How Does Meaning and Purpose Emerge in a Mechanistic Universe?

See here for the Finnish version: Mistä tarkoitus ja merkitys syntyy mekanistisessa maailmankaikkeudessa?


People have always tried to explain the world on the basis that things have and purpose meanings in and of themselves. This is still common, but in a sense, the best explanations nowadays are different: the theories of natural science explain everything as a result of natural law, mere events without meaning. Things do not happen in order that some end be reached, nor on a physical level out of anyone’s willing it, but rather following from each other by certain rules for which science recognises no maker. Justice, for example, is in no way contained in the laws of the universe, moral values cannot be measured, and beauty is indeed in the eye of the beholder. No ultimate purpose for the human kind has been written down anywhere. We just happen to be here. Bare facts contain nothing meaningful.

How does even the sense of the world being meaningful fit into this picture?

Let’s start at the beginning. The various incomprehensible details of the Big Bang are not relevant here. What matters is the conceptual starting point: The universe contains “stuff”, matter and radiation and such, and that behaves according to certain natural laws. The laws are presumably immutable and the same everywhere, but the stuff within the universe is placed in practice randomly. The laws are also relatively simple, but their consequences in conjunction with systems containing complicated configurations of stuff can be complicated. In addition, the laws have consequences that are not laws of nature as such, but which occur repeatedly in different but similar combinations of stuff. For example, the law of gravity (which is of course a simplification according to modern physics, but it’s close enough to true for this example) merely states that some objects, those with mass, attract other such objects with a certain force. However, from this repeatedly follow the same  more complicated things, such as that on a large scale, matter tends to coalesce into spheres and spinning discs. From this, of course, along with other laws, follows the creation of stars and solar systems. It doesn’t take any separate law of nature about stars forming to explain this, as it follows from the simpler laws.

In addition to the laws of nature, the universe obeys the laws of logic and mathematics. We can imagine what it would mean if laws of nature were different, but when it comes to  these other laws, the very thought of their changing or not holding true is incomprehensible. Without them, nothing would follow from the laws of nature either. From them follow (similarly as from the laws of nature) some obvious principles the effects of which can be observed in several totally different contexts within the universe. These include, for example, the possibility of supervenience, which means that a system as a whole can have properties that none of its parts have, which is in fact what we’re talking about here all the time; and chaos and complexity, which are both examples of it. In addition, they include something which I might call the steady-state principle, which is simply: if any system comes to be in a state that maintains itself (in other words, in which it will stay), it will stay in that state. A tautological principle indeed, how else would it follow from logic anyway, but it still has important consequences and applications.

One of the ways the steady-state principle manifests is life.

Life has apparently emerged from chemical reactions. Chemical phenomena are behaviour of matter that follows from the physics of particles a bit like the formation of solar systems does from gravity. Starting with only a few elementary particles that react to each other in certain ways, we get combinations of particles that react in new ways still based on the previous, and yet again the universe gets more complex. In chemistry, we run into different atoms and the even more various molecules made of them reacting in different ways as they encounter each other.

Getting to life from this point is apparently no easy matter, but then, it had an unimaginably long time to happen on the early planet Earth. On the other hand, it doesn’t sound like such a big deal on paper, explained simply, when you know the underlying principles. So, we have a situation where the young Earth is stewing by itself, its surface containing all kinds of chemicals that were born through who knows what reactions. For life to get started, all it takes is this: a chemical is randomly born with the ability to replicate itself by turning the surrounding stuff into its likeness. Maybe this is so unlikely that it will take a hundred million years for it to happen, but as said, that kind of time was available for it. After this point, it’s no longer about pure chance. This prototypical life-form has an inbuilt capacity (or imperative) to replicate itself — all of it once again according to natural laws, but without the laws themselves specifying anything about (without their complete description requiring any mention of) self-replicating things. In addition, as long as it does not always reproduce itself perfectly but usually does, it follows from this that its offspring occasionally differs from it, and theirs in turn match their parents, but not always. This is what leads to natural selection.

Natural selection is a special case of the steady-state principle. It is likewise tautological: those individuals who survive to breed have offspring, passing on their traits. Coincidence always plays a part in what individuals come to survive, but those better adapted to surviving in their environment are more likely to survive, and when there are great numbers of individuals, the “better” features start to accumulate. This follows automatically as soon as we have reproduction, threats to it, heredity, and alteration.

There are only guesses as to what the first chemical reproducers may have been like. In any case, they must have at some point developed for themselves a shell or something similar that was no longer part of the molecule (or whatever) responsible for the multiplication, in other words carrying no hereditary information, but which was nevertheless produced around itself by the multiplicator. From here, we can already conceptually (though concretely there were presumably many steps) get to single-celled organisms which have a separate genetic code in DNA or RNA moelcules among other different parts, and some of which then at some point join together so intimately that they became many-celled organisms, reproducing as units of several cells, each cell in an organism having the same genes. And that brings us nearly to where we are now, as we are organisms like this too, not in that sense different from the more primitive ones.

What all this means for the current argument is that we, like all other organisms, exist because of the rules of life and natural selection. The universe as such has no observable aim or intention, but life is a phenomenon that acts as if it itself has one. Life exists for the reason that when a self-sustaining process happened to emerge, it sustained itself. And all life that exists now exists because it has survived, and that’s why all of it has in many ways a special tendency to survive and propagate its line. It really is as if the “purpose” of living beings were to survive to breed.

Based on this, some short-sighted thinkers claim that our purpose as human beings is just to survive and to breed. Anything but. This story has not quite reached our situation yet.

Let us look at life under the pressure of natural selection again. Selective pressure favours traits that one way or another cause the organism to avoid situations that might harm it and try to get into ones where it may feed or breed and suchlike. This particularly applies to beings capable of autonomous movement. It is possible to cause such “behaviour” in simpler beings, but more complicated systems are capable of reacting more adaptably, which has led to the evolution of a nervous system and then brain for some beings. At some point, sentience, inner experience, enters the picture. Pleasure guides the being towards “good” things and pain keeps it away from “bad” things. More refined regulation of behaviour yet emerges with the addition of actual emotions, which are capable of motivating behaviour in other ways besides simple seeking and avoidance. Psychologists say that just this is the evolutionary function of emotions.

By the time we get to humans, there has naturally been much more development still in brains and the ability to think. By the time we get to modern-day humans, there has also been an immense amount of cultural development, making even our single minds that much more complex. We get to the point where some stop to think whether anything really matters. This means questioning the automatic habit of treating matters as meaningful. But at what point did this habit emerge?

The essential point is caring about things. As soon as evolution starts to influence the behaviour of animals in new ways by creating pain, pleasure and emotions in their inner experience, these creatures start to care about things. A non-sentient creature may avoid danger automatically, but a sentient one doing the same thing motivated by its sensations experiences the situation as something, in this case negative and perhaps, say, scary; whereby it’s valuating the thing in its mind, in other words cares about it. On a higher level of thinking or at least feeling, we care about things when the mere thought of their presence or absence (or existence, etc.) affects us and we feel a desire to act accordingly, such as to alleviate another’s pain or right a moral wrong. And this is really to say that these things have meaning for us. So in a way, meaning has emerged as a result of the combination of the pressure to survive imposed by natural selection and the emergence of consciousness.

Someone could now say that this isn’t real meaning or purpose that I’m talking about, only coincidence. This is not so. You could for example say that we’re missing meaning from the start, some manner of plan that guarantees us a purpose in life. The question I posed, however, was where meaning comes from, so of course my starting point did not involve a ready meaning. Put differently, my intention was to explain the nature of meaning, and no real explanation can contain the thing being explained as a component, as that would render the explanation circular and vacuous. Recall that it would be no true explanation to say that God just contained meaning from the start.

Meaning is meaning for a subject. Otherwise, it’s just an empty word. We create meaning for ourselves — at first through no will of our own, purely through our nature, but later possibly also through our own choices. The important thing is that we care about things; we must take this into account in our lives, and without it, we couldn’t even have a will or self as now. But we, the beings that care, are but one phenomenon in the universe. The world contains meaning only to the extent that we can bring some into it. There is no providence that ensures that things go well for us or that we will experience our existence as meaningful. On the other hand, there just is no such thing as meaningfulness above and independent of our experience of meaningfulness. There isn’t even a conceivable, coherent concept of meaning compared to which the one I present is lacking. It may simply feel as if it is so for the reason that, when analysed, meaning may not feel the same as the unexamined concept or experience of meaningfulness.

In the end, all we can say is this: The universe has not always contained meaning, and it’s not a thing that is part of mere matter, nor is it a law of nature as such. But now it does exist, to some extent in living things, more in sentient animals, and most of all in ones like we, who are even capable of recognising it as a distinct concept. There is no rulebook of the universe that would help us to always live our lives right. But nevertheless, we exist, as beings who care about things, and therefore we must act in some way in the world to further our interests. How to do that is up to us to figure out. There is no predetermined correct answer. We do not have, say, a duty based on natural selection to breed. Natural selection is nothing but a neutral event, so why should we have duties towards it? What duties we may have and towards what, that’s up to us to determine based on something else. Something that does matter. But that’s another topic.

When and if we understand where we and the meaningfulness of our lives have come from, we also understand that from then on, the rest is up to us.

Sama suomeksi.


2 thoughts on “How Does Meaning and Purpose Emerge in a Mechanistic Universe?

  1. […] How Does Meaning and Purpose Emerge in a Mechanistic Universe? ( […]

  2. […] How Does Meaning and Purpose Emerge in a Mechanistic Universe? ( […]

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