At its heart, Beta Male poses a question about meaning: in light of the findings of evolutionary psychology and physics - can we hope to retain meaning in our relationships and choices?
Answering in the negative is Alex Rosenberg, a professor of philosophy at Duke University. Rosenberg's thesis is the scientific reductionism basically collapses all the meaning that we ascribe to relationships and human choices. He wrote a book called The Atheist's Guide to Reality, which represents some of the nihilistic consequences that seem to fall out of our understanding of physics and the human brain.
It starts with this premise (drawn from a paper that basically summarizes his book):
What is the world really like? It’s fermions and bosons, and everything that can be made up of them, and nothing that can’t be made up of them. All the facts about fermions and bosons determine or “fix” all the other facts about reality and what exists in this universe or any other if, as physics may end up showing, there are other ones.
From this premise, he builds on the following: love collapses into an evolutionary module in the human brain that evolved to solve a "strategic interaction problem," thereby dissolving the metaphysical meaning (and value) we ascribe to love.
Further, even if you disagree with that point, Rosenberg says our entire mental lives can be described in the terms of physics (another point I disagree with him on), and as such, love, and actions motivated by love, simply break down into the movement of atoms in the brain.
In summary, then, science shows that meaning is illusory. But what is meaning? Is meaning just a way of capturing that something has value? Of course love has value, but that's not what we mean when we say it matters that someone was loved.
Pinning down what meaning is is inherently nebulous, and not easy. Is meaning a proposition? Or is something that's difficult to capture with language - is it an experience? I'm not sure I have the answer to any of these questions, but they're questions that I've wrestled with for years, so I had to write a novel about them.
Despite my difficulty in understanding what meaning actually is, I don't agree with Rosenberg's position. Here's Daniel Miesller recapitulating a similar argument - basically, the argument of reductionistic nihilism:
Meaning << Emotion << Chemistry << Physics
See, it's all so simple! Like simplifying an algebra equation!
But what if there's something irreducible about this particular arrangement of particles in space and time? What if there's something irreducible about being loved, something that doesn't dissolve when you describe the neurochemistry of the person that loves you?
What if the meaning is a veridical experience, and not a conclusion that falls out of a series of premises that logically build upon one another?
My favourite response to MIessler's argument, and by extension, Rosenberg's, is this comment on Miessler's post:
I started reading this, but then I realized: all the letters I'm reading are, ultimately, just photons. Photons you guys! And photons can't bear any spiritual or semantic meaning, they just are.
There's warranted cynicism, and then there's bad philosophy. I think this is the latter.
Of all the things in this world, hope is what you should give up last.
After Darwin's daughter Annie died at the age of ten, he stopped going to church.
Sometimes an entire universe is encoded into a single sentence.
Ten years from now, I'll remember this sentence. So much pain, so much devastation, packed into a couple words.
Grief, and the collapse of faith that occurs in the aftermath, the pain of a lifetime of belief disintegrating in your fingers - these are the emotions behind Beta Male, and this sentence struck me like a resonant chord. I couldn't resist integrating into the novel (with some light paraphrasing, of course), an anecdote that reveals so much and so little at the same time.
Darwin, God, and the Meaning of Life is a good primer on evolutionary theory, evolutionary psychology, and their implications for our daily lives. No pre-existing knowledge of analytic philosophy is needed to understand it, and it's written in a clean, accessible prose that deftly communicates ideas.
This is how one should live: understanding that the boundary between philosophy and the daily practice of life does not exist. Everyone has a worldview and concomitant foundational assumptions. You owe it to yourself to examine these things. As much shit as philosophy gets for not making progress, it's still the best method we have for examining the core questions of life that fall outside the empirical purview of science.
What does evolution mean for your relationships with others? What does it say about your mother's love for her child? What does it say about a woman's love for a man? A man's love for a man?
Many of the implications of evolution are counter-intuitive and challenge our immediate reactions. Consider the following:
"The course of evolution has furnished animals with an increasingly great capacity to suffer. Monkeys suffer more than trilobites, and humans presumably suffer more than monkeys. Evolution has also furnished animals with an increasingly great capacity to inflict suffering. As evolutionary history has unfolded, then, the universe has come to contain more and more suffering. Is that progress?"
The book also serves as a useful counterweight to the crushing nihilism of contemporary manosphere pop evo-psych writers like Heartiste and Rollo Tomassi. Is it all black, then? Does evolutionary science lead directly into the pits of nihilism? (some philosophers think it does) . Not everyone thinks so. I loved this quote, too:
Whether naturalism leads to nihilism is a contentious topic of debate, and this book helps to illuminate it. In part, I tried to answer this question in a different way - I wrote a novel about it.
In conclusion: four stars out of five.
people I admire
Bret Easton Ellis