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A project by Stephen L. Talbott

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How Biologists Lost Sight of the Meaning of Life — And Are Now Staring It in the Face

Summary

“MEANING” REMAINS A SCANDALOUS WORD in biology today — at least within the more orthodox and powerful bastions of biology — and that itself is the real scandal. After all, biologists (organisms all) live lives full of meaning, and in working out their professional formulations, they freely ask each other without embarrassment, “What do you mean by that?” There would be no science without texts we could read meaningfully, and every scientist hopes that his or her meanings will prove faithful to the meanings of the organisms being described.

It would be just silly to ask for “the” meaning of life, but every organism lives a life full of its own meanings, and — as we saw in “The Unbearable Wholeness of Beings” — descriptions of organisms, including descriptions at the molecular level — vividly testify to these meanings. The technical literature shows us organisms whose lives are stories — more like biographical narratives than cause-and-effect sequences. Organisms go through processes of development, they strive to maintain their own well-being or health, They seek out mates, and they age while resisting any premature threat of the ultimate and inevitable denouement of their life story. Their are countless subnarratives of this overall narrative, occurring at every level of description.

The fear of meaning among biologists is evidently related to the dread of the mysterious or mystical, which equates in their minds to whatever cannot be described in cause-and-effect terms. Meaning cannot even be defined (which certainly contributes to the “mysterious” aspect), since meanings are what we call upon in order to define things. Similarly, we could never prove the logic by which we try to prove things.

But this does not spell mystery. It simply suggests that we, with our cognitive capacities, belong to the world in which we live. We swim within a sea of meaning from the moment we are borne, and this meaning (as British semantic historian Owen Barfield tirelessly demonstrated) shows itself to be derived from the world that bore us. We do not need to define meaning, but only wake up to it. The biologist’s fear of its supposed mystical aspects is a flight from the world and from the organism, with disastrous consequences for the science of biology. Fortunately, despite disclaiming meaning wherever possible, biologists cannot help invoking it at every step of their investigations — the organism, like its investigator, just is an organism of meaning — and so biology does advance in its self-contradictory way.

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Selected excerpts from the chapter
bullet The slipperiness of meaning
bullet The obviousness of meaning
bullet Meaning becoming conscious
bullet Denial of meaning
bullet The limitlessness of meaning
bullet Meaning is ubiquitous
bullet A question for the skeptic
bullet Meaning is where we start from
bullet The origin of language?
bullet A reversal of the explanatory burden
bullet Every organism is telling a story
bullet The molecules in our cells “know” where they’re going
bullet What does it look like from the organism’s point of view?
bullet “Surgery is war”
bullet Are humans merely upright apes?