In this diagram, time passes from left to right, so at any given time, the Universe is represented by a disk-shaped “slice” of the diagram.
Our universe began about 13.81 billion years ago. (That we know this is a testimony to the power of science. It is truly an astonishing discovery and we are the first living people who have ever known this.) Cosmology is speculative as to what happened before then, but competing ideas include that: 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, and thus not the literal beginning. (For a detailed discussion of these issues see my review of Jim Holt’s Why Does The World Exist?)
Though the details of these and other competing models go beyond the scope of our inquiry, none of them, or any other variants likely to be proposed, have a place for supernatural gods. The universe is mysterious, but gods apparently will not play a role in explaining it.[i] Today, among the educated, scientific cosmogonies have generally replaced religious cosmogonies. The main differences between the two types of cosmogonies are first, that the scientific accounts are supported by good reasons and evidence, and second, there is no obvious place in scientific accounts for meaning. It is not surprising then that 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 gods and the meaning of life.
When we turn to the future of the cosmos the issue is also 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. In none of these scenarios do the gods play a role nor do any of them appear especially conducive to meaning. The important point is that there are now alternative scenarios concerning the fate of the universe that were inconceivable to our ancestors, and these alternatives are not 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 wouldn’t 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.[ii] Until then the good news is that views such as the multiverse theory at least give us a reason to reject universal death. If universal death was assured, the case against meaning would be overwhelming, but since it is not, meaning may be possible. The bad news is that no scientific theory appears conducive to objective meaning. To be fair, we probably don’t know enough about such 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 any certainty we might have about such matters.
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. 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.[iii] Ernst Mayr, widely considered the twentieth century’s most eminent evolutionary biologist 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.”
Thus there is 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.[iv] 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 extended by various thinkers since Darwin to apply, not only to our bodies, but to the evolution of our 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. I also believe that meaning may evolve as the species and ultimately the cosmos evolve.
The importance of evolution for our understanding of meaning extends obviously 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? Let us hope that amidst all the violence and chaos that surround us, a more meaningful future will come to be.
[i] 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.
[ii] 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 derogative; i.e., critical of the attempt to use gods to explain phenomena that as yet do not have naturalistic explanations.
[iii] This claim is so easy to verify one could construct a separate biography of hundreds 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
[iv] 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).