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.
people I admire
Bret Easton Ellis