Death and Darwinism
Can a Darwinian escape nihilism?
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Written by Bo Winegard
All humans are mortal. I am a human. Therefore, I am mortal.
Last week, my father died, as all humans must. And the incontrovertible logic of that hackneyed “All humans are mortal” syllogism became less like a proof in a textbook and more like a punch to the guts. A man who once seemed invulnerable was dead. Not only grief, but also thoughts of my own mortality became impossible to suppress. All the fuss, excitement, agitation, exultation, sadness, triumph, tragedy—all of it would amount to the same thing: Annihilation. We are all on death row awaiting an undisclosed but inescapable execution.
Reflecting on this depressing and macabre state of affairs, I again contemplated that most perennial and perplexing of philosophical questions: What does it all mean?
Albert Camus, in The Myth of Sisyphus, argued that the only really serious problem of philosophy is suicide. That is, the only serious question is deciding whether life is worth living. Of course, few of us genuinely contemplate suicide—and our answer to this question is made without deliberation. We are alive and we remain alive. We wake, drive to work, come home, watch a game, drink a beer, and go to bed. Still, Camus’ contention is true enough to merit reflection. For if life is not worth living, then the rest of the questions philosophers have puzzled over—the nature of morality, the relation of mind to matter, the possibility of a priori knowledge—are irrelevant. Suicide is the answer.
By living, we at least implicitly affirm the proposition that life is worth living. We reject suicide. Yet, if asked, many of us would be perplexed by the question, “What is the point of it all?”
After some contemplation, though, the religious would have an answer.
For the religious have an explicit and apparently transcendental meaning. Life is a gift from God. And the purpose of life is spiritual—the soul’s pursuit of salvation. Although life may be many tragic things, may indeed be a dim, vast vale of tears, it is not pointless. The many indignities and sufferings of our terrestrial existence are not vain or random. They are part of a divine plan. Chaos, chance, mutability, and even death are all illusions dispelled in eternity.
Though I respect this answer, I do not share it. I am not a religious believer. For lack of a better term, I am a Darwinian. And Darwinians have a more strained relationship with questions of meaning than the religious since we do not believe in a transcendent God, and we do not think we will reunite with lost loved ones in an afterworld. We believe that death is the end, the extinction of personhood, and that memories are all that remain after the body perishes.
Darwinians cannot appeal to the transcendent. And we do not believe in a rational and explicable world. We believe in a vast, chaotic, contingent, and bewildering world, a world that forever eludes comprehension. The ordered universe of Aquinas or Dante ruled by a benevolent and omniscient God is alien to us. Our God, if we believe in one at all, is immanent—as much a part of nature as a tree, a mountain, or a waterfall.
But what kind of God is this? An utterly indifferent God. A God who destroys helpless creatures as casually as he gives them life. A God who does not heal or punish or reward. A God as implacable as granite and as unfathomable as the sea. A God whose solace is not an afterworld or a promise that good will ultimately prevail over evil, but the humble and even abasing truth that our lives are ultimately ephemeral and insignificant.
But the truth of mutability and finitude, a truth that seems more chastening than comforting, is of little solace to most people. And Darwinism thus seems to drift irrevocably toward nihilism.
For, if the universe is purposeless, if life is the result of blind processes, and if death is the end of consciousness, then what significance can life possibly have?
There are at least two answers to this question, one philosophical and one practical. The philosophical answer is that all meaning is relative; therefore, Darwinism is not uniquely demoralizing or existentially exacting. Meaning may seem transcendent, may seem to be imposed from the outside, from the universe or from God, but it is not and cannot be. Meaning can only be created by the interaction between a mind and its objects. Intrinsic meaning is logically impossible like a silent sound or an invisible color. The religious believer and the Darwinian are adrift in the same sea of uncertainty, and neither can fix their anchors to firm holding ground.
One might object that if God created the universe for a reason, then that reason provides certainty and meaning. The universe is like a cosmic text written by God, and our job to discover the meaning, the purpose, the intention behind the words. We may admit that this is often hidden or obscure, often as difficult to discern as the meaning of a complicated novel like Moby Dick or Ulysses, but it is there, behind the confusing and even imponderable language of the universe, as surely as the meaning of Moby Dick or Ulysses is there, determined and fixed by its author.
But what if we reject the author’s meaning? What if our interpretation is different from and inconsistent with the author’s? This is not difficult to imagine with a literary text. Suppose that we read opening lines of T. S. Eliot’s The Wasteland:
“April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.”
And we think that the point is that the speaker is so dejected, so alienated from life, that he prefers the dead sterility of winter to the blossoming life of spring. Seems plausible enough. But suppose that T. S. Eliot had written an essay contending that the lines meant something else altogether. Should we defer to his reading? What if ours is better?!
Readers in fact quite often reject the author’s intentions. This may seem more acceptable when a reader is rejecting a fallible, human author than when he is rejecting a benevolent, omniscient God, but the acts of rejection are not logically different.
Consider a different example with a very different God. Suppose we discovered that the universe was created by a malicious demiurge who despises humans (a view that is not unprecedented). He wants us to suffer and created us only to be his miserable and ceaselessly tortured slaves. Would we assent to his intentions—would we assert that the meaning of life is to be a suffering slave to a malevolent creator deity? Probably not. Instead, we would reject this meaning and create a different meaning. For example, we might decide that the meaning of life is unceasing revolt against an unjust demiurge.
The point here is that meaning is always the result of an interaction between a conscious mind and the world and therefore that inherent meaning is as nonsensical as inherent size or motion. Although a Darwinian worldview without a transcendent God may seem discomfiting, even nihilistic, it is not qualitatively different from a religious worldview with a transcendent God. Both require a world and mind, a text and an interpreter, to produce meaning. The religious believer claims that this text has an intentional author; the Darwinian denies it. But it does not matter because an author is not an unimpeachable authority and cannot compel us to accept his interpretation. We are always free to reject it. Even if God is not dead, the author is. (The author is still, of course, an object of fascination and study and he or she can be an important voice in a critical discussion of a text, but is no longer the final, authoritative critic.) A text does not have a single meaning.
After all this philosophizing, we are still left with the question that impelled this essay: what is the point of it all? But the answer should now be clear. There is no single point; there are many points. For once one understands that the question What is the meaning of life? is as misguided as the question What is the meaning of Hamlet?, one can dispense with the anxious effort to provide one.
Meaning is like beauty or terror or joy. It is an experience. And humans evolved to experience meaning just as they evolved to experience delicious food or pleasant odors. Meaning, in other words, is a natural phenomenon, a product of the human brain. Thus, the practical answer to the point of life is to experience meaning. And just as there is no one experience, so too there is no one meaning of life. The meaning of a sublime sunset is different from the meaning of an engaging play is different from the meaning of a poignant melody.
Meaning thus no more requires a transcendent God than does enjoying a beautiful snowfall or a majestic sea. The world is enough. Which is good news because so far as any human knows, the world is all that we get.
Two weeks ago, my father was alive. Last week he was not. At some point—maybe tomorrow and maybe forty years from now—the same will be true of me. In the meantime, I will exult, grieve, celebrate, lament, hope, despair. I will read Keats and Tolstoy. I will listen to Bach and Beethoven. I will watch birds flutter around my feeders. I will think about the impenetrable mysteries of the universe. I will love my family and friends. I will support my community. I will succeed and I will fail. And then one day, I will vanish. My body will remain, but I will be gone. In time, even my body will decay. And eventually, the universe will erase all evidence of my existence.
Meaning like life itself is temporary. One must enjoy it while it lasts.
Bo Winegard is the Executive Editor of Aporia.
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