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The natural world. Looking pretty for 3.5b years.

The Meaning of Life: Could it Really Be Sex?

Author: Reilly Capps/Tuesday, September 10, 2013/Categories: Uncategorized

By Reilly Capps 

You think that people can't change, and then they do. A person can be the same way for 60 years, and then suddenly they seem a different person. 

My dad believes in global warming now. This is no small shift (and there's a larger point coming). A lifelong Republican who loves Rush Limbaugh, he spent 35 years selling auto parts -- his whole livelihood (my childhood) was dependent on cheap gas. "We can't know these things," he used to say. "The Earth is always changing. Us discussing the climate is like an ant discussing Chinese politics. Little us, gnats on the dung heap of Earth, can't change the weather. The arrogance! We're fruit flies!" 

Something flipped him. Maybe because it's hot in Colorado these days. Or because the skiing isn't what it used to be. But he now worries about his granddaughters' granddaughters. 

The older you are, the less you appreciate change, and the less you think that the world should change. But these kinds of changes are the best things that ever happen to a man. 

I can't help but wonder: 

What about me? What am I blind to, now? What can't I see?

"Life is one long struggle in the dark," wrote Lucretius 2000 years ago. It still is. All our satellites and searchlights are incredible bits of technology, but they illuminate the questions of life as fully as a firefly lights up a Louisiana swamp. I can't know what I'm wrong about or else I wouldn't be wrong about it. 

For example: we don't know what 75 percent of the universe is made of. 

More that that, we don't know the answers to the most basic set of questions:

Where are we? What are we doing? Where are we going? What are we supposed to do? Why are we were? 

Here's one set of answers to those questions: 

Nowhere, nothing, death, who knows, no reason. 

But that's pessimism. Those may be the right answers, but they're still too easy.  The pessimistic answers are usually too easy, and they're often wrong. 

Attempts at more complete and hopeful answers are also more difficult and long-winded. 

But we have space. And we are feeling courageous today. So here we go. 

Why are we here?

There is a complicated (possible) scientific answer to that question, noted in the book "Why Does the World Exist?", and explored more fully in this episode of Radiolab (starting at minute 47). It rests on the slight difference between the rates of destruction when matter and anti-matter collide. When the hit each other and destroy each other, matter is slightly more resilient than anti-matter. So more matter remains, and here we are, matter. 

That answer is highly interesting. But that still seems to me a stopgap kind of answer, resting on equations but not answering any deeper question. You still have to ask: why is that so? 

And it isn't quite what we mean when we ask "Why are we here?"

We don't mean, What are the laws of physics that got us here. We mean: "What is our purpose?" 

Here is an attempt at an answer: 

Answer one:

The brain,
 the knowing brain.  

"Know thyself," read the inscription at the oracle at Delphi. This was considered the greatest wisdom. The philosopher Epictetus took it one step further when he said that "God has introduced man to be a spectator of God and his works, and not only a spectator but an interpreter." 

Those are beautiful answers, but they are mystical answers from an irrational time. 

But they are the foundations for the best answer I've ever found. 

This answer builds on those mystical interpretations of the purpose of life, it expands on them, and actually makes them more significant, more interesting and more meaningful. People who think that humanity's greatest wisdom only comes from long-dead men in togas haven't looked around much lately. 

The answer I like comes from the late astronomer Carl Sagan. He says that we are here to know things. To know which things? To know what is going on around us, what things look like, how they work. 

This is a fine answer, but why should knowing things matter? Let's say you know that Alpha Centauri is four light years from us or that Saturn's rings are made of ice. Why should knowing that matter? How can the pursuit of knowing that qualify as purpose? 

How is that any more meaningful than any other answer, than saying: the meaning of life is to eat as many churros as you can, or, the meaning of life is to stack things on top of things?

It isn't. That is, until Sagan adds an extra dimension to why knowing things matters. 

It is grounded in this most astounding fact, enunciated by Neil deGrasse Tyson: 



Because we are a part of this universe, and because we can know ourselves, we are a part of the universe looking at the other parts of the universe. Sagan says that "We are a way for the universe to know itself." 



That's a beautiful sentence, and it is not too far from ancient wisdom. (The Stoics, including Roman emperors, believed that the stars were divine.) 

If we know ourselves, we know the universe; if we know the universe, we know ourselves. 

This, too me, is more profound a piece of wisdom than anything I've read in any philosophy book or heard sitting in any pew or kneeling on any prayer mat, and it just happens to have the tiny little added bonus of being true

But we can add another layer of meaning, beyond anything imagined by Epictetus or Marcus Aurelius. Because we have spaceships now, we can travel to other worlds and out into the solar system, and so we can know things about the universe (and therefore about ourselves that we never thought it possible to know). And we are creating the possibility -- a very real possibility -- that we will find out there in space something that will give us a sense of some even higher purpose. Suppose we decide that we can populate another planet, or communicate with aliens or prevent the sun from exploding and thereby save the planet Earth and the human race from a fiery death. Wouldn't those those things would feel an awful lot like purpose? 

Until then, we still ask, why are we here? 

Here is a second attempt at an answer, and this one is entirely my own: 

The body, the moving body. 

We know that the beginning of the universe came in the form of a giant explosion. The force of the Big Bang -- the fact of it -- is an inexplicable wonder ... especially given the fact that scientists believe it exploded forth from nothing. Not just no thing, but no space for things to exist in, and no time for them to exist in, either. If you are a kinetic person, if you have a body that can move, you can look at the Big Bang as the single greatest mystery and miracle in history because without it there is no us. Since we know that we are part of the universe that is flowing outward from the Big Bang, we know that our movements -- the way you can lift your arm and toss that crumpled paper into the trash can, the way you can sprint, the way you can jump -- is powered by the power unleashed by the Big Bang. The energy that moves your muscles comes from the biggest explosion in history. You are part of that explosion. You. Your body is the dazzling lights on the outside tentacles of a giant firecracker -- a cosmic, 13.8-billion-year-old firecracker. And by moving, by moving your body as much as possible, you are allowing the energy of that Big Bang to blaze through you. Explosions have a terrible beauty. The Big Bang is the most beautiful of all. And you are the most recent, fullest and most beautiful part of history's most beautiful explosion. 

This strikes me as a good answer to the meaning of life question for those of us who don't much like to think, or try and know ourselves. The doing part of us, here, is every bit as important as the thinking part. We ought to move to live out the full potential of creation. We're the first part of the universe, as far as we know, that can guide our own trajectory. The rest of the universe, as far as we know, if just a dumb bit of physics. We decide where to go. 

The universe explodes through you every time you move. What a gift! If you build a house, or paint a painting, or create a website that moves little bits of data, or even if you even lie on the couch and inhale and exhale air, you are furthering that explosion, you are expanding the beauty and reach of the cosmos, you are tangibly creating a bigger, more exciting more beautiful universe. 

This sounds like hippie nonsense, but every bit of that previous paragraph has roots in scientific observations. (Its interpretation is my own -- but, then, I believe my purpose in life is the one Epictetus enunciated.) 

All of this rests on the undeniable fact that we are the same thing as the universe. This is a hard fact to wrap your head around, especially when you do not feel connected to anything, when you are lonely, when you feel like you are a different thing from everything else, a small insignificant blob of dust and phlegm living out a meaningless life in some forgotten corner of the cosmos, when you feel like the man in the poem from the pessimistic writer Stephen Crane:

A man said to the universe:
“Sir, I exist!"
“However,” replied the universe,
“The fact has not created in me
“A sense of obligation.”

It's a great poem, and it captures something about how lousy it can feel to be human, but that feeling there doesn't line up with the facts. The poem was written before we knew that we are made of star dust, that the universe is in us. What the man is saying doesn't make any sense. There is no universe outside of us to address. It is as if he were standing in front of a mirror and said to his image, "Sir, I exist!" and he replied to himself "Sir, I don't care!" 

It's self-contradictory. If you care about yourself, then the universe cares about you, too. 

So care about yourself. 

If you find a purpose in your life, then the universe has a purpose, too. 

So find a purpose. 

Almost any old purpose will do. But if you decide that your purpose in life is to run or build or paint or make money or write or wrestle or bone or think or do or have children, then that becomes the purpose of the universe, too, and if you do those things that create more and build more and expand things and keep things going, you are carrying out the imperative of the Big Bang. You are bringing yourself in line with the movement of the cosmos. 

(This tends to rule out any purposes based on killing or destroying.)  

When my dad changed his mind and started to care about the temperature of the planet, and cared about the health and happiness of his great-great-great granddaughters, the universe started to care about those little girls, too. 

Against all odds and reason, people can change. 

Against all intuition, the universe can change, too. It can be changed by us. 

We are smaller than gnats on a dung heap, but that doesn't mean that what we do doesn't matter. We changed the weather on our planet, and thereby changed our future. We can change it back by changing ourselves. 
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