Pride in one’s species is rather provincial, don’t you think? Every species that’s ever developed self awareness must have seen it as an evolutionary culmination, rather than one of many possible, but not inevitable, courses; of which the implications are still not known, and never will be known.
The only definitive answer is failure, because it’s an end. By contrast, there’s no ultimate success. Just a tentative ongoing trial of one’s ability to survive: a wait for the other shoe to drop. What is the measure of success in a species? reproductive? technological? cultural? Species not even dimly aware of themselves, driven only by instinct — bundles of nerves and the muscles that respond directly to the stimuli received — have nevertheless survived for eons. They’re neither happy nor sad, and will never build cathedrals or toaster ovens. They’ve done well without developing a sense of self, for there was never a force strong enough to unsettle them from their niches.
Nothing — the predators, the elements, wars with other colonies or similar species, and all of the myriad parasites and microbes — could interrupt the continuity of their lineage. Highways of crocodiles, rivers of beetles, torrents of cockroaches, oceans of bacteria, have all found satisfaction with their trades, even if they know of no alternative — and lack any conscious sense of what they do now.
What if all self awareness does is make one realize their inextricable role in something that could just as well have continued without it? What happens when the ingenuity of abstract thought is no longer engaged by the urgency to find novel ways of survival? What happens then?
Evolution Towards Perfection
To the development of the species, we have an ideal in mind. It’s often just a vague intensification of western progressive culture, flattened, homogenized, and turned inward until it’s reimagined — not as one of many courses of the tangential, random development of a culture, but as an inevitable point in the perfection of human relations and physiology. This benefits the culture itself; to justify a pattern of useful traditions and ideas that served some practical purpose. Most people live in a realm of imagined potentialities and ideals, not the ongoing realities and the cyclical events which preceded them. Their morality is not what they do, but what they believe in. Their society isn’t what’s before them, but what they hope it will be. It’s both an explicit reaction to perceived shortcomings in a society, and a tacit endorsement of aspects taken for granted as obvious.
Perfection as an ideal assumes such a culture can exist objectively, and that the idea is even meaningful or coherent. But, how does one chart, say, the course from primordial grunts to a versatile language, and prove objectively that one is more perfect than the next? More accurate words? Nicer sounding phonemes? We have to answer by whose account it’s better. There are a ton of qualitative differences one can point out legitimately, but you’re ultimately left with a loose end; that you have to make the subjective choice of what you value, and admit that it’s only within that framework that something more abstract than survival becomes meaningful.
You can roll the historical dice until the cows come home, but you won’t end up with a sequence of events identical to that which developed the cultures we know. We are doing things this way, but we could just as easily be doing something else, and we wouldn’t know any better. Where progress in western culture is often seen as an advance toward tolerance and intellectualism (for liberals, anyway), there are other cultures (or subcultures) that admit entirely different ideals; like piety, class distinction, hierarchical family structure. They continue in spite of seeming backward to western progressives because enough people within these respective societies are either adequately satisfied with them, or cowed by them, so that they don’t bother advocating change, or they hold tenaciously to traditions they hope to keep ad infinitum.
There are a lot of practices that don’t translate across cultures, that each sees in the other as barbaric or profane. But since it’s only a comparison between one culture’s values and another, and not an absolute benchmark, the variation illustrates that the outcome of cultural development is rather arbitrary. An individual’s right not to be the property of another, for instance, isn’t universal. For it to become barbaric to own another person, one must first decide — consciously or not, individually or across the history of a society — that individual freedoms are important. Not everyone agrees. Without a universal arbiter of cultural absolutes, one is stuck with the awareness that, aside from the physiological demands that motivate and loosely direct them, the values we see as essential and obvious are ultimately indefensible objectively. Gods, and their ultimate judgments, are a convenient way to shut down the discussion, but it’s plain that their invocation just legitimizes a culture’s traditions without explanation.
This raises the question of whether there’s a determining factor beyond opinion to which one can defer as a guideline. A fundamental basis of modern western society, for instance, is the individual’s right to self-determination. A person could not legitimately be owned by another, and a person should be able to pursue their desires to the extent that they don’t infringe on the said freedom of another (ideally, in theory). Again, the view is a choice, not an evolutionarily determined absolute. It may have come about because it serves the species in general, but there are other ideas that might have done as well or better.
It’s assumed that we’ll inevitably become more civilized, more genteel, more intellectual: that our physiology will direct itself toward our vanities, and beyond its current weaknesses and mediocrities. Nothing suggests that this assumption is justified. Evolution isn’t a constant progression toward someone’s subjective ideal, but the adaptation to environmental pressures. Features appear randomly through mutation, and more often than not they’re a hindrance to survival. It’s only when animals of a species sharing specific genetic traits die, or otherwise fail to contribute to the gene pool, that the remaining animals that survive and produce offspring see their own successful features propagated and amplified.
If human ingenuity has circumvented the factors leading to natural selection for fitness, and adaptation to a natural environment, faster than it has been able to artificially correct harmful genetic mutations, then the contribution of these frailties affects the species as a whole. To the extent that humanity has made natural environmental pressures (natural culling) irrelevant, it must do two things: find a way to alter itself physiologically according to its own ideals (e.g. the correction of genetic diseases; but there are other more controversial elective alterations as well), and find a state of equilibrium for the controlled environment on which it depends. One that can be sustained according to the needs of the species (and any other species necessary to this environment). If either the genetic makeup of the species becomes too mediocre by the lack of environmental pressures, or the environment reverts to a state that abruptly reintroduces such pressures, the position of the species will become tenuous.
In other words, many of us would not survive as wild animals. Whether we like it or not, we’re conditioned to live in the world which we currently do, though factors like pollution have outpaced our ability to compensate genetically.
The Meaning of Life
Dualism supposes that the mind/soul/consciousness and the physical body are somehow separate and extricable entities. In this scenario, everyone you’ve known still exists somehow, and so their thoughts, experiences, feelings, and perhaps even their ongoing companionship, are maintained. The prospect of second chances, or a purer existence liberated from illness, circumstances, and vice, are also appealing. But the appeal of something doesn’t influence its veracity. The model of the brain as the home of the mind has far more evidence than the nevertheless widely accepted idea of the soul.
If you abandon the idea of dualism, any reference to the dead in the present tense becomes meaningless; as does any reference to oneself beyond death. You/they no longer exist physically, and so everything that distinguished yourself/them from inanimate debris is permanently gone.
Monists wanting meaning sometimes find it in the thought that they will live on in the memories of the people they’ve affected in their lives. But this thought is only a comfort until the moment the lights go out. The entire experience ends. It’s an asymmetrical prospect; you won’t be aware of someone remembering you because “you” no longer exist. The memories themselves are stagnate; a fetish slowly distorting, and ultimately fading from existence. All of your contemporaries will also die, and with them will go any direct memories of you.
If you’ve left a mark on the world, your work will continue to exist. But again, “you” won’t, so it’s only a thought to make the inevitable and permanent condition seem less grim as you advance toward it.
For both dualists and monists, it’s the continuation of one’s existence — literally for dualists, and figuratively/symbolically for monists — that provides comfort. Perhaps it emerges from the microcosm of our genes which, albeit unconsciously, make every effort through their particular species/vehicles to continue their own existence. From the first self-replicating molecule, to the single-celled organism, to every animal on earth which would evolve from this common ancestor, all have the same goal: to multiply, assuring the gene’s continued existence. Goal is the wrong word. Even compulsion is wrong. It’s just a physically determined inevitability. Particle A crashing into particle B, according to physical principles, reacting to motions and trajectories already in place since moment zero.
I don’t know what “meaning” means to the individual. Self awareness would seem to have come about as all features of life do: random mutations that proved useful in our survival and propagation. A happenstance that serves our masters, the genes, and produces the subject: the animal aware of what it is and what it’s doing, so that it can do it better. But with self awareness being an emergent quality of complex organisms, and cells being mindless little machines, made of big molecules we call DNA, there’s no room for deliberate intent at that level. We are made of our “creators,” and they don’t give a shit. They’re not capable of giving a shit.
Most of us are compelled to serve our masters’ will: survival, dominance, reproduction. Aside from the other two, dominance is important because genes don’t just “want” to survive in general, each “wants” to survive to the exclusion of others (a motive we often consciously mitigate or deny). Beyond serving that end, it would seem that self awareness is what engineers call “feature creep,” a gimmick with a lot of superfluous features.
Like looking for meaning.
We’ve established, by the existence of evolutionarily stagnate creatures, like the tiger shark and the dung beetle, that evolution toward self awareness is not inevitable with time; nor is it necessary to the survival of most species.
The human evolution of self awareness and the capacity for abstract thought came about randomly, and held because it helped the species survive.
The capacity for self awareness and abstract thought are not going to improve over time without outside pressures killing off all but those with the most pronounced of those qualities.
Cultural evolution is arbitrary, subjective, and not guaranteed to improve over time. Improvement itself also being subjective.
Self awareness and abstract thought have helped the survival of the species, but don’t exist toward an end beyond the will of mindless genes. This leaves us with an overdeveloped capacity to question our roles in a purpose simple enough to be dealt with, thoughtlessly, by marmots and weevils.
The value of the mind can only be subjectively weighed by the mind itself. Which is a conflict of interest.