Saturday, July 10, 2010

Contemplations on the Meaning of Life

A fly lives for about four days, reproduces, then it dies. If it somehow managed not to successfully reproduce, its existence was for naught. But even if it does reproduce, what does that really mean? Hundreds of other flies just like it will be produced (once they go through the larval stage). Then they live a few days, reproduce, and die. What’s the point?

But it is not only the lowly fly that fits this scenario. Flies are good examples because they are little more than tiny flying robots. They have nothing but instinct to guide them. They have no emotions. They think no thoughts outside the context of their instincts. We give little thought to swatting a housefly and discarding its shattered body.

Higher organisms, such as mammals, have a more complex brain and a longer life cycle. It is certain that they can feel pain; they can suffer. They probably have thoughts that are independent of their still-dominant instincts. They can make simple decisions. But, ultimately, the point of being born is so that they can reproduce, to leave behind copies of themselves to carry on the species. The only legacy a mouse or a raccoon has, like the fly, is its offspring.

It has to be that way. Once life began by whatever process is ultimately discovered for its genesis, it had to change as its environment changed, else it would die off and that would be the end of it. Environments change, sometimes rapidly, but more often slowly. The earliest self-replicating chemical entities randomly changed, too. They had no choice, since they derived from a dynamic environment. The changes were not planned. They did not change in order to fit with a newly-changed environment. But if, by chance, the changes in these exceedingly simple living entities happened to mean that they were more likely to survive and continue making copies of themselves in their new environment, they would continue to exist, although slightly altered.

This was the start of evolution by natural selection, the process that Charles Darwin discovered and described more than 150 years ago. It is elegant and simple, but it took the genius of Darwin, along with his inestimable patience, to formulate the principle.

In these earliest forms of life, for since they were self-replicating they were indeed alive, the process of reproduction was simple and based only in chemistry and physics. Replication was simply chemicals being chemicals. But as the first living entities began to change so as to fit an ever-changing environment, competition among them for limited resources, their primordial soup, made it so that the more efficient mechanisms of chemical replication were more likely to survive. Eventually, over untold eons of time, these simplest forms of reproduction blossomed into the robust and elaborate methods of reproduction employed by living organisms today.

And yet the purpose for reproduction remains exactly as it was for the first reproducing protocells in the ancient primordial goo: There is no purpose in it at all. Its purpose seems to be to carry on the species, but that would imply some sort of forethought or design. Reproduction among higher organisms is simply a much more complex version of the chemical reactions that kept the earliest forms of life from going extinct. And these chemical reactions occurred without purpose; they just happened because, again, that’s what chemicals do. It’s part of their nature.

These early forms of life were not concerned with surviving for they were not concerned with anything at all. To be concerned implies a brain with a mind. Brains with minds were left for higher organisms. But a mind is not really necessary for reproduction to take place. It is only necessary as an ancillary device used to enhance the likelihood of survival in a competitive world. Natural selection does a very good job of mimicking design. It is, of course, an active selective process, not random at all, though it does depend on random changes to supply the raw material. But it’s still natural.

Reproduction, then, even among higher organisms is not purpose driven, even though it seems like it is. It’s just simply chemicals being chemicals, but in a much more complex manner than the simplest protocells. But because it mimics a purpose, to continue the species, then maybe we should call it something, such as a pseudo purpose, phantom purpose, or better still, a geistzweck (German for “ghost purpose”).

Now, since even higher forms of life, including humans, have a chemically-induced geistzweck that drives reproduction instead of a real purpose for it, we can arguably conclude that our lives, much as the life of the fly, have no real purpose at all. Humans have spent thousands of years and millions of hours in deep philosophical thought looking for the meaning, the purpose in life, but there is none. Our geistzweck, our presumed purpose, biologically is to carry on the species. But that purpose is only a phantom. There was no choice involved. Chemicals have to react.

We are born, we live, we reproduce, we raise our children, and then we die. And the whole cycle starts over again. We may think that our purpose in life is to leave behind a lasting legacy. But even so, we’re not around to enjoy that legacy. And even the best of legacies, such as the great works of literature, art, music, and the greatest discoveries of science mean nothing to anyone when their lives end. Certainly they mean a great deal to those who are still alive, but I’m talking ultimate meaning here, not fleeting moments in an otherwise endless stretch of time extending from the moment life began into the unseen future.

Some theologians and philosophers posit that there must be ultimate meaning in the universe because, after all, it does exist, and it doesn’t have to. Or does it? Theologians hypothesize that since the universe seems to be created then it must have a creator: God. But who or what created God? Some say that God is infinite and eternal, without beginning or end. But if God can be eternal then why couldn’t the universe itself be eternal, without beginning or end? If the universe is eternal then it had no beginning, no creation, so there is no need for a creator. God becomes unnecessary in an endless universe.

But what of the Big Bang? Wasn’t that the beginning of the universe? Scientists cannot say that with certainty. It was the beginning of what we can observe as the universe, but that doesn’t mean there was nothing else before. A new and exciting field of quantum physics known as M-theory hypothesizes that our universe is one of an infinite number of such universes, all existing within the 11-dimensional multiverse. Our big bang was simply one of an endless cycle of big bangs. One happens about every trillion years.

But why, some ask, are all the constants of nature exactly what they should be in order for life, or even matter, to exist. These constants could have been anything, but as it turns out, they are what they need to be. Surely that points to a creator. But not when you consider that, if the multiverse is eternal and infinite, then there has been an infinite number of big bangs. So that regardless of how infinitesimally small the odds are that our universe was formed with just the right conditions to support itself and life, there would have to be an infinite number of just such universes. Our universe is not all that special; it is just one of an infinite number of universes that are exactly right for producing matter and life. The odds are meaningless when you have an eternity.

So what about God? If God is not necessary then why did we invent him? There are probably a number of good answers, including the fact that we humans have a compulsion to understand how things work. But in our early history, we understood very little. If we do not understand something, especially something profound, we attribute it to a god. This god is called the God of the Gaps. Any gap in our knowledge is happily filled with God to explain it.

But also, I think, humans are purpose driven. It’s in our nature. It helped our survival. And it's ironic. If we have no purpose except for reproduction in order to carry on our species, and if even that purpose is only a geistzweck, that would make us uncomfortable and ultimately unfulfilled. Our minds strongly desire a purpose in life. And God provides that purpose, even if it's an illusion: An infinite and eternal god created a finite universe (for us), adjusted its constants of nature so as to be able to support the formation of matter and life, and then provided an afterlife for us to dwell in when we die. Our purpose, then, is to do whatever our god wants us to do in order to be welcomed into his afterlife.

But since a creator god is not necessary in an infinite and eternal universe, then our presumed purpose is an invention. We are simply biochemical machines that happen to be able to contemplate ourselves and our origins. It’s not a very comforting notion. But then, reality has no obligation to be comforting.

But this nihilistic approach need not be distressing. Whereas the Christian, Muslim, or Hindu may view this life of ours as just a prelude to the true, meaningful life that comes after death, I believe the life we have on earth is all that matters, thus it becomes infinitely more precious. It may not have any ultimate meaning or purpose, but it certainly has value in the here and now. Philosophically, it is preferable to abandon our quest for ultimate purpose, for we will never find it, and concentrate instead on our own goals for this life. Improving ourselves, and our environment, so that our minds and the minds of others can feel the joy of existence, however fleeting, is a worthy enough purpose. It's a purpose created by us, for us. The only purpose that makes sense is the one we create for ourselves.


Unknown said...

The distance between your nihilism and a Life-affirming transcendence is a paper wall. The universe has no inherent meaning or purpose. Nor does it mean anything that the universe has no inherent meaning.

Purpose cannot exist in matter, it is a product of mind. As you said, "Our minds strongly desire a purpose in life." That's no accident. Consciousness creates purpose.

Does that make it not real? Don't make the mistake of assuming that only that which can be measured scientifically is real. If that were so, then your blog is nothing but pixels on a screen. But that's not the way it is; your thoughts are real, they have meaning and purpose! Consciousness, thought, and therefore purpose, is very real and powerful.

Consider that there is an arc to the evolution of the universe. Since the big bang the universe moves towards greater complexity, moving inexorably towards life, and life grows inexorably towards consciousness - i.e., purpose-making. Since the big bang, the universe has been waking up, and deciding what it's purpose is.

Purpose-making is the sacred responsibility of sentience. As the universe wakes up to itself it invents its purpose.The purpose of the universe is to create it's purpose.

Yet some level of consciousness may have always been sleeping in the universe. It's hard not to call the non-determinist choices of quantum particles a primitive kind of consciousness.

In fact I believe that consciousness and the creating of purpose may be the underlying ether in which the universe floats. What was before the big bang? A purpose-making mind, which is why the universe itself has been evolving in that direction ever since.

Jerry Wilson said...


Thanks for commenting.

Yes, consciousness creates purpose, which was one of my points. There is no purpose without consciousness or sentience.

But you are anthropomorphizing the universe. When you say, "The purpose of the universe is to create its purpose," then you are giving it a "purpose" where there is none.

The universe may have evolved so as to eventually lead to sentient beings which create their own purpose, but the universe didn't do that on purpose.

And whether or not there was an ultimate consciousness overarching the whole of the cosmos, even before the big bang, is speculation. But the existence of a multiverse, in which an infinite number of big bangs could have taken place, is based on mathematics and observation.

Perhaps there is an ultimate consciousness, and hence purpose, in the universe (God?). And if you think so, that's where faith comes in. If the universe really did evolve toward a sentient life on purpose, then that requires a god of some kind. God is the only thing that can give the universe purpose, since God is sentient. But again, that requires only faith, not evidence. I try to avoid resorting to faith.

So I go back to my original point that there is no meaning or purpose in anything other than what our minds create, and our minds are capable of creating purpose because of an evolution of chemical reactions that, because of their nature, resulted from an inevitable process.

In summation: Sentient life is the only thing capable of creating purpose. Sentient life resulted from natural processes that were inevitable in our universe, given its current parameters. Our universe was inevitable given the infinite and eternal nature of the multiverse.