Posts Tagged ‘the meaning of life’

SERMON: “Hey, I didn’t ask for this!” by the not-so-reverend-bob

Sunday, November 13th, 2011

It’s a tricky thing, living.  Being alive.  Being aware of being alive.  We don’t think about it as being hard, at least not most of the time.  (Probably because the alternative to the multiple challenges of being alive are even more repellent to the mind).

We most often aren't thinking about living...we're just living.

But the raw fact is that none of us asked for any of this.  How could we?  We are the (current) end products of a ginormous random chemistry experiment that just happened to produce living cells as an un-planned consequence of the death of stars and the elemental debris they spewed into space.

That is, of course, quite a condensed version of what we now know happened “out there” that lead to us living “here”, but it gnaws at the bone of contention any of us could have with life in general.  We the living were each conceived, born, and brought up with sufficient success to be sitting here now contemplating our existence.  The more extreme oddity of us humans (an oddity which we share to a substantial degree with the other higher primates and some mammals) is that our brains took a rather dramatic evolutionary turn a couple million years ago which led to us stumbling upon verbal language which, in the end, most likely led to everything else that we think of as our uniquely human accomplishments.

The fact of our existence as walking, talking, engineering and social people has led countless of our number to reach the (baseless) conclusion that we are the highest aim of some vast intelligence that made everything that there is just to tickle our fancy in a way that would result in eternal gratitude to Him who made it so.  The sheer absurdity of this idea is only matched by the screaming improbability that you and I should have come to be as we are at all!

But we are here, and that, in the end, may be the most difficult reality to accept.

We disregard the forms of life that last only a day, a week, or a year.  Flies and ants are nothing to us.  Pets who stick around for a decade or so we hold to ourselves as companions as long as they endure, then we deeply mourn their loss.  Friends and family we have with us for what seems like a very long time indeed.  Until, that is, they begin to succumb to the biology of aging.  At first it’s our parents that die, but then the older friends (who weren’t all that old when we first acquired them) begin to age, and our sense of plenty that we felt about our youthful time is vanquished by a palpable, approaching mortality.

It’s happened to me more than once, where I will still stop still in the midst of swirling humanity and notice the people driving in their cars or standing in line at the grocery store around me, going about their business as if the only thing to do is to be busy at our work, or buying food or driving to the store.  We could just as easily be the ants on an anthill, or the bees building a hive, or beavers engineering a damn or elk rutting in the fall woods.

For it is all exactly the same.  We are animals in the same way that all others are: discrete biological ticking clocks, fraught with flaws and potentials for the illnesses or diseases or health and resilience that make some clocks tick faster (or slower) than others.

It is only because we are clearly smarter than the other animals that we allow ourselves an elevated position above the dirty fray of life.  A position, I would argue, that we neither deserve nor, in truth, occupy.

The best we humans can do is to make the most of our lives.  To our credit, many humans have done just that, and have found a certain poetry in our shared fate.  There is a pathos — a certain aching beauty — in the courage that we humans often find to both accept our fate and then turn our finite energies toward making the short lives of our fellow humans better.

It is a discouraging fact, however, that a good many humans are going about their lives with a less-than-admirable level of awareness.  I can’t really begrudge them that, on a personal level.  But the tragedy comes when the follies of human hubris and inflated self-importance leads people to inflict un-needed pain, suffering and even death upon their fellow hominids.

That’s why I continue to feel it important to preach the reality of who and what we are (based upon the scientific knowledge we currently possess).  I think humanism is the philosophical bedrock of the best human ethos.  I think religious opportunists borrow this naturally-evolved human ethic in and then attribute it to an external deity for the crass purpose of building a brand and promoting it for tribal and (let’s be honest) commercial purposes.

We are short-lived organisms.  We are more complex than most other life on the planet (almost all of which is on the scale of bacteria — the larger the animal, the fewer in number), but that doesn’t give us any special privilege when it comes to the challenges and ultimate outcomes of life.  We are each a temporary assembly of elements and energy, made up of as much bacteria as anything else.  We are built of compounds that were formed in the crucible of condensing — then exploding — stars, fueled by the life that grows as a result of the nuclear heat of our sun.  We have the most complex and interesting brains ever seen on this planet in all of it’s eons of supporting life.  We are social animals that love each other, can stand in awe of a sunset or melt at the kiss of a lover.

In short, there are compensations for the ceaseless challenge of living, made all the more beautiful by their rarity.  The common is never what we hold to be precious.   Yet in our daily experience we are literally enveloped by life, without and within.  It is all around us from the day we are born until the day we die.  We’ve always known that it was life’s fragility — it’s temporal nature — that made it precious.  But now, thanks to science, we know just how uncommon life such as we know it is in the universe, as well as how many microscopic lives are the vital basis of our own.  More reasons why this complicated, challenging act of living — for all of its difficulties — means so very, very much to us.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “The Wrong Question” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, April 10th, 2011

We are not served well by the question: “What is the meaning of life”?  Not because the question is a difficult one, or too challenging to answer, but because it is a question with no certifiable answer, or , more exactly: there is no “meaning of life” to be discovered.

To continue in that bleak vein, let me suggest that he best we can hope for (in fact the best we can achieve within the bounds of reality) is to come to some sort of understanding of our own mortality, and thereby work to make the best peace we can with an end as horrifying to any conscious living organism as it is inevitable.

The problem with a truly Atheistic, materialistic and naturalistic view of existence is that there really isn’t much in the way of comfort to be had (at least not in any easily digestible form).  Many religious people know this and, in fact, use this truth as an argument for the adoption of religion.  Think about that for a moment: the truth is unsettling; therefore one should seek refuge in untruth.  Writers like Christopher Hitchens acknowledge atheism’s lack in satisfying of our natural human wish-fulfillment.  (Atheism is, by implication, an embracing of the knowledge of our true status in the universe that science offers us).  So instead they point to a certain nobility in facing this troubling reality head-on, and then going on about the business of making the lives we do have as rich and meaningful as we can.

Yes, I'm an Evolution nerd.

But if life has no meaning, how can we make meaningful lives?  That’s simple: life does have meaning to those that are living it: to you and I.  We humans get bent when charge past such earthly meaning in order to confront the possibility that the rest of the universe does not share our fascination with our day-to-day activities.  (Because, apparently, it’s not enough for us to be important to just, well, us.  We want there to be a God who cares, ruling over a Universe that is built for the sole purpose of engendering the relationship between Man and his Maker).

There is irony in this.  I would suggest that the more a human seeks his or her sense of meaning from external (eternal, divine) sources, the less meaningful (in real terms) their lives actually are.  In other words, the religious have it exactly backwards: they think that it is only through acknowledging God that our lives have meaning (going so far as to believe that a life lived for any other purpose cannot be meaningful at all).  I think the opposite is true: that the less one believes in the eternal and the divine, the more one is forced to come to terms with the here and now which, for us social animals, means making the most of our relationships with each other and the way we choose to spend our short lives.

Now I could be wrong on this — at least as it relates to humans of a different temperament than mine.  Consider the following:

“Conservatives also tend to rank high on something called “death anxiety”…  Apparently the mere idea of death causes some people to feel uncertain and out of control – anxious.  Some studies suggest that death anxiety reflects a fear that life itself has no meaning.  For someone who doesn’t enjoy ambiguity, that could be a pretty distressing possibility.”   — Hannah Holmes: “Quirk: Brain Science Makes Sense of Your Peculiar Personality” (P 218)

In addition, to a more “conservative” mind, the idea of a human set loose upon the world without the restraining influence of God on their behavior is terrifying, and they imagine that such “self-responsive” people would unerringly choose to do the darkest possible things.

And then there are writers such as Ayn Rand: popular in conservative circles for her idea that society is served best by individuals going about their selfish ways attending to their own selfish animal needs.  Conservatives seems overly fond of this idea (which seems odd when such philosophies are so often erroneously labelled as being “Darwinian” in their “survival of the fittest” ethos).

But these ideas are still operating, I would argue, within the framework of a sense of original sin and a need to justify our naturally-selfish behavior within a God-directed universe, and therefore represent an error of logic akin to how the notorious eugenics movement turned the blind work of genetics into a justification for human cruelty on a grand scale.

It is beyond dispute that we are animals, and naturally self-centered animals at that.  Yet we humans carry around comparatively huge brains that set us apart from our animal cousins, be they primate or whale, in the scope of our ability for self-consideration and reflection.  But to elevate our instinctive bent toward self-preservation to a self-serving abdication of personal responsibility is to ignore the comprehensive social nature of our human-to-human relationships.  For it is in those earthly and immediate relationships that we experience whatever hell or heaven we think we are creating, not in an imagined afterlife.

In religious terms, our instinctive behaviors are labelled as sin, or fallen, and a thing against we must strive mightily with the help of an intervening God.  This misses the point as well, and is simply a very common ploy by select humans to profit from their control over other humans hungry for answers to that damnable question: “What’s it all about?”.

This is all we can know about the meaning of life at this point: you and I are alive today, and we are the descendants of an endless series of life forms that evolved on a planet that was born out of a cosmic explosion that created a universe that continues to expand, and will continue to expand to a point at which, we assume, it will then contract again.  Before that happens, however, our own sun will reach the end of its nuclear life and explode, taking us out with it.  But even before then, the species “human” will most likely (if history is any indication) go extinct, or evolve into a new species (that may in it’s turn go extinct).  But before any of that ever happens, you and I will die a natural (one would hope) death, and our chemical components will be disbursed back into the soil, the air, and the tissue of other living organisms until such time as the whole shebang is redistributed by cosmic explosions.  We are primates, social mammals that have a need for each other’s company, and so we have developed societies and technologies to assist us in our instinctive quest for comfort, happiness and security.  Our large brains are both assistant and critic to all that we do, and within a natural spectrum of mutation and disease, each animal is born with a capacity to live life with a variety of levels of success.

That states the reasons you and I are the living consciousnesses we are, but it does not — indeed can not — answer the existential “why” that we keep asking it to.

Any answer we construct to the question of life’s meaning is going to fall short.  Even acknowledgement of that reality will not bring complete relief from the ever-present awareness of our own mortality.  We humans are, after all, pattern-seekers, and problems for which we cannot find solutions cause us real cognitive distress.  This is probably why magical thinking has evolved as a natural part of consciousness (a skill not reserved only for the young!).  Magical thinking (“religion”) enables us to calm our troubled brains by filling in the un-fillable blanks in our knowledge with malleable myth.

But we the living are a generation of humans that — thanks to science —  carry a knowledge of our place in the universe that no other generation of our kind has ever had to contend with.  And this is a knowledge that can easily overwhelm our mammalian brains, challenging even the most powerful mental magic.  And when the magic fails, we are forced, once again, to ask anew the old question: “What, then, is the meaning of life?”

I think we can cut ourselves a little slack if our minds aren’t quite up to the task — if we find that we have been asking the wrong question all of these years.  Perhaps, then, we can stop trying to figure out the meaning of life, and turn our attention instead toward making life meaningful.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “And You Thought You Felt Small and Insignificant Before…Part Two” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, June 27th, 2010

PART 2.  “Enough about us…what about me?”

In last week’s PART 1 I concluded with this: “If there is meaning in the universe, it is not to be found anywhere outside of us — you and I are the only game in town where that commodity is concerned.  We (and our animal cousins, to varying degrees) are the only ones that care about anything at all (in any meaningful conception of that idea).  And it takes a certain amount of courage to value ones own individual capacity for caring once it is detached from the borrowed validation of an heavenly authority.  In short, humans find it much easier to trust their feelings and thoughts when they think they are coming from God.  No matter that they are always and completely products of our own physical consciousness no matter how successfully externalized we may make them out to be.”

I have found in this view some new understandings of my own person.  I think about my journeys through therapy, religion, psychic advisers and all the rest to achieve some sense of stability in my emotions and thoughts, driven toward a goal that we all believe can be achieved: normalcy.  But when it comes to humans, as in nature, normal is at best a mathematical approximation of the midpoint between two extremes (either of which, since they exist, could claim at least to be perfectly natural if not normal).

Often, however, we strive toward a goal based more on a notion of Platonic essentialism than reality (essentialism suggesting that there is a past or future ideal against which we can practically compare ourselves or strive towards (or, in the case of Christians, the sinless human we were created to be).  But, as Dawkins put it, using a bunny as an example: “There is no essential rabitt-ness!”, meaning that there is no perfect example of any species (and certainly no human) that we can compare ourselves to as an absolute standard.  There is only, well, us as we are right now.

You and I share pretty much all of the same DNA.  Yet you and I will have just a few letters in different places in our lines and lines of code which makes us just that tiny bit genetically different from each other.  But then so does everyone else, and not in the same places, so to quote Bill Bryson in “A Short History of Nearly Everything”: “We are all 99.9 percent the same, but equally, in the words of biochemist David Cox, “you could say all humans share nothing, and that would be correct, too.””

Despite my best efforts at self-knowledge, who knows what is really affecting my mood today.  I could be responding to a change in air pressure, a chemical shift…etc.,..etc.  My body turns itself over every day, so that on a cellular level I am completely renewed every so many years.  I am not the man I once was, and certainly not the boy I started out as.  And on a morphological level — were my fossils to be found some million years hence — the man I am today could very truly be called transitional between those animals we once were and those we will eventually become (assuming we survive extinction for that long).

In my personality I confront the tension and occasional frustration of trying to maintain both my idea of “who” I am, and the physical “I am” wherein that idea exists.  But from where do I get the idea that the consciousness I carry should be any more stable or “essential” than the body of processes that support it?  Instead of constant complaining about the greased pig of self identity, maybe I should be amazed that I am as constant as I am.  But then, couldn’t the same case be made regarding teeming life in general — or the rumbling earth we stand on, spinning through a vast universe?

And yet, for all this tectonic movement and biological activity, life feels remarkably calm (no matter how unreal that feeling might seem compared to the actual science of both the planet I live on and the body in which I live).  The fact that such knowledge as I am discussing does not make my head literally explode is due, probably, in no small part to the necessity of maintaining a certain coherence of mind in order to assure the survival of the constellation of organisms that I represent.  In short — and in a quite literal way — my DNA won’t let me go there!

One could argue that our individual experience of living — pleasure, the satisfactions of learning, the euphoria of love, the heart-breaking response to beauty, the intoxication of sex — are the wages we are paid so that we will find living more to our liking than oblivion, and thereby allow our DNA to continue its single-minded drive toward replication.  On a cellular level, we die a thousand deaths even while we’re living, and are constantly renewed, until the day that the organism is damaged beyond repair, at which time we are destined to be broken up into our constituent parts and recycled as we have been for billions of years.

What can be gained in raging against such a fate?  From who (or what) could we seek concessions?

It is so easy to look at a mouse or a fly and wonder “what’s the point of such a life, where all they do is eat, poop, reproduce and then die?”  What’s the point indeed.  If the experience of life were universally miserable, none would participate.  Even our pleasures are by-products.  And so, of course, is meaning!

No matter what we do the chances are that all evidence of our time here will eventually be wiped from the face of the planet.  Ice sheets will return and retreat, and other animals will thrive, repeating the cycle until our sun finally explodes and our universe collapses once more upon itself.  The more one looks at it the more bleak it becomes.  But so what?  It is what it is, and no wish of ours will change it.

Our lives can seem predestined by the ubiquitous regularity of the cycle of life and death.  We feel certain that we are serving some power greater than ourselves which, it turns out, we are.  It just happens to be DNA, not God, and DNA’s irrepressible impulse toward replication that began billions of years ago.

We are teeming life become aware.  And yet it could be argued, I suppose, that we are no more capable of understanding our existence than any of the other animals that share our lives on this planet.  It is unquestionable, however, that we know a whole lot more about life and ourselves than anything else on Earth.

The challenge that remains unique to us humans, then, is how to live with that knowledge.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “I’ve Got a Mansion: The Short Search for the Meaning of Life” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, April 4th, 2010

“I’ve got a mansion just over the hilltop
In that bright land where we’ll never grow old
And some day yonder we will never more wander
But walk on streets that are purest gold”

(“I’ve Got a Mansion” Words and music by Ira Stamphill)

“The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.”
— Steven Weinberg, physicist

Imagine for a moment that heaven (as generally described) exists, and after you die (having made yourself worthy of such with the deity-of-your-choice) you are reunited not only with the handful of friends and relations you knew in life (and the few you worked hard to avoid while alive), but also the millions of ancestors you never knew, all living together FOREVER in Heaven.  I don’ t know how much room Heaven has, but there could be billions of people there, all of whom (one would assume) you’d have to be nice to.  No ignoring them like you do on Facebook.  That may be an apt metaphor: a giant celestial Facebook account with no privacy settings and a gazillion status updates to check every day:  “Oh, look, Jeremiah told that old joke about the Baptist Minister, Catholic Priest and Jewish Rabbi that walked in the bar AGAIN.  LOL,LOL,LOL,ROFL.”

That simplistic imagining of Heaven (as a sort of Hell for the introverted individual but a endless buffet for the extrovert) is my own silly concoction made up to suit the moment (which, in this case, involves writing a “sermon”).  But is this any different, really — either in its source or its reliability — from the handful of notions about Heaven that we all carry around in our heads?

It’s interesting that we haven’t updated our inherited ideas of what Heaven might be like.  I still hear radio preachers ginning up enthusiasm for streets of gold, heavenly mansions or for all the milk and honey you can eat.  If you think about the lives the originators of these ideas were living, a river of milk and honey really would have been Heaven.  (We still get the gold part, but we probably wonder if God would get mad if we tore up a few feet of it and sold it off for cash).  In short — is this really anyone’s idea of what Heaven would be — to them?

I once had the opportunity to stay at a luxury resort in Kauai on a beautiful beach.  The staff were all native Hawaiian (and the guests were almost universally pasty-white upper-middle-class folk from the mainland).  The food was good and plentiful, so there was no limit to the excess to be had in that department.  I walked so much in my barefoot on the sand that I wore my soles raw.  I overheard a woman exclaim to her husband “Oh, I could just live here!”.  But to me it all felt a bit forced, like a sort of theme park representing what we had all agreed we were supposed to think of as “luxury”.  The truth was I was a bit uncomfortable.  Maybe that’s partly because I’m a small-town kid, son of a school teacher.  Don’t get me wrong: it was a lovely place, and I did all I could to explore the “real” Hawaii that surrounded us, but I certainly would not want to live in a luxury hotel with the local indigenous population filling the role of every waiter, housekeeper and concierge with me as the bloated guest.

When I’m honest with myself, the things that feel “luxurious” to me are more modest by resort standards.  Give me a good barbecue joint to stuff my face, and I’m in heaven.  A decent bed, an apartment that doesn’t leak.  A place to paint, to do my work.  A good cup of coffee.

It was only a few months ago that I realized that I had all of those things.  Not waiting for me in heaven, but right here, right now.  I’d been in a rut of considering myself “poor” because that’s what my tax return told me, because that’s what my little studio apartment (in this case truly a studio and apartment in one) with the leaky roof told me.  But in November I insulated the ceiling of my little hovel, and patched the last of the leaks, and now had to adjust to a feeling of luxury in my newly snug domicile.  And it was while driving in my little truck that I realized that by any standard of human history other than my own money and fame obsessed culture, I was, indeed, rich.  I own a car, I own a bed, I have a place to live.  And beyond that, I have work that is deeply satisfying to me, and a community that embraces me as I embrace it.  I am a rich man.

Then just last week, as I lay in my comfortable bed in my snug apartment, the realization rose up in me that I was truly happy, and had been for some time.  Whatever I had imagined success or fame or fortune would look like, those ideas had not turned out to be the essential and necessary ingredients for happiness.  I had “made it” without ever having “made it” in the standard sense (in the national t.v./magazine/big award sense).  I felt an excitement rise in me that kept me awake for hours.

So what happens when your idea of what will make you happy turns out not to be the thing (or things) you thought?  Or, in my case, what happens if you find happiness before you reach the destination where you thought your happiness awaited you?  Well, if the point was to be happy, the old ideas can go in order to make room for some new and better ones.

The point of luxury or success or heaven isn’t the place itself, but what we believe being in those places will give us: happiness, contentment, satisfaction.  I believe they exist for no other reason: it’s why we thought them up in the first place, and why we think of them as much as we do.  The thought of Heaven is hope for a better day when the day we are having is not so good.  It is a projection, a flight from the moment before us.  So some hungry and thirsty desert dweller in the iron age sat in the searing sun and imagined a stream that flowed with cool milk sweetened with honey, and he committed it to song or poetry, and here we are thousands of years later wondering if our lactose-intolerance will be an issue in heaven.

I once tried out this phrase: “Each moment spent on Heaven is a moment wasted on Earth”.  By which I meant that all the energy we divert to imagined futures in imaginary places is energy that is taken away from living the reality of our existence right here.  Religion tends to be big on putting down “earthly” life — as if it is something we should be anxious to be done with.  Well of course they would, because they’re the salespeople for the condos in the clouds that religion offers the faithful.

But I resist the diminishment of the value of human consciousness.  That is why I oppose religion: it attempts to supply meaning that it has no capacity to offer.

For the plain fact is that there is only one thing in the world that gives our lives meaning, and it’s not god*:  it is only and exclusively our own experience of living and our valuation of that experience.  The meaning of life is the meaning that life has to us, as individual consciousnesses (and as shared with others around us).  There is no other standard: no other arbiter.  Meaning — in whatever sense we can possibly define that word — begins and ends with us.  (As the more we understand about the vastness of the universe the less we are able to hold any idea of specialness that might be granted by such a void).

Other species may follow us that will evolve into a level of consciousness that enables them to evaluate their own lives, and experience a similar (perhaps) sense of “meaning”.  But with them as with us, the real meaning of their lives will live and die with them.

Why resist this most fundamental fact of life?  Why waste precious moments of our own finite lifetimes dodging both the responsibility and reward of our own complete involvement in living?

And, most importantly of all, why diminish (with wishful thinking)  that which is the best thing we humans have got going: our capacity to enjoy our lives as we’re living them.

“Though aware that there is nothing in the universe that suggests any purpose for humanity, one way that we can find a purpose is to study the universe by the methods of science, without consoling ourselves with fairy tales about its future, or about our own.”  — Steven Weinberg, Physicist.

Contrary to what the preachers say, there is much good in this earthly life.  The truth be told, all of the good that there is to be had is to found only in the here and now.  Heaven can wait.  Life won’t.

t.n.s.r. bob

* Though to be precise, as “god” is a product of consciousness, it could be said to be an actual product of our experience of living and, therefore, worthy of inclusion in our creation of meaning.