A Philosopher’s Lifelong Search for Meaning – Part 6 – Skepticism and Meaning

continued from a previous entry

  1. Skepticism

Yet, as we ascend these mountains of thought, we are brought back to earth. Looking to the past we see that truth, beauty, goodness, love, and meaning have emerged from cosmic evolution but so too have ignorance, loneliness, war, cruelty, despair, poverty, and pain. Surely serious reflection on this misery is sobering and we must temper our optimism accordingly.

We should also remember that if we find patterns of progress in evolution, we might be victims of confirmation bias. After all, progress isn’t the whole story of evolution—most species and cultures have gone extinct, a fate that may soon befall us. Furthermore, this immense universe (or multiverse) is largely incomprehensible to our three and a half pound brains, so we should hesitate to substitute an evolutionary view for our frustrated metaphysical longings. If reflection reveals that our deepest wishes may come true, our skeptical alarm bell should go off. For we want to know, not just to believe.

Yes, cosmic and biological evolution—and later the emergence of intelligence, science, and technology—leave us awestruck. But this doesn’t imply that we are meant to be here or that human consciousness was inevitable. It is only because we value our life and intelligence that we succumb to anthropocentrism. The trillions and trillions of evolutionary machinations that led to us might easily have led to different results—ones that didn’t include us. We want to believe evolution had us as its goal—but it did not.  We are radically contingent, our existence serendipitous. Like the dinosaurs, we too could be felled by an asteroid.

So while we can say that meaning has emerged in the evolutionary process, we cannot say these trends will continue as evolution proceeds. We are moving, but we might be moving toward our own extinction, toward universal death, or toward eternal hell. We long to dream of better worlds but our skepticism awakens us from our Pollyannish imaginings. The evolution of the cosmos, our species, and our intelligence give us some grounds for believing that life might become more meaningful, but they offer no guarantees.  

Here then is the essence of the problem. Despite our best efforts we may collectively fail to bring about this meaningful reality we imagine. In other words, while we know how life could be fully meaningful, we don’t know if it is or will become fully meaningful. We could only know that sub specie aeternitatis. So it seems that we can’t erase all our doubts or allay all our fears. As long as we are committed to intellectual integrity we must admit that life may be utterly absurd, futile, and meaningless. All of reality may be heading … nowhere. Our lives, our cares, our dreams … all for naught.

to be continued next week

3 thoughts on “A Philosopher’s Lifelong Search for Meaning – Part 6 – Skepticism and Meaning

  1. Very thoughtful examination of our situation. If my man Schopenhauer is right then the suffering far outweighs the bliss of our existence and if Ernest Becker is right then there is not much chance of humanity ever being willing to consciously confront most of the questions you are asking about us or doing anything differently than it always has. My own belief it’s that there is way too much suffering in the world to make this world worth having but no matter what I personally think the rest of the world is going to continue on believing mostly the opposite of that and believing that paradise is just one more generation away. In the mean time it looks like our planetary habitat is in some serious trouble. Interesting.

  2. Ditto: v thoughtful. Plus J Miller’s comment.

    “we see that truth, beauty, goodness, love, and meaning have emerged from cosmic evolution but so too have ignorance, loneliness, war, cruelty, despair, poverty, and pain.”

    Let us substitute neutrality for goodness; an expectation of good may place the bar far too high for all but the most evolved.
    A Bodhi might advise one to seek benevolent neutrality if possible. Goodness appears excessively anthropic. For instance, think of pure science as being neutral; applied science as being in the range of bad to neutral. Ignorance, loneliness, war, cruelty, despair, poverty, and pain are linked to truth, beauty, goodness, love, and meaning.

    *Communists sought to end ignorance, loneliness, war, cruelty, despair, poverty– so they could exploit nature instead of humanity. The result was pollution up to science fiction levels.
    *As Mr. Arendt wrote here recently, the pursuit of personal fulfillment has led to today’s acidic warming oceans with plastic in them. In attempting to build lasting monuments to ourselves, we jeopardize ourselves and those very monuments.

    “Surely serious reflection on this misery is sobering and we must temper our optimism accordingly.”

    And with President Caligula in the Oval Office and Vozd Putin in the Kremlin, etc., pessimism is now justifiable. Quite a wake-up call, these last two or three years. But can the public be awoken? The one difference between us and the public is we do not expect deus ex machina. We don’t think Marx or Jesus will save us.

    “We should also remember that if we find patterns of progress in evolution, we might be victims of confirmation bias. After all, progress isn’t the whole story of evolution—most species and cultures have gone extinct, a fate that may soon befall us.”

    A slightly higher probability is that many will die–
    not our Extinction. Just say (random example) a century from now a supervolcano erupts; the probability is that the majority could survive and start over. Give it a 51 percent chance of Survival. Or 52%. Perhaps slightly higher.

  3. …To clarify:

    “we must admit that life may be utterly absurd, futile, and meaningless.”

    Only disagreement– if the following is in fact disagreement– with this article is how absurdity and futility might be that which provide the homo sapien with meaning.

    “We are radically contingent, our existence serendipitous.”

    Serendipity may be exactly what the majority want. The serendipity of companionship, love. Singles don’t generally use computer dating. Why? Perhaps the serendipity of chance meeting is precisely what gives relationships meaning. Two attractive people accidentally meet each other and the cosmos clicks.
    Again, this might not be disagreement with the article but, rather, complementing.

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