“We are here because one odd group of fishes had a peculiar fin anatomy that could transform into legs for terrestrial creatures; because the earth never froze entirely during an ice age; because a small and tenuous species, arising in Africa a quarter of a million years ago, has managed, so far, to survive by hook and by crook. We may yearn for a ‘higher’ answer — but none exists. This explanation, though superficially troubling, if not terrifying, is ultimately liberating and exhilarating. We cannot read the meaning of life passively in the facts of nature. We must construct these answers ourselves — from our own wisdom and ethical sense. There is no other way”
Evolution populariser and palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould captures the logical implications of a naturalistic evolutionary worldview; a worldview which has as its central tenet the idea that we owe our existence to the blind forces of nature. He captures the idea in such a concise, romantic and poetic way – one is easily tempted to forget the despair such a worldview should bring.
Gould rightly says that if life is the product of purely impersonal, mindless physical processes then it cannot have a reason for why it exists; there is no ‘higher’ answer necessarily because there is nothing ‘higher’ than the physical chance processes which created us. Physical processes do not produce outcomes based on reasons, will or intentions. Only personal agents are able to produce outcomes based on reasons and purpose; only agents can ascribe value and meaning to their actions.
Gould recognizes this as “superficially troubling if not terrifying” but upon deeper reflection concludes it is “ultimately liberating and exhilarating”. I would conclude the contrary that in actual fact such a worldview is superficially liberating but ultimately terrifying. It is liberating and exhilarating because each particular individual is absolutely free to construct their own idea of what is meaningful and live according to that. However if you follow this thought to its logical and necessary conclusion you ultimately end up with despair. As Gould says the meaning of life cannot be read from the facts of nature; understanding how electron orbital behave leads us no closer to understanding what justice is.
Therefore if life has no objective and ultimate meaning, significance, purpose or value it follows logically that all particulars aspects of life have no meaning as well. Particular aspects could refer to human actions, decisions, emotions, attitudes and events – they are all objectively without meaning. To put in another way some particular action X is no more meaningful that particular action Y. The content of what X and Y is becomes irrelevant because all particular actions have no meaning.
It means a person who chooses to live a life of selflessness, kindness, justice and self-sacrifice is doing nothing that is ultimately more meaningful that a person who decides to be a racist and own African slaves. It means because each person can construct their own idea of what is meaningful – no particular meaning can be better or worse than any other. If you think a meaningful life consists of colonizing and subjugating black people then it is no more wrong or right than a person who thinks a meaningful life entails virtue and kindness to all people.
If followed to its logical conclusion such a worldview where we construct our own meaning is one of despair. It erodes all foundations for value, meaning and our ethical sense reducing them to accidental illusions fostered upon us by chance mutations and selection – ultimately eroding all that makes humanity beautiful.