May 17, 2015 Admin

I Took a University Course On The Meaning of Life; Here’s What I Learnt

Kal's Cartoon. The Economist. 17 January 2015.

Kal’s Cartoon. The Economist. 17 January 2015.

I am alive. Hear me roar; for after death, I will not soar.

F O R E W O R D 

Throughout these past few months, I found myself repeatedly compelled to ponder beyond my zone of comfort by the many great authors we have discussed. However, there have been two quotes that I kept coming back to, whether it was when reading, or listening to you, Prof. LePage, discuss various themes. I had originally intended to include these in my final paper, but I see no place where they may be appropriate. Therefore, at this risk of being crass, I decided to include them here, for they resonated with me for months, and well worth repeating.

The first comes from, oddly enough, a rebooted television series, Battlestar Galactica based on the premise of a bloody war between humans, and their evolved humanoid robots called cylons, who do not die, but simply resurrect whence killed in a ship called the Resurrection Hub. In an episode called “Guess what’s coming to dinner,” the cylon number six, in rebellion, admits to her human hosts:

“To live meaningful lives, we must die and not return.”

And the second, comes from the Persian astronomer, mathematician, and philosopher, beautifully translated by the late Edward Fitzgerald:

Then to this earthen Bowl did I adjourn

My Lip the secret Well of Life to learn:

And Lip to Lip it murmur’d — “While you live

Drink! — for once dead you never shall return.”

I can only hope that this work may attempt to crouch on the shoulder of these giants.


 

O ur biology is a conglomeration of billions of years of evolution that led to such vital artifacts as the pinky-toe and, incidentally, if one were to weigh the nothingness, the vacuum of space, one would get a positive result on a scale. Before I can start to pick up on those two absurd statements, and how they pertain in explaining the why of life, I will attempt to provide a context for this said why. “So remember when you’re feeling very small and insecure, how amazingly unlikely is your birth and pray that there’s intelligent life somewhere up in space, ’cause there’s bugger all down here on Earth!” (Monty Python Wiki, 2015). Some may find this quote from Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life too simple, even too crude an answer to arguably the most profound question one may ask oneself. Satire however, seldom fails to provide the context needed to insert the ego where it properly belongs. Satire and philosophy; two unlikely allies in an ocean of delusion ask questions, aloud, that many hear from a voice deep inside. It is no wonder then that great thinkers of the old world, in addition to being philosophers, were also mathematicians, cosmologists, and composers. All of who tackled aspects of the unknown: from Pythagoras, to Plank’s Constant, to Pembaur; they helped shape the way our world is today. A world, perhaps to them, of unimaginable knowledge, creativity, and excitement all of which have brought our species closer to understanding what we yearn most to understand: our place in the universe, and the reasons why. But how is it that we have arrived at our current understanding of existence, and furthermore does this approach provide a better explanation to the reason for our existence than the traditional methods?

A great divide has always existed between human schools of thought. Mysticism, followed by faiths, have of course, dominated early human civilizations (as they still do in parts of the world today) for our species’ need for an explanation for observation is stronger than the urge to doubt. “Passion for learning” as Cicero described curiosity (Cicero, 2015) which eventually led to the scientific method allowed our species to ask questions we did not know were questions to be asked in the first place. This holds true for everything we observe, organic or otherwise, microscopic or galactic, and relatively recently, observable or seemingly hidden. To some, this divide between faiths and science is reconcilable by simply separating the realm of the two, arguing that one answers the questions of the mechanics of our everyday lives, whilst the other enriches our macroscopic view of all existence including those concepts that language fails to enrich — such as the conscience– with each realm deserving an equal throne in the human experience. (Nas.edu, 2015) This worldview however, is exclusive of a palpable cognitive dissonance. Mainly the one that sees science encroach ever closer on faith’s realm; for a long time phenomena that deserved explanation in the human experience have switched from faith-based reasonings to scientific ones. Whether immediate: thunder and lightning, volcanoes and earthquakes, flooding and drought, or cyclical events: eclipses, shooting stars, meteors, the northern lights, and so on. The goal of this short work is to briefly explore a few facets of this encroachment, and ponder whether what we know now is capable of forcing humanity to ask different questions than it did before.

 

Tolstoy, in My Confession, wrote of his observations of the “the poor, the simple, […] pilgrims, monks, dissenters, [and] peasants,” in contrast with his “circle, who struggled against fate because of their privations and their suffering.” He praised the former as “people [who] accepted diseases and sorrows without any perplexity or opposition.” (Klemke & Cahn, 2008, p. 14) It is uncertain which realization is more appalling: the fact that people of faith do not readily accept their fate – precisely the reason for why they pray – or that apparently, in Tolstoy’s observation, they couldn’t be bothered. If there were to be only one recurring theme in science other than the pursuit of what we know to be true, it would be doubt. Dubitare, or dubious as it was first used in Latin, became the old French world dote of the early 11th century CE[1] which gradually morphed into doubt of the 13th century CE Middle English. (Etymonline.com, 2015) It is rather unfortunate that the etymology of language should have such an impact, not just on individuals, but also on societies as a whole. “Go with doubt; have doubt; ye of little doubt; act of doubt; leap of doubt; in good doubt”. Clearly none of these phrases are in use in our common English. Replace however, “doubt” with “faith” and they all make sense. In The Emotional Coherence of Religion, Paul Thagard of the University of Waterloo suggests, “religion is as much a matter of emotional attitudes as it is a matter of beliefs. For example, a Catholic child learns to attach positive emotional values to such representations as God, the Blessed Virgin Mary, the pope, and good deeds; and negative emotional values to the devil, sin, Protestants, and so on.” (Thagard, 2005, p.66) It is then of no surprise that this enduring word ‘faith,’ whatever belief, cult, or religion it might encompass at the time, has endured as a positive perspective and tool for life. “Fear,” or “dread” however, were the original meanings of the word doubt; and if that sounds familiar, it is because it has not changed. So much of how we go about our lives is emotional; this is precisely the reason why leaders who are calm, cool, and collected during times of crises are revered. We unconsciously admire those with emotional intelligence. How would the closer incorporation of doubt as a desirable, if not inevitable, property for life impact our understanding of our place in the universe?

 

In an interview with Vice Magazine, British philosopher John Grey, author of The Soul of Marionette, an exploration into humankind’s relationship with freedom states that, in his book, he refers to John Keats’ concept of “negative capability,” describing it as “how to dwell in doubt and mystery. That’s freedom. In other words, you’ve got to act in the world. You have things you care about, so you act on them. You do your best, but then you act in uncertainty, in doubt. You simply have to do the best with the values and goals you have.” (Niederhauser, 2015) Thus, when presented with these two phrases, “dwelling in doubt,” or “having faith,” attached to two different methods of understanding life; between two phrases that produce measurable differences in our brains, which do we choose?

 

Regardless of how language manipulates our worldview, we may consider the word as an unchanging, solid, homeostatic property of our lives; one which we can mold to describe human life and the human understanding of its how, and why. Though, even in this scenario, whereby language loses fluidity and does not change, one may follow the scientific encroachment over faith quite easily. An encroachment, taken to its ultimate end, as Baier did in The Meaning of Life by the idea of infinite regress: “[t]here is a very good reason for wishing to explain a less general [theory] by a more general theory. […] Moreover, the more general theory, because of its greater generality, can explain a wider range of phenomena already explained. […T]he ideal limit to which such expansions of theories tend is an all-embracing theory which unified all theories and explains all phenomena. Of course, such a limit can never be reached.” (Klemke & Cahn, 2008, p. 93) Baier may have left little room for a need for further exploration of the theory(ies) of everything, but it is apparent that he may not have been totally convinced: “Since the universe is the totality of things, it must have originated out of nothing,” and “assume that the universe really has originated out of nothing. Even that does not prove that the universe has not existed for ever.” (Klemke & Cahn, 2008, p. 95) Were one to know nothing else about Baier, other than reading his work The Meaning of Life, one could still surmise the man as a person for whom doubt over belief was not an uncomfortable position to hold. For it is only under those circumstances that when presented with new, convoluted, and shocking scientific findings that one may circumvent the feeling of being overwhelmed, and dive – neck deep.

 

In order to illustrate the reasons for how new scientific findings may make us question the fundamentals of the why of our existence, two short, unconnected, and criminally simplified examples will be illustrated. The first is of a biological tale, and the latter, a physical one. In The Greatest Show on Earth, Richard Dawkins[2] illustrates the pattern by which two animals utilize the same body part. Sharks are one of the oldest and most successful species on Earth; their lineage can be traced back to the Ordovician Period of about 450 million years ago. (Wikipedia, 2015) They are seemingly unrelated to the giraffe, a specialized land herbivore. Yet both animals (and, almost all other mammals,) share the laryngeal nerve the stretches from the neck to the heart and to the respiratory systems. In an ancient animal such as the shark, the nerve is quite short, as the heart is located close to the gills, allowing for the fast transfer of oxygenated blood from gills to the circulatory system. This is efficient, reliable, and less prone to prolonged damage and can be found in sharks today. In a giraffe however, “the recurrent laryngeal nerve represents a detour […] of perhaps 15 feet in a large adult!” (Dawkins, 2009, p. 360) Evolution is the culprit for “as the ancestors of mammals evolved further and further way from their fish ancestors, nerves and blood vessels found themselves pulled and stretched in puzzling directions.” (Dawkins, 2009, p. 361) None of this is of course, a problem; except for the fact that if one knows a typical giraffe’s neck length, one is puzzled at the figure of 15 feet; a measurement, perhaps, twice the size of an adult giraffe neck. What is to blame? The vagus nerve: for the laryngeal nerve wraps around the vagus, which in turn wraps around the sharks gills and heart closely situated to one another. This same configuration is outstretched in a giraffe for the one nerve comes from the head all the way down to the circulatory system, wraps around, and goes all the way back to it’s end point. The effective distance the nerve needs to travel is but a few centimeters, but the evolution that stretched the neck, step-by-step and little-by-little at a small cost to the animal, presents itself here as the sum of an unimaginable, but quantifiable change and thus as a huge cost to the animal, highly inefficient, and slightly hubris. This incredible animal, seemingly perfectly designed to fetch leafs off the canopy, is really quite a mess inside. This is not good work; and if God made man in his own image – presumably one of perfection, or closely resembling it – he did not extend the same favour to the giraffe, or countless other species that we observe in our current (short, limited, and opaque) window of understanding life on Earth.

Animals are imperfect; as is the human animal though we are quite successful in convincing ourselves otherwise. Paleontological, and extensive fossil studies clearly show that most (in fact 95 percent) of the species that have lived on Earth are extinct today. If one were to account for mass extinctions, which are thought to be the main causes of species extinction and finally the relatively recent human effects of Earth’s fauna and flora, the rate at which species naturally cease to exist is about one ten-thousandth of one percent. It amounts to roughly 10 species per standard calendar year with the assumption that a species “lasts anywhere between 1-10 million years.[3]” (Peery, 2015) By this varied standard, and if we can manage it, we as humans have lived between one-tenth to one-thousandth of our lives. “War, disease, death, destruction, hunger, filth, poverty, torture, crime, corruption and the Ice Capades.” (Carlin, 2011) Satire, and George Carlin, once again to both remedy the feeling of hopelessness, and to ask tough questions. It is not all bad; in fact some of the properties of the human experience cited by Carlin are quite natural. For this is precisely how one ten-thousandth of Earth’s species also wither. When a female praying mantis decides to have her lover as an afternoon biscuit after courting, it isn’t cannibalism, or torture, or murder; it is life. When the mother cuckoo finds a “foster” nest to lay her eggs, the cuckoo chick, upon hatching, uses its back to roll the eggs belonging to the foster parent (its foster brothers and sisters of a different species) over and out of the nest. It is not infanticide, or fratricide, or murder; it is life. (Yong, 2013) We humans are not all that different from our smaller-brained brethren. We engage in many of the acts that we categorize as appalling for ourselves, and natural in the wild. The difference is, of course, our recognition of this fact. For what possible reason could there be for humans to exist, in recognition of our minuteness, combined with a healthy dose of arguably the two most powerful raisons d’être, greed and ego, to not realize that our purpose here on Earth is Gifted, Grand, and Granted by God. That is, until we realize that our anatomy in not granted perfectionism, but adapted evolution. And the fact that we still possess a tailbone is analogous to the giraffe’s 15-foot laryngeal nerve. It is this knowledge, amalgamated through centuries of observation parallel with the development of the scientific method that has enabled us, as imperfect species of our egos, to look beyond ourselves and see the many similarities that we have with the natural world. We are the natural world. Its death, disease, and destruction, is our death, disease, and destruction. Its ultimate demise of species whether through awesome catastrophe or otherwise, will be our demise. In a little known but well praised animated science fiction television series, Rick and Morty, there is a scene where dim-witted Morty, in trying to dissuade his sister from running away, reveals that in one of his adventures with his genius, physicist uncle Rick, they had destroyed the whole world, and in order to undo their irreparable damage, they traveled to another universe whereby the specific event which led them to the destructive path, had not happened. That event, was that they had both died. “That, out there, that’s my grave.” Morty, reveals to his sister, pointing at the yard, “in this [world], we were dead, so we came here and we buried ourselves, and we took their place. And every morning, […] I eat breakfast twenty yards away from my own rotting corpse. […] I am a version of your brother that you can trust,” Morty confesses to his sister, “nobody exists on purpose, nobody belongs anywhere, everybody’s going to die. Come watch T.V.” (Rick and Morty, 2014) Although a convenient, satiric plot-end for the show, the script’s profound message is not lost, nor is it based on pure fantasy. Although our knowledge of biology may, as Baier suggested bring us “closer […] to a full and complete explanation of everything,” providing the context for why it would benefit us to pay less attention to the why of life, and more to the how may conveniently, through a feedback loop, opens our eyes back to the why. (Klemke & Cahn, 2008, p. 93) Through this we are presented with an even greater, more bizarre, and positively fantastical knowledge from the world of physics.  

 

“Nothing isn’t nothing anymore,” exclaimed Lawrence Krauss, in a 2009 RDF[4] hosted talk on new findings in cosmology. One for which after learning of its abstract, the host of the conference quipped, “Why don’t you just [entitle] it ‘we’re all fucked?’” Krauss explains: “If you take empty space, and that means get rid of all the particles, all the radiation, absolutely everything, so there is nothing there,” he concludes, “that ‘nothing,’ weighs something. That sounds ridiculous, why should nothing weigh something? Because of the laws of quantum mechanics and special relativity, on extremely small scales, nothing is really a boiling, bubbling brew of virtual particles that are popping in and out of existence in timescales so short that [one] cannot even see them.” (Krauss, 2009) It may be that for a philosopher the phrase ‘nothing isn’t nothing,’ is something that might have crossed the mind; it is their job after all to question common sense. However, for the rest, such an audacious statement breeds strong reactions, either of embrace, or dismissal. But that is why science thrives; it asks audacious questions and tries to prove ludicrous theories. “This is the empty space inside of a proton,” Krauss continues, whilst showing a three-dimensional rendering of a space full of bubble-like structures, expanding, contracting, and popping in and out of existence. “It turns out, most of the mass of the proton, comes not from the quirks within a proton, but from the empty space between the quirks. These fields,” by which he refers to the bubbles, “popping in and out of existence, produce about 90 percent of the mass of the proton.” And if that was not bizarre enough: “since protons and neutrons are the dominant stuff in your body, the empty space is responsible for 90 percent of your mass.” (Krauss, 2009) Which, of course, gives a whole new meaning to arguments being made out of hot air.

 

Modern physics, it turns out, whether cosmological, or theoretical, is starting to contribute much to the question of how of our lives. The question of how is one that science has been steadfastly answering since time immemorial. Detractors, and for those whom science cannot provide the ultimate answer why, have as mentioned, argued for this as being the perfect reason for the coexistence for a scientific and teleological model for our lives; one that answers the how, and the why respectively. The –revelation – above, however does not end there. The weird world of quantum mechanics (for which I am admittedly just as ignorant as the next person) is for most people a dismissive subject, simply because scientists always – and to our current knowledge, rightly – attribute it to impossibly small scales. This way of thought has been slowly evolving. George Dvorsky, a Canadian futurist published numerous times in the Journal of British Interplanetary Society and a contributing science editor for io9, argues that quantum mechanics paves the way for a “many worlds” interpretation of the universe, one with which most people have some familiarity. In a publication, Dvorsky muses on the possibilities: a multiverse of gargantuan proportions: a ‘world’ in which our universe is but only one that includes the “illusion” of the “single narrative” of one’s life; an infinite number of any one individual and/or organisms, where “everything has already happened, and will happen again,” and one where finally, and most bizarrely, “communication between parallel worlds may be possible.” (Dvorsky, 2015) On its surface, this is simply yet another how in science’s ever-expanding, ever-complex approximation to the why of life. But one needs to look closer. For why would faiths need a divine plan, if every possible scenario has happened, and would happen again? It is as if one chooses all the routes possible from Ottawa to Montreal, and then travels them, at the same time.

 

Which brings one to another perplexing matter: time. “We have three dimensions that we are familiar with. On a grid you might think of it as what street in New York, what avenue, and what floor in a building that you might meet someone,” explains astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, as an analogue for the world we know as width, depth, and height. “Remember however, any time that you’ve made an appointment to see someone, you would not give a time without a place. Nor would you give a place without a time.” Adding therefore, the fourth time coordinate to the street address. “We know intuitively that we need a space and time coordinate, combined […] but the difference is, we are not prisoners of our three-dimensional space: I can walk left and right, I can jump up and down, I can walk forwards and backwards, I can access all points, […] yet I am a prisoner in the present. […] I have no access to the past, I have no access to the future.” None of this should seem unintuitive, however, “If you go to a higher dimension,” whereby quantum mechanics and string theory mathematically allow for multiple dimensions, “you step out of the time dimension, and now you look at time as though we look at space. So the very questions that we have, the very statements that we make about our lives, make no sense in that higher coordinate system: when was I born? You were always born. When did I go to college? You are always going to college. When did I die? You are always dying. […] If your whole timeline is laid out in front of you, then you have access to it.” (Business Insider, 2014) Time, is arguably, the most fundamental constant for which we view our lives with. Everything that happens to us is personified by us and to us, as a function of time. Let us examine this sentence once again. There were three words in one sentence that referred to time, even as one was attempting to describe time: “happens,” “is,” and “function.” Without the static nature of time, our world as we know it would become meaningless. It is thus no wonder that deGrasse Tyson’s thought experiment whereby one is “always dying” is not only hard to imagine, but even harder to describe. Our language does not allow for it, for it removes the pillar underlying almost all spoken tongues: the consistency of time. One may even argue that the removal of this pillar is an assault to the “soul,” for it removes what binds us together as species. What Klemke called the appeal of “one’s relationships of friendship and love. Fragmentary and imperfect as these often are,” become altogether meaningless. (Klemke & Cahn, 2008, p.194)

 

There is that idea again: meaning. It is undoubtedly related to the why of life. It is not uncommon that many of us falsely equate the two as an infinite loop or as a consequence of each other. It may be that for someone of faith, “whenever a human being rubs the lamp of this moral consciousness with moral passion, a Spirit appears. This Spirit is God, and the Spirit is master and lord, and man becomes his servant. But this service is man’s true freedom.” (Klemke & Cahn, 2008, p. 24) David F. Swenson’s The Dignity of Human Life successfully uses language to meld the why of life and the meaning of it into one. “God” is meaning at the same time, it is also why there is meaning. It becomes rather easy for someone without any other elucidation to life to accept that on faith. It might even be emotionally satisfying, for one’s actions are now sanctioned by God leaving one’s conscious rather free of any guilt that might have otherwise been brought by that organizational failure for compassion. And further satisfying, is that death by this view of life, is now merely a transitory process. It seems, oddly enough, deGrasse Tyson, and many religions’ view on the afterlife are similar! “You are always dying,” we are reminded is the result of time as a manipulative dimension, and “for ever, and ever,” a phrase that removes the constraint of time appears in Galatians 1:5, Exodus 15:18, Psalm 111:8, Psalm 48:14, Philippians 4:20, etc.

 

“It did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life,” said Victor Frankl in Man’s Search for Meaning. (Frankl, 2006, loc. 1015 of 2072) Similarly, but yet again, rather bizarrely, Krauss makes the same argument that he has entitled “anthropic mania” in a vastly different context:

 

If there are many different universes, and the energy of empty space can vary in each one, then only those in which it is not much greater than what we will measure today will galaxies form… and then and only then will stars and planet form, and only then will astronomers form. So the universe is, the way it is, because astronomers are here to measure it! Not only does [this] sound ridiculous, it sounds religious. Some people have said that the universe is fine-tuned. If it were any different then we would not be here. God clearly created the universe. […This is nonsense for the same reasons that] bees can tell so beautifully the colour of flowers so that they can find them. Not because God intended them to do it, but because if they could not find the flowers, they would not get the stuff they needed, and they would be around; it is natural selection. […] What this is really telling us is that this is kind of a cosmic natural selection. All it is saying, if it is true, is that it is not too surprising that we find ourselves living in a universe that allows life. Because in the universes that do not allow life, we would not be here. It is just that simple.” (Krauss, 2009)

 

“I have wrung from these years much in the way of purification and burnishing of the soul—and I no longer need religion or art as a means to that end.” Nietzsche, ever poetically, describes exactly how I feel in exploring the why of life. I find myself presented with the awesome known and unknown knowledge of the universe, and realize that the why of life, even though unanswered in the traditional sense that our common tongues allow for, may be the wrong question to ask. For science, ever disciplined and vigilant, and through approaching the very limits of answering the how is creating questions for us that render our current way of asking why completely meaningless. It is therefore not incorrect to ask why, or to wholly ignore the puzzlement altogether, but to change its context appropriate to the knowledge of our time. It is time to come to terms with the exclusivity of the current state of science and religion’s abilities to inform and enrich our world. I have, of course, no doubt and complete faith that this path will surely not take shape (at least, should there be other universes, in this one). Lawrence Wright, the author of Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief states that in his research into various peoples of belief he has found that “there are often times good-hearted people, idealistic, but full of a kind of crushing certainty that eliminates doubt.” (Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, 2015) This cynicism, though crushing to me, is one that I am willing to start to doubt myself for. It is because I have no choice; there is no other way. In Tolstoy’s My Confessions, he too was left with a feeling of being cornered, without choice, “knowing that the dragon of death is waiting inevitably for [him.]” (Klemke & Cahn, 2008, p. 9)  I am in a similar position. In estimating, from the current pool of knowledge, that my existence is rather quite meaningless, and my purpose is that I have none, I am left stark, somber, and stumped. But then I realize that the atoms in my left hand pushing the keys into this work might very well have come from a star exploding, perhaps hundreds of millions of years ago, and might very well be completely different from the atoms of the keystrokes felt by my right hand. I am an impossibly unlikely being. Furthered impossible, by knowing the unlikeliness of that of my being. I am able, to ask how this impossibility could have come about, and be able to provide answers that are not only human truth, but universal truth, as we know them. And so are you.

Footnotes

[1] Dates here refer to Before the Common Era (BCE), and the Common Era (CE). As David Levering Lewis put it so eloquently in God’s Crucible, “[t]he presumptuous ‘Before Christ (BC’) and ‘anno Domini’ (AD) cede to an ecumenism cognizant of historical interdependence and parity.” (Lewis, 2008)

[2] Interestingly, John Grey is not at all a fan of Dawkins. Although, I may have managed to put them on the same side of the coin here, Grey states in the interview cited that “I write for individuals, not to generate a social movement or a political project. I write for those individuals who have some doubts as to the prevailing worldview. If you don’t have any doubts, don’t read me. Read Richard Dawkins, read someone else who’ll make you happy. You’re wasting your time with me.” (Niederhauser, 2015) I must admit that personally, I feel Dawkins’ stamp as a ‘militant atheist’ is wholly undeserved; especially if one were to read The Ancestor’s Tale, a triumphant work of science, and narration.

[3] This figure of 10 species per year, according to Peery, is likely 100 to 1000 times larger ever since the mass encroachment of human affect on the planet.

[4] The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science: https://richarddawkins.net


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