Sunday, 20 February 2011

Chris Port Blog #102. The 'Meaning' of Life (Emergent Properties)

© Chris Port, 2010

1. Excessive teleology (explaining thought in terms of purpose)

2. God – a ‘lucky’ mistake?

3. What category error does Religion make?

4. ‘If we can't agree then let's split the difference.’

5. The Selfish Gen(r)e

6. Emergent properties

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1. Excessive teleology (explaining thought in terms of purpose)

‘Meaning’ is a misfiring of logic. It is excessively teleological (explaining something in terms of cause or purpose). Meaning is something that happens after a thought, not before it. More biologically, it is an echo after the firing of neurons in Dawkins’ ‘selfish’ genes. It is the conscious mind trying to pretend that it is in control, trying to find a gap for free will. From the first measurable stirrings of a thought or action in the pre-motor cortex, to our ‘awareness’ of making a decision, there is a strange gap of several seconds. Into this gap fall all our previous certainties.

Consciousness is a sudden accident, a freak side-effect of life, in one very small part of the universe, at one very brief moment in galactic time. The universe is spinning a much longer yarn than us. Sub-atomic particles, or strings, or somethings, are spinning or vibrating or fluctuating or doing something at the quantum level (dancing on a pinhead, probably ... and waving). The whole human story of history consists merely of genetic data encryption errors in our DNA ‘software’ (or, more organically, ‘wetware’). But, in evolutionary terms, very useful errors. Thinking, including making mistakes about the physical world, can become an improved survival mechanism if those ‘lucky’ mistakes tend to pay off. One such ‘lucky’ mistake was God...

God – a ‘lucky’ mistake?

At some point in the dividing branches of life, our earliest ancestors made some evolutionary leap (or slither). They started to think. This was probably just some arbitrary misfire of neurons, what Wittgenstein might term a ‘category error’. The brute axioms of the natural world, lacking all sentience and sentiment, became part of our story and thus took on meanings.

Self-awareness, and its place in the world of ‘the other(s)’, led to a dividing point in the story of the apes:

a) animal panic response, the body’s needs and reflex actions determining the mind’s functions

b) or the mind making a lucky mistake – a ‘category error’.

Utility, categorising patterns of behaviour as useful to survival and well-being, led our ancestors to identify use with function. If something was useful then it had its uses. This is simply a tautology, a self-evident reiteration, that became hardwired into the neural networks of one branch of the family tree.

a) If Use = Function, then Function = Purpose.

b) And if Function = Purpose, then Purpose = Meaning.

Category errors, but useful. These ‘thinking’ apes became aware of life and death, theirs and others. Our earliest ancestors instinctively knew what Richard Dawkins has just reminded us of – the utter lack of pity in the natural world. Because these apes (or, at least, their neural synapses and genes) had found a survival advantage in attributing function, purpose and meaning to the world, this freak side-effect of matter and energy we call ‘consciousness’ began to have its evolutionary disadvantages. What intelligent creature would want to live in such an unintelligent world?

Hence religion and art: illusory, but providing the intelligent mind with a protective filter, a shared feeling, a way of telling meaningful stories about our accidental existence. Without these stories, the selfish gene of human consciousness would become the suicidal gene of human despair – and this is the danger posed by unrestricted ‘scientism’ (the paradigm that a scientific narrative is the most useful way of explaining the universe that we appear to find ourselves in). Scientism, like religion, just makes another category error.

What category error does Religion make?

Religion is basically one of the earliest branches of philosophy. The earliest tentative step onto the unknown branch of thinking was probably language – mostly body language to begin with. An intelligent creature evolves neural networks that allow it to respond almost immediately to its environment with some sense of available options and a means of discerning between them. The evolutionary advantage of thinking, if only in the basic animal sense of the term, is that an intelligent creature can leap thousands of generations of life and death experiences with a single thought – often a random but useful category error linking previously unconnected neurons. If the connection pays off (in survival and propagation terms) then the data encryption ‘error’ is passed on, first as a behavioural characteristic, then as a social meme (the ‘rulebooks’ for successful genes).

The most basic human ‘pack’ is the family and the evolving human psyches, with all their evolutionary advantages, needed to work out some way of peacefully co-existing with each other to their mutual advantage (although genes, neurons and sub-atomic particles do not have ‘needs’ – they just do what they do, finding temporal but always unstable balances of power in a universe of incalculable interactions and questionable predictability).

One way of navigating through such increasingly complex interactions with the world is to find a basic underlying pattern. The earliest pattern of human thinking we have to refer to is that of childhood. We do not emerge from the comfort of the womb with the guilt of clothes. We learn to play the rules to our advantage through behavioural rewards and punishments (the dangers of adventurous play), then connections, actions and ideas, imagination and consequences evolve into beliefs.

Beliefs, like the appendix, are previously useful left-overs. The question is whether they are still useful? The science that tries to rewrite those deep human beliefs in an evolutionary heartbeat is taking on ancient powers of comprehension.

The basic social meme of childhood is that there are powers above you. These powers are often fearful (through chastisement) but sometimes comforting (through wisdom). They hopefully know better – and this suggests a universe with a hidden meaning and a life with a hidden purpose. One which may be revealed ... to the devotee.

But, as the bible narrates, the time must come to put away childish things. Each thinking ape, each balance of consciousness, must struggle with the conflicting neural networks of its genetic and experiential inheritance. The category error of religion is that it mistakes human beings as the ultimate expression of purpose and meaning. From a scientific perspective, this is relativistic nonsense. The universe, and our place in it, are capable of mostly consistent explanation within the limits set by the uncertainty principle and the big bang without the ‘need’ for a god. It is only human beings that ‘need’ god - and with good reason too.

a) If 'reality', or, at least, a scientific approximation of it, has no meaning then our evolutionary emergence into consciousness no longer provides any advantage.

b) If no meaning = no purpose, then we have no function. And no function = no use.

If nothing humanity does is of any use then what is the use of life? This suicidal despair is clearly not what Dawkins is advocating. What if we were able to transcend this genetic inheritance, making some Kubrickian jump-cut into a higher way of thinking – a greater sense of wonder as the mysteries of the universe yield themselves to science, like the veils of the temple being rent with a scalpel? If we can’t agree then let's split the difference.

‘If we can't agree then let's split the difference.’

If the pitiless logic of science renders thinking a comfortless activity, despairing even, then those genes, and those neurons, will no longer confer an evolutionary advantage. Thinking, consciousness, self-awareness, will all become ‘anti-social’ activities. If a practice dies out sociologically, it also dies out genetically (within that society at least). When social memes die out, so do entire genetic populations. This is not a world that I would wish to live in, in both meanings of the phrase. Even if my animal instinct for self-preservation prevailed, it is unlikely that I would be allowed to live for long, anyway. Nigel Kneale got it right. There are dark, Jungian forces at work in us.

The Selfish Gen(r)e

There are basically three ways of thinking about things. They involve time. And time, ultimately, is about Life and Death:

a) The ‘Now’.
b) The ‘Past’.
c) The ‘Future’.

Really, time is just a narrative. A way of structuring life. A way of thinking about it. A way of trying to make sense of it. We remember facts but we understand stories. Language provides the building bricks of meaning, not the meaning itself. A house is made of bricks, but a brick is not a house. It is only when words are combined, in a narrative, one thing linking to another, that we start to have stories, ideas, qualities, feelings, meanings. Facts don’t have meanings. They just exist. They have no other purpose. Only stories have meanings, styles, values... According to Darwin and Dawkins, Homo sapiens, the ‘Naked Apes’, are just evolved animals. But are you just an animal? Or are you something else, as well? What does it actually mean to be a human being?

Your life is a pitiless, meaningless, doomed struggle for survival. You will, ultimately, die. The universe came from... nowhere... no time. Time and space were created with the universe. There was no ‘before’... Ever... The universe is (probably) just a random accident. It happened because it could. It doesn’t need a God. But is that the same as saying that there isn’t a God? The real question is what is meant by God?

Emergent properties

Just as human consciousness is an ‘emergent property’ of particles and processes which are, in themselves, insentient, might ‘God’ be an emergent property of human consciousness? The ‘sacred’ is an abstract concept, not a physical ‘reality’. But so is ‘love’. Does love ‘exist’? Most people would accept love’s existence as an axiom of humanity, even though its substance, nature and meaning (or even ‘truth’) are subject to much doubt and debate. If we replace the term ‘God’ (with its connotations of a supernatural creator, omniscient and omnipotent) with ‘a sense of the sacred’, we may be closer to finding the ‘meaning’ of life. Meaning is in art and aesthetics, not in unquestioning dogma. Art as entertainment distracts us from reality. Art, as a sense of the divine, brings us closer to it. We need both. Now more than ever. A collaborative, surreal, satirical, tragicomic piece of musical political theatre about a gullible martyr would seem to be a fine way of linking the two. As the Chinese politely curse, “May you live in interesting times...” We do...


  1. On Reconciling Atheism and Meaning in the Universe

  2. 'Philosophy v science: which can answer the big questions of life?'
    Julian Baggini and Lawrence Krauss, The Observer, Sunday 9 September 2012

  3. 'Eureka: A Prose Poem' by Edgar Allan Poe

  4. On the 'redefinition' of God...


    Sam Harris (world famous neuroscientist philosopher) is offering his critics a chance to put up or shut up. He's offered a cash prize of $20,000 (about £12,800) to anyone who can convincingly refute his central argument for a scientific morality.

    Assuming no-one can refute him, there's a consolation prize of $2,000 (about £1,280) for the most interesting response.

    See FAQs in link for further details. Closing date for entries is 9 February 2014, so you've got time to buy his book and boost his royalties.


    Hmmm… Traditionally, science has been regarded as descriptive and morality as prescriptive. But science is also predictive. So, in Sam’s moral landscape, do good* predictions = good** prescriptions?

    * Falsifiable
    ** Beneficial

    Possibly. But if they’re truly equivalent, does it work vice versa? This leads out onto some very thin ice…

    The real question is always “Cui bono” (to whose benefit?). So I suspect that Sam’s thesis could only be refuted by reference to de facto cynicism rather than de jure principle (i.e. selectivity and performativity)


    I don’t actually want to refute Sam’s thesis (fortunately for me). I just want to qualify it (modesty is my only flaw). But, in order to qualify it, I’ll have to fail to refute it in a way that grabs his interest. So, all I’m really looking for is a fascinating aesthetic conundrum at the heart of his argument…

    See also:

    Can Science Answer Moral Questions?

    First Draft PhD Proposal

    Woolwich Threads

    A Crash Course in Aesthetics

    Metamodernist Case Notes on a Think Tank Thread: Why Us and Why Now?

    Notes on Metamodernism: The Pit and the Pendulum...

    The Name of the Ghost

    Teachers Talking Rot (1 of 2)

    Teachers Talking Rot (2 of 2)

    See also: "Perhaps description is the key?"

    Marty Solves One of the Problems of the Universe

  6. WG: If morality evolved for the purpose of fostering community, can we deduce anything about what is moral/immoral without committing the naturalistic fallacy? If so, what?

    Naturalistic fallacy

    CP: Assuming evolution (and discounting intelligent design) we would be committing a teleological fallacy if we claimed that morality evolved for any purpose.

    See Teleological Argument

    It would be less erroneous if we simply claimed that community evolved as a successful survival strategy. From this we can deduce that morality evolved from a natural hierarchical pecking order into etiquette.

    See Etiquette

    The problem of the 'Naturalistic Fallacy' arises because of a manmade distinction between natural and manmade.

    This distinction seems to be an inverted form of the anthropomorphic/pathetic fallacy.

    See Pathetic Fallacy

    Man (i.e. homo sapiens) evolved IN the natural world. However, our intelligence evolved as another successful survival strategy. Eventually, this sapient differential resulted in misrecognition. We began to see ourselves as SEPARATE from the natural world.

    However, this separation is a fallacy. In (physical) reality, sentience is an emergent phenomenon. The artificial is still part of the natural world.

    From our initial premises, we can deduce that morality (i.e. evolved etiquette) can only exist in higher level consciousness. Therefore, we can deduce that morality is a complex emergent property.

    After that, we can only deduce that we are playing Wittgensteinian language games.

    See Language-game (philosophy)

    In 'The Moral Landscape', Sam Harris proposes we should discard cultural relativism and quantify these language games in terms of 'the well-being of conscious creatures'. It's a logical deduction and a valid premise.

    See 'The Moral Landscape'

    Whether his arguments are sound is still up for grabs though.


    CP: If morality is ‘the well-being of conscious creatures’, then consciousness must precede well-being.

    This is a one-way logic gate. We can talk of consciousness without well-being, but it makes no sense to talk of well-being without consciousness.

    Ergo, existence must precede essence (sans Sartrean Free Will).

    Ergo, survival must precede morality.

    But survival of what? Individuals, communities, genes, or memes?

    These qualities are entangled and interdependent. But which is most important?

    Ironically, we cannot be equitable from first principle here. Unfortunately, we do not live in a deathless paradise. Therefore, in the physical universe, we can only talk of survival and morality in terms of priorities (e.g. dilemmas or conflicts of interest).

    The scientific method can quantify well-being. But can it qualify existential priorities? If not, then a scientific morality without aesthetic qualification has no system of prioritization.

    Ergo, does ‘scientific morality’ encounter similar inconsistencies to those identified in Gödel's Incompleteness Theorems?

    Raatikainen, Panu, "Gödel's Incompleteness Theorems", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)