Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Meaning Of Life

Yes, here it is, faithful readers; the moment that you've doubtless awaited for so very long now!  Today, The Halmanator will explain the meaning of your existence.  You knew, deep down, that it had to be leading up to this, didn't you?  I'm sure that many of you have wondered why this moment has been so long in coming.

I couldn't simply start a blog as an unknown and launch right into the eternal verities, expecting to be taken at all seriously.  No, I first had to establish credibility and trust.  To convince you that I have a true understanding of the Grand Design, I first had to enlighten you by ruminating on such diverse topics as song lyrics, patriotism, problem solving, the work ethic, loss, religion, childhood, healthy eating, communing with nature, poetry, simple pleasures, positive reinforcement, spirituality, interior decorating, the legal system, enjoyment, money, home repair, charity, technology, rationalism, music, time travel, transportation, bio-technology, silence and envy, to name but a few.  Having now undoubtedly convinced you of my keen understanding of the human condition, I can safely expound on its foundations in the secure knowledge that all potential detractors have long since been silenced.

For as long as human beings have been sentient, we have pondered our place in the Cosmos.  From whence did we come?  How did we come to be?  How are we different from the other creatures that inhabit our world?  How are we similar?  Are there others like us out there on other worlds?  And, most significantly, Why?  What is our purpose, both as a species and as individuals?

Most of those who have posited answers to these questions have done so in the context of either religion or philosophy or, sometimes, a mixture of both.  The religious faithful generally believe that we are the creation of a divine being or God, who is much bigger, smarter and more hygienic than we.  This, of course, still leaves the question of why God created us.  What is His purpose for us?  Some suggest a profound love, which is fine now that we're here, but still doesn't explain why He made us in the first place.  Did He love us before He even made us?  Some suggest that our purpose is to serve and worship God in order to increase His glory, like some kind of cosmic cheer-leading squad.  Some simply shrug their shoulders and suggest that the divine Mind of God is beyond our feeble understanding which, quite honestly, seems like a melodramatic way of saying "Who knows?"

Not everyone looks to a divine being to explain our existence, however.  Even atheists have rubbed their chins over the aforementioned questions.  The only difference is that they don't ascribe it to an omnipresent deity.  Such people tend to turn more toward philosophy for the answers.  Let's briefly examine a few:

Idealists suggest that what`s important is what goes on in our own minds.  The physical universe that surrounds us is incidental.  This philosophy doesn`t serve one particularly well when in the path of an on-coming train.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have Realism, which argues that the physical universe is all that we can be sure of and that our minds are prone to playing tricks on us, so we can`t trust them.  This philosophy is best summed up by the premise that reality is that which doesn`t go away after you stop believing in it.

Neo-Thomism is a religion-based philosophy that seeks to understand God through a combination of faith and reason.  This philosophy argues that the complexity of the universe itself and everything in it implies a controlling higher intelligence.  To put forth an analogy, Neo-Thomism argues that, if one walks through a forest and finds a neatly-stacked pile of logs, one doesn`t think `My, what a coincidence!  A bunch of random pieces of wood happened to fall into this neat pile that I see before me!` Rather, one assumes that the pile of wood was placed there by someone.

Switching to the opposite end of the spectrum once more, we have Existentialism, which posits that there is no purpose or meaning to the universe.  This philosophy argues that the only authority that matters to ourselves is ourselves.  Everything is subjective.  "It's all about me".

Pragmatism relies on experiment and experience to explain the universe.  This philosophy holds that truth is not absolute, but determined by consequences.  For example, we see the sun rise in the east and set in the west, day after day, without exception.  For a long time, people concluded, quite reasonably, that the sun moved around the Earth.  That was the accepted truth, until some people began noticing the motions of the planets, which didn't fit the theory.  Further investigation was done and we discovered that the Earth moves around the sun.  The truth changed as our experience and knowledge changed.  (My counter-argument here is that the truth never changed, only our perception of it did).

When examining the aforementioned philosophies, it strikes me that they often concern themselves with answering the "what" and the "how", but not always the "why".  Those who question the meaning of life are often asking "Why?"

If one looks at the Big Picture, it's frighteningly tempting to conclude that our lives have no meaning in the grand scheme of things.  Think of the greatest, most powerful, most renowned people that you've ever heard of; Socrates, Tutankhamen, Alexander, Julius Caesar, Attila the Hun, Cleopatra ... you get the idea.  All of them were renowned, not only in their own times but for ages after they died.  Yet all of them died and the world continued to turn without them.  As great as they were, what was the ultimate point to their existence?  They're gone now, as are all of their works.  Even the Pyramids are slowly crumbling.

You may argue that they shaped history and therefore the world that we live in today, but even that world itself must one day come to an end, and then what?  On the scale of eternity, how did they or anything that they did ultimately matter?  And, if one concludes that they didn't, then what are we multitudes who are not as great and as powerful and as renowned as they to think?  What about the vast majority of us who live more ordinary lives and who likely won't be remembered outside of their immediate family or close circle of friends after their deaths, and probably not for more than a generation or two even in those circles?  What is the point of our being here?

Here are my thoughts, and they are only my thoughts.  I'm no authority, I claim no special insight, and I may well be wrong.

With regard to our nature, or what we are, I'm partial to an explanation offered by the late Dr. Carl Sagan who said "We are a way for the Cosmos to know itself".  In other words, we are a part of creation but, significantly, we are a sentient part.  You might say that we're the mind of the Cosmos or, at least, part of the mind.  There may be other sentient beings out there like us, or unlike us.

As for our purpose, I sometimes feel that we attach too much importance to the question.  It's human nature to look for the "why" behind everything.  In fact, as far as any of us knows, this need for explanation is unique to homo sapiens.  All other living organisms on this planet, including those that are at least self-aware, seem to simply exist, doing what they were made to do and being what they were made to be, without worrying too much about the why or the wherefore.  Look at your dog or your cat or your goldfish.  Do they lose a lot of sleep over their purpose here?  Not in my experience.  On the other hand, my cat seems to have a perfect understanding of my purpose; to feed and shelter her, not to mention providing the occasional belly-rub.

But seriously, perhaps there is no "why".  Perhaps things simply are because they are.

Early one recent morning, I stood on the front driveway of my home and looked around.  It was very still and my gaze rested on the magnolia tree that grows on my front lawn.  As I regarded it, standing quiet and motionless, I considered that it had been standing there in that very spot for many years now, day and night, in fair weather and foul, through all four seasons.  It too is a living organism, though not like myself.  Unlike myself, the magnolia isn't concerned with its purpose.  It has no goals or aspirations.  It simply is.  And yet, it does serve a purpose.  Like most plants, it converts sunlight and carbon dioxide into breathable oxygen for us non-plants.  Its leaves fall and decay, adding nutrients to the soil so that it and other plants may grow.  In the springtime, it sprouts attractive pink blossoms which adds beauty to the world and instills a sense of well-being to those who regard them. The magnolia tree doesn't need to strive to achieve its purpose, it just needs to be as it was made to be.

I thought about the well-known line from the Desiderata; "You are a child of the universe.  No less than the trees and the stars, you have the right to be here."  Maybe that simple answer is the best answer of all.


Tubes said...

Rabbits ate my magnolia tree.



Stanley Workman said...

It's been 47 years since I sold my first piece of Art. Admittedly, I have made a mess of the one opportunity I've had at Life. Art, I've crushed.