As you may know I once asked every philosopher in the UK about the meaning of life. It was a slightly depressing experience. Only 22 out of a possible?644 replied . Those replies were great. Being philosophers they didn’t actually have any answers but they certainly questioned my question. There was plenty to think about but not much real progress. ?A lot of them confidently claimed that it wasn’t a ‘meaningful’ question to ask if life had meaning. It was a “category error”. This is the sort of response that makes you dislike philosophers. Plenty of?cleverness and pedantry but not enough?empathy or interest in answers. It was frustrating that their main response wasn’t an attempt to answer the question but rather to explain it away.
This makes John Messerly‘s wonderful essay all the more enjoyable. He doesn’t deny the basic premise. On the contrary, he takes the question very seriously and goes far beyond the mere definition of words to take account of what we know about the universe. The essay is titled “Cosmic Evolution and the Meaning of Life”?and it appears on the transhumanist website H+. It is the best essay on the meaning of life I’ve ever read.
Be warned that the title is quite literal. He really is asking about the purpose of the whole universe. It is a dizzying perspective but, amazingly, one that can potentially answer questions about personal meaning. The connection is through evolution. He asks:
Are there trends in evolution – cosmic, biological, and cultural – that support the claim that life is meaningful, or is becoming meaningful, or is becoming increasingly meaningful? Perhaps there is a progressive direction to evolution, perhaps the meaningful eschatology of the universe will gradually unfold as we evolve, and perhaps we can articulate a cosmic vision to describe this unfolding or perhaps not.
Philosophy questions your answers. Science answers your questions.
John is a computer?scientist, a philosopher and an expert on Jean Piaget. Thus he is comfortable with concepts like complexity, progress and learning. This is clear throughout his essay and what makes it so refreshing. He doesn’t think that ‘the meaning of life’ is a narrow religious or spiritual question best left for theologians or even philosophers. It is a fundamental question that is entangled with our understanding of the physical world. You can’t understand us without understanding evolution and you can’t understand evolution without looking at the big picture – the biggest picture there is, the story of the universe. But it also comes with a sobering dose of humility. When trying to find The Answer we should remember that we humans aren’t that special:
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 multi-verse) 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.
In his view, with which I wholeheartedly agree the idea of what progress means in the universe is nicely summarised in this poem by scientist Julian Huxley:
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!
After writing to all of those philosophers, I felt I had to try and have a go at answering the question myself. You can find their answers and my own attempt at a response as an interlude in the middle of my novel, Help Yourself (no really do.. it is absolutely free.) If you skip to page 204 you’ll see what i thought was important:
There are three mysteries the origin of the universe, the origin of life and the emergence of consciousness. What we might call the why, the wherefore and the why me? The first two are somewhat mundane questions that are of only academic interest, the narrow specialisms of two branches of science. So widespread is the agreement about the basic Darwinian mechanism that not even the Pope bets against it.
Physicists look after the cosmos. Why is there something rather than nothing? Why is there a universe? And why this particular one, one that welcomes life and has this style of interior decor. These days they see the universe a giant quantum computer. They are interested in the computations that it runs.
The origin of the universe is of even narrower academic attraction. Only a crowd of mathematicians care about the nitty-gritty of which inflationary theory kick started the construction of coalescing clouds of gas that became the stars we see sparkling in the sky.
So you will notice that I agreed with Prof. Messerly about the really big questions but I was rather flippantly, dismissive of the big answers. This was largely because i am always flippant and because I didn’t have any nice way of tying these things together. So I took the human rather than the cosmic perspective. If I were to try and do this again, I wouldn’t even get that far. I wouldn’t bother trying to answer again because for once I think, in Prof. Messerly’s essay,?I’ve found an answer that I actually like.
h+ Magazine | Cosmic Evolution and the Meaning of Life – h+ Magazine.
Original Essay on Scientia Salon with comments
ReasonAndMeaning.com – John Messerly’s website.