas in theoretical physics are at the cutting edge of science and particularly open to revision. It may turn out that black holes don’t exist, but for the moment rational persons should align their view with that of the majority of physicists. And if there is no scientific consensus about the matter, then the rational response for the rest of us is to withhold judgment.

Other Areas of Science

Another area of science prone to sensationalized reporting is the relatively young field of nutrition. We now know many things about nutrition with great certainty, for instance that fruits and vegetables are good for us and that table sugar and trans fats are bad. And of course there is much we don’t yet know.  Still small, preliminary studies about the value of some food are reported as definitive. Then, if the initial results are later discovered to be e incorrect, people often conclude that scientists just change their minds all the time.

Often I have heard people say they don’t listen to scientists because “one day they say the earth is cooling and the next day they say its warming.” Of course scientists have not changed their minds about whether the earth is warming—it is—nor have they changed their minds about the basics of physics, chemistry, and biology. And that’s not because they are stubborn or dogmatic. They haven’t changed their minds because every single day in laboratories around the world quantum, relativity, atomic and evolutionary theories are confirmed over and over again. In fact a Nobel Prize awaits if one could show that these theories were basically mistaken. Radical change in science, despite Thomas Kuhn‘s famous claims to the contrary, are extraordinarily rare.

So the next time you hear that vitamin D will do this or global warming is nonsense remember to take into account the fact that sensationalized reporting is easy and it sells, while scientific investigation is a slow and difficult process.

Conclusion

Let me conclude with a personal example. My brother-in-law is a biochemist and a world-class researcher and authority on lupus.  After nearly 40 years of arduous and painstaking toil he has made significant contributions to medical research. He did this not by praying to Apollo, but by earning a PhD, doing post-doctoral work, taking the bus and/or subway to work, and toiling every day in his laboratory in order to tease just a bit of truth out of reality. He did this by the careful employment of the scientific method. Anyone can proclaim truth; actually searching for it is much harder.

My brother-in-law has made a greater contribution to society than all the faith healers, financiers, CEOs, entertainers, political pundits and athletes combined. We should all thank him.

Carl Sagan & Human Survival

In the final episode of Cosmos (Who Speaks for Earth?) Carl Sagan wonders whether our species will survive.

In our tenure on this planet we’ve accumulated dangerous evolutionary baggage: Propensities for aggression and ritual submission to leaders, hostility to outsiders. All of which puts our survival in some doubt. But we’ve also acquired compassion for others, love for our children, a desire to learn from history and experience and a great, soaring, passionate intelligence. The clear tools for our continued survival and prosperity. Which aspects of our nature will prevail is uncertain.

Sagan argues that the problem arises because our vision is too small. We lack a cosmic perspective from which national, ethnic and religious fanaticism are difficult to maintain. Perhaps such fanaticism has destroyed the civilizations on other worlds, as the Spanish destroyed those of the new world. Perhaps other civilizations have destroyed themselves with their technology, as we will do to our own in the near future. Or perhaps we will poison our air, earth, and water, fall victim to viruses and bacteria, or change our fragile climate so as to bring out our extinction. Then “There would be no more big questions. No more answers. Never again a love or a child. No descendants to remember us and be proud. No more voyages to the stars. No more songs from the Earth.” We would have ceased to listen to our compassion and reason, heeding instead to the reptilian voice of fear, territoriality and aggression.

From an extraterrestrial perspective, our global civilization is clearly on the edge of failure in the most important task it faces: Preserving the lives and well-being of its citizens and the future habitability of the planet …  Shouldn’t we consider … A fundamental restructuring of economic, political, social and religious institutions?

And while change is often labeled impractical, Sagan reminds us that changes have been made. We have reduced significantly slavery since ancient times, women have been partially liberated, aggression has been somewhat curtailed, and we have begun to see the earth as an organism in need of our stewardship. We can now see the earth from a cosmic perspective “finite and lonely somehow vulnerable, bearing the entire human species through the oceans of space and time.” We can change; and we have survived. After a 14 billion year cosmic journey carbon has become people, starstuff has been animated, and the cosmos is becoming conscious of itself.

Still, we do not know our place in the vastness of space and time. It will be found only after a long and arduous journey made by sojourners unafraid of the truth when they encounter it. As the video above so movingly concludes.

And we who embody the local eyes and ears and thoughts and feelings of the cosmos we’ve begun, at last, to wonder about our origins. Star stuff, contemplating the stars, organized collections of 10 billion- billion-billion atoms contemplating the evolution of matter tracing that long path by which it arrived at consciousness here on the planet Earth and perhaps, throughout the cosmos. Our loyalties are to the species and the planet. We speak for Earth. Our obligation to survive and flourish is owed not just to ourselves but also to that cosmos, ancient and vast from which we spring.

If only our vision could be as large as Carl Sagan’s.ll trademarks mentioned herein belong to their respective owners.

“The Logic and Beauty of Cosmological Natural Selection”

 A 12 billion-year-old cluster of stars.

I came across a wonderful piece in the June 10, 2014 issue of Scientific American, “The Logic and Beauty of Cosmological Natural Selection” by Lawrence Rifkin MD.  (He writes at lawrencerifkin.wordpress.com or you follow him on Twitter@LSRifkin.)

Rifkin argues that “The hypothesis [of] cosmological natural selection, and its power, beauty and logic provide what may be the best scientific explanation for the existence of complexity and life in the universe.” CNS has been most extensively formulated by the physicist Lee Smolin in his 1992 book The Life of the Cosmos. Here is a basic description:

Throughout the universe, stars that collapse into black holes squeeze down to an unimaginably extreme density. Under those extreme conditions, as a result of quantum phenomenon, the black hole explodes in a big bang and expands into its own new baby universe, separate from the original. The point where time ends inside a black hole is where time begins in the big bang of a new universe. Smolin proposes that the extreme conditions inside a collapsed black hole result in small random variations of the fundamental physical forces and parameters in the baby universe. So each of the new baby universes has slightly different physical forces and parameters from its parent. This introduces variation.

Given these “inherited characteristics, universes with star-friendly parameters will produce more stars and reproduce at a greater rate than those universes with star-unfriendly parameters. So the parameters we see today are the way they are because, after accumulating bit by bit through generations of universes, the inherited parameters are good at producing stars and reproducing.” Of course the existence of stars are crucial because the molecular material contained in stars is a prerequisite of life.

One of the advantages of CNS is that it directly addresses the so-called “fine-tuning problem”–why the laws and parameters of nature are remarkably conducive to life. It answers that the laws of our universe “are the way they are because of non-random naturalistic cumulative inherited change through reproductive success over time.” CNS also explains the complexity and the apparent design of our universe without positing gods, analogous to how natural selection explains the complexity and apparent design of our biology.

Critics might argue that there is no evidence for CNS, but Rifkin points out that there is no direct evidence for other scientific alternatives that would explain the existence of our universe like quantum fluctuations, multiverses, cyclic universes, or brane cosmology. And CNS has the advantage of explaining the fine tuning problem better than the alternatives, which is why Rifkin thinks CNS will eventually be vindicated.

Furthermore CNS has profound implications for the question of life’s meaning. “In a world of branching universes conducive to life, ultimate cosmic doom may be avoided, keeping alive the possibility of eternity – not for us as individuals, or for Homo sapiens, but for the existence of life at large in the cosmos.” So the future of the cosmos is open, still to be determined–surely a more hopeful message that inevitable cosmic death. Yet this does not imply that we were meant to be here, that the universe cares about us, or that any teleology is at work–Rifkin definitely rejects any god of the gaps.

In the end CNS, like any scientific idea, stands or falls on the evidence. “If evidence proves any one of the cosmological alternatives—or an entirely new idea altogether—we will embrace reality, no matter where it leads, and be struck with awe at our ability to discover the grandest of cosmological truths and our place in the universe.”

Commentary

I am unqualified to adjudicate between various cosmological theories but CNS is a robust theory that is consistent with perhaps the greatest idea of all time–the idea that everything, from the cell to the cosmos, evolves over time. Moreover CNS provides a straightforward solution to the fine-tuning problem. I have no doubt that there is a naturalistic solution to this problem–assuming we can even be sure the cosmos is fine tuned. (Some theorists suggest we don’t know enough to say for sure.) But if our universe is fine tuned, then naturalistic solutions will explain it. Scientific solutions will close this gap in our knowledge like they have previously closed so many others. This is after all one of the main reasons why so few philosophers are non-naturalists.Science works.

Still people will find their gods hiding in the gaps of quantum or cosmological theories, or in dark matter or energy. If you are determined to believe something it is hard to change your mind. But defenders of the gods fight a rearguard action–scientific knowledge is relentless–and these hidden gods are nothing like the traditional ones. Those gods are dead.

And as science closes the gaps in our knowledge the gods will recede further and further into the recesses of infinite space and time until they vanish altogether, slowly blown away, not by cosmic winds, but by ever encroaching thought.