Wandering around my backyard when I was about 7 or 8 years old I climbed a small mound behind our garage when suddenly it hit me: “Why is there anything at all rather than nothing?” Little did I know then that I had stumbled across perhaps the greatest question in philosophy. 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, and I thank him for his efforts, but eventually, I outgrew his answers.
In my early teens, I fell briefly under the spell of the New England transcendentalists, the first intellectuals I had ever encountered. From Thoreau, I learned the value of non-conformity and of hearing “a different drummer,” while Whitman taught 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
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 believed that a voyage of the mind lay ahead and that I might never anchor intellectually. Then, as I was about to enter college, discussions with a friend and philosophy major really awoke me, as Kant said of encountering Hume, from my dogmatic slumber. It was as if a dam had broken, making apparent the parochialism of my childhood indoctrination. I now wanted to live and die with as large a mind as possible and an irresistible desire to explore the mindscape swelled within me. 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 courses in Existentialism, Hume, Kant, Ancient, Medieval, Modern, American, and Asian philosophy; as well as in 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 really began to mature and coalesce. In “Concepts of Time,” I first contemplated a mysterious and yet fundamental aspect of reality—that it is always changing. In “Evolutionary Ethics” and “Evolutionary Epistemology,” I came to understand that knowledge and morality continually change and thus must be informed by evolution, 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 his 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 the philosophy of Jean Piaget with its 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. I would later put all these ideas in my book Piaget’s Conception of Evolution.
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 biology largely explains the minds and behaviors of human beings, that there was evidence that reality unfolds in a progressive direction, and that cosmic evolution was a key to understanding if life had any meaning. Naturally, this led me to wonder if the cosmos becomes increasingly meaningful as it evolves or whether there really is a 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 exponentially faster than biological evolution ever 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, 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 the 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.
Concerning my insights about questions of meaning, I offer 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 the speed of light. That’s why we eventually won’t see any other galaxies from the 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-years across and nearly 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. Needless to say, all of this is largely incomprehensible to me.
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. Like all others I am fallible, and my answers are, at best, applicable only to a certain time, place, and perspective. Ultimately they are mine alone.
I’ll end with the quote that best summarizes my sentiments about the search for meaning,
All my life I struggled to stretch my mind to the breaking point, until it began to creak, in order to create a great thought which might be able to give a new meaning to life, a new meaning to death, and to console [humanity]. ~ Nikos Kazantzakis
2 thoughts on “My Lifelong Search for Meaning”
Searching for meaning is self-defeating:
one could search quixotically all over the world but discover only the purpose of searching for meaning—not any meaning itself.
Fascinating story, fascinating mind, and fascinating thoughts!