Friday, November 14, 2014

The meaning of life

E. O. Wilson has completely disappointed me in the end.

Entering college, freshmen were asked to read his book The Future of Life, which I thought would be a horrible, sentimental, general plea for saving the environment, a book which can do no one any good because despite how fascinating animals can be, depictions of our vastly differing biomes here on Earth inspire no one to rush out and give up electricity and modern convenience and renounce their cars. Instead, Wilson’s The Future of Life gave us the facts. He gave us facts that as an 18 year old I didn’t understand we could quantify, facts that we had only hoped at and facts that were dismally depressing about the state of our environment. It was inspiring, interesting, clear, well-written. I have recommended it to numerous friends over the years.

A Harvard entomologist and world-renowned ecologist, Wilson is a pretty smart guy. He knows a lot, and importantly he can synthesize and coalesce a lot of technical information into very clear writing. However having just finished reading his most recent book, The Meaning of Human Existence, I would have to say that Wilson’s ability to integrate information and ideas seems not to extend past any discipline that ends with ology.

Throughout the book, Wilson vaguely encourages the humanities, not for any great contribution they have made to human existence but because they represent this particular human condition of bungling through reality with our particular senses and emotions. He notes several times, in fact, that religion and philosophy (which he seems to conflate) sought to explain the universe at one point when there were no structures for scientific study, but now seem to consist of nothing but dogma.

Wilson believes science explains everything. That all we need to know about the universe, about our minds, can be and will be eventually be determined by science. He writes, “The self-contained worldview of the humanities describes the human condition - but not why it is the one thing and not another. The scientific worldview is vastly larger. It encompasses the meaning of human existence - the general principles of the human condition, where the species fits in the Universe, and why it exists in the first place.” He’s right - the humanities and science do have different goals and means of investigation and purviews. And I think he’s right that human existence has been molded by the physical world, by evolution, by the universe, but I’m not sure a study of the physical world, of the universe necessarily points back to human existence.

Here’s the deal, I think science is fascinating. And more than fascinating, I think it’s important work. Our scientific exploration of the natural world is the key to understanding where humans came from, how and why we act in particular ways, how our planet fits into the universe, how medicine can cure ills, and one day how to effectively use resources not only to prevent destroying the planet but perhaps also to equalize the human condition and reduce suffering. But even if neurobiology and cognitive science can one day show that our human quest for meaning in life is located in a certain connection of neurons, a trait related to a particular gene, what then does that say? Science cannot describe how we exist - it can just describe the material conditions of the universe.

I do not believe we should all be scientists. I don’t think we all want to be. Some of us want to explore in different ways. And though I believe scientific discovery is vital, we lived, unhappily or not, for millennia without the knowledge we have today. Modern medicine has been lifesaving, but a new, thinner computer we could live without if we needed to. Every human should be able to think like a scientist, should be able to think critically and understand modern methods and theories and knowledge. We should be able to reflect on science in the humanities, just as science historically has been influenced by philosophy and art. I do not think that perfect scientific knowledge is the only end goal of human existence nor do I believe that it will solve all our problems.

This book was an apologia for E. O. Wilson. As an early contributor to the evolutionary theory of inclusive fitness, decades later he now conclusively puts that theory to rest. And this book contains some remarkable connections described in well-written, easily digestible form concerning the human condition, human behavior, human evolution, and the social nature of several species on Earth. This book is a justification of a man's life's work. The one thing Wilson does not do is provide us something new here. He doesn't address our needs and projections and desires and lives as human beings. He doesn't address our drive for meaning and fulfillment. And while he does explicate how we fit into a larger picture of the Earth and the universe, he does not address the meaning of human existence.

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