January 4, 2011

Purpose and Meaning

The Evolutionary World: How Adaptation Explains Everything from Seashells to Civilization
Quote is from Geerat J. Vermeij's new book The Evolutionary World
Water, a molecule consisting of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom, is utterly unlike the two component elements.  It is a liquid rather than a gas at room temperature, it expands rather than contracts in the solid state, and it is an exceptionally good conductor of heat.  The properties of water seem irreducible, much as our complex brain might appear to be irreducible to its many constituent parts; but in fact they arise through the interaction — the working together, or synergy — of components.  Likewise in music, chords and melodies convey patterns and evoke emotions that single tones cannot. Sentences, paragraphs, and books have meanings that individual words and letters do not.  Living things, too, work together to add dimensions of value, function, and meaning.  Survival and propagation are themselves expressions of emergence and synergy common to all life-forms; but we humans are motivated and enriched by more than these lifewide aspirations.  We perceive a greater purpose — through love, curiosity, a social conscience, helping others, and perhaps above all, through aesthetics — a deeper meaning that makes our individual lives worthwhile to others.  Without that added significance, and without the intentionality that enables us to create a future according to our tastes and values, life would be empty; we would descend into apathy and callousness.  Purpose and meaning, however they come into our lives, are as real and as essential as the evolved imperative to survive and reproduce.


Buddhist_philosopher said...

wonderful quote, Tom. Many thanks for posting.

Tom Armstrong said...

Thanks, Buddhist Phil -- but is it "Buddhisty"!?

I particularly like the quote for its point that 'something new' arrives from the interplay of unrelated elements. But I am not sure that we 'manufacture' meaning and purpose from all this and that otherwise -- absent love curiosity and the rest -- apathy and callousness are inevitable.