A Philosopher’s Lifelong Search for Meaning – Preface

When I consider the brief span of my life, swallowed up in the eternity before and after, the little space which I fill, and even can see, engulfed in the infinite immensity of spaces of which I am ignorant, and which know me not, I am frightened, and am astonished at being here rather than there; for there is no reason why here rather than there, now rather than then.
~ Blaise Pascal

(Note – Over the next few weeks I’ll summarize my lifelong reflections on life and meaning.)

Preface

Wandering around my backyard when I was about 7 years old I climbed a small mound behind our garage when suddenly it hit me: “Why is there anything at all rather than nothing?” That is the first philosophical question I ever remember asking—and what a big question it is. I remained inquisitive throughout childhood, especially about religion and politics, constantly badgering my father for answers to my questions. He replied as best he could but eventually I outgrew most of his answers.

In my early teens, I fell briefly under the spell of the New England transcendentalists, the first intellectuals I had ever encountered. Thoreau taught me the value of non-conformity and of hearing “a different drummer,” while Whitman told me to travel my own road in search of truth. His words still resonate within me,

I tramp a perpetual journey, (come listen all!)
My signs are a rain-proof coat, good shoes, and a staff cut from
the woods,
No friend of mine takes his ease in my chair,
I have no chair, no church, no philosophy,
I lead no man to a dinner-table, library, exchange,
But each man and each woman of you I lead upon a knoll,
My left hand hooking you round the waist,
My right hand pointing to landscapes of continents and the public road.

Not I, not any one else can travel that road for you,
You must travel it for yourself.

But what principles should guide my search for truth and meaning? Here Emerson showed me the way with an insight that has informed my journey for more than fifty years,

[Life] offers every mind its choice between truth and repose. Take which you please, — you can never have both. Between these, as a pendulum, man oscillates. He in whom the love of repose predominates will accept the first creed, the first philosophy, the first political party he meets, — most likely his father’s. He gets rest, commodity, and reputation; but he shuts the door of truth. He in whom the love of truth predominates will keep himself aloof from all moorings, and afloat. He will abstain from dogmatism, and recognize all the opposite negations, between which, as walls, his being is swung. He submits to the inconvenience of suspense and imperfect opinion, but he is a candidate for truth, as the other is not, and respects the highest law of his being.

I now felt that an intellectual voyage lay ahead and that I might never anchor. Then, as I was about to enter college, philosophical discussions with a friend further awoken me, as Kant said of encountering Hume, from my dogmatic slumber. It was as if a dam had broken within me, forcing me to see the parochialism of my childhood indoctrination. I now wanted to live and die with as large a mind as possible and I found an irresistible desire to explore the mindscape. In other words, I had fallen in love with philosophy becoming, in Dostoyevsky’s words, “one of those who don’t want millions but an answer to their questions.”

Next, as a college freshman, I eagerly enrolled in “Major Questions in Philosophy,” taught by a newly minted Ph.D. from Harvard, Paul Gomberg. He introduced me to Descartes’ epistemological skepticism, Hume’s demolition of the design argument, and Lenin’s critique of the state. Wow! Knowledge, the gods, and the state all undermined in sixteen weeks. Subsequently, I took the maximum number of philosophy courses allowable in pursuit of my B.A. including: existentialism and phenomenology, Ancient, Medieval, Modern, American, and Asian philosophy, as well as philosophy of religion, science, mind, and law. Holding all these strains of study together was a deep and passionate concern about life’s meaning.

As a graduate student, I focused mostly on the history of western philosophy, theoretical ethics, game theory, and evolutionary philosophy, while teaching my own classes in ethics, Greek philosophy, and the philosophy of human nature. But it was in a series of seminars with Richard Blackwell that my thoughts began to coalesce. In “Concepts of Time,” I learned to think deeply about the mystery of time and began to see change as a fundamental aspect of reality. In “Evolutionary Ethics” and “Evolutionary Epistemology,” I came to understand that knowledge and morality evolve, and in “The Seventeenth Century Scientific Revolution,” I encountered a dramatic example of intellectual evolution.

Then a careful reading of “Aristotle’s Metaphysics” led me to wonder if Aristotle’s view of teleology—that reality strives unconsciously toward ends—could be reconciled with modern evolutionary theory which is decidedly non-teleological. This led to my discovery of Piaget’s conception of evolution where I found the concept of equilibrium, the biological and epistemological analog of the quasi-teleological approach I had been seeking. I now saw how evolution could be characterized as a non-deterministic orthogenesis. Perhaps evolution and progress could be reconciled after all.

So, as a result of six years of graduate study, I had come to believe that evolution was the key to understanding everything from the cell to the cosmos, that the minds and behaviors of human beings are largely explained by biology, that there was some evidence that reality unfolds in a progressive direction, and that the meaning of human life must be found, if it was to be found at all, in cosmic evolution. Naturally, this led me to wonder if the cosmos become increasingly meaningful as it evolves or whether there really is any direction to cosmic evolution.

It was also as a graduate student that I first thought about teaching a meaning of life course so as to better ascertain if there was a deep connection between evolutionary philosophy and my existential concerns. Then, shortly after receiving my Ph.D., I got a chance to teach that class, resulting in my becoming conversant in the contemporary philosophical literature surrounding the issue of life’s meaning. However, to my dismay,  none of the philosophers I studied were much interested in evolution.

At about the same time I was regularly teaching a class in bioethics. What I found especially interesting there was the potential of genetic engineering to transform human beings infinitely faster than biological evolution could. If technological evolution can transform humanity, I thought, surely that was relevant to questions about meaning in and of human life. So the question of the meaning of life had to be connected with both past and future evolution, especially cultural and technological evolution.

Subsequently, I began teaching a course on the philosophical implications of artificial intelligence and robotics. There I learned to think about the future and human transformation in a new light. We could go well beyond manipulating our genome—changing our wetware if you will—we could potentially become cyborgs, robots, use neural implants, or upload our consciousness into a computer—we could change the hardware on which our consciousness ran. Perhaps we could even be as gods. Now the question of the meaning of life appeared again in a new light. Is meaning of life to become posthuman or even godlike?  

All these strands of thought came together in my 2012 book: The Meaning of Life: Religious, Philosophical, Transhumanist, and Scientific Perspectives. That book mostly summarized the hundreds of books and articles I had read on the subject and was meant to serve as the prerequisite research for having a more informed view on the subject. I wanted to approach the topic of meaning only after having conducted an even more thorough research of the literature.

Now, six years later, with more books read and essays written, and with multiple grandchildren and advancing age, I think it’s time to distill the essence of my own views. (However, I won’t provide their supporting arguments, as those can be found elsewhere in my writings.) Of course, I can never read, write and think enough, as I don’t have unlimited time. But if I don’t do this now I probably never will.

So here I offer my insights and answers on questions of meaning with the following caveats. My thinking is slow, my brain small, my experiences limited, and my life short. At the same time, the universe moves incredibly fast, is inconceivably large, unimaginably mysterious, and incredibly old. We are modified monkeys living on a planet that spins at 1600 km an hour on its axis, hurls around the sun at more than 100,000 km an hour, as part of a solar system that orbits the center of its Milky Way galaxy at about 800,000 kilometers an hour. The Milky Way itself moves through space at more than 2,000,000 km an hour and the galaxies move away from each other faster than the speed of light! (Yes, although nothing can move through space faster than light speed the space between galaxies expands faster than light speed. Hence the reason that eventually we won’t see any other galaxies from earth.)

And there’s more. Our galaxy contains more than 100 billion stars and there are more than 100 billion galaxies in the universe. All this in a universe that is almost 100 billion light year across and almost 14 billion years old. And there may be an infinite number of universes or the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics may be true or we may be living in a computer simulation. Such notions are largely incomprehensible.

Against this immense backdrop of speed, space, time and mystery shouldn’t we be humbled by our limitations and apparent insignificance? Who, other than the ignorant or delusional, would claim to know much of ultimate truth? I make no such claim; no one should. Like all others I am fallible, and my answers are, at best, applicable only to a certain time, place, perspective, and person. Ultimately they are mine alone.

Still, as a species, we are less ignorant than we once were and we share an evolutionary history and a human genome—we are similar as well as different. Perhaps then my conclusions aren’t worthless and may be relevant to others. In this spirit, I offer the following words hoping they provide comfort in what is, at times, a mercilessly cruel world. I also hope there’s some truth in them.

Part 1 – Life and Meaning

10 thoughts on “A Philosopher’s Lifelong Search for Meaning – Preface

  1. After such knowledge what forgiveness”
    TSEliot
    I am humbled as Socrates said “ One thing I know and that is I know nothing.”

  2. “Who, other than the dishonest or delusional, would claim to know much of ultimate truth?”

    Wouldn’t this mean that any religious person claiming to know Truth is dishonest or delusional? It would appear so.

  3. I must have a radically different point of view. I never wondered why there isn’t nothing rather than something. It always seemed to me that there could be a zillion universes and I just happened to be in one that had something rather than nothing. I was more interested in how the pieces all fit together. I didn’t wonder THAT the sky is blue, I wondered how the blueness of the sky was connected to everything else. (By the way, the sky is not consistently blue. I’m currently carrying out measurements on the precise color of the sky and how it changes under differing conditions. Lay that on the kid the next time he asks why the sky is blue!)

    I suppose that the first deep philosophical question that occurred to me struck while I was walking through a garden store aisle. I saw some big garden pots and the thought occurred to me that, if I were to move one of the pots a few inches, would that change ripple through reality and lead to some big consequence a hundred years from now. It’s a variation on the old bit about a butterfly flapping its wings in Beijing and triggering a hurricane in the South Atlantic. I hear that the Chinese are working on how to weaponize their butterflies.

  4. John,

    Your effort is both noble and worthwhile. I think I speak for all of your regular readers that we look forward to your future posts this topic.

    Thinking more long term, the greatest benefit of your efforts may come to your future descendants … the ones that were not able to know you on a personal level. Rather than being just a name, date of birth and date of death in some family tree, you will leave a legacy of writing that will give great insight into your thoughts, dreams and ambitions. Your great, great-great and great-great-great-grandchildren will truly thank you!

    JRR

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