Sunday, 13 June 2010

Another Beautiful Story

I didn't ask to exist, I didn't have a choice in the matter. That I exist now is a process 13.72 billion years in the making. Nothing in those 13.72 billion years beyond my parents willed me to exist, and even then they didn't have much choice (beyond the limited capacity in which humans can make choices). I'm the child of contingency, restricted in so many ways and ultimately doomed to return to my state of non-being more quickly than I care to acknowledge.

This, as far as I can tell, is the human condition. We are beings of particular habits, for instance we can't help but learn language as an infant. Our brains are hard-wired for this capacity. A few people are born without the capability to do this, through no fault of their own. That's their hand in life, just as the quirks, defects and capacities I have is my hand.

We have the capacity to feel pleasure and pain. To love and to feel loved. To get angry, jealous, feel overwhelmed or depressed. To experience empathy and understand the emotions of others. To grow up from a child, through puberty, to adulthood and finally old age and death - if things go well.

As I argued earlier, the universe is lousy by which to anchor value and meaning. But part of the human condition, it seems, is that there be something that transcends the self. I want to argue by pure necessity that we already have it, it's just that it's misidentified by many to being supernatural in an other-worldly sense. Rather it is supernatural in being a mental construct, emergent from natural forces.

The fact that we are finite and contingent beings means that our actions matter. Perhaps I should put it that our actions have consequences, consequences to ourselves as agents and to other agents that operate in the world. These actions have the potential for causing a variety of mental states in ourselves and others. Again this is beyond our control.

I've never understood those who need the promise of an afterlife in order to see the value in this one. Yet in myths such as the afterlife we can see what truly matters to us. That we behaved well, that we are reunited with loved ones, that what we did in life built towards something. It also shows the desire to exist. What we want is what we have already - just in a finite capacity.

The disparity between the ability to project into the future and our experience of time leads to absurd abstracts. Consider the idea of love for example and committing to someone forever. Yet not many people can keep that feeling of romantic love up for long periods of time. Wanting to stay with someone forever and staying with them out of that same desire say 50 years later is seldom heard of.

Time in inconsequential for those purposes. What we cannot grasp is big things (or really small things for that matter), and eternity is a really really really long time. Australia was colonised by Europeans in 1788, it achieved Federation in 1901 and the city where I reside was first founded in 1912. Yet I can't grasp the lengths of time involved in that beyond the academic sense. What does 40,000 years for the aboriginal colonisation of Australia mean anything different to 222 years beyond it was a lot before?

How can we be possibly equipped to understand things in evolutionary or geological time when we can't even grasp historical time? Cosmological time has no chance beyond an academic understanding of numbers. When it is said the universe is 13.72 billion years old, how could we possibly fathom that length of time?

It's almost no wonder that when notions like planet alignment occur in the solar system that people buy into the supposed gravitational pull that some say will occur. The huge distances between stellar bodies means a negligible gravitational effect (gravity is a very weak force), yet such ideas can transmit easily through our population. I remember recently a chain email about the apparent size of Mars comparing it to the apparent size of the moon.

Perhaps the timeless nature of thought, that we aren't restricted to the here and now, gives us the sense that we can transcend the limited restraints of the body. Dualism seems almost obvious! That our mind can take us beyond the constraints of our position in space-time, however, doesn't mean that at the core the mind is separate from the matter that we are composed of.

when I've had theists ask me what makes my life meaningful, I respond the same as them. Because of the misattribution of meaning to the notion of a deity is so ingrained in our society, this requires elaboration.

Consider the notion of love. Is love meaningful purely because of the existence of a deity? To put it another way, would the notion of love be diminished in the absence of one. Is the only reason you have a partner because it is meaningful in the eyes of God? Surely love is something in itself meaningful. Whether one believes in gods or not, love is still a powerful driving factor of humanity.

Take friends. Chances are that some of the people you're friends with now you haven't always been friends with. And other people who were once friends are now out of contact. Are the moments and shared experience that you once spent with lost friends meaningless and irrelevant now that you've lost contact with them? Does this impact on the friends you have now that they are possibly heading to the same fate?

Is the satisfaction of working towards and achieving something diminished because ultimately it will be for nothing? Recently I found my old high school folder, full of awards. I had forgotten all about them. Looking back at them, they aren't so important any more. But back then they mattered, it felt meaningful to achieve something. Writing software, I'm guaranteed that my work will be obsolete very quickly. But it doesn't mean it's not useful at some point in some time. That's what's worth working for.

Those meaningful experiences, and many others for that matter, are what make life meaningful. We don't need to have ultimate purpose or ultimate vindication as we are not ultimate beings. We are finite, contingent beings experiencing the world in a finite, contingent way. Ultimate purposes don't even need to come into it, they make no sense to begin with.

One thing about our species is that we are as far as we can tell the first species that's been able to truly understand our own position in nature. A dog can go about being a dog, a jellyfish can flop about without really being anything, yet we can reflect on our own position and piece together how we came to be.

Not through making up stories or wishful thinking, but through logic and evidence we can understand about ourselves and the universe we reside in. We can know that all our ancestors represent a 3.5 billion year unbroken chain. We can also know that the actions of our ancestors have survived through the ages. Whoever harnessed fire or first crafted a tool, whoever domesticated wild beasts or invented the needle. Who built boats, painted on walls; those ancestors and close relatives are the ones who shaped our society today.

And beyond those lasting impressions, it's important to reflect on what we have today. Even something like vaccines has the potential to have billions from suffering and enhance their quality of life. It might seem basic, but food, clothing, shelter, warmth, education, modern medicine, etc. these are things that we know enhance the quality of life for individuals. Through understanding comes the ability to shape nature. It's something to be thankful for.

Of course one doesn't need to live an examined life to have a meaningful one. But that we can lead an examined life, to reflect on what we are and the universe around us - it is at least in part why we are here to begin with and something that can help aid in what we consider meaningful - which creates a meaningful endeavour in itself.

Regurgitator: Just Another Beautiful Story
All that I am and all I'll ever be is a brain in a body.
Live till I die and then rot away, it's a beautiful story.
All I've heard is true. There ain't a God, there's just me and you.
I don't see a point to this place. But I'm happy to be floating in outer space.


Capri said...

BTW, you know that Mars chain letter is a hoax, right?

Kel said...

Yeah I do, that's why I mentioned it. It was meant to illustrate the complete lack of perspective that people have with dealing with astronomical distances.