Scientists Still Unable To Isolate The Meaning Of Life
I’ve just finished reading Douglas Adam’s hilarious sci-fi novel The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and I enjoyed it for two main reasons. One, it is seriously funny. I didn’t know it was possible for a book to make me laugh out loud. My favourite scene is when two of the protagonists, Arthur and Ford, find themselves aboard the Heart of Gold spaceship, a depressed superintelligent robot named Marvin escorts them to the bridge:
They span round and saw an abject steel man standing hunched in the doorway.
“What?” they said.
“Ghastly,” continued Marvin, “it all is. Absolutely ghastly. Just don’t even talk about it. Look at this door,” he said, stepping through it. The irony circuits cut into his voice modulator as he mimicked the style of the sales brochure. “All the doors in this spaceship have a cheerful and sunny disposition. It is their pleasure to open for you, and their satisfaction to close again with the knowledge of a job well done.” As the door closed behind them it became apparent that it did indeed have a satisfied sigh-like quality to it.
“Er, excuse me,” said Ford following after him, “which government owns this ship?” Marvin ignored him. “You watch this door,” he muttered, “it’s about to open again. I can tell by the intolerable air of smugness it suddenly generates.”
With an ingratiating little whine the door slit open again and Marvin stomped through.
“Come on,” he said.
“I hate that door,” continued Marvin. “I’m not getting you down at all am I?”
“Which government…” started Ford again.
“No government owns it,” snapped the robot, “it’s been stolen.”
“Stolen?” mimicked Marvin.
“Who by?” asked Ford.
Something extraordinary happened to Ford’s face. At least five entirely separate and distinct expressions of shock and amazement piled up on it in a jumbled mess. His left leg, which was in mid stride, seemed to have difficulty in finding the floor again. He stared at the robot and tried to entangle some dartoid muscles.
“Zaphod Beeblebrox…?” he said weakly.
“Sorry, did I say something wrong?” said Marvin, dragging himself on regardless. “Pardon me for breathing, which I never do anyway so I don’t know why I bother to say it, oh God I’m so depressed. Here’s another of those self-satisfied doors. Life! Don’t talk to me about life.”
“No one ever mentioned it,” muttered Arthur irritably. “Ford, are you alright?”
A depressed robot openly bemoaning the smug, self-satisfied doors that line the ship is a concept I’m still going to find funny years from now.
But there is a deeper reason I loved this book: Adams seems to have a lot of human psychology worked out, and some of the best punchlines speak to absurdities about human thought processes. Those who watched the movie would probably remember the scene when after millions of years of calculating, a supercomputer announces to civilisation that the answer to Life, The Universe, and Everything is 42, to the bemusement of everybody who wanted something a little more useful. After waiting millions of years for the answer, civilisation would now need to wait millions more years to find the right question for which the answer actually makes sense.
The reason this scene/chapter is so powerful and has become a bit of a meme is that it is trying to communicate something about philosophy and psychology: thanks to human psychology, we ask ourselves philosophical questions for which there is no answer that would actually satisfy us.
I explored this a bit in an earlier post, where I took the idea that an afterlife gives life meaning, and then thought through what kind of afterlife I would actually need to have in order to feel like life did have an inherent meaning. Suffice it to say that none of the alternatives really stood a chance of satisfying me in a philosophical way (though I’m sure many of them would be fun and enjoyable).
There is a now-deceased facebook meme paged named ‘This Is Not Satire’ that also touched on this. One post (which I can’t find now) showed a scientist announcing that meaning particles had been discovered and now we don’t need to ponder about the meaning of life anymore. Another post which I was able to find has a similar spin:
The gist is that if there was an objectively verifiable answer, which there probably isn’t, would everybody be satisfied? Would any one individual even be satisfied?
If there were an answer to the question of Life, The Universe, And Everything, would it need to satisfy us to be the correct answer? I would say yes, in the same way that the burger that satisfies our quest for the objectively most tasty burger in the universe better be damn tasty, at least to all the people who have any taste at all. But in asking the question, we’ve made an error in thinking that because a question can be asked, there must be an answer.
I’m not sure why we have this double standard but for some reason when the answer to a mathematical question challenges our pre-existing intuitions, we at some point have to say ‘well that’s not very intuitive but who ever said that the universe had to be intuitive?’ yet in the context of ethics and epistemology it’s the other way around. If we arrive to a conclusion that’s counter-intuitive, we take that as evidence that it’s the wrong conclusion. I’m not saying this algorithm isn’t useful: there have no doubt been plenty of times in the history of mathematics that a conclusion was unintuitive precisely because it was wrong and our intuition guided us towards the correct conclusion. But how many times do we need to reject unintuitive answers before we start questioning our intuitions?
I see this backwards reasoning a lot in the context of philosophy where the underlying psychology mediating our hunt for a certain answer ahead of time rarely receives the scrutiny it deserves. Typical example is abortion: we have the intuition that it’s wrong to kill babies who are already born, and we have the intuition that if a sperm cell and an egg haven’t yet met, you’re not exactly killing a child by preventing them from ever meeting, so we deduce that somewhere between those two poles we have a point at which it’s wrong to kill a child. Christians believe life begins at conception and that the semi-divinity of human life endows it with moral significance even when it’s still just a petri dish of cells. That seems a little silly when you don’t believe in souls, but then if you care more about something like ‘is this baby conscious enough to prefer to continue living’ you end up finding out that even after the baby is out of the womb, it still barely passes for conscious, meaning killing it then is roughly as bad as killing it while it’s still in the womb (capacity for adoption notwithstanding). I don’t think we’ll ever reach a hard answer for abortion that satisfies all of our soft intuitions, and I don’t think it’s that bad to try and find a happy medium when all of our intuitions are balanced, but I do feel a little concerned at the fact that it’s intuition alone driving the process and that if it turned out that there was a hard answer, but it ran counter to our intuitions, we would never have known that we had even come into contact with it.
Taking a psychological angle, in the context of abortion our intuitions tell us that we’ve found the right answer when we’ve minimised guilt. For the meaning of life, it’s about meaning. Guilt is an easy emotion to define, but how do you define meaning? I’m fairly confident when I say that meaning is about goals (typically goals of happiness and satisfaction), and that it communicates two things: firstly, the expected payoff of reaching a goal, and secondly, which path one should take towards said goal. It’s no accident that the most meaningful moments in your life probably revolved around romance, friendship, family, and progression up some kind of ladder, be it sports, career, or other. What were the odds that these very things most strongly decided the chances of survival and reproduction for the last few million years?
One way to think about what meaning represents is to consider how it’s used in everyday conversation. You could take every uttering of ‘what do you mean?’ in daily conversation and replace it with ‘how is that useful to me?’ and everything would still make sense. If something doesn’t ‘mean’ anything then it’s not worth our time thinking about or working towards, because it can’t help us progress towards any of our goals. The fact that we could be in a simulation is meaningless because even if we accepted it to be true, it changes nothing about our life, or even the possibility of an afterlife. There’s no way we could use that fact to adjust which goals we have and how we would reach them. The goal of making money is untouched by whether that money is actually just simulated, given that I too would be simulated.
My contention here is that we’ve given ‘meaning’ a spot in the realm of hard objective things like particles and people and planets and even more conceptual things like maths and logic, but it’s really just an emotion-like soft thing that mediates human decision making. There are plenty of things for which it’s meaningful to talk about meaning: we can all agree that cleaning toilets is less meaningful than finding true love. But the essentialism that makes us search for the meaning of life misguides us: it tells us that for any thing, there is some representation of that thing which will make clear how it is relevant to our goals. Like intuition-matching, this is a useful heuristic! We wouldn’t all have evolved with this simplistic model of the world if it hadn’t helped us survive and reproduce and create civilisation. But like all heuristics, there are these residual artefacts where the object doesn’t fit the model and we’re left lumping years of philosophical horsepower into a question for which the answer could never satisfy us, especially if that answer is 42.
It’s worth noting that as with many things in philosophy, the kinds of emotional states coveted by those seeking the answer are already inhabited by those who never thought to ask the question in the first place. I’m not saying these uninquisitive people are stupid, just that that they don’t share the gaping hole of meaning with their more philosophical counterparts. I think it’s fairly uncontroversial to say there are plenty of humans out there who simply love life, have a good dose of dopamine throughout their day, and don’t feel the need to invoke a god or an afterlife to justify their experience because you don’t need to justify something that’s really really good.
How do you know when you’ve come across one of these people? When you ask them ‘what is the meaning of life’, they will respond ‘what do you mean?’
For everyone else, we need to stop looking for a hard answer and settle for a soft answer that’s merely good enough. Something along the lines of ‘life has ups and downs but overall it’s preferable to death’. Not perfect, but anything’s better than 42.