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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.
Edward Osborne Wilson is an American biologist (Myrmecology, a branch of entomology), researcher (sociobiology, biodiversity), theorist (consilience, biophilia), and naturalist (conservationism). Wilson is known for his career as a scientist, his advocacy for environmentalism, and his secular humanist ideas concerned with religious and ethical matters.
A Harvard professor for four decades, he has written twenty books, won two Pulitzer prizes, and discovered hundreds of new species. Considered to be one of the world's greatest living scientists, Dr. Wilson is often called "the father of biodiversity," (a word that he coined). He is the Pellegrino University Research Professor, Emeritus in Entomology for the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University and a Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. He is a Humanist Laureate of the International Academy of Humanism.
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.
Higher education faces challenges that are unlike any other industry. What path will ASU, and universities like ASU, take in a post-COVID world?
- Everywhere you turn, the idea that coronavirus has brought on a "new normal" is present and true. But for higher education, COVID-19 exposes a long list of pernicious old problems more than it presents new problems.
- It was widely known, yet ignored, that digital instruction must be embraced. When combined with traditional, in-person teaching, it can enhance student learning outcomes at scale.
- COVID-19 has forced institutions to understand that far too many higher education outcomes are determined by a student's family income, and in the context of COVID-19 this means that lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color will be disproportionately afflicted.
What conditions of the new normal were already appreciated widely?<p>First, we understand that higher education is unique among industries. Some industries are governed by markets. Others are run by governments. Most operate under the influence of both markets and governments. And then there's higher education. Higher education as an "industry" involves public, private, and for-profit universities operating at small, medium, large, and now massive scales. Some higher education industry actors are intense specialists; others are adept generalists. Some are fantastically wealthy; others are tragically poor. Some are embedded in large cities; others are carefully situated near farms and frontiers.</p> <p>These differences demonstrate just some of the complexities that shape higher education. Still, we understand that change in the industry is underway, and we must be active in directing it. Yet because of higher education's unique (and sometimes vexing) operational and structural conditions, many of the lessons from change management and the science of industrial transformation are only applicable in limited or highly modified ways. For evidence of this, one can look at various perspectives, including those that we have offered, on such topics as <a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/digital-learning/blogs/rethinking-higher-education/lessons-disruption" target="_blank">disruption</a>, <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/20/education/learning/education-technology.html" target="_blank">technology management</a>, and so-called "<a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/sites/default/server_files/media/Excerpt_IHESpecialReport_Growing-Role-of-Mergers-in-Higher-Ed.pdf" target="_blank">mergers and acquisitions</a>" in higher education. In each of these spaces, the "market forces" and "market rules" for higher education are different than they are in business, or even in government. This has always been the case and it is made more obvious by COVID-19.</p> <p>Second, with so much excitement about innovation in higher education, we sometimes lose sight of the fact that students are—and should remain—the core cause for innovation. Higher education's capacity to absorb new ideas is strong. But the ideas that endure are those designed to benefit students, and therefore society. This is important to remember because not all innovations are designed with students in mind. The recent history of innovation in higher education includes several cautionary tales of what can happen when institutional interests—or worse, <a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2016/02/09/apollos-new-owners-seek-fresh-start-beleaguered-company" target="_blank">shareholder</a> interests—are placed above student well-being.</p>
Photo: Getty Images<p>Third, it is abundantly apparent that universities must leverage technology to increase educational quality and access. The rapid shift to delivering an education that complies with social distancing guidelines speaks volumes about the adaptability of higher education institutions, but this transition has also posed unique difficulties for colleges and universities that had been slow to adopt digital education. The last decade has shown that online education, implemented effectively, can meet or even surpass the quality of in-person <a href="https://link-springer-com.ezproxy1.lib.asu.edu/article/10.1007/s10639-019-10027-z" target="_blank">instruction</a>.</p><p>Digital instruction, broadly defined, leverages online capabilities and integrates adaptive learning methodologies, predictive analytics, and innovations in instructional design to enable increased student engagement, personalized learning experiences, and improved learning outcomes. The ability of these technologies to transcend geographic barriers and to shrink the marginal cost of educating additional students makes them essential for delivering education at scale.</p><p>As a bonus, and it is no small thing given that they are the core cause for innovation, students embrace and enjoy digital instruction. It is their preference to learn in a format that leverages technology. This should not be a surprise; it is now how we live in all facets of life.</p><p>Still, we have only barely begun to conceive of the impact digital education will have. For example, emerging virtual and augmented reality technologies that facilitate interactive, hands-on learning will transform the way that learners acquire and apply new knowledge. Technology-enabled learning cannot replace the traditional college experience or ensure the survival of any specific college, but it can enhance student learning outcomes at scale. This has always been the case, and it is made more obvious by COVID-19.</p>
What conditions of the new normal were emerging suspicions?<p>Our collective thinking about the role of institutional or university-to-university collaboration and networking has benefitted from a new clarity in light of COVID-19. We now recognize more than ever that colleges and universities must work together to ensure that the American higher education system is resilient and sufficiently robust to meet the needs of students and their families.</p> <p>In recent weeks, various commentators have suggested that higher education will face a wave of institutional <a href="https://www.businessinsider.com/scott-galloway-predicts-colleges-will-close-due-to-pandemic-2020-5" target="_blank">closures</a> and consolidations and that large institutions with significant online instruction capacity will become dominant.</p> <p>While ASU is the largest public university in the United States by enrollment and among the most well-equipped in online education, we strongly oppose "let them fail" mindsets. The strength of American higher education relies on its institutional diversity, and on the ability of colleges and universities to meet the needs of their local communities and educate local students. The needs of learners are highly individualized, demanding a wide range of options to accommodate the aspirations and learning styles of every kind of student. Education will become less relevant and meaningful to students, and less responsive to local needs, if institutions of higher learning are allowed to fail. </p> <p>Preventing this outcome demands that colleges and universities work together to establish greater capacity for remote, distributed education. This will help institutions with fewer resources adapt to our new normal and continue to fulfill their mission of serving students, their families, and their communities. Many had suspected that collaboration and networking were preferable over letting vulnerable colleges fail. COVID-19's new normal seems to be confirming this.</p>
President Barack Obama delivers the commencement address during the Arizona State University graduation ceremony at Sun Devil Stadium May 13, 2009 in Tempe, Arizona. Over 65,000 people attended the graduation.
Photo by Joshua Lott/Getty Images<p>A second condition of the new normal that many had suspected to be true in recent years is the limited role that any one university or type of university can play as an exemplar to universities more broadly. For decades, the evolution of higher education has been shaped by the widespread imitation of a small number of elite universities. Most public research universities could benefit from replicating Berkeley or Michigan. Most small private colleges did well by replicating Williams or Swarthmore. And all universities paid close attention to Harvard, Princeton, MIT, Stanford, and Yale. It is not an exaggeration to say that the logic of replication has guided the evolution of higher education for centuries, both in the US and abroad.</p><p>Only recently have we been able to move beyond replication to new strategies of change, and COVID-19 has confirmed the legitimacy of doing so. For example, cases such as <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/education/2020/03/10/harvard-moves-classes-online-advises-students-stay-home-after-spring-break-response-covid-19/" target="_blank">Harvard's</a> eviction of students over the course of less than one week or <a href="https://www.nhregister.com/news/coronavirus/article/Mayor-New-Haven-asks-for-coronavirus-help-Yale-15162606.php" target="_blank">Yale's apparent reluctance</a> to work with the city of New Haven, highlight that even higher education's legacy gold standards have limits and weaknesses. We are hopeful that the new normal will include a more active and earnest recognition that we need many types of universities. We think the new normal invites us to rethink the very nature of "gold standards" for higher education.</p>
A graduate student protests MIT's rejection of some evacuation exemption requests.
Photo: Maddie Meyer/Getty Images<p>Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we had started to suspect and now understand that America's colleges and universities are among the many institutions of democracy and civil society that are, by their very design, incapable of being sufficiently responsive to the full spectrum of modern challenges and opportunities they face. Far too many higher education outcomes are determined by a student's family income, and in the context of COVID-19 this means that lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color will be disproportionately afflicted. And without new designs, we can expect postsecondary success for these same students to be as elusive in the new normal, as it was in the <a href="http://pellinstitute.org/indicators/reports_2019.shtml" target="_blank">old normal</a>. This is not just because some universities fail to sufficiently recognize and engage the promise of diversity, this is because few universities have been designed from the outset to effectively serve the unique needs of lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color.</p>
Where can the new normal take us?<p>As colleges and universities face the difficult realities of adapting to COVID-19, they also face an opportunity to rethink their operations and designs in order to respond to social needs with greater agility, adopt technology that enables education to be delivered at scale, and collaborate with each other in order to maintain the dynamism and resilience of the American higher education system.</p> <p>COVID-19 raises questions about the relevance, the quality, and the accessibility of higher education—and these are the same challenges higher education has been grappling with for years. </p> <p>ASU has been able to rapidly adapt to the present circumstances because we have spent nearly two decades not just anticipating but <em>driving</em> innovation in higher education. We have adopted a <a href="https://www.asu.edu/about/charter-mission-and-values" target="_blank">charter</a> that formalizes our definition of success in terms of "who we include and how they succeed" rather than "<a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2019/10/17/forget-varsity-blues-madness-lets-talk-about-students-who-cant-afford-college/" target="_blank">who we exclude</a>." We adopted an entrepreneurial <a href="https://president.asu.edu/read/higher-logic" target="_blank">operating model</a> that moves at the speed of technological and social change. We have launched initiatives such as <a href="https://www.instride.com/how-it-works/" target="_blank">InStride</a>, a platform for delivering continuing education to learners already in the workforce. We developed our own robust technological capabilities in ASU <a href="https://edplus.asu.edu/" target="_blank">EdPlus</a>, a hub for research and development in digital learning that, even before the current crisis, allowed us to serve more than 45,000 fully online students. We have also created partnerships with other forward-thinking institutions in order to mutually strengthen our capabilities for educational accessibility and quality; this includes our role in co-founding the <a href="https://theuia.org/" target="_blank">University Innovation Alliance</a>, a consortium of 11 public research universities that share data and resources to serve students at scale. </p> <p>For ASU, and universities like ASU, the "new normal" of a post-COVID world looks surprisingly like the world we already knew was necessary. Our record breaking summer 2020 <a href="https://asunow.asu.edu/20200519-sun-devil-life-summer-enrollment-sets-asu-record" target="_blank">enrollment</a> speaks to this. What COVID demonstrates is that we were already headed in the right direction and necessitates that we continue forward with new intensity and, we hope, with more partners. In fact, rather than "new normal" we might just say, it's "go time." </p>
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