All posts by John Messerly

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


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 did 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 knew then 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 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 had the good fortune of 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 godlike? What would it mean to posthuman?

I subsequently taught the meaning of life class a number of times through the years and in 2012 all these strands of thought came together in my 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.)

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! Even weirder, we may be living in a computer simulation. All of this is hardly comprehensible.

Against this immense backdrop of speed and space and time 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. 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.

The Presocratics

"The School of Athens" by Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino.jpg  The School of Athens fresco by the Italian Renaissance artist Raphael

© Darrell Arnold Ph.D.– (Reprinted with Permission)

The earliest Greek philosophers are typically known as “Presocratic” philosophers. Yet this designation as “Presocratic” first was explicitly used in the 18th century as historians of philosophy attempted to re-catalog the discipline’s past. As a temporal reference, the term is a misnomer since some of the “Presocratics” were also Socrates’ contemporaries. As a practical and now well-established classification, however, we might maintain the term to designate a group of Greek thinkers in the sixth and fifth centuries BCE who were intellectually concerned with issues of natural philosophy and/or speculative metaphysics that were of primary relevance prior to the Socratic and Sophist turn toward questions of ethics.

Though much of the thought of these philosophers from Thales (620-546 BCE), who is classically regarded as the first Western philosopher, onwards was focused on questions of the natural world and was proto-scientific, many of the “Presocratics” also challenged the conventional Greek views of the gods and re-conceived of the divine in various ways. They re-conceived the soul. They produced a form of thought that begins to turn against “mythological” explanation. Yet the traditional view that they represent a decisive move from “myth” to “reason” is oversimplified. For one thing, myth itself is infused with reason. For another, some of the earliest thinkers recognized as philosophers used poetry and myth among their devices for reasoning.

It is clear that mythical-religious thinkers — from Egypt to Mesopotamia to Persia and India — prior to the early Greeks had well-developed views about metaphysics, ethics, politics and the other issues of philosophy. They had philosophic perspectives, which did influence the Greeks. Thales and later Pythagoras are known to have lived in Egypt and to have been influenced by Egyptian thought. Plato had some knowledge of Zoroastrianism. Aristotle mentions dualistic ideas of the Persian Magi.

Yet we do see from the 6th century BCE onward the focus on a new kind of reasoning in Greece. It is one more naturalistic in tone than what had been dominant — that is, it does not claim to offer a revelation but to result from natural processes of reasoning. But the philosophy that was emerging was also not only a naturalistic form of reasoning. Science, in some forms independent of philosophy, was being practiced. Many of the Presocratics practiced this, too, but they also did so against the background of metaphysical questions.

Whatever the focus of their individual thought, Presocratics are characterized by the presupposition that reality is rationally structured and that some methodology of rational and/or evidence-based argumentation can be used to settle disputes about the correctness of one’s worldview. Generally, the Presocratics develop a cosmology — a vision of reality as a whole that surpasses the views of science alone.

That said, many of them also did science. Indeed, the Presocratics proposed some broad views about the natural world that we also now accept as true, even if for different reasons than those they proposed. For example, Democritus (460-370 BCE) and other early Atomists argued that all things are comprised of tiny particles known as atoms; and Anaximenes (585-525 BCE) argued that in the course of its history the earth underwent a process of evolution. Though they lacked a full scientific method that since the 17th century has led to the great development of knowledge, the Presocratics created an opening for a scientific naturalistic outlook.

Plato offered one of the earliest cataloguings of early Greek philosophy but as it played into his own system of thought. He contrasted “Heracletians,” who emphasized sense experience and the changes in the world, with “Eleatics” (like Parmenides and Zeno) who focused on the need to bend our views to logic, even if doing challenged the most common sense of our sense experience.

This classification scheme fit with Plato’s own view of himself as the more sophisticated synthesizer of these schools, who in a certain sense completed the project of early Greek philosophy. The world of sense experience, in Plato’s view, is highlighted by the Heracliteans, while the Eleatics prepare the ground for Plato’s own view of the reality of a supersensible realm of unchanging ideas. Truth, in Plato’s view, comes through conceptual reasoning, not through the sense experience. In this, he sees himself as completing the Parmenides’ project. To understand Plato and how he sees himself as responding to the thinkers of his time, this is important.

However, historians of philosophy today understand Plato’s own cataloging as deeply flawed. One recent suggestion for cataloging this early thought is topical as relating to (a) the study of nature related to cosmological order, (b) “cultural polemics”, (c) considerations of the soul, and (d) processes of reasoning. We see this group of thinkers take up these issues, some devoted with greater focus to one, some to another.

Belief and Knowledge

                                                    A marble head of Socrates in the Louvre

© Darrell Arnold Ph.D.– (Reprinted with Permission)

Socrates famously noted that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” But what exactly does an examined life require? …

Our starting point

We do all start our process of self-reflection with our inherited perspectives. We are born into a particular family and society and acquire our first views from such contexts — influenced strongly by our parents, our schools, the religious, civic and political authorities. There are always background assumptions in such contexts. One thing philosophers try to do is bring those background assumptions to light and examine them. Philosophers do so with the intention of clarifying concepts, providing a justification for beliefs and considering whether our priorities are well-ordered.

Some basic questions on belief and knowledge

As we consider an examined life, I want briefly to reflect on a few basic concepts of importance for this examination. First, what is a belief? For beliefs are largely what we will examine. Second, how do beliefs relate to knowledge? For true beliefs have been the traditional goal of philosophers. Third, what is a warranted belief? For while the traditional philosophical goal of certain and absolute truth largely evades us, I would like to suggest that this more moderate goal [of having warranted beliefs,] … may replace it [the goal of absolute truth or knowledge.]

A belief

belief is a subjectively held view. We think that our beliefs are true, but some of them are and some of them are not. Beliefs, as we have discussed, are first of all a product of our social environment. We acquire beliefs, among other things, from our “knowledge communities.” In our society, we have established schools where knowledge from diverse academic disciplines is passed on: There we learn that 1+1+2. We learn that atoms  (or subatomic particles) are fundamental building blocks. We learn that organisms are comprised of cells. We learn that organisms evolve through history. From our households, churches, and political system, we learn certain views of about morality and/or law are correct. We learn that certain religious views are or are not correct. In all of this, we learn how to learn. That is, we are taught by our communities fundamental approaches to knowledge questions that are deemed respectable.

Relative degrees of certainty and appropriate forms of justification

When I say “we learn” here what I really mean is that we are taught these things and we come to believe them. For some of the things I’ve mentioned are thought to be knowledge and quite certain and others less so. We are taught — though we may not be conscious of this — that different standards of evidence are required for different domains. Aristotle already differentiated between areas, like physics in which we could have considerable certainty, and other areas, like ethics, where we have much less certainty.


Sometimes we are taught that no evidence is needed for some beliefs, but that we should just dogmatically embrace a set of ideas. This form of dogmatism is decidedly unphilosophic. Philosophy is characterized by seeking justifications for all beliefs.

When it comes to religious beliefs, no small children and few young adults have views that were not taught to them by their parents or guardians, or someone with whom they had a lot of contact as children. Most of those in the United States are Christians, born into Christian households. Yet it is clear that if they had been born in India, of Hindu parents, they would likely be Hindu. Some students, now adults, have examined beliefs they grew up with and have moved away from the religion of their parents. Some have examined them and retained the religion of their parents. Some haven’t thought about their religious views much. People are often not willing to compromise on religious beliefs. Some people do hold religious ideas non-dogmatically, though, viewing them as basic principles that are open to some revision.

Though religious beliefs are among the beliefs held most dogmatically, they are not the only beliefs that are held dogmatically. Some political beliefs or basic moral positions are held without much justification ever provided. In the United States, many people think that the country is the best, most free country in the world, or in world history. Regardless of whether it is true, few people attempt to justify the belief in any detail. Those who do clearly don’t do so by pointing to the wellness indexes of the UN such as average life expectancy, the average educational level, the results of average happiness studies. None of those indicate that life in the U.S. is superior to that in other countries. They also rarely make use of in-depth cross-country or cross-historical arguments. Doing so would require specifying clearly what the criteria for greatness are.

This political view, like a religious view, is normally held dogmatically. Reflecting on the view can teach us something, but there is often a hesitancy to reflect on it, because to do so may be viewed as unpatriotic, or it will simply go against the cultural grain, and we are uncomfortable to take a minority stance. Identity issues are tied up with some of our basic beliefs about religion and politics. This makes movement on those issues particularly cumbersome.

Knowledge beyond certainty 

As mentioned, philosophers have long indicated that different domains allow different levels of certainty and different criteria for justification. Contemporary philosophy has long moved beyond searching for absolute certainty for most of our beliefs. Instead, philosophers, like the pragmatists, have developed views that while it is important to seek justifications for beliefs, we need not have justifications that are always airtight. Indeed, we cannot.

Yet that does not mean that any belief is just as a justifiable as any other. John Dewey, an American pragmatist of the early 20th century, argued that we should look for “warranted assertability.” For this, we need to consider what kind of evidence applies to the domain under question and try to figure out what the right amount of evidence for that domain is. This, of course, is a difficult task. But as thoughtful and serious people, it is a task that we cannot avoid. To do so would essentially to affirm a willed ignorance about various domains about which rational reflection and the use of evidence-based reasoning could help us to develop some reasonable beliefs.

Knowledge is generally thought of as a kind of true belief. But of course, we could have a true belief serendipitously. We might have been taught something true and believe it even though we do not know why we believe it. In alignment with the philosophical desire to understand the world and to understand the reasons for beliefs and to form beliefs responsibly, it is perhaps more appropriate to view (theoretical) knowledge as consciously justified true belief. But this description too might only work as a guide rather than as a hard and fast definition, since much-purported knowledge cannot be known to be absolutely true.

One of the values of philosophical reflection is that it can help us to gain greater clarity about appropriate forms of evidence for beliefs and to grasp why we might hold something to be true (and even provisionally call it the best knowledge available), given the state of evidence that we have, without clamoring to the view as dogma.

Fallibilism and abduction

Twentieth-century philosophers from John Dewey and Charles Pierce to Karl Popper have emphasized the wisdom of revising our beliefs in light of new evidence that we find. Pierce develops a position known as fallibilism that is also later developed by Popper. Pierce’s view is that knowledge grows as we formulate positions and develop beliefs that are open to being disproven or improved upon and that we revise those views in light of knowledge we gain. Pierce’s article The Fixation of Belief highlights the value and wisdom of such an approach, which, in stark contrast to dogmatism, is open to correction.

The lack of certainty that we have in various domains thus does not condemn us to absolute relativism — the view that any view is as good as any other. But because our accepted beliefs are not shown to be absolutely certain, but only the best available ones given the available evidence, we might speak of “truth” with a small “t” rather than a capital “T.” This attitude expresses humility — an acknowledgment of the difficulty of the questions being posed.

Pierce thinks that at least when it comes to scientific views, the evidence is always strong enough to point to the best answer. He calls the reasoning to this best explanation   abduction. Various theorists apply this term to domains outside of science. There is some debate among philosophers of science about whether it is even possible in the domain of science. There is even more debate about whether it is possible in other domains. Is there a best single answer applicable to all people to all questions of applied ethics or to all questions of the spiritual or religious life?

Philosophical reflection facilitating self-knowledge

If there is not one best answer to all of the kinds of questions philosophers ask, we could ask what value there is to asking those kinds of questions at all. Might we return to Socrates’ dictum at this point? Might it be valuable for providing us with the possibility to know our own minds, to gain greater clarity about what our own values are — in short, for facilitating self-knowledge that can improve our lives?

Even if in some domains (like religion or ethics) do not in every case provide us with universally acceptable answers, or clearly best answers, might there be a value in reflecting on what some of the reasonable answers are? We will likely at least learn what some really bad answers are. And might the reflection at least facilitate us in better deciding the things that we, individually, find worthy to care about and the beliefs we find worthy to pass on?

Useful links

See my short discussion of  Fallablism or see
Fallabilism (Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy) or see
Belief (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

PBS Frontline “Trump’s Showdown”

Last night I watched the new PBS Frontline “Trump’s Showdown.” It was the sixth film in this anthology from Frontline” filmmaker Michael Kirk. Other films include Trump’s strategy for wresting power from the Republican establishment (“Divided States of America“) and muscling his way into the Oval Office (“Trump’s Takeover”), to what his surrogate represents (“Bannon’s War”) to our susceptibility to Russian influence (“Putin’s Revenge”), and more.

It is difficult to verbalize how well-researched and powerful the 2-hour documentary is. If watching this series were a prerequisite to voting in this country Trump couldn’t possibly have been elected. I doubt that any reasonably intelligent, impartial person could watch it and still be a Trump supporter. Unfortunately, there are many misinformed and/or bad people in the country. I encourage my readers to take a look.

In the meantime let’s hope for the success of the many forces allied against this attempted coup by Trump and his Republican sycophants. We should remember that civilization is a high achievement that is founded on the rule of law, as Aristotle noted long ago, and that it rests on very shaky foundations. It doesn’t take much for warlike words to turn in to warlike action. We tread a path that may lead to a dissolution of the social order. And if we ever get there we will regret our lack of self-control.

For a more in-depth discussion of the documentary see: “Decoding Trump’s “Showdown” strategy, from Roy Cohn to Michael Cohen” in Salon.


(Note – The political situation in the USA is so depressing that I’m not going to write about it for a while. Over the next few weeks I’ll return to philosophical topics. )

Kavanaugh is Obviously Guilty of Sexual Assault

Tizian 094.jpgTarquin and Lucretia by Titian

I hesitate to comment on the current spectacle surrounding the nomination of Bret Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court since my words are unlikely to sway anyone’s mind. Still, let me state how a non-partisan juror or good critical thinker might consider the problem.

Point 1 – Your intuition about who is or isn’t lying is worthless. It has been well-demonstrated that humans are very bad at detecting lying. Instead, they simply superimpose what they want to believe or disbelieve onto whoever they are listening to. So don’t tell me someone seems credible or not. Your intuition here is worthless.

Point 2 – Dr. Ford has little incentive to lie and had a lot of incentive to remain quiet. Mr. Kavanaugh has every incentive to lie.

Point 3 – There is a lot of circumstantial evidence against Kavanaugh. People who knew him as a teenager say he was a frequent drunk; his friend and fellow alleged assaulter Mark Judge wrote a book Wasted: Tales of a Genx Drunk (which is now almost impossible to buy); there are other allegations of sexual assault against Kavanaugh; etc. (A Yale classmate has also accused him of being a drunk.)

Point 4 – Kavanaugh is a liar. He gave misleading testimony about his knowledge of stolen documents when he was in the Bush White House and about his involvement in judicial nominations. In addition, when asked about his yearbook claim to be a “Renate Alumnius,” he pretended that there was no sexual insinuation. This was almost certainly a lie. And he lied when he said that references in his yearbook were about a flatulence and drinking game when they are both sexual references. He also lied by saying that it was legal for him to drink as a high school senior. He was then 17 and in his state, the drinking age was 21. And he lied about having no connections to Yale when he was a legacy student.

(I would add that the legal principle “Falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus” applies here. This Latin phrase means “false in one thing, false in everything.” In common law, it is the legal principle that a witness who testifies falsely about one matter is not credible to testify about any matter.)

Point 5 – False accusations of sexual assault and/or rape are the exception, not the rule. This is well-established in the scientific literature. The bottom line is that false allegations are probably somewhere between 2% and 10%. For more see:

a) Wikipedia  – False accusations of rape
b) National Sexual Violence Resource Center – False Reporting
c) Stanford University – Myths About False Accusations

Based on this fact alone Kavanaugh is very likely guilty.


If I were a betting man I’d say the chances he assaulted Dr. Ford are about 100 to 1. It’s possible he’s innocent but very unlikely. This may or may not disqualify him from a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court, but the fact that he is probably a liar should.

Finally, Kavanaugh wants our sympathy for bad deeds committed as a teenager—which he may deserve—but you can bet he won’t show any mercy to non-white teenagers who plead before him in his court. At them, he will throw the full weight of the law.

Poor Kavanaugh. If denied this seat he will likely go back to sitting on the nation’s highest appeals court or accept a multimillion-dollar salary as a partner in a law firm. Like most entitled rich, white frat boys the law doesn’t apply to him—he only wants to apply it to the rest of us.

Finally, for a persuasive case against Kavanaugh by a conservative, see Jennifer Rubin’s great piece in today’s Washington Post “If we want to protect the Supreme Court’s legitimacy, Kavanaugh should not be on it.”

For more see also:

Kavanaugh is Lying: His Upbringing Explains Why
Here’s Where Kavanaugh’s Sworn Testimony Was Misleading or Wrong
At times Kavanaugh’s Defense Misleads or Veers Off Point