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.

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The clean and the unclean

A few days ago, I left a long comment on Chris Dillow‘s blog “Stumbling and Mumbling.”  Mr Dillow had posted about a controversy that began when someone participating in a march protesting the results of Britain’s recent general elections (results which I predicted with less than total accuracy) added these words to a war memorial:

The controversy took on a life of its own after journalist Laurie Penny tweeted about it:

The furore that greeted Ms Penny’s remark reminded Mr Dillow of a book that I happened to have read just the other day: The Righteous Mind, by Jonathan Haidt.  I’d heard about this book more or less continually, from various people, since its original publication three years ago, and had been meaning to get round to reading it ever since. Professor Haidt, a social psychologist, argues that moral reasoning is best understood not as any one thing, but as a network of six interlocking systems.  These systems are the ways we have learned to differentiate between Care and Harm, Fairness and Cheating, Sanctity and Degradation, Loyalty and Betrayal. Authority and Subversion, and Liberty and Oppression.  According to Professor Haidt and his fellow advocates of “Moral Foundations Theory,” analyzing the opinions people express about what is right and wrong in terms of these six systems and of the relationships among them enables researchers to give more accurate accounts of the concerns of people who differ from them in class and culture than do other models, especially models drawn from reductionist philosophical projects such as utilitarianism.

Excerpts from Mr Dillow’s post:

The left and right don’t understand each other’s conceptions of morality, and don’t even try to do so. This is the message I take from last night’s row about Laurie Penny’s reaction to the vandalism of a war memorial….

“Destruction” isn’t entirely hyperbole. The Tories’ proposed £12bn cut in welfare spending is equivalent to £45 per week per working age benefit recipient. That would impose horrible hardship upon many.

Instead, Laurie’s mistake consists in doing exactly what Jonathan Haidt in The Righteous Mind accused the left of: she’s seeing morality as comprising just one idea whereas the right sees others.

Haidt and his colleagues claim that there are (at least) five foundations of morality: care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion and sanctity/degradation. The left, he says, stresses the first two of these but underweights the last three.

And this is just what Laurie was doing. She was emphasizing the care principle, whilst being blind to the sanctity principle – to the idea that we believe that some things, such as vandalizing war memorials, are wrong because they break taboos even if they don’t do material harm to anyone…

Which brings me to the problem. Far too many – on left and right – are so wrapped up in their own narcissism and so quick to condemn others that they fail to understand (or even try to) where others are coming from: the virtue of Haidt’s framework is that it facilitates such understanding.

What’s being lost in all this is Mill’s classical liberal idea – that there is a strong case for cognitive diversity. For me, Laurie’s voice is a welcome contributor to this diversity. If the herdthink that rushes to condemn leads to her being more inhibited, something valuable will be lost.

My comment was largely directed at earlier commenters who were too fired up about the issue to address the material about Professor Haidt’s theories that Mr Dillow had raised, and so consisted largely of an elaboration on some points Mr Dillow had already made:

Just the other day I finally got round to reading The Righteous Mind, and here you bring it up.

I think Professor Haidt gives us a very clear vocabulary for explaining, among other things, why religious freedom is so hard to maintain. Different religious groups have different conceptions of sanctity. What one person sees as deeply holy another person might see as purely functional, so that Laurie Penny’s comparison of the welfare state to a war memorial might be unintelligible to someone who regards the welfare state simply as a set of policies and institutions to be evaluated by their effectiveness at helping poor people get on, rather than as a transcendent force that sanctifies society. Likewise, the depth of horror that many people feel when a war memorial is vandalized is unintelligible to those who regard that memorial in purely functional terms; clean it up, and it sends the same message it sent before. The uncleanness that bothers those who are most horrified is a ritual impurity, not the marks that bleach or acetone can remove.

What really makes it difficult for people with different senses of the sacred to share a homeland is that something which one group regards as the most sanctified of all things might strike another group as the vilest of all pollutions, and vice versa. Go to an old church and look at the niches from which the Puritans tore the visual artwork during their days of iconoclasm, and think of all the other religious conflicts in history.

War memorials are very much part of this kind of thing. They appeal to Professor Haidt’s Loyalty and Hierarchy axes, but to Sanctity as well. So, if you regard a particular war as an abomination, a particular cause as hideously unjust, then a memorial commemorating those who died to advance that cause may strike you not only as a symbol of disloyalty and subversion, but also as a pollution of the space it occupies. Imagine if a memorial to the Kouachi brothers were erected outside the front window of the offices of Charlie Hebdo. Would it be enough to drape that memorial with a cloth so that no one could see its message? Would it be enough to remove it quietly and replace it with a flagpole flying the Tricoleur? Or would you feel an urge to destroy the memorial as noisily and dramatically as possible and to put some object on the site to which the Kouachis would have objected (perhaps an obscene image of Muhammad)? Indulging that urge would hardly be necessary to display one’s loyalty to France, and would likely involve violation of the hierarchy of the French state. It would make sense only as an attempt to exorcise the ritual impurity that association with the Kouachis would bring upon the site.

Now, the protestors who scrawled “Fuck Tory scum” under the words “Women of World War Two” were probably not objecting to the women of World War Two, not even to those among them who took Tories with poor hygiene as lovers. Still, to the extent that the war memorial is a symbol of the state and the Cameron government has come to be identified with the state, presumably they would have seen the memorial as an unclean thing and their graffiti would be an attempt to purge its uncleanness.

In fairness to Ms Penny, I should probably mention that she does seem to be more aware of these issues than either Mr Dillow or I have implied in the remarks above.  So the first tweets she posted after the one that caused all the trouble describe her grandmother’s contribution to the United Kingdom’s efforts in the Second World War and the role that the postwar development of the welfare state played in improving her lot.  Ms Penny tells us that her story and those of women like her consecrate the welfare state as a monument to the memory of the “Women of World War Two,” and that the Cameron government’s policies are a desecration of this monument:

So Ms Penny explicitly acknowledges the importance of the Sanctity/ Degradation axis as part of moral reasoning.  For her, that axis may be subordinate in its importance to the Care/ Harm axis and the Fairness/ Cheating axis.  But those who responded to her tweet in ways like this:

don’t seem to be treating the Sanctity/ Degradation system as an independent thing either- calling Ms Penny a “cunt,” libeling her late grandmother, etc, are not obvious ways of increasing the overall holiness of Twitter.  For these tweeps, Sanctity seems to be a function of Loyalty and Authority, Degradation a function of Betrayal and Subversion.  Perhaps healthful dialogue between people who disagree on moral questions requires, not only that we all acknowledge the full spectrum of moral concerns, but that we respect each of the six systems on its own terms, not trying to reduce the concerns of one to the terms of another.

The meaning of life (seriously- well, almost seriously)

Mother and son

A year or so ago a friend of mine asked me a series of questions, to each of which I happened to know the answer.  After I’d told her everything she wanted to know about whatever trivial subject she was asking about (it must have been a trivial subject for me to have had all the answers,) she asked, “okay, what’s the meaning of life?”  I laughed.  She pressed me on it.  I decided to play along.

My wife, Mrs Acilius, has cerebral palsy that affects her arms and legs in a big way, but her cognitive abilities hardly at all.  So a wheelchair and a trained dog can fill in for everything she needs to make her way in life as an independent person with a professional career.  At about the time my friend insisted that I craft an answer to the question “What is the meaning of life?,” I’d been spending more time than usual involved with her dog and his training, and was thinking that there might be some kind of deep cosmic significance in it.  So I took a shot at the question based on that.

Maybe, I said, it’s something to do with a reciprocity between care and need.  Mrs Acilius’ relationship with her dog has a meaning to her that a relationship with a human whom she or some social services agency paid to perform the same tasks wouldn’t have.  She and the dog both need each other and both care for each other.  A paid human attendant might need a job, but might not need her; she might need the help the attendant provided, but might not need the attendant.  In other words, the need that goes toward making a relationship meaningful isn’t just what the parties in it need from each other, but that they need each other.  And what completes that meaning is that those who need each other care for each other.

This came back to mind this afternoon as I was reading an article on 3 Quarks Daily about the value of children’s lives relative to other people’s lives.  The author, Thomas Rodham Wells, tries to fit children into a utilitarian moral scheme where they are “special, but not particularly important.”  I am not a utilitarian, for many reasons, some of which I explain here.  I do think that Mr Wells’ article is well worth reading, not only because he is a most sophisticated utilitarian, but also because his article can help to flesh out the idea that the meaning of life can be found in a relationship between care and need.

For Mr Wells, children are special because of their extreme neediness:

Children are special in one particular, their extreme neediness. They have quite specific often urgent needs that only suitably motivated adults can meet, and the younger they are, the greater their neediness. That makes children’s care and protection a moral priority in any civilised society – there are lots of things that aren’t as important and should give rightly way to meeting children’s needs. As a result, children create multiple obligations upon their care-givers, as well second-order obligations on society in general, to ensure those needs are met.

Yet the fact that you should give way to an ambulance attending an emergency doesn’t mean that the person in the ambulance is more important than you; only that her needs right now are more important than you getting to work on time. Likewise, the immanence of children’s neediness should often determine how we rank the priorities of actions we want to do, such as interrupting a movie to attend to a baby’s cries.

However, the special priority neediness confers on children’s needs is not to be confused with extraordinary value.  Indeed, children are, other things being equal, less valuable than are adults:

People’s lives get more valuable as they ‘grow up’ because part of growing up is having more life to live. The greatest part of the value of a human life, as opposed to that of a merely sentient animal like a mouse, relates to the development of personhood. Persons are what children are supposed to grow up to become. Persons are able to relate to themselves in a forward and backward looking fashion, to tell a story about where they have come from and where they are going, to determine how they should live, and so on. Persons are able to relate to other persons as independent equals, to explain and justify themselves, to make and keep promises, and so on. Personhood in this sense normally rises over the course of a life, peaking generally around the mid 50s, the traditional prime of life, before beginning to decline again.

The trouble with our attitude to children is that the less like this idea of a person they are the more valuable children’s lives are supposed to be. The younger and more inchoate their minds and the shallower their ability to relate to themselves, others, or the world the more important they are held to be and the greater the tragedy if one should die. Of course I don’t deny that the death of a child is a tragedy for her parents, I’m quite convinced of the depth of their anguish. But the fact of their grief that doesn’t address the issue of relative value. Is it really the case that the death of a baby is an objectively worse thing to happen in this world than the death of a toddler than the death of a teenager than the death of that middle-aged accountant?

The death of an adult person is a tragedy because a sophisticated unique consciousness has been lost; a life in progress, of plans and ideals and relationships with other persons, has been broken off. The death of a young child, is also a tragedy, but it seems a comparatively one-sided one, the loss of an tremendously important part of her parents’ lives.

I suspect that the idea that lives are to be valued because of their narrative content is more defensible than the idea that actions are to be valued because of their net contribution to the amount of pleasure (minus pain) in the world, and so I say that Mr Wells’ utilitarianism is more sophisticated than is the garden variety of that school.  Still, like other utilitarians he ends up putting lives in order by the rank of their worthiness to live.  In the Book of Genesis, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob specializes in this sort of ranking and presumably carries it out according to some rational plan, but I think it is safe to say that the job of the God of Genesis is unlikely to come open any time soon.  Failing that, the only scenarios in which it is at all necessary to rank particular lives by worthiness of life that are at all likely to befall any of Mr Wells’ readers may be battlefield cases where time is extremely short and highly-developed ethical codes are of little use.

Still, reciprocity of need and care, the potential for such reciprocity, need for a person rather than for anything one might get from that person, these are all narrative concepts, and all involve the kind of growth and strength upon which Mr Wells places such a premium.  Even a utilitarianism much cruder than his, which would be blind to these concepts, would still highlight the requirement that the needy person also have the ability to answer the other’s need for such a relation to have importance.

One of the weaknesses with the idea that The Meaning of Life is to be found in a reciprocal relationship between need and care is that people’s actual experience of moral reasoning in cultures around the world has many more than one dimension.  Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has recently attracted a good deal of attention with a model of what people are actually talking about when they talk about right and wrong, a model that operates on 6 dimensions.  One of these dimensions, an axis running from care to harm, is predominant in the thinking of many in Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic (WEIRD) circles.  Indeed, classical utilitarians do not recognize any other component to morality than care and harm.  Looking beyond the WEIRD world, though, we find that, while humans in all times and places tend to agree that it is usually good to care for others and bad to harm them, they also place great importance on other concerns as well.  Professor Haidt arranges these other concerns in five further dimensions of moral reasoning: loyalty vs betrayal, sanctity vs degradation, fairness vs cheating, liberty vs oppression, and authority vs subversion.

To go back to the example of my wife and her service dog, I think we can bring all of these dimensions to bear in explaining the superiority of a canine companion over a human employee.  Compare the direction of loyalty in the relationship between dog and handler with the direction of loyalty in the relationship between client and employee.  Dog and handler are loyal to each other.  Unless something has gone very far wrong, that loyalty is typically deep and untroubled.  Between client and employee, however, there is a complex network of competing loyalties.  The client and employee may or may not develop a loyalty to each other.  The employee, however, must also be loyal to whoever is paying his or her wages, who may be the client, but more likely is a social services agency, an insurance company, etc.  And in a capitalist economy, an employee cannot avoid being both cheated and oppressed unless s/he throws aside all loyalty to his or her employer and clients when negotiating wages and conditions of employment.  That isn’t to deny that this suspension of loyalty, like the suspension of disbelief when watching a play, can sometimes in the long run strengthen what was once suspended, but the sheer complexity of loyalty as a phenomenon within the marketplace does mean participants in the marketplace have a harder time building up loyalty as a virtue than they do when participating in other institutions.

In the matter of sanctity vs degradation, the reciprocity of care and need that the dog offers the handler brings sanctity into settings where a client and a human attendant might have to make a special effort to avoid degradation.  Sometimes a dog helps a handler to dress and undress, to bathe, and to do other things during which the handler is exposed and vulnerable.  The handler does the same for the dog, and the dog looks to the handler for every need.  Therefore there is nothing degrading about receiving such service.  Human attendants are usually trained to be respectful and inclined to be so, but even so, there is something demoralizing about the helplessness one feels when asking for help from someone to whom one can offer no comparable help in return.  Again, a qualified professional with the average amount of human compassion will minimize that demoralization, but some trace of it is always there.  With the dog, you are building a loving relationship in which both canine and human find something that can only be called sanctity.

As for fairness vs cheating and liberty vs oppression, the dog avoids the problems inherent in an adversarial economic system to which I alluded above.  This is especially the case in a program like that which has provided Mrs Acilius with her current service dog and both of his predecessors, Canine Companions for Independence.  CCI is funded by donations and operated largely by volunteers; clients pay only their own personal expenses.  Of course, it functions within the USA’s economic system, so it isn’t altogether a utopian scheme.  For all that Mrs Acilius is given to telling her dogs that they are “angels from heaven,” they are in fact bred and trained using wealth produced in our capitalist system, with all its characteristic virtues and vices.  But I would say that CCI’s philanthropic structure maximizes those virtues and minimizes the accompanying vices.

As it does with loyalty and betrayal, the market introduces complexity into the experiences of authority and subversion.  So an employee is under the authority of an employer and sometimes under the authority of the client, but occasionally is required to give the client direction.  This need not be an especially frustrating complex of roles, but it does make it difficult to see how there can be any great moral significance in any particular phase of it.  The relationship between dog and handler, however, is one in which the lines of authority are crystal clear.  And it is the mutual need and mutual care that keeps those lines of authority functioning.

So maybe my response to my friend wasn’t quite as silly as any response to the question “What is the meaning of life?” must initially sound.  I’m not planning to work it up into a scholarly project of any sort, because I’m not actually the sort of person who wants to have an answer to that question, but I’ve posted it here for what it’s worth.