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.

66 thoughts on “Cosmic evolution and the meaning of life

  1. Thus we cannot confidently answer all of the questions we posed at the beginning of this essay in the affirmative.

    May I gently suggest that the “we” in this sentence is a little presumptuous.

    If the process from prokyarote to J S Bach, Albert Einstein, Alan Turing, Ursula LeGuin, Duke Ellington and so many more cannot be called progress then I cannot think what could be meant by the word.

    The fact that we can even ask the question about meaning appears to answer it.

    And if I ever doubted that there is progress, value and meaning then those doubts have been disintegrated by the thugs with guns and bombs who would tear down the progress, who would pull down democracy, make slaves of women and young girls, who would throw gays off buildings, murder intellectuals.

    So, yes, whatever it was that brought us here, we have undergone progress which has brought us value and meaning.

    And, yes I know, what we have is far from perfect. We have poverty, inequality, the rich and powerful manipulate democracy to their own ends and our politicians are too often ineffectual, self-serving, stupid or corrupt. To be able to see those things and see them as flaws also demonstrates the presence of meaning in our lives.

    But could anyone doubt that what IS and related groups want for us is a regress? If not then you also cannot doubt progress.


  2. The pace of this extract is a little dizzying and the topic of ‘meaning’ opaque, but I’m sufficiently intrigued to get the Kindle version and read your argument in full ($5 on Amazon is hard to turn down!)

    But I think a precis would have been more useful to readers than an excerpt.

    I wonder if the different senses of meaning could be listed. From the excerpt, I find the following varieties hinted at:
    1) Well-Being (happiness) — [psychological, moral]
    2) Historical resilience/perseverance — [not psychological]
    3) Biological complexity — [not psychological]
    4) Anthropic evolution — [psychological/moral, placing value on our history, analogous to science]
    5) Cultural complexity — [psychological or biological]
    6) Concious teleology — [psychological; tends to emphasize self-determination, free will, self-awareness]
    7) Creativity/Choice — [psychological; create our own meaning]
    8) Neurological complexity — [psychological, similar to a combination of biological and cultural complexity]

    The author states that meaning has emerged, but questions (i) whether its continual progress is a good thing and (ii) whether it was inevitable. I think the answer we give is contingent on what naturalistic account of meaning we come up with. If it is, as I suspect it must be, intricately tied to moral intuitions, then at least some meaning is Good. But it might not be inevitable, if we think, for instance, that moral A.I. could thrive over us via natural selection. As long as we continue to thrive (contingently) it would seem to depend on our ability to find meaning in human well-being and intelligence.

    What is meaning? I hope the author makes some effort to get at this. I find all the above listed versions that are psychological worth consideration. If we ask, “how much meaning does a rat have in its life?” I think number (8) is helpful. A naturalist might be able to measure meaning by the fusion of various emotions sensations and (propositional) attitudes. If we shock the rat and induce pain, the meaning would be a measure of the rats relating that pain to it’s self concept, desires, well-being, sensations, and so on. If they have a self-concept that is merely bodily (sensorimotor function depends on the ability to distinguish one’s own movements etc. from the environment), then perhaps a rats life is pretty well devoid of meaning.


  3. First, I think Gould was right in some way. That said, to bring in our friend Wittgenstein, evolutionary biologists can define “progress” however they want, if they want to show that evolution is indeed progressing. I’m referring strictly to biological progress here.

    Second, if we are showing cultural progress, which is certainly more arguable than biological process, there’s the second question of: “How much is this related to progress in evolutionary biology?” I would say, indirectly a fair amount, based on human brain evolution. I would say, directly, not a lot, as our recent seeming explosion in cultural progress has not been accompanied by a similar rate of biological evolution.

    Third, the question of “meaning” and evolution. Other than biological evolution having given us enough of a mind to reflect on issues of meaning, beyond that, I see no direct connection between evolution and issues of meaning. Any sentient being capable of at least third-order thought will start making judgments about meaning. Beyond that, speaking from a naturalistic point of view, to me, if one accepts philosophical naturalism, then one accepts the idea that quests for “meaning,” as traditionally defined, are non-sensical.

    Fourth, and in part in response to Robin: We might not know that we’re in “regress” until we’ve reached what’s not only a tipping point, but a tipping point of no return. Climate change, or Peak Oil, anybody?

    Fifth, I agree with Davies in another area. Most people overestimate the likely values of most of the variables in the Drake equation. I say this even with the discovery of ever more extra-solar planets, as well as thinking that SETI is still too anthropocentric in its search ideas.

    Sixth, and finally, this also tangentially relates to Gould and Dennett disputing whether evolution in general is algorithmic or not. At a minimum, I see Dennett’s claims as not only not proven, but not that likely to be amenable to provability.

    So, to sum up, I’m at least as skeptical as you, Prof. Messerly.


  4. One of the things that always strikes me when thinking about progress, both biological and societal, is the relationship between complexity and constraint. The “fresh means” Darwin spoke of might be true up to a point (or true for the ecosphere as a whole), but increasing complexity means increasing interdependence of systems, which means decreasing options for changing any one subsystem without breaking other dependent systems.

    Catastrophe, in many ways, favors the simple. And the role that catastrophe plays in the evolutionary story doesn’t fit well with most people’s idea of progress.

    For our species, it seems like the evolutionary answer to the “Kobayashi Maru” trap that increasing complexity sets for us is the development of the means to control evolutionary pressure itself.


  5. The author’s uses of the third person plural sermonizingly. Assuming that he does not exclude himself from the ‘we’, he seems fundamentally, tho weakly, religious: he believes in (fears?) the possibility of eternal damnation, and in the soul. I understand that this book “summarize[s] the writings of the important contemporary theologians, philosophers, and scientists” and is “of immense scope” — “Baggini or Eagleton” — so the introduction we have here is almost necessarily somewhat vacuous. It would be nice to have a chapter that one could sink one’s teeth into.


  6. I like this article — especially the fact that the conclusion gives a critical overview of the rest, and thus gives a balanced perspective on the topic.

    I have one question though. If one disregards religious answers to the question of meaning in life (which this article obviously does, since it is taking a naturalistic stance from the beginning to the end), I don’t see it even tackle, let alone answer, the issue of inherent meaninglessness in Nature. I am alluding here to the philosophy of absurdism and the works of Albert Camus, especially his “Myth of Sisyphus”.

    Aside from appealing to religion (which Camus considers as running away from the problem), I have never seen any other serious argument against Camus’ position that human life has no inherent meaning, that we must face its absurdity, and that the most important philosophical question we have to answer prior to all other questions is “once faced with absurdity of life, why not commit suicide?”.

    I think the issue raised by Camus is fundamental, and I see not even a glimpse of a response to that issue in the article here. Am I missing something?


  7. A progressive idea:

    Time is another measure of human construct much like space, a meter, a light year, or an inch, dividing then and now and what is to be, of a singular indivisible Universe in hopes of grasping or managing a Nature truly free of such uncertain control. Life without time or measure, outside the box is freedom, try it and be. Take time out of your life if you can and just be the light of freedom you see!
    “darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that”

    MLK =


  8. This post combines several issues
    1) has there been progress?
    2) does life have meaning?
    3) what is meaning?

    1. Progress is beneficial change. Beneficial to whom? If we take a global view there has been startling change from nothing to hot hydrogen gas, galaxies, single celled life, multi-celled life, plant life, animal life, consciousness and cognition. This change is clearly beneficial to us and so, on the largest possible scale, we can say there has been startling progress.

    2. Does life have meaning? Meaning arrived in the universe with the birth of consciousness and cognition, making us the vehicles of meaning. By creating meaning in our lives we are demonstrating that the universe has meaning, since we are part of the universe.

    3. What is meaning? Terry Eagleton[1] put it beautifully in this passage where he uses a jazz ensemble as a metaphor for finding meaning.

    Take, as an image of the good life, a jazz group. A jazz group which is improvising obviously differs from a symphony orchestra, since to a large extent each member is free to express herself as she likes. But she does so with a receptive sensitivity to the self-expressive performances of the other musicians. The complex harmony they fashion comes not from playing from a collective score, but from the free musical expression of each member acting as the basis for the free expression of the others.

    As each player grows more musically eloquent, the others draw inspiration from this and are spurred to greater heights. There is no conflict here between freedom and the ‘good of the whole’, yet the image is the reverse of totalitarian. Though each performer contributes to ‘the greater good of the whole’, she does so not by some grim-lipped self-sacrifice but simply by expressing herself.

    There is self-realization, but only through a loss of self in the music as a whole. There is achievement, but it is not a question of self-aggrandizing success. Instead, the achievement – the music itself – acts as a medium of relationship among the performers.

    There is pleasure to be reaped from this artistry, and – since there is a free fulfilment or realization of powers – there is also happiness in the sense of flourishing. Because this flourishing is reciprocal, we can even speak, remotely and analogically, of a kind of love. One could do worse, surely, than propose such a situation as the meaning of life – both in the sense that it is what makes life meaningful, and – more controversially – in the sense that when we act in this way, we realize our natures at their finest.

    4. Creativity as meaning.
    Eagleton’s jazz metaphor illustrates how meaning is found in creativity, freely exercised in mutually beneficial relationships. This can be the creativity of the artist, musician, writer, intellectual, scientist, engineer, technician etc. We each find meaning in our creative gifts to the world, exercised both for our own good and the good of others, when done ethically, with love.

    [1] Eagleton, Meaning of Life, a very short introduction.


  9. Two quotes from the article which I regard as true and to the point.

    “The scientist John Stewart-Williams argues that the universe does have purposes, since we have purposes and we are part of the universe.”

    “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.”

    The suggestion that nature might be ‘meaningless’ seems ludicrous to me considering that sentient beings like us are, as Davies says, the self awareness of the universe (nature) . When considering any entity, process, etc., what could be more identified as what it is than it’s own self awareness? We, if we are the only sentience, are more the universe than a thousand dead galaxies under our purview . Their vast volume and energy acquire a puny significance in relation to the god like sentience which observes them.

    THIS universe is sentience, no matter what other ‘possible’ universes may be. Doubt as to meaning in the universe can only arise from contemplating possible universes (or different possibilities for this universe) which, as far as we know, do not exist apart from speculation. These other possibilities may be no more than a projection of the experience of possibility in decision making onto aspects of the universe which do not possess it.

    That the universe once had no awareness of itself (sentience) is only relevant if one, again, appeals to speculations of other possible universes. This one has always been on the path to self awareness. What a process becomes is implicit in what it is.

    What defines sentience more than meaning? Can the universe progress to become more meaningful? Yes, as it becomes more self aware it becomes more sentient and meaningful. Love, Science, and art being the main processes whereby this happens.


  10. At the moment, I think of progress as a succession of changes over time stepping in only one direction toward some particular stable state that acts as a sink for whatever phenomena is changing. I have a more difficult time understanding how stepping on average in a specific and clear direction (i.e. adaptation) isn’t anything more than ephemeral directionality. The drunkard’s walk shows this by demonstrating that random walks can walk back (environments can change although populations do not tend to de-evolve—they possess sufficient variation within and among populations). I also remember Gould was saying the per-lineage variation in relative complexity increases. He referenced theoretical work by McShea (1994) in his book Full House (Gould, 1996). Directionality and progress suggests (requires?) descendants share little future with their ancestors.

    In any case, one can organize their thoughts around a framework used by Fracchia and Lewontin. In their 1999 article on cultural evolution they talk about Transformational and Variational evolutionary schemes. Transformational evolutionary phenomena are the ontogeny of, say, organisms or stars. Each is born, lives, and dies. I guess than for organisms like us there is progress. The meaning of our lives is debatable. When a star dies it provides the requisite materials and energy to form other star systems and, thus, there is more concrete meaning with respect to the potential for creating novelty. Perhaps the same is true for reproducing organisms too. However, I’d need coaxing to accept cosmic, extrinsic meaning over anthropocentric bias —an epistemological relativist stance seems fine here.

    Fracchia and Lewontin also discuss evolution in terms of mortality. The two examples just given are ones in which transformational evolution happens within the duration of existence for the entity, making it “immortal”. However, there can be mortal entities through which evolution changes one generation after the next. An example is a tournament. Given the game is the mortal entity than after each round (generation) only the winners of the games compete. This happens round after round in a dwindling population of games until there is one game (progress). When the final game is over there is (hopefully) a champion. This is the purpose of the tournament: to win it all.

    Yet if the biological evolution we care about is in the variational evolutionary scheme than I imagine it will forever be difficult to secure an answer in the positive regarding progress and meaning considering the microcosmos still exists and, as Gould argued, is so dominant a mode that we (and all the other multicellular eukaryotes) are the mere “complex” fluff at the top of a giant heap of survival and history. Of course, it isn’t impossible to envision the heap itself as transforming—possessing progress and perhaps even cosmic meaning—but to what end? Panspermia? These thoughts easily become fractal with reproducers made of other smaller reproducers made of other…and it’s, how they say, turtles all the way down? Perhaps a new evolutionary scheme is needed to talk about progress and meaning in culture and cosmos.


  11. McShea, D.W., (1994) Mechanisms of Large-scale Evolutionary Trends, Evolution: 48 (6), 1747-1763.

    Gould, S.J., (1996) Full House: The Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin. New York: Harmony.

    Fracchia, J. and Lewontin, R.C., (1999) Does Culture Evolve?, History and Theory, Theme Issue 38, 52-78.


  12. Hi John, I liked the piece though I find myself in strong disagreement with the end. I don’t believe ‘hope’ is anything worth celebrating.

    Regarding the question(s) of progress and meaning in the Universe.

    1) Biology: I am with Gould that there is no ‘grand design’ style of progress (aka inherent to the system), nor a teleological ‘always improving’ style of progress. However, there is a progression of forms (aka continual change), and since organisms are interacting Dawkins is correct that there can be a sort of weak ‘improving’ style of progression as organisms gain advantages within their immediate environment. But that means nothing if the immediate environment (including competitors) changes abruptly in the ‘wrong direction’.

    2) Culture: This is a close parallel to biology. Although I agree that as parts of the universe, our existence shows that the Universe contains purpose it also shows (in abundance) that it is not a singular purpose. That is not to argue people should abandon projects to advance their interests (identified purpose), or that they are without value. It simply means that progress can be had toward many different purposes. There is no singular, grand (inherent to system), objectively true purpose.

    3) Meaning: No, there is no such thing as an ultimate meaning to the Universe. As the last beings who can hold such feelings perish from the Universe, it might be said that a ‘final’ meaning has emerged. But that is at best happenstance, and at worst (ala armageddon type philosophy) self-fulfilling prophecy. None of this however, discounts the value of discovering an ultimate meaning for yourself, or discussing it with others.

    People crave meaning and purpose in their lives. While we are social animals, I believe it is normally an error to believe those come from some external source, including the Universe itself. You are the Universe itself (even if not its entirety), and will only find the foundations of meaning and purpose on the inside. There is not going to be something ‘better’ coming along. Not even (and perhaps especially not) from evolutionary theory.

    That is why I don’t like the meager ‘hope’ offered at the end. Or the bleak outlook suggested to lead us to that destination. After all the prior discussions of Stoicism (which I do like) at Scientia salon, I found the final paragraph contrary to building a stoic mindset.


  13. Although we can establish the emergence of meaning, we cannot establish that this is good.

    To see this in context we should ask “Would it have been better if there had never been meaning?”.

    Of course the answer is no. If there had never been meaning it would not have been better, neither would it have been worse. Not even indifferent. If there had never been meaning then there would never have been any of these categories.

    So meaning is a basis for anything being ‘better’ or ‘worse’, so the question of whether meaning itself is good or bad is otiose.

    But can I also question the premise, that meaning emerged? Take a fairly basic usage of meaning and purpose, say ‘the meaning of a word’ or ‘the purpose of a machine’.

    Suppose we start picking up radio signals from outer space, in the form of the first 128 prime numbers repeated over again. We would know that these signals have meaning. They have meaning to us and meaning to those who transmitted the signal. If this happened then whoever sent the signal must have a machine and they have a purpose for the machine. Moreover there is a secondary meaning to the signals, beside the basic mathematical machine – one of ‘here we are’.

    Presumably the senders of the message would have been there because of an evolutionary process too. Unless anyone is going to argue for the impossibility of the above scenario then we have to question, did meaning emerge from evolution? Or was meaning found by the algorithm of evolution?

    To answer SocraticGadfly things like progress and regress need not be permanent nor global. We can have swings and roundabouts, hills and valleys.

    We can see our progress in terms of the kind of world that IS militants would have for us. But also in the fact that there are many among us who see no value in this society and want to go and join those who would tear it down for tyranny, slavery and bigotry.

    In a way, I can see what drives them – a lifetime of blah, of bland civic duty, turning up and ticking boxes is not meaningful. Given a chance to passionately believe and fight for something, there must be a temptation. Sysiphus may have been happy as he walked down after the boulder, but given a Kalashnikov and told that he could go and wreak havoc on Olympus – I think I know what he would have chosen.

    So, to update my position – what I see as progress is seen as regress for others. That seems to be the problem – if we reach a point where we doubt that what we have acheived is good or that it is progress then we lose the will to defend it.

    So I can see the other side. Maybe that is the modern dilemma – keep rolling the stone up the hill or start slouching towards Bethlehem.


  14. I can’t say I disagree with a whole lot in the article apart from being a little bemused at its premise.

    Personally, and perhaps paradoxically, I find the concept of “meaning” (apart from its sense in semantics) to be pretty meaningless. It’s a word often bandied about, but it has so many interpretations as to be nigh useless.

    To have “meaning” in one’s life seems to me to be another way of describing fulfillment. For many people this will involve having “purpose”, i.e. goals or causes dearly pursued, but for others fulfillment might be achieved through loving relationships or even more selfish/hedonistic means. Everyone is different.

    To ask whether there is “meaning” in Nature is to my mind a category mistake unless the question is whether the Universe was created for a purpose, which is more or less the standard atheist/theist divide and so not a particularly distinct or interesting question in its own right.

    For some people the idea that there is no “meaning” (whatever that might mean) in Nature seems to be a source of horror or dread. I don’t really understand this and don’t feel it myself. I will admit that there is some potential (when exploited by writers such as Lovecraft) for the vast unfeeling and uncaring emptiness of the cosmos to instill a certain sense of unease, but it certainly doesn’t bother me much in my daily life.

    So, in response to Marko, so what if Nature is inherently meaninglessness? What difference does that make to anything?

    “Why not commit suicide?” Well, if I am enjoying life, why should I? The question seems to forget that there is no rational reason to do anything at all except in respect of some drive or desire. Most desiring beings have a desire to live or at least not to die. It’s that simple. Asking “why live?” is as daft as asking a teenage boy “why masturbate?”.

    If the question is why not commit suicide when not enjoying life, the question is whether you value death enough to offset the pain and suffering you will cause your loved ones, or the giving up the chance at a better life in future.

    If nobody will miss you, and you are not enjoying life, and there is no chance you will ever enjoy life, then perhaps there is no reason not to commit suicide. In that case I would say it is your choice, but care should be taken that the choice is made rationally, which it often isn’t.


  15. An enjoyable romp through a vast landscape!

    To paraphrase “We are either born with meaning, acquire meaning, or have meaning thrust upon us.” There may be some truth to all of that. Everyone probably has their own version that gets them out of bed. Mine is a humble hope that my children, grandchildren and friends inherit something valuable that they can use, even to find their own meaning. To that end I do the best I can. No one has ever specifically defined meaning for me, and I do not intend to for others. It certainly is helpful to see how others are doing.


  16. Hi DM,

    If the question is why not commit suicide when not enjoying life, the question is whether you value death enough to offset the pain and suffering you will cause your loved ones, or the giving up the chance at a better life in future.

    And immediately you are assuming an inherent meaning in nature, if you think that the pain and suffering of loved ones is something to be rationally taken into account.

    If you kill yourself then the pain and suffering of your loved ones is no more a problem for you than anything else in your life. For you, it all stops.

    Suicide is not about valuing death, it is about just wanting it all to stop, whether through a clinical condition like depression, or just simply because you do not enjoy yourself and no longer see the point.

    The analogy with a teenager masturbating is instructive. Sure you can be satisfied with spending your life one way or another stimulating the reward centres in your brain.

    But I think that if we start defining life as a “pleasure yourself or kill yourself” deal then I think we should not be too surprised when people stop listening to that and start listening to others.


  17. Meaning is what is left when we have stripped away all that is meaningless. It is signal extracted from the noise. Necessarily though, different perspectives will extract different signals from the same noise.
    The problem here is that we are applying a linear bias to a non-linear reality. How we cognitively encompass the non-linear is through emotion and intuition, while the linear, sequential, rational side of the brain is focused on ordering the flashes of perception and giving ourselves navigational direction.
    As labnut quoted;
    “As each player grows more musically eloquent, the others draw inspiration from this and are spurred to greater heights. There is no conflict here between freedom and the ‘good of the whole’, yet the image is the reverse of totalitarian. Though each performer contributes to ‘the greater good of the whole’, she does so not by some grim-lipped self-sacrifice but simply by expressing herself.
    There is self-realization, but only through a loss of self in the music as a whole. There is achievement, but it is not a question of self-aggrandizing success. Instead, the achievement – the music itself – acts as a medium of relationship among the performers.”
    As a group, it is more that thermodynamic expression which builds and expands and the parts become a larger whole.
    Consciousness is that raw energy of awareness, while thought is the form it manifests and so if we can expand and lift that relationship up to new heights and push the boundaries a little further, it breaks down those lines between us and that is what gives the moment that meaning/signal of the larger network of connectivity.
    (wordpress isn’t taking password, so going with Facebook account/brodix)


  18. I’m thrilled to find this article and all these comments. Hope as a conclusion is a bit depressing… But this and the fact that you ended the article with a poem signifies where our major problem lies – our language barrier. It is one of our best tools we have – we can talk, write and quote all day long – but in the end of the day it’s down to abstract thoughts that were originated by words (or the other way around, like Plato’s Theory of Forms). I guess we should be honest – there is no conclusion. Can someone prove me wrong please?


  19. “There is only one really serious philosophical problem,” Camus says in the Myth of Sisyphus, “and that is suicide. Deciding whether or not life is worth living is to answer the fundamental question in philosophy. All other questions follow from that.”

    What does this mean? Not much. Besides the fact that apparently much of Camus’ life was absurd. Camus should have done like Nietzsche, and go climb mountains solo. There, as Nietzsche did, he would have found meaning.

    One does not decide if life is worth living, most of the time, because, most of the time, life is not a á. One does chose to breathe. One breathes. When one is thirsty, one drinks, and so on. There is a mechanical aspect to animals, who are machines which live. Most of the time, an animal’s systems are on automatic, best described by inertia.

    Animals find meaning by experiencing the life that they are made for.

    Recent studies have shown that young lions get neurological damage, if they don’t chew hard on tough flesh. Being a lion is meant to be tough, to be fulfilling. Camus and company lived too soft, in their hour of glory.

    Lamarck believed that two forces acted on evolution. One had to do with adapting to the environment, the other was the “Pouvoir de Vie”. This “Life Power” brought increasing complexity to biological evolution. It goes without saying that it is observed. It is an open question whether life started on Mars (it probably did).

    What is clear, though, is that fortunes are spent to sterilize landers sent to other planets (including the Moon), because exobiologists are worried that today’s Earth life would take over: Earth life has become so complex, it can adapt to what space can throw at it.

    This “Life Power” made reductionists spiteful, because they saw no science based reason for it. However, if they had been smarter, they would have seen it that it was a fact. They knew too much Classical and Thermo Dynamics… While the true nature of Quantum Physics was hidden by the siren song of the Copenhagen Interpretation.

    Quantum Physics depends upon law (= an unknown set of wave equations), initial conditions, and also the final space (a Hilbert space generated by eigenstates). This makes the Quantum teleological, an inconceivable horror for the classic-mechanical minded.

    The final space for genes is the environment. Genes are Quantum machines (a bit like Turing machines, but operated by the Quantum). This means that we have a Quantum mechanism for fast adaptation to the environment.

    But not only this. The Quantum force operates through Quantum Entanglement… Entanglement creates a complexity at a distance, and that complexity propagates, as the Quantum Entanglement does.

    So it is as if life progressed by extending Quantum tendrils in all spaces that it can reach, and it can reach a lot. There is Lamarck’ Life Power, there is the increasing complexity, and there is the progress. If biology itself progresses, at fortiori culture, the minds’ tendrils.


  20. >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.

    This is a fundamental misunderstanding of the process. New forms adapt to new conditions, not just old ones. Environments continually change , and forms change with them – . Just because one is “older” and another “newer” says nothing about the “new” and “old” conditions to which they adapt. They are comfortable if they fit, whatever the age of the environment.


  21. >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.

    Sorry, but that’s also wrong. The law that drives the process is lower energy orbital bonding for compounds beyond single atoms. The environment is comprised of chemicals, of which we are constructed! Life is extant environmental chemicals bonding into necessarily economical relations due to physics

    What are the extents and limits of that bonding, what chemicals are available, and what conditions are they bonding to suit? That’s progress.


  22. >Is the emergence of meaning a good thing?

    Another issue. Don’t you mean “evolution” rather than “emergence”? The lower orbital bonding that makes living things has extents and limits, depending upon available chemicals and conditions. That is a fact, whether science currently has insight into those relations or not. Factual events and their lawful relations determine everything. What are they in this case, to inevitably result in bonded anatomies?

    That’s the evolution of know facts & laws, if the facts & laws are understood in application to chemicals bonding in environments. Traceable by laws, not simply “appearing” by emergence. We got here by evolution of extant factual & lawful events, which remain to be understood by science.


  23. My two cents. By assuming that Mind is a new addition to the world that arrives with complex human beings one rules out the possibility that it is Mind that is evolving, or perhaps ‘unfolding’ would be better, and possibly in the direction of some fixed or unavoidable destination. Perhaps the assumption that Mind is a recent evolutionary development can be justified in some way, albeit it can never be proved, but physical evolution seems a rather trivial affair by comparison with this deeper idea. The idea that a physical form can be evolving to become ‘better’ or ‘worse’ does not compute in this reader’s head.


  24. To further the thought; Totalitarian is when everyone has to march to the same beat and usually in the same direction, under threat of being deemed meaningless. While this effect is useful for creating singular motion, as a close set it contracts and is finite.


  25. John, I believe you are the one being incorrect here, or at the least addressing things at the incorrect level of analysis. Biological evolution happens because of a combination of deterministic (natural selection) and stochastic processes. Talking about it in terms of orbital bonding simply doesn’t help.


  26. Hi Robin,

    > And immediately you are assuming an inherent meaning in nature, if you think that the pain and suffering of loved ones is something to be rationally taken into account.

    Not so. It’s just another drive or desire. I desire not to hurt my family and friends. I’m not making a normative statement or appealing to moral realism. I’m just saying that I am a person such that I do not want to cause pain and suffering to my loved ones.

    > If you kill yourself then the pain and suffering of your loved ones is no more a problem for you than anything else in your life. For you, it all stops.

    My desires extend beyond my own mental state. This is how I am wired and does not presuppose moral realism or inherent meaning in nature. Similarly, a bee will die to protect its hive, even though after its death its hive’s well-being is no more a problem for it.

    > Suicide is not about valuing death, it is about just wanting it all to stop, whether through a clinical condition like depression, or just simply because you do not enjoy yourself and no longer see the point.

    Thanks for the lesson but I assure you this is not news to me. Even so, you are valuing death, because death is simply the condition where it all stops. Or at least that is what I have in mind. The thing is you are making a decision, weighing options. You are considering the value of one option as compared to the value of the other. The impact on those around you has an effect on those values when the person doing the considering cares about such things.

    > Sure you can be satisfied with spending your life one way or another stimulating the reward centres in your brain.

    Charity work is also rewarding. Everything people do is because of how their brains are wired. The idea that you need to appeal to some sort of inherent objective meaning in nature to rationalise any of it is misguided.

    > But I think that if we start defining life as a “pleasure yourself or kill yourself” deal then I think we should not be too surprised when people stop listening to that and start listening to others.

    Well, when you put it like that. But that’s not really what I said, is it? My point is that it is misguided to seek an ultimate rationalisation for any human behaviour. So the answer to “Why not commit suicide?” is that this is a silly question. There is (generally, for most people) no reason to commit suicide, an act which goes against instinct and desire.


  27. I have to disagree with some of what John Merryman says in comments.


    Meaning is what is left when we have stripped away all that is meaningless. It is signal extracted from the noise. Necessarily though, different perspectives will extract different signals from the same noise.

    No, that’s “information,” not “meaning,” in a sense very much like that of Claude Shannon, etc. “Information” is no more “meaning” than “knowledge” is “wisdom.”

    And this:

    The problem here is that we are applying a linear bias to a non-linear reality. How we cognitively encompass the non-linear is through emotion and intuition, while the linear, sequential, rational side of the brain is focused on ordering the flashes of perception and giving ourselves navigational direction.

    Actually, “disagree” isn’t really the right word. Rather, simply, a notation that this sounds like some New Ageism/Pop Psychology hash is what my response is.

    It also, beyond the New Age riffs on circularity, left/right brain divisions and other such fluff, also assumes that reality is non-linear. Given that, in physics, we have an arrow of time, I’d say that’s pretty much not so for ground-floor levels of reality, evolutionary biology as well as physics. No circularity there. Now, cultural evolution may have spirals rather than straight lines, tis true, but I don’t think that’s what Mr. Merryman is getting at.

    To others, others thinking along the same path, sorry, but, just because homo sapiens (and a few other animals) are self-aware that doesn’t mean the universe is self-aware. It doesn’t even mean the universe as an entity has a mind with which to be self-aware.

    Robin, a good point, and I agree that, in terns of culture, etc., progress for one may indeed be regress for another. Also agree that not all progress, or regress, is irreversible.

    To extend Disagreeable as he riffs on Marko, and somewhat Robin: I think Camus was asking the wrong question.

    Life is neither meaningful nor meaningless, if we take “meaningless” to be the opposite of “meaningful.”

    If we instead, talk about “without meaning” or “meaning-less” (sic) we can hopefully understand this not as an opposition to “meaningful” but simply that the issue of “meaning” is, if not a category mistake, one of those issues about which we should be silent, or even more, per logical positivism, a question that is itself … without meaning!

    It’s true that, as part of our attempts to control our surroundings, we probably have “meaning seekers” as well as “pattern detectors” and “agency imputers” halfway hardwired into our brains.

    But, per Hume’s is ≠ ought, that doesn’t mean that we have to follow them in falsely looking for agency — or falsely imputing meaning where it doesn’t exist, or falsely looking for it when it’s not part of the issue.


  28. A clear and distinct articulation of meaning is not possible, it seems, for the apparent reason that the concept is not clear and distinct – so talking about it will go in circles (corresponding to the intuition that our universe is circular). If we take this nebulous idea to be something of an organizing principle in our individual lives, then it is rightly seen as the answer to the question of what is my life all about. Extrapolating this to everybody raises the valid question what is the meaning of our existence, why are we here on earth, why is there a universe? These questions are anthropocentric.

    Turning the question upside down, hitching a ride on the arrow of time, we could ask whether the universe had meaning a minute before the big bang, or a minute after the event. Was the universe meaningless until life arrived? Or, did meaning only insert itself into existence ~200,000 years ago with the arrival of modern man?

    As a monist, the question seems clear to me: either it is all meaningless or it is all meaningful. I choose all meaningful because I believe I am a meaningful entity. This is a very weak argument, in fact it is more like an article of faith. But there is absolutely no evidence, whatsoever, that I can see, why I should not believe this. All the evidence that I have examined supports this belief. I am not aware of any evidence to the contrary.


  29. The cosmology of Christian Genesis is totally wrong, but it can be excused as there was no chance for those authors to know better. Today, the mainstream physics and biology are still not knowing the ultimate reality, but Atheists are all ready to declare of knowing all, not knowing what they do not know, and I have no sympathy for Atheism on this.

    This article employs a special strategy: covering a great scope of knowledge (this, this,…, and this), then giving conclusions on (that, that, …, that). Many linkages can be made between this and that whole many denying of that from this are also great points. Its “meaning” is very much depending upon the cherry picking. At end, this is seemingly an article of theism in disguise. Being a disguised article, it could be a secret message for Atheism. By all means, it is a poorly written article, as the term ‘meaning’ is either poorly or badly defined.

    John G. Messerly: “… When we look to the past we see that evolution has produced meaning, but it has also produced pain, fear, genocide, … ignorance, torture, inequality, superstition, poverty, heartache, death, and meaninglessness.”

    In this passage, {pain, fear, …, meaninglessness} is not “meaning”. With this definition, it renders the entire article ‘meaning’-less.

    Is bird-flu virus has meaning? (to who?)

    Is bird-flu virus conscious of its own meaning (if any)?

    What is the ‘purpose’ of this article? {Showing that meaning cannot emergent without a pre-exist meaning? Or, …?}

    What is the ‘scope’ of this article? {Meaning is only about the human meaning! Nothing else!}

    In a theoretical physics discussion (with Matt Strassler) on SUSY and extra dimensions, I made the following comment.

    {For any symbol (representing concrete, conceptual, abstract or all the whatnots), its existence consists of two parts.
    1. It is physically there.
    2. It carries meaning.

    If a thing is physically there but is “never” interact with anything (including itself), it carries no meaning. At here, the “meaning” of a thing has nothing to do with consciousness. As long as it participates in an interaction, it provides a meaning to that interaction. Thus, a physical reality without meaning has no existential value (again, having nothing to do with consciousness). Black hole or dark matter has meaning as they participate in gravitational interaction.

    On the other hand, a symbol without a corresponding reality does have existential value if it carries meaning. The concept of Heaven might not have a corresponding reality but has the existential value.

    As the meaning of a thing arises from participation (not from consciousness), multi-level meanings can arise from multi-level participations. And, the trace or signal of the early participation can be erased by the later (higher level) interaction. Thus, although the trace of the early signal cannot be detected physically at the higher level after some history killing processes, its meaning must be still visible at that higher level. …}


  30. I think it is pretty clear that physical forms tend to progress gradually in terms complexity and I think this local complexity can probably be explained through increased entropy production by the locally increased complexity. Having said that I also think destruction of this complexity can happen rapidly with a sudden change to the local environment.

    Regarding living forms we have seen this general tendency towards increasingly complex living systems, but some prior forms become extinct and others lose their own complexity as they fit themselves through symbiosis as part of a larger living system (mithochondria is one example).

    I think the way complexity emerges and progresses and the way symbiotic and parasitic relations work in nature can be informative and helpful as analogies when we think about meaning and relationships of individuals to groups after consciousness emerges. I don’t think that means we should infer value judgements back to those types of phenomena before the emergence of sentience or consciousness.

    We process meaning subjectively, but I think to feel as though we are living meaningful lives I think our concepts of meaning need to be cultivated evolve taking into account the inter-subjective accounts of other individuals and other groups. Our self awareness expands we feel part of something larger than ourselves and this allows our sense of meaning to progress so long as we don’t lose our autonomy in the process.


  31. I find it interesting that the main theme of the article has been the question of progress, and most of the comments have concerned the problem of ‘meaning’ as in ‘meaningful life.’

    Quickly unpacking the two issues to find their intersection, which thus allows this change of course in the comments, what we find is the implication that if the appearance of life and its evolutionary development have a progressive trajectory (i.e., toward ‘something better’), this trajectory is teleological – it forms life’s ‘purpose.’ The ‘meaning of life’ would thus be this purposiveness, realized consciously by adopting a program that continues that trajectory.

    So the real question underlying this article is, does life have a teleology? Only after this question is answered can we parcel out further questions, such as whether such a teleology could grant purposiveness (‘meaning’) to any particular life or merely life in general (since Life per se could have a purposiveness that does not inherit to living individuals). Also, of course, we can ask after the nature of the telos of this teleology – whether it is realized functionally, in the mere continuance of life, or whether it is targeted toward an as yet unrealized goal. Certainly – inevitably – we can ask after the origin of this teleology, since within such teleology, living entities would only be performing in capacity of agency – which would obviously imply a principal determining that teleology, for instance a divine or alien intelligence greater than our own.

    Professor Messerly is aware of these issues, and is discussing them in a non-technical way, to allow access to the importance they have in how we confront the future. So I find it interesting that the discussion veered largely in only one of the possible directions opened up in the article.

    For my own response, I only briefly note that the notion of ‘progress,’ understood teleologically, is skewered by grounding value assumptions that cannot be empirically demonstrated – such as: that there is a ‘good’ to which all reasonable people should agree, that certain possible futures are preferable to others, that as we are the result of history we are transcendent to it, that any new knowledge or new invention constitutes improvement. These are value judgments. Some of them I might agree to; certainly I would argue that a world with greater distribution of human and civil rights would increase the opportunity for human flourishing. But that’s a political argument, not a teleological one (and I certainly think there are those for whom ‘human flourishing’ has no value). But in any event, ‘progress in any arena is not uniform or univocal. Atomic energy lights many more houses than the old gas light system. But there were people in Nagasaki and Hiroshima who benefited little by it in 1945. Or perhaps let us bring forth witnesses from Chernobyl.

    The principle of progress, to be adopted as a teleology, has to be demonstrated to be effectively linear, always moving forward. There’s just not enough evidence of that.


  32. SocraticGadFly said: “To others, others thinking along the same path, sorry, but, just because homo sapiens (and a few other animals) are self-aware that doesn’t mean the universe is self-aware. It doesn’t even mean the universe as an entity has a mind with which to be self-aware.”

    Homo sapiens are more than just ‘self-aware’ processes, they are aware of the fact that the process they regard as their ‘self’ is a subprocess within an ecology of larger processes which are in turn subprocesses..and so forth. The universe is the ultimate process encompassing all other processes in it.

    Your position that awareness of the universe, (an awareness located in a particular subprocess of this universe), is not an awareness that can be equally attributed to the ultimate process which instantiates the aware subprocess — seems arbitrary to me.

    This position seems another instance of ‘the ghost in the machine’ in which a subprocess is something completely independent and separate from the wider ecology of processes which brought it into existence. Or, inversely phrased, the ultimate process is something independent and separate from the subprocesses which compose it.

    I think your position originates in the idea that the universe is not only what it is but is also what it would have been without self aware subprocesses. However, what something “is’ can only be what it ‘is for us’. For example: if you lose an arm, you are still you. If you lose your brain, you are no longer you. Your brain is essential to who you are. For me, the idea that the universe would be the same universe if it was not composed, in part, of sentience is as ludicrous as saying you would be you if you were hopelessly brain dead and your body was on ‘life-support’.

    Your brain is embodied in a process composed of many processes, each of varying degrees of importance to the awareness produced by the whole ecology of processes. Some subprocesses, while they have some remote and indirect connection to the brain, are of such miniscule importance that they can be dispensed with. I see no difference between this and the relation of sentience to the larger universe. The universe exists for us sentient creatures in no qualitatively different way than our bodies do—it is the raw material that sentience makes use of for self expression in the things we create, say, and do.

    In case you are tempted to call this ‘egotistical’, as if that is necessarily a bad thing, I have a thought experiment for you. Imagine God presented you a thousand galaxies composed of no sentience at all and whose existence impacts no sentience, nothing but vast beautiful expanses of gases and nuclear reactions. Also God presents you a child composed of love, hopes, dreams, etc. It is your choice to decide which of these will continue to exist another moment. If you choose the child, than all your protestations of ‘egotism’ is hypocrisy–a sort of fake humility.


  33. EJ,

    I was trying to get at the dissociation between the concept of ‘progress’ and the concept of ‘meaning’ in my response. I think we can describe phenomena as ‘progressing’ or ‘declining’ without placing value judgement. It does seem to me that complexity in terms of what survives does tend to increase until a terminal event resets things. I don’t think we need to infer any kind teleology or design on this kind of progress.

    A consequence of certain types complex physical and organizational relations appears to be consciousness & long with consciousness comes subjective sense making, value judgement and meaning. This doesn’t imply any type of ‘ultimate’ plan or design behind the various senses of meaning that emerge and then evolve.

    I do think however we can talk of progress in our individual and collective senses of meaning through progressive convergence of inter-subjective agreements which can feed-back on our subject evaluations and will always be incomplete (but can get closer). I don’t think we should expect this process to be linear at least not for individuals or selected groups. There is a taoist saying ‘sometimes progress in the way seems like regressing’.


  34. I’ve been browsing Dr. Messerly’s book,[The Meaning of Life: Religious, Philosophical, Transhumanist, and Scientific Perspectives, Darwin & Hume Publishers, 2013]
    and it strikes me an invaluable compendium of contemporary humaniora, a consideration of the current landscape of values among public intellectuals very handy to have and I’m getting a copy.


  35. Not true all all SciSal. That shows a lack of attention to detail. What do you think drives evolution? Randomness determined by Selection? That’s just sad for progress, and a vague generalized analysis. Obviously, DNA builds, and builds anatomies by bonding. Right?

    Don’t vaguely generalize some notion of randomness because it suits you because you evidently haven’t considered the issue in depth. Go deep. Go to the reality of bonding to create any compound, and how that bonding is facilitated by specific landscapes of chemicals on Earth, with its lawful seasons, lawful gravitation, lawful electromagnetism, lawful chemical behaviour and so on.

    No randomness there, just laws that you need to come grips with, rather than making some vague incorrect generalized assumption that all is “random” awaiting “Selection”. What it is, is lawful awaiting explanation by science! Pure hubris based on vague generalization SciSal, not the appropriate level of analysis – in fact an excuse for no analysis.

    Like the researchers who errantly claimed about cancers last week. you need to get beyond “non thinking” generalization. They said cancers are mainly random mutations, and they have been clobbered for their non-thinking at the BBC in particular. Have they discounted every chemical cause? What is the causal level of bonding chemicals on Earth’s surface when you add bonding as mutation within anatomy. Too complex for them so they invent one of your vague generalization SciSal.

    In short, you are obstructing progress with those view – no level of analysis at all, Scientists follow suit when it comes to cancer, and they muck it up. Its a contagion of superficiality. Its a lack of knowledge and ignorance legitimized by vague generalization, and nothing more.


  36. I absolutely love it when my readers accuse me of anti-science ignorance and not digging deeper, evidently forgetting that I am a professional evolutionary biologist who has published somewhat well received papers and books on the topic.


  37. There may be replies other than Sci Sal to my comments, but I will spend my last post, as I am confident that my comments are sufficient and I will only be repeating them with bits of more info, as I did for Sci Sal. The last comment is simple, but I shall put it in caps to emphasize – SCIENCE, CORRECT YOUR OWN WORK, don’t just sit on it and repeat the superficiality of your work endlessly like a mantra, go deeper and deeper and BE INVENTIVE. Pretty basic


  38. DM and everyone,

    I’d like to think that absurdism — as a serious and well-developed philosophical school of thought — requires more than just a simplistic one-sentence answer on the lines of “So what?” to be done away with. Though I am not a full-blown expert on either Camus or absurdism philosophy, I think it raises a serious issue which requires a serious and detailed answer. Everyone here who responded to my question appears to me as completely ignorant of the philosophical interpretations and analysis of “The Stranger”, and the arguments given in “Myth of Sisyphys” and “The Rebel”, to mention only Camus’ own work.

    It should be enough just to summarize the overview on absurdism from Wikipedia — “the Absurd arises out of the fundamental disharmony between the individual’s search for meaning and the meaninglessness of the universe. As beings looking for meaning in a meaningless world, humans have three ways of resolving the dilemma”, which are, according to Camus and Kierkegaard:

    (1) suicide (which Camus considers even more absurd than living the absurd life),
    (2) religion (a “leap of faith” in some being or idea which is beyond the absurd — Camus calls this “philosophical suicide”),
    (3) acceptance of living the absurd life (which Camus advocates while Kierkegaard characterizes as “demoniac madness”).

    In other words, faced with the absurd, one can choose between commiting physical, naturalist-philosophical, or rational suicide. While everyone is welcome to “pick their poison”, each of these approaches requires at least some serious attention from any naturalist philosopher who discusses the concept of meaning in the universe. Also, any additional fourth option should be heavily explained and argued for, since the philosophers who were studying absurdism have pretty firmly narrowed down the list of possibilities to those three above, and have serious arguments against most other stances.

    But I think the main problem is that the author of the essay is not participating in the discussion. 😦


  39. SocraticGadfly,
    I plead guilty to being a new age thinker.
    Just as the specific light and auditory spectrums we perceive are foundational to how we sense the world, the thoughts patterns and framing we develop by our early teens define how we understand the world.
    Having grown up with a bunch of race horses and horse people, for personal safety, if nothing else, I developed more of what would be called “horse sense,” than “book knowledge,” at an early age. When I tried delving into philosophy to expand my knowledge base, I’m afraid I found it more epistemically profuse, than ontologically enlightening, i.e. lots of haystack, little needle. I did eventually find what I was looking for in basic physics and “new age thinking,” i.e. westerners trying to intuit/incorporate more eastern, context oriented modes of thinking.
    While having grown up as a bit of a castoff from the east coast establishment, Sec of State, Governor, newspaper publishers, bank president, various generals, etc, in the family tree, I also understand that one does not question the tribal frame. So I understand why you are not going to legitimate my modes of thinking.
    Yet I do see that vector of time, be it from yesterday to tomorrow, or from the Big Bang to multiverses, as a narrative effect, not physically foundational. Physically it is change turning future into past. To wit, tomorrow becomes yesterday because the earth turns, not the earth traveling/existing along that vector of time. Given I have to live in the physical present and not a literary narrative, I find this view more explanatory. Suffice to say, it is not a popular notion for those with a more narrative based thought process.
    As for meaning, in your note ‘to others,’ I would say you prove the essence of my point, that meaning has no objective function, but is the “signal” we individually extract, to guide us in our journey through life.
    ““Information” is no more “meaning” than “knowledge” is “wisdom.””
    True, but we live in a sea of information and to our individual minds, most of it is noise. Knowledge is information. Wisdom is editing. Signal from the noise.


  40. Hi Marko,

    I’m not a professional philosopher so I won’t be able to make that type of argument.

    However, the options below:

    (1) suicide (which Camus considers even more absurd than living the absurd life),
    (2) religion (a “leap of faith” in some being or idea which is beyond the absurd — Camus calls this “philosophical suicide”),
    (3) acceptance of living the absurd life (which Camus advocates while Kierkegaard characterizes as “demoniac madness”).

    seem unnecessarily limiting to me.

    I certainly never consider (1), feel no need for (2), and very often (most of the time) find life to be very meaningful. I don’t find the fact that there is no ‘ultimate meaning’ driving the universe makes my experience and sense of meaning at all absurd. Using your prior posts as metaphor why should my ‘effective’ experience of meaning be expected to reduce to a ‘structural’ source of meaning? That fact that source structural theory of meaning is lacking should not make the effective capacity to find meaning absurd. I would put the burden of proof on those who suggest it does 🙂


  41. EJWinner Some good points. I wasn’t quite going for the teleology angle, but was somewhat in your neck of the woods in the first part of my first response, where I noted that, within evolutionary biology, “progress” can be redefined by biologists who want to prove that it’s happening.

    For many, though, “meaning” may be intertwined with “progress,” especially (but not necessarily only) if progress is seen through a teleological point of view. And, as a result, “meaning” may also be seen teleologically.

    The last half of your comment related to what Messerly said in riffing on Shermer, and that’s the issue of bringing an (normally non-teleological) personal meaning to life.

    That said, a personally defined meaning may not be universal, for the reasons you note at the end of your comment.

    EJ and Marko and others: That said, on the issue of meaning within this, to put the second half of my second comment more directly, and related to previous comments here by me about saying “mu” to “free will versus determinism” —

    I am moving toward thinking we ought to say “mu” to “meaning versus meaninglessness.” And, to related issues of teleology. And, per your interests, that’s in part done, perhaps, by being more Zenlike.

    And, yes, I’m working on a long blog post about that. I’m also writing about exactly what should be revolted against, in Camus’ framing, and what the methodology of revolt should be.

    WmBurgess Your thought experiment proves nothing of the sort. Rather, it shows that evolutionary biology has programmed us to like baby faces.

    Otherwise, for us (and certain animals like primates, cetaceans and elephants, who all seem to have at least a degree of second-order thinking, if not third-order) being self-aware about a Sitz im Leben does not change my take on the big picture.

    And that is that the universe is not a “process” (or “Process”) in the way that process theologians et al want to claim. There’s nothing arbitrary about it. I see nothing that indicates sentience or anything similar being possesses by the universe qua universe.

    And, even if it were, if we take a time’s arrow view of progress, the seemingly expanding expansion of the universe, with increasing entropy, etc., means that the universe as a whole is regressing. (Sorry, subset of cosmologists who didn’t like to see an eternally expanding universe for that reason; your secular glimpse of a “heaven” through a rebound big bang is gone.)

    John Messerly Your book includes “transhumanist” perspectives, per its subhead. Are you waiting to be assimilated with/to Kurzweil? Care to talk more about your transhumanist ideas? Since Massimo has said you’ll be jumping in, that’s one thing that interests me.


  42. We have demonstrated progress in that technological advances will continue to provide us with better tools (computers, for example) that will at least enable us, at some future point, of determining the purpose of life.Once this is established, we can find out how much further we need to go and the best way to get there.


  43. Marko quotes this absurd line: “the Absurd arises out of the fundamental disharmony between the individual’s search for meaning and the meaninglessness of the universe.”

    The existentialists were an interesting and provocative bunch, with a penchant for a good turn of phrase. Correct me if I’m wrong, but rigor was never their strong suit. Their primary interest seems to have been politics! What proof of the meaninglessness of the universe did they employ? Camus and his ilk certainly did not live as if the universe (of which they were a part) was meaningless. Any genetic mutation that fostered a lack of interest in existence would be maladaptive and would soon be eliminated from the genetic pool. So, we are stuck with the idea that life is meaningful. There is overwhelming evidence that it is indeed so, IMHO.

    Let us assume that an extreme skeptic would survey the world in utter detail and conclude that “meaning” could not be discerned in the phenomena, there would still absolutely be no reason for such a person not to create her own raison d’être. This is apparently what we all do anyway: we talk, we study, we write, we create competing narratives, and we are happy doing it, by and large. We, including Camus, have children, raise them, and teach them to live life to the full.


  44. Seth Leon,
    I wasn’t responding directly to your post; but your reply allows me a moment to remark that there’s a problem of usage when we speak about ‘progress.’ When we say that a system is ‘growing progressively more complex,’ all we are saying is that the dynamics of the system have increased its complexity over time. But when we say that a system has ‘made progress toward greater complexity,’ this implies a value judgment – a preference for complexity over simplicity. (In fact nothing indicates that increasing complexity manifests a superior capacity for a system’s stability and maintenance over time.)

    Now I’m not imputing the usage problem to what you said. However, I do think that it underlines a lot of misunderstandings that lead people to believe that because some process or succession of events occur over time, therefore these processes or events are dynamically leading in a given direction. That does not in itself entail any teleology (I can be driving north without driving to Canada; indeed, I may be driving just to relax, without thought of a destination, and just happen to be driving north). But this may give the impression of a teleology, and so can lead to misinterpretations of the processes and events involved. (‘Why is he driving north?’ ‘I bet he’s driving to Canada.’)

    Human brains, being structured as pattern-readers, are inherently meaning-generators. We see a pattern, we want to ‘find’ the meaning to it. (Which really means we make the meaning for it, and then are either lucky enough to find this meaning correlative to the reality – or not, in which case we will probably come up with another meaning for it.) But just because we want the meaning to be found in the pattern, doesn’t make it so.

    This I see as a good thing: we are meaning makers, and can make the meaning of our own lives, both individually and collectively.

    Which brings me to address your reply directly. We can and do choose goals for ourselves, personally and collectively. As we approach these goals, we are certainly making progress. 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?)

    If history determines an ever better future, then this asserts of it a teleology. If it does not, but leaves the matter to us, then there is no teleology, but also no guarantees.


  45. Hello, this is John Messerly. I want to sincerely thank everyone who took the time to read and respond to the excerpt from my book. There are few things more satisfying than to know that someone has listened to you. Again thank you. I have read every comment and will continue to read them. I must say I’m somewhat overwhelmed. I feel that many of the comments are so good they deserve a dissertation length response. With that caveat, here are a some thoughts in reply to a few of the comments.
    Some of the questions raised, for example about the definition of the term meaning, are addressed in detail in the book. Having said that I will admit to being unsure whether meaning is a sui generis concept or whether it is connected to, for example, beauty and goodness. I do think that all good and beautiful things are meaningful, but not that all meaningful things are good and beautiful. There are of course other details to work out like whether morality is coextensive with happiness—I don’t think it is.
    The bleak outlook leading to my conclusion about hope derives from my own existential angst. Nihilism really does haunt me. In response to the possibility of nihilism I hope that life has meaning, that it all works out, that it all matters, etc. Perhaps I should be stronger, more stoical. I think that’s a good response and Nikos Kazantzakis said that hope was the last temptation we need to reject. Still I don’t find anything irrational about hoping that somehow it all works out, although I recognize that is a vague hope. But I will think more about Stoicism and perhaps Buddhism. I do admit though that I find the idea that nothing matters horrifying. I just hope that things do matter. I think that lightness is unbearable, as Kundera would put it.
    As for Camus and the absurdity of life, a section of my book discusses “The Myth of Sisyphus” and an entire chapter of the book is devoted to nihilism, which I think haunts the search for meaning. I think Marko’s challenge for a 4th option besides religion, suicide, or acceptance of life’s absurdity is a good one. If I think life’s absurd I can either get out (suicide), respond with religion (which is really to deny the absurdity) or I can accept it. Another option might be to create meaning, as Sartre suggests. Perhaps that makes life a little less absurd, although I suppose you can argue this is just a deviation of Camus view, just a way of accepting absurdity and doing your best in response. Or perhaps we can embrace or affirm the absurdity. Thinkers like Joel Feinberg and Simon Critchley do this. They apparently revel in absurdity which is somewhat different than just accepting absurdity. Perhaps that is another option.


  46. Life, its gathering complexity, adaptability, progress, ethology, meaning, are all animated by the very nature of the Quantum. It’s neither weird, nor absurd, it’s a force that proceeds.

    Why was Camus so obsessed by absurdity? Because he got surrounded by absurdity. He came from a dirt poor environment in Algeria, and, in exchange for valor and work, was given everything by the Republic. This testimony, a celebration of human rights and equal opportunity, was then confronted to “intellectuals” who inverted, and buried all these values… In their names. Camus was told to follow Comrade Stalin, instead. When he begged to differ, he is called a colonial racist.

    What is teleology? It’s logic at a distance. Plato and Aristotle had their own versions. We know more now, and we can afford different, more sophisticated teleologies. Life is teleological, and it evolves not just haphazardly (“stochastically”), but also teleologically (thanks to Quantum Physics, which provides eyes and a feeling… for what is going on at a distance) …

    Teleology at the level of hydrogen bonds, most probably (surprise, surprise). Modify the DNA’s environment, and Quantum Computational pressure is exerted on DNA’s hydrogen bonds (among other bonds).
    Experiments are planned. All this will be probably viewed as obvious, all along, within ten years.

    What this teleology does is to make life ever more adapted and ever more adaptable. If one measures progress by adaptability, progress there has been, as adaptability has progressed.

    Philosophically, it means that, in the deepest sense, life, thanks to the Quantum, is behaving as if it were making value judgments. For example, at the molecular level, lowest energy solutions can be evaluated, and selected.

    What is the aim of that teleology? Survival of the life form adapting. A question which immediately surges, is what is life? One thing that is clear, though, is the definition of goodness. For a give lifeform, that means survival of said lifeform. So, naturally enough, goodness will vary according to species, but also tribes, and even individuals.

    So let the biggest goodness, and the goodness of the strongest lifeform win (as Nietzsche insisted… and this is the way life always has had it… as Nietzsche himself pointed out, following Sade, who was even clearer!)
    Experiments in ethology are starting to test this (EJ Winner ought to consider them! ;-)).

    Basic psychology, such as a sense of fairness, have obvious survival values in social species such as primates.

    Intelligence is also teleological. Philosophically, one can argue that intelligence, and even culture, are an extension of the adaptability of life at the nanometer scale. The extension probably uses the same Quantum machinery that starts to be put in evidence at the molecular level (say in the chlorophyll molecule).

    If Homo Is Aware, Is the Universe Aware? It’s a bit like the question of pondering whether a planet harboring life is alive, or not. Is a lichen alive? Earth is certainly alive, because life enables the very conditions on Earth that enable its on-going existence, so far.


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