Meaning of Life?

The other day, I noticed a tweet in which Cliff Pickover linked to a 2010 article by Sean Carroll called “Free Energy and the Meaning of Life.”

The article, which I had not seen before, included this paragraph:

Because the Second Law of Thermodynamics tells us that entropy increases, the history of the universe is the story of dissipation of free energy. Energy wants to be converted from useful forms to useless forms. But it might not happen automatically; sometimes a configuration with excess free energy can last a long time before something comes along to nudge it into a higher-entropy form. Gasoline and oxygen are a combustible mixture, but you still need a spark to set the fire.

and this one:

Here is the bold hypothesis: life is Nature’s way of opening up a chemical channel to release all of that free energy bottled up in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere of the young Earth. My own understanding gets a little fuzzy at this point, but the basic idea seems intelligible. While there is no simple reaction that takes CO2 directly to hydrocarbons, there are complicated series of reactions that do so. Some sort of membrane (e.g. a cell wall) helps to segregate out the relevant chemicals; various inorganic compounds act as enzymes to speed the reactions along. The reason for the complexity of life, which is low entropy considered all by itself, is that it helps the bigger picture increase in entropy.

I tweeted the link, adding these comments:

You may recognize the reference to Stewart Brand’s famous remark, “On the one hand, information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable.  The right information in the right place just changes your life.  On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time.  So you have these two fighting each other.”

Of course, it was just Professor Carroll’s use of the collocation “Energy wants” that reminded me of Mr Brand’s quote and led me to parody it.  Energy doesn’t at all want to be useful, and biochemical processes don’t at all fight entropy.  Life, like all physical processes, continually increases entropy.

Anyway, I do want to put in a partial defense of something which Professor Carroll explicitly rejects.  Here’s his opening paragraph:

When we think about the “meaning of life,” we tend to conjure ideas such as love, or self-actualization, or justice, or human progress. It’s an anthropocentric view; try to convince blue-green algae that self-actualization is some sort of virtue. Let’s ask instead why “life,” as a biological concept, actually exists. That is to say: we know that entropy increases as the universe evolves. But why, on the road from the simple and low-entropy early universe to the simple and high-entropy late universe, do we pass through our present era of marvelous complexity and organization, culminating in the intricate chemical reactions we know as life?

That “Let’s ask instead” makes it clear that the phrase “the meaning of life” appears in this article rather jocularly. Professor Carroll and his friends are reinterpreting the question “What is the meaning of life?” to mean, not “What meaning has the transcendent order of the universe inscribed on life?,” but “What is there about life that might make it interesting to a physicist whose primary concern is with cosmology on a large scale?”  That is, in itself, a fine question, and in an age when the idea of the physical universe as a place nested in a larger order that inscribes it and its parts with true and eternal meanings is not in all quarters regarded as a self-evident truth, it might seem like a natural way of repurposing a chunk of language that might otherwise have fallen into disuse.

Still, I do think that a question like “What is the meaning of life?” can still be asked coherently in something like its old sense.  Moral Foundations Theory, pioneered by people like Jonathan Haidt, shows that social scientists are capable of describing the concerns that lead people to decide that some things are sacred in a way that puts them above judgment, some are distasteful in a way that puts them beneath notice, and some are subject to evaluation.  For an example of something that is above judgment, imagine a pious monotheist hearing that some or other story about God makes God look bad.  To such a person, making that observation shows only that the observer is looking at the story from the wrong angle and missing its point.  For an example of something distasteful in a way that puts it beneath judgment (what Edith Wyschogrod, following Heidegger, called “bare life,”) imagine a discussion among philosophers about the ethical implications of particular methods of trimming one’s toenails.  The average person would burst out laughing if s/he overheard such a thing.

The tripartite moral reasoning that isolates the realm of judgment from, on the one hand, a super-moral realm of the sacred, and on the other from an infra-moral realm of bare life hinges on the concept of meaning.  The infra-moral is not only distasteful, but meaningless.  The other two realms each have their own particular forms of meaning.  The meanings of actions that are subject to judgment are intelligible to reason and open to rational challenge.  The meaning which sets the sacred realm apart is one which is ultimately mysterious, that is to say, beyond the capacity of language to express or of the rational mind to comprehend.  The moral reasoning that carries us through the realm of judgment does involve continual attempts to identify the boundaries of that realm.  So we again and again look for fragments of the sacred in our rational surroundings, and for fugitive significances in the realm of bare life. The three realms thus interpenetrate each other.

Indeed, the examples of “anthropocentric” answers that Professor Carroll gives to the question would suggest a world that has already drifted far from the views of the Stoic and theistic thinkers who used to ponder questions of transcendent meaning.  If by “love” we mean, not the set of social connections and moral obligations that word would have brought to the minds of people in the days when Stoicism and theism were the default world-views, but an emotional state characterized by extreme attachment between individuals and those individuals’ fervent desire to enjoy life together, then it’s difficult to see what “meaning” has to do with it.  “Meaning” is a word we borrow from descriptions of communicative behavior, and the part of that emotional state which we tend to call “love” in our day and age is precisely the part that has the least to do with the pair’s efforts to send or receive or preserve messages outside itself.  That intensely private, intensely intimate relation is a brute fact, not inscribed with any particular meaning intelligible to anyone outside the pair.  Even the members of the pair, as their feelings evolve, cannot entirely comprehend the particular emotional state they inhabited in earlier phases.

That’s as much a state of matter as or “self-actualization” in its in this article after starting with a brisk dismissal of “anthropocentric” ideas that invoke it.  I made an almost-serious suggestion here a little while ago about something that we might want to think about when we think about life as something capable of carrying meaning.  Like Professor Carroll, I do think that if we are to find anything useful about such an expression it ought to apply to more than human life.  On the other hand, it ought to be about humans.  The proper question to ask is, what is it about life that makes it possible for humans to find meaning, not just in their own individual lives or in each other’s lives, but in the fact that they are living beings like other living beings.

An impossible balance?

Yesterday, I posted this on tumblr:

I don’t exactly agree with what I said there, that we must not remember the twerp or his cause.  It’s really more that we have to strike a balance, and that balance is nearly impossible to achieve.

On the one hand, terrorists kill because they want to become famous and to gain publicity for their cause.  Therefore we should ignore them.  On the other hand, terrorists kill because they want to blind us to the humanity of their victims and to isolate the group of people to which the victims were targeted for belonging.  Therefore we ought to raise our voices and cry out about the violence, to remember what was done, why it was done, and face the facts which make it likely to be repeated.

So, we have to simultaneously ignore El Twerpo and examine him deeply, simultaneously dismiss his loathsome beliefs and search for their roots in our social order and their echoes in our own minds, simultaneously equate him with all that is weak and contemptible and recognize the bleak power that broods behind him.  How can we strike this balance?  The hell if I know.  But I am sure it must be done.

The Declaration of Independence as a Calvinist Tract

It would be quite an anachronism if the authors of the Declaration of Independence had not thought in terms inherited from Christianity

As part of a seminar the website Crooked Timber is conducting on Danielle Allen’s Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality Sam Goldman put up this post discussing Professor Allen’s interpretation of the theistic language in that 1776 document.  While Professor Allen concedes that a theistic reading of the Declaration is plausible, she argues that it is not necessary to arrive at agreement with the document’s central claims.

Mr Goldman is unconvinced of this, arguing that, while “Nature’s God” as described in the Declaration is not necessarily the Christian God, “the Declaration loses much of its original meaning if you leave God out.”  He spends several paragraphs discussing the sort of God the Declaration requires, showing that, for example, Spinoza’s pantheistic view might suffice to make sense of the bare language of the document, but that other evidence suggests that it would have repelled its authors, and that it would also defeat some aspects of Professor Allen’s interpretation.

I responded to Mr Goldman’s post.  I did not assert that the Declaration is necessarily a specifically Christian document, but that whatever God its authors had in mind was one who interacted with humans in much the same way as did the God Jean Calvin described in his theology.  Indeed, the reception of the Declaration in the civic life of the USA shows the influence of Calvinism on the American religious imagination.  I wrote:

“The Declaration’s God both reflects and reinforces hope that their rights were not reducible to their power or chance of immediate success.” And also their idea that justice is reducible to rights, while rights themselves are not functions of specific social institutions, but are given to us by God for no particular reason that history can discern, are received by us without our doing anything to claim them, and are retained by us throughout all time no matter how many centuries may pass without our exercising them, defending them, or knowing that they exist.

The Declaration may not mention the resurrection or Jesus “or other specifically Christian doctrines,” but in these three aspects it is, I think, obvious that the God of the Declaration relates to humanity in just the way that the God of Calvin does. Unconditional election, irresistible grace, and the persistence of the saints are three of the five petals of the Calvinist TULIP, and the Declaration’s view of rights as our history-free endowment implies a barely secularized version of all three.

The other two petals of the acronym, total depravity and limited atonement, are not far to find either. Both the king, in the comprehensive corruption that the list of grievances reveals, and the “merciless Indian savages whose known rule of warfare is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes, and conditions” show what humans are like when the Nature’s God does not so enlighten their understanding that the extraordinary claims of the opening paragraph become “self-evident.”

Even the very strange fact that the Declaration, which is a press release, became the occasion for the USA’s chief patriotic holiday shows the Calvinist influence. Not only do Calvinists tend to have rather a high respect for the market, so that an event in the marketing of the Revolution could become the paramount symbol of the Revolution, but also Calvinism’s emphasis on Biblical exegesis and the liturgy of the word prepared the Calvinist mind to look for the climactic moment of the Revolution, not in a battle or a treaty or in any other event where people gather and physical objects move between them, but in a presentation of abstract ideas to which people listen in silence.

This last point, that a particular configuration of the religious imagination is required to make a press release a fit object for national veneration, was in fact my initial response to the piece, as memorialized on Twitter:

“Saying ‘Lord Jones is dead’ to people who never knew that Lord Jones was alive.”

A century or so ago, G. K. Chesterton said “Journalism consists largely of saying ‘Lord Jones is dead’ to people who never knew that Lord Jones was alive.”  Social media has made that sort of journalism a pastime in which all of us may share.

On 12 June, the president of the Spokane, Washington chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, a part-time college instructor named Rachel Dolezal, a person whose name, up to that point, may perhaps have been known to as many as 200 people outside the Spokane area, was revealed to be a white person passing for African American.  Suddenly, Ms Dolezal became the most discussed person on Twitter and Facebook.  Melissa Harris-Perry conducted a not-unsympathetic interview with Ms Dolezal, setting off a secondary social media firestorm from people upset with her for granting Ms Dolezal a platform.   Countless right-wing voices equated Ms Dolezal’s “transracialism” with the lives of transfolk; some right of center pundits showed themselves surprisingly perceptive in critiquing this equation.   Lefties objected that Ms Dolezal’s behavior trivialized the oppression that African Americans suffer.  Some expressed that objection in a gentle way (see Keith Knight’s cartoon on the subject,) some in an angry way (see Tak Toyoshima’s cartoon,) and some with frank mystification (see Andrew Stewart’s essay.)  Left, right, or center, gentle, angry, or confused, no one seemed to be able to keep quiet about this person who had been so obscure so short a time before that some commentators who had already said a great deal about her had the sudden, uncomfortable realization that they’d never actually heard her name spoken aloud.

One of the reasons so many rightists were eager to make a connection between Ms Dolezal’s racial passing and transgenderism was that the same US media that suddenly filled with Ms Dolezal’s story last week had, the previous week, been dominated by coverage of Caitlyn Jenner’s announcement that she no longer wished to be known as Bruce.  Most of this coverage had been quite celebratory of Ms Jenner as an individual and ostentatiously supportive of transgenderism in general.  Many social conservatives were upset that something which they regard as so unwholesome was receiving so much favorable publicity.  What struck me as strange was the fact that the long-retired athlete formerly known as Bruce Jenner was receiving so much publicity.  After all, the last newsworthy thing she did was win a track and field competition in 1976.  I suspect that if you had asked a thousand Americans, a couple of months ago, what Bruce Jenner was up to, the most common reply would have been “Who’s Bruce Jenner?”  Certainly everyone under 40 would answer that way, unless their parents were antique dealers specializing in old Wheaties boxes.  The second commonest reply would probably have been “Didn’t he die years ago?”   All I can figure is that someone decided it was time to have a major transgender celebrity, and if the best they could come up with was a minor celebrity from decades ago, they would build that person up with all the force they could muster.

Day before yesterday Ted Rall wrote an essay on this general topic of “celebritization.”  It begins: “Even if you’re a news junkie, you probably never heard of Dave Goldberg or Beau Biden before they died. Yet both are at the center of a national mournathon.”  That’s a bit of an exaggeration; as a military lawyer, Beau Biden was deployed to Iraq in October 2008, while his father was running for vice president, and that was very big news at the time.  Granted, that was almost seven years ago, but I think most people who were paying attention to that campaign would remember it.  Certainly it would be at least as fresh in the public memory as the 1976 Summer Olympics!  And Dave Goldberg’s firm SurveyMonkey, which Mr Rall calls “a relatively obscure Silicon Valley startup,” has been a significant part of life in the Acilius household for several years, since Mrs Acilius is a sociologist who uses SurveyMonkey all the time.  Still, it’s true that not a particularly large percentage of the US population were in a position to have experienced the deaths of either Beau Biden or Dave Goldberg as a personal loss.

Mr Rall goes on:

What’s weird – and make no mistake, it really is strange – is to see the deaths of unknown people elevated to national events simply due to their relationship with the rich and famous. If Biden died, I’d expect a state funeral. Sandberg merits an eighth of a page obit. Biden’s son and Sandberg’s husband? Not so much.

Until 2014, high profile deaths followed high-profile lives. Now, you don’t have to accomplish anything, at least anything that makes a public impact, to be grieved by the public.


If you want to be sad about someone you never knew about, much less knew, that’s your business. But I’ve got a question for you: when the celebrities go on and on and on about how fabulous the dead man or woman in question was, how on earth do you know if any of it is true?

I’d put the sudden celebration of the, until then, long-forgotten Ms Jenner and the outrage over the, until then, totally obscure Ms Dolezal in the same category as the mourning over Messrs Goldberg and Biden.  I’m inclined to be happy that so many people responded to Caitlyn Jenner’s introduction of herself to the world with warm expressions of support for transfolk, but how can we take those expressions seriously when they are bound up with the patently false idea that Bruce Jenner was still famous as late as this year?  I’m inclined to share the concerns that left of center commentators have expressed about Ms Dolezal’s performance of race, but how seriously can we hope that public understanding of those concerns will deepen when they are attached to a figure whose prominence is so obviously ephemeral?

Tom Baker saying “the United States of America”

Some time ago I came upon this video clip of a decades-old interview with actor Tom Baker, and have been trying ever since to imitate him when I say “the United States of America”: