E.O. Wilson: Science, not philosophy, will explain the meaning of existence

Well, in remarks that I’m pretty sure are guaranteed to rile up philosophers, E.O. Wilson, who apparently has a new book out on the meaning of human existence, disses both philosophy and religion, saying that scientists will provide the meaning of of existence.

I can agree with a lot of what Wilson says in this video.  Many insights into who and what we are will come from evolutionary biology, paleontology, archaeology, brain sciences (neuroscience and psychology), and AI and robotics.  (I do find it odd that Wilson dismisses molecular biology since it seems increasingly evident that life is a molecular, and at times quantum, phenomena.)  I also can agree that astrophysicists are often eager to prognosticate on meaning while typically having little more insight than educated laypeople.

But Wilson’s blanket dismissal of philosophy strikes me as lazy pigeonholing of a vast array of intellectual activity based on its worst examples.  Sure, there are plenty of philosophers who ignore or dismiss science, and as I’ve argued before, those philosophers are often engaged in insular navel gazing that is unlikely to produce anything useful.  But there are also plenty of philosophers keeping up on the latest scientific developments, and I find their insights fascinating.  They help sharpen my understanding of what is coming out of the scientific fields Wilson discusses.

I also find it strange that the man who wrote a book on the importance of consilience across different knowledge fields would disparage a field that often performs exactly that kind of function.  And it’s interesting that doing so is, in an of itself, a philosophical position.

One of the things I’ve increasingly become aware of over the last couple of years is how often people dismiss entire fields of intellectual endeavor.  Many do the same thing to a field that Wilson helped to start, evolutionary psychology, often citing its worst examples as justification, which is pretty much what Wilson is doing to philosophy.  Other typical examples are economics, history, or the social sciences overall.

The fact is, there are bad practitioners in every field.  When someone dismisses an entire academic discipline because of those practitioners, it’s almost always lazy and unfair, and usually just demonstrates the insularity of the person doing the dismissing.

All that said, Wilson’s new book sounds interesting.  I may have to check it out.

21 thoughts on “E.O. Wilson: Science, not philosophy, will explain the meaning of existence

  1. We already know that there is no meaning.
    Richard Dawkins in The Blind Watchmaker his explanation of special selection makes this clear.
    The Blind Watchmaker ( special selction) has no purpose and no goal in mind.
    Science is just a detailed explanation as to how step by step we got to the present moment.
    Humans give life its meaning through our moral system which we believe is worth imposing on the world.


    1. I tend to agree, although with perhaps less certitude. But I don’t think morals are completely arbitrary, at least not all of them, but are societal frameworks built on top of the evolutionary instincts of a social species.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I am a firm believer in science as it slowly reveals to us the connections of life and existence. I wouldn’t throw any field of study under the bus because of ancient beliefs. Science was archaic at one point believing mice came from dirt. Modern philosophy should fare well as long as it incorporates modern scientific discoveries into it’s logic. Physicists are sometimes far removed from the central point with their studies of how the universal equations balance. But it is all the parts that will make the whole. I personally love biology which was my collegiate choice of majors. But I have grown to love all fields of science as my life has rumbled on.

    I have to say that there are logical gaps in scientific studies when they refuse to accept there is also logic in religion. One is the refusal of data. I can’t ignore the fact that there are people saying there is an entity that can communicate with us. It is irresponsible to assume every person who said this was wrong or lying. Regardless of how exact the written parts match the message. It is likely the message was short like maybe one sentence, and the rest was the person trying to explain what he heard. That said, there are energies flowing around and frequencies radiating that would make this logically fit into our scientific world. Secondly I have an account from my mother of an incident she had. Her heart started to race and her mind was telling her to to get herself ready to leave the house. After putting clothes on she heard my brother screaming as he ran out of the woods with a broken arm. Now I am a scientists and I refuse to ignore this. There is no physical connection between the two so what was allowing them to communicate an incident that was about to happen or had just happened? I can’t ignore data from this field like it is some voodoo smokescreen. Everything we see and experience is going to illuminate the path. And refusal to include fields that don’t fit comfortably is a practice in failure.

    I mean realistically speaking the creator of the Earth, the creator of life, the bringer of the light, the sustainer of life, the abolisher of darkness and the giver of joy(enzyme released by reaction with skin) is the Sun. Does the term God truly mean God has no lifespan? The universe would be dark, cold and lifeless without these trillions of Gods out there adding solid matter and energy to the universe.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Tch! The disconnect between science and philosophy is shameful, especially considering that science was called “natural philosophy” when it was first invented. And the idea that science would ever provide the “meaning” of anything is a bit incoherent. Science doesn’t study meaning, science studies physical reality.

    What’s a little ironic is that what scientists who make statements like this usually mean ‘science will refute religion’ — they will prove that the purpose and meaning of the universe is that it has no meaning or purpose. It just is. They assume that science must ultimately lead to Physicalism.

    What if they’re wrong? What if science leads us to the conclusion that non-physical stuff is happening? There’s already entanglement to contend with. There’s the whole “observer” problem. There is definitely some weird stuff going on.

    Be pretty funny if science proved Physicalism is only half the story. Why, that would be almost like proving that computers can’t solve certain computer programs or that math systems can’t prove all their own theorems.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Good points.

      I’ve always struggled with the definition of physicalism, or materialism as its most often called by its critics. It’s often forgotten that Newton’s theory of gravitation disproved the strict mechanical philosophy in the 17th century. And the things you point out only blur the picture further. Which has always made me wonder exactly what scientific critics mean when they talk about materialism.

      Of course, what most of them mean by physicalism or materialism is “no ghostly spirits”. But the real reason those are outside of the scientific view of reality is because there’s no repeatable or confirmable evidence for them, regardless of the physical vs non-physical thing.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Materialism is the view that matter is, and explains, everything. Physicalism more allows for non-material (but nonetheless physical) properties. Scientific materialists tend to believe everything will be eventually fully understood by science. Physicalists might be more open to the ineffable while still denying dualism.

        You’re right; that would seem to be the damning thing. All the woo disappears in the lab. A central predicate of science involves repeatability and consistency!

        Liked by 1 person

  4. E.O. Wilson defines ‘meaning’ as ‘history’, and further as what he calls ‘the story of humankind’. It’s hardly surprising then, that a multi-disciplinary approach must be taken in any bid to unravel any such story. Of this there can surely be no argument.

    Whilst introspection obviously has its limits – as Wilson states and as Darwin too suggested – then it, together with philosophy, does have the great merit of enabling us to better comprehend the potential shortcomings of analytical thought, perceptual interpretation and the frailty of psychical representations per se. Perhaps another way of describing this is to say that introspection and philosophy together may take us to a point where we see that our storytelling – what Wilson calls ‘meaning’ – is always caught up in the gearbox of its own comprehension, so to speak; and the meaning thought to obtain in our putative ‘story of humankind’ is necessarily constrained therefore; it can only ever be an echo of an echo.

    Following this line, then ‘meaning’ perhaps fails to hold the promise that the use of the term suggests; at least, to me it does, and always fall short of the promise; it becomes a narrative, a story, which of itself demands further decoding – echoes, upon echoes, upon echoes – or it becomes akin to the onion which we peel away the layers of finding nothing but further layers ad infinitum. I don’t mean to suggest an anti-science or anti-intellectual attitude, more that perhaps we might cool down the media-driven, slightly frenzied, quasi-religious evangelical propagation of our belief in a capacity to reduce life to what our ape brains might regard as ‘meaning’.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’m not sure if I follow completely, but I do share your suspicion of the word ‘meaning’ used by itself without context. Meaning of what? Of life? Of the universe? I tend to think there isn’t one, although I’m reluctant to make that a matter of faith. (For all we know, the universe might be an experiment by aliens.) Of course, we can always create our own meaning, and many do, knowingly or otherwise.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. SAP: “I also find it strange that the man who wrote a book on the importance of consilience across different knowledge fields would disparage a field that often performs exactly that kind of function. And it’s interesting that doing so is, in an of itself, a philosophical position.”

    This really tells the whole story. Wilson just wants to sell more books with that title. As an old man like him, it is a shame.

    At Scientia Salon, two issues are discussed recently.

    One, denialism: I commented, “… denialism caused by ‘dishonesty’. Many scientists who deny the ‘wisdoms’ are based on ‘ideology’ or self-interests (research-funding, etc.) as most of them should be wise enough to evaluate the issues in question. See http://scientiasalon.wordpress.com/2014/10/28/the-varieties-of-denialism/comment-page-1/#comment-9212 .

    Two, Doomsday: “… scientific overthrow of our traditional theoretical understanding of ourselves amounts to a kind of doomsday,…”
    I have a long comment on this at http://scientiasalon.wordpress.com/2014/11/05/back-to-square-one-toward-a-post-intentional-future/comment-page-3/#comment-9503 . My key point is that scientism is wrong, and the doomsday is now upon the Popperian-sciences, especially for the Popperian-physics.


    1. Thanks Tienzen. I agree that Wilson is probably being provocative to get publicity for his book.

      On Popperian-physics, I’d just note that Karl Popper himself was a philosopher and argued in favor of metaphysics. He was arguing against the logical positivists. I sometimes wonder if maybe you’re conflating his and their views.


  6. It seems like little more than an attention grab, to me. I’m finding it difficult to get riled about this one. It’s lazy, unclear, and oversimplified. What he means is that he’s a materialist, and that out best epistemological claims are descriptive, which isn’t really non-philosophical. But “this one particular philosophical approach will answer our material questions better than this other philosophical approach” would get a lot less publicity!


    1. It looks like I overestimated Wilson’s ability to get under people’s skin. Probably because he doesn’t have the weight of a Neil deGrasse Tyson or a Stephen Hawking. Or maybe we’re all just getting used to scientists saying boneheaded things about other fields.

      But I agree that he’s just trying to get publicity for his book. It seems clumsy to me though, because even if it works, it pointlessly alienates a substantial part of the audience for that type of book.


      1. Alright, I’ll rile a little. I think it’s more or less that his claim isn’t all that substantive. He’s essentially saying in the video that science is the best way to describe our material make up and development, which, I mean, sure. But then he attempts a duplicitous move, taking one possible definition of “meaning” and declaring it the whole story. He’s essentially using vague terminology to provoke controversy where there is none, and he’s hoping no one notices.

        He might as well say “Baking, not Knitting, is the Key to Domestic Bliss,” and then go on to explain how “Domestic Bliss” really comes down to the presence of pie. Sure, baking is the best way to get pie, and I like pie. But sometimes I get chilly, and my domestic bliss would be better served with the ability to make myself a sweater or blanket. We could argue about the validity of blankets vs pie, but to argue that one is a better indicator of domestic bliss would be just as silly as his argument for his particular view of “meaning.” For example, he starts the video out with a lazy ad hominem derailment (“l know I’ll be attacked, provoked hornets, chuckle, chuckle”). Then when he dismisses religious understandings of “meaning” as nothing more than creation stories, he’s attacking a straw man (I feel like I can’t name a single non-fundamentalist religion that focuses its energies solely on the material description of the universe and nothing more). Then when he dismisses their creation stories on the basis that they disagree with each other, he’s just showing poor logic. Just because they don’t agree with each other doesn’t mean that one of them can’t be right – I’m not saying that any actually /are/, but his given reasoning is not sufficient to reject them outright.

        His title really should be “Science is the best way to tell the history of our material development”. And he’s right about that. But it might not be the best or only way to determine value, purpose, self-perception, relationships, culture, art, morality, or identity (other possible ways to understand “meaning”). He’s drawing people in with the illusion that he’s making some broad claim about all of meaning, and then when he has to commit to a far narrower vision of the word, he tries to cover it up with shaky logic designed to make you feel silly for disagreeing with him or like you’re part of the in-crowd for agreeing with his (again) not very exciting claim. It’s sort of manipulative, but not terribly slick. As a consumer of books on science and philosophy, I’m offended. As a philosopher, I don’t feel particularly threatened.

        Liked by 1 person

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