While most people are blissfully ignorant of academic discussions of philosophy, at least one quintessential philosophical question has long been mainstream: Does life have a meaning, a point, a purpose? Because this question is philosophical, it’s obscure, which is what lends the question its mystique. Thus, there’s the preliminary matter of the meaning of the question of the meaning of life. Douglas Adams satirizes the need for such prior analysis in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, telling of a supercomputer that discovers that the answer to the question of “life, the universe, and everything” is 42, which bafflers the questioners because they haven’t figured out the true, ultimate question. What kind of answer, then, do we want and what exactly is at stake? Could life be the sort of thing that has a purpose or a goal such that it might have a specific, knowable one? And whose purpose would it be? Could life be meaningful without a personal creator of living things?
Biofunctions and Absurdity
The prescientific approach is to interpret the problem as teleological and thus to compare organisms to artifacts, which entails that organisms are intelligently created. By comparison, a shovel has meaning because we assign it a standard which determines when the shovel performs well or poorly. A broken shovel fails to work as planned so that it no longer approximates the ideal for shovels. For a person or even an animal to have meaning in this teleological sense would seem to require that we be artifacts designed by some foreign intelligence whose plan for us includes the ideal we’re meant to fulfill. (A natural, as opposed to supernatural, creator of terrestrial species would need a comparable creator in turn and that creator would likewise need one, in which case either the series of creations would be infinite, like a baton race that has no beginning, or else there would be an ultimate Creator who would be a deity, a miraculously self-creating or eternal person.)
The mystery of life’s meaning would amount to the mystery of the content of our creator’s mind: the answer would consist of a revelation of what that creator intended to do by creating us or of what the creator hoped to achieve. The movie Prometheus explores this scenario, depicting protagonists who discover both that powerful aliens created life on our planet and that the aliens might have had dubious rather than noble, let alone divine motives for doing so. Were our creator flawed or inhuman, our ultimate function might be horrific rather than anything we’d want to enshrine. We might have been created on a whim so that we’d be akin to an absentminded doodle, in which case our life would be fundamentally absurd. Alternatively, we might have been spawned by a malevolent or arrogant deity so that our highest purpose might be the moral one of opposing our original function, of malfunctioning, in our deity’s judgment.
The conventional secular wisdom is that this teleological interpretation of the ultimate question has been superseded by Darwinism, according to which life forms evolve from each other: each is created by an impersonal process of natural selection. This scientific explanation will be completed as soon as we come to understand how the simplest living things developed from nonliving things. Assuming that sort of final understanding is on the way and life does evolve to that extent, from nonlife, life’s origin isn’t planned. Thus the analogy between species and artifacts breaks down, and we have no nonhuman, pre-assigned purpose. (Even if there were intermediary intelligent designers, such as extraterrestrial but carbon-based seeders of our planet, the mechanistic, Darwinian view would be that the first organisms emerged from nonliving matter.) The process by which we deliberately devise technologies differs greatly from that by which natural forces, initial conditions and elements come together to produce organisms. In particular, personal traits like reason and desire have nothing to do with life’s origin, according to the Darwinian perspective.
For this reason, the question of life’s “meaning” would rest on a false premise. The answer is that there’s just as much or as little point to life as there is to the existence of anything else that emerges from blind and dumb physical regularities. Instead of the purpose of life in general, there’s only the function of a naturally selected trait. That function is just the job done by the trait that explains how the trait originated by a formative interaction between the organism’s genetic code and its ancestral environment. For example, a heart is supposed to circulate blood in the body, because that’s the effect that explains biologically why the heart has its capacities. What a trait is for depends on what it is and what it is depends on how it was made. Organic bodies are made by natural selection, so the function of our body parts is determined by the usefulness of what our ancestors did to survive long enough to reproduce members of their type, which members include us.
A biological purpose isn’t mystical or even ideal, that is, something that’s worthy of religious devotion or that ought to be fulfilled; instead, it’s the probability that a creature, whose body parts behave as those of its formative ancestors did, will sustain its species by transmitting its genotype to its descendants. There’s no scientific presupposition that the species’ continuation is good or that a malfunctioning trait fails to fulfill an ideal. Natural selection is an aimless series of events involving chemical interactions and mass extinctions that nevertheless assembles hordes of goal-directed creatures. The blind and impersonal creative process complexifies, producing animals that can sense the world, as well as people who create by means of real rather than merely apparent intelligence, thus differing from natural selection. But life in general has no meaning, and purposes are either biological or psychological, that is, species-preserving effects of evolved traits or desires of creatures that are strangely preoccupied with achieving goals, including unrealistic ones.
This is where the secular discussion of that popular philosophical question usually ends. Scientists have found that life is objectively absurd, as existential philosophers like Kierkegaard, Camus, and Sartre suspected. We’re all waiting for Godot, for the meaning of life to be revealed, but science has turned our faith into desperate hope and we’ve become pitiful and ridiculous in our childish refusal to leave behind our naïve prejudices. At most, we content ourselves with subjective goals which we set for us, lacking any cosmic role. In a liberal society, we’re free to choose our ideals as long as we accord others the same right. We thereby become both gods and artifacts, after all, the sovereigns we hoped resided somewhere in the heaven of outer space and the objects fashioned by our actions that reveal merely our personal plans. In turn, the hypocrisies and degradations of liberal society disclose life’s underlying absurdity. The consumer’s infantilization and shallow materialism, the accompanying displacement of liberal and democratic institutions by a plutocratic military-industrial-security-media complex, the postmodern incredulity towards any myth or social ideal and the apathy arising from the paradoxical idolization of irony—all such letdowns of modern civilization are so many reminders that an absurd, indifferent world permits only comically-defective substitutes for a divine world order. As in Goethe’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, we make for laughably inept gods.
Pantheism: Nature as a Monstrous God
However, the inquiry shouldn’t end there, because the scientific picture of the universe entails not the folly of the question of life’s meaning, but a kind of pantheism which the orthodox physicists and cosmologists obfuscate by eliminating time itself from their theories. Early modern scientists from Descartes to Galileo to Newton and then on to Einstein, Hawking and the string theorists mistake the frozen, geometric image of nature in their mathematical models for the nature of reality, and so they infer that time is unreal. They think that because mathematical truth is timeless, so must be nature. The laws of physics are time-symmetric, since the scientists abstract from time’s arrow and depict natural events as happening all at once—and thus not as happening at all. If time is illusory, so is causality and the deepest understanding of natural phenomena requires our intellectual elites to master exotic mathematical concepts that defy human intuitions as well as ranging far beyond the available evidence. So argues theoretical physicist Lee Smolin in his recent books that culminate in The Singular Universe and the Reality of Time, written with the philosopher Roberto Unger.
If causality and the nowness of the present moment are illusory, all our concepts of change, process, evolution, and creation must be misleading. In this prevailing, math-centered picture of nature, nothing changes because time is just a fourth dimension of space which can be geometrically visualized and objectified. And if nothing really happens, nothing can happen for a reason or in pursuit of an ideal. Thus, life certainly has no meaning and the mystery of whether our suffering now on this planet will one day be vindicated by the achievement of some cosmic good should be dismissed as a trick of maya. However, if Smolin’s critique of this paradigm is justified, we might wonder whether, instead of merely replacing myths with rational knowledge, the anti-time scientists also inadvertently bury the philosophical upshot of their work, by spatializing time. Again, the upshot isn’t atheism but pantheism: whereas science eliminates the need for the theistic hypothesis, scientists discover over and over again that nature does all the divine work we could ask for, by creating everything that exists in time.
This doesn’t mean, though, that everything has a purpose. After all, the reason scientists would have found themselves retreating from the pantheistic significance of their theories is that the creative power in question is monstrously impersonal. Instead of nothing happening in nature, because mathematical models tame natural processes so that they might be intellectually dissected, there’s the ominous unwinding of a headless universe. Far from being beautiful, as scientists from Einstein to Dawkins are wont to aver, nature’s mode of creation is creepy since it proves that personal creativity is laughably inferior and virtually insignificant by comparison. When I say that nature is “monstrous” I have in mind the full-blown Lovecraftian, cosmicist sense, which is to say not that nature is ugly as a matter of some provincial taste, but that the universe’s mindless, blind and dumb creativity—which is now as palpable as anything could be, given the triumph of science’s mechanistic mode of explanation—is an abomination with terrifically subversive implications. The scientific replacement of the traditional God with nature—and specifically with Time—threatens to equate our personal plans with so many clueless pretensions, human enlightenment with a form of insanity. There is no ideal blueprint copied by the products of atomic interactions, contrary to the Platonism beloved by mathematicians, nor is there any idea of how things should be, subsisting in a cosmic Mind; rather, according to Smolin, there’s just the reality of change, of emergence and complexification and evolution. Even the laws of nature are modified over time, and while these cosmic transformations are constructive as well as destructive, they’re alien in their aimlessness and indifference. At least, that’s the conclusion warranted by the scientific evidence of how nature is replete with mechanisms that operate regardless of what anyone thinks of them.
Anti-Natural Artificiality is the Highest Good
If natural transitions happen for no reason, might life still have a purpose in a universe that is itself as divine as anything could be? We prefer to think that life’s advent isn’t accidental, that the hardships we face and the injustices we witness are for a greater good; otherwise, anomalous, sentient creatures may not belong in the universe and the cost of our remaining here would be the tragic one that we should suffer pangs of alienation. This is in fact the underlying message of Eastern religions like Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism as well as of Gnosticism which influenced Christianity: the universe is flawed and noble creatures should seek moksha, liberation from the natural cycle of rebirth or from the original sin of being greedy mammals. Other religions such as Judaism and Taoism are, in effect, more apologetic for the true god’s monstrousness in that they proclaim we should make our peace with how the world works. Perhaps the world needs healing, as in the Jewish concept of tikkun olam, but the faith is that God’s creation is fundamentally good and thus the attempt to transcend it is blasphemous, even satanic. Surprisingly, modern, technoscience-driven societies side with the former, anti-nature religions. Lacking any rational plan, we unsustainably consume the planet’s resources, like tumors, and we obsessively uproot the world’s wild places, preferring artificial habitats that we devise. This is the secular form of moksha. Instead of meditating and practicing asceticism to free our consciousness, we free our bodies by using scientific knowledge to drastically alter our environments.
Whether this confluence counts as a clue to our life’s meaning depends, again, on what we want when we pose the question. The naïve wish is the theistic one according to which we should feel at home in the world, comforted by the faith that a higher power has our back. In the modern context, that faith is anachronistic and the true god is discovered to be omnipresent indeed, hiding in plain sight as monstrous nature, as our primordial nemesis. What we should do, then, must begin as a response to this dire position of ours in the inhuman cosmos. H. P. Lovecraft worried that the noble response—to learn how nature works—is nevertheless counterproductive since the scientific discoveries lead to disasters, including the scientist’s madness. Like Nietzsche, though, he implicitly trusted in the utility of his cosmicist message, since he published stories to popularize the sense of nature’s horrific weirdness. Nietzsche himself argued, in effect, for neo-Taoism combined with a Romantic faith in the power of art to enchant by way of a postmodern myth of our potential greatness. Monstrous nature evinces a savage, hideous will to power, and some of us can overcome our disgust and embrace our role as avatars of the cosmic will.
Whatever the particular meaning of life might be, the best way of life depends on our real position in the world. Nature at large is absurd, but the character of that absurdity inspires us to seek meaning in transcendence. Return to the teleological analogy of artifacts. The shovel has a function because it’s built to achieve the designer’s goal. This relation of a match between what something does and what someone intends is the basis for teleological value. The artifact’s purpose is to be like its ideal type, to strive, as it were, to be nearer to the mark. There’s no such basis for a post-scientific purpose of life, because scientists discover that living things are marginal in the universe’s evolution. Instead of approximating Platonic Forms or God’s intentions, sentient creatures are at odds with the rest of the world. Instead of being at home on Mother Earth, as in the ancient mythopoeic vision, living things are like the proverbial child who’s lost in the woods. While our purpose can’t, then, be handed to us, since natural forces have no hands, the world’s indifference imposes a great ambition upon us so that the atheistic, hypermodern meaning of life isn’t arbitrarily subjective after all. Our task is plainly to oppose nature with the alternative worlds we create, and we should do this because of nature’s monstrous absurdity which would otherwise pass uncontested.
This idea of existential revolt, popularized by the likes of Albert Camus, might seem juvenile. Indeed, the stereotype of existential philosophy construes it as so much whining that was hitherto tolerated only because the majority of it transpired as a way of lamenting the Second World War. But as I said, the revolt in question long predates that modern context, originating in the West with the progressive myth of Prometheus and the Gnostic one of the fallen, rebel angels, and having been practiced globally by world-weary ascetics for thousands of years. Indeed, life’s antagonistic relation to the environment is rooted in biology, as shown by Schrodinger’s What is Life?, which posits that an organism resists entropic decay through homeostasis, by maintaining information within the body that’s kept from the external noise. Life’s revolt begins, then, with the formation of the first membrane or barrier against the world’s indifference. The evolution of consciousness and intelligence adds to the body’s interior a mental alternative to nature’s mindlessness. Indeed, the kernel of truth in Plato’s speculation about ideal Forms is that every concept has a normative aspect, meaning that when a thinker maps part of the world, she inevitably simplifies and idealizes, ignoring some details and focusing on those of interest such as the factors that could be used to achieve her goals.
Thus, it’s not just the jaded, pipe-smoking, beret-wearing aesthete who scoffs at the world, but each one of us who prefers to think of alternatives to reality—which we do whenever we entertain a thought of how things should be, instead of deferring to what’s actually before us. Not even the simplest, most robotic animals defer in that respect, since they invariably treat phenomena as being ready-to-hand, in Heidegger’s sense, meaning that they interpret them in practical, life-centric terms. The brain is structured not to digest every iota of information it receives through the senses, but to translate and to filter that information to provide us with a useful map. That mental map isn’t itself an alternative to hideously-complex nature, but it enables us to displace the natural world with our machines, cities, ideologies, and other artifacts. That displacement is the existential revolt, the hypermodern moksha, the science-centered meaning of life.
When we wonder about the point of life in general and we realize that science’s deflationary view of the world renders the question itself nostalgic, we should look closer at what the technoscientific enterprise is both demonstrating and accomplishing. Nature is palpably divine, albeit freakishly mindless in its staggering creativity, and our counter-creations continue the work done by the anomalous, organic processes in our bodies, namely the production of precious bastions that breathe life and purpose and value into our true god’s sprawling, undying carcass. We want our purpose in life to derive from the nature of reality, not to be a matter of mere taste. That derivation happens with or without the traditional God. If the premier twenty-first century religion is bound to be pantheistic, that is, atheistic and scientifically informed, its practitioners will trust in the sacredness of the technoscientific project to replace the inhuman wilderness that’s forced on them, with an alternative world that embodies their uncanny ideals. We ought to attempt to slay the cosmic dragon so that its strangely gratuitous and impersonal system will stand opposed somewhere for at least some fleeting moment in the unfathomable vastness of space and time.