“Ever more people today have the means to live, but no meaning to live for.”
Almost every human has, at one moment or another, recoiled from the world and asked a simple but disturbing question: “what is the point of this; what is the meaning of it all?” For some, an obvious and appealing answer is easy to achieve. Meaning is given by an all-powerful deity that created the universe; and, although answers vary, this deity usually intended one purpose or another. It did not, in other words, create the planet for pointless amusement. For others, such an answer is more difficult to discover. Without belief in god, questioners must look for other answers, answers that are often less comforting. In the modern era, an increasingly popular answer is that there simply isn’t a purpose to life. Life is, to borrow from Camus and other existentialist philosophers, meaningless. The universe is purposeless. We inhabit one planet among many; we float aimlessly through vast stretches of space and time; and then, when the end comes, we expire as silently and as meaninglessly as a burned out match. However bold or courageous such a belief may be, it does not seem provide succor to those who suffer; nor does it seems to satisfy an unquiet mind as it contemplates its own inevitable demise.
From an evolutionary perspective, the above presents an intriguing puzzle. What possible evolutionary benefit would a need for meaning confer? Why are some answers to the question, “what is the meaning of life,” more appealing than others? And why has the world for many in advanced, industrial societies, become divested of meaning? To appropriately address these questions, I think meaning needs to be divided into two distinct but partially related concepts: implicit meaning and reflective meaning. Implicit meaning is a feeling based experience of meaning that is not wholly conscious or symbolic; it is, in other words, an unreflective state of the mind, a kind of background mood. For example, participating in a sporting event might feel highly meaningful and highly engaging whether or not one reflectively thinks “this is the meaning of life!” Reflective meaning is a conscious, symbolic cognition that explicitly addresses the question, “what is the meaning of life (generally, “of my life”).” For example, a politically active person might think that her purpose or meaning in life is to actively promote the production of a more equitable society.
Implicit meaning, I think, is straightforwardly connected to fitness-enhancing activities. Experiences that are emotionally fulfilling and meaningful generally promote biological fitness because the human organism has been sculpted by evolution to feel satisfied, happy, engaged, by activities that would have increased fitness in the environment of evolutionary adaptedness (EEA; this holds even if one does not accept a “strong” version of EEA; see Damasio, 1999). So, conversations, social games, dates, sex, eating, achieving status, pondering lush environments, et cetera, are all satisfying activities that provide a sense of implicit meaning. Of course, this is not always true because 1) the modern world has introduced many stimuli that are novel and that, in one way or another, “trick” the brain into believing that they are enhancing fitness, and 2) we have needs and desires that compete against one another and deprivation in one area may cause pursuits that are ultimately deleterious. So, for example, playing Call of Duty 4 for endless hours in perfect solitude may feel exciting and engaging, but it probably does not enhance an individual’s fitness (unless one becomes good enough to impress friends and potential mates alike).
Reflective meaning is more complicated and more puzzling from an evolutionary perspective. Jesse Bering (2003) argues that humans appear to possess a unique “existential domain” of cognitive processing, a domain that is independent of the physical, biological, and social domains. Existential cognition, according to Bering, seeks out meaning or teleological purpose for the narrative self. Searching for teleological purpose is a standard way of dealing with artifacts and often of dealing with natural phenomena. Upon observing a device on our friend’s table that we do not recognize, a typical question is “what is this device for?” We categorize objects based on their purpose or function, ignoring more immediate but less important physical characteristics. Although a watering can is more similar, physically, to a trash bucket than to a glass, it is in classified with the glass because its purpose is to hold water, not trash. A mere change of function can change an object’s classification. A urinal, to take an infamous example, can be turned into a work of art by changing its perceived function (from actual urinal to aesthetic object in art show). In a similar manner, existential cognition asks “what is the function or purpose of this or that event—or, of my life?” This is almost certainly familiar. We are driving home from work, exhausted, perhaps even a bit despondent, when we spot a spectacular rainbow rising from a line of towering trees. Suddenly, we are cheered and we think—even the most materialistic and cynical of us, if only for a moment—the universe must be telling us something, must be signaling something through the rainbow. In a sense, then, we treat our own lives as we would a character’s in a novel; we assume that there is an omniscient narrator–although not necessarily a god–who is deftly using the universe as a form of symbolic communication, who is intending that objects and events function as signs (including our own lives). Notice that existential questions are most satisfactorily answered with functional or intentional responses. It is not, for example, satisfying to answer that we saw the rainbow because of a large chain of impersonal causes and effects, even if our mind tells us that that must be the case. Likewise, it is not comforting to believe that we are simply the sum of a certain combination of natural elements, shaped and created by natural selection, and doomed to perish after a series of haphazard events and experiences.
I think Bering is correct. We seem to possess an existential domain of cognitive processing. The next puzzle is why we possess this domain of cognition. Is it adaptive? Or is it a cognitive byproduct, a proclivity that is a result of another functional style of cognition? My suspicion is that it originally developed from other cognitive tendencies—most obviously, our tendency to analyze artifacts in a functional manner—but that it was preserved and shaped by natural selection because it was fitness enhancing. Specifically, I think that it facilitated the development of culture and group cohesion by providing a “need” for meaning that could be fulfilled by the ideological narratives of cultural groups. Alexander (1990), Flinn, Geary, and Ward (2005), and Humphrey (1976), have all argued, in one form or another, that many of the traits that make humans unique are a result of coalitional competition. That is, competition between competing coalitions caused a powerful evolutionary pressure that resulted in our unique cognitive abilities, including symbolic cognition. If true, a clear case can be made that that same pressure would have favored humans who found sacred meaning (and therefore motivation) in existential narratives because such narratives are often (almost always in the EEA) provided by culture; concomitantly, evolution would have favored the creation of such narratives, at first to tap into an already existing propensity of the mind, and later to tap into an actively evolving one, each reinforcing the other. The passionate commitment of a Christian to his or her group members, for example, is profound and it is doubtful that such commitment could be sustained or replicated without an elegant and inspiring existential narrative. (This is, of course, a crude simplification. The evolution of such traits was doubtlessly complicated and determined by many variables. I only aim to forward the variable that I find the most compelling and interesting and to explicate in a simplified, but not entirely erroneous, manner.)
This leads to the last question and should allow an educated attempt at an answer: why do so many humans in industrialized societies, despite hitherto unknown luxuries and comfort, complain of a lack of meaning? According to my speculations, meaning evolved in the context of coalitional competition—it provided (and continues to provide) a web of sacred beliefs that bound individuals together into a functional whole. Although many philosophers and cultural critics have argued that the chief cause of a modern sense of alienation and rootlessness is the destruction of traditional myths, I would argue that this reverses the causality. It is certainly true that traditional religious myths have lost their force, especially for a subset of highly educated Westerners; and it is also true that such myths, as Bering (2003) argues, seem to satisfy the existential domain of cognition better than other “scientific” myths; however, the primary cause of meaninglessness is an erosion of social connections and other meaningful activities that we evolved to need, enjoy, and desire—and this erosion has caused an erosion of meaningful narratives (Putnam, 2000). In other words, as the city and the demands of contemporary life increase loneliness and we strive to find implicit meaning in activities that can only offer ephemeral satisfaction, our general sense of purpose declines. This is not to say that modern society is evil or without benefits; however, it is important to contemplate our evolved propensities and to determine if some of the features of our modern environment are starving our brain of important needs. It may turn out that our need for a grand narrative is doomed to remain thwarted, that we have progressed to a point of intellectual maturity that precludes simple but satisfying answers, but that does not mean that we must suffer from a general sense of meaninglessness. With the right kind of social connections and community directed activities, we can create other narratives that are scientifically sound and existentially fulfilling. Unfortunately, these may never match the grandeur of older myths, and may never comfort the afflicted in quite the same way. If so, that is the price we pay for knowledge. Nevertheless, if my hunch is correct, a life filled with implicit meaning is still a life worth living—and, to this end, Darwinian theory is an invaluable guide.
Alexander, R. D. (1990). How did humans evolve? Reflections on the uniquely unique species. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan.
Bering, J. M. (2003). Towards a cognitive theory of existential meaning. New Ideas in Psychology, 21, 101-120.
Damasio, A. R. (1999). The feeling of what happens: Body and emotion in the making of consciousness. New York: Harcourt Brace.
Flinn, M. V., Geary, D. C., & Ward, C. V. (2005). Ecological dominance, social competition, and coalitionary arms races: Why humans evolved extraordinary intelligence. Evolution and Human Behavior, 26, 10-46.
Humphrey, N. K. (1976). The social function of intellect. In P. Bateson & R. Hinde (Eds.), Growing points in ethology (303-317). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Putnam, R. D. (2000). Bowling alone: The collapse and revival of American community. New York: Simon and Schuster.