Category Archives: Meaning of Life – Personal

A Philosopher’s Lifelong Search for Meaning – Part 4 – Death and Meaning

continued from a previous entry

  1. Is There A Heaven?

Belief in personal immortality is widespread, yet there is little if any evidence for it. We don’t personally know of anyone coming back from the dead to tell us about an afterlife, and after people die they appear, well, dead. Yet people cling to any indirect evidence they can—near-death experiences, reincarnation and ghost stories, communication with the dead, etc. However, none of this so-called evidence withstands critical scrutiny.

Modern science generally ignores this supposed evidence for an afterlife for multiple reasons. First, the idea of an immortal soul plays no explanatory or predictive role in the scientific study of human beings. Second, overwhelming evidence supports the view that consciousness ceases when brain functioning does. If ghosts, souls, or disembodied spirits exist, then some of the most basic ideas of modern science are mistaken—which is very unlikely.

Now this cursory treatment of the issue doesn’t show that an afterlife is impossible. For that, we would need to answer complicated philosophical questions about personal identity and the mind-body problem. Suffice it to say that explaining either the dualistic theory of life after death—where a soul separates from the body at death and lives forever—or the monist theory—where a new body related to the earthly body lives on forever—is extraordinarily difficult. In the first case substance dualism must be defended and in the second case, the miraculous idea of the new body must be explained. Either way, the philosophical task is daunting. Clearly, the scientific winds are blowing against these ancient beliefs.

So while personal immortality based on supernatural considerations is logically possible, it’s easy to see that it isn’t very plausible. In the end, wishful thinking best explains belief in immortality, not reason and evidence. Therefore, I live under the assumption that my consciousness depends on a functioning brain and when my brain ceases to functions so will I. When I die, I doubt that I’ll move to a better neighborhood.

  1.  Death Is Bad For Us

But maybe death isn’t so bad. After all, there are undoubtedly fates worse than death. An indefinite hell is much worse and more meaningless than oblivion, and I prefer death to relatively short intervals of incarceration, dementia, or pain.

Nonetheless, death is bad because being dead deprives us of the good things of life. If life is on balance a good thing, then we are harmed by being dead even if death is devoid of experience. Note too that our aversion to death isn’t motivated exclusively by selfish concerns. We also don’t want others to die because we don’t want their value to be lost. In other words, our protestation against death reveals our fidelity to the intrinsic value of those we love.

Some people gainsay our worries about death, arguing that we should care no more about not existing after death than we now do about not having existed before death. But those situations aren’t symmetrical. While most of us want to live indefinitely into the future, almost no one wants their lives extended indefinitely into the past. We just care more about the future. We prefer a day’s suffering in the past to an hour’s suffering in the future; we prefer an hour’s pleasure in the future to a day’s pleasure in the past. Death doesn’t mirror prenatal nonexistence.

Others, including many intellectuals, claim that death is really good for us because immortality would be boring, hopeless, or meaningless. But people who say such things either really want to die or they deceive themselves. I think it’s generally the latter—they adapt their preferences to what seems inescapable. Happy, healthy people almost never want to die and are despondent upon receiving a death sentence. People cry at the funerals of their loved ones, accepting death only because they think it’s inevitable. I doubt they would be so accepting if they thought death avoidable.

So here’s our situation. After all the books and knowledge, memories and dreams, cares and concerns, effort and struggle, voices and places and faces, then suddenly … nothing. Is that really desirable? No, it isn’t. Death is bad. Death should be optional.

  1. Individual Death and Meaning

What makes death especially bad is that being dead deprives us of the possibility of any future meaning. While death may not completely extinguish the meaning we find and create in life, it detracts significantly from that meaning by limiting the duration of our lives. This is easy to see. A life of a thousand years provides the possibility for more meaning than a life of fifty years, and the latter provides the possibility for more meaning than a life of five years. All other things being equal, a longer life holds the possibility for more meaning than a shorter one. And, needless to say, our deaths limit the amount of meaning we can contribute to other’s lives.

Nonetheless, many people claim that the prospect of our deaths actually makes life more meaningful by creating in us an urgency to live meaningfully now. But this isn’t true for everyone. Some people know their lives will be short and still live meaningless lives while others have good reasons to believe they will live long lives and still live meaningfully. Moreover, even if our imminent deaths focused us in this way that doesn’t justify all the meaning lost by our being dead.

However, while our individual deaths limit the meaning we can find and create in our lives, it’s still possible for there to be a meaning of life even if we die. If what ultimately matters isn’t our little egos but some larger purpose, and if our deaths somehow serve that purpose, then death may be acceptable. If this is true, then we could take comfort knowing that, after we’ve gone, others will pick up where we left off. By contrast, note how we recoil at the thought that shortly after we die all life will end or get worse. It seems then that some things do matter to us besides ourselves. Thus our deaths—while bad for us and others—don’t necessarily undermine the possibility of there being a meaning of life.

  1. Cosmic Death and Meaning

However, cosmic death seemingly eliminates both meaning in and of life. The meaning we find in life might have had some small significance while we were living but cosmic death largely if not completely undermines that meaning. As for the meaning of life, it’s impossible to see how there can be one if everything fades into nothingness.

Now we might avoid our cosmic descent into nothingness and its implications if one of these conjectures is true: the death of our universe brings about the birth of another one; the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics is true; other universes exist in a multiverse; or, if all descends into nothingness, a quantum fluctuation brings about something from this nothing. Or maybe nothingness is impossible as Parmenides argued long ago.

Such speculative scenarios lead us back to the idea that something must be eternal for there to be a meaning of life. For if nothingness—no space, no time, nothing for all eternity—is our fate then all seems futile. We may have experienced meaning while we lived, and the cosmos may have been slightly meaningful while it existed, but if everything vanishes for eternity isn’t it all pointless? And, unfortunately, death appears inevitable for both ourselves and the cosmos. How then do we avoid feeling forlorn?

  1. Scientific Immortality: Individual and Cosmic

Science is the most powerful method of gaining knowledge that humans have ever discovered; it is the only cognitive authority in the world today. Science is provisional, always open to new evidence, but therein lies its power. Like an asymptote where a line continually approaches a curve, scientific ideas slowly get closer to the truth as they advance. The practice of science winnows out bad ideas, leaving behind ever more robust ideas and the technologies they spawn. The entire technological world surrounding us attests to the truth of science. Put simply, if you want to fly, use an airplane; if you want to compute, use a computer; if you want to kill your infection, take an antibiotic; and if you want to protect your children, get them vaccinated.

One implication of all this is that, while a supernatural afterlife is highly unlikely, science and technology (sci-tech) may eventually conquer death. It’s possible that future generations will possess the computing power to run ancestor simulations; that my cryogenically preserved brain can be reanimated; that my consciousness can be uploaded into a robotic body or computer-driven virtual reality; or that some combination of nanotechnology, genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, and robotics will defeat death. Individual immortality is plausible, maybe even inevitable, if sci-tech continues to progress. Perhaps our deaths aren’t inevitable after all.

As for the cosmos, our posthuman descendants may be able to use their superintelligence to avoid cosmic death by altering the laws of physics or escaping to other universes. And even if we fail other intelligent creatures in the universe or multiverse might be able to perpetuate life indefinitely. If superintelligence pervades the universe, it may become so powerful as to ultimately decide the fate of the cosmos. Perhaps then cosmic death isn’t foreordained either.

to be continued next week …

A Philosopher’s Lifelong Search for Meaning – Part 3 – Philosophy, Science, and Meaning

continued from a previous entry

  1. Western Philosophy and Meaning in Life

Western philosophers typically ignore the question of the meaning of life for one or more of the following reasons: 1) they reject supernaturalism; 2) they are uncertain the question makes sense; or 3) they doubt that we possess the cognitive wherewithal to answer the question. I too reject supernaturalism, although I think we can make reasonable inferences about the meaning of life if they are drawn from our best scientific knowledge. I’ll return to this later.

Regarding meaning in life, contemporary Western philosophers typically adopt one of three basic approaches—objective naturalism, subjective naturalism, or nihilism.

Objective naturalists reject supernaturalism and state that meaning can be found in the natural world by connecting with mind-independent, objective, intrinsic goods like truth, beauty, joy, justice, and love. According to these naturalists, we must want and choose objectively good things in order for our lives to be meaningful, so merely wanting and choosing arbitrarily is insufficient for a meaningful life. On this view, a life counting paper clips or memorizing long lists of phone numbers is not meaningful. Instead, paradigms of meaningful lives include those that search for truth, create beauty, act morally, or help others. The main problem with this view is that objective goodness might be illusory or, even if real, unable to provide sufficient meaning.

Subjective naturalists reject supernaturalism and argue that meaning is created by getting what we want or achieving our goals. On this view, meaning varies from person to person and can be found in any subjective desire. It doesn’t matter if we find meaning collecting coins, writing philosophy books, helping the homeless, or torturing innocent children. The main problem with this account is it permits us to find meaning by doing anything we want—including the immoral or trivial. This gives us a strong reason to reject a subjective approach to meaning.

Some philosophers combine these two approaches, arguing that meaning arises when we subjective attraction meets objective attractiveness. The idea is that while our lives are meaningless if we care about worthless or immoral projects, they are also meaningless if we don’t care about worthwhile or objectively good projects. Thus, the meaningful life is one that cares about the right things.

Nihilists argue that neither the cosmos nor individual lives have meaning because nothing has value, nothing matters, and all is futile. Some believe this because a god would be necessary for meaning and no god exists, and some argue that life would be meaningless even if a god was real. Others maintain that life is too boring, unsatisfactory or ephemeral to be meaningful, or that there is no universal morality to give life meaning.

But none of these answers fully satisfies. Nihilism haunts us and no amount of philosophizing is palliative in its wake, but why accept such a depressing conclusion if we can’t know that it’s true? Subjectivism provides a more promising response—we can live meaningfully without accepting religious or objectivist provisos—but we want more than subjective meaning; we want our lives to matter objectively. But even if objective values exist we can still ask, is that all there is? There may be good, true, and beautiful things but does that really matter in the end?

Tentatively, I’d say that by directing subjective desires toward (apparently) objectively good things, we can find meaning in life. But does science support such a conclusion?

    9. Science and Meaning in Life

Positive psychology studies what makes life good, fulfilling, or meaningful. This research has found that we experience meaning and life satisfaction by: 1) fully engaging in activities; 2) mastering challenging tasks; 3) increasing our understanding; 4) enjoying satisfying relationships and social connections; 5) experiencing mindfulness; 6) having a sense of purpose; 7) being optimistic; and 8) feeling concern with something larger than the self—nature, family, social groups, progress, belief systems, political causes, cosmic evolution, etc. Research also shows that having meaning and purpose in our lives predicts better physical and mental health outcomes.

Notably, research on wellbeing and meaning reveals that they aren’t related to age, sex, gender, physical attractiveness, educational level, climate, or money (after one’s basic needs are met). Furthermore, the research strongly suggests that having many material possessions and excess wealth are not related to happiness, well-being, or meaning.

These results overlap with what philosophers have said for millennia—that certain universal human goods provide the deepest fulfillment and meaning. These goods include knowledge, friendship, health, skill, love, autonomy, fulfilling work, and aesthetic enjoyment. Such goods benefit us independently of whether we desire them because they fulfill our biological, psychological and social nature. The idea that good, happy, and meaningful lives involve universal human goods and that wealth and material possessions are but a small part of such lives goes back at least to Aristotle. So modern research largely confirms ancient wisdom.  

Putting this all together gives us a basic conception of good, happy, or meaningful lives. They are lives in which our fundamental needs for food, clothing, shelter, parental love, education, health-care, and physical safety are met; we are not obsessed with material possessions or wealth; we engage in productive work of our own choosing that allows for autonomy, mastery, and purpose; we care for and love both ourselves and others; and we show concern for the best things in life-like truth, beauty, goodness, justice, joy, and love. We might even say that by living a meaningful life we experience a kind of self-transcendence—by living them we transcend the ego.

So it isn’t too hard to find meaning in life—assuming our basic needs are met—what’s hard is choosing between the many different ways that life can be meaningful. Nonetheless, some claim that life is meaningless. Maybe such people are ignorant about what truly gives life meaning, or perhaps they lack life’s necessities, meaningful work, loving relationships, personal freedom, or physical and mental health. Many obstacles exist to finding meaning in life and if we find it we are indeed fortunate.

  1. Is Meaning in Life Enough?

But should we be satisfied with the meaning available in life or should we want more? Here’s my answer. On the one hand, if we have too few desires we will be too easily satisfied with our lives and the current state of the world. On the other hand, if we have too many desires we will be too easily dissatisfied with our lives and the current state of the world. So we should be content enough to experience the meaning life offers while discontent enough to want there to be more meaning. Still, I admit that it is hard to find the best way to balance our outrage at suffering, injustice, and meaninglessness with equanimity, acceptance, and serenity.

Again, we should be grateful to be the kinds of beings who can live meaningful lives. If that is all life can give, we should be satisfied. Still, we can imagine that the meaning in our lives prefigures some larger meaning. We can envisage—and we desire—that there is a meaning of life.

For if everything we love, know, create, and care about ultimately vanishes, then the meaning we find and create in life is ephemeral. Against the backdrop of eternal oblivion, meaning in life is too shallow and fleeting to satisfy our hunger for cosmic meaning. We may find truth, create beauty, attain moral virtue, have a loving family and engaging work, but so what? How does this matter if everything evaporates into nothingness? What we really want then is a connection with some larger cosmic meaning and that seemingly demands that something is eternal.

Part 4 – Death and Meaning

A Philosopher’s Lifelong Search for Meaning – Part 2 – Religion and Meaning

… continued from a previous entry

  1. Western Religions: Are They True?

Western monotheistic religions try to answer both the meaning of and the meaning in life questions with an overarching worldview. However, religions consist of multifarious beliefs, expressions, and experiences making them difficult to characterize. We could plausibly say there are as many religions as there are religious practitioners. But western religious answers to questions of meaning typically involve narratives and beliefs about gods, souls, and an afterlife.

Here are two examples from Christianity. The Westminster Shorter Catechism answers the question: “What is the chief end of Man?” with “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and enjoy him forever.” The Baltimore Catechism answers, “Why did God make you?” with “God made me to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him forever in heaven.” Similar ideas can be found in Judaism and Islam.

But such answers are highly problematic. The philosophical arguments for the existence of a God are notoriously weak, the concept of soul scientifically irrelevant, the evidence of an afterlife almost nil and contravened by experience. Religious beliefs are often superstitious and implausible, both an affront to the intellect and an insult of our best scientific knowledge. The gods that people believe in are almost certainly imaginary and science convincingly explains our tendency to believe in them. In other words, popular religious beliefs are almost certainly false.

Allegorical and less literal interpretations of religious beliefs are more intellectually palatable, but they are often still tethered to dubious claims about supernatural realities, miraculous divine intervention and the like. Sometimes these more sophisticated interpretations reject supernaturalism, but then they often cease to be what most people mean by religion—the God of pantheism, panentheism, process theology or death of god theology aren’t recognizable to most believers. Such obscure metaphysical speculations might provide insight if grounded in scientific knowledge, but usually they are not.

Philosophical theologians conversant with and appreciative of modern science often posit a “god of the philosophers” using the word God to mean a cause, reason, explanation, designer, or necessary being. I can’t rehash all the arguments for these various conceptions of gods except to say that the vast majority of contemporary philosophers don’t find those arguments convincing. I count myself among this majority. In my view, defenders of these arguments generally deceive themselves through motivated reasoning. They base their beliefs on what they want to believe, not on what is most likely to be true.

Still, I grant many persons derive meaning in life from their fervently held, emotionally satisfying religious beliefs, which is fine as long as they don’t try to impose those beliefs on others. I understand the deep desire to believe in truth, beauty, goodness, justice, the end of suffering and death, and the meaning of life. I realize that religious beliefs provide comfort to some people, and that is probably the best argument for accepting them. Life is hard, tranquility elusive, and living without appeal to gods, souls, and an afterlife takes courage. But wanting something to be true doesn’t make it so. As for me, I don’t want to believe, I want to know.

  1. Western Religions: Are They Good?

Nonetheless, we pay a hefty price for this religious consolation—theocracy, fanaticism, hatred, war, etc.  Moreover, religious institutions typically are anti-scientific, anti-democratic, anti-progressive, misogynistic, authoritarian, and medieval. Religion has opposed or still opposes free speech, the eradication of slavery, sex education, reproductive technologies, stem cell research, women’s and civil rights, and the advancement of science. It also encourages credulity and blind faith, which stand in opposition to the critical thinking we so desperately need.

Furthermore, many measures of social dysfunction strongly correlate with greater religiosity including homicides, large prison populations, infant mortality, sexually transmitted diseases, teenage births, political corruption, income inequality, and more. Perhaps all this is worth the comfort religious beliefs provide, or maybe this correlation doesn’t imply causation. But to the extent that religion causes much of this suffering, its consolations aren’t worth the price.

Consider that the cultural domination by Christianity during the Middle Ages resulted in some of the worst conditions in human history. Much the same could be said of religious hegemony in other times and places including the present day. And, if religion causes less harm today than it once did, that’s because its power has been reduced. Were that strength regained, the result would surely be disastrous, as anyone who studies history or lives in a theocracy will confirm.

Still, I admit religion isn’t the only anti-progressive force in the world—conservatives, plutocrats, and despots hate change too, especially if it affects their wealth and power. I should also note that many people evidently derive social and health benefits when surrounded by like-minded believers. Religion also provides a sense of community to many, especially in a culture like America where isolation is such a big problem. Moreover, religion has promoted good things like education and healthcare for which I commend it. (And, of course, many non-religious persons have done terrible things.) But secularists promote good things too without relying on supernatural justification. Consider that in today’s world the best places to live like the Scandinavian countries and Western Europe are also the least religious, while the worst places to live are generally the most overtly religious. I doubt this is coincidental.

As for me, I believe that western religions are as harmful as they are untrue. We will be better off when we outgrow them. Put simply religion is, in my view, an enemy of the future.

  1. Western Religions: Do They Reveal Meaning?

Moreover, even if religious claims are literally true it’s not clear how they answer questions about life’s meaning. How does being a part of your God’s plan give your life meaning if being a part of your parent’s or country’s plan doesn’t? How does your God give your life meaning, if you can’t do that yourself? How can your God’s love give your life meaning if other people’s love doesn’t? How does living with your God forever provide meaning if living forever doesn’t do that by itself?

I’m not saying the above questions are unanswerable, just that their solutions aren’t obvious. We can imagine that some God makes sense of everything, but this article of faith doesn’t explain anything; it’s just a placeholder for our ignorance. Just as easy to imagine that this God enjoys watching our suffering, laughs at our efforts, and is entertained by our foibles—life may be the cruel joke of an immature, malevolent, or capricious God. Surely the mere existence of a God or gods doesn’t necessarily make life meaningful.

And, even if your God is real, do you really want to live forever with a being or beings apparently responsible for so much evil? Consider for a moment the innocent who are starving, homeless, incarcerated, and otherwise suffering unimaginably—as you read this now! Consider what fate has in store for all us. Given all this misery are the machinations of theologians about free will, the devil, or the necessity of evil to build our souls really satisfactory? No, they are not.

Thus Western religious answers to the questions of meaning are suspect because: 1) the supernatural realm is probably imaginary; 2) religion causes much harm; and 3) it isn’t clear how gods make life meaningful. If the truth, usefulness, and relevance of religion are suspect then its answers to questions about life’s meaning are suspect. As for me, Western religious answers to questions about meaning are non-starters; they simply aren’t available. 

  1. Eastern Religions and Meaning in Life

However, other religions concern themselves more with right action than right belief, with humility and compassion instead of creed and dogma. While this emphasis on right action rather than right belief can be found in the West, it is more prevalent in the self-salvation traditions of the East.

Of course, Eastern religions make use of metaphysically dubious notions like reincarnation, karma, lila, samsara, moksha, etc. and their practitioners can be as superstitious and spiteful as Western religious believers. Still, Eastern religions are typically less concerned with literal or historical truth and more accepting of modern science than Western religions. So our previous criticisms of Western religious beliefs don’t apply straightforwardly to Eastern religions.

Put differently, eastern religions typically focus less the meaning of life and more on finding meaning in life through activities such as searching for truth, being compassionate, reducing desires, or experiencing self-realization, bliss, liberation, or oneness with reality. Even to the extent there is a stated meaning of life—for example escaping the cycle of birth and rebirth in Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism—the emphasis is on how to achieve this goal. In other words, eastern religions generally place more emphasis on acting to find enlightenment rather than believing that salvation depends on accepting certain propositions.

While all eastern religions largely share these traits, Buddhism is especially anti-dogmatic, anti-metaphysical, and practical. It provides instructions for good living, ending suffering, understanding reality, cultivating compassion and achieving mindfulness. Moreover its central tenets—that reality is radically impermanent and that we lack a core self—are consistent with findings in modern science. To the extent that it can be called a religion, as opposed to a philosophy of life, Buddhism is the best one that humans have created. For insight into finding meaning in life, Eastern wisdom devoid of supernaturalism is generally a good guide.

Part 3 – Philosophy, Science, and Meaning

A Philosopher’s Lifelong Search for Meaning – Part 1 – Life and Meaning

… continued from a previous entry

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

  1. Two Questions about Life and Meaning

I distinguish between two basic questions concerning life and meaning.

The first is: “What is the meaning of life?” It might also be expressed: “Why does anything exist?” “Does anything matter?” “Does the universe have a purpose?” “What’s it all about?” This is the cosmic dimension of the question. It asks if there is a deep explanation or universal narrative that would make sense of everything, including us.

The second is: “Can I find meaning in life?” It might also be expressed: “What the point of my life?” “Does my life matter?” “What kind of life is meaningful?” “How should I live?” This is the individual dimension of the question. It asks if there is a valuable, significant, or worthwhile way of living that prevents life from being futile, pointless, or absurd.

Thus the often-asked, singular question, “what is the meaning of life?” is really a marker or an amalgam for all the above questions.

Putting our two main questions together leaves four possible answers:

1) Both the cosmos and our individual lives are (ultimately) meaningful;
2) Both the cosmos and our individual lives are (ultimately) meaningless;
3) The cosmos is (ultimately) meaningful but we can still live meaningless lives;
4) The cosmos is (ultimately) meaningless but we can still live meaningful lives;

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  1. What Do We Mean by Meaning?

The cosmos or an individual life is meaningful if it is purposeful, valuable, or significant. Furthermore, a meaningful cosmos contains things like truth, beauty, goodness, justice, joy, and love, while a meaningful life entails flourishing, satisfaction, contentment, and moral goodness. (While happy, moral, and meaningful lives aren’t identical, I believe they mostly overlap. Thus I won’t distinguish between them further.)  

Put differently, both a meaningful cosmos and a meaningful life matter, they are good, and they are long-lasting. The more they matter, the better they are, and the longer they last, the more meaningful they are. In other words, what I call a fully meaningful reality is the best one that can be, and a fully meaningful life is the best one that we can live.

Note too that meaning varies over time. The cosmos may be more or less meaningful now than it will be in the future—it may one day become perfectly meaningful, totally meaningless, or something in between. Individual lives may also become more or less meaningful over time, and their meaning also varies from person to person. In other words, meaning is a gradient good.

However, a meaningful life isn’t necessarily devoid of all obstacles for many meaningful projects —developing our talents, educating our minds, raising our children—involve disappointment that is often at odds with our momentary happiness. I’m not implying that suffering is good or desirable, simply that, for now, it often accompanies our attempts to live meaningfully. Still, the maximally meaningful reality that we should seek would be devoid of evil.

  1. Should We Ask About Meaning?

Questions about meaning and life arise because we are big-brained hominids capable of adopting a detached point of view. We can disengage from life and reflect on it. This ability to reflect is made possible, or at least greatly enhanced, if our basic needs are met—we possess a modicum of wealth, health, and education, don’t fear for our safety, live in a relatively just political order, etc.

Our consciousness of suffering, impermanence, death, and our apparent insignificance in the vastness of space and time especially stimulate questions of meaning. We can’t live long without wondering why life is so hard; we can’t love passionately without asking why we and our loved ones must die; we can’t think deeply without realizing that something about life is amiss. We wonder where it all came from, where it’s all going, and what it’s all about. These questions resonate deeply within us and are hard to silence.

Yet even if we could avoid our deepest questions, we shouldn’t. Our questioning ennobles us and is part of a rich interior life that differentiates us from less conscious beings. We simply don’t fully actualize our powers of thought and reason until we reflect seriously about ourselves and our place in the cosmos. The examined life, all other things being equal, is better than its opposite.

Furthermore, good answers to our deepest questions promote our survival and flourishing, as well as aid our descendants in successfully navigating into the future. Without knowing the purpose of our lives we don’t know where we should go or how we should get there. Without an understanding of life and meaning, we are lost, adrift on our cosmic journey without a compass. But where do we look for understanding? One answer is to religion.

Part 2 – Religion and Meaning

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

(Note – Over the next few weeks I’ll summarize my lifelong reflections on life and meaning.)

Preface

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 replied 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 now felt 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 really 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 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, 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 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. 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. Hence the reason that eventually we won’t see any other galaxies from 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 year across and almost 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. Such notions are largely incomprehensible.

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; no one should. Like all others I am fallible, and 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.

Part 1 – Life and Meaning