Wednesday, April 13, 2005

The Meaning Of Life

Nobody knows the meaning of life, or even if there is a meaning (ie, whether "life" is just a completely random happenstance in the evolution of the Universe).

But, at one point in time, nobody knew how infection was caused or how to treat it. No one knew what electricity was, or how to harness it. At one point in time, no one even knew how to farm, or build shelter, or write. At some point in time, no one even knew such answers were possible, let alone how to construct the ideas of these inventions.

Yet each has been invented, to great practical effect (or "discovered" - but I think Socrates kicked Plato's ass on that idea). There's no inherent reason to believe that the question of the meaning of life can't fall into the same category, "things that can be known to a sufficient degree to predict and manipulate it".

Can we bound the problem at all? Can we say with any certainty what the meaning of life is not, or what characteristics the answer must have?

As I said in a prior post, since the definition of life is open to debate, the term "meaning of life" may not have any real semantic value. I could do the usual philosophical masturbation and manipulate words and rhetoric to make a case. (And I guess I will, a little). But it should be possible to tie the boundaries or characteristics of the answer with what we know of reality - of physics, math, evolution, biology, etc. Only by using such "concrete" definitions can the argument hope to have any basis in said reality.

Any Meaning Of Life must explain both the how and why life exists. The "why" must derive from the "how". (Starting with "why" definitely puts the cart before the Equus Caballus and falls into that philosophical self-gratification category of argument).

So what do we know about the "how" of life? Did we need to somehow be present at the origin of life to understand the "how"? If so, then we better focus on understanding the nature of time first, so we can go back in time to observe the origin of life.

But I don't think that's necessary. The physical universe has been around for a long time, and it's likely that the physical laws that were in such turmoil at the beginning of space-time settled down long before the first emergence of life in the universe. And those laws are pretty much the same laws that exist today. So by learning to understand the "hows" of today's physical universe, we should be able to understand the "hows" that drive life.

It matters less whether the specific origin of life on earth was in primordial soup, simple RNA chains in clay, or extraterrestial. What matters is that we're learning about some physical laws that pretty much made the emergence of life a foregone conclusion.

The book Nonzero : The Logic of Human Destiny, is a great introduction to some very important concepts that we're only just now beginning to formalize. The most important concept is that of "Non-zero sum" activities (as opposed to zero sum games, where if I win, you lose). In a zero-sum game, the size of the pie is fixed - if I get a bigger slice, you get a smaller slice.

Non-zero sum games create a bigger pie. A convincing case is made that - purely from physical laws and evolutionary biology - life has grown more complex, and more socially cooperative. As the author puts it,
The underlying reason that non-zero-sum games wind up being played well is the same in biological evolution as in cultural evolution. Whether you are a bunch of genes or a bunch of memes, if you're all in the same boat you'll tend to perish unless you are conducive to productive coordination.... Genetic evolution thus tends to create smoothly integrated organisms, and cultural evolution tends to create smoothly integrated groups of organisms.

In other words, it isn't just fortunate that cells cooperated and collected into colonies, colonies into organisms, and organisms into societies. It's inevitable.


At first, you may look at this and get depressed. Is that all life is? Just a set of random physical processes? The only "meaning" is to be assembled, grow, assemble another, then die?

But don't get depressed. You're just not looking at this the right way. What it says is that not only was life inevitable given the current physics of our universe, but that life continues to evolve and grow in a direction that is ever more capable of understanding that same universe. Life continues to invent more and more complex non-zero sum games. And with the complexity comes capacity to understand and interact in the universe in even richer and more complex ways. Like Moore's Law, the complexity of life and its capacity for understanding the universe grows exponentially.

This is basically an update on Teilhard de Chardin's noosphere, without the need to invoke God or directed evolution. It isn't necessary to believe in either to explain why organisms emerge, grow more complex, and create larger "organisms". Some, like author Vernor Vinge (one of my favorite fiction authors), see human evolution moving toward a "singularity" event, where the complexity and capability of humans take them to a "post-human" future that we can not fully envision from this side of the event. (This is similar to Chardin's Omega Point. And perhaps Chardin's reconciliation of Christian religion with this evolutionary perspective will sit better with those of you who have your own personal Jesus).

So whether you believe in the scientific attempts to explain the "how" of life, or the religious views of creationism, it appears in either case that life does have a purpose. That purpose is to cooperate and evolve more complex and capable life that can better understand the universe (which in turn can better cooperate and evolve - and perhaps design - more complex and capable life!).

We can't predict "the end" of this path (if there is one), and any ultimate "meaning" that may result - but we can take comfort and pride in knowing we are a part of a process that just gets better at understanding and being "one with the universe"...

Life Is Good.

(The implications of this on defining what is "moral" behavior for humans - what behavior assists in life's purpose, and what behavior does not - are interesting material for another post).

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