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