Science, Not Philosophy, Will Explain the Meaning of Existence

Biologist Edward O. Wilson calls philosophy a "highly endangered academic species" and suggests that explaining the meaning of human existence necessarily falls to science instead.

E.O. Wilson: In my book I deal right away with the meaning of meaning because I knew I would be attacked like a disturbed nest of hornets by philosophers if I did not. And of course meaning has a number of meanings, but generally speaking after you've gone past the basic religious definition of meaning, which is of course: "The divine creator is responsible for the design and nature of humanity and what else do you want to know?" After you get past that particular response then the subject moves to meaning as history, that is essentially: What are we and why? Where do we come from?" And this is part of meaning too: "Where are we most likely to be headed?" And I like to suggest that in order to answer those questions we cannot do it with religion because every religion has, or every religious faith, rather, has a different creation story, a story of how the universe and the Earth and people came into being. And every faith has its own special accounts of supernatural events, and they differ one from the other. And they are in competition.

And in any case they cannot be boiled down to any kind of a coherent explanation because religious faith is very much a product of human culture. And we can't really figure out just what we are or what our meaning is by introspection. I'm reminded of the statement that Darwin made in one of his notebooks, which was that the mind, consciousness, cannot be taken by direct assault. We cannot imagine what we are inside by thinking about it alone. And it hadn't been really dented very well by philosophy. 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. So by default the explanation of meaning, of humanity, falls to science and we are making progress, if I might speak for science.

And it’s from five disciplines, and I'll take just a moment to tell you what they are and it will make sense as to why, not all of science is whole by any means, which is developing exponentially in the creation of knowledge faster and faster, but from a particular set of the disciplines within science, and I'm going to name them. As I approach that I'll say you cannot get the answer from astrophysicists. There are astrophysicists glad to try to explain to you rhetorically in some way or other what the meaning of humanity is and what their studies of astrophysics tells us about the significance of humanity. Forget it. They can't possibly tell you, nor just astronomers, nor just chemists, nor just my own colleagues, molecular biologists. They're too far removed from the subject to make any sensible thing about the meaning of human existence.

Well, what are the disciplines? And if you look at these disciplines as I've done, and I've actually worked as a researcher in a couple, you have to know what the contributions are of 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. And then another one, another science of course is 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. And a third, of course, and everybody would know about this now because it's progressing so rapidly in so many ways is brain science. And then coming out of brain science or running parallel to it and trading with it and depending upon it and driving from it we turn now to a more technology subject, and that is artificial intelligence. And with artificial intelligence is the fifth, robotics.

Robotics is so important, as Hollywood has now glommed onto, knowing a good story when they see one, robotics includes, of course, 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. All those five disciplines together making bridges here and there are beginning to tell us what the meaning of humanity is. It's the product of a grand epic. And it's the full story of humanity. And we're just beginning to draw it in clarity. And let me just add to that why leaving out history of the whole human species, genetic as well as cultural, you have no chance whatsoever in defining the meaning of human existence because history, that goes back essentially to the origin of literacy, history makes no sense without prehistory. That is to say the biological evolution that's led up to the human condition at the beginning of history. And prehistory in turn, is a study of our ancestors going right back into the animal kingdom, makes no sense without biology. So we have to have a constant building of concatenation of ideas and information discipline to discipline across scales of the totality of the human population and scales of time going back actually millions of years to our early pre-human ancestors and then forward it to the era of cultural evolution. And then we will have the story of humanity. And then we will not ask in a quizzical manner, "What is the meaning of life? What is the meaning of human existence?" We will have our answers.

Directed / Produced by Jonathan Fowler, Elizabeth Rodd, and Dillon Fitton

Biologist E.O. Wilson, a two-time recipient of the Pulitzer Prize, discusses his most recent book on the meaning of existence. "Philosophy," says Wilson, is "a highly endangered academic species." He argues that explaining the meaning of human existence falls instead to science, which is making significant progress.

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