No meaning from the Big Bang

“There was no meaning in the universe at the moment of the Big Bang, and there’s no physical process that can add meaning, so there’s no meaning now.”

This argument for nihilism proves too much. There were no wings or potato mashers for quite a while after the Big Bang. Evolution added wings; people added potato mashers. Evolution and people are also both involved in adding meaning to the universe.

The next page addresses the complaint that, since meaning evolved, it doesn’t exist. (Put that way, it sounds silly, doesn’t it?)

Later pages address the complaints that, if people are involved in making meaning, it’s an illusion or just made up. Those are more reasonable: if people chose meanings arbitrarily, it might be wise to discount them. (This is the reason existentialism tends to collapse into nihilism.) However, we don’t choose arbitrarily, if at all. Meaningness is subject to many non-human constraints. For instance, the physical principle of conservation of energy is intimately involved in the meaning of food.

God creating the universe
William Blake, Ancient of Days

The sense that there is no physical process that adds meaning to the universe gains credibility from the implicit assumption that meaning is non-physical. This gives rise to a series of nihilistic arguments according to which some eternalist supernatural theory of meaning is mistaken, and therefore meaning does not exist. These are fallacious: although meaning doesn’t work in those ways, it does exist and works in other, natural, physical ways. Several upcoming pages cover errors of this sort. They are not nihilistic enough: they fail to reject eternalist—usually religious—explanations for meaningfulness.

The Big Daddy of those explanations is that God put most of the world’s meaning in when he created it, at 6 p.m. on October 22nd, 4004 B.C. He is also the sole source of any additional meaning (such as His Incarnation) that has been added since. The Big Bang didn’t put any meaning in at the beginning, and by analogy that suggests there isn’t any meaning now.

Other explanations rely on a misleading intuitive physical analogy: that meaning is a sort of supernatural fluid, subject to a conservation principle. You can’t create meaning out of non-meaningful things, any more than you can create water out of sticks or stones or something. Of course, you can create water out hydrogen and oxygen gas, but that wasn’t known at the time intuitions like this entered our thought soup.

Biological evolution is useful again as a counter-analogy. Wings evolved out of non-wings, by a mechanism that is now quite well understood. Meaning comes partly from biological evolution, partly from cultural evolution, partly from individual innovation, and partly from entirely other sources. The details aren’t always clear, but meaning developing out of non-meaning is not fundamentally mysterious. Much less is it impossible for any in-principle reason.