Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Science, technology, and the meaning of life

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!

Dan Weijers
Philosophy Program
Victoria University of Wellington


  1. Great post Dan! Is your view of meaningful action contingent upon the human race existing forever or can the person just believe that what they've done will aid in that goal (even if the humans are destroyed eventually)? If humans die out in the year 9 million even though Bob's warp drive helped them scoot along to that point, doesn't their death make Bob's accomplishment meaningless on your account?

    1. Thanks for your question Derek. If humans die out, then Bob's life doesn't qualify as objectively (and therefore truly) meaningful through my account (but it can have subjective meaning). Also note that I intend Optimistic Naturalism to be a sufficient account of meaning, not a necessary account. So, Bob's life might be able to be considered objectively and truly meaningful on some other account.

      Back to my account, though. Bob gets subjective meaning from believing that he has done something that will have infinite consequences for life. Unfortunately, from the universe's perspective, his actions get drowned in the vast seas of space and time. I like this result because it makes room for the fact that Bob's life could have been more meaningful if his efforts really did enable life to continue infinitely.

  2. Dan, this is interesting. I can see how this view would appeal to someone who finds it impossible to have any subjective meaning as long as there is no hope that his life will have permanent consequences for the universe. But I think that for those who aren't afflicted by this condition, True Meaning may not even be particularly desirable. In my case, thinking about the fact that my actions have long term finite consequences far beyond my control induces a certain amount of anxiety. This is, at the very least, not diminished by considering the possibility that these consequences are infinite. Consequently, I would much prefer even incremental increases in subjective meaning to a chance at True Meaning as you've defined it. Would you accept as a condition on any theory of True Meaning that any reasonable person would, ceteris paribus, prefer a world in which it is achievable to a world in which it is not?

    1. Great comment! I'm glad to hear to you worry about your effects on the world - the world would be a better place if more of us did that! Although it might not be clear in my post, I understand true meaning as arising when subjective and objective meaning arise from the same action, and when they are aligned so that the subjective meaning is aimed at least partly at the objective meaning. Let me explain. On my account, anyone who has an infinite effect on life has a life that is objectively meaningful (from the universe's point of view). But, the action that causes these infinite effects might not also give rise to subjective meaning; Bob might have invented a weapon to sell to terrorists, but the government thwart the sale and convert the weapon into a new technology that helps humans to live on infinitely. Bob would not find the thwarting of his plans subjectively meaningful, so his life cannot accrue true meaning through his invention.

      Also consider that Bob might (falsely) believe that the government will use his weapon to wage war somewhere and he finds that subjectively meaningful. In this case, his action of inventing the weapon has subjective and objective meaning (the weapon is still converted into a helpful technology), but it does not have true meaning. True meaning only arises when the subjective meaning is partly based on the idea that the action will have the infinite consequences that it actually does end up having.

      So, back to your worry… imagine that you find it subjectively meaningful to create a work of art that inspires people to be the best they can be. Let’s say that this work of art continues to have this effect (directly and indirectly) for two years. That could well provide some subjective meaning. Presumably it would provide more subjective meaning if it had this beneficial effect for longer. At some point we should ask, if it would make your life more meaningful if the work of art continued to have this effect for infinity. Note that if it had a different infinite consequence from the one that you hoped for, then true meaning will not occur. So, true meaning will only occur if the infinite effect is to inspire people (and you found it subjectively meaningful that your art work would inspire people (directly or indirectly) for infinity. What I’m trying to say here is that as long as what you find subjectively meaningful is not pernicious in any way, then achieving true meaning through having an infinite consequence should not be worrisome. The other infinite consequences that your actions might have can be worrisome, and possibly should be worrisome given that we often won’t really know what they will be, but that is not a part of true meaning (as I have tried to define it).

      So, true meaning seems preferable to me. And, the preferable nature of true meaning is useful for the account because it resolves the absurd in a positive way (it explains where there is a link between subjective and objective meaning, effectively allowing us to take some aspects of our lives seriously).

    2. Dan, thanks for the clarification. I think I can see your point when its applied to individual actions. But I wonder if mine doesn't still hold up when it comes to a preference for a particular kind of life. Those whose lives already seem to us to have a satisfying level of subjective meaning might agree that they would be more meaningful if the good we managed to do satisfied your conditions for true meaning. But since we don't get to cherry pick in that way, we might be disinclined to trade our subjectively meaningful lives for ones in which true meaning is possible. It may,for example, be that what makes it possible for our lives to be subjectively meaningful is that the harm we inevitably do is finite.

      I'm saying this based on the assumption that subjective meaning isn't the sort of meaning you can achieve through error or in a Nozickian experience machine. I'm comfortable with the idea that you may be wrong in thinking that your life is subjectively meaningful and also that how meaningful your life is can depend on events that occur after it is over. We could do with a better term here I think.

    3. EDIT: Some typos corrected.

      I think I see your point Randy. The comparative values of subjective and true meaning I had in mind was a very simple one (that true meaning is more valuable than subjective meaning). So, I'm open to the possibility that a whole lot of subjective wellbeing is better than a small amount of true wellbeing (so, I agree with your take on your example). But, for such a person, they can't use my theory to resolve the absurd. So, it depends how important resolving the absurd is to them (and whether they have other options for resolving the absurd). So, if I am really worried about my future consequences being infinitely bad, then I might hope for life to exist for a finite amount of time, but if I was also really bothered by the absurd, then I'd have to make a judgement call between locking in some subjective wellbeing in a finite universe and taking a punt on true meaning and trying not to think about my potential negative future consequences.

    4. Dan, I like this point. In fact, it suggests to me that a nice feature of your view is that it is a tool for determining whether the absence of true meaning is a person's problem, or really any person's problem. When we come to grips with the consequences of being awarded a truly meaningful life we might find that it was really just a paucity of subjective meaning that was our problem all along.

  3. Dan, thanks for this post. It’s nice to see a serious suggestion for a non-religious way out of Tolstoy’s trap.

    Your way out seems to emphasize a certain sort of what might be called an “ongoing ripple” that a given life can have. But on your view, not just any ripple will do (it needs to involve life; presumably human, or at least conscious), and not just any sort of “ongoing” will do (it needs to involve going on infinitely).

    There is something curious about the account—your life is meaningful only as long as the future ripple continues, even if your life is long since over. You may think you have a meaningful life connected with the ripple, but some unforeseen event can invalidate this by stopping the ripple--say, by bursting one of those expanding bubbles of the universe, a billion generations from yours.

    Why is this curious? Well, consider the spatial analog: could the popping of a bubble a billion miles away from me undercut the meaning of my life right now? That is hard for some to accept; after all, it does not seem to affect me.

    Perhaps in a similar way, it is puzzling, a bit, to think that an event that does not affect me can affect the meaning of my life.

    1. Hi Russell, I have to say that I very much agree with your comment. Personally, I am content with subjective meaning (because the absurd doesn’t darken my days at all). Regarding your comment, I believe the analogous view about posthumous harm (I believe that we cannot be harmed after death). So, I find your point a strong one.

      In defence of Optimistic Naturalism, however, here are two possible lines of argument:

      1) Standard arguments about how we can be harmed after death. For example, many people think that being severely slandered after our deaths would be bad for us. How this badness actually gets to us through space time is mysterious, but for many, the intuition about posthumous harm is strong enough not to require a fully explained link.

      2) But, here is an attempt to provide that link: Perhaps we are not interested in whether me, my body and mental states, has a meaningful life, perhaps we are interested in whether me, the embedded person, has a meaningful life. On this way of looking at things, my life is an ongoing set of life events. The above problem can be avoided if the qualities of my life depend somehow on the quality or organisation of these life events. Note that many of these life events are interactions between me and the universe. We can call the set of life events that involve me interacting with the universe as my ‘actions’. My actions are not spatially or temporally restricted because the effects can ripple outwards through time and space. For example, you might find it meaningful to nurture your children. Imagine that you give them some sage advice before you pack them off to college. This action might affect them for the rest of their lives, including after you have died. So, the action itself (the interaction between you and the universe) can extend past you temporally, just like it can extend past you spatially (the college might be in Canada). Now suppose that the meaning of my life supervenes on my actions, such that the meaning of my life can only change if there is some change in my actions. If this is true, then the meaning of my life can accrue beyond my spatial and temporal borders because it is my interactions with the universe that make my life meaningful, not just my body and mental states.

      So, a prematurely popping bubble affects the meaning of my actions. And, since the meaning of my life is dependent on the meaning of my actions, the meaning of my life is affected (even though I am far away and long gone).