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Looking At Dennett's Meaning of Meaning of life

Mariellyssa Wenk's picture

In chapter fourteen, The Evolution of Meaning, of his book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, Dennett explores not only the great philosopher’s question, the meaning of life; but also what inspires a man to pursue that question, and if there is a meaning or purpose behind the pursuit of this inquiry itself.  Dennett makes the point that because of the specific evolution of humans and the development of language, there must be a direct correlation between language and meaning, and therefore also a meaning to life.  Most philosophers look at the question of the meaning of life from the perspective of accomplishment, while Dennett’s internal scientist examines whether we have meaning in context with the future.

In the framework of biology, the definition I give to the word “meaning” is a psychological or moral sense of purpose or significance within the larger picture of the universe as a whole.  I disagree with what Dennett’s philosophers are proposing in chapter fourteen not only because it seems so hypothetical, but also because, in my opinion, life does not have a meaning or a purpose.  Life exists the way it does at any given time because, scientifically, it is in a state most suitable for that moment’s atmosphere.  I don’t believe that evolution is driving toward a destination of idealist perfection, which could prove that life did have meaning, but is a series of random mutations and changes that fluctuates with the alterations of the environment.  In this sense, I am saying that humans and all other life forms on Earth are meaningless.  But that is on a huge spectrum.  When we observe life on a smaller scale, say, within a community, or even smaller, within our families, we see that we have constructed for ourselves a very important sense of meaning and value to our lives.

Obviously, I can’t say that my family, friends and the people I interact with everyday have no meaning in my life.  This sense of meaning and involvement is very important to the success of a species or a community as each individual brings something specific to its society and each individual must play a role in their community for it to function properly.  There will always need to be mothers to care for the young, adults to provide food and shelter, teachers to help educate and a supportive community.  But, they cannot influence the randomness of life through evolution.  However, it does makes sense that if the functions of a family and community are based on the meaningful nurturing   of each individual, that would make it a “healthier” community, and probably less susceptible to becoming extinct.  (And just the idea of providing support for young humans and their family members may provide the meaning that keeps the human species safe.)

I do agree that “human beings are products of evolution, and their capacity to speak, and hence to mean anything, is due to a suite of specific adaptations not shared with other products of evolution” (Dennett, 402).  Because of the randomness of evolution and perhaps natural selection humans are far more developed than many species, but the system of language that surfaced within groups of humans was used not to initiate a perfect species, however it improved communication skills and in reaction, hunting skills, building skills and more.  It is unfair to say that the language of humans is superior to that of other species when it is clear that other animals do in fact have their own methods of communication that we don’t understand.  Whales, dolphins, birds and dogs, for example, all use vocal noises to expressly define their territory, send distress, signals and express emotion.  Scientists have been studying the communication of these species and have decoded the meaning of some of the languages used, especially that of whales and dolphins.  This could mean that their brains process some stored knowledge even if not the same as humans and may simply have a different way of gathering and sharing that information.

But it was the capacity to form these thoughts and words that has left humans, specifically, searching for meaning in life, or meaning in just about anything.  It is out of the words we formed that meaning for humans has evolved.  And in Lewis Carroll’s quote at the beginning of the chapter depicts; words only contain the meanings that we want them to portray.  The question that Dennett is asking in chapter fourteen is whether there is meaning or not to why people search for a meaning.  He concludes that we are not necessarily searching for meaning, but “It arises… by a shift of circumstance” much like the arrival of meaning from the formation of language (Dennett, 406).  My variation of his question is why is it that only humans are searching for meaning?  What is it about human nature that is so curious that we will spend centuries pondering over something to which it is impossible to know the answer?

Previous to taking this class, I would have told you that humans are the highest order of species due to our intelligence and ability to interpret information, that evolution is a process of natural selection, that I never really thought about the meaning of life in the context of the universe, and language was a tool utilized by humans.  But science is very much its own philosophy and we need to understand that there is no way clear way to comprehend it without writing and rewriting stories which will lead us bit by bit away from what is “wrong.”