We Are Stardust - Finding Meaning in the Universe
When I look at the amazing description of the Universe created by science, I find that it is anything but meaningless
I would define “meaning” as something larger than ourselves that gives a sense of purpose and direction to our lives. Having meaning in life is one of the key ingredients of happiness, because for most people a life worth living needs to have purpose in a larger context.
Meaning and ethics
Meaning is also important as a foundation for ethics. Systems of values can be reduced to a few fundamental premises from which codes of ethics can be developed rationally. However, those premises themselves are arbitrary unless they can be referred to some other knowledge, like an understanding of what it means to be human, or a description of the world.
For example, Christianity and Islam base their ethics on the will of God. This is based on the belief that God created the Universe and His will takes priority over anything else. However, this system of ethics falls apart when we question the belief in God, or the morality of submitting to the will of a God that allows suffering.
In Utilitarianism, ethics are based on maximizing happiness and minimizing suffering. This is based on the belief that being happy and avoiding suffering is the ultimate objective of our lives. Similarly, Buddhism makes its ultimate goal the overcoming of suffering by understanding our innermost nature. However, being happy and overcoming suffering look like rather short-sighted goals. We are left wondering: isn’t there anything more to life?
The belief that life is devoid of meaning is called nihilism. According to this view, being happy and avoiding suffering are spurious goals that are themselves devoid of meaning. Therefore, establishing any foundation for ethics on them is also futile. Many people reject nihilism because it leads to a cynical outlook on life in which nothing that we do ultimately makes sense. It leads to its own kind of suffering: the existential angst of believing that our life has no purpose.
A humorous example of the nihilistic and cynical outlook that some people derive from science can be found in The Universe Song, by Monty Python, featured in their movie The Meaning of Life. After listing a bunch of meaningless numbers about the Universe, the song ends by saying:
“So remember, when you’re feeling very small and insecure, How amazingly unlikely is your birth. And pray that there’s intelligent life somewhere out in space, ’Cause there’s bugger all down here on Earth!” Monty Python, The Universe Song
Existentialism says that the only place we can find meaning is in our own lives and in human enterprises. That is, meaning is to be found inside, not outside ourselves. Today this is has become the common belief of most people who reject religion and adopt a value system based on science and rationality. Our cooperative nature, empathy and sense of solidarity make it meaningful for us to strive to improve the lot of our fellow humans.
In politics, socialism makes the attaining of an egalitarian and free society a goal that provides meaning to our lives. Indeed, a utopian society is a goal larger than ourselves, so it can provide purpose and direction to our lives.
Problems with existentialism
However, there are some problems with defining all ethics exclusively on the basis of human happiness and suffering.
Take environmentalism, for example. It can be argued that a good environment is good for humans, so we should strive to improve it. Nevertheless, humans could be perfectly happy if an obscure species of insect or plant goes extinct. And yet our intuition tells us that extinguishing species is wrong and should be avoided, even at a relatively high cost. Environmental laws in the USA and most developed countries are based on that principle.
Another example is science. It is common to argue that scientific research is valuable because it will bring cures for diseases and new devices that would make us happier. But if this was true, then we should stop expending enormous amounts of money sending probes to explore the Solar System and beyond, or doing research on particle physics, because those enterprises don’t do much to cure our suffering or to make us happy. Every scientist secretly knows that we do science primarily for the sake of knowledge itself, not for its application. In fact, scientific knowledge often brings good and bad things: nuclear power and atomic bombs; pharmaceuticals and environmental poisons; the internet and its ability to control our minds; gene therapy and genetic manipulation. For every blessing there is a curse. No wonder that some people feel that we should retreat to a simple, agrarian society without science and technology, or even to being the hunter-gatherers that we were before the Agrarian Revolution. Some even think the world would be better off without any humans at all.
What I am going to argue here is that meaning can be found not just inside us, but also outside in the Universe. Furthermore, this idea is based on scientific knowledge and not on religious belief.
The evolution of everything
If we take a step back and look at what science has shown, we see that the Universe is not a series of random processes. It has been evolving since the Big Bang in a definite direction: an increase in complexity and organization. And this can even be formalized scientifically: the amount of information that we need to describe the Universe has increased over time.
In the beginning, there were just basic particles: photons, electrons, protons, neutrinos, etc. When the Universe cooled enough, electrons and protons got organized into hydrogen atoms. Stars got formed by gravity, and hydrogen turned into helium inside them. Then, as the star aged, hydrogen turned into carbon and the other light atoms of the Periodic Table. Stars exploded into novas and supernovas and collapsed into neutron stars, given birth to the heavier atoms. This stardust floating in space forming nebulae eventually gives to new stars, which now had planets where this new zoo of atoms is collected.
On Earth, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen and a few other atoms organized themselves into living beings. Evolution started, creating more and more life forms. While it is true that evolution does not proceed in any particular direction, it is also true that the algorithm of genetic mutation plus natural selection acts to fill every ecological niche by creating beings of every possible size and shape (Stuart Kaufman, At Home in the Universe). This generates simple life forms, but also large, complex animals. One of them is the human being.
Human’s ace-in-the-hole to win the natural selection game is having a large brain that allows cooperative behavior based on the transfer of information, not only in the present by also across time, from generation to generation. Just like life once appeared, culture shows up as something entirely new. One form of culture is science, with all its wonderful tools to extract and organize information about everything. We become the eyes by which the Universe sees itself.
Among other things, we now know that the Sun is not unique in having planets capable of evolving life. Hence, the same process of evolution: random search for new forms and the eventual appearance of intelligence could have happened elsewhere. Everywhere! Billions of stars playing at the roulette of life and intelligence. How many winners? Probably a lot.
The hierarchy of being
When we look at this whole process we realize that it is organized in the form of a nested hierarchy. By that, I mean that there are several discrete levels of complexity, each one built upon the lower one: physics, chemistry, biology, neuroscience, psychology, sociology. We have a different science to study each level. This is not by caprice, but because each level has its own rules that have to be studied separately and cannot be deduced from the rules of the lower level (Ray Kurzweil, The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology).
This is called emergence: the fact that new laws appear at a certain point in time, which coexist with the laws of the lower level but constitute entirely new phenomena. Thus, the laws of chemistry add novelty to the laws of particle physics. And when life appears, it follows laws that are quite different from the laws of chemistry. And on and on to the laws that govern nervous systems and those that rule human interactions.
What causes emergence? In one view, evolution and other processes that create complexity and self-organization are algorithms: information processing events that follow certain rules of computation to generate an outcome from original conditions (Charles Seife, Decoding the Universe; Seth Lloyd, Programming the Universe).
For example, the algorithm of evolution is:
generate mutations in the DNA;
output them in the phenotype;
test phenotype against the environment;
IF death, discard the mutation;
IF survival, amplify the mutation by reproducing;
Go to step 1 while producing offspring.
This algorithm explores a landscape of all possible shapes of living beings, while natural selection eliminates shapes that are not fit for the environment (Stuart Kaufman, At Home in the Universe, Investigations). In fact, the algorithm is itself the product of early evolution and natural selection. Mutation is not random, as previously suspected, but perfected by natural selection so that some parts to the DNA are more susceptible for mutation than others and there are specific mechanisms to generate genetic variation (Lynn Helena Caporale, Darwin in the Genome).
A meaningful Universe?
What does all this have to do with finding meaning in our lives? Well, we intuitively value the complexity and self-organization that we see in living beings. We have the same admiration for intelligence and culture, which we see as one step above mere life. The fact that the Universe has steadily moved to create life and then ourselves indicates that we are part of a process much larger than ourselves, something truly awe-inspiring.
So it is not just that we are working for the good of Humanity while Humanity in itself has no meaning. Humanity does have meaning because it is part of a larger process encompassing the whole history of the Universe.
Will this process continue in the future, beyond Humanity? Here it is tempting to fall into the heresy of teleology, which is saying that evolution has a particular goal, like producing human beings, or that the Universe has a goal, like producing consciousness or intelligence. This idea has been condemned because goals are something that humans have, not inanimate matter. However, as I argue in another article, agency (doing something to achieve a particular outcome) could be considered a property of living beings. And, looking at the past, it is unavoidable to conclude that the Universe has evolved in the direction of increasing complexity and self-organization and that this has led to the appearance of information-rich organisms and intelligence.
Indeed, what we are doing right now is creating computers that store all our cultural information and also generate information in increasingly larger amounts. Is that the next step of the universal evolution? Are we going to continue to be part of the process, or will we be left behind?
Transhumanism is a modern philosophy that, based on this view of the Cosmos, proposes that we can find meaning in the future development of the human race. It hopes that we will walk hand-in-hand with computers instead of being replaced by them (Ray Kurzweil, The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology). We may be able to do that by linking our brains directly to a computer, perhaps eventually migrating our entire consciousness into a computer.
It is not that the Universe has meaning in itself. Is that we are able to find meaning when we contemplate how the Universe has been evolving to give rise to consciousness, intelligence and culture.
We humans are the ones who can assign value and beauty to things outside ourselves. We look at a crashing wave, at a snow-crested mountain, at a dolphin, and find those things beautiful. Likewise, we consider how stars smash atoms together, how planets are created from clouds of interstellar gas, how life arises and evolves, how consciousness emerges from complex nervous systems, and we are filled with awe.
We do not exist independently of the Cosmos, we are stardust that has gained consciousness. What we do in our lives, the destiny of Humanity, matters because it is part of this amazing cosmic play. We do not know where the Universe will go from here, but somehow we suspect it will very much be worth the ride.