04 May 2009

Life is meaningless (but that's OK)

In her article ‘Purpose, Meaning and Darwinism’ published in the January/February 2009 issue of Philosophy Now magazine, Dr Mary Midgley insists that, contrary to certain interpretations of Darwin’s theory of natural selection that paint biological history as a purposeless, random process, there is indeed meaning and purpose to life. And Midgley isn’t just saying that life has meaning from a human perspective. No, she believes that all of existence has an intrinsic purpose, and that “purposiveness is not a peculiarly human trait… it is one we share with many other animals.” Purposiveness – as defined by Midgley – is “persistent, systematic striving till a particular end is achieved.” Therefore, a person, animal or even a plant demonstrates purposiveness when striving to reach a specific goal, whether gaining a job promotion, escaping from a trap or (as Midgley provides as an example) in the case of seeds, growing around and through paving stones, “lift[ing] them out of place, if necessary.”

Hang on. Do plants actually show purpose when they grow towards the light by any means necessary? Or is it rather the case that they seek out the light because millions of years of essentially blind, purposeless evolution resulted in certain plant genes building the components conducive to and dictating photosynthesis? To say that a plant has a purpose in growing towards the light is to impose the very anthropocentric view that Midgley criticises when she writes:

People who claim that there is no purpose in the natural world seem to conceive purpose as something peculiar to humans – a cultural construct we have invented; a fancy we anthropomorphically project onto neutral, directionless matter.

I think Midgley is mistaken to assume that purposive action need not be intentional, that is action directed by a conscious will. This allows her to say that a plant shows purpose in growing towards light. But the idea of 'purpose' is first and foremost a human conception. Only we humans have evolved to the requisite level of intelligence and self-awareness to construct teleology – the idea that all things ultimately have a purpose or were designed for such. And we then lather this conception on to other ‘neutral, directionless matter’.

Teleology derives from human psychology; we need meaning, so we say that there is meaning. Yet as far as the naked facts are concerned, life, the universe and everything just is. The existentialist philosophers were correct to point out that we, each single one of us, are the creators of our own individual meaning. And I either share a common meaning with others, or I propose, impose and otherwise propagate my meaning in order to keep at bay the terror that I, and I alone, am the only one who has my particular sense of life’s meaning. Teleology is an exercise in fear-evasion.

Midgley submits the concept of ‘good and evil’ as evidence supporting a teleological view of life. She argues that it is “biologically odd” to say that the universe contains no good and no evil because

…this universe does, after all, contain many living organisms, including ourselves, and for any living organism some things are necessarily evil, others are good: each species has its own natural needs, for which some things are useful, others harmful.

Yes, some things are useful to life and some are harmful. But to label them as good and evil is to engage in a human evaluation of what are actually natural, impartial phenomena. An erupting volcano is ‘evil’ insofar as it destroys human homes and lives. But in a context empty of human presence – and thus human evaluation – such a phenomenon is no more evil than the Great Red Spot, a massive anticyclonic storm on Jupiter roughly the size of three Earths.

In River Out of Eden, the biologist Richard Dawkins writes:

In a universe of blind forces and physical replication, some people are going to get hurt, others are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference… DNA neither cares nor knows. DNA just is. And we dance to its tune.

Dawkins’s interpretation of Darwin's ideas is one that Midgley takes issue with. I’m sure there are many others like her who find such implications of evolutionary theory discomfiting. But to say that there is essentially no overarching purpose, no grand meaning to life isn’t to say that there cannot, or should not, be individually crafted direction in our own lives. The existentialists were right (though their observations of the ‘absurdity’ of life are just that, observations as subjective opinions. Life is neither absurd nor unabsurd; it just is).

Life may be meaningless, but my life, and your life, can have whatever meaning we each choose to grant it. So long as we have this creative freedom - and its corresponding responsibility - the universe can remain meaningless. But not for me, and hopefully not for you.


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