Thursday, December 4, 2014

E.O Wilson: 'The Meaning of Human Existence'

I just finished reading The Meaning of Human Existence by the world's leading expert on ants. It's a quick read (only 208 pages) with, I think, an important philosophical message best summed up by this quote from the book:
"Exalted we are, risen to be the mind of the biosphere without a doubt, our spirits uniquely capable of awe and ever more breathtaking leaps of imagination. But we are still part of Earth's fauna and flora, bound to it by emotion, physiology, and, not least, deep history...There is no predestination, no unfathomed mystery of life. Demons and gods do not vie for our allegiance. Instead, we are self-made, independent, alone, and fragile, a biological species adapted to live in a biological world. What counts for long-term survival is intelligent self-understanding, based upon a greater independence of thought than that tolerated today even in most advanced democratic societies."
Jerry Coyne (also a biologist) isn't much interested in reading it and calls it "scientism." In Wilson's defense, he does spend a chapter on "The Meaning of Meaning" explaining his non-standard usage. And unlike in the video Jerry included in his post, Wilson doesn't really disparage philosophy in the book (religion does take a beating however). He even includes a chapter on "The All-Importance of the Humanities" (or "that which makes us human" as he describes it) and explains why he thinks the humanities (and not our science or technology) is what would interest an ET the most.

Wilson's "new enlightenment" philosophy finds no "meaning" to human existence in the sense of intention or design. But he does find "meaning" in our deep history and the contingency of life, and in the knowledge that we are part of, and dependent on, our biosphere. And he finds "purpose" in our being good stewards of our own future and of the biosphere on which we depend.

I didn't get hung up on the meaning of the word "meaning," but like both Jerry and E. O. I'm only an amateur philosopher. :)

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