Monthly Archives: August 2013

The Purpose of Life

This is the last part of a series on the Purpose of Life.

When I was in high school, I briefly thought I had figured out the Meaning of Life. I was wrong, and later decided that the notion itself is silly. Life is full of many noble pursuits, different ones at different times for different people. Finding one meaning for life is as idiotically reductionist as finding a single meaning in a great novel.

And yet…

And yet here I am, with an idea. One that ties together human life into a common purpose extending across centuries. That can be used as a measure of a person’s life or of a society. It seems awfully arrogant to presume such an idea could have real merit. Perhaps I will see the folly of it one day, but it seems to fit.

It started when I was reading one of Theodore Parker’s sermons. One famously cited by Martin Luther King Jr. The one where Parker says:

Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right. I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. But from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.

I had recently finished reading two thought-provoking books: Richard Dawkin’s The Selfish Gene and Bruce Schneier’s Liars and Outliers. I started to wonder if we can see the arc of the moral universe– and from a purely Humanist perspective.

Let me start at the beginning.

About 2.4 billion years ago, cyanobacteria transformed the Earth. They dumped a highly caustic chemical into the ocean and atmosphere. The surfaces of all the world’s exposed rocks eroded. The methane in the atmosphere burned away. Without methane (a greenhouse gas) the oceans froze over. And yet the chemical continued to accumulate in the atmosphere until it became our familiar oxygen-rich sky.

Thanks to that corrosive oxygen, half of the chemical battery that fuels us comes directly from the air. The cyanobacteria’s waste transformed a relatively static world into one of constant change. Unlike the moon, where a footprint could last a millennium, everything on Earth that does not adapt will quickly rust, decay, or erode. Cyanobacteria, through evolution, remade the Earth in the image of evolution.

We often look to nature for inspiration. But nature is built from evolution, where anything that promotes survival, no matter how brutal, is encouraged. We will not find moral direction there. Human nature is built from genes that promote every behavior that allows the genes to survive: eating, breathing, sex, cooperation, violent outbursts, friendship, and countless others. Those who think humans are fundamentally evil will find ample evidence. Those who think humans are fundamentally good will find equally ample evidence.

While you will find plenty of brutality in religion, every major religion emphasizes love, kindness, and forgiveness. the Golden Rule is central to all of them.

Our sense of ethics is not a human invention. We find similar attitudes in other primates. We are social, tribal creatures. Our children take years to mature, and we raise only a handful in a lifetime. With so much riding on so few offspring, it really does take a village to nurture and protect them.

Contrast this with spiders, which come together only briefly to mate, and then produce thousands of eggs. A spider’s Golden Rule would be much different from ours. It might be similar to the popular notion of survival of the fittest: win and breed, or die trying. Evolution is a constant cycle of cruel experiments. When we look out our window at nature, we see a mommy duck followed by a dozen little ducklings. We imagine our own ethics of parenting, and rarely stop to think that either ten of those ducklings will die before adulthood, or the population will grow sixfold until starvation sets in. And yet this cruel waste is genetic evolution’s primary mechanism of adaptation.

Although we are the product of genetic evolution, and our bodies and minds are sculpted to follow its precepts, we do not need to obey its mindless purpose. The ethics of the major religions are not the natural progression of a primate mind, they are the products of civilizations which bind together thousands or millions of people. They adapt a moral instinct that evolved in small tribes to fit the needs of large multicultural cities. Small tribes of humans and apes constantly war with their neighbors. Big communities require kindness to strangers and tolerance toward culturally diverse neighbors. They require stories like the good Samaritan. They require the Golden Rule.

Indeed, the arc of history seems to be following this rule. The world is getting less violent. But it’s not simply due to the Golden Rule. Treating your neighbors kindly is one moral lesson, but it’s big and vague and often not appropriate to the circumstances– especially when a neighbor is ruining your neighborhood. Cooperation requires trust, and trust requires trustworthiness. Perhaps the measure of ethical behavior is not the increase of happiness or even love, but of mutual trust.

And a large, well-functioning society needs more than kindness and trust. To live in large communities we needed to invent systems to provide water, food, waste disposal, traffic, and communications. And we’ll need more inventions if we are to provide for a large global population amid depleting resources. Invention requires freedom to experiment and room for inventions to disrupt the status quo. And that freedom needs to belong to everyone, not just a few geniuses. If you look at big inventions– such as Newtonian physics, the airplane, or the light bulb– there may be a few names that are remembered, but there were dozens or hundreds of others whose ideas and experiments were necessary for the ultimate success. In my experience, a well-motivated person with middling intelligence and a fresh perspective will beat an uninterested genius every time.

We are not nature’s only inventors. Many creatures, from crows to octopi, show great creativity. But our capacity to dominate the landscape comes from pairing our capacity to invent with our unparalleled skill at communicating. An octopus’s inventions must be re-invented with each generation, but our inventions can last millennia. Numbers, the 24-hour day, money, beer, bread, brick houses. All are several thousands of years old, and we’re still tinkering with each of them. This capacity to invent, communicate, and cooperate with strangers puts us in a unique position to impose our ethics upon the world.

We have gotten into a lot of trouble by imposing our will upon our surroundings. Extinctions follow in our wake. Indeed, only Africa still has diverse herds of giant animals; the other continents lost them around the same humans arrived. Apparently only by co-evolving with humans did African megafauna adapt. And like the cyanobacteria, we are dumping our waste into the atmosphere, triggering global temperature changes.

But unlike the cyanobacteria, we can learn from our mistakes within our lifetime, adapt, and carry out multi-generational plans. When we apply our ethics, and when we seek broad collaboration in constructive ways, we can improve on nature.

The Golden Rule has a universality that transcends humanity. If we ever find another intelligent, technological species in the universe, it will most likely have ethics similar to ours. It will need rules that encourage mutual cooperation between dissimilar individuals. It will be tolerant of eccentricities and experiments that lead to technological breakthroughs that transform societies. And its society must be open to transformation, allowing powerful individuals to be dethroned in the name of progress. And it will work to increase happiness and reduce suffering; otherwise it would be content to let mindless evolution run its course.

Here, then, is the Purpose of Life, roughly hewn by the needs of genetic evolution, and polished by the needs of cultural evolution:

To re-make the world, through intelligence and wisdom, to reduce suffering and promote justice, kindness and cooperation.

I started this series by questioning whether there is such a thing as “progress.” I consider myself a progressive, and this is my notion of progress.


This is the second part of a series on the Purpose of Life.

There is a lot of science fiction that portrays a dystopian world in which people are controlled by through mind-control drugs and psychological manipulation. Brave New World comes to mind. Often the average person is superficially happy, but so drugged up or deceived as to not experience what the author considers true happiness.

But if we consider traditional progress to be the sum of all joy or happiness, divided by the sum of all suffering– or we use a similar but more sophisticated formula– such a pacified society doesn’t look so bad. (This is the perspective of the philosophy of Utilitarianism. Buddhism has a similar perspective.)

Science is getting better all the time at understanding people’s motivations. Advertisers understand what motivates children (and adults) better than all but the most educated parents. One might argue that we are sliding willingly into a dystopian world. I don’t think so, and not simply because humans have been evolving to manipulate other humans for millennia.

There are three things missing in a dystopian world that aren’t captured in Utilitarianism: truth, freedom, and aspiration. We cringe from happiness that is disconnected from reality, and we prefer to suffer in pursuit of something we choose than to enjoy superficial pleasures. There are still plenty of people willing and able to go against the grain.

In a free society, people are free to invent. While any particular technical pursuit can flourish under a regime that decides to support it, disruptive technologies and ideas can only come from societies that allow– or even encourage– disruption. That’s why even as China adds more scientists and obtains more patents, the next world-changing technology (like the Internet or cell phone) won’t come from there.

So progress includes happiness and the elimination of suffering. It also requires freedom to invent and thereby disrupt the status quo. But can we come up with a definition of progress that’s complete enough to be a modern-day Meaning of Life? I’ll explore that idea later.

This is part two in a series on The Purpose of Life.

The Church of Progress

This is the first part of a series on the Purpose of Life.

A lot of liberals worship at the Church of Progress.  The tenants of this church are as follows:

  • Humanity is getting smarter.  As scientific and practical knowledge grows, so does human wisdom.
  • People will choose the truth over a falsehood.
  • Once debunked, a falsehood fades away.
  • As humanity gets wiser, so does the average person.
  • Therefore new and scientific things are better than old, unscientific things.
  • And all we must do to make the world better is to keep corruption and tradition from fouling the march of progress.

I have to admit that most of the time, I am a progressive.  But my faith has been shaken by the realization that things aren’t getting better on their own and, as I become wiser, I find that the world hasn’t learned the same lessons I have.  (Of course, it’s always possible that I’m getting misled, and the rest of the world is smarter than I think.)

For example, feminism.  When I was a computer science grad student in the 1990s, the department was mostly men. I assumed that there would be a gradual increase in the number of women over time.  Maybe someday, but it’s been 20 years, and if anything the numbers have gone in the opposite direction. (And don’t get me started on the number of African Americans.)

Another example.  Fifty years ago, the nation was able to do long-term planning.  Colleges and universities were affordable, or even free, due to government subsidies.  Because a well-educated populace is good for the economy and democracy.  That’s gotten slowly eroded over time.  Not to mention road maintenance and other basic government services.

Another example.  A hundred years ago people learned that solitary confinement causes permanent psychological damage.  A judge declared it cruel and unusual punishment.  But it’s been gradually on the rise, and now it’s scary just how commonplace it is.

Perhaps I’ve just cherry-picked examples where humanity (or at least the United States) is either not progressing or is backsliding. There are certainly examples of things that have improved over time.  And perhaps the progressive faith is correct, just over time frames of hundreds of years.

But some of these articles of faith are clearly wrong.  “Once debunked, a falsehood fades away” is one of them. Some bad ideas either never die or are re-invented on a regular basis.

Richard Dawkins invented the term “meme” to describe an idea that spreads like a gene.  That is, ideas spread and mutate through selective pressure, much like Darwinian evolution. It’s a rather fancy way of saying “catchy ideas spread, unmemorable ideas don’t.” I used to dismiss the notion of a meme as just a tautology.  Of course catchy ideas spread; otherwise they wouldn’t be catchy!  But in the absence of the tautological “meme” meme, other memes fill the void, such as “every lie contains a kernel of truth” and “truth wins over falsehoods.” Plus Dawkins introduced the idea at the end of his 1976 book The Selfish Gene, after having described how genes spread, how they interact, and so on.  The idea of a meme implies that an idea may be catchy even if it has no basis in truth.  And it may spawn ever catchier variants.  A meme may be as small as a catchy tune or as big as a religion.

I still believe in progress, but I don’t see it as inevitable.  Even though a ball has a tendency to roll down a hill, there’s no guarantee it will make it to the bottom.  And if something throws it back up the hill, there’s no guarantee it will find a path back down.  Progress is a tendency, not an inevitability.

But what, exactly, is progress?  I’ll explore that question more.  This is the first entry in a series on The Purpose of Life.