Thursday, October 10, 2013

Scientific Optimism, Techno-Utopianism and the Meaning of Life

Robert McCall the Prologue and the Promise

Historically, the possibility of true meaning in life has been tied to the religious worldview. That is to say: meaning has only been thought possible if there is a supernatural realm in which we can achieve eternal salvation, or from which a divine being bestows meaning upon our mortal human lives. With their rejection of supernaturalism, and its associated religious doctrines, naturalists are forced to abandon this conception of meaning.

But where does that leave them? Two options seem to arise: (i) they can embrace the possibility of meaning without the supernatural; or (ii) they can reject the possibility of meaning outright. Though the former option is, for many, more welcoming than the latter, it is still typically thought to require some re-orientation or re-conceptualisation of what meaningful life is: wholly naturalistic meaning is possible, but it is deflationary, and somehow less than supernaturalistic meaning. Thus are told we have to “create our own meaning” or that we have to “make do with worldly goods”. I have experimented with such deflationist views myself in the past.

But maybe there is no need for naturalists to be so deflationary when it comes to meaning? Dan Weijers makes this argument in his recently-published article “Optimistic Naturalism: Scientific Advancement and the Meaning of Life”. There, Weijers presents a novel, wholly naturalistic view of meaning, that blends contemporary techno-utopianism with classic philosophical debates about the meaning of life, to produce a robust, inflationary theory of meaning.

In the remainder of this post, I want to outline Weijers’s view, and subject it to some (mild) scrutiny. I break the discussion down into three parts. First, I offer a taxonomy of possible views about meaning in life. Second, I discuss two critiques of meaning within the naturalist worldview (which are explicitly mentioned by Weijers). And third, I examine Weijer’s view and the argument he presents in its favour, evaluating its premises as I go.


1. Meaning in Life: A Taxonomy of Views
There are several families of views about meaning in life. In his article, Weijers spends a good deal of time going over them. I’ll follow suit here. This will be familiar territory to anyone whose read my previous entries on the philosophy of meaning, but repetition can be useful.

As Weijers sees it, views about meaning in life break down into two overlapping taxonomies. The members of the first taxonomy have already been highlighted in the opening paragraphs to this post. They are:

Supernaturalism: Meaning in life requires the existence of some supernatural realm or supernatural beings. The classic example coming from Christian theology which argues that meaning is a function of both God (a supernatural being) and everlasting life in heaven (a supernatural realm).
Naturalism: Meaning in life (only) requires the existence of a natural realm and natural entities. Most modern, secular, theories of meaning belong to this family.
Nihilism: Meaning in life is not possible. This view comes in two distinct flavours: (i) naturalistic nihilism, which holds that meaning is not possible because there is no supernatural realm or being; and (ii) total nihilism, which holds that meaning is not possible no matter what the ultimate structure of reality is (i.e. whether it be wholly natural or whether it contain some supernatural elements).

The second taxonomy of views is more concerned with the person whose life it is and the conditions they must satisfy in order to live a meaningful life. The schools of thought within this taxonomy tend to presuppose that meaning is possible; they just differ in terms of the conditions that must be met in order for an individual life to be deemed meaningful. They can be consistent with supernaturalism or naturalism:

Subjectivism: In order to live a meaningful life, an individual must simply attain some subjective state, e.g. fulfil their desires, experience conscious pleasure, satisfy their interests etc.
Objectivism: In order to live a meaningful life, an individual must satisfy some objective conditions, e.g. they must produce morally valuable outcomes, or produce aesthetically valuable art etc.
Hybridism: In order to live a meaningful life, an individual must satisfy some set of objective and subjective conditions, e.g. they must be consciously fulfilled by producing morally valuable outcomes.

In a previous series, I looked at the problems with wholly subjectivist theories, and at a defence of a wholly objectivist one. My own personal feeling is that hybridist theories are most likely to be correct. So I think that the combination of subjective fulfillment and objective worthiness is what is needed to live a truly meaningful life. Weijers seems to concur insofar as the theory he defends belongs to the (naturalistic) hybridist camp. But as noted in the introduction, theories within this camp are often thought to be deflationary. Why is this?


2. The Naturalist Malaise
A predominant theme in existentialist literature and film is the gloominess and despondency that accompanies the naturalistic worldview. The view shared by many authors (and many auteurs) is that once we embrace the natural world and reject God, our lives lose the sheen they once had. What is it that provokes this reaction? Weijer looks at two concerns.

The first has to do with finitude. If we are nothing but natural beings then our lives are finite. We get about 80 years on this earth (give or take) and then that’s it: we shuffle off the mortal coil and slip into oblivion. All our projects and plans, our hopes and aspirations, our victories and achievements, effectively die with us. What’s more, it’s not just our lives that are finite, the planet upon which we live, and the universe in which we reside, is slowly winding-down to oblivion too. In a couple of billion years, our planet will be no more, and a few billion years after that the universe will go pass through its “heat death” (meaning it will no longer be able to sustain life, though something may continue to exist indefinitely). Whatever way we look at it, nothing we say or do will last forever. Many people find this to be a wholly disheartening fact (Weijers specifically cites Tolstoy as a proponent of this view, and Tolstoy’s realisation of finitude as being the reason why he slipped back into Christianity).

The second concern has to do with absurdity. This can be linked to finitude, but it is somewhat distinct. The classic exponent of the Absurd is Thomas Nagel, whose work on this topic I have covered before (LINK). Absurdity arises, for Nagel, when there is a persistent and inescapable discrepancy between aspiration and reality: between what wish to be the case, and what is really the case. Nagel argues that such a discrepancy arises in human life. As he sees it, we constantly strive to pursue projects and plans of unquestionable worth or merit. That is our hope. But the problem is that we can always step back from our petty human projects and plans and question their worth. This renders our lives absurd.

Most naturalist theories have tended to embrace the challenge of finitude and the challenge of absurdity. In other words, they have tended to accept that our lives are finite and that our projects and plans are constantly open to question, but have tried to argue that meaning is possible nonetheless. Weijers tries to go one better. He tries to offer a naturalistic account of meaning that directly confronts the twin challenges of finitude and absurdity.


3. Scientific Optimism and Techno-Utopianism: A Viable Pathway to Meaning in Life?
Weijers’s case for a robust, inflationary form of naturalistic meaning can be expressed a simple argument:


  • (1) If we can be subjectively fulfilled by actions with infinite consequences, then we can live lives of true meaning (without succumbing to finitude or absurdity).
  • (2) Continual scientific and technological progress might allow for our actions to have infinite consequences in a wholly natural universe.
  • (3) We can be subjectively fulfilled by such actions.
  • (4) Therefore, continual scientific and technological progress might allow us to live lives of true meaning.


This will probably seem a little odd, so let’s go through it step-by-step. The first premise states the general conditions that Weijer thinks must be satisfied in order to live a truly meaningful live. The conditions are hybridist in nature. One of them refers to an objective state of affairs — namely: that our actions have infinite consequence — the other to a subjective state of affairs — namely: we must be fulfilled by those actions (find them pleasurable, satisfying etc.). The second premise holds that scientific optimism allows for the objective condition (infinite consequence) to be satisfied in a wholly natural universe. The third premise claims that we can indeed be subjectively fulfilled by actions of infinite consequence. The conclusion then follows, though it is modest: if scientific optimism is a credible stance, life could be truly meaningful.

Now let’s look at each premise in more depth, starting with the first. Is it really true to say that actions of infinite consequence are sufficient for meaning? [Note: Weijers means something like “everlasting” or “eternally recurrent” by the use of the term “infinite]. Weijers defends it by going back to the worries outlined above. He claims that if our actions have infinite consequence then, obviously, they cannot be challenged by the likes of Tolstoy for being merely temporary or ephemeral. And, similarly, he argues that they cannot be challenged by the likes of Nagel because no matter how “far” we step back from them they will still have significance. They will always and everywhere be judged worthwhile.

I’m a little bit sceptical about this. I’m not sure, for starters, that infinite consequences of either the everlasting or recurrent types is sufficient for meaning. I hate to do this, but I’m going to appeal to the example of Sisyphus to illustrate my point. Sisyphus, as we know, was condemned by the Gods to roll a boulder up a hill for eternity. His actions, therefore, are of infinite consequence: they will repeatedly influence the causal structure of reality. But surely they are not meaningful? Certainly, for many his life is the epitome of a meaningless one. Likewise, couldn’t one perform actions that are of trivial infinite consequence but are nevertheless insufficient for meaning? If I move one pebble on the road tomorrow, and the universe continues to exist forever, then, in a very trivial and indirect way, my actions will have infinite consequences. But they are hardly sufficient for meaning. Weijers seems to be aware of this problem, and he rectifies it by insisting that the actions must be of infinite consequence for “life”, but I’m not sure that even that is enough. Sisyphus’s actions are of infinite consequence for his life, but they are still not meaningful. The solution here might be to say only actions that give rise to infinitely valuable consequences are sufficient for meaning. But then I would worry that is the value of the actions, not their infinitude that is doing all the work.

Other things strike me about Weijers’s defence of the infinite consequence condition too. One thing is that his specification of the condition avoids any appeal to immortality. In other words, he thinks that your actions must have infinite consequence in order for you to achieve true meaning, but that you don’t have to be around to appreciate those infinite consequences. That’s interesting to me because it means his view will be unappealing to those insist that immortality is a precondition for meaning (which would include a good number of scientific optimists and techno-utopians). But maybe that condition could just be added in and our stance of scientific optimism modified so as to include some appeal to death-defeating technologies. More problematic is the fact that the infinite consequence condition doesn’t really avoid Nagel’s Absurdity test. Indeed, that is one of the key points about Nagel’s account of absurdity: it is still possible to call into question that value of actions with infinite consequences. Nagel’s account doesn’t just endorse naturalistic nihilism, it endorses total nihilism: it holds that absurdity is unavoidable, no matter what your worldview. This is something that Steve Maitzen has illustrated in his discussion of theism and the meaning of life. (It should be noted that I have criticised Nagel’s test in the past.

So much for premise one. What about premise (2)? The problem with the premise is that it directly contradicts the scientific picture of the world that I outlined earlier in this post. Remember, according to the current models, the universe itself is a finite entity, one that is slowly winding down to oblivion. So even if we do manage to live longer, more consequential lives, and even if we do manage to escape our doomed planet, we will only do so for a few billion (or rather a sexdecillion) years: we will never achieve the infinite consequences to which Weijers appeals.

Weijers responds by highlighting the defeasibility of that scientific model of the universe. There are other “live” theories about the fate of the cosmos that allow for infinite consequence. For example, Eternal Inflation holds that new universes (or “areas” of the universe) can “bubble off” from the current one. We just need to find some way to create such bubbles and transfer over to them. This is a significant scientific and technological challenge, to be sure, but this is where “optimism” comes into play. The work of authors such as Michio Kaku and Ray Kurweil (both of whom are mentioned by Weijers) hints tantalising at the possibility of advanced human-machine intellects and advanced technologies that are almost within our grasp and that might give us what we need. Some people think these technologies are literally just around the corner, but we don’t them to be for Weijers’s theory to work. Purely linear, incremental improvement in science and technology is all that is required. The heat death of the universe is a long way away, and we only need the technology in place before that happens.

My problem with this is that it is a little bit too optimistic. Sure, Kaku and Kurzweil could be right, and so could Eternal Inflation, but they could also be wrong. To render a theory of meaning beholden to unknown scientific facts in this manner seems far too fragile for my liking. Furthermore, I’d worry that the need for optimism would be no better than the blind faith of the religious: it would make us unwilling to face unpleasant facts, and willing to ignore evidence that suggested that the universe was finite.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for techno-optimism. But for some reason I find the existentialist willingness to work within the (present) realities of death and finitude much more admirable than the utopian leap of faith that Weijers theory seems to command.

That leaves us with premise (3). I have relatively little to say about this, except to point out that Weijers clarifies the subjective condition of meaning in the following manner. Instead of holding that it is enough if a person is subjectively fulfilled for any reason whatsoever, he holds that the person must, at least in part, be fulfilled because they know that what they are doing will have infinite consequences. So, for example, the scientist who invents the inflation-manipulating-machine that allows us to continue life in a new universe must be fulfilled (partly) by the fact that he knows that this invention will have everlasting significance. I find this to be a plausible constraint. Indeed, I suspect that any hybridist theory of meaning will require the subjective and objective conditions of meaning to join-up in this manner.


4. Conclusion
To sum up, Weijers has presented us with a novel theory of true meaning in life. The theory is wholly naturalist, and yet not deflationary. It holds that we can achieve great meaning provided that we are subjectively fulfilled by actions of infinite consequence. It also holds that scientific and technological optimism give us some reason to think that our actions could be of infinite consequence.

In this post, I have challenged certain aspects of this theory. While I admire the attempt to knit together the literature on techno-optimism and the meaning of life (something I would like to see done more often), I’m sceptical about its particulars. The infinite consequence condition for meaning seems implausible. At the very least, it would be need to be revised so as to only include a specific sub-class of actions with infinite consequences. And even then it may not be enough. Furthermore, to hitch a theory of meaning to scientific optimism in the manner of Weijers doesn’t sit well with me: I fear it is too fragile and will encourage an unwillingness to face unpleasant facts.

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