Wednesday, January 18, 2017

The Meaning of Life

In the beginning we should all be physicists. As Sean Carroll has repeatedly pointed out, the laws underlying the physics of everyday life are completely understood.
"Many people resist the implication that this theory is good enough to account for the physics underlying phenomena such as life, or consciousness. They could, in principle, be right, of course; but the only way that could happen is if our understanding of quantum field theory is completely wrong.

When deciding between “life and the brain are complicated and I don’t understand them yet, but if we work harder I think we can do it” and “I understand consciousness well enough to conclude that it can’t possibly be explained within known physics,” it’s an easy choice for me."
Carroll summarises our complete theory of the universe in one equation. As he points out, "No experiment ever done here on Earth has contradicted this model."

For the physicist, life is merely a parameter subspace in the evolution of the universal wavefunction. I'm tempted to mention cats. The physicist is professionally a psychopath. So note that the next time a famous physicist expresses an opinion on politics or public policy. They are talking outside their discipline.


It's not wrong to start with physics, how could it be? But we seek more enlightenment from biology. At least the subjects we study there are actually living.

The title of this post is the meaning of life. Did you see the word 'human' anywhere?

Consider the plants and animals, the germs and fungi, occupants of this planet for four billion years. Darwin gave us the answer - the meaning of life is to survive and have reproducing progeny. All those ancestral entities which didn't 'get that' were eliminated from reality.

And for most creatures, there is no more meaning than that. If they were to waste their time and energy on doing anything else, they would be outcompeted and removed from the gene pool.


On to sociology. It seems unbearable to a cultured person in the twenty first century that the meaning of their life is reduced to the number of child-bearing children they manage to create. This has thrown reductionist biologists into confusion.

I once read that the reason Catholic priests were celibate was some variation of the alleged 'gay uncle' phenomenon. Utterly delusional.

To state the obvious, humans are social creatures and large-scale agrarian societies rapidly outcompeted hunter-gathers. Almost all contemporary humans are the descendants of individuals who successfully adapted to living in large-scale cooperative societies.

Until the recent advent of contraception, reproductive success was strongly linked to social status. Social status in large-scale societies selects for social accomplishment: it helps to be good at something people value, and not to be a muppet.

A desire simply to breed is not really enough: your neighbours can get lethally irritated.

It's surprising how many people delude themselves that being an actor, a rock star, a politician or a top executive or even intellectual is not about getting the girl (or, if a girl, getting a better class of admirer).

What do you think?


Social creatures have complex life histories, no longer purely individualistic. We all recall "Haldane famously joking that he would willingly die for two brothers or eight cousins."

Those celibate Catholic priests are using prosocial psychological drives to inhibit their more primal reproductive imperatives. No society could cohere without such inhibitory mechanisms and since the ages of rape and pillage of outgroups, there has been selection for male self-control.

As ever, there is variation in the population and a celibate occupation strongly selects within that.


Some conclusions. The biologists are right: for humans the meaning of life is in some extended sense to have offspring. A society which fails to reproduce abolishes itself and vanishes from reality. The extended sense means that we could profitably devote our lives to aiding close kin, or even those whose social-solidarity benefits our kin (the foundation of reciprocal altruism).

We all benefit from the continuing integrity of our societies with their high carrying capacities.

It's OK to be a celibate, rule-abiding priest .. really. Even if you are professionally confused about the meaning of life.

1 comment:

  1. It looks like Carroll is not an "Emergent Physics" enthusiast. Physicists of the latter persuasion use complex systems theory and can merge with Biologists/Agent Theorists. However "Emergent Physics" has yet to play a role in Foundations - but the Cat may get involved here one day....


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