by Dan Weijers
From each of our perspectives, our own lives are extremely important. We compulsively check our phone or email accounts for that life-changing message (“did I get accepted or not?”), and we celebrate accumulating 1000 “friends” on Facebook (“I’m probably the most connected person I know!”).
Yet, from an objective, third-person, perspective, e.g. the point of view of the universe, our lives seem to be meaningless. No matter what we accomplish in our lives, it seems like our actions will have no discernable impact on the universe as a whole. You may have already given up hope of being a famous singer or sports star. Maybe you are striving to be a scientist, so that you can cure cancer or discover a new renewable energy source. But, from the universe’s point of view, even these esteemed careers and achievements will not earn you a meaningful life.
Thomas Nagel and others have discussed this absurd contrast between how meaningful and significant our lives are from the inside when compared to an objective viewpoint (usually referred to as the absurd). Nagel would have us embrace the irony of the situation and enjoy a cosmic giggle at our own expense. Of course, many religions provide explanations for our Earthly existence that resolve this absurdity. For example, eternal reunification with the creator of the universe might be offered as a reward for an Earthly life well lived.
The absurd, then, is only a potential cause for concern in the non-religious people who cannot find humour in the meaninglessness of their lives apparent from an objective perspective. Leo Tolstoy, as recounted in his My Confession, was in this situation. Tolstoy was a beloved family man, famous author, and wealthy landowner. Despite these advantages, Tolstoy became paralyzed by the objective meaninglessness of his life. He questioned the ultimate significance of his actions, but could not find any satisfying answers.
Based on a firm belief in science as the method for learning about the universe, Tolstoy was convinced that the universe would eventually die and that all humans and their legacies would be completely annihilated. As a result, he believed that it was impossible for him to leave his mark on the universe. In his words, and from his scientific outlook, he thought it impossible to connect our finite lives with something infinite or permanent.
Just when Tolstoy was about to abandon all hope of breaking out of his paralyzing depression, he realized that the vast majority of people did not share his dismal view of life. Recognizing that it was religious faith that allowed others to feel connected to something infinite, Tolstoy buried his earlier opinion of religion as “monstrous” and became a Christian of sorts. Fortunately for Tolstoy, this enabled him to break free from the grip of the absurd.
What I’d like to do here is propose a naturalist account of the meaning of life that could have provided Tolstoy with another option (and provides another option for anyone currently in the situation he was in). As such, this account is only intended to appeal to people who don’t believe in Gods and souls, and find the absurd distressing.
I call the account Optimistic Naturalism, and it entails belief in these two principles:
Infinite Consequence: performing an action that has infinite consequences for life is sufficient to confer True Meaning on the life of the actor, if the actor finds those particular infinite consequences to be subjectively meaningful (in part) because they are infinite.
Scientific Optimism: continual scientific and technological advancement might allow our actions to have infinite consequences for life in a purely physical universe.
Following Susan Wolf’s view of the important kind of meaning, I take True Meaning to mean the meaning that arises from the right kind of connection between the subjective and objective points of view. For example Infinite Consequence is the view that performing an action that has infinite consequences for life is sufficient to confer True Meaning on the life of the actor, if the actor finds those particular infinite consequences to be subjectively meaningful (in part) because they could be infinite. For example, if I develop a technology that enables humans to avoid the supernova of our sun, and I find this meaningful partly because I believe it will help enable life to continue for infinity, then, if life does persist continuously, I will have lived a truly meaningful life.
Here is a brief defence of the main principles.
Is having an infinite consequence really objectively meaningful? First, realize that most objective viewpoints are multi-subjective standards, which are unavoidably tainted by the socio-cultural values of the individuals involved. By taking our standard as the point of view of the universe, we can step back until all residue of subjective value has disappeared. Our finite lives and legacies become so small from this vantage point that they pale into insignificance. But, infinite consequences are not quite like this. No matter how far we step back, and no matter how distant the objective viewpoint is, infinite consequences will never vanish into insignificance. When all the values and finite consequences have disappeared into the distance, actions with infinite consequences remain, ineluctably influencing future events.
Is Scientific Optimism too optimistic? How can we avoid the big chill (when the universe effectively becomes inert)? One live theory in cosmology, Eternal Inflation, predicts that new parts of the universe will always bubble out from our existing one. If this theory is correct, then the right kinds of advanced technology might enable some form of life to escape into new parts of the universe whenever the existing parts are becoming uninhabitable and thereby persist for infinity. Of course, great advances in science and technology would be required to enable us to take advantage of these ‘bubbles’ in this way. But, until recently, humans couldn’t even fly, and now we can fly to space and back!
Victoria University of Wellington