Cosmic Evolution and the Meaning of Life

(This essay was reprinted in Scientia Salon; Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies; High Existence, and Humanity+ Magazine)

Are there trends in evolution — cosmic, biological, and cultural — that support the claim that life is meaningful, or is becoming meaningful, or is becoming increasingly meaningful? Perhaps there is a progressive direction 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.

Has there been biological progress?

The debate between those who defend evolutionary progress and those who deny it has been ongoing throughout the history of biology. On the one hand, more recent biological forms seem more advanced, on the other hand, no one agrees on precisely what progress is. Darwin’s view of the matter is summarized nicely by Timothy Shanahan: “while he rejected any notion of evolutionary progress, as determined by a necessary law of progression, he nonetheless accepted evolutionary progress as a contingent consequence of natural selection operating within specified environments.” [1] This fits well with Darwin’s own words:

There has been much discussion whether recent forms are more highly developed than ancient . . . But in one particular sense the more recent forms must, on my theory, be higher than the more ancient; for each new species is formed by having had some advantage in the struggle for life over other and preceding forms. I do not doubt that this process of improvement has affected in a marked and sensible manner the organization of the more recent and victorious forms of life, in comparison with the ancient and beaten forms; but I can see no way of testing this sort of progress. [2]

The most vociferous critic of the idea of biological progress was Harvard’s Stephen Jay Gould who thought progress was an annoying and non-testable idea that had to be replaced if we are to understand biological history. According to Gould, what we call evolutionary progress is really just a random moving away from something, not an orienting toward anything. Starting from simple beginnings, organisms become more complex but not necessarily better. In Gould’s image, if a drunk man staggers from a wall that forces him to move toward a gutter, he will end up in the gutter. Evolution acts like that wall pushing individuals toward behaviors that are mostly random but statistically predictable. Nothing about evolution implies progress.

The biologist Richard Dawkins is more sanguine regarding progress, arguing that if we define progress as an adaptive fit between organism and environment then evolution is clearly progressive. To see this consider a predator and prey arms race, where positive feedback loops drive evolutionary progress. Dawkins believes in life’s ability to evolve further, in the “evolution of evolvability.” He believes in progressive evolution, in that sense.

Darwin seemingly reconciled these two views … as the forms became complicated, they opened fresh means of adding to their complexity … but yet there is no necessary tendency in the simple animals to become complicated although all perhaps will have done so from the new relations caused by the advancing complexity of others … if we begin with the simpler forms and suppose them to have changed, their very changes tend to give rise to others.[3]

Simple forms become increasingly complex, thus stimulating the complexity of other forms. This did not happen by necessity and no law needs to drive the process. Nonetheless, competition between organisms will likely result in progressively complex forms.

There is probably no greater authority on the idea of evolutionary progress than Michael Ruse whose book, Monad to Man: The Concept of Progress in Evolutionary Biology, is the most comprehensive work on the subject. Ruse observes that museums, charts, displays, and books all depict evolution as progressive, and he thinks that the concept of progress will continue to play a major role in evolutionary biology for the following reasons.

First, as products of evolution, we are bound to measure it from our own perspective, thus naturally valuing the intelligence that asks philosophical questions. Second, whatever epistemological relativists think, nearly all practicing scientists believe their theories and models get closer to the truth as science proceeds. And scientists generally transfer that belief in scientific progress to a belief in organic progress. Finally, Ruse maintains that the scientists drawn to evolutionary biology are those particularly receptive to progressive ideas. Evolution and the idea of progress are intertwined and nearly inseparable.

Has there been cultural progress?

Cosmic evolution evokes the idea of evolutionary progress while progressivism imbues the work of most biologists, a trend Ruse thinks will continue. When we turn to culture, a compelling argument can be made for the reality of progressive evolution. The historian Will Durant argued for cultural progress, a conclusion he believed followed from considering certain elements of human history, while Jean Piaget made the case for cognitive progress, based on his studies of cognitive development in children and his analysis of the history of science. The science writer Robert Wright believes in a generally progressive evolution based on the structure of non-zero-sum interactions, whereas Steven Pinker counters that complexity and cooperation are sub-goals of evolution, not its natural destiny.

While the overall strength of the arguments for evolutionary progress is unclear, we cannot gainsay that such arguments have philosophical merit. Clearly, there have been progressive trends in evolution, which suggests that life as a whole may become increasingly meaningful.

That is in line with a number of other thinkers who have argued for the relevance of evolution to meaning. Daniel Dennett extends the heuristic reach of evolution, showing how it acts as a universal solvent that eats through philosophical problems, while the skeptic Michael Shermer says that we create provisional meanings in our lives, even though our existence depends on a billion evolutionary happenstances. The scientist Steve Stewart-Williams argues that the universe does have purposes since we have purposes and we are part of the universe, while the philosopher John Stewart claims that the universe will be increasingly meaningful if we direct the process.

Still, other philosophers have argued that evolution is irrelevant to meaning; Wittgenstein notoriously maintained that “Darwin’s theory has no more to do with philosophy than any other hypothesis in natural science.” [4] Yet this claim was made in a philosophical milieu where the scope of philosophical inquiry was narrow, whereas today the impact of scientific theories on philosophy is enormous. Today most thinkers would say that the emergence of conscious purposes and meanings in cosmic evolution is relevant to concerns about meaning.

Turning to grand cosmic visions, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin articulated a universal vision of the evolutionary process, with the universe moving toward a fully meaningful endpoint. Jacques Monod questioned Teilhard’s optimism, noting that biology does not reveal that life is meaningful. Julian Huxley conveys a vision — similar to Teilhard’s but without the religious connotations — which encourages us to play the leading role in the cosmic drama by guiding evolution to realize its possibilities, thereby finding meaning for ourselves in the process. E.O. Wilson also believes that the evolutionary epic is mythic and sweeping and he exhorts us to create a better future. Thus many thinkers believe that evolution is both progressive and relevant to meaning. For Teilhard, Huxley, and Wilson, life is meaningful because it evolves, and we live meaningful lives precisely because we play a central role in this evolving meaning.

Evolution as metaphysics

So a study of cosmic evolution can support the claim that life has become increasingly meaningful, a claim buttressed primarily by the emergence of beings with conscious purposes and meanings. Where there once was no meaning or purpose — in a universe without mind — there are now both meanings and purposes.

These meanings have their origin in the matter which coalesced into stars and planets, which in turn supported organisms that evolved bodies with brains and their attributes — behavior, consciousness, personal identity, freedom, value, and meaning. Meaning has emerged during the evolutionary process. It came into being when complexly organized brains, consisting of constitutive parts and the interactive relationships between those parts, intermingled with physical and then cultural environments. This relationship was reciprocal — brains affected biological and cognitive environments which in turn affected those brains. The result of this interaction between organisms and environments was a reality that became, among other things, infused with meaning.

But will meaning continue to emerge as evolution moves forward? Will progressive evolutionary trends persevere to complete or final meaning, or to approaching meaning as a limit? Will the momentum of cognitive development make such progress nearly inevitable? These are different questions — ones that we cannot answer confidently. We could construct an inductive argument, that the past will resemble the future in this regard, but such an argument is not convincing. For who knows what will happen in the future? The human species might bring about its own ruin tomorrow or go extinct due to some biological, geophysical, or astronomical phenomenon. We cannot bridge the gap between what has happened and what will happen. The future is unknown.

All this leads naturally to another question. Is the emergence of meaning a good thing? It is easy enough to say that conscious beings create meaning, but it is altogether different to say that this is a positive development. Before consciousness, no one derived meaning from torturing others, but now they sometimes do. In this case, a new kind of meaning emerged, but few think this is a plus. Although we can establish the emergence of meaning, we cannot establish that this is good.

Still, we fantasize that our scientific knowledge will improve both the quality and quantity of our lives. We will make ourselves immortal, build ourselves better brains, and transform our moral natures — making life better and more meaningful, perhaps fully meaningful. We will become pilots worthy of steering evolution to fantastic heights, toward creating a heaven on earth or in simulated realities of our design. If meaning and value continue to emerge we will find meaning by partaking in, and hastening along, that very process. As a result of past meanings and as the conduit for the emergence of future ones, we could be the protagonists of a great epic that ascends higher, as Huxley and Teilhard had hoped.

In our imagination, we exist as links in a golden chain leading onward and upward toward greater levels of being, consciousness, joy, beauty, goodness, and meaning — perhaps even to their apex. As part of such a glorious process, we find meaning instilled into our lives from previously created meaning, and we reciprocate by emanating meaning back into a universe with which we are ultimately one. Evolutionary thought, extended beyond its normal bounds, is an extraordinarily speculative, quasi-religious metaphysics in which a naturalistic heaven appears on the horizon.

Conclusion: sobriety and skepticism

Yet, as we ascend these mountains of thought, we are brought back to earth. When we look to the past we see that evolution has produced meaning, but it has also produced pain, fear, genocide, extinction, war, loneliness, anguish, envy, slavery, despair, futility, torture, guilt, depression, alienation, ignorance, torture, inequality, misogyny, xenophobia, superstition, poverty, heartache, death, and meaninglessness. Surely serious reflection on this misery is sobering. Turning to the future, our optimism must be similarly restrained. Fantasies about where evolution is headed should be tempered, if for no other reason than that our increased powers can be used for evil as well as for our improvement. Our wishes may never be fulfilled.

But this is not all. It is not merely that we cannot know if our splendid speculations are true — which we cannot — it is that we have an overwhelmingly strong reason to reject our flights of fancy. And that is that humans are notorious pattern-seekers, story-tellers, and meaning-makers who invariably weave narratives around these patterns and stories to give meaning to their lives. It follows that the patterns of progress we glimpse likely exist only in our minds. There is no face of a man on Mars or of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches. If we find patterns of progress in evolution, we are probably victims of simple confirmation bias.

After all, progress is hardly the whole story of evolution, as most species and cultures have gone extinct, a fate that may soon befall us. Furthermore, as this immense universe (or multi-verse) is largely incomprehensible to us, with our three and a half pound brains, we should hesitate to substitute an evolutionary-like religion for our frustrated metaphysical longings. We should be more reticent about advancing cosmic visions, and less credulous about believing in them. Our humility should temper our grandiose metaphysical speculations. In short, if reflection on a scientific theory supposedly reveals that our deepest wishes are true, our skeptical alarm bell should go off. We need to be braver than that, for we want to know, not just to believe. In our job as serious seekers of the truth, the credulous need not apply.

In the end, cosmic and biological evolution — and later the emergence of intelligence, science, and technology — leave us awestruck. The arrival of intelligence and the meaning it creates is important, as Paul Davies put it: “the existence of mind in some organism on some planet in the universe is surely a fact of fundamental significance. Through conscious beings the universe has generated self-awareness. This can be no trivial detail, no minor byproduct of mindless, purposeless forces. We are truly meant to be here.” [5] Similar ideas reverberate in the work of Simon Conway Morris. He argues that if intelligence had not developed in humans, it would have done so in another species — in other words, the emergence of intelligence on our planet was inevitable [6].

I agree with both Davies and Morris that mind and its attendant phenomena are important, but it doesn’t follow that we are meant to be here or that intelligence was inevitable. It’s only because we value our life and intelligence that we succumb to such anthropocentrism. Homo sapiens might easily have never been, as countless events could have led to their downfall. This should give us pause when we imbue our existence with undue significance.

We were not inevitable, we were not meant to be here — we are serendipitous. The trillions and trillions of evolutionary machinations that led to us might easily have led to different results — ones that didn’t include us. As for the inevitability of intelligence, are we really to suppose that dinosaurs, had they not been felled by an asteroid, were on their way to human-like intelligence? Such a view strains credulity; dinosaurs had been around for many millions of years without developing greater intelligence. We want to believe evolution had us as its goal — but it did not — we were not meant to be. We should forgo our penchant for detecting patterns and accept our radical contingency. Like the dinosaurs, we too could be felled by an asteroid [7].

Thus we cannot confidently answer all of the questions we posed at the beginning of this essay in the affirmative. We can say that there has been some progress in evolution and that meaning has emerged in the process, but we cannot say these trends will continue or that they were good. And we certainly must guard against speculative metaphysical fantasies, inasmuch as there are good reasons to think we are not special. We do not know that a meaningful eschatology will gradually unfold as we evolve, much less that we could articulate a cosmic vision to describe it. We don’t even know if the reality of any grand cosmic vision is possible. We are moving, but we might be moving toward our own extinction, toward universal death, or toward eternal hell. And none of those offer much comfort.

We long to dream but always our skepticism awakens us from our Pollyannaish imaginings. The evolution of the cosmos, our species, and our intelligence give us some grounds for believing that life might become more meaningful, but not enough to satisfy our longings. We want to believe that tomorrow will really be better than yesterday. We want to believe with Teilhard and Huxley that a glorious future awaits but, detached from our romanticism, we know that Jacques Monod may be right — there may be no salvation, there may be no comfort to be found for our harassed souls.

Confronted with such meager prospects and the anguish that accompanies them, we are lost, and the most we can do, once again, is hope. That doesn’t give us what we want or need, but it does give us something we don’t have to be ashamed of. There is nothing irrational about the kind of hope that is elicited by, and best expressed from, an evolutionary perspective. Julian Huxley, scientist and poet, best conveyed these hopes:

I turn the handle and the story starts:
Reel after reel is all astronomy,
Till life, enkindled in a niche of sky,
Leaps on the stage to play a million parts.

Life leaves the slime and through the oceans darts;
She conquers earth, and raises wings to fly;
Then spirit blooms, and learns how not to die,
Nesting beyond the grave in others’ hearts.

I turn the handle; other men like me
Have made the film; and now I sit and look
In quiet, privileged like Divinity
To read the roaring world as in a book.
If this thy past, where shall thy future climb,
O Spirit, built of Elements and Time![8]

____________________________________________________________________

Notes.

[1] Timothy Shanahan, “Evolutionary Progress from Darwin to Dawkins.”

[2] Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or, the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life (New York: Cosimo, Inc., 2007), 211.

[3] Barrett, P., Gautrey, P., Herbert, S., Kohn, D., and Smith, S., Charles Darwin’s Notebooks, 1836-1844 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1987).

[4] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, trans. D.F. Pears and B.F. McGuiness (London: Routledge & Paul Kegan, 1961), 25.

[5] Paul Davies, The Mind of God: The Scientific Basis for a Rational World (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993), 232.

[6] Simon Conway Morris, Life’s Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

[7] Had the course of the asteroid 2005 YU55 that passed the earth on November 8, 2011 been slightly altered, millions might have died and this essay not written.

[8] Julian Huxley, ‘Evolution: At the Mind’s Cinema’ (1922), in The Captive Shrew and Other Poems of a Biologist (London: Basil Blackwell, 1932), 55.

(Note. This essay originally appeared on this blog on January 26, 2015.)

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11 thoughts on “Cosmic Evolution and the Meaning of Life

  1. The face of Jesus on a grilled cheese sandwich: now there is an image for us to…savor.
    On a side note, something quite obvious I was not aware of until the last decade is how science fiction influences science, and vice versa.
    Had thought SF was merely a byproduct of science, and no more than fluff.
    Yet famous early SF writers such as Jules Verne and HG Wells are known for having influenced scientists. Scientists in turn have influenced SF writers—and such a spiral continues.

  2. I’ll expand on some ideas I have previously presented on this blog. This discussion of meaning strikes me as merely a secular version of arguments over the nature of the soul. The underlying misconception is an abstraction of the notion of God. Simpler minds imagine the existence of a person who provides meaning to life. More complex minds imagine the existence of a principle that provides meaning to life. More cynical minds (such as mine) see no external reality to the concept of meaning in life. I believe that meaning is supplied internally. I define my own meaning. I set my purpose in life. I follow a star of my own making. I do not understand why other people cannot trust their hearts.

    On the matter of biological evolution, this is easily resolved by thinking in thermodynamic terms. We have the sun pouring scads and scads of negentropy all over the planet. The chemistry of the surface of planet affords the possibility of chemical structures responding to this negentropy by collecting and storing it. Because the biosphere stores negentropy in the form of its chemical structures, and the sun continues to spew negentropy all over the planet, the total amount of negentropy stored by the biosphere continually increases.

    Negentropy is a difficult concept for most people to grasp. It’s best described as ‘orderliness’. A bunch of playing cards lying scattered on the floor have little orderliness. The same bunch of cards lined up in a row have more orderliness. The same bunch of cards built into a house of cards have a lot of orderliness.

    This is not a question of “better or worse”. A house of cards is not intrinsically better than a random scatter of cards on the floor. It’s just more orderly. Questions of value, aesthetics, or merit are purely subjective.

    Money provides us with a useful way of thinking about the matter. Money is, after all, a human manifestation of negentropy: you can use money to organize the world in a manner better suited to your values. You can use money to heat your house, to surround yourself with art, or to influence the government to suit your personal preferences. Money is the power to organize the world; money is negentropy.

    So, is wealth better than poverty? It’s certainly more desirable, but does anybody think that wealth makes you a better person? Is Donald Trump better than Mother Theresa because he has gold-plated toilets? No, wealth isn’t intrinsically better. A gold-plated toilet is not intrinsically better than a Tesla or a trip around the world. It’s just a different manifestation of orderliness. It is our own personal values that make things “better” or “worse”.

  3. Chris

    You really defend a very subjective view of value. Suppose I value torturing small children in the most painful way possible? Surely my valuing this doesn’t make it good, does it?

  4. The sun does not pour negentropy (negative entropy, or increased orderliness) over the planet. Rather, the sun pours “energy” in the form of radiation all over the planet. The radiation from the sun provides the energy that is used by biological systems to grow, which locally decreases entropy by increasing the orderliness reflected in their bodies. Alas, as these biological structures age, no amount of energy can maintain that orderliness and entropy starts increasing again; and their bodies eventually turn to “dust”.

  5. John, I’m not asserting any particular value system. I’m saying that values are personal. Sure, there are people who want to torture children. That’s not good, nor is it bad, because values are subjective judgements. The vast majority of people share the belief that torturing children is bad, so we strongly punish such behavior. Is a 150-day old fetus a human being? A 2-day old fertilized egg? There’s no objective answer to those questions, because the definition of “human being” is subjective.

    Philo, energy is the medium through which negentropy is transferred from the sun to the earth. If the earth were surrounded by mirrors in such a way that sunlight illuminated every part of the earth’s surface equally, we’d have the same amount of energy coming in as now, but no negentropy — and there would be no life on earth, because it would be at thermal equilibrium.

    Death is a necessary factor for evolution. If animals lived forever, we’d still be trilobites. Death is programmed into our genes.

  6. An amateur philosopher’s take:
    Positing a dichotomy of morality defined as an organized body of ethics, contrasted here with ‘modern’ ethics.
    Ten Commandments are an example of an organized-but-rigid body of ethics; the advantage being they give structure. Whereas modern—in this brace, post-ancient—ethics are disorganized, elastic, yet less rigid. I’ve been through this before, however will add that the
    Ten Commandments are in fact objective defined in terms of value consistency. In the modern world, though the Ten Commandments are still consistent/objective in terms of pure ethics, modern philosophy is
    expedient->pragmatic in orientation. Organized and Modern ethics are not of necessity antipodes:: they can be complementary. One can invoke the dualism of ying-yang;
    when all else fails, invite ying-yang into the philosophy.

  7. Thanks for the link, John. I read your essay and mulled it over. I think we might be able to find agreement in the statement that there exists no empirical basis for any system of morality. Your observation that ethical theory is akin to mathematics is especially interesting. Mathematics also has no empirical basis. Yet both mathematics and ethics have practical applications. There remains a fundamental difference between mathematics and ethics: mathematics relies on strict, rigorous logic, where the reasoning used for ethics isn’t so absolute.

    Languages are also analogous to ethical systems in that they have no empirical basis. The word “cat” doesn’t look or sound like a cat. However, languages are required to maintain an internal logic: grammar. Particularly cute is the fact that both language and morality have odd little exceptions that are acceptable in rare situations. The most pertinent comparison is that both language and morality are ultimately conventional in nature: they are both established by social consensus. Dictionaries and law books attempt to provide specific definitions of what words mean and what moral laws are universally agreed upon. Yet there are always people who stretch the meanings of words and the applicability of laws.

  8. One can with great difficulty live non-evolutionarily. One can live a consistent life based, say, on both the Ten Commandments and the Gospels.
    It’s when an attempt to syncretize the consistent Old with the inconsistent New that philosophical dissonance results.
    That’s why it can succeed to consider the old value systems as objective because they are logically consistent. Not correct, mind you—but self-contained.

  9. What a wonderfully deep essay! I happen to be reading about the group selection controversy at the moment so I was struck by the idea that it’s pretty hard to see the progress of evolution with just one planet’s worth of data. What if all other planets winked out of existence? (Fermi paradox is correct.) What if all other planets are in a great and good galactic federation and waiting behind great technology to shun us or welcome us into the fold? Without that multi-level view, I would add the terms robustness and fragility into the mix as we examine whether or not our own story of evolution is getting “better” or “worse”. But you are still right that it is hard to see the future here to know for sure.

  10. Hi John,
    Happy NY john! May I talk about the exploding Trump tragicomedy?
    I think that the insurrection in Washington should not take away from the shine of the victorious Georgian Senators and the enormous significance of the resultant Senate control for the Democrats and the world.

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