E. O. Wilson: Science, not religion or philosophy, will tell us the meaning of human existence

Reader Rick called my attention to this 2014 video from E. O. Wilson on “The Big Think” site. The nine-minute talk is apparently based on his then-recent book, The Meaning of Human Existence—the one book of Wilson’s I haven’t read. When you’ll watch the video, you’ll see that Wilson appears firmly in the camp of what Rebecca Goldstein calls “philosophy jeerers” (note: I am not one of these!). He’s advocating scientism in the sense that he sees philosophy as providing no answers to the question of the meaning of existence, but science does. But that depends on Wilson’s wonky construal of the question.

Wilson doesn’t construe “meaning” as “how should we live?, but rather as a series of three questions:

What are we and why?

Where do we come from?

Where are we most likely to be headed?

If you take these as questions whose answer give us our “meaning”, then their answer clearly falls to science alone. (That even goes for “why are we what we are”?, as the answer to that is “evolution.”) Wilson dismisses religion as providing good answers because—and I agree—all religions give different answers. But he also frames the questions in a way that philosophy can’t answer them, either. To quote the Big Think‘s precis:

Wilson believes philosophy is ill-equipped to tackle the meaning of existence. In fact, the storied biologist has few kind words for the field as a whole:

“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.”

Wilson concludes then that, by default, the task of explaining meaning necessarily falls to science. There are five disciplines in particular which he identifies as the leaders in determining meaning:

1. Evolutionary biology: “That is, biology seen in a historical context going all the way back millions of years to the origin of the human species.”

2. Paleontology: “Which segues as we come closer to modern humanity and the invention of agriculture and the birth of the Neolithic period turns into archaeology. So archaeology and paleontology, which are on a different time scale, is the other discipline, a second discipline.”

3. Neuroscience: “It’s progressing so rapidly in so many ways.”

4. Artificial Intelligence: “Coming out of brain science or running parallel to it and trading with it and depending upon it and driving from it.”

5. Robotics: “The notion of studying the mind in perfecting artificial intelligence, and more than that; creating what the artificial intelligence and robotics people call whole brain emulation. That is using robots as avatars and creating robots that are by design an imitation of what we know about the brain more and more like humans.”

The five disciplines above serve as bridges “to tell us what the meaning of humanity is.” Wilson calls it the product of a grand epic, the full story of humanity. Together, they will explain what we are, where we came from, and where we’re going.

In reality, I think the whole issue of “what is the meaning of human existence?” is barely worth discussing, since there isn’t an answer. Our species simply came about according to the laws of physics working through evolution. It’s naturalism, all the way down. The notion that our existence has a “meaning” makes no sense to me. Now what does make sense, and what I think Wilson is answering by citing evolutionary biology, paleontology, and neuroscience, is saying “How did we come about?” But that doesn’t say anything about “meaning”—any more than does the question, “What is the meaning of the Andes mountains?”

The other two disciplines, AI and robotics, may tell us what humans are capable of, or even give us hints about how our brain works or evolved, but seem to add even less to a question that’s problematic from the outset.

Where philosophy can make a contribution to this question, I think, is the narrower questions of “What is the meaning of my existence?” and “What is the purpose of my existence?” I’ve written about this before, and my answer is that people take their meaning and purpose from what they find congenial: there is no ultimate answer to those questions that applies to anyone, much less that applies to all humans. In other words, we reify our preferences into grander questions of meanings and purposes. One of the purposes of my life is to travel and to do science, but that’s because my genes and environment has made me like traveling and doing science.

But philosophy can at least analyze these preferences, seeing if they’re consistent or coherent, interrogate us about what kind of life and society we want, and then (with the help of science) suggest ways of realizing our preferences—or seeing if our preferences even make sense.  This, to me, is the only meaningful way to look at “the meaning of life” beyond answering “how did we get here?”; and the analysis of preferences and their consequences is where philosophy can make a real contribution. Wilson has dismissed the discipline unfairly,

80 Comments

  1. Diana MacPherson
    Posted July 16, 2017 at 11:55 am | Permalink

    EO Wilson better hope there are philosophers working on AI or the experience could prove terrible for all of us.

    • Richard Bond
      Posted July 16, 2017 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

      I suspect that the people best equipped to deal with the philosophy of AI will be the people who engineer it, and who will therefore understand what they are doing. It is pretty much the same as the situation with quantum theory: the only people who can contribute usefully to the philosophical implications are the professional physicists who can follow the maths.

      • Gregory Kusnick
        Posted July 16, 2017 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

        What makes AI different is that a working general-purpose AI will require a coherent theory of ethics, hopefully one that’s compatible with human well-being. Leaving it to computer nerds to program in whatever ad hoc theory they come up with seems like a recipe for disaster (and I say that as a computer nerd myself).

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted July 16, 2017 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

          Indeed, and it’s certainly not how things work today even when creating relatively smaller and less damaging releases of code. Engineers never code alone – beyond separation of duties, they end up doing things they don’t like doing and take away from what they excel at.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted July 16, 2017 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

        Really? An engineer is better equipped to answer an ethical question like “should the self driving car kill the passenger or the pedestrian if it’s a one or the other situation”?

        • Richard Bond
          Posted July 16, 2017 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

          I think that you have over simplified the problem, by expressing the choices of a self driving car as a dichotomy. If I analyse my 5 km drive to my nearest town, on a narrow lane, in terms of what a self driving car must decide, these are some of the decisions that it must make:

          1) Which way is that sheep facing, assuming that it can recognise a sheep (disturbed sheep normally move forwards).
          2) Is that dog on a lead? If so, how long compared to the width of the road?
          3) Does that puddle conceal a dangerous pothole, or is it safe to simply drive through it?
          4) Is that flooded section of road passable?
          5) Does that horse rider realise that I am approaching (from behind); dare I use my horn, and risk scaring the horse? (I always pass horses very slowly, and only after the rider appears aware of me.)
          6) How slippery is that patch of ice?
          … and so on.

          These situations are characterised by variables, not attributes, and, to be acceptable, any successful system of AI would have to deal with them at least as well as an intelligent human being. In answer to your specific question, I always drive very carefully past pedestrians: a self driving car must do the same to at least the same extent. How on earth could a philosopher judge an appropriate AI system without a detailed understanding of the algorithms involved?

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted July 16, 2017 at 5:17 pm | Permalink

            Actually I think you’re ignoring what I’m saying. I realize there are a lot of decisions to make in building the software for a self driving car. I wok in IT and help do this. It’s requirements gathering and then solution isn’t based on requirements. Even in that process, it’s more than engineers at work to make those things come to fruition.

            Technically engineers can implement whatever you ask for given some constraints to do with technology and legislation etc. But should they? Should they allow the car to decide to kill a person crossing the road to avoid killing its driver. This is a particular use case that can play out in many instances. Engineers don’t make those decisions in isolation. Those are ethical questions. The technology and its implementation is agnostic.

            • Diana MacPherson
              Posted July 16, 2017 at 5:19 pm | Permalink

              Autocorrect.

              “I work in IT”

              It’s requirements gathering and the solution is built based on requirements”

              • Ken Kukec
                Posted July 16, 2017 at 8:26 pm | Permalink

                So no stir-fry in the IT dept.?

              • rickflick
                Posted July 16, 2017 at 8:33 pm | Permalink

                So, your services are required. That should be somewhat reassuring.

              • Posted July 17, 2017 at 4:58 pm | Permalink

                Is stir-fry the new agile?

                /@

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted July 18, 2017 at 10:28 am | Permalink

                That’s cultural appropriation.

            • Richard Bond
              Posted July 17, 2017 at 4:57 am | Permalink

              I was not ignoring what you were saying: I picked up on your example to try and make the point that dichotomous choices are a poor way to make decisions. My major problem with philosophers is that they so frequently argue with either/or situations when a continuum of possibilities is much more, and more frequently, representative of reality.

              That is why the “trolley problem” is so frustrating. It is presented as two hard alternatives, whereas in “real life” there would be far more information, most of it consisting of variables, particularly probabilities. An AI system to handle it would have to take account of this.

              I am not an IT specialist, but I have had loads of experience working with programmers in testing memory and microprocessor integrated circuits. Many of the parameters are variables, and designing tests to measure them based on “go/no go” decisions can be hard, and requires a detailed understanding of the internal workings of the device under test. In one of my hardest cases, which seems to me to resemble AI, it took me several days to devise a method to measure one parameter, days more to explain it to my programmer and for him to write the program. I then took one set of raw data, and took a whole morning to repeat the calculation manually in order to verify that the computer knew what it was doing. I then needed two days to write a two page paper to document the procedure. I was chagrined to find that even the brightest of my colleagues could not fully understand it. At its heart was a subtle and system-dependent logical problem, and some non-trivial statistical theory. A philosopher would have had no chance.

          • Mike Anderson
            Posted July 17, 2017 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

            You list 6 items that are of the physical world that an AI would likely consider, but an AI would make decisions based on ethical matters too.

            • Richard Bond
              Posted July 17, 2017 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

              I listed only six examples, in order to indicate the types of the problems. There are vastly more, and intelligent human beings might reasonably be expected to react with some responsibility to hitherto unknown situations. Any adequate AI system must match that ability. Please explain how philosophers, rather than, say, cognitive scientists, can teach an AI system how to do that. Do you want driverless cars learning by their mistakes? I think not.

              If you feel that philosophers can assess the adequacy of an AI system, then you need to explain how they can do that without relevant expertise.

              • Mike Anderson
                Posted July 17, 2017 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

                I’m not saying we don’t need engineers for this, I’m saying both engineers and ethicists are involved in crafting these kinds of systems.

                Ethical thinking is becoming more important in areas that were once the sole domain of engineers.

    • Posted July 17, 2017 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

      And there are – there are lots of AI related talks at computing and philosophy conferences, often by people doing both AI and philosophy of AI.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted July 17, 2017 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

        Yes, there are!

  2. rickflick
    Posted July 16, 2017 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

    I took Wilson’s view, perhaps simplistically, as contrasting the meaning given by religion to what science allows us. Religion provides meaning based on the will of God as forming a guide and context for human thought and behavior. This, Wilson says, is not a useful way to determine the meaning of human life.

    Science provides an explanation of reality which places humanity within a natural setting. Thus, we have to determine meaning but from the brute facts of nature. So, he’s redefining “meaning” to be the recognition of that context. That’s all we get. I think he does not speak about ethics and morality here, which would further develop what the options are for human behavior and societal organization. He may have done so elsewhere. Perhaps that’s where philosophy should apply.

    • Fernando Peregrin
      Posted July 16, 2017 at 6:42 pm | Permalink

      Tray THE BIG PICTURE
      On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself
      By Sean Carroll. — https://www.nytimes.com/…/the-big-picture-by-sean…

      • Fernando Peregrin
        Posted July 16, 2017 at 6:45 pm | Permalink

        I hope this time it works!

    • Diane G.
      Posted July 17, 2017 at 2:52 am | Permalink

      That’s how it sounded to me, too.

  3. Ken Kukec
    Posted July 16, 2017 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

    “What are we and why?”

    As Lawrence Krauss has observed, in science, “why” questions usually devolve to “how” questions and answers (or at least they do to the extent they are answerable at all).

  4. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted July 16, 2017 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

    I just read Stephen Hawking’s into to Newton’s Principia. It suggests that science will never give answers, but instead, will always profoundly change, the view of ourselves in the universe.

  5. Scote
    Posted July 16, 2017 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

    “In reality, I think the whole issue of “what is the meaning of human existence?” is barely worth discussing, since there isn’t an answer.”

    I think you really have nailed the uncomfortable (for many) crux of the issue. Neither science, nor philosophy nor religion can give a definitive answer to this question, because “meaning” in this context is an entirely subjective human construct.

    • Diane G.
      Posted July 17, 2017 at 2:56 am | Permalink

      Absolutely. “What is the meaning of life?” has always seemed like a stupid question to me.

      Actually, denying that there’s any universal “meaning” to human existence makes me more comfortable, not less.

      • DiscoveredJoys
        Posted July 17, 2017 at 3:56 am | Permalink

        I have come around to the conclusion that in any sufficiently complex system the Pareto Principle (see Wikipedia) applies. Not specifically the 80/20 ‘rule’ but my observation that ‘universal’ meanings, universal response to ethical questions, universal response to medicine, universal likes and dislikes, do not exist.

        As such, science is a provisional and statistical endeavour (as we already know) but – more relevant to the discussion about ‘meaning’ – philosophy is (mostly) profoundly misguided in trying to tease out universal or absolute aspects of human ‘knowledge’ or wisdom.

        I would support an ‘80% Philosophy’ more willingly… and there are a few philosophers that have worked this way.

        • Diane G.
          Posted July 17, 2017 at 4:48 am | Permalink

          Thank you for informing me of the Pareto Principle.

      • rickflick
        Posted July 17, 2017 at 6:24 am | Permalink

        You may call it a stupid question, but then what do you do with the universe and everything else?

        • Diane G.
          Posted July 18, 2017 at 12:23 am | Permalink

          Not sure I get your meaning. Do you mean that the universe and everything else have to have a meaning, too?

          • rickflick
            Posted July 18, 2017 at 5:37 am | Permalink

            If the events in the restaurant at the end of the universe are taken into account, I suppose we could say that humor gives life meaning. If the universe had any meaning, I guess that would be it. I’m not really sure what I mean. I suggest you simply ignore what I said. 😎

            • Diane G.
              Posted July 19, 2017 at 12:52 am | Permalink

              Oh, dear, I missed intended humor! I’m usually pretty good at recognizing it, too. Sad.

              😀

              • rickflick
                Posted July 19, 2017 at 9:53 am | Permalink

                Funny!

      • Posted July 17, 2017 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

        Bunge used to answer “Life is neither meaningful nor meaningless because life is not a construct and only constructs can have meanings” when he was asked on plane rides what he does and he would (truthfully) answer “philosophy” or “I’m a philosopher.” which was immediately followed up with the “what is the meaning of life?”

        • Diane G.
          Posted July 18, 2017 at 2:22 am | Permalink

          That’s a good story. 🙂

          • Posted July 18, 2017 at 11:38 am | Permalink

            I’d like to think this is the reason that the _Treatise on Basic Philosophy_ begins with two volumes on semantics, so that one can explain what constructs are so that joke works, but … 😉

            • Diane G.
              Posted July 20, 2017 at 2:33 am | Permalink

              OMG, 2 volumes on semantics!

  6. garthdaisy
    Posted July 16, 2017 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

    Actually, evolution has demonstrably given us all one single purpose and meaning. Help your tribe survive and flourish using your own special unique talent or skill. Your special talent and skill, Professor Coyne, is traveling and spreading science. Mine as it turns out is traveling and doing stand-up comedy. For others it’s working with their hands building things or caring for children.

    These are not different purposes and meanings they are different skills and assets that help individuals serve their one true purpose and meaning which is to help your tribe survive and flourish.

    Studies have shown that toddlers who can’t even talk yet have an extremely strong desire and impulse to help those around them in need. No one on earth is more happy or fulfilled than those using their special talent to make the lives of others better. We are born helping machines. That is our purpose and meaning.

    This is universal. Those who do not desire to help, or who do not get that feeling of fulfilment from helping, are psychopathic or mentally ill. They are anomalous. 10% maybe?

    But the average human has but one meaning and purpose coursing through their veins and science has illuminated it. We were endowed with it by evolution. Help your tribe survive and flourish. If you find a way to do that successfully using your special skill and talent, you have found the only meaning that means anything to humans. Until then you will be unfulfilled.

    Some people like to list pastimes as things that give meaning to people’s lives. pastimes and favourite hobbies do not give meaning to your live by themselves. You may enjoy a pastime but if it doesn’t include helping the rest of your tribe survive and flourish, it will leave you empty inside. Because you haven’t fulfilled your purpose. Which is to help the others around you.

    No?

    • Don
      Posted July 16, 2017 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

      I liked your reply but I feel I must disagree. The ultimate purpose that evolution has given us is to promote and favor our own genes. We do this primarily by surviving, reproducing and protecting our offspring and close kin.

      It is true that in a tribal setting, we will be related to many of our tribe mates. But helping our tribe to survive and flourish is ultimately a selfish action because it facilitates the survival of OUR genes. It “feels” good because it benefits US.

      Also, I wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss hobbies and pastimes. Evolutionary psychologists argue that writing poetry, playing music or sports etc, is a means of elevating our social status, thus gaining favored access to mates.

      • Gregory Kusnick
        Posted July 16, 2017 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

        It “feels” good because it benefits US.

        But this isn’t quite right either. It feels good to us because it benefited our ancestors. But unlike our ancestors, we now get to decide for ourselves which cross-section of society we regard as our “tribe”. So these feel-good instincts are now largely divorced from personal genetic advantage, and we can choose to deploy them in service of whatever social good we deem worthy, and (as garth says) derive visceral satisfaction from doing so. In that sense we do create our own purpose and meaning, which need have nothing to do with reproduction.

        • Don
          Posted July 16, 2017 at 4:47 pm | Permalink

          “It feels good to us because it benefited our ancestors.”

          I agree, that is a more accurate statement.

          But I still maintain that our “desire” to do good and the “visceral satisfaction” we achieve is ultimately rooted in selfish motivations, regardless of how and who we choose to help. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t help (of course we should!) but I disagree with Garth’s:

          “evolution has demonstrably given us all one single purpose and meaning. Help your tribe survive and flourish”

          Evolution cannot possibly give helping others as our only purpose. Helping others may add to our happiness and satisfaction but it is a proximate purpose. The ultimate purpose of any organism produced by evolution can only be to help itself.

    • DiscoveredJoys
      Posted July 17, 2017 at 4:03 am | Permalink

      No. Evolution has no purpose, it just is. Actually evolutionary processes just continue.

      Using our ‘skills and talents’ is how we contribute to society. Which is fine, but if our ‘skills and talents’ (especially in building weapons of mass destruction or overpopulation and over consumption) resulted in the destruction of the human race then evolutionary processes would continue unperturbed.

      • rickflick
        Posted July 17, 2017 at 6:54 am | Permalink

        Teleology is the philosophical attempt to describe things in terms of their apparent purpose, directive principle, or goal. A purpose that is imposed by a human use, such as that of a fork, is called extrinsic. Ernst Mayr states that “adaptedness… is an a posteriori result rather than an a priori goal-seeking.”

  7. Phil Rounds
    Posted July 16, 2017 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

    I would add one more discipline to the list, making six (I like even numbers more anyway…except for prime numbers which i have found fascinating ever since i played the PC game “Rama”). Anyway i would add;

    6. Space Exploration.
    The reason being that it tells us where we’re going. Homo sapiens has always been a wandering and exploring animal. We traipsed around and then out of Africa and onto virtually every part of the Earth….even to the most inhospitable of places! We’ve pretty much mastered travel by air and sea….and now we’re becoming a space-faring animal. I think we can feel the pressure mounting to go exploring again. Where else to go but away from the cradle of life itself? We did it when we left Africa. We are literally bio-engineered, by evolution, to be explorers.

    I also tend to be dismissive of philosophy. Most of how we react to our environment and how we coexist can be explained in evolutionary terms. I don’t see the need to brain-work these much. The old “Golden Rule” should be enough to keep us on an even keel.
    Space is where we’re going if we can overcome the debilitating effects of ignorance, greed and religion. You might even say it’s our purpose, if only by accident of evolution.

    • Diane G.
      Posted July 17, 2017 at 3:21 am | Permalink

      I so agree that most humans overwork the so-called “meaning of life” quandary (which probably ~90% of them think of as “why I am special,” or what can I do to “matter”).

      I get a lot of strange looks when the proverbial purpose-of-life question is raised and I answer, “to have offspring,” or “to propagate your genes,” or whatever springs into my head at the moment. As the old cartoon has it, “eat, survive, reproduce.”

      • Diane G.
        Posted July 17, 2017 at 3:23 am | Permalink

        Checked my ahref tags 2 or 3 times and still blew it. Cartoon:

        • Colin McLachlan
          Posted July 17, 2017 at 4:52 am | Permalink

          The cartoon sums it up beautifully 🙂

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted July 17, 2017 at 9:57 am | Permalink

          Love it!

      • Diane G.
        Posted July 17, 2017 at 3:26 am | Permalink

        Should have had an asterisk after “to have offspring” leading to a note like this:

        *No offense intended to the purposefully childless. Good on you–there are too damn many of us as it is.

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted July 17, 2017 at 9:58 am | Permalink

          I always just tell people I’m an evolutionary failure.

  8. Randy schenck
    Posted July 16, 2017 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

    I can only agree with you on this post because the questions asked must make sense first and proper answers may never be known. They are fine questions put forth by the religious because they can always provide answers to the unknown. They also know that answers cannot be found by others so just leave it to good old religion to define our purpose and meaning.

    Others, like Wilson are sucked in to the discussion and attempt to explain why other specialties cannot solve the puzzle but if the questions themselves are ill-conceived so is his attempt to eliminate players.

  9. Fernando Peregrin
    Posted July 16, 2017 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

    We are here because all our predecessors, from the origin of life on Earth, copulated successfully. The reason for our existence is to be links in the chain of life of the human species. The fact that there areindividuals that not produce new links in this chain that maintains the continuity of the human species is a merely statistical question that does not change at all the meaning of the conservation of our species. If the rhythm of reproduction is not appropriate, our species will disappear due to overpopulation or lack of individuals who reproduce.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted July 16, 2017 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

      Or as HG Wells showed us, that all our ancestors earned their place here by adapting to it. Unlike those pesky tripod driving things that tried to invade us.

      • Fernando Peregrin
        Posted July 16, 2017 at 6:31 pm | Permalink

        The search for the meaning of life in Marcel Proust; “À la recherce du temps perdus”

        The novel brings one of the most famous passages of literature, when the narrator eats a cupcake (baked dough ball) dipped in tea and sees his conscience dive involuntarily into the past. He wrote, after the muffin bite, “I stopped being mediocre, contingent and mortal. Where does that powerful joy come from?”

  10. Mike Anderson
    Posted July 16, 2017 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

    I agree completely with you in that Wilson’s focus on “meaning” is problematic. The 5 areas of thinking/research listed will advance our understanding of ourselves, but to promise “meaning” from that is counterproductive and a setup for failure.

    • Diane G.
      Posted July 17, 2017 at 3:29 am | Permalink

      I tend to assume he was dealing with an inevitable question in most people’s minds, so using that as a given, pointing out why it’s a non sequitur.

  11. Posted July 16, 2017 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for expressing the meaning of human life so cogently.

    My first thought upon reading the initial part was: what is the meaning of the “life” for a rock or a sinkhole or a universe? Humanity finds or defines meaning individually with no overall agreement as to that meaning. Are genetic imperatives the same as meaning? Are efforts to sustain our tribe meaning? What about those of us who care about all life forms and non-life forms as members of our tribe?

    Why do we feel the need to impose a sense of “meaning” onto something that just is? We each determine individually what we think the meaning of our lives is.

    • Posted July 16, 2017 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

      In further conversation with myself, I thought that meaning is just being; to exist. But, then I reminded myself that although I exist as long as I live, my molecules exist beyond me, no longer contemplating the meaning of existence
      (unless reconstituted into a thinking life form like, or similar, to me.)

      • Diane G.
        Posted July 17, 2017 at 3:34 am | Permalink

        “Why do we feel the need to impose a sense of “meaning” onto something that just is?”

        Excellent question!

        Love the follow-up rumination as well. 🙂

        • Mike Anderson
          Posted July 17, 2017 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

          >> “Why do we feel the need to impose a sense of “meaning” onto something that just is?”

          Gotta be an evolutionary explanation in there somewhere. I’m fascinated by humans’ burning desire for explanations (which fuels both science and religion) and think humans’ burning desire for meaning might be related.

  12. Torbjörn Larsson
    Posted July 16, 2017 at 4:43 pm | Permalink

    Personal planning does not seem to be a philosophic as much as a practical topic, to me.

    • Diane G.
      Posted July 17, 2017 at 3:37 am | Permalink

      Indeed. “Here I am, what should I do?”

      And sometimes the answer might be, “there are more than 7 billion of us…what the hell does it matter?”

  13. Posted July 16, 2017 at 6:13 pm | Permalink

    ‘Meaning’ and ‘purpose’ are only devised by agency. To apply these terms to the origin of your life presupposes a supernatural agency that ’caused’ your existence, and that’s silly.
    A more reasonable activity is to ask your parents what they ‘meant’ by having you (=it was so nice to snuggle up in bed together, etc).
    The meaning that you derive from your current circumstances is whatever you imagine it to be.
    rz

  14. Posted July 16, 2017 at 6:13 pm | Permalink

    ‘Meaning’ and ‘purpose’ are only devised by agency. To apply these terms to the origin of your life presupposes a supernatural agency that ’caused’ your existence, and that’s silly.
    A more reasonable activity is to ask your parents what they ‘meant’ by having you (=it was so nice to snuggle up in bed together, etc).
    The meaning that you derive from your current circumstances is whatever you imagine it to be.
    rz

  15. Ullrich Fischer
    Posted July 16, 2017 at 7:59 pm | Permalink

    I always thought “scientism” is a slur used by people who don’t like the idea that their ideas should not be accepted without peer review.

    • rickflick
      Posted July 16, 2017 at 8:11 pm | Permalink

      Yes, I agree. I don’t think Wilson can be accused of “scientism”. It’s almost a slur, a word made up to accuse scientists of not paying any attention to non-science. I don’t think Wilson quite does that.

    • Diane G.
      Posted July 17, 2017 at 3:42 am | Permalink

      Indeed. We’ve had this conversation before, and I’ve advocated embracing the term and re-defining it. I.e., in the tradition of environmentalism, feminism (2nd wave, not the crap that’s being spewed now), etc, let’s make scientism a good thing. It’s really the only construct we’ve devised that has ever gotten us anywhere.

  16. Posted July 16, 2017 at 8:04 pm | Permalink

    I think Wilson is setting up a false dichotomy between science and philosophy. Jerry often likes to say that (this may be a bad paraphrase, if so I apologize) all rational inquiry falls into “science” in a broad sense of science. I think that’s correct. If the area of inquiry has well-developed successful theories, we call it “science”. If not, depending on its subject matter, we call it “history” or “philosophy” or various other things. Wilfrid Sellars is one philosopher who goth the relation between philosophy and science right, in my opinion: philosophy strives to explain, as much as possible, in everyday ordinary terms, what we have learned from science.

    • Diane G.
      Posted July 17, 2017 at 3:48 am | Permalink

      That’s an agreeable definition. But I would argue, why can’t scientists themselves provide the explanations? Well, it’s true, I suppose, that some of them wouldn’t want to; but I’ve known a number of eminent scientists who have no trouble extrapolating from their data to what it means for species (of which we are one) survival.

      • Posted July 17, 2017 at 7:45 pm | Permalink

        Some scientists make excellent philosophers. Sean Carroll, for example. And some make terrible philosophers. Arthur H. Compton, for example.

  17. nicky
    Posted July 16, 2017 at 9:46 pm | Permalink

    The problem is the meaning of ‘meaning’.
    As long as we do not understand ‘time’, why is passes, what it is, we will never have an objective ‘meaning’.
    I do not think either philosophy or science has brought us very far there.
    Biology has, by explaining how we evolved (our instinctive concepts about size, speed etc., – and indeed passing of time) at least given us an understanding why we are ill equipped to understand.

    • Posted July 16, 2017 at 10:27 pm | Permalink

      I’m feeling rather ignorant here in that I don’t see what our understanding of time has to do with what we think of as human meaning. Time
      is variably understood depending on whether you follow the sun, moon and stars for hints or if you use a timepiece of whatever sort, etc. Time rushes or stretches out, depending on what a person is doing. I was just at a party last night that took place on “Marshallese time”. Everyone showed up when they felt like it or were ready. Laid back, friendly and no stress.

    • Diane G.
      Posted July 17, 2017 at 4:11 am | Permalink

      Biologically, I think it’s easy to interpret time as how a species evolves over the course of it. And individually, as how our family trees expand and branch. In biology there’s only one directional vector.

      • Posted July 17, 2017 at 7:52 am | Permalink

        Time, so far, is not measurable very precisely in terms of the evolution of any given species even if some of us do tend to think of time as being a straight line going forward. We have a general idea as to when we start detecting life forms like us. But, we have many ancestors preceding us who weren’t like us (my ancestors the lemur-like creature, fish like Tiktalik (sp.?), lobe fin fishes or lung bladder fishes, etc. on back to the very first forms of life. All are on the timeline. Yes. One can look at biological progression in one forward direction, but one also can look backward to observe how, and relatively when, our extended family showed up and evolved.

        Time may be considered to be culturally determined as not all people perceive or calculate time in the same way (some don’t calculate it at all.)

  18. Posted July 17, 2017 at 1:48 am | Permalink

    Philosophy need not concern itself with ‘the meaning of life’ in any case. Much philosophical enquiry is directed at more specific questions. My own area of philosophical research is ‘Should a liberal state ban the burqa?’ I am trying to find coherent, defensible liberal principles on such matters as personal autonomy, gender equality and religious tolerance to answer the question. The findings of science are helpful in this task (e.g. the importance of the face in human interactions) but there is no sense in which science is a *rival* to philosophy in this context.

    • Diane G.
      Posted July 17, 2017 at 4:40 am | Permalink

      I could stomach Philosophy if it were all so pragmatic. Specific questions are what we are used to in science.

      Great topic!

      To my admittedly anti-Philosophy outlook, it would seem there would be an obvious answer to your question. (“No”. But liberal states should do their damnedest to get the message out as to why burqas are appalling, discriminatory, regressive, etc. These women have only one life. How atrocious to coerce/brainwash them into spending their only existence shrouded.)

    • Posted July 17, 2017 at 7:39 pm | Permalink

      It may be thought men in the culture that women’s facial expressions are not worth observing because they shouldn’t be speaking anyway, and if they do, it’s probably meaningless.

  19. Posted July 17, 2017 at 3:36 am | Permalink

    Yes, science can answer questions like “How should we live?”.
    And that’s simply because the question is, in fact, “How should we live if we desire X and we want that our desires to be fulfilled?”.

  20. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted July 17, 2017 at 9:32 am | Permalink

    I thought of a quote for this topic:

    Just as god must have had an inordinate fondness for beetles, so did this god have an inordinate fondness for universes.

    B/c you know, intelligent life is rare but if you make enough universes, you can get some. Not a lot, but some. Universes too.


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