From The Big Think we have famed biologist E. O. Wilson talking about “the meaning of meaning,” and telling us that the answer to the question, “What is the meaning of life?” must come from science alone, with no input from religion or, especially, philosophy. Massimo Pigliucci will be incensed! Wilson is talking about some material from his new book, The Meaning of Human Existence, a book that I really have no desire to read (I disliked his previous book, The Social Conquest of Earth, and said so in a review in the Times Literary Supplement).
But I have to agree with what Massimo would surely say: the denigration of philosophy here is unwarranted. What Wilson is practicing is in fact scientism: the unwarranted intrusion of science into other spheres of inquiry. (I’ve only seen two people actually engage in this practice: Wilson and Alex Rosenberg.)
My problem is that Wilson conflates “meaning” with “fact”. While how we construe meaning surely rests on factual considerations, Wilson says that the origin and evolution of humans is the meaning of human existence, and depends only on the disciplines of evolution, paleontology and archaeology, brain science, artificial intelligence, and robotics):
And of course meaning has a number of meanings, but generally speaking after you’ve gone past the basic religious definition of meaning, which is of course: “The divine creator is responsible for the design and nature of humanity and what else do you want to know?” After you get past that particular response then the subject moves to meaning as history, that is essentially: What are we and why? Where do we come from?” And this is part of meaning too: “Where are we most likely to be headed?”
But meaning is, at least to me, not just history but a personal and subjective issue (I’m not going to get into what “meaning” means, a Clintonesque exercise at best that Wilson just finesses but defining “meaning” as “history,” something that nobody else does). Wilson would be better off saying simply, “How do we scientifically explain humans and their behavior”?
Wilson also denigrates philosophy, which of course is essential for an individual person to suss out the meaning of his or her life, or at least to express it in words.
I like to say that most of philosophy, which is a declining and highly endangered academic species, incidentally, consists of failed models of how the brain works. So students going into philosophy have to learn what Descartes thought and then after a long while why that’s wrong and what Schopenhauer might have thought and what Kant might of thought or did think. But they cannot go on from that position and historical examination of the nature of humanity to what it really is and how we might define it. So by default the explanation of meaning, of humanity, falls to science and we are making progress, if I might speak for science.
Now that’s scientism!
There is no right answer to “what is the meaning of human existence?” There are right answers to the question of “How do our brains work?” and “How did we evolve?”, though we may never know all the answer to those questions. But there is no overarching “meaning” of human existence, for that existence is simply the produce of a blind and materialistic process. What meaning our own lives have, or even that of humanity itself, varies from person to person, and is imbued by people. Now perhaps science can, one day, tell us why Jane sees the meaning of her life as learning about astronomy, while Joe sees it as communing with friends and family, but that still doesn’t answer the question. With everyone giving a different answer, science isn’t going to give us The One Correct Answer. That is, unless (like Wilson), you define “meaning” differently from someone else, like a theologian defining “God” as a “ground of being” or Steve Gould defining “morality” as something that falls only in the ambit of religion.
Clearly, as Wilson gets older he is becoming more afflicted with the Big Questions syndrome, something I’ve noted before. He is apparently unsatisified with his massive contributions to biology: both ant biology and evolutionary biology. Rather, he wants to leave us the legacy of The Answer About the Meaning of Life. But his expertise in biology gives him no special ability to answer that question. What his expertise gives him are some facts that may bear upon that question.
By the way, trying to find a link to my TLS review of Wilson’s book, which is cited on my Wikipedia page but isn’t available online, I found a new addition to my page, under “Other”:
- Coyne writes prolifically on his website at Why Evolution Is True, posting several times on most days. Topics range from Creationist/ Creationism bashing, general anti-religion writing, through commentary on interesting papers and bits of science which have come to attention, to fine food and outright unabashed ailurophilia. Over 30,000 readers (in late 2014) follow the website, which would make it one of the more popular science blogs, if it were a blog, not a website.
That’s fricking hilarious! Kudos to whoever added that.