Biologist Edward O. Wilson, a two-time Pulitzer Prize recipient and the author of the new book The Meaning of Human Existence, knew that it was vital that he define “meaning” early on in his book, lest he be attacked by a hornet’s nest of philosophers. Thus, he identifies the meaning of meaning as:
What are we and why?
Where do we come from?
Where are we most likely to be headed?
Wilson believes those questions cannot be explained with religion for two reasons. First, because every religious faith has a different creation story that, almost categorically, is in competition with every other creation story. Second, because every religious faith is a product of human culture. To assume that human culture can explain meaning is to put a whole lot of trust in introspection, yet Wilson says we can’t discover meaning just by thinking about it. The facts lie elsewhere.
This is also why Wilson believes philosophy is ill-equipped to tackle the meaning of existence. In fact, the storied biologist has few kind words for the field as a whole:
“I like to say that most of philosophy, which is a declining and highly endangered academic species, incidentally, consists of failed models of how the brain works. So students going into philosophy have to learn what Descartes thought and then after a long while why that’s wrong and what Schopenhauer might have thought and what Kant might of thought or did think. But they cannot go on from that position and historical examination of the nature of humanity to what it really is and how we might define it.”
Wilson concludes then that, by default, the task of explaining meaning necessarily falls to science. There are five disciplines in particular which he identifies as the leaders in determining meaning:
1. Evolutionary biology: “That is, biology seen in a historical context going all the way back millions of years to the origin of the human species.”
2. Paleontology: “Which segues as we come closer to modern humanity and the invention of agriculture and the birth of the Neolithic period turns into archaeology. So archaeology and paleontology, which are on a different time scale, is the other discipline, a second discipline.”
3. Neuroscience: “It’s progressing so rapidly in so many ways.”
4. Artificial Intelligence: “Coming out of brain science or running parallel to it and trading with it and depending upon it and driving from it.”
5. Robotics: “The notion of studying the mind in perfecting artificial intelligence, and more than that; creating what the artificial intelligence and robotics people call whole brain emulation. That is using robots as avatars and creating robots that are by design an imitation of what we know about the brain more and more like humans.”
The five disciplines above serve as bridges “to tell us what the meaning of humanity is.” Wilson calls it the product of a grand epic, the full story of humanity. Together, they will explain what we are, where we came from, and where we’re going.
For more about the meaning of meaning, and how science bests philosophy in investigating existence, watch the following clip from E.O. Wilson’s Big Think interview: