Few have the merit or authority to title a book as boldly as Edward O. Wilson’s The Meaning of Human Existence. I count this man part of that few, and his execution of answering such a question was unique and mostly effective, save for occasional tangents not wholly relevant to its title. In brief, I feel this book is immensely well-written and equally important.
Though Wilson presented an answer to this pressing question, he seemed more invested in calling to arms the world for a new Enlightenment; we must merge the sciences and humanities, as eventually discoveries in the sciences will slow and perhaps flatline, but never will innovation cease in the humanities, he often claims. It is the combination of both, he continues, that best defines human nature and ability as the product of our happenstance formation and the “Paleolithic curse” which haunts us still.
Wilson’s optimism is refreshing, and not once did I feel it mislead him. He humbles mankind when needed, yet builds us up when well-deserved. As he attacks religion in perhaps the most memorable chapter in this book (save for the last), as he lists the downsides to scientific fields not his own, as he time and time again reminds us of human ignorance and anthropomorphism, he always offers recourse–a solution. He does not simply explain why human nature and institutions cause contention–but offers his opinion as to how we might fix it.
This book is a constructive critique of modernity. Moreover, it is validation for the intellectual and a handbook for those in pursuit of becoming one. It covers both man’s bindings and his freedom, each integral to Wilson’s “answer.” It is not a specific answer, but a moderately satisfying one: the meaning of human existence is the epic of our species–prehumans to Homo sapiens, prehistory to modernity, and the future still to come. This means we are free. It means our meaning is multifaceted and still being forged by the choices we make, and with so many choices left unmade, with so many problems yet to be discovered, the possibilities are endless.
What are we? Humans. Where did we come from? Unconscious and unguided gradual speciation. Why are we here? Mere chance, yet with volitional selection and an undebatable global influence, perhaps humans will exhibit more control in the future and enact conscious change (whatever that may mean to us and however we choose to act). In the end, we are meaning-seeking beings born into a world void of inherent meaning; born into that world, yet borne along the current of human-made institutions and governance through which we create our own meaning–the validity of this meaning seems best for the individual to decide.
Not satisfied? Me either–but it is a bold step in the right direction. A philosophical dilemma is, after all, a dilemma. I share Wilson’s optimism, however, concerning the progress of neuroscience and its possible clarification of consciousness and sentience. Perhaps science will continue to observe the once unobservable and measure the once immeasurable. Perhaps humans will continue to fill with meaning an existence inherently void of it.