Category Archives: Book Reviews – Meaning of Life/Science

Review of Daniel Dennett’s, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea

A reader’s comment on one of my posts provided a good review of Daniel Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life. Here is Jim Roger’s review.

DARWIN’S DANGEROUS IDEA is one of those books that should be read slowly and savored – and then re-read again and again. It took me all summer to work my way through the book (I’m a slow reader), but it was a thoroughly enjoyable and thought-provoking experience. Dennett has sharpened my understanding of Darwinian evolution from a vague concept that I learned many years ago in school to a much richer perspective.

While I gained many new insights from the book, perhaps the one that has stuck with me the most is Dennett’s description of natural selection as being a mindless, purposeless, algorithmic process. The feat of traversing through design space from the earliest, simple organisms to the present-day complexity of life was done in a bottom-up manner by little chemical and biological “cranes”. No “skyhooks” lowered by imaginary beings from above were needed. In Dennett’s words (p. 75): “Darwin has offered us an account of the crudest, most rudimentary, stupidest imaginable lifting process – the wedge of natural selection. By taking tiny – the tiniest possible – steps, this process can gradually, over eons, traverse these huge distances.”

Being an engineer, I was intrigued by how often Dennett’s explanations drew on familiar concepts used in engineering and computer science. He even has an entire chapter titled “Biology is Engineering”, in which he states the following (p. 187): “I want to make out the case that the engineering perspective on biology is not merely occasionally useful, not merely a valuable option, but the obligatory organizer of all Darwinian thinking, and the primary source of its power. I expect a fair amount of emotional resistance to this claim. Be honest: doesn’t this chapter’s title provoke a negative reaction in you, along the lines of ‘Oh no, what a dreary, philistine, reductionist claim! Biology is much more than engineering!’?”

Actually, I got quite excited when I saw the title of that chapter!

Dennett does not shy away from trying to correct misconceptions about evolution. Although written back in 1995, with some particular disagreements now consigned to the dustbin of history, his analysis still seems relevant today. In particular, Dennett singled out the popular author Stephen Jay Gould (now deceased). Although Dennett was very complimentary about the many contributions that Gould made, he ultimately felt that Gould often misled and confused the public on what evolution is. Dennett writes about a possible reason for this (p. 265): “The hypothesis I shall defend is that Gould is following in a long tradition of eminent thinkers who have been seeking skyhooks – and coming up with cranes.”

This controversy between Dennett and Gould, over twenty years ago, is OBE at this point. But there are still currently many well-meaning and not-so-well-meaning individuals that confuse and mislead the public about evolution and science in general. After all, it is basic human nature to seek and want to believe in skyhooks dangled by deities. That thesis is much more comforting (and marketable) than the notion that the meaning of life is to be found buried among the cranes. Yet, that latter notion is the net result of Dennett’s uncompromising and precise analysis, which is also like a universal acid in its own right: it eats through one’s misconceptions and cognitive biases and leaves behind a more clear-thinking, rational human being. (Well, I hope that happened to me…)

Of all the well-deserved comments of praise about the book inside the front cover, my favorite is the one from Matt Ridley of The Times (London): “If we had to choose one man to represent Earth in a debating tournament with extraterrestrials, the American philosopher Daniel Dennett would be a prime candidate”. I heartily agree.

Summary of Clement Vidal’s, “The Beginning and the End: The Meaning of Life in a Cosmological Perspective”

The Beginning and the End: The Meaning of Life in a Cosmological Perspective is the latest book by Clement Vidal, a member of the Evolution, Complexity and Cognition Group at the Free University in Brussels, Belgium. In it Vidal investigates a most important question—whether modern scientific cosmology can satisfy our search for meaning in life. The book is a carefully and conscientiously crafted work of immense scope and daring imagination, one of the most important and timely books I’ve recently read.

A briefest overview is as follows. Chapter 1 conducts a broad study of the philosophical method whose major aim, Vidal concludes, is to construct worldviews–comprehensive and coherent answers to big questions. Where do we come from? Where are we going? What should we do? What does it all mean? Chapter 2 develops criteria to test the strengths and weaknesses of these worldviews; Chapter 3 applies these criteria to various religious, philosophical and scientific worldviews; Chapters 4-6 investigate the question of the origin of the cosmos; chapters 7-8 study the question of the future of the cosmos; chapter 9 the question of whether we are alone in the cosmos; and Chapter 10 the possibility of a cosmological ethics.

Vidal is aware of the speculative nature of his work, but he reminds us that speculation plays a large part in the scientific and philosophical enterprises, speculation aims to solve scientific or philosophical problems. He knows his speculations could turn out to be wrong, but given the choice between careful speculation or silence, Vidal chooses the former. And we are glad he did. For his assiduous scholarship reveals the possibility that a scientific cosmology can provide a narrative which gives life meaning. A narrative so desperately needed as old mythological ones have become increasingly passé. And we are privileged to journey along with a well-ordered and visionary mind as it contemplates perhaps the most important question of our time—how do we find meaning in the cosmos revealed by modern science.

Chapter 1 – Vidal begins by arguing “that having a coherent and comprehensive worldview is the central aim of philosophy.” (Vidal, 2) This contrasts sharply with (Continental) philosophy’s investigation of subjectivity, or (British) philosophy’s logical analysis. To better understand his synthetic philosophy Vidal introduces six dimensions of philosophy. Those dimensions are the:

1) Descriptive – What exists? Where did it come from? Where is it going? Describing or modeling reality depends on our current scientific understanding.
2) Normative – What should we do? What is good and what is evil? How do we live well? What is a good society? What is the purpose and meaning of life?
3) Practical – How do we act in accord with our values to solve practical problems?What is our theory of action?
4) Critical (epistemological) – What is true and false? What is the nature and limits of knowledge?
5) Dialectical – How do we answer the previous question? By engaging in a debate or dialogue with opposing positions–a dialectic.
6) Synthetic – This final dimension of philosophy provides the comprehensive and coherent synthetic worldview–a synthesis.

Following the Belgian philosopher Leo Apostel, Vidal argues that a complete worldview will comprise these six elements. And it is crucial to have a worldview because they sustain us and give meaning to our lives. Individuals lacking worldviews suffer psychologically, and without rational worldviews irrational ones will arise to fill the need. Yet it is so difficult to express a rational worldview that many philosophers have been content to reject them all—skeptics—or accept them all—syncretists. Nonetheless Vidal will try to articulate a synthetic worldview.

Chapter 2 develops criteria to test the strengths and weaknesses of these worldviews.

In order to derive criteria to evaluate worldviews, Vidal takes three perspectives into account. The 1) objective or scientific; 2) subjective, existential, or phenomenological; and 3) intersubjective, social or cultural. These perspectives mirror the concerns of Kant’s three critiques, Popper’s three worlds, and Weber’s cultural spheres of value. The three perspectives distinguish between the objects of knowledge, the subjects who assimilate knowledge, and the communication process to transmit knowledge among subjects. “… the criteria can be seen as tools for philosophers to describe the history of philosophy, to work out their own philosophical position, or to clarify disagreements.” (Vidal, 18) Vidal draws heavily on Nicholas Rescher’s standards for evaluating philosophical theories to derive the criteria:

Objective criteria
Objective consistency  – The worldview exhibits internal and systemic consistency.
Scientificity – The worldview is compatible with science.
Scope – The worldview addresses a broad range of issues and levels,
in breadth and in-depth.

Subjective criteria
Subjective consistency – The worldview fits knowledge and experiences individuals already have.
Personal utility – The worldview promotes a personally rewarding outlook on life.
Emotionality  – The worldview evokes emotions so that it is more likely to be
assimilated and applied.

Intersubjective criteria
Intersubjective consistency – The worldview reduces conflicts between individuals.
Collective utility  – The worldview encourages an outlook on life and mobilizes
for what is socially beneficial.
Narrativity – The worldview presents its messages in the form of stories.(Vidal, 20)

Vidal’s subsequent discussion points out the strengths and weaknesses of each criterion. For instance: objective consistency informs a good worldview but overemphasizing it leads to a formalism that limits creativity; we must take modern science into account, yet dismissing non-scientific domains of knowledge leads to scientism; if the scope of a worldview is too narrow the resulting worldview becomes over specialized, but as the scope expands synthetic integration becomes more difficult. Similarly the breadth or depth of the worldview can be too narrow or too broad.

When discussing the subjective and intersubjective criteria, Vidal also highlights how each component is an important part of a worldview, but that no criteria are sufficient by itself. He concludes by arguing that these criteria allow us to judge some worldviews as better than others. For instance, continental philosophy generally ignores objective criteria while analytic philosophy often ignores subjective criteria.

Here are some things the three basic criteria illuminate. “… we humans are involved in three kinds of conflicts: against nature (objective), against ourselves (subjective), and against others (intersubjective) … objective criteria require that the worldview not be in friction with the outside world; subjective criteria require that the worldview not be in friction with an individual’s common knowledge and actions; and intersubjective criteria require that the worldview minimizes friction between individuals … A worldview that fits well in the three worlds has more chances to be accepted, appealing, and useful. Ideally, it would give rise to the following benefits: A consistent conception of the world (objective benefit); a lifeworld providing a meaning for life, useful for living a good life (subjective benefit); and a worldview whose foundations are fit for a well-organized society, where few conflicts arise (intersubjective benefit). Most importantly, those three worlds would be synthesized as far as possible in a coherent and comprehensive framework, thus forming a synthetic worldview. If we sum up the use of the three-perspectives criteria, we come to the goal of minimizing friction: a good worldview has a minimum of friction within and between objective, subjective, and intersubjective worlds.” (Vidal, 36-37)

With an understanding of the criteria a good worldview will satisfy, Vidal will turn in Chapter 3 to assessing various religious, scientific and philosophical worldviews.

3.1 Religious Worldviews –  Vidal now invokes his criteria to test various worldviews. To demonstrate how the process works he compares intelligent design (ID) with flying spaghetti monsterism (FSM).  They are both objectively consistent and equally unscientific, although ID is larger in scope. ID does better in terms of subjective consistency,  since the designer of ID is amorphous, while FSM has a very specific designer. ID is also more useful and emotionally satisfying, as it is disgusting to think that a monster designed the world. FSM is more intersubjectively consistent since it has not killed millions, but ID is collectively more useful. ID’s narratives are more developed than those of FSM.  From this analysis we can conclude that ID is a better worldview than FSM. (Of course it may be a much worse worldview than others.)

Now that we have a sense of how these comparisons work we can consider religious worldviews in general. Religions usually excel in personal and collective utility, emotionality and narrativity. “… a religious worldview gives meaning, provides answers to fundamental questions, and has a pragmatic value in terms of both psychological benefits and social cohesion.” (Vidal, 43) Yet religions have few rational methods to resolve conflict—hence the ubiquity of religious conflict—and they are generally low on objective criteria, their tenets often contradict known scientific truths. They typically respond by invoking a god of the gaps, using god to explain current gaps in scientific knowledge. (This strategy is notoriously weak, as the gaps are continually closed causing religion to continually retreat.) In short religions are generally much better with subjective and intersubjective criteria than with objective criteria.

3.2 Scientific Worldviews – The strength of science is apparent–it constructs our best models of what is, where it came from, and where it’s going. It is strong in precisely those areas religion is weak. (I would say this is because science is the only cognitive authority in the world today.) But science often ignores integrating its models with questions of value, actions, knowledge, and meaning. Essentially, science is strong regarding objective criteria but less so regarding the subjective and intersubjective.

3.3 Philosophical Worldviews – In order to correct the flaws in their various worldviews, theologians try to develop theologies more consistent with science, while scientists may expand their worldviews to include values, emotions, and meanings. Building a naturalistic worldview entails starting with objective, scientific principles, and extending them to include the subjective and intersubjective. For Vidal this is the essence of a philosophical worldview.

Vidal now examines three analogies to help us grasp how to build comprehensive and coherent worldviews. First, consider worldview questions as an axiomatic system where worldview answers are structures satisfying the axioms. Many philosophies and religions use axioms such as god, immortality, or freedom as postulates in their systems. In general scientific worldviews are coherent but incomplete; religious worldviews are relatively complete but incoherent. Second, consider worldview questions as a system of equations. In this model solving philosophical questions about worldviews compares to solving intricate sets of equations.  Third, consider worldview questions as problems to solve. In this case, we might employ problem-solving techniques to resolve these problems.

Now that we have some idea of what it entails to develop a philosophical worldview, Vidal’s next task is to reformulate worldview questions in light of modern science.

In Chapter 4 Vidal turns to issue of the beginning of the universe. Answers to these questions are no doubt found in the realm of science. “Modern science can successfully connect physical and chemical evolution with biological and cultural evolution … Thus, it seems reasonable to assume that science is an effective method to understand cosmic evolution.” (Vidal, 59) But the multiple challenges for any ultimate explanations include:

a) epistemological – What are the epistemological characteristics of an ultimate theory? Are all ultimate theories either circular or infinite regresses?
b) metaphysical – Why not nothing? Why is there something rather than nothing?
c) thermodynamic – Where does the energy of the universe come from, and how will it end? Can something come from nothing?
d) causal – What was the causal origin of the universe? Was it self-caused? Is its causal chain infinite?
e) infinities – Is the universe spatially finite or infinite? Is it temporally finite or infinite?

Vidal begins by discussing a foundational starting point for the universe–a cause which does not need another cause. Examples of points include a god or the big bang. By invoking a creator god one avoids an infinite regress (the idea that the chain of causation goes back infinitely) but one can still ask  questions like: “Where did God come from?” “What was god doing before he created the universe?” Theologians often answer that God is self-caused. Of course one could say the Big Bang was a self-caused starting point too.

To avoid these issues we might assume the origin of the universe has no foundation–that ultimate explanations are cyclical. Cyclical thinking is found in various disciplines: recursive proofs in mathematics and computer science; networks of meaning in linguistics; and feedback loops in systems theory. (Jean Piaget thought that all of the sciences ground each other in a “circle of the sciences.) Might cyclic cosmologies like those of the Stoics and Hindus better explain the origins of the universe? The problems with cyclic theories are many. Cycles appear to have no endpoint, and thus don’t supply an ultimate explanation. Cycles also imply an eternal return–an endless repetitive cycle.

To fully engage these deep issues Vidal encourages us to take current cosmological theories seriously. “It is crucial to take seriously our best theories to answer our questions about origins. Major physical theories like quantum mechanics or general relativity can have counterintuitive consequences, which nevertheless we must take into account. Such theories are more reliable than intuitions coming from our brains, which are mere products of biological evolution. The brain is well adapted to recognize cycles in natural environments or to recognize starting points in human actions, but not to guess what happened in the Big Bang era.”(Vidal, 75)

Vidal concludes that building scientific models involves the interaction of the external system and an observer who constructs models of that system. And understanding how observers model the world gives us the best chance to avoid the cognitive biases that lead us astray.

Chapters 5 and 6 continue to investigate the question of the origin of the cosmos. Perhaps the most important result for the average reader is that the argument for a fine-tuned universe is inconclusive. The discussion in chapters 4-6 leads to the question of the future of the cosmos in Chapters 7 and 8; the question of whether we are alone in the cosmos in Chapter 9; and Chapter 10 the possibility of a cosmological ethics. There are simply so many profound and novel ideas in these chapters that I’ll leave them to the readers of the book to explore.

The crescendo of the work appears in the last section’s discussion of immortality, where Vidal distinguishes five kinds of immortality:

1) Spiritual – The belief in a supernatural realm where a non-physical soul “goes” after death. This belief is widespread and appealing, but anathema to the rationalistic mind.

2) Individual – The belief that we can be biologically or digitally immortal. Vidal suggests that motivation for individual immortality arises primarily because we are cultural creatures. Our genes survive to a large extent but “most of the information we gather during our lifetime is cultural and gets lost at the time of death. And this is pure waste.” (Vidal, 298) The way out of this problem is biological or digital immortality or some combination of the two.  Critics question whether cybernetic immortality is possible without embodiment, whether it’s worth it to live in a simulation, whether its cost will be prohibitive, whether death is good because it motivates us, etc. But Vidal suggests that immortality would force us to worry about things like climate change and the death of our sun and universe since we will live into the far future.  Still, we don’t need to be immortal to have transpersonal concerns–we can care about others who will live on after we have died. And the same with our projects, concerns, and goals. If they take many generations to achieve, then our deaths do not undermine them.  Such considerations lead us to consider transpersonal immortality in three different varieties.

3) Creative – The belief that immortality can be achieved by leaving a cultural legacy. The main problem here is that even the achievements of an Aristotle, Shakespeare or Darwin may be forgotten in thousands or millions of years.

4) Evolutionary – The belief that immortality can be achieved by leaving a biological legacy. For example, we are almost immortal at the level of the genes and are potentially immortal as part of a global brain. But even this is not enough if there are cosmological constraints on the immortality of the universe.

5) Cosmological – The belief that true immortality can only be achieved by a connection between ourselves and the immortality of the cosmos. But can the universe continue indefinitely? Perhaps universes could reproduce other universes ad infinitum, or our descendants will become smart enough to determine the fate of the cosmos. Vidal believes that we can be concerned with the issue of cosmological immortality, we can see the immortality of the cosmos as our ultimate goal.

My reflections – Let me conclude by stating my belief that only with cosmic immortality can complete meaning in life be found. And I agree with Vidal that this is our ultimate goal—the creation and continuation of a good, meaningful, immortal cosmos.

Finally, let me reiterate what I said about this work previously. It is a carefully and conscientiously crafted work of immense scope and daring imagination, one of the most important and timely books of the last few decades. Vidal is aware of the speculative nature of his work, but he reminds us that speculation plays a large part in the scientific and philosophical enterprises. He knows his ruminations may turn out to be wrong, but given the choice between careful speculation or silence, Vidal chooses the former. And we are glad he did. For his assiduous scholarship reveals the possibility that a scientific cosmology can provide a narrative which gives life meaning. A narrative so desperately needed as the old mythological ones become increasingly passé. And we are privileged to journey along with his well-ordered and visionary mind as it contemplates perhaps the most important question of our time—how do we find meaning in the cosmos revealed by modern science.

Review of Massimo Pigliucci’s, Answers For Aristotle: How Science and Philosophy Can Lead Us to a More Meaningful Life

Massimo Pigliucci.jpg    

(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, July 1, 2017.)

I just finished Massimo Pigliucci wonderful book: Answers for Aristotle: How Science and Philosophy Can Lead Us to A More Meaningful Life. Pigliucci was born in Monrovia, Liberia and raised in Rome.[1] He has a PhD in genetics from the University of Ferrara, Italy, a PhD in biology from the University of Connecticut, and a PhD in philosophy of science from the University of Tennessee.[10] He is currently a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry.

In the first chapter, which serves as an introduction to the work, Pigliucci explains what he calls “sci-phi,” which is short for the wisdom that comes from thinking about the world and ourselves using philosophy and science, the most powerful approaches to knowledge that humans have discovered.

The basic idea is that there are some things that ought to matter, whatever problem we experience in life: the facts that are pertinent to said problem; the values that guide us as we evaluate those facts; the nature of the problem itself; any possible solutions to it; and the meaningfulness to us of those facts and values and their relevance to the quality of our life. Since science is uniquely well suited to deal with the factual knowledge and philosophy deals with (among other things) values, sci-phi seems like a promising way to approach the perennial questions concerning how we construct the meaning of our existence. (p.2)

Pigliucci traces his idea that sci-phi gives us the best chance to understand the world and ourselves to the classical idea of scientia, a Latin world meaning knowledge, and he argues that Aristotle was the first philosopher in the West to take this concept seriously. For Aristotle life was a project in which we search for eudaimonia—a Greek word best translated as flourishing—and we have the best chance of flourishing or living well if we take into account both scientific facts and philosophical values. (I have written elsewhere about Aristotle’s notion of the good life.)

This sci-phi approach aids us in having an informed, rational position about a variety of issues including: ethics; epistemology; self-knowledge; love and friendship; politics; and the gods. Yet this approach assumes that “you are interested in using reason and evidence to guide your life and make it better. If you’d rather be led by mysticism, superstition, or “other ways of knowledge” … this book is not for you.” (p. 17) In short, he assumes that living well entails using human reason as best we can.

In Part I of the book, “How Do We Tell Right From Wrong?” Pigliucci investigate ethics. He is generally critical of deontology and consequentialism and more receptive to Aristotelian virtue ethics. But he argues that combining the best elements of these three ethical theories may ultimately be the wisest course, although he is cognizant that elements of the three ethical theories are in tension. For we need to heed the insights of all the great moral philosophers and then, after careful reflection, do the best we can.

Part II of the book considers epistemology: “How Do We Know What We Think We Know?” His main theme here is that while science is imperfect and its knowledge always provisional, it is still  the best means we have for uncovering the truth about ourselves and reality. So science works—as the success of technology demonstrates—yet most scientific theories have at some point be shown to be wrong. How do we resolve this tension?

To answer this we should remember that science is both objective and subjective. There are objective facts about our experience of color–electromagnetic radiation, wavelengths, retinas—and there is a subjective experience of color. Similarly, science results from the subjective perspective of human beings interacting with an objective world. Now what does all this have to do with living well? The key is to realize that:

Scientists are not objective, godlike entities, dispensing certain knowledge. They have a human perspective on things, including the field in which they are experts. But other things being equal, your best bet—particularly when the stakes are high—is to go with the expert consensus, and if a consensus is lacking, you’re better off going with the opinion of the majority of experts. (p. 124)

A particular area of scientific interest that informs us about living well is cognitive neuroscience, which is the subject of Part III of the book titled, “Who Am I?” The first half of this third part explores free will and Pigliucci advocates for compatiblism—the idea that free will and causal determinism are compatible.

free will is … our (demonstrable) ability to consider information, balance it against our desires, and take a particular course of action among several available to us. So compatibilism is a compromise between the undeniable fact that we are a particular type of biological being … and our sense that we own our decisions and can therefore
—within limits—be held responsible for them and praised for them. (p. 140)

The issue of free will provides a good example of how our best understanding is informed by sci-phi. Philosophy helps clarify the conceptual issues, while science helps settle the empirical ones. So we can say, for example, that what we call free will has a neural basis, but that doesn’t mean the phenomenon is illusory.

The remainder of Part III considers our sense of self. Pigliucci is skeptical of arguments that our conscious self controls the subconscious, being more receptive to Hume’s famous remark that “reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions.” Moreover, “modern neurobiology seems to vindicate Hume when it portrays reason as the instrumental tool deployed to achieve our desires, with the fundamental engine generating those desires lying much lower than the cerebral cortex.” (p. 151)  Such considerations should minimize our hubris about how much our conscious selves dictate our lives.

Part IV applies these insights about human nature to something that gives our lives meaning—love and friendship. Pigliucci begins by acknowledging what science has learned about the hormones of love, and how philosophy informs this knowledge.

Neither biology nor philosophy will ever be able to substitute for the first person experience of feeling what it is like to be in love, but they certainly give us plenty of ideas and empirical evidence to begin to answer the Bard’s question [What is it to love?] in a broader sense—and hence to use our new knowledge to further enhance our enjoyment of a purposeful life. (p. 172)

As for friendship, it has a large impact on our happiness.  As Aristotle noted: “friends hold a mirror up to each other; through that mirror they can see each other in ways that would not otherwise be accessible to them, and it is thus (reciprocal) mirroring that helps them improve themselves as persons.” (p. 179)

Part V looks at politics. As with so much else about us, our politics and political views often have less to do with rationality and more to do with our biological origins and cognitive biases. Our sense of fairness and justice are similar to those of chimpanzees, where in-group loyalty and out-group hostility reign supreme, and our cognitive biases are well-documented. How then might we bring about a more just and impartial society? Pigliucci suggests that John Rawls best describes such a society in his monumental work, A Theory of Justice. This leads him to conclude that the best governments producing the most just societies are those of the Scandinavian countries.

Part VI looks at belief in a god. He begins by noting how science can induce mystical experiences. While this doesn’t preclude the existence of supernatural beings, it does seem likely that mystical experiences probably result from malfunctioning brains. Why? Because, while evidence of a meteor on the night you thought you saw a flying saucer doesn’t prove there was no UFO, the meteor is a more reasonable explanation.

Nonetheless, people have a hard time letting go of supernatural explanations for a variety of reason: brain chemistry, the psychology and sociology of human being, and our evolutionary history. As for religion’s evolutionary origins:

Genetic evolution provided the building blocks of pattern-seeking and agency projection behaviors, getting the process started as a by-product of behaviors that were adaptive for other reasons … The move from superstitious and simple religious beliefs to the bewildering variety and complexity of modern religious cultures, however, was a result of cultural evolution, a process that takes place on top of and by distinct mechanisms from the standard genetic-Darwinian one … Needless to say, gods are not actually excluded from the picture … but they are also very clearly not required. (p. 261-62)

Pigliucci adds to the case against religion by showing how Euthyphro’s Dilemma demonstrates that god can’t be the foundation of morality. All of this leads to the conclusion that religion is most likely a human invention that doesn’t reflect a supernatural reality. And this means that we should use sci-phi to understand morality.

The book’s conclusion is titled, “Human Nature And The Meaning Of Life.” Here Pigliucci elaborates on an idea found in Aristotle—we all share a fundamental human nature. By this Pigliucci doesn’t mean what some evolutionary psychologists do, that very complex cultural phenomena are completely explained by biology. For while some human behaviors obviously have a partial genetic basis, it is ridiculous to think that biology completely explains complex cultural phenomena: “… it is increasingly clear that what has mattered most for human evolution and the shaping of human nature during the past tens of thousands of years wasn’t genes, but culture (as well as how the two interact, the so-called gene-culture coevolution.)” (p.277)

Insight into what makes our lives meaningful generally comes not from evolutionary biology but from the social sciences. We know for example that seeking pleasure or wealth for their own sake don’t bring happiness or meaning—a result that wouldn’t have surprised Aristotle. “Psychologist have found that what really satisfies people instead is lifelong happiness—which comes only through the search for meaning.” (p. 279) In addition, we have discovered that our emotional lives are enhanced by experiencing states like gratitude and mindfulness.

Pigliucci now turns to wisdom, which isn’t factual or technical knowledge, but something that comes with age and experience and philosophical reflection on life’s meaning. Here he adopts Vivian Clayton’s view that wisdom entails the cognitive function knowing things, the reflective function of analyzing that knowledge, and the affective function of being able to filter our knowledge through our emotions. What we do know is that research has shown that older and wiser people: better distinguish situations that call for action from situations that don’t; focus more on meaningful goals;  exercise greater control their amygdala with their prefrontal cortex; and spend more time on positive emotions. Perhaps William James was right when he said: “The art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook.” (p. 284)

So what has sci-phi told us about the meaning of life? It may not seem like much, as science is provisional and philosophy isn’t in agreement about life’s meaning. Compare this to the certainty that religious fundamentalism supposedly gives. Why prefer the uncertainties of sci-phi to the certainties of the Bible or Koran? Pigliucci responds that religious texts need to be interpreted by humans so they admit to no literal reading of them nor is certainty to be found in them. Such texts are open to far more doubt that science or philosophy. Moreover, the uncertainty of sci-phi is a virtue, not a vice. I’ll let Pigliucci have the final word:

We need to wrap our minds around the fact that as human beings we are inherently limited in our ability to reason and to discover things about the world. These limitations do not give us license to arbitrarily “go beyond” reason and evidence into religion and mysticism. On the contrary, they are reminders that nobody has final answers and that the quest is open to all people who are willing to use their brains intelligently. Our limitations also give us a reason to cut ourselves a bit of slack for not getting life exactly right, for failing here and there, as humans are bound to do. This is why the eudaimonic life is always an imperfect and incomplete project, all the way until the moment of our death. But it is by far the most important of our projects, and one for which sci-phi is far better equipped to help us along the way than common sense, political ideology, or religious mysticism. We are social and (somewhat) rational animals, and we can reflect on how to employ our rationality to improve our lives and our societies. Seems like the meaningful thing to do.

Reflections – This is a wonderful and readable book. Virtually no rational person can deny that sci-phi provides the best, though imperfect, means to understand our lives and the world. His conclusion is (roughly) that meaning can be found by satisfying our nature. This happens when we use sci-phi to find the happiness and wisdom that are ultimately constitutive elements of a meaningful life. This is a good description of a meaningful life.

We are limited in time so we must choose our books wisely, and this work is definitely worth our time.  I thank Professor Pigliucci for his work.

Review of E.O. Wilson’s: The Meaning of Human Existence

People … yearn to have a purpose larger than themselves. We are obliged by the deepest drives of the human spirit to make ourselves more than animated dust, and we must have a story to tell about where we came from, and why we are here. ~ E. O. Wilson

Eighty-five year old E. O. Wilson, one of the world’s most important living scientists, has written another wonderful book, The Meaning of Human Existence . It comes highly recommended with the caveat that the book isn’t a final or novel statement of his views. However, he does summarizes the case against religion particularly well.


Wilson begins by telling us that if we truly understand our evolutionary history, we will realize that:

We are not predestined to reach any goal, nor are we answerable to any power but our own. Only wisdom based on self-understanding, not piety, will save us. There will be no redemption or second chance vouchsafed to us from above. We have only this planet to inhabit and this one meaning to unfold.  (15-16)

We must choose where we are to go as a species, nothing else will choose for us. Wilson thus reiterates a theme which goes all the way back to the opening pages of his Pulitzer prize-winning book, On Human Nature. He makes a similar point a few pages later.

Demons and gods do not vie for our allegiance. Instead, we are self-made, independent, alone, and fragile, a biological species adapted to live in a biological world. What counts for our long-term survival is intelligent self-understanding, based on a greater independence of thought than that tolerated today even in our most advanced democratic societies. (26)

Wilson proceeds to tell the story of human evolution as only a great biologist and prose stylist could. Self-understanding requires that we accept, once and for all, our biological roots—an animality. Without this truth we deceive ourselves and expedite our extinction. We are thoroughly mammalian; we are connected to the ecosystem. This is the truth, and we reject it at our peril.

Yet reject it we do, for “the evolutionary innovations that made us dominant over the rest of life also left us sensory cripples. It rendered us largely unaware of almost all the life in the biosphere that we have been so heedlessly destroying.” (90) That may not have made much difference when we were small in number, but today it makes a great difference. We are destroying our only home.

Wilson continues to take us on a fascinating journey, telling us about ants, microbes, and more. His impassioned plea for our attention to collapse of biodiversity is perhaps the most moving section of all. We are destroying life because of habitat loss, invasive species, pollution, population growth, and overharvesting. When you read these heartfelt sentiments coming from a wise sage like Wilson, it is hard not to contrast them with the short-sighted, self-interested, ignorance of most politicians.

Our choice will be a profoundly moral one. Its fulfillment depends on knowledge still lacking and as sense of common decency still not felt. We alone among all species have grasped the reality of the living world, seen the beauty of nature, and given value to the individual. We alone have measured the quality of mercy among our own kind. Might we now extend the same concern to the living world that gave us birth? (131-132)

In the penultimate chapter, “Idols of the Mind,” Wilson uses his biological expertise to explain why human life is so mysterious and how we might solve that mystery. The key to understanding the mystery is to accept that our minds are products of natural selection, and thus instruments of survival. Our minds are a curious mix of reason and emotions, influenced by instincts and environment, by nature and by nurture. We typically fear snakes, and like music. “Human nature is the ensemble of heredity regularities in mental development that bias cultural evolution in one direction as opposed to others and thus connect genes to culture in the brain of every person.” (143)

Music releases dopamine, as does food, sex, and religion. In fact, the neurosciences suggest strongly that religion is largely instinctual; it is hard-wired. Of course religion has evolved beyond its biological roots. Today religion typically postulates a deity, hopes for eternal life, provides an extended community and more. The deity “is the final and forever alpha male, or She is the alpha female. Being supernatural and infinitely powerful, the deity can perform miracles beyond the reach of human understanding.”  (149)

For most of history the gods explained natural phenomena, but with the coming of modern science better explanations became available. Still the instinctive appeal of religion remained, as does the comfort it provides to so many. But the cost of religion is staggering.

They are impediments to the grasp of reality needed to solve most social problems in the real world. Their exquisitely human flaw is tribalism. The instinctual force of tribalism in the genesis of religiosity is far stronger than the yearning for spirituality. People deeply need membership in a group, whether religious or secular. From a lifetime of emotional experience, they know that happiness, and indeed survival itself, require that they bond with others who share some amount of genetic kinship, language, moral beliefs, geographical location, social purpose, and dress code… It is tribalism, not the moral tenets and humanitarian thought of pure religion, that makes good people do bad things. ( 150-151)

Moreover, religious groups define themselves in large part by their creation myths, which assure them that they are favored by the gods. These myths also put them in conflict with other religious tribes. Accepting the myths and miracles constitutes faith, which is “biologically understandable as a Darwinian device for survival and increased reproduction.” (151) Religious conflicts “were widespread through the Paleolithic Era and have continued unabated to the present time. In more secular societies faith tends to be transmuted into religionlike political ideologies.” (152)

Despite all the suffering it causes, religion offers psychological benefits. It gives people an explanation for existence, tells them they are loved and protected by the gods, binds them with other members of the tribe, gives them rules of conduct, and provides meaning to their lives. If the faith is lost, the tribe disintegrates, so myths must be set in stone and dissidents punished. Scientists are generally cautious about religion, so as not to offend. But sometimes they can’t help themselves. When a distinguished scientist heard the 1950 edict by Pope Pius XII that the Virgin Mary ascended bodily into heaven,  he replied “that he couldn’t be sure because he wasn’t there, but of one thing he was certain, that she passed out at thirty thousand feet.” (153)

Wilson thinks this is all very important because tribalism causes so much evil in the world today. “The principal driving force of mass murders … is tribalism, and the central rationale for lethal tribalism is sectarian religion—in particular the conflict between those faithful to different myths.” (154) Tribalism, of which religion and religionlike ideologies are expressions, is the real culprit.

Nowhere do people tolerate attacks on their person, their family, their country—or their creation myth. In America … it is possible in most places to openly debate different views on religious spirituality … But it forbidden to question closely, if at all, the creation myth—the faith—of another person or group, no matter how absurd. To disparage anything in someone else’s sacred creation myth is “religious bigotry.” It is taken as the equivalent of a personal threat. (154-155)

Wilson says “that faith has hijacked religious spirituality.” (155) Religions have come to be dominated by myths, rituals, and gods who oppose homosexuality, contraception, female clergy, abortion, evolution, etc. The founding fathers of the United States recognized that tribal religious conflict was abhorrent. But today politicians must profess a religious faith, almost always Christianity, however little they actually believe in it or how ridiculous that faith is.

Serious Christian thinkers don’t accept creation myth or miracles literally, but tend to think of them as insightful myths nonetheless.

Intellectual compromisers one and all, they include liberal theologians of the Niebuhr school, philosophers battling on learned ambiguity, literary admirers of C.S. Lewis, and other persuaded, after deep thought, that there must be Something Out There. They tend to be unconscious of prehistory and the biological evolution of human instinct, both of which beg to shed light on this very important subject. (156-157)

But all Christian compromisers face what Kierkegaard called the Absolute Paradox—that the infinite, eternal truth could become finite in time. (Other religions face a similar paradox.) For how can a perfect deity have human-like emotions like “pleasure, love, generosity, vindictiveness, and a consistent and puzzling lack of concern for the horrific Earth-dwellers endure under the deity’s rule. To explain that ‘God is testing our faith’ and ‘God moves in mysterious ways’ doesn’t cut it.” (157-158)

Wilson is doubtful the religious problem can be solved, it can only be outgrown.

The problem is not in the nature or even in the existence of God. It is in the biological origins of human existence and in the nature of the human mind, and what made us the evolutionary pinnacle of the biosphere. The best way to live in this real world is to free ourselves of demons and tribal gods. (158)

Wilson next tackles free will. He doubts that free will exists in an absolute sense, but admits that our ability to explain consciousness is limited. This allows many to go on believing in free will which, he says, “is a very fortunate Darwinian circumstance. Confidence in free will is biologically adaptive. Without it the conscious mind, at best a fragile dark window on the real world, would be cursed by fatalism.” (170) A belief in free will seems necessary for our sanity.

In Wilson’ final chapter, “Alone and Free in the Universe,” he brings his beautiful book together. What is the story of our species, he asks? It is the story, not of divine creation, but of biological evolution. And what is the meaning of our lives? “… it is the epic of the species, begun in biological evolution and prehistory, passed into recorded history, and urgently now, day by day, faster and faster into the indefinite future, it is also what we will choose to become.” (174)

Wilson proceeds to tell the story with vigor. We are a single lineage of Old World primates, who easily could have been something else, or not been at all. Humans are not necessarily wicked, but they are dysfunctional.

We are hampered by the Paleolithic Curse: genetic adaptations that worked very well for millions of years of hunter-gatherer existence but are increasingly a hindrance in a globally urban and technoscientific society. We seem unable to stabilize either economic policies or the means of governance higher than the level of a village. Further, the great majority of people worldwide remain in the thrall of tribal organized religions, led by men who claim supernatural power in order to compete for obedience and resources of the faithful. We are addicted to tribal conflict, which is harmless and entertaining if sublimated into team sports, but deadly when expressed as real-world ethnic, religious, and ideological struggles.  (176-177)

And there is more—we destroy the environment at an alarming rate. People, including our so-called leaders, care mostly about themselves or their own family or tribe. Few speak for the species or the environment. The cause of all this is that our brains are poorly wired, infected with mental parasites. A creation myth is a mental parasite, but it is hard to dislodge. Believers fight challenges to their mythology, although Wilson hopes that we might one day put the dignity of the believers above the dignity of the beliefs.

In an especially prescient passage Wilson says: “It might eventually be possible to hold seminars on the historical Jesus in evangelical churches, and even to publish images of Muhammad without risking death. That would be a true cry of freedom.” (182) And the argument applies to dogmatic political ideologies as well.

The same practice might be adopted for dogmatic political ideologies … The reasoning behind these secular religions is always the same, a proposition considered to be logically true followed by top-down explanation and a handpicked checklist of evidence asserted to be supportive. Zealots and dictators alike would feel their strength diminished if they were asked to explain their assumptions (“speak clearly, please”) and verify their core beliefs. (182)

Religious opposition to evolution is a particularly virulent parasite. Such ignorance is:

a triumph of blind religious faith over carefully tested fact. It is not a conception of reality forged by evidence and logical judgment. Instead, it is part of the price of admission to a religious tribe … The cost to society as a whole of the bowed head has been enormous. Evolution is a fundamental process of the Universe … Its analysis is vital to biology, including medicine, microbiology, and agronomy. Furthermore psychology, anthropology, and even the history of religion itself make no sense without evolution … The explicit denial of evolution … is an outright falsehood, the adult equivalent of plugging one’s ears … ” (184)

Still science doesn’t explain everything; we also need the humanities. “If the heuristic and analytic power of science can be joined with the introspective creativity of the humanities, human existence will rise to an infinitely more productive and interesting meaning.” (187) I would summarize Wilson’s thinking like this. We must grow up, and accept our role as the protagonists of the evolutionary epic. To make life more meaningful is the meaning of our lives.

Review of Paul Thagard’s, The Brain and the Meaning of Life

Paul Thagard (1950 – ) is professor of philosophy, psychology, and computer science and director of the cognitive science program at the University of Waterloo in Canada. His recent book, The Brain and the Meaning of Life (2010), is the first book length study of the implications of brain science for the philosophical question of the meaning of life.

Thagard admits that he long ago lost faith in his childhood Catholicism, but that he still finds life meaningful. Like most of us, love, work, and play provide him with reasons to live. Moreover, he supports the claim that persons find meaning this way with evidence from psychology and neuroscience. (He is our first writer to do this explicitly.) Thus his approach is naturalistic and empirical as opposed to a priori and rationalistic. He defends his approach by noting that thousands of years of philosophizing have not yielded undisputed rational truths, and thus we must seek empirical evidence to ground our beliefs.

While neurophysiology does not tell us what to value, it does explain how we value—we value things if our brains associate them with positive feelings. Love, work, and play fit this bill because they are the source of the goals that give us satisfaction and meaning. To support these claims, Thagard notes that evidence supports the claim that personal relationships are a major source of well-being and are also brain changing. Similarly work also provides satisfaction for many, not merely because of income and status, but for reasons related to the neural activity of problem solving. Finally, play arouses the pleasures centers of the brain thereby providing immense psychological satisfaction. Sports, reading, humor, exercise, and music all stimulate the brain in positive ways and provide meaning.

Thagard summarizes his findings as follows: “People’s lives have meaning to the extent that love, work, and play provide coherent and valuable goals that they can strive for and at least partially accomplish, yielding brain-based emotional consciousness of satisfaction and happiness.”[i]

To further explain why love, work, and play provide meaning, Thagard shows how they are connected with psychological needs for competence, autonomy, and relatedness. Our need for competence explains why work provides meaning, and why menial work generally provides less of it. It also explains why skillful playing gives meaning. The love of friends and family is the major way to satisfy our need for relatedness, but play and work may do so as well. As for autonomy, work, play, and relationships are more satisfying when self-chosen. Thus our most vital psychological needs are fulfilled by precisely the things that give us the most meaning—precisely what we would expect.

Thagard believes he has connected his empirical claim the people do value love, work, and play with the normative claim that people should value them because these activities fulfill basic psychological needs for competence, autonomy, and relatedness. Our psychological needs when fulfilled are experienced as meaning.

Summary – Love, work, and play are our brains way of satisfying our basic needs for competence, autonomy, and relatedness. In the process of engaging in these activities, we find meaning.


[i] Paul Thagard, The Brain and the Meaning of Life (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010), 165.