How Can Life Be Valuable in a Cold and Mechanistic Universe?
On the origin of values and meaning in life in a natural world.
Posted Jun 25, 2020
Before life began, nothing was valuable.
The universe was cold, mechanistic, and devoid of any goals and purposes. The Big Bang produced a hodgepodge of wildly moving particles like quarks, leptons, and bosons from which atoms were formed, all pulled and pushed along by the four fundamental forces of nature: gravity, electromagnetism, the weak force, and the strong force. The atoms had no intentions; they were not trying to do something. The atoms, stars, and galaxies were just playing out the cosmic dance of nature, governed by the blind natural forces.
How to make values out of this starting point? How can meaning and purpose to life emerge from this bleak setting? This is what theoretical physicist Sean Carroll tried to figure out in his recent podcast.
He argued that from the modern scientific worldview, there is no externally imposed purpose to human life, or any other life, for that matter. At one level of description, our movements and whatever happens in our brains are governed by the physical laws as much as anything else happening in the universe.
As Thomas Huxley observed already in 1874, although we might feel our actions as volitional and emanating from our own will, such “volitions do not enter into the chain of causation,“ as doing that would break the laws of physics.
However, Carroll argues that there can be emergent properties at higher levels that we can recognize and use to make practically useful predictions about what happens around us.
For example, there is not really a thing called "temperature" in the world — it is just our way of experiencing the average amount of kinetic energy of the molecules around us. Similarly, the color "red" doesn’t exist for real. It is just our way of experiencing and describing light of a certain wavelength. Temperature and redness don’t exist in the world. They are our ways of experiencing the world. And very useful concepts when thinking about what clothes to put on or what fruits and berries to eat.
Next, think about a cat chasing a mouse. In principle, the behavior could be explained by figuring out the position and movement of each and every atom in the cat, mouse, and their environment and use that information to calculate what will happen next. Alternatively, as Carroll notes, we could say that ”the cat has a goal, which is to catch the mouse.”
Here, we use the concept of a goal to make sense of the cat’s behavior. In using that concept, we make the assumption that the cat can have some future-oriented aspirations that explain its present action. Instead of physical laws predicting the behavior from the past position of the atoms, we assume that the cat is moved by something that is still in the future — the potential catching of the mouse.
Goals, in this description, don’t exist in the universe as such. They are our way of describing and predicting the behavior of living beings. Living beings are not only self-replicating and structure-preserving, but they are also future-oriented — they behave as if their actions would be affected by goals they have about desired future states. A thirsty gazelle walks towards the pond in anticipation of being able to drink there. What the complex neurological system seems to give rise to is behavior that can be described as goal-oriented.
Our human brains are, as described by cognitive philosopher Andy Clark, complex prediction machines aiming to simulate the world around ourselves in order to predict what will happen next. This ability to anticipate the future allows us to stay a few steps ahead of the game, giving the more accurate predictors a competitive advantage over others.
Intention is thus a key property of human beings and other animals with complex enough neural systems. It means the ability to orient one’s actions to bring forth certain preferred future states of affairs. What this requires is three things: 1) the ability to prefer certain states of affairs over others, 2) the ability to anticipate what actions will bring forth certain future states, and 3) the ability to initiate the chosen actions.
Now, how creatures with these three abilities emerged is a complex question and connected to some of the key philosophical mysteries, such as whether free will exists. I will not pretend that I can solve all these mysteries here. Let me just say that our most useful descriptions of the behavior of human beings assumes that humans have these three capabilities.
If I want to understand and anticipate what my spouse, my children, my colleagues, or my opponents in a soccer game will do, I make better predictions if I believe that they have preferences and an ability to act to make those preferences a reality. As Carroll notes in his book The Big Picture, "we’re part of the world, but we’ve seen that the best way to talk about ourselves is as thinking, purposeful agents who can make choices."
So whether "free will" is real in some metaphysical sense or just an illusion, seeing human beings as guided by intentions is a highly useful way of describing and understanding the behavior of myself and others. In fact, as humans, we are equipped with a highly developed "inherent tendency to infer other people's intentions from their actions," as recent neuroscientific research has demonstrated.
Understanding humans as intentional beings gives us the tools to understand how values and meaning emerged in the universe. Here is a very rough sketch:
First, proto-preferences emerged: Bacteria already react to the environment. Certain pH levels trigger certain behavioral responses from them. Although these reactions are automatic and "blind," one way to describe the behavior of bacteria is to say that they have proto-preferences to move in the direction of more optimal pH levels. This description allows us to make accurate predictions of their behavior even though bacteria as such don’t make any intentional choices.
Proto-preferences are thus automatic behavioral responses to certain environmental conditions that move the creature towards certain states of affairs. These proto-preferences are programmed by the natural selection as certain behavioral responses — like moving towards optimal pH level — have tended to enhance the survival and reproduction of the creatures in question.
Second, preferences emerged: Here the creature prefers certain experiences over others in the sense that some experiences feel better than others. Being able to feel and have inner states thus distinguishes creatures with proto-preferences from creatures with preferences.
Now, it is hard to say when this ability to feel emerged. Bacteria probably don’t have feelings, mammals such as dogs, cats, or pigs most probably have feelings. And the movement from no-feelings-just-reactions to clear feelings is most likely gradual. But it is quite uncontroversial to suggest that most mammals can feel pain — and prefer not to feel pain.
Third, goals emerged: These are consciously chosen and upheld preferences. The creature in question knows they have a certain goal and can articulate what that goal is. This ability to consciously choose a goal seems to be uniquely (or at least almost exclusively) human ability as it is dependent on having a language that allows one to label and observe one’s own preferences. I can ask what your goal is, I can explain to you what my intention behind certain action was, I can reflect on my own goals and decide to commit myself to a certain goal. A small baby just feels hunger or anger but a toddler already can label their feeling. Instead of just experiencing the feeling, they know that they are experiencing that feeling and can articulate it into a conscious goal: I want cookies.
Finally, values emerged: They are a specific type of consciously upheld goals. Values are abstract, higher-order goals to which the person is deeply committed to over long periods of time. Typically the commitment runs so deep that I can’t switch it on or off at will — even if I consciously try to not care about a certain value of mine, I still find myself committed to it.
Furthermore, being committed to a certain value implies that the person has several more concrete goals through which one lives through one’s commitment to that value. If protecting the environment is an important value of mine, it is expected that I am committed to it over a long period of time, during which I act based on many concrete goals such as recycling my bottles, choosing public transportation for my daily commute, or not buying fast fashion clothes that are especially taxing to the environment. The values of a person are thus operational in a person’s behavior through concrete choices and actions the given value gives rise to.
There is thus no magic to values. In the final analysis, they are just one type of human intentionality. If we agree that intentionality is an emergent property of human beings, then values are just one sub-type of that intentionality — goals we are particularly deeply committed to. Values are part of our understanding of what drives human behavior — nothing more, nothing less.
One of my favorite quotes that summarize this naturalistic account of values comes from philosopher Sharon Street: ”Before life began, nothing was valuable. But then life arose and began to value. Not because it was recognizing anything, but because creatures who valued (certain things in particular) tended to survive.” Preferring certain things and acting according to that preference was useful for survival. Thus preferences emerged. And when we became able to use language to label those preferences and consciously commit to them, we invented values.
What then is the meaning of life? Depends on what you mean by that question. Are you asking about an overarching purpose to all human lives, some externally imposed commandment and justification for how we all ought to live our lives and find value in them? Then I am afraid that we must conclude that based on this naturalistic understanding of human values, there is no meaning of life.
The emergence of life was an accidental by-product of natural laws. The emergence of human beings as a form of life was an accidental by-product of the mechanisms of natural selection. The emergence of values was a by-product of human intentionality and reflectivity. There is no justification for life, no external purpose to it. Life just is. An accident — but from our own point of view, a very lucky accident indeed.
However, we can also ask about meaning in life. Here we are asking whether life feels valuable and worth living to the person living that life. And here human intentionality comes into play.
No matter whether life has a purpose or value from the point of view of the universe, it can have a purpose and value from the point of view of the person living that life. Meaning in life, for the person living that life, is about having certain values in one’s life and trying to realize those values through one’s own life.
Committed to environmental causes? Then actions advancing those causes are meaningful to you. Committed to helping your kids to grow into adulthood? Then actions advancing that cause is meaningful to you. Committed to expressing yourself through music, poetry, or another artistic project? Then actions advancing that cause is meaningful to you.
Meaning in life is thus an experience, or an evaluation you make about your own life based on your own values and preferences and how well they are realized within your life. Experiencing meaning in life thus comes down to two things: 1) having certain values in your life, and 2) feeling that those values are realized through your life.
Meaningfulness is thus not something that exists in the world independent of human beings. Just like redness and temperature, it is part of our way of experiencing the world. This means that there is no ultimate right answer to the question of what makes life meaningful. The projects and values dear to you might seem irrelevant to me, and vice versa. We all must identify our own values, worthy goals, and ways of realizing them.
Luckily, given that as humans we share a large part of our basic preferences and fundamental needs with each other, the meaningful lives for most human beings will have more similarities than differences. As I argue in my new book, having close relationships, being able to contribute to others, and being able to choose one’s life goals based on one’s own interests and values will make the life of most of us meaningful no matter our cultural background.
Making life meaningful is thus not a science of discovering the "true" or "correct" formula. There are no natural laws of a meaningful life. Making life meaningful is an engineering problem. As Carroll notes in his book, "our ethical systems are things that are constructed by us human beings, not discovered out there in the world, and should be evaluated accordingly."
First, we must know the foundations: How does the human mind work? What are the innate preferences of human beings? What are the basic psychological needs of human beings? This is the task of behavioral sciences.
Based on this knowledge, we can start the designing process: What combination of values, norms, valued goals, and other moral preferences will serve best a species like ours, living in the kind of communities where we live?
Analogously, to build houses suitable for human beings, we must know what humans prefer and what kind of houses the materials and physical laws allow us to build. Through insightful design, and through learning from past designs, we can find the kind of houses that best serve human interests and wellness.
Essentials are mostly the same — having a kitchen, toilet, and roof help to serve certain shared basic needs of all humans — but there is also room for imagination and different kinds of houses serving people with different preferences. Same goes for designing ethical frameworks for meaningful living. Essentials are the same but there is room for imagination and different life ideals serving people with different preferences.
Designing meaningful lives, for individuals and for societies, is thus a task of what I call ethical engineering that requires both an accurate understanding of human nature as well as imaginary capacities to envision new ideals and values that inspire each of us to live a more meaningful life. Values and meaning don’t exist in the world as such. They are human creations. And as human creations, we can design them to be even better than what they are now. Realizing that this is our task, instead of searching for some "true" solutions, allows us to get to work towards a more meaningful future for us all.
Martela, F. (2020). A Wonderful Life: Insights on Finding a Meaningful Existence. Harper Design.
Blakemore, S.-J., & Decety, J. (2001). From the perception of action to the understanding of intention. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 2(8), 561–567. https://doi.org/10.1038/35086023
Carroll, S. (2017). The big picture: On the origins of life, meaning, and the universe itself. Dutton.
Clark, A. (2016). Surfing uncertainty: Prediction, action, and the embodied mind. Oxford University Press.
Martela, F. (2017). Moral Philosophers as Ethical Engineers: Limits of Moral Philosophy and a Pragmatist Alternative. Metaphilosophy, 48(1–2), 58–78.
Street, S. (2006). A Darwinian dilemma for realist theories of value. Philosophical Studies, 127(1), 109–166.