Saturday, January 30, 2010

The Darwinian Meaning of Life

When people ask me how I am spending my year-long sabbatical, I say that my sabbatical project is to figure out the meaning of life. They think I'm joking. But when I say I'm looking for the Darwinian meaning of life, they're befuddled.

Most people assume that one big problem with Darwinian science is that it denies that life has any meaning or purpose. After all, to find meaning--to see our lives as part of some enchanting cosmic drama--don't we have to look to some religious or transcendent vision of the world that goes beyond the materialism of Darwinian science? If we are just animals produced by a natural evolutionary process that doesn't care for or about us, and if like all other animals, we live for only a moment and then die, how can human life--how can my life--matter? Unlike other animals, it's not enough for us that we exist, we need some reason for our existence. Otherwise, what's the point? (That's the question raised in a good scene in the new George Clooney movie Up in the Air, where a bridegroom gets cold feet just before his marriage because he foresees his whole future life played out without there being any point to it all.)

Owen Flanagan thinks we can find meaning in a Darwinian world. In his book The Really Hard Problem: Meaning in a Material World (MIT Press, 2007), Flanagan argues that Darwinian naturalism--with its fundamental conclusion that we are animals in a purely material world--allows us to find a natural meaning to our lives without any resort to supernatural mystification.

I remember Owen well from a summer that we spent together at a NEH/NSF summer institute in 1996 on "The Biology of Human Nature" at Dartmouth College directed by Roger Masters. Owen has been one of the pioneers among philosophers in showing how Darwinian evolutionary science and neuroscience supports a naturalistic view of moral philosophy.

Flanagan suggests that meaning is "a matter of whether and how things add up in the greater scheme of things" (xi). The "space of meaning" is a "platonic space" in that we find meaning by living for "the true," "the good," and "the beautiful." And yet he insists that we can understand "the true," "the good," and the "the beautiful" as natural categories of human experience rather than as Platonic Forms existing as immaterial and eternal principles of the Cosmos. We seek what is good through ethics or politics. We seek what is beautiful through art and music. We seek what is true through science or philosophy. These various human pursuits correspond to what I identify as the 20 natural human desires.

Our human search for meaning is part of our pursuit of human happiness or flourishing. Flanagan agrees with Aristotle on this, and he regards Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics as an empirical science of "eudaimonics" that has been confirmed and deepened by modern natural science. Although there is no transcendent Idea of the Good--no objective standard of the Good woven into the fabric of the Cosmos or created by a Cosmic God--we can reach intersubjective agreement on standards of the human good by seeing that some ways of living are better than others in satisfying our natural human needs and desires. In such a naturalistic view of morality, there are no categorical imperatives strictly speaking, but there are hypothetical imperatives that are constrained by our human nature as very clever social mammals. If you want to live a happy human life, then you have to have those moral and intellectual virtues necessary for such a life.

But while there are certain generic goods that are human universals because they conform to the stable propensities of our human nature, the diversity and contingency of human cultures and human individuals create variability as to what is good for particular individuals in particular circumstances. There is no single good or kind of life that is best for all people in all situations. But there is a range of goods and kinds of life that are worth seeking. Our lives have meaning when we and those who know us well can judge that we have lived good lives. (That's why I think newspaper obituaries can be so fascinating, because they allow us to look back over a whole life and judge whether or how it was a happy or flourishing life.) We can understand this human happiness as suited to our nature as smart social mammals without any need for believing in supernatural or transcendental norms.

Of course, those who do believe in supernatural or transcendental realities offer many arguments for why such a purely naturalistic view of human life makes it impossible for us to find any meaning in things. Flanagan responds to at least six of these arguments, which have to do with (1) individuality, (2) free will, (3) consciousness, (4) First Cause, (5) death, and (6) spirituality.

(1) Individuality. Science generally and Darwinian science in particular are often criticized as too impersonal. This is one of Peter Lawler's arguments against my position. Science--like every form of abstract thought--explains things through types or kinds. So Darwinian science explains the general traits of each species of life, but it cannot explain the uniqueness of each individual. But if the search for human meaning is the search for the meaning of each human life in its personal uniqueness, then we might think that to find such meaning, we need a religion with a personal God who knows and cares for me as the person that I am, and for all other persons as they are in themselves.

Flanagan rightly responds by saying that it is usually not the job of science to offer "thick descriptions" of individual instances of things, because like every form of abstract thought, science explains things through conceptual generalization. Art and literature are better at capturing the personal reality of life as it's actually lived by individual human beings in all of its rich concrete complexity.

I would say that biology teaches us that every living being is unique in its individuality as a product of genetic uniqueness and the uniqueness of its life history. And although it is generally true that science abstracts from individual cases, it is possible in some areas of biological study to strive for the "thick descriptions" of individual cases. This is true, for example, in medical case studies and in natural history. Oliver Sacks' "clinical stories" capture the personal drama of particular people struggling with neurological disorders. Jane Goodall's Chimpanzees of Gombe is a social history of a particular community of chimpanzees with vivid life histories of the unique individuals in the group.

(2) Free will. Darwinian science is often accused of a biological determinism that denies the free will required for the moral dignity of human beings as beings capable of being held responsible for their moral choices. Religious believers often argue that this human capacity for free will manifests a freedom from natural causality that must be the work of an immaterial mind or soul that is supernatural.

Flanagan rightly responds to this argument just as I do in Darwinian Natural Right and Darwinian Conservatism by indicating how human freedom of choice is compatible with natural causality, as long as one rejects the idea of free will as uncaused cause. For Aristotle, voluntary action requires that the agent know what he is doing and act from his own reasons and desires without external compulsion. That his reasons and desires have more distant causes--his innate temperament, his social circumstances, and so on--does not deny the freedom of his choice. Thus, the agent can be the immediate cause of action while still being subject to the wider causal order of nature. By contrast, the idea of free will as uncaused cause could apply only to God as a completely self-subsisting being or unmoved mover. The Aristotelian understanding of voluntary and deliberate choice does not require any supernatural uncaused cause. And it's the Aristotelian understanding that is compatible with Darwinian science and with legal conceptions of moral responsibility.

(3) Consciousness. Scientists have a hard time explaining consciousness. As Flanagan says, "no one, dualist, naturalist, or pan-psychic, has yet explained consciousness" (26). "First-personal feel is only captured by the subject of experience" (230). Almost no one doubts the reality of consciousness, because we all have direct access to our personal consciousness. But this subjective experience of consciousness is not directly observable as is everything in our objective experience. Determining the objective traits of apples is a matter of direct, public observation. But my inward conscious experience of the "redness" of this apple before me--the "personal feel" of redness--is not open to public study. Although we might observe the neuronal patterns in my brain correlated with my conscious awareness of "redness," but still my conscious awareness would be directly available only to me. So it's not clear how, or even whether, my brain's activity fully explains my mind's conscious experience. The religious believer might say that this introspective experience of consciousness can only be explained as the activity of an immaterial mind or soul that transcends the material brain, because consciousness belongs to a supernatural realm of experience beyond natural material causality.

Many philosophers and neuroscientists identify this as the "hard problem of consciousness," and they see it as an unresolvable mystery that creates an explanatory gap between explaining the material brain and explaining the immaterial mind. Flanagan agrees that there is now an explanatory gap between subjective self-conscious awareness and the neural events in the brain correlated with that awareness. But he believes that embracing the idea of "subjective realism" should allow us to continue research on the neural basis of subjective experience until the gap is closed. "Subjective realism says that the relevant objective state of affairs in a sentient creature properly hooked up to itself produces certain subjective feels in, for, and to that creature" (29). "Conscious mental events are essentially Janus-faced and uniquely so. They have first-person subjective feel and they are realized in objective states of affairs" (27). We should see, then, that "mental events are neural events but that their essence cannot be captured completely in neural terms" (29).

But instead of solving the problem--the explanatory gap between brain and mind--Flanagan's talk about the "Janus-faced" character of subjective experience in which mental events "cannot be captured completely in neural terms" seems to just restate the problem. Religious believers can enter at this point to insist that the human mind can only be explained as a divine spark, because the human mind has been created in the image of the Divine Mind.

To defend Flanagan's naturalistic account of the mind/brain as a unity against the religious idea of the dualism of immaterial mind and material brain, I suggest that the religious argument here shows at least two fallacies (as many philosophers have noted). First, there's the Fallacy of Arguing from Ignorance. Flanagan correctly concedes that neuroscience cannot now fully explain human consciousness, but this is often the case with emergent phenomena in science, in which traits arise from complex interactions of simpler elements that cannot be found in the elements themselves. Water is wet even though the elements of water are not wet. Emergent phenomena are often so mysterious that it is hard to explain exactly how they arise, and that is certainly true of the mystery of how mind emerges at a certain level of size and complexity in the primate brain. But we can hope for better understanding of this with progress in neuroscience. And, in any case, to infer that our presently incomplete knowledge proves that there must be divine intervention at work here is a fallacious inference from ignorance.

Second, there's the Fallacy of Explaining a Mystery with Another Mystery. How the mind emerges from the brain is now a mystery. But to say that God's creation of the mind explains this mystery only adds a new mystery--how exactly does such a miracle occur? Replacing one mystery with an even deeper mystery is no explanation at all.

(4) First Cause. Another big mystery is how to explain the ultimate causes of the natural universe and natural laws. Why is there something rather than nothing? Flanagan admits that science cannot answer this question, which creates an opening for positing God as the First Cause (190). He even concedes that human beings might benefit from a satisfying story about God as Creator, and he allows this as long as it is not asserted as a literally true story. He notes that Plato's Timaeus suggests something like this (190-91): a myth about how a good demiurge might have created the world, but a myth that is understood as a satisfying story that is not literally true.

This is what I have identified as the conundrum of ultimate explanation. We can keep asking, Why? But ultimately we must reach the final ground of explanation that cannot itself be explained--the causal order that is its own cause. Some of us will be satisfied to say this ultimate ground is Nature. But others will want to say that the cause of Nature is God. Who or what caused God? The religious believer might say that God is self-caused. But if we are going to allow for a self-caused ultimate ground, why can't that be Nature? Invoking God to explain Nature is once again employing the Fallacy of Explaining One Mystery with Another Mystery. In facing up to such profound mysteries, we face up to the limits of human reason, perhaps the sort of limits we might expect of an animal mind that was not evolutionarily adapted for explaining why there is something rather than nothing.

(5) Death If we're animals, then we're going to die. Many human beings don't want to believe that they are animals because they don't want to believe that they are going to die and never live again. They don't want to believe this because they think that death without rebirth would make life meaningless. Whatever we pursue in life that is good, true, or beautiful will be lost when we die. So for many religious believers some religious doctrine of human rebirth with eternal rewards and punishments is the necessary condition for meaning.

Aristotle is clear in stating that to wish for immortality is to wish for the impossible. But he does not seem to think that this makes the human pursuit of happiness meaningless.

Flanagan's response to this problem of death echoes that of Lucretius:

"I recently heard a wise Buddhist friend say that 'death is the ultimate absurdity, you lose everything you care about.' This, it seems to me, is not true. Furthermore, it is not a particularly Buddhist way (even for a secular Buddhist) to see things. Here is a better way: If you live well, then when you die you lose nothing you care about. Why? Because you are no longer there. You are just gone. That which is gone has nothing to lose. That which was once something, but is now nothing, cannot suffer any loss. But assuming the world and the people in it, including the loved ones remain, then your good karmic effects continue on. This is something to be proud of and happy about while alive. Your goodness, your presence, your worth are why the living feel your loss, and are sad, possibly very sad. But you are not sad, you neither suffer nor experience any loss because you are gone. Nothing absurd has occurred. True, dying could be miserable, but your own death is nothing to worry about" (203-204).

(6) Spirituality. Flanagan includes "spirituality" as one of the "spaces of meaning." After all, if finding meaning and purpose in life comes from making sense of things and attaching oneself to something larger than oneself, then the experience of spirituality--of being in contact with the transcendent, cosmic source of all being--would seem to essential to a meaningful life. And, in fact, psychologists who study what people around the world want to make them happy often report that "transcendence" is a universal human longing.

But how can a Darwinian naturalist recognize the importance of such spirituality for human beings, if this requires religious belief in a supernatural realm beyond the natural world? Flanagan's answer is to look for spiritual traditions that do not require belief in the supernatural, which would therefore be compatible with Darwinian science. He wants religion to be tamed so that it can be a "strong cat without claws" (183). In particular, he looks to Buddhism, and especially the Tibetan Buddhism of the Dalai Lama.

One reason for this move is that Buddhism is non-theistic. The classic teachings of Buddhism do not include any doctrines about God or gods. In fact, some people suspect that the Buddha was actually an atheist. This makes Buddhism attractive to atheists like Flanagan who want to have religious feelings without believing in religious doctrines about divinity.

But even if it is true that there is no theistic teaching in the classic texts of Buddhism, observation of how Buddhism is actually practiced around the world suggests that many, maybe most, Buddhists believe in divinities of some sort and perhaps in the Buddha as a god.

Another reason for Flanagan's move towards Buddhism is that he is attracted by the Dalai Lama's respect for modern science. In The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality (2005), the Dalai Lama writes: "My confidence in venturing into science lies in my basic belief that as in science, so in Buddhism, understanding the nature of reality is pursued by means of critical investigation: if scientific analysis were conclusively to demonstrate certain claims to be false, then we must accept the findings of science and abandon those claims" (2-3).

One remarkable example of the convergence of neuroscience and Buddhist spirituality is that some neuroscientists have discovered that the effects of Buddhist meditation can be seen in the brain, particularly in the activation of the left pre-frontal cortex, which is associated with having a positive mood. Here, then, Flanagan argues, is an example of how science can explain and confirm the natural basis of spirituality: meditation techniques can exploit the neuroplasticity of the brain to induce mental states of equanimity, euphoria, or ecstasy.

But then we must wonder whether psychic states of spirituality can be separated from religious beliefs in the supernatural. After all, a core belief of Buddhism is karmic rebirth--the belief that at death, we pass into a cycle of rebirths in which our bad conduct is punished and our good conduct is rewarded.

This idea of karmic rebirth has had a powerful appeal to the human mind. It originated in ancient India and then passed into the ancient Greek thought of Pythagoras and Plato and then into the Abrahamic religious traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

Flanagan argues, however, that belief in rebirth is not really required for Buddhism. To me, his argument here seems remarkably weak. He doesn't even mention the fact that the status of the Dalai Lama depends on the belief that he as the 14th Dalai Lama is the reincarnation of the 13th Dalai Lama.

Another attraction of Buddhism for Flanagan is Buddhist ethics, and especially the ethics of universal love and compassion. But he is remarkably uncritical in his acceptance of Buddhist ethics. He notes that Buddhist ethics has no place for courage, spiritedness, and greatness of soul, as does Aristotle. Isn't this a problem? How can we eliminate human suffering--as Buddhism teaches we must--if we lack the courageous spiritedness for attacking injustice and tyranny? Remarkably, Flanagan does not even mention the Chinese atrocities against the Tibetan Buddhists or the Dalai Lama's traditional position as a political ruler. Nor does Flanagan mention the atrocities carried out by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, which would raise the question of why the Buddhists in Cambodia did not overthrow this bloody tyranny.

Flanagan's attempt to naturalize spirituality is unpersuasive, at least to me, because he relies so heavily on an implausible and uncritical interpretation of Buddhism as the best expression of naturalistic spirituality.

My answer to the problem is to say that spirituality is rooted in two natural desires. The natural desire for religious understanding will express itself in religious believers as a spiritual experience of awe before the supernatural mysteries of the universe. The natural desire for intellectual understanding will express itself in scientists or philosophers as a spiritual experience of wonder before the natural order of things. The religious believers will be grateful that they are the objects of divine care and love. The scientists and philosophers will be grateful that they happen to live in a world with a deeply intelligible order that is open to investigation by the human mind.

There is another fundamental weakness in Flanagan's book. He never clearly explains the meaning of "meaning," or why he thinks the search for such meaning is sensible. He writes: "Meaning, if there is such a thing, is a matter of whether and how things add up in the greater scheme of things" (xi). What exactly would it mean to believe that "things add up in the greater scheme of things"? Doesn't "the greater scheme of things" imply that there is a Great Schemer? But since Flanagan doesn't believe in the existence of the Great Schemer, he can't believe in the reality of a great scheme. If there is no great scheme or cosmic purpose, then life has no meaning if meaning requires fulfilling some cosmic scheme or purpose. The search for meaning "in the greater scheme of things" implies a cosmic teleology that is denied by Darwinian science.

It could be that in a million years the human species will be extinct, and from that point of view, human life would seem to lack any purpose in the grand scheme of things, because there really is no grand scheme. Many human beings find that so deeply disturbing that they want to believe that there is some grand scheme that will give their lives some cosmic meaning. But isn't that wishful thinking? If it is true that there is no cosmic meaning to human life, then we just have to live with it.

Some posts on related topics can be found here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.


badhatharry said...

I'm glad you're back. I enjoy your writing very much.

In your section on free will, you say this "And it's the Aristotelian understanding that is compatible with Darwinian science and with legal conceptions of moral responsibility."
Could it be that what we think of as free will is partially an illusion? I read Daniel Wegner's book "The Illusion of Conscious Will' and was struck by what he has to say in it. If our will is found not to be as free as we would like to think, perhaps some day we will have to re-think our legal conceptions.

Paul said...

When you say that your sabbatical is dedicated to finding the Darwinian meaning of life, do you mean that you are attempting to better understand the good, the true, and the beautiful as natural categories contingent upon human cognition and biology?

Anonymous said...

I would say that Life's purpose is Life's meaning: To live long enough to successfully reproduce. As sentient beings, however, we can expand the singular dictate through philosophies rational, religious, selfish, selfless, contemporary, classic, et al. None the less, Life's (provable) meaning is blunt and simple.

MhM said...

I would say Darwinian theories and concept of purpose of life blend quite Well. I wrote a post on similar lines on my blog (Or rather created the blog for the purpose of this post). Thought you might be interested. The web address is

In case you visit the Blog please leave the comment if it makes sense or even if its complete bullshit