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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  • Meditations is a collection of the philosophical ideas of the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius.
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An organism found in dirt may lead to an anxiety vaccine, say scientists

Can dirt help us fight off stress? Groundbreaking new research shows how.

University of Colorado Boulder
Surprising Science
  • New research identifies a bacterium that helps block anxiety.
  • Scientists say this can lead to drugs for first responders and soldiers, preventing PTSD and other mental issues.
  • The finding builds on the hygiene hypothesis, first proposed in 1989.

Are modern societies trying too hard to be clean, at the detriment to public health? Scientists discovered that a microorganism living in dirt can actually be good for us, potentially helping the body to fight off stress. Harnessing its powers can lead to a "stress vaccine".

Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the fatty 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid from the soil-residing bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae aids immune cells in blocking pathways that increase inflammation and the ability to combat stress.

The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.

The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.

Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.

"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."

University of Colorado Boulder

Christopher Lowry

This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.

Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.

The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.

Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.

What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.

"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."

Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.