• “The anatomist presents to the eye the most hideous and disagreeable objects; but his science is useful to the painter in delineating even a Venus or an Helen. While the latter employs all the richest colours of his art, and gives his figures the most graceful and engaging airs; he must still carry his attention to the inward structure of the human body, the position of the muscles, the fabric of the bones, and the use and figure of every part or organ. Accuracy is, in every case, advantageous to beauty, and just reasoning to delicate sentiment. In vain would we exalt the one by depreciating the other.” -David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding

    When speaking of morality I think it does help to give oneself some constraints; an ideology that insists all people who do not throw themselves off of cliffs are immoral is not likely to get far (to take an obvious example), and the fact that a moral notion was arrived at by adhering to a tradition rather than by rational design is not actually much of a criticism against it (since in fact there exists no morality which was spontaneously designed by the individual; all are passed on through the same mechanisms as all traditions and customs).

    These aren’t arguments you can really make from the same position you can make an argument about how morality emerged, or what it is. But I do find it more fruitful to establish some boundaries at the very least.

  • Jim Manzi


    I’m not so sure that evolution describes “why” we are here, as much as “how we got here” (using these terms in their natural language meaning, since you’re the philospher here, not me). I go into why I think this is true at great length in this National Review article:


    • Jim, you should get them to fix the formatting in that article. It shows 2100 where you obviously had written 2^100 (probably using a superscript).

      • Jim Manzi

        Tell me about it.

  • Ben A


    I think Will’s point is an anti-Aristotelean one. Even if we grant that the excellence of a thing is to perform its function well, that doesn’t mean that one should want to be the thing one is. A rational vampire, for example, might not seek to exhibit the excellence understood in this way…

    • Jim Manzi

      Yes, but I think that the assertion (in these terms) in the post is that “the thing one is” is an organ used by genes for self-replication, and further, that this slef-replication machine has no anterior purpose beyond this. The point of my article is that the phrase that follows the word “further” in the prior sentence is a frequent mis-interpretation of evolutionary theory that has no scientific basis, and that can not be demonstrated as derivable from any accepted scientific findings.

  • ryan yin

    “There is certainly more than one way of winning an argument, but there’s just one way of knowing: the empirical way. ”

    Has this ever been proven empirically?

    More seriously, I just wonder what really was wrong with old-fashioned revealed preference? Sure, there are uncountably many utility functions that correspond to any set of preferences, making interpersonal comparisons deeply problematic (not that that stops anyone), but maybe that just tells us something about what we should expect from happiness research.

  • Paul O’Pinion

    Could it be that the very pursuit of one’s own personal meaning (your passion, interest, hobby, career that you actually enjoy, etc.) and the different degrees of success in that endeavor might result in happiness? I find myself constantly telling my children and any individuals starting out to pursue a living doing something that they enjoy. That ‘journey’, the every day tasks in that endeavor would then be a reward in and of itself.
    Whether we were put here in this form or we evolved out of necessity, we are different from other carbon units in that we constantly analyze ourselves and seek to find the meaning of life. If we are truly lucky, we find a pursuit that rewards us with success, satisfaction, meaning (defined by the lucky one), compensation, food, clothing, shelter and, ultimately, happiness. A large degree of that luck is being in a position to choose. It is very difficult to build a fort while you are fending off the enemy. If you are working 3 jobs to support those 4 kids it is challenging at best to chase your dreams.
    The bottom line is that we all must find our own meaning and happiness. I also think that different people with the same intelligence and opportunity will define meaning and happiness differently. The best gift is having the ability to pursue your definition of each.

  • mk

    Tentative hypothesis:

    I think “meaning” is related to the resilience of one’s happiness. People with meaning in their lives have a narrative they can use to interpret negative or positive events. This helps them accept negative realities, and move constructively forward from them. People without meaning do not have a narrative, and this means their mood will be more exposed to the positive or negative things going on at the moment. When a negative thing happens they don’t have a framework for connecting the event to their lives, so the act of acceptance becomes harder. All the negative emotions happen when you flail around not able to accept something bad, and spiraling into bigger and bigger worries about how bad the situation is. Acceptance stops the spiral.

    It’s like having friends versus having no friends. When you have friends, and something bad happens, you have a network that can help you interpret how to accept this event in a way that affirms who you are. You’re leveraging the “many heads are better than one” idea to find the best way to reinterpret the negative thing.

    With meaning (say, from religion), you’re using a longstanding relationship with an institution, a person, an ideal, or whatever it is, as a touchstone. Sometimes this just helps you “clear your mind” so you don’t get caught in an undertow of compounded bad emotion (the “count your blessings” idea); sometimes it more specifically helps you situate your bad emotion or bad event in a broader narrative that helps you accept what happened, in a way that doesn’t threaten who you are. (If you had a bad day at work, think about your child and realize that warts and all, your job supports who you are).

    So, meaning is like a support network. If everything happens randomly it takes more psychological effort to interpret bad things.

    Now, I think “identity” can serve a similar function: when something bad happens, you just say “well, I am an X person, and so Y will happen every so often, but I’m glad I’m an X person.” I don’t know how much identity overlaps with meaning. Maybe they overlap a lot. Maybe identity can include some things which aren’t directly useful as emotional support (if I have an endearingly crooked smile, it may be part of my identity, but it may not be what helps me come to terms with something bad).

    Anyways, some speculation.

    • mk

      An analogy would be that a meaningful life is a song, whereas a meaning-deprived life is a collection of notes.

      If you are in the middle of a song, you know something about what to expect. And even if something unexpected happens, you can interpret it.

      If you are in the middle of a collection of notes, you have no real inkling of why any one thing should come rather than any other.

      Now, the interpretation we apply might be overzealous. We “mistakenly” see faces in clouds; is that not similar to seeing meaning in one’s everyday life? If I remember right, the research on optimists says that they’re rather unrealistic people. Their hopes are often dashed, and they don’t care, because the cloud is still a face. Or it changed into a car, because a car is what’s important to me right now because etc..

      Children increase the meaning in one’s life because they organize your whole life around one thing. So everything becomes comprehensible as a means to the end of properly raising your kid.

      And we have to reorganize our lives if we have kids, because we can’t unhave them. They dominate our lives.

      Perhaps a meaningful life is (often) one in which a few things/people/ideas exert an outsized influence on one’s path. (It’s hard to know how to measure this, exactly, maybe a survey question of “what’s most important to you?”)

      Consider also that someone could come down with a horrible disease and it could add meaning to their lives by giving them something large, concrete, and unavoidable to organize their lives around (e.g. becoming a fundraiser/advocate for those afflicted by the condition).

      etc. etc….

  • To expand on Jim Manzi’s points above, I think what your argument shows is that there is no reason to privilege the purposes or functions for which I was designed (whether by divine agent or blind watchmaker). To wit, that I was designed in virtue of some set of functions or purposes does not make them *my* purposes.

    But then it doesn’t seem that the implied distinction between the questions “Why am I here” and “What am I to do here?” is viable. To discover why I am here (or to contrive some telos for my being here) is arguably just to discover (or promulgate) the kinds of activities in which I should partake, tout court.

  • pedro

    If we are created for a purpose then the denial of a moral dimension to that purpose is to assert independence from our creator. If the creator exists and can/will punish non-conformity then the assertion of independence is a dangerous thing to do.

    In the absense of a god there is no why. If there is a why then it is kind of difficult to see how the why might be irrelevant to morality.

    Thank god there’s no god.

  • jsalvati

    That person sounds terrifically confused. What sort of philosopher does not understand the difference between causation and “meaning”?

  • I think what Jim Manzi gets at is rather key here: switching to an evolutionary rather than an intelligent-design narrative means not that the question “Why are we here?” is answerable in genes rather than Commandments, but that the question becomes a poor question. I think Will is saying the same thing, but it’s confusing to phrase it in the kitten-killer Intelligent Design format. I mean, if we really had all been designed to kill kittens, we probably would think it was supremely moral to do so, and it would not be at all self-evident that we were wrong.

    • “if we really had all been designed to kill kittens”

      You mean we haven’t been designed to kill kittens? Oh dear…

  • mk

    Random thought: if meaning is partly determined by having one or two ideas with an outsized influence over all directions of your life, then John McCain is just as invested in the Politics of Meaning as Hillary Clinton ever was. In fact, Meaning (or illusions thereof) is a big part of what politics is all about.

  • Jason Malloy

    “But knowing why we are here, or what we are for, turns out to be terrifically useless in guiding our choices or framing our lives.”

    I think this is because you aren’t looking at the question with sufficient granularity. If by ‘why’ you mean ‘how’ then, yes, the most general answer is because ma and pa had the sex, and then you could break down the hows of sex into as much information as you want (from the nervous system, to perceptual stimulus, to physiology, to hormones, to the base pair sequence that coded those hormones). At this most general level you are right that this doesn’t give you much useful information. This could be telling you to go have sex with a woman, or reproduce, or reproduce with your mother — none of which seem like they would be better choices than what your natural wants and not-wants could guide better (people already know they want to have sex, and in the case of gay or asexual people, who don’t instinctively desire reproductive sex, the guideline would make their lives worse).

    But at a deeper level of ‘how’ I think knowing all of your genes, and how they will react and have reacted in the past would be about the most useful information you could ever have about what decisions to make in your life. To use your own nerdy example, let’s say bizarro world Will spends 10 years at kitten-eating school, and then another 5 years in the kitten-eating labor force before having a nervous breakdown and joining a PETA monastery where he can spend the rest of his life doing what he now realizes he wanted to do all along: pet kittens.

    But with the correct amount of biological self-knowledge, Will could have saved himself 15 traumatic, wasted years and a nervous breakdown. He would have known beforehand that kitten-eating would upset him and why. With full genetic self-knowledge people could plan their lives for the maximum experience of “meaning” at the earliest possible age.(starting with their parents)

    To a rough extent this already happens with our limited knowledge. People are similar enough that we can see things like money, accomplishment, deeper relationships, children, community, and religion, generally lead to more meaningful lives (children appear to be the only general false positive). So most people lay some sort of early groundwork to make one or more of these things happen.

  • Jason Malloy

    Also children are a good example of what I’m talking about. On average having chidren makes people slightly less happy. (the reason for this, by the way, seems to be the number of people having children out of wedlock) But lots of people really do become much happier, and find a lot of meaning by having children. Others think they will but don’t. It may be difficult for many people to predict which category they will end up in. Genetic self-knowledge would correct this, and maximize potential meaning by improving a major life decision.

  • stephen

    i dug both, but the B-side was better. 100% will, no ice.

  • 1. Evolution tells us how we came about, not why we came about. In fact, the story evolution tells us is of a series of chance events, so why we came about is even more mysterious.

    2. Only from a species perspective (if a species can have one) is the individual’s purpose to make copies of its genes. Unless the individual is concerned about what happens after its death, whether it made copies of its genes or not is utterly irrelevant to it.

    3. The quest for meaning is not universal among humans. E.g., in Christian cosmology the universe is imbued with God’s Will and Purpose with which we must be in accord, and from which we draw our meaning. Or more strictly, the possibility of “the meaning of life” is implicit in God’s hidden purpose. In Hindu/Buddhist cosmology, the universe has no purpose. (e.g., see Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization, H. Zimmer); the God/gods/no-god has no purpose and consequently, as parts of a purposeless universe, we have no objective context in which to talk about our own purpose. That does not prevent Hindus or Buddhists from talking about the proper way to lead life.

    I suggest therefore that this quest for meaning (“why are we here?”) is culture-specific. Moreover, the author is correct that the question has no bearing on how to live life. This is an empirical fact (i.e., one can arrive at it by examining world cultures) and not a philosophical one.

    I further suggest that the quest for the meaning of life is a hangover from Christianity. Part of the conflict between religion and science in the west is precisely because science says that “why are we here?” is an ill-posed question.

    5. People who have absorbed this search for meaning find paradoxes like Tunku Varadarajan did:


  • I think Adam was on the right track quoting David Hume.

    It seems to me that the following quote from Hume is also relevant: “Morals excite passions, and produce or prevent actions. Reason of itself is utterly impotent in this particular. The rules of morality, therefore, are not conclusions of our reason” (“A Treatise of Human Nature”, 1739, III, I, i).

    That doesn’t mean that our moral sense is purely a product of genetic evolution. Hayek provided a sensible explanation of the evolution of rules of conduct evolving because the groups who practiced them flourished and displaced other groups.