A Cynical Examination of Naturalism, Evolution, Consciousness, and Purpose
The more we care for each other, the more we give ourselves purpose. I can create my own meaning in life. Creating a better world for all of us to live in is the destiny of every individual person on this good, green earth. As long as I find happiness, then I’ll know I’m home.
This is all, most assuredly, a load of sentimental bullshit.
I often find it peculiar how the secular world seems to justify, or attempts to justify, any such notion of purpose without, in my opinion, properly defining the terms for which they speak. What standard is this “meaning” measured against? To what foundation does the concept of “love” owe itself? Or, dare I say it, how does this “ought” — this apparent obligation to give oneself to another, love our neighbors, experience joy — arise from the inherently blind “is” — the trillions of random particles in motion, elegantly dancing below a projection of the emergent bodies we’ve found ourselves trapped within?
It is a classic argument for sure. But it is one I simply can’t shake. I’ll be honest. It bothers me. It frustrates me. I want someone (not me, of course, because I’m much too meek) to grab both the liberal secular humanist and the Jordan Peterson lobsterian and shake them by the shoulders, showering spittle into their face whilst crying, “What do you mean by meaning?!”
There is, of course, the old assertion of pain and pleasure as the proverbial goal posts for which to assist in this distinction for what simply is matter and that which actually matters. Below the cold, rusted steel is pain, where human aspiration is in polar opposition. Above is the joy of conscious bliss, a state of existence amazingly coincidental with the evolutionary instinct to live. For to suffer is to draw nearer to death, and to enjoy life is to flourish toward more life. Therefore, simply by being this self-aware agent we call homosapiens should we associate pleasure, joy, happiness, love as that which is our purpose. Anything on the other end of the spectrum is devoid of meaning. Unless, of course, such suffering can be used as a transformational instrument for the pursuit of life’s joyous expansion. Altruistic sacrifice might fall into this camp.
However, the problem with such vague optimism in these simple terms is that evolutionary survival has never been and will never be beholden to anything like self-aware ecstasy. The masses upon masses of extraordinarily successful bacterium populating the unseen realms beneath us have never enjoyed nor do they care for little Timmy Flagellum’s 2nd place standing at the regional Spelling Bee. In fact, why would evolution have any interest in promoting any self-aware consciousness at all? In the game of reproductive fitness, any and all capacity for enjoying the knowledge that one has a special place of glory among the local Shooting-for-Strikes Bowling League Hall of Fame is nothing more than superfluous details. First person consciousness is not some revolutionary tool given to the fittest species in the universe. For evolution, the only thing that matters is any successful action that pushes one along the space-time continuum long enough so that one has the opportunity to do the nasty and proliferate one’s genetic likeness. Birth, sex, death. These are the sole salty droplets constituting Mother Nature’s tears of satisfaction and suffering.
To derive any meaning from your own personal orientation towards conscious happiness or the flourishing of your own life or even that of the entire species as a whole, to my eyes, is tantamount to suggesting that the appendix has meaning simply by virtue of it existing inside your body because it was a part of the evolutionary process of becoming human. It should only be natural, therefore, to declare our poor, fellow homosapiens who have endured appendicitis as those who now surgically have a little less meaning in their lives.
Evolutionarily speaking, phenomena such as consciousness, first-person subjectivity or intentionality are all completely unnecessary. The emerging (so-called) purpose arising out of these immaterial vapors is simply a definition given by the being who is unnecessarily conscious in the first place. This is my problem with the naturalist stance on meaning. In essence the naturalist is saying that our positioning toward more life, our embracing of the human concepts of love and goodness, happiness, and so on are all somehow factually unquestionable purposes for the homosapien simply by definition of being a conscious human. But if evolution is all there is to our species, then they’re using this unnecessary cosmic accident we call consciousness to supply the definition. There’s nothing particularly objective about the assertion. Being human is the purpose of being human because we humans say so. And if that’s all they’re saying then fine, but forgive me if I yawn at the touchy, feely proposition. I find it an uninteresting self-congratulatory declaration.
. . . It’s boring.
But perhaps our meaning does not levitate out of animalistic desires for biological flourishing implanted by a base, conscious satisfaction, but is rather merely the virtue of human cooperation in and of itself. This is to demote awareness, even intentionality, while elevating some primordial essence of that powerful synergistic force we call love. After all, even very simple organisms such as insects know how to cooperate. Are these shallow give-and-take, tit-for-tat motions not some primitive precursor to the higher mammals’ fondness for one another? Is cooperative behavior not some basic meaning for the life that’s worth living?
Humans most certainly would not have excelled to the levels they have attained without considerable partnership and cooperation. This is all well and true. In the game of associating progress with meaning, surely cooperation deserves a medal. Yet again I see this as only a slightly different formulation of the same boring argument above.
Under naturalism, cooperation is an evolutionary action intended for the purpose of survival. That’s it. Confined to this framework, there seems to be something suspicious going on when we say the meaning of life (fitness, proliferation, survival) is founded on love (cooperation, altruism, sacrifice). To this I ask, why?
Of course, I realize I’m equivocating terms like a madman here but I only do so because I feel those I am arguing against do exactly the same thing to an equal degree. In all fairness, this is only to make the point: meaning if left to the devices of evolution and evolution alone seems to be nothing more than a struggle for anthropormorphised language and social hermeneutics disguised as science.
To equate survival with this nebulous concept of “life,” for which in these conversations it suddenly becomes clear we are not merely talking about the simple act of breathing and reproducing, is a leap I just can’t make. Apparently, promoting the wellbeing of our fellow man through cooperation is what makes the “good life” meaningful and this is, for some reason, on a higher level than the same goals successfully achieved by the communist ant colony towering higher and higher in the crack of concrete in my driveway. (I realize many are willing to admit this perceptively higher meaning is not actually any higher than the insect’s and I will address this contention below). Purpose for the ant is to support the colony and make a bigger hill. Purpose for man is to love his neighbor. Again, can all we do is give ourselves meaning by definition because it’s “by definition?” According to whose dictionary, I ask. Are we really only saying the purpose of human life is to create a better world for other humans simply because the Human Constitution says so? (Which was written by humans by the way). Again, apologies for the heavy eyelids fluttering in the direction of this exhausting circularity.
I will admit on this point of cooperation that I realize I’m treading into a deep scientific and philosophical subject. Cooperation’s role in human evolution and its taut attachment to that dirty word teleology surfaces in the spoiling froth of cream at the rim of this dark, cold mug of coffee. Up until now perhaps I have only been griping with the limitations of consciousness and language in their attempts to sanctify a sense of meaning that I am claiming normal, everyday secular types possess a certain cognitive dissonance about. Ethics and maybe even meta-ethics begin to enter the conversation as well. I can’t possibly give a sufficient account of cooperation’s role in evolution and how the telos of this doctrine is to be accounted for. Therefore, I will opt for languidly waving my hand in the direction of the great work done by philosopher (and yes theologian) Sarah Coakley in her seminal work on the mathematics of cooperation and evolutionary biology, which can be parsed through via a series of Gifford Lectures delivered in 2012 at the University of Aberdeen.
So rather than dive into that bottomless Sarlacc pit myself I suggest we take a step back and consider how far can we really extricate a word like purpose when attempting to speak about evolution objectively? For instance, what does it mean when we ask, ‘What is this bird’s beak for?’ On one level, a macroscopic one at that, if the universe is inherently pointless then in the grand scheme of things the adaptive qualities of a bird’s beak for which activities like collecting rocks and twigs or snatching fish from a lake do not actually mean anything. Sure the beak adds to the bird’s reproductive fitness but since the bird itself is pointless, as all things are, then so is the beak. However, on the microscopic level, where we have given the bird a status of subsisting in the center of its own universe, then yes the beak does have meaning. But its meaning is only found in this subjective microcosm for which the only entity anywhere that possesses some form of knowledge of what the beak is about is in the human who has anthropomorphized her own understanding of aboutness and superimposed this “language” onto the bird. The bird’s beak only serves its purpose of helping feed the bird when acknowledged by a rational agent who can say that feeding a bird so it can live is a meaningful end in itself. And around the merry-go-round we go again.
If you assume evolution on naturalism then there is no such thing as objective meaning because all meaning can only be derived from some subjective consciousness. Everything is phenomenology steaming out of the bipedal primate’s brain after being left on the stove for far too long.
But suppose I were to humor this paradox of self-aware universal insignificance and what seems to be purposively obscure, individually subjective meaning. Yes, you say, the “higher meaning” we feel as humans is an illusion. There is no ultimate meaning and we have no greater significance than that of our puny eusocial friends whom we torture with magnifying glasses on our driveways. My first reaction is to respond in disbelief that anyone actually truly believes this. But maybe you are aware of its impossibility and chalk up the collective fantasy of greater significance to an ingrained species bias and delusion. It is here where I suddenly begin scratching my head as to how this is really that much different than the religious beliefs so often maligned. On the one hand we want to accept a shared delusion that our lives are, dare I say, in some sense spiritual, but on the other acknowledge that this misapprehension of reality only serves to drive our species along particular mammalian roadways like societies, for which we have come to rely on for survival.
Obviously, the major difference here, in contrast to religious belief, is that in this case we have become so enlightened that at least now we can demarcate the delusion. As if acting out a delusion despite an inner epistemological rejection of said delusion is somehow less religious. In all honesty, I wonder what’s worse? Acting out a delusion you believe is actually true, or acting out a delusion when you know it’s delusional? Going to church every Sunday, receiving the sacraments, kneeling, praying, singing and all the while denying God doesn’t make you irreligious. It just makes you both religious and confused.
It’s Stockholm Syndrome because you know you don’t have a choice, nor do you want one. Nobody wants to live as if their lives don’t have the spark of the divine. And indeed societies would probably break down and the human race would be facing significant ethically-related and materially disastrous consequences if everyone suddenly wholeheartedly rejected this noble lie. The true, the good, and the beautiful must remain venerated, even if only as a contributive, humane split-personality disorder.
Thus in the need to sustain our liturgical leanings toward these transcendental fictions we must wedge the divine into the fabric of space and time … somehow.
So, I claim, what the Western world has done in response to this problem is not eradicate the divine but simply displace it with an assembly of all the petty Greek gods, Epicurian philosophy, and Eastern mysticism into a single demiurge they call “The Universe.” The Universe expresses its balancing will through karmic delights while simultaneously dominating by arbitrary and pernicious and utterly indifferent rulings. The Universe has given each one of us the breath of God within ourselves while also tricking everyone into thinking their insignificant existence is contributing to its overall blind subsistence. The Universe loves you, hates you, births you, kills you, doesn’t care about you, is always cradling you, doesn’t think about you, can’t think about you, and is you all at the same time. Essentially, the Western world has gone Pagan 2.0; add a dash of George Lucasian pantheism.
“May the Universe be with you . . .”
But to digress, basically what I have been beating to death now for 2000+ words is my problem with attempting to give meaning to something that, given the assumption of naturalism, cannot have ultimate meaning. And I extend my frustration to those who acknowledge this consensus when every fiber of our being rejects such enlightened hysteria. Consider the confused paraphrasing of certain impassioned atheists on this distinction:
Consider your car. What is the meaning of your car? One day, your car will rust or reside in a recycle yard or a junkyard. So whatever meaning you answered for the meaning of your car, it is not the ultimate meaning. However, does that mean you should scrap your car right now? And if a woman is raped, and she cares now about the harm that was done to her, and the people that know her and the society around her cares now about what happened to her, yet she and her rapist will both be dead and gone someday, and the solar system or the universe will die its heat death and all of our societies will be distant memories … does that make her rape “ultimately wrong?” Did it “ultimately matter” that she got raped? Of course it was wrong and of course it mattered. What matters to you and us right now is the morality that we know exists. The meaning that you ascribe to your life right now is the meaning that we know exists.
I sympathize with the sentimentality here. Once a ‘god’ enters the conversation those who do not worship this particular god have an immediate discomfort in the pit of their stomach because the insinuation is that what you hold near and dear can’t be near and dear unless you worship the specific deity that their interlocutor has proposed. However, while this temptation of opposition may powerfully string one along the trapeze rope of virtuous mattering loosely knotted above, it can do little to explicate not only ultimate meaning, but any meaning at all.
For understanding let’s now consider an imaginative exercise whereas in some alternative universe on some habitable planet in a solar system quite different from our own, a 1999 Chevrolet Corvette knock-off, through some miracle of coincidences, has arranged itself over millions of years through scrupulously selected random mutative events. While this, of course, is all incredibly silly (and clearly nonsensical within the context of real evolutionary theory) consider also that at the height of its evolutionary progression this mechanical beast is rather pristine. It has the ability to fire pistons, pump out exhaust, and grind its rubber tires through the sandy landscape. Unfortunately, though, not a single life form capable of opening the door handle, turning the ignition, and compressing the gas pedal exists. In fact, no rational form of life exists anywhere in this entire fictional universe. The question here should be obvious. Does this vehicle have meaning? Does its being, representative not by individual parts but as a working machine as a whole, have purpose?
In the naturalist sense, I think clearly the answer would have to be no. Whether a meteor were to crash through the planet’s atmosphere and obliterate the car now or let entropy slowly dismantle all it’s metal and fiberglass over time would not matter. In this universe, again assuming naturalism, meaning has no meaning because there is no rationality to conceive of something like meaning nor is there some final end intended for the car’s existence. To us as the outsider gods looking in, we understand that the car could have been meant to do something, such as compensate for a mid-life crisis. But in this thought experiment there is no us for mid-life crises to become a reason for a sporty babe magnet’s existence. More importantly, though, in this universe there is no higher transcendent cause to give the car an intelligible purpose in and of itself. Hence, something can only have meaning, even if only for right now, if and only if it has a telic nature, for which something else possessing conscious rationality is capable of intellecting.
If at this point one assumes I am spending an inordinate effort in arguing for the Watchmaker Fallacy or to give an account of the Teleological Argument be rest assured that this is not the intention. I am simply saying that given certain assumptions about reality, you may be able to say that something has meaning in the here and now because you really, really, really want it to matter, but that assertion has no actual power in being objective or true or actual without some form of the aforementioned ‘spark.’ A car only has meaning because a rational agent has given it meaning, but this purpose, and here is where everything spoken of thus far culminates, can only subsist if certain transcendent, platonic universals are actually real.
Rationality, in and of itself, cannot impart true meaning to anything. The only thing rationality can do is interpret the intelligibility of meaning given that aspects of reality like the true, the good, and the beautiful actually exist. Otherwise, you’re just another Corvette spontaneously driving along other gas guzzling vehicles on a meaningless highway and if another dirty Jeep Wrangler were to sexually violate a defenseless Toyota Prius there would be reactions of aversion to this off-roading monstrosity but even here and now it would not truly matter.
In the end, one cannot escape the divine despite how desperate she is to plug her ears and “La, la, la” away the frightening noise of religious bells sounding over us all. She can pay lip service to humanist agendas and feel intelligent proclaiming “no gods allowed” as her ironic sacred reverence for her fellow primate takes center stage. Yet the acting out of the bent knee to the divine spark in us all will always show her true cards.
One way or another, we cannot erase the principle of logos marked on every person’s forehead.
Final causation, purpose, “the goal” is staring you in the face, hands forcibly gripping the back of your skull, palms over both ears, its thumbs and index fingers prying open your eyelids, imposing on you the seeable truth: the meaning of life is to experience ‘God;’ to participate in whatever this divine reality is whether you choose to believe in its existence or not. You can virtue signal all you want toward the empathy and charity of as many life forms you come into contact with, but without any divine participation all you’ll be left with is pious, fideist, self-assured pride.
The truth is, the divine is everywhere and there’s nothing you can do about it. It’s in the chair, where you’ll distinguish that its a chair and that its aim is to allow for sitting because it retains that special chairness other objects simply don’t have. It’s in the tree, for which the tall vegetation’s own meaning is represented in that otherworldly treeness quality we can’t deny a tree must possess. The nature of every ‘thing’ in existence is simply ‘out there’ waiting to be discovered or interpreted. There is a sacredness to everything we know and its mystical -ness cries out for something transcendent above it all.
Of course, what we actually mean when we say ‘God’ or the divine is an entirely new conversation in its own right. And none of this is to give some positive argument for the existence of a god or the supernatural. It’s entirely possible that this ‘spark’ conferred to every ‘thing’ in reality is somehow an irrational absurdity in itself or a brute fact or is our cognitive faculties luring us into something that is, after all, actually delusional. But if this were the case then we would need to take a serious look at our acceptance of any so-called truth we feel we have the capacity of possessing or the world’s capacity for being even remotely intelligible at all . . .
Alas, another story for another day perhaps.
So, I say again but in another way, meaning for the human is experienced in the divine because it is a discovery of something’s ultimate nature and this is a progenitor for encountering the bliss of infinite knowledge. Here we see the talisman of desire glimmering softly beneath one’s shirt. Desire is rooted in the search for that convergence of knowledge and nature. That seductive fruit that promises you’ll be like God when you’ve already been made in His likeness but didn’t know it. Or the fruit that gives you the life you were made for: an eternal coexistence with God, being gifted with His knowledge on the terms He knows best; receiving the selfless gift and giving yourself selflessly in an eternal dance of love.
Even if through misdirected desire, you find your meaning in life to be the gain of as much wealth and power as possible at the expense of everyone around you, the shadow of this desire traces itself back to the divine. You want power because you want to enjoy the fruits of what a supreme hierarchal position can give you. You want these benefits to experience more pleasure and gratitude, even if only rooted in the self. Pleasure and gratitude and happiness are based in some form on a fundamental, unexplainable bliss or beauty or both. We don’t seek these experiences of pleasure purely for the sensations in themselves. Or if we do, we soon find them wanting and the pursuit for something higher emerges, no matter how misdirected. Regardless, the potency of feeling good is an end that is itself ‘a good.’ The problem is how we reach such potential may actually produce the opposite. Nevertheless it is a knowledge coinciding with a nature that is beyond the physical and when encountered correctly this is something of heaven. Whether the search is assisted by the ‘God’ or is done on our own, we search and we search and we search. Even the psychopathic serial killer is hunting for his own form of beauty.
Evolution might give an account, a sort of just-so story, of the process we primates underwent that eventually led to our highly developed brains becoming capable of advanced emotions, sophisticated language, and so on. To say however, that this process created beauty, goodness or even truth, reducing them to simple psychology, is to extend evolution beyond its realm and to position a working, factually-based theory outside its expertise of methodology. To posit evolution as a psychological explanation for the existence of these fundamental universals is to not do science, but to do ideology.
The irony in all of this is that the Western world has become a paradox. Our religions are now more secular than they’ve ever been and our secularity is more religious than the most devout atheist is willing to admit. Secularity is both a myth and the status quo. Religiosity has become a sham. The believers have demoted God to a being who discovers the concept of chairness … just like us! The secular have promoted humanity to the status of gods and in the process created the transcendent nature of humanness ex nihilo. Both are chasing meaning in the divine and both are failures.
In the end, there are two options. Either the meaning of life is parsed somewhere in the maze of everything I have stated thus far. Or it is found singularly and abstractly in the mathematical summation of written paragraphs above (and below) compiling this probably incoherent, rambling blog post.
Take your pick.