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Optimistic Naturalism: Scientific Advancement and the Meaning of Life

Abstract

Naturalist theories of the meaning of life are sometimes criticised for not setting the bar high enough for what counts as a meaningful life. Tolstoy’s version of this criticism is that Naturalist theories do not describe really meaningful lives because they do not require that we connect our finite lives with the infinite. Another criticism of Naturalist theories is that they cannot adequately resolve the Absurd—the vast difference between how meaningful our actions and lives appear from subjective and objective viewpoints. This article proposes a novel view, Optimistic Naturalism, in order to refute these criticisms. Optimistic Naturalism is the view that scientific and technological advancement might allow us to lead Truly Meaningful lives in a purely physical universe by enabling our actions, which we find meaningful partly because they might have particular infinite consequences, to actually have infinite consequences for life. The central tenets of Optimistic Naturalism are Infinite Consequence and Scientific Optimism. By explaining how the correct connection of the subjective and objective meaning of actions can result in True Meaning, Infinite Consequence provides a theoretical blueprint for resolving the Absurd. Scientific Optimism provides reason to think that it is possible to follow that blueprint in a purely physical universe. Therefore, when taken together, these two principles provide relatively plausible reasons to think that at least one kind of Naturalist theory can connect the finite with the infinite in a meaningful way and resolve the Absurd.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    For more background on the debate and the established positions, see any of these useful reviews: (Metz 2001; 2002; 2007; 2008).

  2. 2.

    The idea that it is in principle possible to meaningfully connect with the infinite in a natural universe has been hinted at in the literature (e.g. Metz 2003, p. 171), but has never been discussed in any detail.

  3. 3.

    ‘I understand that…the answer given by rational knowledge was only an indication that the answer might be got if the question were…the question of the relation of the finite to the infinite. I also understand that, no matter how irrational and monstrous the answers might be that faith gave, they had this advantage that they introduced into each answer the relation of the finite to the infinite’ (Tolstoy 2000, p. 17).

  4. 4.

    ‘All my affairs, no matter what they might be, would sooner or later be forgotten, and I myself should not exist’ (Tolstoy 2000, p. 13). ‘You are an accidentally cohering globule of something. The globule is fermenting. This fermentation the globule calls its life. The globule falls to pieces’ (Tolstoy 2000, p. 15).

  5. 5.

    ‘My situation was a terrible one. I knew that I should not find anything on the path of rational knowledge but the negation of life, and there, in faith, nothing but the negation of reason, which was still more impossible than the negation of life’ (Tolstoy 2000, p. 16). ‘I sought in all the sciences, but far from finding what I wanted, became convinced that all who like myself had sought in knowledge for the meaning of life had found nothing’ (Tolstoy 1940, p. 23).

  6. 6.

    While he was dealing with his dilemma, Tolstoy’s conception of connecting with the infinite in a meaningful way involved living forever or creating something that persists infinitely (Flew 1963, p. 113). However, Tolstoy’s conception later changed to be explicitly supernatural; ‘What real result will come of my life?—Eternal torment or eternal bliss. What meaning has life that death does not destroy?—Union with the eternal God: heaven’ (Tolstoy 1940, p. 50). In his more recent writings, such as What I Believe, Tolstoy stopped discussing the infinite despite still discussing the meaning of life (Flew 1963, p. 117).

  7. 7.

    Tolstoy often used Christian terminology in his later works of non-fiction and studied the Gospels extensively, but he also studied several other religions (Flew 1963, p. 116). See also note 6 above.

  8. 8.

    Darwall argues for a theory that operates along these lines (1983, Chaps. 11–12).

  9. 9.

    A rare kind of marble.

  10. 10.

    But if such an objective evaluation is negative, then the Absurd arises.

  11. 11.

    Readers who are not convinced that True Meaning is more valuable than subjective or objective meaning alone, or together but not properly aligned, should at least acknowledge that anyone in the grip of the Absurd will find True Meaning more valuable.

  12. 12.

    Satisfying the ‘correct’ criteria is important because satisfying some incorrect set of criteria will provide only the appearance of objective meaning, not any actual objective meaning. It’s not clear how anyone could know exactly what the ‘correct’ criteria for objective meaning are, so, in line with current philosophical practise, theories about what confers objective meaning must just be plausible when viewed alongside other prominent theories with the same aim.

  13. 13.

    A more conservative version of Infinite Consequence might require that the consequences would have to be for humans, in order to confer objective meaning on a life, but this version seems to anthropocentrically take a human’s-eye view, rather than a universe’s-eye view as the objective viewpoint.

  14. 14.

    Note that Infinite Consequence only sets out a sufficient criterion for objective meaning, not a necessary one, which would be a much more difficult claim to defend.

  15. 15.

    While Infinite Consequence stipulates that a reason for an action having objective meaning is its having infinite consequences for life, it should be noted many kinds of infinite consequences for life are very unlikely to be found subjectively meaningful by anyone. In contrast to the objective viewpoint, from which personal values are not supposed to play a role, the subjective viewpoint is necessarily value-laden. As a result, individuals are much more likely to find only particular kinds of infinite consequences for life to be subjectively meaningful. For example, bringing enjoyment or knowledge to an infinite number of people is likely to be considered meaningful by nearly everyone, but causing minute changes in atmospheric pressure on an inhabited planet for infinity or accidentally unleashing a virus that impairs humankind for infinity are unlikely to be considered meaningful by many, if any, people.

  16. 16.

    Note that living for infinity does not entail that your life is classified as Truly Meaningful, according to the principle of Infinite Consequence. Living for infinity would permit performing an infinite amount of actions, but it’s possible that none of those particular actions would have True-Meaning-conferring infinite consequences for life. For Infinite Consequence, a life must contain at least one Truly Meaningful action to be considered Truly Meaningful. So, while living for infinity does seem to increase the chances of performing a truly meaningful action, it does not guarantee it.

  17. 17.

    Ultimately, the influence the musician’s work will have on others is something that he cannot control. All the musician can do is attempt to make his work as good, and as easily accessible, as possible. Furthermore, even if his music is popular throughout his lifetime, the musician will never be able to really know if his music will be admired by future listeners for infinity. These two elements—striving to achieve some kind of effect on something outside of himself and not being able to know for sure if he has succeeded—seem apt for a truly meaningful life. At least they prevent two potential problems. First, affecting others is not always directly under our control, adding some appropriate difficulty and uncertainty to the task of achieving True Meaning in life. Second, the fact that we cannot know if any of our actions will have the right kind of consequences for infinity means that we will never be in the potentially boring position, which Taylor (1981) worries about, of knowing that we have already made our lives Truly Meaningful and trying to work out what to do next. Indeed, lack of certainty about whether we have achieved True Meaning in our life is likely to motivate us to keep on striving to perform meaningful actions.

  18. 18.

    See Aguirre (2006) for an accessible introduction to Eternal Inflation.

  19. 19.

    E.g.: Farhi & Guth (1987), Farhi et al. (1990), Fischler et al. (1990a, 1990b), Guendelman & Portnoy (1999; 2001), and Sakai et al. (2006).

  20. 20.

    Assuming that we actually try to survive them.

  21. 21.

    Critics might claim that belief in Scientific Optimism is irrational because it’s very unlikely that any scientific or technological progress could enable life to persist for infinity and that no one will ever be able to know if life does persist for infinity. Indeed, they might claim that belief in Scientific Optimism is similar to faith in a supernatural entity. First, it is not sensible for anyone to claim that a logically possible future of the universe is implausible because it is unlikely because predicting the future of the universe contains too many unknown variables to be done with any accuracy. Second, given all the possible Naturalist and Supernaturalist theories about the meaning of life, belief in any one particular theory also requires a leap of faith. Since there are infinite possible mutually exclusive theories of the meaning of life, any one particular theory only has a vanishingly small chance of being true. Furthermore, unless a very surprising advance in philosophy is made, we will never have a way to verify if any particular theory of the meaning of life is actually true. Considering these responses, there is no reason to think that Scientific Optimism is any less plausible than other logically possible theories of the meaning of life.

  22. 22.

    There are many ways for Optimistic Naturalists with different tastes and capabilities to contribute to the advancement of science and technology. For some this might mean continuing their research in a specific sub-field of physics and for others it could mean focussing on their business enterprises and using the profits to establish scientific research centres, or even raising children to have a keen interest in science.

  23. 23.

    I would like to thank the anonymous reviewers at Sophia and Nick Agar for several comments that helped to improve earlier versions of this article considerably.

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Correspondence to Dan Weijers.

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Weijers, D. Optimistic Naturalism: Scientific Advancement and the Meaning of Life. SOPHIA 53, 1–18 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11841-013-0369-x

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Keywords

  • The meaning of life
  • Scientific advancement
  • Optimistic Naturalism
  • Infinite Consequence
  • Scientific Optimism
  • The Absurd
  • Tolstoy
  • True Meaning