The Beginning and the End: The Meaning of Life in a Cosmological Perspective is the latest book by Clement Vidal, a member of the Evolution, Complexity and Cognition Group at the Free University in Brussels, Belgium. In it Vidal investigates a most important question—whether modern scientific cosmology can satisfy our search for meaning in life. The book is a carefully and conscientiously crafted work of immense scope and daring imagination, one of the most important and timely books I’ve recently read.
A briefest overview is as follows. Chapter 1 conducts a broad study of the philosophical method whose major aim, Vidal concludes, is to construct worldviews–comprehensive and coherent answers to big questions. Where do we come from? Where are we going? What should we do? What does it all mean? Chapter 2 develops criteria to test the strengths and weaknesses of these worldviews; Chapter 3 applies these criteria to various religious, philosophical and scientific worldviews; Chapters 4-6 investigate the question of the origin of the cosmos; chapters 7-8 study the question of the future of the cosmos; chapter 9 the question of whether we are alone in the cosmos; and Chapter 10 the possibility of a cosmological ethics.
Vidal is aware of the speculative nature of his work, but he reminds us that speculation plays a large part in the scientific and philosophical enterprises, speculation aims to solve scientific or philosophical problems. He knows his speculations could turn out to be wrong, but given the choice between careful speculation or silence, Vidal chooses the former. And we are glad he did. For his assiduous scholarship reveals the possibility that a scientific cosmology can provide a narrative which gives life meaning. A narrative so desperately needed as old mythological ones have become increasingly passé. And we are privileged to journey along with a well-ordered and visionary mind as it contemplates perhaps the most important question of our time—how do we find meaning in the cosmos revealed by modern science.
Chapter 1 – Vidal begins by arguing “that having a coherent and comprehensive worldview is the central aim of philosophy.” (Vidal, 2) This contrasts sharply with (Continental) philosophy’s investigation of subjectivity, or (British) philosophy’s logical analysis. To better understand his synthetic philosophy Vidal introduces six dimensions of philosophy. Those dimensions are the:
1) Descriptive – What exists? Where did it come from? Where is it going? Describing or modeling reality depends on our current scientific understanding.
2) Normative – What should we do? What is good and what is evil? How do we live well? What is a good society? What is the purpose and meaning of life?
3) Practical – How do we act in accord with our values to solve practical problems?What is our theory of action?
4) Critical (epistemological) – What is true and false? What is the nature and limits of knowledge?
5) Dialectical – How do we answer the previous question? By engaging in a debate or dialogue with opposing positions–a dialectic.
6) Synthetic – This final dimension of philosophy provides the comprehensive and coherent synthetic worldview–a synthesis.
Following the Belgian philosopher Leo Apostel, Vidal argues that a complete worldview will comprise these six elements. And it is crucial to have a worldview because they sustain us and give meaning to our lives. Individuals lacking worldviews suffer psychologically, and without rational worldviews irrational ones will arise to fill the need. Yet it is so difficult to express a rational worldview that many philosophers have been content to reject them all—skeptics—or accept them all—syncretists. Nonetheless Vidal will try to articulate a synthetic worldview.
Chapter 2 develops criteria to test the strengths and weaknesses of these worldviews.
In order to derive criteria to evaluate worldviews, Vidal takes three perspectives into account. The 1) objective or scientific; 2) subjective, existential, or phenomenological; and 3) intersubjective, social or cultural. These perspectives mirror the concerns of Kant’s three critiques, Popper’s three worlds, and Weber’s cultural spheres of value. The three perspectives distinguish between the objects of knowledge, the subjects who assimilate knowledge, and the communication process to transmit knowledge among subjects. “… the criteria can be seen as tools for philosophers to describe the history of philosophy, to work out their own philosophical position, or to clarify disagreements.” (Vidal, 18) Vidal draws heavily on Nicholas Rescher’s standards for evaluating philosophical theories to derive the criteria:
Objective consistency – The worldview exhibits internal and systemic consistency.
Scientificity – The worldview is compatible with science.
Scope – The worldview addresses a broad range of issues and levels,
in breadth and in-depth.
Subjective consistency – The worldview fits knowledge and experiences individuals already have.
Personal utility – The worldview promotes a personally rewarding outlook on life.
Emotionality – The worldview evokes emotions so that it is more likely to be
assimilated and applied.
Intersubjective consistency – The worldview reduces conflicts between individuals.
Collective utility – The worldview encourages an outlook on life and mobilizes
for what is socially beneficial.
Narrativity – The worldview presents its messages in the form of stories.(Vidal, 20)
Vidal’s subsequent discussion points out the strengths and weaknesses of each criterion. For instance: objective consistency informs a good worldview but overemphasizing it leads to a formalism that limits creativity; we must take modern science into account, yet dismissing non-scientific domains of knowledge leads to scientism; if the scope of a worldview is too narrow the resulting worldview becomes over specialized, but as the scope expands synthetic integration becomes more difficult. Similarly the breadth or depth of the worldview can be too narrow or too broad.
When discussing the subjective and intersubjective criteria, Vidal also highlights how each component is an important part of a worldview, but that no criteria are sufficient by itself. He concludes by arguing that these criteria allow us to judge some worldviews as better than others. For instance, continental philosophy generally ignores objective criteria while analytic philosophy often ignores subjective criteria.
Here are some things the three basic criteria illuminate. “… we humans are involved in three kinds of conflicts: against nature (objective), against ourselves (subjective), and against others (intersubjective) … objective criteria require that the worldview not be in friction with the outside world; subjective criteria require that the worldview not be in friction with an individual’s common knowledge and actions; and intersubjective criteria require that the worldview minimizes friction between individuals … A worldview that fits well in the three worlds has more chances to be accepted, appealing, and useful. Ideally, it would give rise to the following benefits: A consistent conception of the world (objective benefit); a lifeworld providing a meaning for life, useful for living a good life (subjective benefit); and a worldview whose foundations are fit for a well-organized society, where few conflicts arise (intersubjective benefit). Most importantly, those three worlds would be synthesized as far as possible in a coherent and comprehensive framework, thus forming a synthetic worldview. If we sum up the use of the three-perspectives criteria, we come to the goal of minimizing friction: a good worldview has a minimum of friction within and between objective, subjective, and intersubjective worlds.” (Vidal, 36-37)
With an understanding of the criteria a good worldview will satisfy, Vidal will turn in Chapter 3 to assessing various religious, scientific and philosophical worldviews.
3.1 Religious Worldviews – Vidal now invokes his criteria to test various worldviews. To demonstrate how the process works he compares intelligent design (ID) with flying spaghetti monsterism (FSM). They are both objectively consistent and equally unscientific, although ID is larger in scope. ID does better in terms of subjective consistency, since the designer of ID is amorphous, while FSM has a very specific designer. ID is also more useful and emotionally satisfying, as it is disgusting to think that a monster designed the world. FSM is more intersubjectively consistent since it has not killed millions, but ID is collectively more useful. ID’s narratives are more developed than those of FSM. From this analysis we can conclude that ID is a better worldview than FSM. (Of course it may be a much worse worldview than others.)
Now that we have a sense of how these comparisons work we can consider religious worldviews in general. Religions usually excel in personal and collective utility, emotionality and narrativity. “… a religious worldview gives meaning, provides answers to fundamental questions, and has a pragmatic value in terms of both psychological benefits and social cohesion.” (Vidal, 43) Yet religions have few rational methods to resolve conflict—hence the ubiquity of religious conflict—and they are generally low on objective criteria, their tenets often contradict known scientific truths. They typically respond by invoking a god of the gaps, using god to explain current gaps in scientific knowledge. (This strategy is notoriously weak, as the gaps are continually closed causing religion to continually retreat.) In short religions are generally much better with subjective and intersubjective criteria than with objective criteria.
3.2 Scientific Worldviews – The strength of science is apparent–it constructs our best models of what is, where it came from, and where it’s going. It is strong in precisely those areas religion is weak. (I would say this is because science is the only cognitive authority in the world today.) But science often ignores integrating its models with questions of value, actions, knowledge, and meaning. Essentially, science is strong regarding objective criteria but less so regarding the subjective and intersubjective.
3.3 Philosophical Worldviews – In order to correct the flaws in their various worldviews, theologians try to develop theologies more consistent with science, while scientists may expand their worldviews to include values, emotions, and meanings. Building a naturalistic worldview entails starting with objective, scientific principles, and extending them to include the subjective and intersubjective. For Vidal this is the essence of a philosophical worldview.
Vidal now examines three analogies to help us grasp how to build comprehensive and coherent worldviews. First, consider worldview questions as an axiomatic system where worldview answers are structures satisfying the axioms. Many philosophies and religions use axioms such as god, immortality, or freedom as postulates in their systems. In general scientific worldviews are coherent but incomplete; religious worldviews are relatively complete but incoherent. Second, consider worldview questions as a system of equations. In this model solving philosophical questions about worldviews compares to solving intricate sets of equations. Third, consider worldview questions as problems to solve. In this case, we might employ problem-solving techniques to resolve these problems.
Now that we have some idea of what it entails to develop a philosophical worldview, Vidal’s next task is to reformulate worldview questions in light of modern science.
In Chapter 4 Vidal turns to issue of the beginning of the universe. Answers to these questions are no doubt found in the realm of science. “Modern science can successfully connect physical and chemical evolution with biological and cultural evolution … Thus, it seems reasonable to assume that science is an effective method to understand cosmic evolution.” (Vidal, 59) But the multiple challenges for any ultimate explanations include:
a) epistemological – What are the epistemological characteristics of an ultimate theory? Are all ultimate theories either circular or infinite regresses?
b) metaphysical – Why not nothing? Why is there something rather than nothing?
c) thermodynamic – Where does the energy of the universe come from, and how will it end? Can something come from nothing?
d) causal – What was the causal origin of the universe? Was it self-caused? Is its causal chain infinite?
e) infinities – Is the universe spatially finite or infinite? Is it temporally finite or infinite?
Vidal begins by discussing a foundational starting point for the universe–a cause which does not need another cause. Examples of points include a god or the big bang. By invoking a creator god one avoids an infinite regress (the idea that the chain of causation goes back infinitely) but one can still ask questions like: “Where did God come from?” “What was god doing before he created the universe?” Theologians often answer that God is self-caused. Of course one could say the Big Bang was a self-caused starting point too.
To avoid these issues we might assume the origin of the universe has no foundation–that ultimate explanations are cyclical. Cyclical thinking is found in various disciplines: recursive proofs in mathematics and computer science; networks of meaning in linguistics; and feedback loops in systems theory. (Jean Piaget thought that all of the sciences ground each other in a “circle of the sciences.) Might cyclic cosmologies like those of the Stoics and Hindus better explain the origins of the universe? The problems with cyclic theories are many. Cycles appear to have no endpoint, and thus don’t supply an ultimate explanation. Cycles also imply an eternal return–an endless repetitive cycle.
To fully engage these deep issues Vidal encourages us to take current cosmological theories seriously. “It is crucial to take seriously our best theories to answer our questions about origins. Major physical theories like quantum mechanics or general relativity can have counterintuitive consequences, which nevertheless we must take into account. Such theories are more reliable than intuitions coming from our brains, which are mere products of biological evolution. The brain is well adapted to recognize cycles in natural environments or to recognize starting points in human actions, but not to guess what happened in the Big Bang era.”(Vidal, 75)
Vidal concludes that building scientific models involves the interaction of the external system and an observer who constructs models of that system. And understanding how observers model the world gives us the best chance to avoid the cognitive biases that lead us astray.
Chapters 5 and 6 continue to investigate the question of the origin of the cosmos. Perhaps the most important result for the average reader is that the argument for a fine-tuned universe is inconclusive. The discussion in chapters 4-6 leads to the question of the future of the cosmos in Chapters 7 and 8; the question of whether we are alone in the cosmos in Chapter 9; and Chapter 10 the possibility of a cosmological ethics. There are simply so many profound and novel ideas in these chapters that I’ll leave them to the readers of the book to explore.
The crescendo of the work appears in the last section’s discussion of immortality, where Vidal distinguishes five kinds of immortality:
1) Spiritual – The belief in a supernatural realm where a non-physical soul “goes” after death. This belief is widespread and appealing, but anathema to the rationalistic mind.
2) Individual – The belief that we can be biologically or digitally immortal. Vidal suggests that motivation for individual immortality arises primarily because we are cultural creatures. Our genes survive to a large extent but “most of the information we gather during our lifetime is cultural and gets lost at the time of death. And this is pure waste.” (Vidal, 298) The way out of this problem is biological or digital immortality or some combination of the two. Critics question whether cybernetic immortality is possible without embodiment, whether it’s worth it to live in a simulation, whether its cost will be prohibitive, whether death is good because it motivates us, etc. But Vidal suggests that immortality would force us to worry about things like climate change and the death of our sun and universe since we will live into the far future. Still, we don’t need to be immortal to have transpersonal concerns–we can care about others who will live on after we have died. And the same with our projects, concerns, and goals. If they take many generations to achieve, then our deaths do not undermine them. Such considerations lead us to consider transpersonal immortality in three different varieties.
3) Creative – The belief that immortality can be achieved by leaving a cultural legacy. The main problem here is that even the achievements of an Aristotle, Shakespeare or Darwin may be forgotten in thousands or millions of years.
4) Evolutionary – The belief that immortality can be achieved by leaving a biological legacy. For example, we are almost immortal at the level of the genes and are potentially immortal as part of a global brain. But even this is not enough if there are cosmological constraints on the immortality of the universe.
5) Cosmological – The belief that true immortality can only be achieved by a connection between ourselves and the immortality of the cosmos. But can the universe continue indefinitely? Perhaps universes could reproduce other universes ad infinitum, or our descendants will become smart enough to determine the fate of the cosmos. Vidal believes that we can be concerned with the issue of cosmological immortality, we can see the immortality of the cosmos as our ultimate goal.
My reflections – Let me conclude by stating my belief that only with cosmic immortality can complete meaning in life be found. And I agree with Vidal that this is our ultimate goal—the creation and continuation of a good, meaningful, immortal cosmos.
Finally, let me reiterate what I said about this work previously. It is a carefully and conscientiously crafted work of immense scope and daring imagination, one of the most important and timely books of the last few decades. Vidal is aware of the speculative nature of his work, but he reminds us that speculation plays a large part in the scientific and philosophical enterprises. He knows his ruminations may turn out to be wrong, but given the choice between careful speculation or silence, Vidal chooses the former. And we are glad he did. For his assiduous scholarship reveals the possibility that a scientific cosmology can provide a narrative which gives life meaning. A narrative so desperately needed as the old mythological ones become increasingly passé. And we are privileged to journey along with his well-ordered and visionary mind as it contemplates perhaps the most important question of our time—how do we find meaning in the cosmos revealed by modern science.