THE BLOG
02/25/2016 01:45 pm ET Updated Feb 24, 2017

The Meaning of Human Existence

In his New York Times bestseller The Meaning of Human Existence, Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson discusses (among other things) the meaning, significance, and freedom of human beings. In doing so, he identifies several questions a worldview must answer regarding human existence. What is the meaning of our personal lives? Does humanity have a special place in the Universe? Where are we going? and Why?

He answers these questions according to what he calls "the scientific worldview," one which, unsurprisingly, is supposed to be based on science, not religion or ideology. According to Wilson, science shows us that

[w]e were created not by a supernatural intelligence but by chance and necessity as one species out of millions of species in Earth's biosphere. Hope and wish for otherwise as we will, there is no evidence of an external grace shining down upon us, no demonstrable destiny or purpose assigned to us, no second life vouchsafed us for the end of the present one (173).

Thus, there is no God and no purpose assigned to us by God. We are alone in the universe. But this is a good thing, for Wilson, because it means that we are free - free to choose our destiny and rule our lives. Where we are going and why is up to us, not the dictates of some heavenly deity.

The meaning of our personal lives, then, is not found in the intentions of a benevolent creator, but in facts about our evolutionary development and what we make of our future. As for our place in the universe, we are not so special, but we are one species among many on one planet among many.

Wilson claims to give an argument for his claim that we arose entirely on our own without a creator and that our lives have no purpose. If he does, I can't see what it is. All I see in The Meaning of Human Existence are evolutionary explanations of the development of morality, religion, social behavior, etc. For example, in one chapter, he claims that in order to understand the human condition (our nature, the size of our brains, our social behavior, etc.), we must examine our evolutionary origins. After explaining these origins, he concludes that

Human existence may be simpler than we thought. There is no predestination, no unfathomed mystery of life. Demons and gods do not vie for our allegiance. Instead, we are self-made, independent, alone, and fragile, a biological species adapted to live in a biological world (26).

But we cannot conclude from our biological origins alone that there is no God or divine purpose for our lives. Wilson must give us more. In fact, the claim that God exists and has a purpose for our lives is clearly consistent with the claim that evolution is true. After all, God might have used evolution to bring us about and carry out his plan for our lives. (Whether or not evolution is consistent with the particular claims of particular religions is another matter.)

As for our significance, sure we don't have a special physical location in the universe. But facts about our physical location within or size in comparison to the universe or the number of species there are is not relevant to our significance. Our value and worth is partly a factor of our being persons, a factor that wouldn't change were we as big as a planet or as small as a petunia. What's more, if God exists and cares for us, then we have significance in virtue of this, even if we are one species among many sailing along on a remote rock in outer space.

Wilson says that we are alone and free in the universe, free to determine our own lives and destiny. But are we really free, on his view? In one chapter of the book, he claims that free will depends on the self being independent of the brain. But this independence is simply an illusion, he thinks, and we are bound by our anatomy and physiology. So while we may be free from a creator, we are trapped by our biology. Not only that, try as we may we cannot control our ultimate destiny. The curse of Adam is not escaped by ousting the creator. Even on atheism, we will surely die. And worse, we will eventually be remembered no more. Thus, rather than being alone and free to choose our destiny, we are subject to forces outside of our control and cannot escape our impending death. It seems, then, for Wilson, that we are just alone. Alone and headed for our inevitable death.

None of what I said means that Wilson's worldview is false. Perhaps we are alone. Perhaps we weren't formed from the dust by a personal being, but by blind forces. It might give a person the warm fuzzies to think that there is a loving God watching over them. But if reality is cold, dark, and impersonal at bottom, then this is what we should believe. So much the worse for the warm fuzzies. Yet the question remains: is Wilson correct? If he is, he hasn't shown us.