The Meaning of Life

I have been a crappy blogger, and I blame real life for getting in the way. (No, that’s not the meaning of life.) I keep meaning to say something more substantial about the BICEP2 controversy — in the meantime check out Raphael Flauger’s talk, Matias Zaldarriaga’s talk (slides), this paper by Mortonson and Seljak, or this blog post by Richard Easther.

At least I have been a productive scientist! One paper on the expected amount of inflation with Grant Remmen, and one on the evolution of complexity in closed systems with Scott Aaronson and Lauren Ouellette (no relation to Jennifer). Promise to blog about them soon.

But not too soon, as I’m about to hop on airplanes again: first for the World Science Festival, then for the Cheltenham Science Festival. (Cheltenham is actually part of the world, but the two festivals are quite different.) Note that at the WSF, our session on Quantum Physics and Reality (with Brian Greene, David Albert, Sheldon Goldstein, and Ruediger Schack, Thursday at 8pm Eastern) will be live-streamed. Maybe the Science and Story event (with Steven Pinker, Jo Marchant, Joyce Carol Oates, and E.L. Doctorow, Thursday at 5:30 Eastern) will be also, I don’t know.

So, in lieu of original content, here is seven minutes of me pronouncing sonorously on the meaning of life. This is from a debate I participated in with Michael Shermer, Dinesh D’Souza, and Ian Hutchinson (not the Greer-Heard Forum debate with William Lane Craig, as I originally thought). I talked about how naturalists find meaning in our finite lives, without any guidance from the outside world.

I had nothing to do with the making of the video, and I have no idea where the visuals are from. It’s associated with The Inspiration Journey group on Facebook.

When I extend an kind of olive branch to believers, I do so in all sincerity. I unambiguously disagree with religious people on matters of fundamental ontology; but I recognize that we’re all just tiny little persons in a very big universe, trying our best to figure things out. And I’m firm in my conviction that we’re making progress.

  1. Wow that last paragraph nearly made me cry! Sean it means so much that there are public voices for science that also display your sensitivity to the lived, human condition.

  2. Joseph Brisendine, your comment is insulting. And says more about your nescience than it does about Sean or scientists. Implied in your comment is that but for Sean’s post it’s common knowledge that scientists are cold, unfeeling, automatons. Hard to believe anyone who reads this blog could be so out of touch.

  3. The question of “The Meaning of Life” is one that puzzles me.

    We’re always asking kids what they want to be when they grow up. Most, but not all, have at least some idea. Some of us stick with those early goals and fulfill childhood dreams; some grow into different goals; and, yes, some wander aimlessly.

    But if you’re old enough to ask the question of “The Meaning of Life” and you still haven’t figured it out…well, either it’s not that important to you, or you seriously need to work on your decision-making skills, or you’re one of those poor souls doomed to wander aimlessly.

    I really don’t get what sort of meaning there is to be had in slavishly following the dictates of a fourth-rate violence-infested Iron Age faery tale anthology, but many obviously do. Their lives; their meanings; their problems. Then again, that they’re the ones most likely to obsess over the question may well indicate that they’re not all that happy with the meaning they’ve chosen for their own lives. Maybe they don’t even understand the decision they’ve made? How sad, should that be the case. At least it’s never too late to pick a new meaning, though the selection generally changes (and often narrows) with the passage of time.



  4. Ben Goren, I think you are trying to make the case that it would be sad if that were the meaning of life, but you are saying that it is sad if someone believes it true. If it happens to be true, it just is true.

    Also I don’t see how your position makes it the meaning. Just because someone creates a meaning for life in their head, it doesn’t mean it is the meaning of life.

  5. Great video Sean – a great ending to an awesome debate. And I also liked your last paragraph quite a bit. Thanks for all of the insight you share.

  6. Somehow the optimism of the video rings hollow when I contemplate my own mortality knowing full well that this is it, this life is the real thing, and not a dress rehearsal for supernatural “realities”.

    I recall the original Cosmos series by Carl Sagan and the various brains produced by evolution: the reptilian brain responsible for territoriality and aggression, the mammal brain responsible for love and affection, the cerebral cortex responsible for abstract thinking. Science and physics are an activity of the cerebral cortex. Religion appeals to the mammal brain however and here lies its mass appeal: it speaks to us about things we deeply long for.

  7. Very stirring Sean.

    However, don’t you agree that there is no meaning or purpose in nature? What exactly do you mean when you say we “create” meaning?

    There’s a movie soon to be released called “The Dance of Reality.” I’ve only seen the preview but I was quite struck by the voice over which advises “You and I have only been memories. Never reality. Something is dreaming us. Give yourself to the illusion. Live!”

    Is that what you meant?


  8. The meaning of life is certainly a very important personal and philosophical question. Regarding Sean’s nicely packaged piece, perhaps the main thing to notice is that it is *not* about the meaning of life. This piece contains several interesting ideas and claims (worth of further discussion) about other matters, but it neither explains Sean’s personal view nor his philosophical view about the meaning of life. Perhaps the only direct reference (toward the end) is that naturalism forces people to seek for themselves the meaning to life and that, while scary, Sean is a firm believer that this is possible.

  9. Our life has deep and cosmic meaning: latest observations and SETI data say that possibly we are the only life form in the small part of the Universe accessible for our observations. The only complex life form in our galaxy and in our Universe, the only (known to us) Universe’s matter attempt to get aware of itself. This creates grand significance and responsibility for us: we are the only bearers of conscious matter and we are responsible for preserving and further development of this life form. We are the only form who can and will (must) transfer biological Homo sapiens to another more appropriate and more stable silicon or carbon environment.

    This is great and holy challenge, possibility and responsibility. No bigger one is possible. If we will manage to pass the contemporary societies problems bottleneck, we, humans, will live forever. We will spread ourselves in a Universe and we will start manage the cosmological processes – create appropriate conditions for conscious matter limitless survival, create other universes. In short, Universe will get conscious and alive.

  10. “… naturalism forces people to seek for themselves the meaning to life and that, while scary, Sean is a firm believer that this is possible.”

    1) The universe has no interest in human kind. We are a collection of atoms that came to “life” after a long, long, period of cosmic evolution. Our atoms obey the laws of physics. We obey the laws of physics. (proof: jump off a bridge) This is not an open question. There is no evidence to the contrary. None.

    2) The universe has no morality. The universe makes no right/wrong judgments. Concepts like love, fear, happiness, quilt, wonder, joy, sadness, poignancy, pathos, and “meaning” exist only in the subjective mind of high order animals such as ourselves. This is not an open question. There is no evidence to the contrary. None.

    3) Therefore, given 1 and 2 above: You are free to give your life whatever meaning you choose. Or not. You can invent your own meaning, or adopt meaning from others. But to go through life asking “what is the meaning of life” is like asking “do I like spinach?” No one can answer that question but you.

    For me 1, 2, and 3 overstate the obvious. And I’ve held this view since the age of seven (i’m now 66). I remember the night I resolved these questions. Never looked back. My failing is to understand how any sober adult can believe otherwise. But clearly many do. Boggles.

  11. Is “meaning” the correct word? It is the commonplace word, I know, and no doubt the right word to engage the attention of the religious, but I think what people are really interested in is control and security. That is, not what does my life “mean” but how can I get some control over and security against random hostile events which threaten it. Under the god hypothesis, this can be done by propitiating the god who is responsible for such events.

    There have been a couple partial successes so far to create synthetic DNA molecules which will work in an existing cell and to create a proto-cell from naturally-occurring substances. Sooner or later a completely artificial life-form will be created. Will that life-form have any more or less meaning than one created by natural evolution or by a hypothetical god?

  12. Dr. Carroll, Thank you for participating in these debates. I know it takes your time away from science and not a lot of people in science want to take the time to debate with the “believers”. Thanks to you, I am going to start calling myself a naturalist instead of an atheist! Might help those with whom I debate these issues from getting so angry with me before I even make one point on my side!

  13. Ben Goren
    I think you are wrong to say “that they’re the ones most likely to obsess over the question.” If they believe in some religion, then they have found the answer. If they believe in Naturalism then they have found the answer. If one has found the answer I don’t believe they would be obsessing over the question. It is the ones who are trying to find the answer that are obsessing, which seems to me to be a very human and normal thing to do, trying hard to find answers.
    What is your reasoning for saying “that they’re the ones most likely to obsess over the question?”

  14. Danial said:

    Ben Goren, I think you are trying to make the case that it would be sad if that were the meaning of life, but you are saying that it is sad if someone believes it true.

    I am pretty sure that what Ben Goren is saying is that the question “What is the Meaning of Life,” is a bad question. As in “not even wrong.” At least in the context that people in the throes of an existential angst yearningly ask it. In that sense there is no Meaning of Life.

    Daniel said:

    Just because someone creates a meaning for life in their head, it doesn’t mean it is the meaning of life.

    In the only context in which “the meaning of life” has any correlation with reality, that is true. What other possible “meaning of life” could you mean? That there is some objective Meaning of Life™? There isn’t a single good reason to suppose that that is probable. Even religiously and philosophically derived answers to “the meaning of life” come from people, whatever they may believe, and acceptance of it happens individually either by conscious decision, or some level of influence from other people.

  15. Thanks for posting this interesting debate with Michael Shermer, Dinesh D’Souza, and Ian Hutchinson. Although the believers’ side did reasonably well, my complaint is that in such debates, eastern non-Abrahamic religions are not represented. These religions (even a small fundamentalist part) do not have any conflict whatsoever with science. They are based on ultimate consciousness and would have done much better in the debate, although personally I do not have any problem with Abrahamic religions. It is impossible to explain these ideas in a short comment. So only thing I can do is to refer to my recent guest blog with a title “Hinduism for physicists”. Interested readers with open minds can find out this by googling. I cannot give a link to it. You might call this a shameless personal promotion!! But there is so much misunderstanding in U.S. about eastern religions that perhaps it is well worth it!

  16. Not even Christians have a good idea, and I am one, although the phrase “Love your neighbor as yourself” seems to apply. In other words trying to make the world a better place for everyone would be a good way to find meaning in life. Every one can do that no matter your occupation or circumstance or beliefs. Little things add up. Science can work for the good of all.

  17. Tony, not even “Love your neighbor as yourself” stands up. Maybe something like ‘Respect boundaries’ would have worked better, despite that we honor that mostly in the breach.

    This thread seems hijacked by the video of Professor Carroll’s contribution to the debate on Christian faithiology. IMO that’s too bad: faithiology is such low-hanging faux fruit.

    Carroll’s post starts with more promise in citing some of the latest critiques of the BICEP2 claims. Those claims, in contrast with where the herd here is headed, involve something potentially real, unquestionably newsworthy, undeniably science, & definitely fruitful.

    I readily confess to ginormous limits to my relative ability to follow technical papers, but the paper by Mortonsen & Seljack strikes me as the most mature expression we can reasonably hope for, pending the BICEP2 team actually publishing a paper (& of course what Planck & planet-based telescopes may report over the next year or so).

    I’d be interested in reading what others took from their paper – particularly Carroll (tho I can think of several sound reasons why, were I in his position, I’d stay mute, for now at least) – but here’s the gist of what I took from it:

    1. BICEP2 has taken up THE most promising approach around;
    2.. the biggest problem with investigating primordial B-mode polarization is galactic dust within the galaxy from where the observations are made;
    3. Planck’s maps, so far, are ambivalent on whether that biggest problem is intractable – i.e. it might be impossible to view the CMB from within any galaxy in a way that isn’t materially compromised by, um, material;
    4. the more we learn about what BICEP2’s been up to, the easier it become to envision, identify, numerate & specify the steps necessary to overcome this problem;
    5. Robin Williams channeling “the Scot inventing golf”:
    “You’ll be hackin’ away with a fkng tire iron, whackin’ away.
    And each time you miss you feel like you’ll have a stroke.
    Fck! that’s what we’ll call it, a STROKE:
    cuz each time you miss you feel like you’re gonna fkng DIE!
    Oh and here’s the best part – fck, this is brilliant!
    Right near the end, I’ll put a little flat piece, with a little flag … to give you fkng HOPE!”

  18. There is a question, if you are a Christian. Why would God create mankind when He, (God), is totally complete in every way? These are also questions for mankind. Why get married, your spouse doesn’t always behave as you like? Why have kids, they can drive you nuts at times, and definitely keep you awake at nights, little or big? Why share your life with anyone else, they sometimes, often, disappoint you? Why? I could live my own life and be happy too, without all the problems and disappointments that others may cause, but people do have kids, do have spouses, do share with others. Why? The meaning of Life is part of that.

  19. Hi Sean,

    I am sorry that I just missed your AMA on reddit by a few minutes yesterday. I had posted a question about naturalism and moral realism that has gotten some up-votes. Since my question is related to this meaning-of-life-talk, I thought I’d try again here:

    “As a fellow physicist (experimenter with ATLAS) also with an interest in philosophy, I’m really impressed by your efforts to push naturalism and engage philosophers. I fully agree with your materialist and reductionist arguments, supporting that we do understand physics within the everyday regime, and this should inform our metaphysics, philosophy of mind, criticism of pseudoscience, etc. I also like that you emphasize emergence as being an important concept in explaining the nested emergent ontologies in chemistry, biology, economics, etc. My question is why you seem to draw a hard line that ethics and morality cannot be analyzed in the same way. You seem to entertain the criticisms that some people say of “scientism”, that there are some things (like ethics) to which the reductive program of science will not be able to explain. This strikes me as totally inconsistent with the thrust of reductionism and naturalism. I think there are reasonable explanations for why ethics emerge as a set of regularities and good strategies anytime you have groups of people. The constraints on ethics seem to be completely determined by the natural world, including the limits of resources, the needs of our physiology, the laws of probability and game theory, etc. There is no fundamental is/ought divide. “Ought” is a higher descriptive term we give to actions that bring out good situations, for which there are objective metrics, such as health and satisfaction. In this regard, I’m sympathetic with some utilitarians and what Sam Harris seems to be describing in the Moral Landscape. Why do you think emergence from natural laws can introduce new concepts like temperature, phase transitions, supply and demand, but not ethics?”

    on reddit:

  20. Ryan– Essentially, science is about describing the world, not passing judgment on it. Temperature, phase transitions, and supply and demand are all concepts that helps us understand what happens in the world. Morality is just a completely different endeavor.(Of course you can scientifically study how human beings actually behave — including what they judge to be “moral” — but that’s different than studying how they should behave.) Scientific claims can be judged by experiments, moral claims cannot.

    See also:

  21. @Florin Moldoveanu
    It is why transhumanist are working to overcome human limits so we humans will become REAL “gods”

  22. @Kashyap:
    “These religions do not have any conflict whatsoever with science. They are based on ultimate consciousness and would have done much better in the debate..”

    The only reason there is no conflict is that Eastern religions are very vague about the origin of the universe and present many conflicting versions.
    So, apologists for these religions can cherry pick what they want and discard the rest.

    Also, there is no more evidence for “ultimate consciousness” than there is for the individual souls of Abrahamic religions.

    So, the claim that Eastern religions and science are converging is also false.