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The Will to Meaning: Seeking the “Why” of Our Existence

The Will to Meaning: Seeking the “Why” of Our Existence

At their core, multiple branches of knowledge—from philosophy and art to literature and natural science—have emerged in response to two age-old questions: First, why are we here? And second, how can we lead a meaningful life? Historically, these questions were the province of religion and spirituality, but with the declining influence of religious traditions and waning academic interest in the humanities, we have been left with an existential vacuum of meaning.

In recent years, we have witnessed a notable resurgence in the quest for meaning, both across university campuses and within scientific disciplines. Scientists are now beginning to broach questions of meaning and purpose, drawing on empirical insights from evolutionary biology, cosmology, and psychology as they explore why our universe appears to be fine-tuned for life, and whether there is an inherent drive toward the evolution of consciousness. But can science actually tell us anything about existential meaning or purpose? What are the limits of science, and how can scientists effectively engage in a dialogue with society at large to help us find meaning in our lives?

Moderated by journalist Steve Paulson, Executive Producer of Wisconsin Public Radio’s To the Best of Our Knowledge, this three-part series at the New York Academy of Sciences brings together leading scientists and scholars to explore the question of meaning through the lens of scientific inquiry. Through an array of interdisciplinary perspectives ranging from neuroscience and positive psychology to evolutionary biology and astrophysics, the series examines the various sources from which we might derive greater insight into the meaning and purpose of our existence.

Event Summaries:

To register for the individual lectures, please visit their pages below. Registration for the 3-lecture package is sold out.                               

Tuesday, October 10, 2017, 7:00 – 8:30 PM

The Power of Meaning: The Quest for an Existential Roadmap

Where can we turn to find the story of our lives, an existential roadmap that explains where we have come from, why we are here, and where we are headed? Must each of us discover meaning within the context of our individual lives, or are there universal sources of meaning that we can all access? Neurologist Jay Lombard, philosophers Massimo Pigliucci and Michael Ruse, and author Emily Esfahani Smith join forces to shed light on these perennial questions from their respective disciplines.


Thursday, December 7, 2017, 7:00 – 8:30 PM

The Story of Life: Critical Insights from Evolutionary Biology

The notion that humans, in all their complexity, are merely an evolutionary accident, an insignificant speck in a boundless cosmos, is deeply unsatisfying for most non-scientists and fails to resonate with their life experience. What, then, can evolutionary biology ultimately tell us about the meaning of our lives? Paleoanthropologists Melanie Chang and Ian Tattersall, and paleontologist Simon Conway Morris share their insights on these competing concepts, and explain how meaning and purpose can be gleaned from the remarkable story of life itself.


Wednesday, February 7, 2018, 7:00 – 8:30 PM

A Touch of Awe: Crafting Meaning from the Wonder of the Cosmos

Over the past 100 years we have learned more about life in our universe than the entire history of humanity put together. What guidance or wisdom can the study of cosmology and astrophysics offer us in our search for meaning and purpose? Theoretical physicists Paul Davies and Ard Louis, and astrophysicist Lucianne Walkowicz tackle the “big questions” of existence — sharing their perceptions based on years of gazing upward and beyond our own intimate planet.

About the Moderator

Steve Paulson is the executive producer and an interviewer with To the Best of Our Knowledge, the Peabody Award-winning radio program produced at Wisconsin Public Radio and syndicated nationally by Public Radio International. Paulson has written for SalonSlateHuffington PostThe Chronicle of Higher EducationNautilus and other publications. His radio reports have also been broadcast on NPR's Morning Edition and All Things Considered. His recent book, Atoms and Eden: Conversations on Religion and Science, was published by Oxford University Press.