We have previously asked the following question: “Could it be that the process by which we go from the past to the present is itself an unfolding of meaning? In other words, is the future of cosmic evolution the key to understanding the meaning of life? We would now like to answer that question.
Many thinkers believe that evolution is both progressive and relevant to meaning; in fact it is a key that unlocks the secret of meaning. For example, Teilhard de Chardin, Julian Huxley, and E. O. Wilson, all believed that life is meaningful because it evolves, and we live meaningful lives precisely because we play a central role in this evolving meaning.
Evolution As Metaphysics
A study of cosmic evolution supports the claim that life has become increasingly meaningful, a claim buttressed primarily by the emergence of beings with conscious purposes and meanings. Where there once was no meaning or purpose—in a universe without mind—there now are meanings and purposes. These meanings have their origin in the matter which coalesced into stars and planets, and which in turn supported organisms that evolved bodies with brains and their attributes—behavior, consciousness, personal identity, freedom, value, and meaning. Meaning has emerged in the evolutionary process. It came into being when complexly organized brains, consisting of constitutive parts and the interactive relationships between those parts, intermingled with physical and then cultural environments. This relationship was reciprocal—brains affected biological and cognitive environments which in turn affected those brains. The result of this interaction between organisms and environments was a reality that became, among other things, infused with meaning.
But will meaning continue to emerge as evolution moves forward? Will progressive evolutionary trends persevere to complete or final meaning, or to approaching meaning as a limit? Will the momentum of cognitive development make such progress nearly inevitable? These are different questions—ones which we cannot answer confidently. We could construct an inductive argument, that the past will resemble the future in this regard, but such an argument is not convincing. For who knows what will happen in the future? The human species might bring about its own ruin tomorrow or go extinct due to some biological, geophysical, or astronomical phenomenon. We cannot bridge the gap between what has happened and what will happen. The future is unknown.
And this leads naturally to another question. Is the emergence of meaning a good thing? It is easy enough to say that conscious beings create meaning, but it is altogether different to say that this is a good thing. Before consciousness no one derived meaning from torturing others, but now they sometimes do. In this case a new kind of meaning came to be, but few would wish for this outcome. Although we can establish the emergence of meaning, we cannot establish that this is good.
Still, we fantasize that our scientific knowledge will improve both the quality and quantity of life. We will make ourselves immortal, build ourselves better brains, and transform our moral natures—making life better and more meaningful, perhaps fully meaningful. We will become pilots worthy of steering evolution to fantastic heights, toward creating a heaven on earth or in simulated realities of our design. If meaning and value continue to emerge we will find meaning by partaking in, and hastening along, that meaningful process. As the result of past meanings and as the conduit for the emergence of future ones, we could be the protagonists of a great epic that ascends higher, as Huxley and Teilhard had hoped.
In our imagination we exist as links in a golden chain leading onward and upward toward greater levels of being, consciousness, joy, beauty, goodness, and meaning—perhaps even to their apex. As part of such a glorious process we would find meaning instilled into our lives from previously created meaning, and we would reciprocate by emanating meaning back into a universe with which we are ultimately one. Evolutionary thought, extended beyond its normal bounds, is an extraordinarily speculative, quasi-religious metaphysics in which a naturalistic heaven appears on the horizon.
Sobriety and Skepticism
Yet, as we ascend these mountains of thought, we are brought back to earth. When we look to the past we see that evolution has produced meaning, but it has also produced pain, fear, genocide, extinction, war, loneliness, anguish, envy, slavery, despair, futility, torture, guilt, anxiety, depression, alienation, ignorance, torture, inequality, superstition, poverty, heartache, death, and meaninglessness. Surely serious reflection on this misery is sobering. Turning to the future, our optimism must be similarly restrained. Fantasies about where evolution is headed should be tempered, if for no other reason than that our increased powers can be used for evil as well as for our improvement. Our wishes may never be fulfilled.
But this is not all. It is not merely that we cannot know if our splendid speculations are true—which we cannot—it is that we have an overwhelmingly strong reason to reject our flights of fancy. And that is that humans are notorious pattern-seekers, story-tellers, and meaning-makers who invariably weave narratives around these patterns and stories to give meaning to their lives. It follows that the patterns of progress we glimpse likely exist only in our minds. There is no face of a man on Mars or of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches. Finding patterns of progress in evolution, we are probably victims of simple confirmation bias.
After all progress is hardly the whole story of evolution, as most species and cultures have gone extinct, a fate that may soon befall us. Furthermore, as this immense universe (or multiverse) is largely incomprehensible to us, with our three and a half pound brains, we should hesitate to substitute an evolutionary-like religion for our frustrated metaphysical longings. We should be more reticent about advancing cosmic visions, and less credulous about believing in them. Our humility should temper our grandiose metaphysical speculations. In short, if reflection on a scientific theory supposedly reveals that our deepest wishes are true, our skeptical alarm bell should go off. If our searching easily finds precisely what we are looking for, we are likely moved by our wishes, not the implications of our science. We need to be braver than that. Like E.O. Wilson we want to know, not just to believe. In our job as serious seekers of the truth, the credulous need not apply.
In the end cosmic and biological evolution—and later the emergence of intelligence, science, and technology—leave us awestruck. The arrival of intelligence and the meaning it creates is important, an idea echoed by the physicist Paul Davies: “the existence of mind in some organism on some planet in the universe is surely a fact of fundamental significance. Through conscious beings the universe has generated self-awareness. This can be no trivial detail, no minor byproduct of mindless, purposeless forces. We are truly meant to be here.”[i] Similar ideas reverberate in the work of the Cambridge evolutionary palaeobiologist and evangelical Christian, Simon Conway Morris. Morris argues that if intelligence had not developed in humans, it would have done so in another species—in other words, the emergence of intelligence on our planet was inevitable. [ii]
We agree with both Davies and Morris that mind and its attendant phenomena are important, but it does not follow that we are therefore meant to be here or that intelligence was inevitable. It is only because we value our life and intelligence that we succumb to such anthropocentrism. Homo sapiens might easily have never been, as countless events could have led to their downfall. This fact alone should give us pause when we imbue our existence with undue significance. We were not inevitable, we were not meant to be here—we are serendipitous. The trillions and trillions of evolutionary machinations that led to us might easily have led to different results—and ones that didn’t include us. As for the inevitability of intelligence, are we really to suppose that dinosaurs, had they not been felled by an asteroid, were on their way to human-like intelligence? Of course not, and such a view strains credulity. Dinosaurs were around for millions of years without developing greater intelligence. We want to believe evolution had us and our minds as it goal or central concern—but it did not—and we were not meant to be. We should forgo our penchant for detecting patters and accept our radical contingency. Like the dinosaurs, we too could be felled by an asteroid.[iii]
Thus we cannot confidently answer all of the questions we posed at the beginning of this chapter in the affirmative. We can say that there has been some progress in evolution and that meaning has emerged in the process, but we cannot say these trends will continue, or that they were good. And we certainly must guard against speculative metaphysical fantasies, inasmuch as there are good reasons to think we are not special, however pleasant it may be to think otherwise. We do not know that a meaningful eschatology will gradually unfold as we evolve, much less that we could articulate a cosmic vision to describe it. We don’t even know if the reality of any grand cosmic vision is possible. We are moving, but we might be moving toward our own extinction, toward universal death, or toward eternal hell. And none of those offer much comfort.
We long to dream but always our skepticism awakens us from our Pollyannaish imaginings. The evolution of the cosmos, our species, and our intelligence gives us some grounds for believing that life might become more meaningful, but not enough to satisfy our longings. For we want to really believe that tomorrow will be better than yesterday. We want to believe with the futurists Ray Kurzweil and Hans Moravec, with Teilhard and Huxley, that a glorious future awaits but, detached from our romanticism, we know that the biologist Jacques Monod may be right—there may be no salvation, there may be nothing over the rainbow, there may be no comfort to be found for our harassed souls. Confronted with such meager prospects and the anguish that accompanies them, we are lost, and the most we can do, once again, is hope. That doesn’t give us what we want or need, but it does give us something we don’t have to be ashamed of. There is nothing irrational about the kind of hope that is elicited by, and best expressed from, an evolutionary perspective. Julian Huxley, scientist and poet, best conveyed these hopes.
I turn the handle and the story starts:
Reel after reel is all astronomy,
Till life, enkindled in a niche of sky,
Leaps on the stage to play a million parts.
Life leaves the slime and through the oceans darts;
She conquers earth, and raises wings to fly;
Then spirit blooms, and learns how not to die,
Nesting beyond the grave in others’ hearts.
I turn the handle; other men like me
Have made the film; and now I sit and look
In quiet, privileged like Divinity
To read the roaring world as in a book.
If this thy past, where shall thy future climb,
O Spirit, built of Elements and Time![iv]
[i] Paul Davies, The Mind of God: The Scientific Basis for a Rational World (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993), 232.
[ii] Simon Conway Morris, Life’s Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).
[iii] Had the course of the asteroid 2005 YU55 that passed the earth on November 8, 2011 been slightly altered, millions might have died and this blog post never entered.
[iv] Julian Huxley, ‘Evolution: At the Mind’s Cinema’ (1922), in The Captive Shrew and Other Poems of a Biologist (London: Basil Blackwell, 1932), 55.