meaning full

…or why sewage lagoons are the most optimistic places on earth…

“In a morally relativistic universe, consistency is the speed of light, and hypocrisy the only sin…”

–Noah Hermes de Boor

Let’s assume for the moment that there is no God.  And no afterlife, no reincarnation, except in the crudest, most fragmentary, even atomic form. Let’s assume, as well, that our sun will, at some point, either expand or cool to the point where not only all life on Earth is extinguished, but all trace of even the greatest among us in history disappears as well; no crumbs of data remain for any other sentience to follow.  Let’s further posit that Elon Musk’s Tesla floating pointlessly in space is a portent of things to come where our escape velocity is concerned, an empty advert for a product none of us will ever be able to buy. Let’s agree that Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of Flow, is right when he says the fundamental challenge of happiness is that “the universe was not designed with the comfort of human beings in mind.”

On the plus side, let’s accept that the universe is endlessly expanding and will never snap back down into nothing.  Let’s agree that the corresponding whimper, the Second Law of Thermodynamics, is instead what’s been crushed.  From above, by the multiverse, which assures us that we live in an open system, not the closed one required for entropy to inexorably loosen our grip (though none of us are likely to get funhouse-mirror immortality out of this reality).  From below, by complexity, matter’s relentless determination to self-organize, that we see most humbly in sewage lagoons, and most primally in the Big Bang itself.  And from all sides by emergence.  Let’s take pleasure in the realization that scientific concepts like “the uncertainty principle” and “chaos theory” that have been waved about in the popular press like distress signals for cold randomness are actually revelations of a deeper order that underlies all existence.

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Why all this positing and assuming? Why the sensation of being transported to the dank nervous excitement of a college dorm room?  We can all look back in nostalgic embarrassment to Monty Python days when the question of the meaning of life went from earnest to punch line in the flicker of a screen.  But we now live in an end time where the generations we depend on to insure an affirmative answer to this most axiomatic query are increasingly asking, instead, whether it would be morally right to bring children into the world they are inheriting at all.  And they are increasingly not looking to God for an answer.

Which brings it into our purview. We could just recommend that everyone break out some Victor Frankl, but we are above all, a new media community–that’s the promise we believe in, and we believe the best way to address fundamental questions is the way the first communities did it, by call and response.  So we’re going to pick up this philosophical IED aggressively, through some positing of our own–that there is a scientific, rational answer to the question of the point of it all (one that’s more than a number), and therefore an objective reason why we should keep fighting for our ideals, no matter how nasty, brutish, and short the future looks, with faith that you, our friends and fellow citizens of the world, will have our backs and help us shake the woo woo out in the comments section below.  In any case, we’re confident we can do better than this.

First, we should propiate the gods of all whim by acknowledging that we’re playing with metaphysical fire in bringing together science and meaning.  I’ve personally known this for most of my life.  When I was a high school debater (cue mournful head shakes) as a sophomore (more), the topic of the year was scarce world resources.  The affirmatives that year were endeavoring first, to prove that scarcity was a problem, and second, that they had a plan to deal with it.  Affirmatives generally and annually win the first part of this argument; the battle really gets joined when it comes to the plan.  But I was a First Negative that year, which meant I had the unenviable task of disputing the need to do anything at all, and the modern Republican Party had not yet emerged as a source of inspiration and ideas.  Out of an odd combination of desperation and deep love of the natural world, I came up with a gambit that I, my teammates, and even our coach was certain was, in some ways, literally a nuclear option.

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Fundamental to the affirmatives’ burden was an elucidation of the harm that scarcity was causing.  Drawing on my relatively deep adolescent knowledge of the dynamics of nature in general, and the dramatic example of lemmings in particular,  I prepared myself to show that death, even if it claimed the lives of millions around the world, was not “a harm,” because, after all, nature uses death as a vehicle to control populations and maintain a healthy environment for all life, all the time.  As it happened, the first–and last–time I trotted out this line of attack, the judge for the encounter was a Catholic nun, in full habit.  I was not deterred; it would not be unfair to say I was oblivious.   As predicted, the affirmatives had no answer to my argument; they tried instead to completely ignore it, and my partner and I were sure we had won a resounding victory.  Which we had, as it turned out, for the other side.  If you’re familiar with traditional debate scoring, you know that each debater is typically given a score between 0 and 30.  My partner that day earned a 23, which was quite good at the time and place.  I, on the other hand, was carefully awarded, point for point, a -23 on the scoresheet, resulting in an unprecedented shutout victory for our opponents.  Like them, the judge made no comment on my line of thought; like them, none needed to be made.  We got the message, and “the lemming argument” was quietly retired to the back of my file box for an emergency use that never came.

But the New Atheists have certainly picked up their own version of the torch since–by the business end, though they don’t seem to know it–carefully constructing evolutionary explanations of why religions exist and persist, with the not so-veiled intention of reducing the holy of holies to paramecium size or smaller. The problem with every version of these arguments I’ve seen is that the exact same reasoning they roll out with a contemptuous shove can be used to explain why we believe in science; thus their great chain of being disappears up its own derriere, or becomes an ouroboros, if you prefer.  Personally, I find more compelling evolutionary explanations of phenomena (like worrying and the average human male’s high level of self-regard) that were far more adaptive in our cave days than they are today.  What’s that you say, Mssrs Dawkins, Harris, et al, the difference is that we can see science, we can prove science?  Who can see it?  And who can prove it?

Leaving aside that we seem to be living in a universe becoming ever more idiosyncratic the more we learn about it, and that replication of research results has become such a problem in so many fields, both “hard” and “soft,” that previously unimagined macroscopies of the Uncertainty Principle seem to be at play, what scisplainers don’t seem to realize is that for virtually everyone, including the vast majority of scientists, religious experience is more real, more empirical than science, and in religion, as Elaine Pagels observes, experience matters more than belief.  Almost everyone has had experiences religion says are real, even if it’s only the uplift we feel after a church service, but of the scientific laws we deploy to explain even basic phenomena such as gravity, how many people, even scientists, have actually observed the science behind these laws for themselves, to the point of rational conviction, rather than take someone else’s word for it, because their explanation makes sense to us, or because we trust their expertise?  And how is that different from religious faith?

Belief in particular faiths may wax and wane, but faith itself is as real as any other entity shaped by evolution, as we’ll discover if it’s ever subject to a mass extinction event.  In fact, 21st century science is providing aid and comfort to the faithful of many facets.  If everything is, in the end, just information, for example, what does it really mean to die?  Death on the installment plan doesn’t even necessarily mean the bundle of information that is you stops growing or begins receding, since, if you are colorful or interesting enough, or performed heroics of one kind or another, or leave works behind, people may well continue to continue to embellish and otherwise add to ‘you’.  The essential difference might seem to be that ‘you’ can no longer participate in your own creation or self-replication, but given how much of ‘you’ in life is water or other organisms, and the extent to which, social beings being what we are, the creation and replication of ‘you’ has never been as much in ‘your’ control as you might have imagined, to the point where the oneness experienced on hallucinogenic trips might be more lucid than our sober sense of self, neither “essential” nor “difference” provides sure ontological footing, and as viewers of Black Mirror know, even such boundaries that appear to still exist, however artificial or arbitrary, could well disappear in the near-future as well, at least for ‘you.’

But still, this could be of very cold comfort when the light of the sun goes out, at least for the many “heroes, saints, sages, artists, poets…madmen and criminals,” as Cziksentmihalyi describes us, for whom setting “sensible” goals and purposes for life based on the needs of our bodies is not enough.  One scientific blanket that can be thrown over this black black mirror, and over our eyes as well, is the bedrock of the oldest and, to us, truest faiths: mystery.  At least currently–and for the last one hundred years, at least–it’s been a truism of science that the more we learn about the universe, at any level, the less we understand, or at least the less certain we are that we do, and the more we realize how much we still have yet to learn–final answers only seem to recede, to the point where 42 seems to be as good an answer as any.

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So one way to look at what seems to be our inevitable annihilation is to declare that if science has taught us anything in our lifetimes, it’s that we have no idea how our story ends, or if it ends at all.  The only thing we seem to be able to count on is that whatever we’re certain of today, there will be a study coming to a website near us, likely in six months or less, that debunks it.  Conventional wisdom has become the unwed mother of all oxymorons, and as great philosophers of science like Kuhn and Popper have been telling us (between the lines) at their nexus, it’s scientifically rational to ignore literally all reasons for despair.

Of course, you can also choose to believe you’re immortal, secure in the knowledge that you’ll never be proven wrong.  Yet if you’re aligned with the disciple who Dawkins considers the patron saint of scientists, Thomas (whom Christians, tellingly, consider patron saint of the blind), mystery may not be enough for you.  If we’re being honest, for many of us the unknowable is only a healthy (and therefore not particularly potent) form of self-medication that gets squeezed out in beads of sweat by the weight of darkness in the witching hour of our times, 3 AM.

Perhaps in a site called Creative Politics, it might help to think of the meaning of our existence, and that of those who would follow us, as something like voting.  Why do we vote, really?  There’s really no chance that our vote alone is going to decide any election broader in scope than our neighborhoods.  And let’s even suppose it did–the chance that this would happen again is even closer to zero, if that’s possible.  And if it happened twice, the chance it would happen again nearly infinitely smaller again.  Yet we’d still continue to vote, wouldn’t we?  There’s something in us that tells us it makes a difference, that it’s right (and how can it be right if it’s pointless?), even though no one except us can ever know for certain we did it.  To sublimate from science again, it’s woven into the particle-wave complementarity of the individual and community in American life.

Not enough? I find myself thinking of the daydream lemmings of my youth.  And the cicadas that boil out of the ground in such fecundity every seventeen years that predators can’t possibly eat them all, seventeen years of dark, quiet certitude that ends in a week of random heaven or hell.  Even more, the swarms of drones that emerge from a hive of ants or bees, only one of whom will get to mate with the queen.  Why is there more than one drone if only one will succeed?  A few extra can be explained as precautionary redundancy, but hymenoptera have been in the making for hundreds of millions of years; every micron of waste, fraud, and abuse has been evolutionarily scraped or whittled away from their doings.  Evolutionary biologists would say that the hundreds, even thousands wafting to their doom generate the combination of competition and variability necessary for every queen to find the best possible match, but whatever the reason, does anyone really think the drones who fail are pointless, meaningless, should never have existed at all?

In human terms, we’ve nearly always looked at the true end of history from the perspective of “the great man.”  But there are literally billions of people on earth who know they don’t stand on the shoulders of giants and never will.  Millions are atheist or agnostic, and therefore particularly incapable of deceiving themselves that they, or their descendents, will achieve any kind of immortality, that their embers won’t be extinguished long before the sun.  And as with voting, it would seem even harder for any such to convince themselves their existence is required by history’s immortals.

And yet they continue.  Why?  It’s often been observed how strongly the human body resists death, how often those with terminal illnesses outlive their prognoses, even though they know they’re going to die anyway.  Why?  Because living things want to continue to live? Because human beings have hope? Because we are good at deceiving ourelves, one and all?  If so, why, why, and why?  And why, why, why to the next volley of just-sos, and the next, and the next.  When our whys can only be met by because, and because only, we have reached axiomite, scientific bedrock.  That’s where we get, rather quickly, when we try to explain our most existential behavior, leaving us to consider giving in to rationality’s supposed evil twin, rationalization, deciding, or talking ourselves into believing (after all, isn’t “fake it till you make it” ultimately rationalization at its finest?), that what’s natural is what’s rational, even as we already know, by definition, it’s what’s scientific.  Rationalization is often viewed as the perversion of (higher) rationality for the sake of nature, our base instincts, but this is no more true than in vino veritas.  Instead it’s not when we’re higher, buffeted on all sides by fickle gusts of input and content, but when we’re literally grounded, on the earth, in nature, that we can experience gnosis.

As accompaniment or spiritual traveling companion, perhaps Pascal’s wager needs an update, too, especially for the determinedly or hopelessly godless.  Rather than betting on the existence of God, why not consider betting, all-in, on our creativity, each and every one of us, the only faculty through which, especially at its fullest (and in all its forms, including procreation), we’re each guaranteed to leave a legacy, however large or small, that would not exist had we not existed as well, which is the ultimate testament to the meaning of our lives, come what may, is it not?

Still not enough?  It’s now believed that there are billions of earth-like planets in the universe, enough to make all but the zaphods among us hang our heads in meaninglessness, but only fifty+ have actually been found so far, and even if there really are billions more, they will still be but as drones in a swarm compared to a vastness of time and space so empty it cannot even be said to be dead, so alien is it to life. Like every drone in every hive, every planet, every species, has an evolutionary part to play in the real war of the worlds, the battle of life to to prevent the universe from becoming an unfathomably vast vacuous vacuole, never to seen or heard from again.  And while diversity is life’s greatest weapon, it’s at best the sufficient condition in the conflict; the necessary is that which binds all life forms, the literally vital uniting the planets we ourselves inhabit today–above and below the waterline–those universal qualities that enable us to see ourselves literally and figuratively reflected in the sapiens of the deep, that define our common cause so that we can take comfort in it and take it up, even if only as foot soldiers in complexity and evolution’s army.

Look around you.  Do you love the trees that envelope you as they dress the sun? Do you love the sounds and songs of the birds, like children before they lose their wings?  Do you delight in the endless creativity in form and function of the insect diaspora, evolution’s masterwork on our orb?  Are they not preferable to the void, even if accompanied by Holst, which it assuredly won’t be?  If you believe, as many of our disconsolate younger citizens do, that man has set in motion forces that could destroy life on earth as we know it, then isn’t our purpose to mitigate this in any way we can, for as much of life as we can, living ‘one day at a time’ nature’s way, acting as if saving a butterfly could change the world and, more broadly, investing as much as we can in the youngest and poorest, for they have the greatest potential return on the future for every incremental hour or dollar expended.  This is the saving grace of desperate times, is it not? That when the odds seem most stacked against us, the little things are, at last, allowed to bloom, and what was not enough before becomes enough.

 

Written in honor of Baker, my only son; part of our Ideaology and Tree Talks series

Creative Politics synthesizes the best of liberal and conservative ideals with technology and history to generate policies, strategies, applications, and actions for the post-modern era that are well outside the beltway, and well beyond just talk. All Creative Politics blog posts are collaborative, living documents, the way Madison and Hamilton would create them if they were writing The Federalist today.  We welcome, nay urge, your feedback in the comment/discussion section below, and will be using it (with credit) to make what you just read more and more real–thanks much for your time and insights; they will go unpunished!

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