Biological and Existential Meaning

Note: This is part two of a three part series. Part one can be found here Does the Universe Have Meaning? and part three can be found here Does the Universe Have Metaphysical Meaning?

In the previous post Does the Universe Have Meaning? I stated that the claim the universe is without meaning is a flawed claim, and then proceeded to discuss the importance of clarifying what we mean when we say the words universe and meaning. I then proposed three kinds of meaning I would investigate; biological, existential, and metaphysical. This post addresses biological and existential meaning. 

Biological Meaning

The first kind of meaning I would like to address is what I call Biological Meaning. One might also call this Natural Meaning. It is the idea that we, as physical substances, are part of and participate mutualistically in the greater whole which is the objective universe comprised of other living and non-living substances. We participate in the life of the greater whole in two ways; while we are living and once we are dead.

While we are living, we play a part in the continued life of the planet Earth. Whether it is the carbon dioxide we release into the air for plants to convert to oxygen, the dead skin cells that flake off our bodies for mites to eat, or that we play host to a great many kinds of bacteria, we participate. I do not mean to say that the planet would not carry on without us; we are not that special. Nor do I mean to say that we want mites in our beds eating our dead skin cells. What I am saying is that we participate, and that participation in part benefits the greater whole. 

And it is not that we just participate as individuals. The human body is not a singular organism, but rather a collaborative compound organism. The human body contains trillions of microorganisms, all of which play a vital role in the health of the body. This includes bacteria, viruses, fungi and archaea (organisms originally misclassified as bacteria). Depending on what you want to call human, it can be considered that up to 45% of our bodies are not human. (1) In the words of philosopher Glenn Albrecht, we are ecological units, 

“…consisting of trillions of bacteria, viruses, and fungi that coordinate the task of living together and sharing a common life.”

Of course I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that humans have been rather knuckleheaded (to put it lightly) in how we treat the living organism we call Earth of which, once again, we are a part. We must fix this if the part we play in the greater whole is to continue. 

We also participate in the greater whole once we are dead. Humans are one of many complex organisms that inhabit the Earth, but the basic building blocks from which we are made are no different than all the others. Though we see ourselves as special and set apart from the rest of living organisms, almost 99% of our bodies are comprised of oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium, and phosphorus. (2) This means once we die, our bodies break down and contribute to other future substances. Those other substances are necessary for the future continuation of the planet, not to mention, dead things make great planters (yes, you are potting soil).

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This bracket fungus growing on a fallen tree demonstrates how matter is repurposed.

Though it might be a bit unromantic to view ourselves as atoms and elements, or food providers for dust mites, given the symbiotic relationship we have with the other substances of the biosphere, I cannot help but believe our existence has meaning from a biological standpoint.

Is this the kind of meaning people mean when they claim that the universe is or is without meaning? Probably not, but remember, while we are carrying out our activities that seem special and uniquely human, we are nothing more than the organelles of the universe. Organelles are very important to the cell, and cells are very important to the functioning of the whole, and importance to the functioning of the greater whole implies meaning and purpose.

Does the universe have meaning from a biological perspective?

Verdict: Yes

Existential Meaning

The second kind of meaning I would like to discuss is that of Existential Meaning, which should be taken to mean, the meaning that we derive from our human existence. 

Apart from the fact that we are biological substances that participate in the greater whole of the objective universe, as far as we can tell, human beings are the only animals that reflect on their existence in a highly complex, abstract, conceptual, self-aware kind of way. This reflective aspect of our nature is subjective, meaning we interpret the objective world and assign it meaning. 

As an example, take the neolithic site of Stonehenge. We can look at Stonehenge and say objectively that there sits a group of rocks, nothing more, nothing less. Or we can look at Stonehenge subjectively and be filled with the wonder and mystery of why it was built and what possible meaning it might have, and even further consider it a culturally significant place worthy of government protection, grants, and so on. 

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We can listen to Beethoven’s 9th Symphony and understand that objectively it is nothing more than sound waves interacting with our eardrum which is then interpreted by our brain, or we can listen to Beethoven’s 9th Symphony and be emotionally moved by its melodies, passion, and beauty. 

I am sure you are getting the point, but let me offer one last example; your parents, your child, relatives, spouse, or your friends. These persons are nothing more than biological substances which could be described in all kinds of objective terms, but they are clearly more than biological substances, at least to you. 

If the love you feel for your parents, the passion you feel for your romantic partner, and the affection you have for your friends is not a kind of meaning, then I don’t know what is. And from there you just continue on with the love of your favorite sports team, the significance of your spiritual walk, the transcendence you receive from hiking in nature, the joy you gain from cooking, the wholeness you feel by serving others; essentially all the things that make your identity, the thing that is uniquely you. 

This is why I think it is important for you to know what you mean when you say or engage with the claim that the universe is without meaning. If it is meant to mean that the objective universe must be imbued with some metaphysical reason or purpose to our existence other than ourselves for it to be meaningful, then yes, you would not think that this description of Existential Meaning implies any sort of actual meaning. 

Existential Meaning is a kind of self created or self generated meaning, but this does not make the meaning any less significant. Simply because we are the ones who create, define, and endow something as meaningful rather than originating with some kind of higher authority does not mean that it is not meaningful. 

Sure, objectively, you might look at a rock and say that it is a rock; that it is only meaningful if we give meaning to it, therefore, the universe does not have meaning, but you are missing an important element. You are the one saying that the rock has no meaning. You are the one who has designated meaninglessness to the rock. By saying that the rock has no meaning, you have created meaning. 

You are the only being that interprets the world. You can know no existence outside of you own experience, therefore, you are what gives existence meaning.

Does the universe have meaning from an existential perspective?

Verdict: Yes

Compliment this post with another post from the Being and Existence category.

Sources

  1. https://www.bbc.com/news/health-43674270
  2. https://www.thoughtco.com/elements-in-the-human-body-p2-602188

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