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Naturalism and the Meaning of Life 11 May 2007

Posted by Todd in American Pragmatism, Biology, Cognitive Science, Cultural Sociology & Anthropology, Religion.

Many people who lose their religion or who through education have to radically change their world view find that they are afloat without mooring. The cognitive dissonance leads to a time of searching for something new. I read recently (can’t find the original, sorry) where a theologian said something to the effect that even if we know scientifically that there is no god, it doesn’t change the experiences that make us look for a god in the first place. We still experience awe, wonder, confusion, love in the face of our daily lives. What do those experiences mean?

One of the things that cognitive scientists always insist on is that we can scientifically understand the how and why of qualia (the phenomenological experience of sensing, thinking, feeling), but it doesn’t change the fact that they are qualia. In other words, we still have to figure out (because we have overly large brains) what the qualia *mean*. (I like Antonio D’Amasio on this point.)

I’m not an anti-reductionist, and I do not argue that the meaning discussions are or should be separate from the scientific ones. My social science is naturalistic (which is that social theory and research must account for the research and theory of other sciences (I would also argue the inverse, but since I’m not an ethologist, i have less of a stake in the inverse debate). But naturalism actually leaves us with that pesky problem of meaning:

The need for meaning is generated by our evolved brains and is an evolutionary adaptation that has made us the most successful (and dangerous) species on the planet. [Some argue that our need for cognitive meaning is an unintentional side effect (an evolutionary spandrel) of our cognitive, problem-solving, time-projecting brains).  So scientifically, we are beginning to understand why our brains need meaning and how our brains produce meaning; and social scientifically I can even explain why a particular individual or a group produces a particular meaning in a particular time and place. Combining social science with biology (biologists here need to take social science more seriously), I can even evaluate whether or not a particular meaning is adaptive, maladaptive, or a spandrel (i.e., neutral).

But I can’t use science to tell me what it *should* mean. On the other hand, I believe that scientific mindset can/must be used in our cultural conversations about what meanings we chose. In other words, we should be asking ourselves, what kind of world and society do we create when we believe X or Y? We have the ability as humans to evaluate our meanings and reject, modify or change them out. We need to do so more carefully. Since we know, for example, the general geological history of the planet and where it came from, our discussions of “god” must necessarily change. Etc.

Discussing the meaning of life is a defining characteristic of being human. Most of us settle on an answer early, usually adopted from our parents and society, and cling to it throughout our lives. The modern world, at least in industrialized societies, makes that incredibly difficult. Evolutionarily, it looks like our brains are designed to figure out what “works” in our environment and stick to it; changing world views is difficult, becuase having a world view that “works” in a given environment is adaptive.

The trick is finding the new meaning or adapting our old ones to our new knowledge of the world as it is, as that knowledge develops, in such a way that our lives still feel meaningful and fulfilling.



1. C. L. Hanson - 13 May 2007

I’ve been thinking about this same question since it’s been showing up a lot lately: is the search for meaning adaptive or is it a spandrel?

I’d been kind of viewing it as a spandrel by the following reasoning: natural selection has ensured you have a strong will to survive, and being conscious of your desire to survive makes you want to justify it to yourself and others. (I touched on this a little in my post about death.)

At the same time, I think religion may be an adaptive solution (here I use “adaptive” to mean increasing the likelihood of seeing your DNA represented in the next generation). I think there are many reasons why it is adaptive, but I’ll just throw out one that I haven’t seen in the discussions I’ve read on the subject: convincing people of a rosy afterlife (especially based on rewarding good behavior) may increase one’s willingness to take deadly risks that may increase one’s social/economic position or that of one’s kin.

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