Science to Live By: Science and The Meaning of Life

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“…and books that told me everything about the wasp, except why.”

– Dylan Thomas, A Child’s Christmas in Wales 

Carmen set her coffee cup down on the kitchen table with a flair exuding confident authority.  “Why should I give you that much power over my life?!!!”

I just had asked her–as we were finishing breakfast–if she agreed with professor E. O. Wilson’s assertion that the origin and meaning of human existence “must be taken from the hands of theologians and philosophers and put into the hands of scientists.” I was pleased with her resolute pronouncement. We are in deep trouble if we accede this much power to scientists.

E. O. Wilson is one of America’s premier and most honored biologists and naturalists. During his distinguished 40-year career at Harvard, he founded two distinct scientific fields of study: biodiversity and sociobiology.  Now in his late 80s, he is a Professor Emeritus of Entomology (the study of insects) at Harvard’s Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology; and he is a regular lecturer at Duke University. A prolific and talented author of more than 30 major works, Wilson is a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction. In 2014, he published a book titled The Meaning of Human Existence.

In lieu of philosophy and religion, Dr. Wilson’s asserts in this book and in subsequent interviews that “the explanation of meaning falls to science.” This is necessary not only because philosophy “is a declining and highly endangered academic species,” but more radically, because religious faiths (which in his assessment are merely the products of evolution) are “sources of ceaseless and unnecessary suffering” that are “dragging us down.” “The best thing we could possibly do would be to diminish, to the point of eliminating, religious faiths.”

“Human beings must have an epic, a sublime account of how the world was created and how humanity became part of it.” This claim of Dr. Wilson I can agree with. Where we part company is when he goes on to say “the way to achieve our epic that unites human spirituality, instead of cleaving it, is to compose it from the best empirical knowledge that science and history can provide.” Dr. Wilson believes “The unfolding of history is obedient only to the general laws of the universe.  Each event is random yet alters the probability of later events.” These “accidents of history, not the intentions of a designer, are the source of meaning.”

Astonishingly, Wilson believes the meaning of human existence will be revealed by empirical knowledge disclosed from five scientific disciplines: evolutionary biology, paleontology, archaeology, brain science, and artificial intelligence/robotics. This is nonsense.

Meaning involves so much more than finding out how, in a mechanical sense, the world was created; or discovering when humanity, through evolution, became to be a part of it. Meaning entails value: what is good, what is beautiful, what is right and just, what we love and hold dear, what we worship as sacred.

Additionally, a meaningful life entails expressing creativity and exercising our free will. If what Wilson says is true–that the unfolding of history is obedient only to the general laws of the universe—moral choice and freedom of thought and action are illusory. If his premise is correct, then the historical fact of his book The Meaning of Human Existence being published in 2014 is, in actuality, a meaningless artifact arising from the long chain of cause-and-effect proceedings of matter and energy that mindlessly obey the general laws of physics and chemistry.

Science To Live By is offered to you as a public service of the non-profit Floriescence Institute. The mission of the Institute is to promote the art and science of human flourishing in the 21st century.  The floriescent worldview that guides the work of the Institute is built around three pillars—science, ethics and aesthetics. A central tenet of the floriescence framework is: science provides information and knowledge; ethics and aesthetics assign value and meaning; woven all together they yield wisdom.

Normally, I write to empower you, dear reader, with information and insights revealed through science. Today, I write to alert you to what science cannot do.

Philosophy at its root, at its core, means the love of, the friend of, wisdom (philo = love, friend; sophia = wisdom). An important aspect of befriending wisdom is knowing and accepting limitations. Theoretical and empirical knowledge obtained from science and technology lack the wherewithal to discern its meaning and impact on your life and mine. Citizens from all walks of life, including theologians, philosophers, artists, poets and musicians, must join in the conversation with scientists if we as a society are to discern the meaning and relevance of information obtained from the sciences.

I also write to warn of its allure, and to be on guard against those who have fallen under its spell. The power and success of science and technology are real, but they can masquerade as being omnipotent. If we submit our consciences to these enticements, we will become weary of life and make ourselves (and the planet) ill. Walt Whitman’s poem comes to mind in this regard. (Carmen and I met in Walt Whitman High School in 1968, so this poet has held a special place in our lives for a long time.)

When I heard the learn’d astronomer,

When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,

When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,

When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,

How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,

Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,

In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,

Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

And finally, I write to counterbalance the widely held worldview personified by prominent scientists such as E. O. Wilson who espouse that we are not answerable “to any power but our own.” I ask how can we properly exercise power if we are only accidental cogs in the mechanistic, materialistic, non-moral wheel of life?

I close this essay, as I began, with a quote from Dylan Thomas’ poetic telling of a boy’s remembrances of Christmas in Wales a century ago. Gathering round the fire at this season of the year, listening, often with eyes closed, to a recording of Thomas in his own voice bringing his story of Jim, Dan, Jack, Mrs. Prothero and the fire brigade to life again is a treasured family tradition. If Wilson had his way and all religious life became extinct, even gifts as simple as this would vanish under the iron hand of science.

Looking through my bedroom window, out into the moonlight and the unending smoke-colored snow, I could see the lights in the windows of all the other houses on our hill and hear the music rising from them up the long, steady falling night. I turned the gas down, I got into bed. I said some words to the close and holy darkness, and then I slept.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Dear Dr. Nies,
    With respect, I do not agree with your conclusion. In his book, “The Social Conquest of Earth” Dr. Wilson wrote of the role of science, and the corrosive effect of religion to human advancement. His observation, however, about the importance of science in helping us understand nature was coupled with a key distinction. He said that science helps us reveal that which we do not yet understand, but that the humanities make our species truly unique. We add value to the cosmos through our writings, paintings, music, sculpture and athleticism. I celebrate the Crozet Arts as new and wonderful additions to our wellbeing as much as I appreciate our scientific inquiry so thoughtfully advanced by Dr. Wilson. I find comfort in a good book or a sweet melody as I prepare for sleep.
    Doug Bates

  2. Dear Doug,

    Thank you for your thoughtful comments. Regarding my final conclusion that if Professor Wilson had his way and, in the name of science, all religions were eliminated, then there would be no religious festivals, and the family gatherings, music and food and gifts often associated with them. Poets such as Dylan Thomas would have no memories of this sort to write about and to share with those, such as myself, who find meaning in his art. This conclusion I take as self-evident.

    I share with you in celebrating the contributions the humanities bring to our well-being. My quarrel is with Professor Wilson who has said publicly that he wants the meaning of human existence to be put the hands of scientists.

    Our free wills, which lie at the heart of what it means to be human, exist beyond the materialistic ‘cause and effect’ paradigm of science. Science can neither predict with certainty, nor can it prescribe with authority, the choices humans make. Each of us is a unique entity greater than the sum of our inherited biological nature and the history of our social nurture. We each possess a distinct and distinctive personality, moral character and human spirit. Our deep wellsprings of emotions and desires, imaginative creativeness, and our soulful personal essence – continuous in identity yet always changing – influence the choices we make.

    Furthermore, I believe answers to ethical questions that arise from science and the technologies it spawns, questions that impinge upon the value and meaning of life – the use of nuclear weapons, the appropriateness of genetically engineering a superior race of human beings, or building empathetic robots to care for the elderly – must include wisdom from outside the disciplines of science.

    Dirk Nies

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