The Meaning of Life in a Formula

Can science help us overcome the terror of existence?

The Meaning of Life in a Formula

The Meaning of Life in a Formula

Harvard University paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, who died in 2002, was a tough-minded skeptic who did not suffer fools gladly when it came to pseudoscience and superstition. Gould was a secular Jew who did not believe in God, but he had a soft spot for religion, expressed most famously in his principle of NOMA—nonoverlapping magisteria. The magisterium (domain of authority) of science “covers the empirical realm: what is the universe made of (fact) and why does it work this way (theory),” he wrote in his 1999 book Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life. “The magisterium of religion extends over questions of ultimate meaning and moral value.” 

In part, Gould’s motivations were personal (he told me on many occasions how much respect he had for religion and for his many religious friends and colleagues). But in his book, he claimed that “NOMA represents a principled position on moral and intellectual grounds, not a merely diplomatic solution.” For NOMA to work, however, Gould insisted that just as “religion can no longer dictate the nature of factual conclusions residing properly within the magisterium of science, then scientists cannot claim higher insight into moral truth from any superior knowledge of the world’s empirical constitution.”

Initially I embraced NOMA because a peaceful concordat is usually more desirable than a bitter conflict (plus, Gould was a friend), but as I engaged in debates with theists over the years, I saw that they were continually trespassing onto our turf with truth claims on everything from the ages of rocks and miraculous healings to the reality of the afterlife and the revivification of a certain Jewish carpenter. Most believers hold the tenets of their religion to be literally (not metaphorically) true, and they reject NOMA in practice if not in theory—for the same reason many scientists do. In his 2015 penetrating analysis of Faith vs. Fact: Why Science and Religion are Incompatible, University of Chicago evolutionary biologist Jerry A. Coyne eviscerates NOMA as “simply an unsatisfying quarrel about labels that, unless you profess a watery deism, cannot reconcile science and religion.” 

Curiously, however, Coyne then argues that NOMA holds for scientists when it comes to meaning and morals and that “by and large, scientists now avoid the ‘naturalistic fallacy’—the error of drawing moral lessons from observations of nature.” But if we are not going to use science to determine meaning and morals, then what should we use? If NOMA fails, then it must fail in both directions, thereby opening the door for us to experiment in finding scientific solutions for both morals and meaning. 

In The Moral Arc, I give examples of how morality can be a branch of science, and in his 2014 book Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality without Religion, neuroscientist Sam Harris makes a compelling case that meaning can be found through the scientific study of how the mind works (particularly during meditation and other mindful tasks), noting that “nothing in this book needs to be accepted on faith.” And Martin Seligman’s pioneering efforts to develop a science of positive psychology have had as their aim a fuller understanding of the conditions and actions that make people happy and their lives meaningful. 

Yet what if science shows that there is no meaning to our lives beyond the purposes we create, however lofty and noble? What if death is the end and there is no soul to continue after life? According to psychologists Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg and Tom Pyszczynski, in their 2015 book The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life, the knowledge that we are going to die has been a major driver of human affairs and social institutions. Religion, for example, is at least partially explained by what the authors call terror management theory, which posits that the conflict between our desire to live and our knowledge of our inevitable death creates terror, quelled by the promise of an afterlife. If science takes away humanity’s primary source of terror management, will existential anguish bring civilization to a halt? 

I think not. We do live on—through our genes, our loves, our friends and our contributions (however modest) to making the world a little bit better today than it was yesterday. Progress is real and meaningful, and we can all participate

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