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.

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.

Why do people have opinions about homosexuality?

When did you most recently look at someone and hope that s/he would express an opinion about homosexuality?  I’m guessing the answer is “never.”  If you have hoped to hear that, then my guess is that you felt isolated and embattled by people who disagreed with your opinion, and you were hoping for someone to  support your views.  Have you ever actually been curious to know what a person thought about homosexuality, or wanted to hear an argument about it that might lead you to change your mind?

When did you most recently hear someone express an opinion about homosexuality?  I’m guessing the answer involves a story about being trapped with some terrible bore.  If it doesn’t involve that, then my guess is that it was some intensely personal encounter.  Have you ever actually found homosexuality a suitable topic for abstract discussion?

When did you most recently express an opinion about homosexuality?  I’m guessing the answer is “when I was being an asshole.”  If not, then my guess is that you were trying to stop the people around you from denouncing those they disagreed with by showing them that you were one of those they are denouncing, and relying on their regard for you as a person to prompt them to behave themselves.  Has anyone ever actually been impressed by the logic of an argument you have presented in support of your opinion about homosexuality?

I mean these questions seriously.  Some friends of mine are currently at odds with each other because they disagree about whether homosexuality is moral.  Mrs Acilius and I were talking about this group the other day, and said that the reason their trouble had come to a desperate pass was that they refused to sit down together and talk about their differences.  If only they could discuss the matter, we agreed, surely they would find a way to go on together, even if they didn’t have the same views.  With a taboo over such a prominent matter, their friendship seemed to be doomed.

Shortly after, we turned on the television and looked for something to watch.  As we flipped, we heard an announcer saying “And now, we take your calls on the question of the day: What should Christians believe about homosexuality?”  We nearly fell off the couch as we raced to change the channel.

If you don’t want to hear anyone else’s opinion about homosexuality and no one wants to hear yours, why bother forming, holding, and expressing such opinions at all?  Granted, there are public policy questions that come before the voters in most democracies nowadays that call for opinions about homosexuality.  But if people didn’t harbor such opinions, would those questions continue to exist?

Liberalism versus Sex

In the USA, it’s customary to divide the political spectrum into liberal and conservative, where “liberal”= “left” and “conservative”=”right.”  This tends to leave Americans perplexed when they hear people in other countries denouncing hypercapitalist economic policies as neoliberal or ultraliberal.  The easiest way I’ve found of explaining this usage to my countrymen is to mention H. G. Wells.   When Wells visited America in 1906, he remarked that the United States lacked two of the three major political parties that existed almost everywhere in Europe.  One of these was a socialist party.  While there was a socialist movement in the USA in 1906, no socialist party was a leading contender for power in national politics.  The other missing party was a conservative party.  Not only was there no major contender for power in the USA that stood for monarchy, an established church, and the traditional relationship between peasant and aristocracy; there was no constituency in American society that could possibly demand such a platform.  The parties that Wells did find in America would in the UK have been represented by the left and right wings of the Liberal Party:

It is not difficult to show for example, that the two great political parties in America represent only one English political party, the middle-class Liberal Party, the party of industrialism and freedom.  There is no Tory Party to represent the feudal system, and no Labor Party… All Americans are, from the English point of view, Liberals of one sort or another.  (The Future in America: A Search after Realities, pages 73-74)

Liberalism, in all its forms, holds out the promise of a social order based on reason.  Left liberals, including some who call themselves Greens or Social Democrats, want to reform the public sphere so that rational dialogue among individuals will dominate politics, and through politics rational dialogue will provide a meeting ground where a diverse population can live together peacefully.  Right liberals, including some who call themselves Conservatives or Libertarians, want to reform the economic system so that the rational self-interest of individuals will dominate the marketplace, and through the marketplace rational self-interest will generate an free and orderly society.  In either form, liberalism places its faith in the power of reason.

Such a faith can be very comfortable indeed.  Liberals left and right sometimes annoy their opponents by seeming so “terribly at ease in Zion.”  Even the most complacent liberal, however, can hardly fail to notice that some extremely important areas of human life do not seem to invite reason’s governance.  Among the most obvious examples is sexual behavior.  Decades ago, science fiction writer Robert Sheckley imagined what a perfectly rational lover would be like; in his 1957 story “The Language of Love,” Sheckley presented a character named Jefferson Toms who learned how to make love without compromising reason in any way.  Toms discovers why the species that invented this art went extinct when he finds that no potential lover can tolerate his scrupulously accurate endearments.

Of course, Jefferson Toms’ namesake Thomas Jefferson was at once one of the supreme exponents of the liberal tradition and a man who likely followed his sexual urges to betray every principle that tradition exalted.  When they consider sexual behavior, liberals typically speak of “consent.”  That “consent” is a technical term which has little meaning outside the legal processes where it arose becomes clear when we speculate on what may have happened between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings.  As Jefferson’s slave, Hemings could not legally consent to enter a sexual relationship with him, or with anyone else.  The law of a liberal society would thus label any sex act in which she participated as rape.  Hemings may indeed have experienced her encounters with Jefferson as rape.  We certainly don’t know enough to defend him in any way.  But surely it must give us pause to realize that our idea of “consent” implies that none of the billions of human beings who have lived as slaves has ever engaged in a wholesome sex act.  A non-liberal Right might claim that this implication reduces the whole liberal project to absurdity, and throws us back to traditional definitions of social roles, rather than individual self-determination, as the proper standard for judging the moral status of any action, sexual or otherwise.

A non-liberal Left might respond differently, but with equal certitude that it had found a fatal flaw in liberalism.  In our own times, Catharine MacKinnon and the late Andrea Dworkin exposed the shallowness of the notions of “consent” that underpin liberal definitions of rightful sexual behavior.*  Those notions imagine a man and a woman facing each other as equals and deciding, by a rational process, whether they will engage in a particular sex act.  At a minimum, an act can be consensual if and only if both parties are consenting to the same thing.  This in fact never happens, nor can it happen in a patriarchal society.  Wherever men as a group are recognized as dominant and women as a group are labeled as submissive, a man will gain power over women and status among other men if he extorts sex from women, while a woman will pay a price for resisting this extortion.  Because of these facts, men and women make such radically different cost/benefit analyses before agreeing to sex that the parties can never be said to have consented to the same thing.  For this reason, Dworkin wanted to excise the word “consent” from rape laws.

(more…)

The Nation, 17 May 2010

A phrase I like to use is “moral reasoning.”  What I mean by this is that there should be ways of thinking about moral questions that make it possible for people who disagree with each other to come together in conversation.  In a society where people often find themselves poles apart about pressing issues of the day, merely agreeing to disagree is not always an option.  And in a pluralistic society, approaches to morality that leave people with nothing to do but issue commands or strike poses won’t get us very far.  Real conversation might.  In some cases conversation makes it possible to find agreement, and in others it makes it possible to find peace amid disagreement.  Of course, it’s far from certain that moral reasoning of the sort I would like to see become a universal habit is even possible, but I don’t think it’s been shown to be impossible.  In fact, I suspect that I have engaged in it myself from time to time. 

Historian Tony Judt doesn’t use the phrase “moral reasoning,” but he’s been thinking about the question.  Here’s something he says in an interview from this issue of The Nation:

In my second marriage I was married to someone who was a very active American feminist and very anti the antiabortionists. I would find myself listening to her angrily say that abortion is a good thing and these people are crazed fascists and so on, and I’d think, This conversation is taking the wrong turn. What you have here are two powerfully held moral positions, incompatible socially, backed by different perspectives. But it’s not a question of one of them being immoral and the other being moral. What we need to learn to do is conduct substantive moral conversations as though they were part of public policy… Then you could learn to think of difficult moral issues as part of social policy rather than just screaming at each other from either side of a moral barrier. Then we could reintroduce what look like religious kinds of conversations into national social policy debates.

From Katha Pollitt’s column: “In the topsy-turvy world of the Christian right, any restrictions on their collective sectarian power [are] a denial of individual rights.”  Pollitt frames her argument in legal terms, but one might say that she has identified a breakdown in moral reasoning.  Americans who want to see a separation of church and state and those who want the state to subsidize some forms of religious expression can’t really talk about what they most care about when they talk with each other.   

Stuart Klawans went to the Film Society of Lincoln Center‘s festival of Lebanese movies about the Civil War.  I’ll list a few of these I want to remember for potential future viewing: Our Imprudent Wars (documentary, 1995); A Perfect Day (2005); Falafel (2006); and My Heart Beats Only for Her (2008.)  He also mentions a couple of non-Lebanese movies, notably Bahman Ghobadi’s portrait of Tehran’s underground music scene, No One Knows About Persian Cats (2009.)