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The Meaning of Life in a Formula

published August 2015
Can science help us overcome the terror of existence?
magazine cover

Harvard University paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, who died in 2002, was a tough-minded skeptic who did not suffer fools gladly when it came to pseudoscience and superstition. Gould was a secular Jew who did not believe in God, but he had a soft spot for religion, expressed most famously in his principle of NOMA—nonoverlapping magisteria. The magisterium (domain of authority) of science “covers the empirical realm: what is the universe made of (fact) and why does it work this way (theory),” he wrote in his 1999 book Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life. “The magisterium of religion extends over questions of ultimate meaning and moral value.”

In part, Gould’s motivations were personal (he told me on many occasions how much respect he had for religion and for his many religious friends and colleagues). But in his book, he claimed that “NOMA represents a principled position on moral and intellectual grounds, not a merely diplomatic solution.” For NOMA to work, however, Gould insisted that just as “religion can no longer dictate the nature of factual conclusions residing properly within the magisterium of science, then scientists cannot claim higher insight into moral truth from any superior knowledge of the world’s empirical constitution.”

Initially I embraced NOMA because a peaceful concordat is usually more desirable than a bitter conflict (plus, Gould was a friend), but as I engaged in debates with theists over the years, I saw that they were continually trespassing onto our turf with truth claims on everything from the ages of rocks and miraculous healings to the reality of the afterlife and the revivification of a certain Jewish carpenter. Most believers hold the tenets of their religion to be literally (not metaphorically) true, and they reject NOMA in practice if not in theory—for the same reason many scientists do. In his 2015 penetrating analysis of Faith vs. Fact: Why Science and Religion are Incompatible, University of Chicago evolutionary biologist Jerry A. Coyne eviscerates NOMA as “simply an unsatisfying quarrel about labels that, unless you profess a watery deism, cannot reconcile science and religion.”

Curiously, however, Coyne then argues that NOMA holds for scientists when it comes to meaning and morals and that “by and large, scientists now avoid the ‘naturalistic fallacy’—the error of drawing moral lessons from observations of nature.” But if we are not going to use science to determine meaning and morals, then what should we use? If NOMA fails, then it must fail in both directions, thereby opening the door for us to experiment in finding scientific solutions for both morals and meaning.

In The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom, I give examples of how morality can be a branch of science, and in his 2014 book Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality without Religion, neuroscientist Sam Harris makes a compelling case that meaning can be found through the scientific study of how the mind works (particularly during meditation and other mindful tasks), noting that “nothing in this book needs to be accepted on faith.” And Martin Seligman’s pioneering efforts to develop a science of positive psychology have had as their aim a fuller understanding of the conditions and actions that make people happy and their lives meaningful.

Yet what if science shows that there is no meaning to our lives beyond the purposes we create, however lofty and noble? What if death is the end and there is no soul to continue after life? According to psychologists Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg and Tom Pyszczynski, in their 2015 book The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life, the knowledge that we are going to die has been a major driver of human affairs and social institutions. Religion, for example, is at least partially explained by what the authors call terror management theory, which posits that the conflict between our desire to live and our knowledge of our inevitable death creates terror, quelled by the promise of an afterlife. If science takes away humanity’s primary source of terror management, will existential anguish bring civilization to a halt? I think not. We do live on—through our genes, our loves, our friends and our contributions (however modest) to making the world a little bit better today than it was yesterday. Progress is real and meaningful, and we can all participate.

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14 Comments to “The Meaning of Life in a Formula”

  1. D. A. Begelman Says:

    So what the author calls “existential anguish” is mitigated by the realization that we live on through our genes,loves, friends and contributions to making the world a bit better. Pardon me, but it’s a smarmy trade-off, and whatever the anguish in question supposedly amounts to, I for one should go on experiencing it until the fateful day, whatever the recompense in genes, loves, friends and the rest of the fanciful compensations!
    Moreover, even if the imagined consolations weren’t in the offing, I for one will continue to experience the anguish even though I get to realize that it too isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. That is, were I bereft of all consolation, I would still continue on toward death much in the manner I have pretty much always have: it’s coming, but it’s by far in a background of incessant preoccupation.

  2. Brian Says:

    Where’s the formula?

  3. Jay Says:

    Well, the price of freedom, as ever, is insecurity. If there is no pre-ordained meaning to life, the universe and the rest, we have to make it ourselves. What’s the big deal?

  4. Steven Freedman Says:

    Religion arose after humans developed a larynx with the ability to utter complex sounds and the mental capacity to formulate abstract concepts and communicate them, perceived the world as dangerous and in need of a benevolent guiding hand. Science arose from a desire to understand the universe so as to be able to arrange nature to create a more secure destiny.
    The meaning of life is whatever an individual chooses for him/herself, subject to peer pressure for a shared purpose to facilitate social harmony.
    Then there are the human drives for power, money, lust, pleasure, competitive success and family.
    Put them all together and they become the realm of human interest.
    What is the meaning of human life? Whatever a human mind can conceive of. There are individual answers, however a universal answer lies beyond the scope of acceptance.

  5. Danny Adams Says:

    Life is what it is at that moment of time. Some say creationism, some say evolution. This is my perception. Praying to a higher being has evoked many feelings, some good, some not so much. The accumulation of wealth through fear and law legislation to control the population has been a ongoing theme since the dawn of mankind. The obsessiveness of most people in power has mankind living on a planet that is destined to destroy its self, unless a new form of incentives to control population and power structure is put into place. When true Democracy is replaced by a financial lobbying system, the world will spiral into decay, one dollar at a time.
    A unjust war that is waged just for profit, is the worst evil of all.

  6. Zack Tacorin Says:

    I tend to agree with Steven Freedman’s comment that:
    “There are individual answers, however a universal answer lies beyond the scope of acceptance.” But then, I haven’t read Sam Harris’s “Waking Up.” I think science can help us, but I too have a hard time believing there is a universal formula. There just seem to be too many variables at play for any one individual.

    But then, maybe it’s not about a universal formula but more about discovering and using some key principles. Many religions promote moral principles, and science seems to be confirming that many of these promote happiness. This all reminds me of a Carl Saganism:
    “She had studied the universe all her life, but had overlooked its clearest message: For small creatures such as we the vastness is bearable only through love” (“Contact”).

  7. Bad Boy Scientist Says:

    Once upon a conference ago, I sat at the table of a moderately famous Astronomer and he expressed an opinion typical amount the ‘hard sciences’ – the ‘soft sciences’, such as psychology, sociology and even economics are ‘immature’ in their development and we should be very careful how much stock we put in their ‘results.’
    He clearly investigated these fields to form his opinion because he cited many detailed problems in all of them (I cannot recall even a tenth of them). But there are two points that have always stuck with me:

    Their ability to weed out ‘faulty ideas’ is pretty weak compared with fields like physics and chemistry: consider how long University departments of psychology allowed the study of ‘parapsychology’ and contrast that with how long it took the physics community to dispense with ‘Cold Fusion.’

    Another point was using the old “By their fruits ye shall know them” standard: Physics, Chemistry and Biology have taken humans to the Moon and brought them back safely; they have produced lasers, semi-conductors, new materials and new medical treatments and utterly transformed our economies and our way of living – not to mention our way of looking at things … compare that to the fruits of psychology or sociology.

  8. Yiddishe Kind Says:

    I’m a little bit like Gould. I’m Jewish, non-believer, and would really like to be able to stand for NOMA. Alas, I can’t. I agree with Steven Freedman when he says “The meaning of life is whatever an individual chooses for him/herself, subject to peer pressure for a shared purpose to facilitate social harmony”. I think that’s the point. Unless, of course, that what one chooses is harmful to the rights of another human being. I’d say science and religion as we usually think of it are incompatible. But that shouldn’t mean believers and non-believers should be incompatible. I always try to draw the line, and agree to disagree. Then again, that might not be easy in an environment where religious people outweigh non-religious. And, there are lots of people who quite frankly don’t give the issue much thought and invoke God while on a PET scanner.

  9. Don Says:

    The meaning of life is essentially to more quickly dissipate energy than non living forms of similar chemistry. Vestigial mammalian mother/infant bonding likely gives rise to an inner voice that easily transforms into seeking and speaking with gods. Awareness of awareness and pattern recognition/creation ability are advantageous in mating and preying, but alas, in praying as well.

  10. Bad Boy Scientist Says:

    Some scientists would disagree with Don’s opinion. They would say the purpose of life isn’t about energy per se, it is managing entropy and getting rid of it – by which means life can maintain itself – and its ecosystem – out of chemical equilibrium.

  11. Luke Vogel Says:

    What kind of “Kool-Aid psychology” is this? How did this come about;

    “And Martin Seligman’s pioneering efforts to develop a science of positive psychology have had as their aim a fuller understanding of the conditions and actions that make people happy and their lives meaningful.”

    How do you reconcile that with this;

    “The shallow bafflegab of such positive-thinking pioneers [snip] But one expects better of respected experimental psychologists such as Martin E. P. Seligman, who almost singlehandedly launched the positive-psychology movement in academia that is, according to the Positive Psychology Center website, “the scientific study of the strengths and virtues that enable individuals and communities to thrive.” Ehrenreich systematically deconstructs—and then demolishes—what little science there is behind the positive psychology movement and the allegedly salubrious effects of positive thinking.”

    Was there some assumption that NOMA would be easy? What baffles me is that some time after 1997, 5 years after the launch of Skeptic, you discovered that; “Most believers hold the tenets of their religion to be literally (not metaphorically) true”. As you previously noted, Dan Dennett made NOMA the primary target of his “Breaking the Spell”, though reconciling his “professing belief” with a literalism for “most believers” leaves me wondering if any of you know what you’re actually talking about with regards to NOMA.

  12. Eric H. Edwards Says:

    Luke Vogel is essentially correct. NOMA is probably not only the most reasonable and logical position for thinking persons,it is generous to both sides. What has changed historically is that science and religion need not quarrel all the time, nor treat any dialogue as a contest for a winner and a loser. Many scientists (like Dennett, the poster child for being a bad example) just preach to their choir, and the arguments are silly, unpersuasive, and lack the rigor that their profession usually aspires to. Religious literalists simply won’t admit new evidence. Neither dogmatic approach is insightful, just protective of turf. Scientists who want to deal with so-called “spirituality” simply redefine the word to fit their concept,in just the same way that fundamentalists apparently enjoy their theme aprks where the dinosaurs roam amongst “early” folk. Both can be amusing, both are making money…

  13. Dan Says:

    Anyone suffering from “existential anguish” needs to finish their reading of Nietzsche and not stop halfway through.

  14. Jim High Says:

    Until humans can realistically understand that it is this world that matters most, not getting saved so you can enter some hoped for eternity after we die, not much will happen. Yes, the need is to transform this world here and now, but we are the only ones who can work toward doing that. No help is going to come from above. And we will never live long enough to see the final result, if in fact there will ever be a final result, or perfection. It is like planting an oak tree in your family’s yard, only your grandchildren will see it in its maturity and thank you. But just as you plant the oak tree anyway, we must get to work on the future that we will never see. To be remembered by future generations favorably for what we did is our only Resurrection.

    People are not going to give up the God out there and recognize the Life Giving Spirit or Life Force of the Universe within them and all others until they realize that the tickets to Heaven after they die that religion is selling are tickets to nowhere. Only then will humans turn toward the one reality that exists. Our planet Earth.

    The important thing is to make it clear that whatever we call it does not indicate that there is something out there that does anything for us that doesn’t happen to everyone equally. Nothing that thinks or decides or plans. We know what Life is, we see it everywhere every day in all kinds of ways. We understand a force like the wind or gravity for example, and now we know about how all things were created out of and by the Universe itself. The Life Force of the Universe is a real power and everyone can use it or not. It’s always better to use it.

    The Gods of ancient times explained the world to people who had no other explanation. With science now explaining everything about our world, life and the universe, we have little need for a God on those terms anymore. But since everything in the universe is connected to everything else in multiple ways that we are just now discovering, it is these connections that provide the spiritual feelings we have for each other and the planet itself. So God will become something very different in the future. We don’t need saving as we are not going anywhere after we die. What the new concept of a God will give us is the way to live together that benefits, cares about and improves EVERYONE’S life.

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