Cosmic evolution and the meaning of life

monty_python_logoby John G. Messerly

[The following is an excerpt from The Meaning of Life: Religious, Philosophical, Transhumanist, and Scientific Perspectives, Darwin & Hume Publishers, 2013]

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.

Has there been biological progress?

The debate between those who defend evolutionary progress and those who deny it has been ongoing throughout the history of biology. On the one hand more recent biological forms seem more advanced, on the other hand no one agrees on precisely what progress is. Darwin’s view of the matter is summarized nicely by Timothy Shanahan: “while he rejected any notion of evolutionary progress, as determined by a necessary law of progression, he nonetheless accepted evolutionary progress as a contingent consequence of natural selection operating within specified environments.” [1] This fits well with Darwin’s own words:

“There has been much discussion whether recent forms are more highly developed than ancient . . . But in one particular sense the more recent forms must, on my theory, be higher than the more ancient; for each new species is formed by having had some advantage in the struggle for life over other and preceding forms. I do not doubt that this process of improvement has affected in a marked and sensible manner the organization of the more recent and victorious forms of life, in comparison with the ancient and beaten forms; but I can see no way of testing this sort of progress.” [2]

The most vociferous critic of the idea of biological progress was Harvard’s Stephen Jay Gould who thought progress was an annoying and non-testable idea that had to be replaced if we are to understand biological history. According to Gould, what we call evolutionary progress is really just a random moving away from something, not an orienting toward anything. Starting from simple beginnings, organisms become more complex but not necessarily better. In Gould’s image, if a drunk man staggers from a wall that forces him to move toward a gutter, he will end up in the gutter. Evolution acts like that wall pushing individuals toward behaviors that are mostly random but statistically predictable. Nothing about evolution implies progress.

The biologist Richard Dawkins is more sanguine regarding progress, arguing that if we define progress as adaptive fit between organism and environment then evolution is clearly progressive. To see this consider a predator and prey arms race, where positive feedback loops drive evolutionary progress. Dawkins believes in life’s ability to evolve further, in the “evolution of evolvability.” He believes in progressive evolution, in that sense.

“Darwin seemingly reconciled these two views … as the forms became complicated, they opened fresh means of adding to their complexity … but yet there is no necessary tendency in the simple animals to become complicated although all perhaps will have done so from the new relations caused by the advancing complexity of others … if we begin with the simpler forms and suppose them to have changed, their very changes tend to give rise to others.” [3]

Simple forms become increasingly complex, thus stimulating the complexity of other forms. This did not happen by necessity and no law needs to drive the process. Nonetheless, competition between organisms will likely result in progressively complex forms.

There is probably no greater authority on the idea of evolutionary progress than Michael Ruse whose book, Monad to Man: The Concept of Progress in Evolutionary Biology, is the most comprehensive work on the subject. Ruse observes that museums, charts, displays, and books all depict evolution as progressive, and he thinks that the concept of progress will continue to play a major role in evolutionary biology for the following reasons. First, as products of evolution, we are bound to measure it from our own perspective, thus naturally valuing the intelligence that asks philosophical questions. Second, whatever epistemological relativists think, nearly all practicing scientists believe their theories and models get closer to the truth as science proceeds. And scientists generally transfer that belief in scientific progress to a belief in organic progress. Finally, Ruse maintains that the scientists drawn to evolutionary biology are those particularly receptive to progressive ideas. Evolution and the idea of progress are intertwined and nearly inseparable.

Has there been cultural progress?

Cosmic evolution evokes the idea of evolutionary progress while progressivism imbues the work of most biologists, a trend Ruse thinks will continue. When we turn to culture, a compelling argument can be made for the reality of progressive evolution. The historian Will Durant argued for cultural progress, a conclusion he believed followed from considering certain elements of human history, while Jean Piaget made the case for cognitive progress, based on his studies of cognitive development in children and his analysis of the history of science. The science writer Robert Wright believes in a generally progressive evolution based on the structure of non-zero sum interactions, whereas Steven Pinker counters that complexity and cooperation are sub-goals of evolution, not its natural destiny. While the overall strength of the arguments for evolutionary progress is unclear, we cannot gainsay that such arguments have philosophical merit. Clearly there have been progressive trends in evolution, which suggests that life as a whole may become increasingly meaningful.

That is in line with a number of other thinkers who have argued for the relevance of evolution to meaning. Daniel Dennett extends the heuristic reach of evolution, showing how it acts as a universal solvent that eats through philosophical problems, while the skeptic Michael Shermer says that we create provisional meanings in our lives, even though our existence depends on a billion evolutionary happenstances. The scientist John Stewart-Williams argues that the universe does have purposes, since we have purposes and we are part of the universe, while the philosopher John Stewart claims that the universe will be increasingly meaningful if we direct the process. Still, other philosophers have argued that evolution is irrelevant to meaning; Wittgenstein notoriously maintained that “Darwin’s theory has no more to do with philosophy than any other hypothesis in natural science.” [4] Yet this claim was made in a philosophical milieu where the scope of philosophical inquiry was narrow, whereas today the impact of scientific theories on philosophy is enormous. Today most thinkers would say that the emergence of conscious purposes and meanings in cosmic evolution is relevant to concerns about meaning.

Turning to grand cosmic visions, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin articulated a universal vision of the evolutionary process, with the universe moving toward a fully meaningful end point. Jacques Monod questioned Teilhard’s optimism, noting that biology does not reveal that life is meaningful. Julian Huxley conveys a vision — similar to Teilhard’s but without the religious connotations — which encourages us to play the leading role in the cosmic drama by guiding evolution to realize its possibilities, thereby finding meaning for ourselves in the process. E.O. Wilson also believes that the evolutionary epic is mythic and sweeping and he exhorts us to create a better future. Thus many thinkers believe that evolution is both progressive and relevant to meaning. For Teilhard, Huxley, and Wilson, 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

So a study of cosmic evolution can support 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 is now both meanings and purposes. These meanings have their origin in the matter which coalesced into stars and planets, which in turn supported organisms that evolved bodies with brains and their attributes — behavior, consciousness, personal identity, freedom, value, and meaning. Meaning has emerged during 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.

All 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 positive development. Before consciousness no one derived meaning from torturing others, but now they sometimes do. In this case a new kind of meaning emerged, but few think this is a plus. 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 very 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 find meaning instilled into our lives from previously created meaning, and we 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.

Conclusion: 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, 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. If we find 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 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. We need to be braver than that, for 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, as Paul Davies put it: “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.” [5] Similar ideas reverberate in the work of Simon Conway Morris. He 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 [6].

I agree with both Davies and Morris that mind and its attendant phenomena are important, but it does not follow that we are 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 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 — 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? Such a view strains credulity; dinosaurs had been around for many millions of years without developing greater intelligence. We want to believe evolution had us as its goal — but it did not — we were not meant to be. We should forgo our penchant for detecting patterns and accept our radical contingency. Like the dinosaurs, we too could be felled by an asteroid [7].

Thus we cannot confidently answer all of the questions we posed at the beginning of this essay 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. 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 believe that tomorrow will really be better than yesterday. We want to believe with Teilhard and Huxley that a glorious future awaits but, detached from our romanticism, we know that the Monod of the world may be right — there may be no salvation, 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 [8]:

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!

_____

John G. Messerly was for many years a member of the faculty of both the Philosophy and Computer Science departments at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of books on ethical theory, evolutionary philosophy, and the meaning of life, as well as dozens of articles on philosophical and transhumanist themes. He is also an Affiliate Member of the Evolution, Complexity, and Cognition Group at the Vrije Universiteit in Brussel, and an affiliate scholar of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies.

[1] Timothy Shanahan, “Evolutionary Progress from Darwin to Dawkins.”

[2] Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or, the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life (New York: Cosimo, Inc., 2007), 211.

[3] Barrett, P., Gautrey, P., Herbert, S., Kohn, D., and Smith, S., Charles Darwin’s Notebooks, 1836-1844 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1987).

[4] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, trans. D.F. Pears and B.F. McGuiness (London: Routledge & Paul Kegan, 1961), 25.

[5] Paul Davies, The Mind of God: The Scientific Basis for a Rational World (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993), 232.

[6] Simon Conway Morris, Life’s Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

[7] 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 essay not written.

[8] Julian Huxley, ‘Evolution: At the Mind’s Cinema’ (1922), in The Captive Shrew and Other Poems of a Biologist (London: Basil Blackwell, 1932), 55.

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66 replies

  1. I just want to note that the study in cancer research that John Smith is alluding to (I think) is the study published in Science (an extremely reputable journal) by Bert Vogelstein and Christian Tomasetti. John says that Vogelstein and Tomasetti argue that cancers are mainly “random mutations.”

    Besides the fact that its pretty safe to say that this paper getting into science and being reviewed with positive feedback (though with some concerns for the study, of course as almost all studies are bound to have) by other cancer biologists ( http://www.ipscell.com/paul-knoepfler/ ) indicates it most likely has something insightful to say and something worth considering, your claim is a pretty gross oversimplication of what they argue.They specify that they aren’t necessarily talking about all kinds of cancers, only specific ones. They discuss that their study focuses on stem-cell derived cancers and the role that “random mutations,” or bad luck, have on successful prediction of stem-cell cancer onset. Then from within the set of cancers they are talking about, they do a thorough analysis of various types of cancers and make conclusions about each one separately.

    This is certainly far from “non-thinking.” Please have some respect for established academics in their fields…

    Additionally I think you fail to acknowledge a vast amount of literature on the “levels of description” topic. The idea is that even if everything in biology ontologically reduces to chemistry or physics, we can’t theorize well or make sense of many biological phenomena at the chemical or physical level of description. We have to describe things at a higher level, which is what SciSal was pointing out. Just as it is basically impossible to make sense of how a computer program works in a purely physical or chemical description, so too it doesn’t really make sense to try to explain evolution with physical or chemical descriptions.

    Obviously SciSal knows this since he is an established academic in both evolutionary biology and in philosophy of science, please think through your assertions carefully and with respect in the future. People work very hard to make progress and you seem unwarrantedly quick to dismiss them off-hand and with what seem to be many ad hominems, to be honest.

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  2. Rorty found Dewey was closest to providing a “vocabulary” that [1] “allows room for unjustifiable hope, and an unground-able but vital sense of human solidarity.” This goal fits well in the hacker (programmer) subculture [2].

    [1] http://faculty.georgetown.edu/irvinem/theory/Rorty-Method-SocialScience.pdf
    [2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hacker_%28programmer_subculture%29

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  3. Hi Marko,

    I don’t think my reply was a one-sentence answer, but let me elaborate.

    For me, “So what?” is not an admission of ignorance of the problem, it is both an expression of how I do not Camus’s problem to be troubling and a challenge to you to articulate why it should be troubling.

    If we define the “absurd life” as living in a meaningless universe, then my choice is certainly that of Camus — to accept it for what it is. I disagree that this is either “demoniac madness” or “rational suicide” and would challenge you to make an argument for either characterisation.

    So it’s not that I disagree with Camus’s approach, it is that the answer Camus finds is so trivially obvious to me I struggle to see how it is not so for everyone.

    But I don’t necessarily agree with the characterisation of human life as a quest for meaning. This is not how I perceive my own life, not least because (as noted in my earlier comment) I find the idea of “meaning” in this sense to be essentially meaningless. Rather, I see my life as a quest for fulfilment, and I can achieve fulfilment by pursuing the goals that I have been wired to value by evolution and conditioning. These include cultivating relationships with others, raising a family, achieving professional excellence, passing time in enjoyable pursuits, contributing to society, arguing on the Internet and so on.

    I think the problem is simply that there are two kinds of people, those to whom Camus’s problem is moving and those to whom it is not. You are in the former category, I am in the latter. I don’t think I am missing anything you perceive, I just think we are differently affected by the idea that the universe is meaningless. You perhaps find in that idea reason to despair. I take it with equanimity. Perhaps we are just wired differently.

    In particular, I don’t think the problem is my philosophical ignorance or philistinism. Unless I am very much mistaken, my attitude is not that dissimilar from Massimo’s or that of many philosophers.

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  4. Mess1955,

    John, thanks for replying! 🙂 Your position regarding absurdism is now much clearer — roughly somewhere in the neighborhood of the Camus’ position: accepting absurdity and doing your best in response. I guess I’ll find more details in your book, so I’ll look it up!

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  5. “Meaning” and “evolution” are used too promiscuously here. I’m sorry, but I can’t make any sense out of it.

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  6. EJ, Marko, John Messerly and others re Camus:

    As promised, I did knock out a blog post, in part incorporating my second comment here.

    I don’t quite use the word “flow” (it sounds a bit New Agey, in part), but I do think “meaning” is found, or created, in part through engagement with specific activities and involvement with them. (That kind of gets at “mindfulness,” too.)

    As a result, it removes defining “meaning” in primarily teleological terms.

    It also removes defining “meaning” in quasi-Platonic or humanist psychology terms — not seeking an ideal Me to realize, self-actualize, etc.

    It postulates “meaning” as evolving along with our “self” as it changes throughout life.

    Details here:

    http://socraticgadfly.blogspot.com/2015/01/mu-to-camus-on-meanininglessness.html

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  7. EJ,

    Thanks for the response. I am sure my language is often sloppy so I appreciate the breakdown on usage with regard to ‘progressive’ & ‘progress’.

    on this point:

    “However the issue raised in the article really has to do with two questions: Does already history have a goal for us; if so can we choose to hasten it?

    But if not, can we be sure the goals we choose for ourselves will really constitute improvement? Or is it simply preferable to what we have now (and why would it be?)”

    I don’t think it makes any sense to conceptualize of history as having goals. It seems pretty clear to me that goals (& meanings) emerge at or after the level of living beings that can sense their environment, pursue nourishment, avoid harm, and maintain some degree of self-repair. These capacities certainly require a high degree of complexity. After this point increased complexity on it’s own doesn’t lead to increased stability ( or fitness to environment ), but adaptability to changes in environment sure seem to be related degree of complexity. This is why as humans a key feature is the ability to fit ourselves to many environments ( & and create loads of entropy).

    Can we be sure the goals we choose really constitute improvement?

    Certainly not. That is why a big goal of mine is cultivating better understandings of the sources (and effects) of my emergent wants and desires. I find this approach seems to allow for a sense of progress with the meaningfulness I experience :). I think it requires an acceptance of uncertainty but not of absurdity.

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  8. Marko, I’m an amatuer at philosophy and so am not widely read, but it is Kierkegaard who I have read the most. I think there is little to distinguish between Kierkegaard’s ‘leap of faith’ and Camus’ response to the absurd in ‘revolt’, ‘freedom’ and ‘passion’. “Revolt” as the embrace of meaning is Kierkegaard’s ‘leap’ into an active commitment to meaning. The ‘freedom’ of authenticity are indistinguishable between the two.

    Perhaps there is a distinction in ‘passion’ in that Camus rejects speculation of an afterlife and embraces the absolute value of life here and now. Kierkegaard would say that Camus’ passion is a prerequisite for the afterlife (to, supposedly, want to live forever is a joke in someone who doesn’t have passion for living now) but would say that the absurdity of personal annihilation is not dispensed by passion for life but is deepened by it. Maybe Camus would say hope for an afterlife hinders ‘passion’ and therefore is rejected while Kierkegaard would say the opposite. In which case Camus has dispensed with the absurd while Kierkegaard keeps it as a sort of passion generating paradox. It’s an interesting question for me.

    I also have some reservations about the Absurd simply as a ‘search for meaning in a meaningless world’. I think it is more accurate to say it is ‘the simultaneous experience of both meaning and meaninglessness’. It’s because we have meaningful experience when we experience life, beauty, goodness, truth, love that we search for them as an Absolute Life, Beauty, Good, Truth, Love (in short, God)–and to the depth we experience them–the more passion we experience in our search for their ultimate form. So the Absurd is the lack of an absolute answer for what we absolutely desire. It is the journey for which the destination is everything but there is no destination in sight. It is the search for the God who is not there. It’s passion is proportional to the realization of it’s absence.

    The Absurd, according to Kierkegaard, is a category. Socrates was absurd because his wisdom was precisely his realization that what he knew was nothing in relation to his desire to know Truth and this absurdity was expressed even physically by his trances. Christ is absurd because he experienced his love for humanity as the presence of the Almighty in him and yet his love does not conquer all–instead they crucify him.

    In philosophical terms, the Absurd is the undecidableness of meaning combined with a passion for meaning. Faith is to decide anyway. It is to commit to one reasonable interpretation among many. I have personally done this by interpreting the universe in the same way I do my physical body: as the embodiment of the sentience and love I have experienced in myself and others. I think this interpretation a perfectly reasonable and scientifically compatible one and have given my reasons in my previous posts. Kierkegaard, of course, would say this commitment is nothing if not acted on.

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  9. To SocraticGadfly, Marko, and others regarding Camus

    I do like SocraticGadfly’s suggestion that life just is, we should try to be content and mindful. Also I like his idea that meaning evolves as we change ( and perhaps the species changes too.) If we do become post-human then we might understand it all and meaning for post-humans would be much different and richer than it would be for us. Of course, this violates SG’s idea that we should be content now, and not always looking to the future for our answers.

    Victor Frankl said somewhere that the challenge wasn’t to accept life’s absurdity or have religious faith but to learn to live not being sure about anything. Perhaps this connects to living in the moment, accepting things as they are, mindfulness, etc.

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  10. John Messerly: “The bleak outlook leading to my conclusion about hope derives from my own existential angst. Nihilism really does haunt me. … As for Camus and the absurdity of life, … which I think haunts the search for meaning. … Another option might be to create meaning, as Sartre suggests. … Or perhaps we can embrace or affirm the absurdity.”

    Thanks for the clarification. The {absurdity, Nihilism and hope} does sit in the hardcore of philosophy and theology.

    The central point of Chapter 13 of the book “The Divine Constitution (available at http://www.worldcat.org/search?q=no:%22027174584%22 )” is about the ‘base’ of Christian theology which is all about the ‘absurdity’: the more absurd, the stronger the truth, thus {the virgin birth, the resurrection,… the Jesus as the God himself}.

    The absurdity is also the hardcore in Buddhism, especially expressed in Zen, {the final truth is totally absurd which goes way beyond the description of any language}.

    However, this absurdity is removed in the Christian universe by calling the love of Jesus. And the Zen absurdity is eliminated when one enters into the Nirvāṇa, a state of ‘total emptiness’. Yet, the gateway into the Nirvāṇa is the ultimate wisdom and the total compassion. Without these two, one cannot even get on that gateway. Yet, without abandoning these two, one cannot truly enter into the Nirvāṇa.

    While the absurdity is the hardcore for both religions, it is also totally removable; that is, the ‘hope’ for these two religions is not vague or bleak.

    On the other hand, the Chinese religion (Confucianism) sees the absurdity as only anomalies in a totally unified universe (see, http://www.chinese-word-roots.org/Confuciu.htm ).

    While the absurdity of “life” is either not significant or always removable, the essence of Nature does carry some absurdity which is expressed by the Gödel’s incompleteness theorems. Yet, this absurdity (the paradoxes) can always be removed by “LIFE” process (see, https://scientiasalon.wordpress.com/2015/01/16/reductionism-emergence-and-burden-of-proof-part-ii/comment-page-1/#comment-10991 ).

    The “naturalness” issue of the modern physics is 90% theory-based while it does reflect a bit absurdness of Nature. But, the absurdity of Nature (much bigger in scope than the absurdity of life) is removed (demonstrable with correct final theory) by Nature. Thus, the absurdity of life is just the selling point for some religions. Life will always produce ‘good’ meanings. Thus, I have no sympathy of any kind for Nihilism and ‘hope’ that no one gets into that kind of bad idea.

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  11. Disturbing soft landing here, platitudinous quietism? May meaning trump rationality? Meaning can only be established through multiple subjectivities? Meaning in passionate engagement? Too continental?

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  12. Reblogged this on emerging mind.

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  13. HI John, not sure if the weather is as bad in Belgium as it is in the Netherlands, but the cloudy days here (I’m Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam) are definitely conducive to nihilist thoughts. Much be worse for someone from Austen!

    Seriously though, I think stoicism and buddhism are both useful outlooks/practices, but buddhism retains a bit too much rejection of the physical world for my tastes. I would also add taoism (philosophy not religion), and hedonism as possible treatments for nihilist tensions.

    I agree with the idea of hope being a temptation to reject, though not because it is irrational. It is irrational of course, in that it is emotional, but that is not a bad thing to me. My problem is that it is not useful. On top of creating a more passive mode of thought, it feeds back on the original problem (a feeling that because meaning is not outside of you, there is no meaning at all).

    I also think there is a critical difference between hoping (once one has put in the effort) that things will work out, and a general hope that life has meaning. Both aren’t that useful, but the latter indicates a mistake has been made.

    To my mind, things do matter and they have meaning. I think your essay brings out the fact that meaning has emerged within the evolution of the Universe. Whether that meaning counts as “progress” is another question entirely. But meaning is there (in abundance) to be explored. The problem is looking for meaning beyond the appropriate sources, that is outside yourself or others.

    The Universe as a whole is not an “other”. It is not sentient. It is simply a resource (put crudely) which enables sentient beings who do produce meaning to go about their business. Meaning only emerged in those sentient beings, and not in the rest of the inanimate processes going on around them. So we can’t look to ‘it’ for meaning or purpose. Sentient beings have to find purpose within and between themselves. And that’s okay!

    That certain ‘meanings’ or ‘purposes’ are not permanent or don’t apply over all people does not make them objectively less meaningful.

    I suppose being a bearer of meaning in the Universe holds some sort of objectively advanced status within it. While perhaps not objectively better or a form of progress, the position does hold (if nothing else the potential for) real significance. Perhaps that idea can help dispel any clouds of doubt that there is no meaning at all.

    (Side note- nice ref to Kundera. Like him)

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  14. Thanks DB.

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  15. SocraticGadFly,

    it wouldn’t matter if the child (we are all someone’s child) was a grizzled old fat dude with a wide grin full of rotten teeth, (and I know biological evolution didn’t program me to love that look) you’d still choose his existence over a thousand dead galaxies. The faster you admit the fact that you and everyone else knows that a universe without sentience (or hope of sentience) has no more value than a rock, that it is us (and whatever other sentience there is) who make the universe the wonder it is, the faster you’ll dispense with the false humility in your protestations against ‘egotism’.

    I know very little about process theology–so don’t understand your allusion. By process, I mean nothing more than interactions which bring about change. I don’t know why you’d say the universe isn’t a process. What is the big bang if it isn’t a process?

    John Messerly

    I find the term ‘post human’ an unfortunate one lacking in philanthropy (in the stoic sense of the word). Our ancestors generally took slavery and women as property for granted. We who find this abhorrent do not regard them as human and we as ‘post-human’ in this respect; we regard them as human and we as “more human”.

    Society can progress in reflecting more humanity but it has always been the case that it is only as individuals, that we become ‘more human’. Aurelius the Emperor and Epictetus the slave both managed to become more human without ceasing to be who they were in their objectionable (by our mores) societal roles. In fact, the humanity they achieved is quite elusive to many nowadays who would sneer at the idea that anything good could come from their society and the positions they had in them.

    My point here is that we need not speculate on how we can become more human or on what that means. Once we’ve chosen to be over not to be (thanks Hamlet and Camus) than the question becomes: what does it mean to be (human)? And we already know what it means. We’ve all experienced it, and we know there is nothing more human or divine (which are, in the end, the same thing). It’s easily expressed in the simplest of words–but a magnificently creative life can come from it if one works for it.

    The simple idea is this: it is more blessed to give than to receive. Love your neighbor (beginning with every person you’re in contact with and extending to those you aren’t) as if they were your own self. Whatever our progress in technology or cultural mores, this is the ultimate in humanity, for every individual, and is achievable by all. No special talents or intelligence required. How could there be more meaning, understanding, and richness than this?
    Yes, there is mindfulness and contentment in this but it doesn’t come without focus and commitment.

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  16. Great article, professor. I like the poem at the end especially. 🙂

    Kip

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