Tag Archives: Life

It Doesn’t Matter. What a Relief!

At a recent gathering of the philosophically minded, a friend lamented that she has been troubled by the sense that our lives don’t matter. Some of us around the table suggested that the way we live affects the people we love, which surely matters. “But eventually,” she countered, “the impact of even the best of us dissipates to nothing.”

Our wish to matter for the long term is very strong. Our ancestors who were apathetic on that point … well, they’re not our ancestors because they lost the competition to reproduce.

We also want to be connected to something more consequential than our individual lives: a tribe, a religion, or a Great Cause. This, too, has been bred into us as members of a species whose ecological niche is “animal that is individually weak but is an apex predator by dint of cooperation and intelligence.”

So what happens when that animal becomes so intelligent that it is able to see through the whole game — when it realizes that no tribe is better than another, that its religions are man-made, and its Great Causes will become utterly moot long before a dying Sun vaporizes the planet?

Continue reading

We Can’t Go Back to Digging Up Roots

SapiensDo you ever feel like you’re working harder and harder just to afford all the stuff that you need because you’re working harder and harder? You work your butt off all week to achieve the American Dream of home ownership and now you must work your butt off on the weekends mowing the lawn in the summer, and wake up early to shovel snow off the driveway in the winter.
Apparently this is nothing new. According to Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, our transition from hunter-gatherers to farmers resulted in just that sort of unintended consequence.

Continue reading

Be Serious So You Can Stop Being So Serious

To philosophize is to prepare to die. Or, to truly take your life with the seriousness that philosophy demands, you can’t take your life all that seriously. (Plato at the Googleplex, page 303)

What is that about? If I’m so serious-minded that I’m preparing to die, aren’t I taking life pretty darn seriously?

Continue reading

Overcoming Blackness and Gravity

The universe is on its way to a slow, cold death.

In the meantime, global warming is causing record levels of wildfires.

Worst of all, Donald Trump is still at the top of the polls.

How can a serious-minded beagle keep his head up?

Continue reading

When Has a Dragon Ever Died of the Poison of a Snake?

It has been a very public week for victims of horrible crimes. Dzhjokhar Tsarnaev’s victims spoke at his formal death sentencing, and the families of the Charletson Massacre’s victims have been in the national media.

Most noted among the Charleston families was Nadine Collier, who said to killer Dylann Roof, “You hurt me. You hurt a lot of people. But God forgives you and I forgive you.”

Rebekah Gregory, who lost a leg to Boston Marathon bomber Tsarnaev, struck a very different tone. Looking defiantly at the murderer, she said, “While your intention was to destroy America, what you have really accomplished is actually quite the opposite – you’ve unified us. We are Boston strong, we are America strong, and choosing to mess with us was a terrible idea. So how’s that for your VICTIM impact statement?”

Continue reading

What if Life is a Joke?

What if the truth about life were horrible? What if, as the ancient Hebrews believed, we are all destined to spend eternity in a shadowy sheol rather than a glorious heaven? Or what if there is no afterlife at all? What if life is absurd — just a cosmic joke played on us by no-one at all?

If you were to discover that any of these propositions is absolutely, undeniably true, how would you feel?

I’ve been rereading Plato at the Googleplex, in which author Rebecca Goldstein imagines Plato on a book tour in modern America. I’d like to share with you a passage that I find very moving. Ms. Goldstein, synthesizing Plato’s writings, has him say this about those who are fit to be the Guardians of his ideal republic.

[An essential character quality is] an inborn horror of being deceived as to the nature of things, and an inborn desire to know the truth… [It] is something different from intelligence and different from knowledge. Those who have this trait love the truth not because it is like this or like that. They love the truth simply because it is the truth and are prepared to love it no matter what it turns out to be. They will stick to a view just so long as it seems to them the truth and will not be seduced away from that view no matter what others are telling them, or what flashier and more attractive options are dangled before them; but they are also the least reluctant among all people to abandon a formerly loved view, if once they become convinced that it is not true. They are always on the scent of the truth, like dogs, who are the most philosophical of animals.

Do you identify with this? I do. During the years that I was in the evangelical church, nothing “seduced me away from that view” — not money, not social opportunities, not fleshly lusts, not even the common decency to see some of its teachings as horrible. I thought I had found the truth; how could anything else matter?

When I became convinced otherwise, I did not mourn the loss of eternal life, a God who loved me, or a sense of eternal purpose. Instead, I felt anger at having been deceived.

I don’t think life is a joke. I’d say it’s more of a game. But if that is the truth of the matter, I am prepared to love it. Delighted, even. How about you?

Lessons in Humility

Our forebears thought the sky was a solid dome above the Earth, in which the stars were embedded.

By the second century AD, we had realized that the planets were out in space, but we still thought the Earth was the center of the universe.

In 1543, Copernicus published On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, arguing that Earth and the other planets orbit the Sun. This offended our self-image so much that when Galileo supported the idea, we imprisoned him.

The Copernican view was finally accepted, but we still thought we were exceptional because the laws of physics were different on Earth than in the heavens. Isaac Newton changed all that. In 1687, he published Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, proving that a single Law of Gravity could explain movements in both heaven and Earth.

A century after Netwon, thanks to the tireless work of William Herschel and his sister, Caroline, it became known that our solar system is embedded in a gigantic galaxy, the Milky Way. When Friedrich Bessel measured the distance to a nearby star as 11.4 light-years, people were agog.

In 1920, we learned that, not only were we not at the center of the solar system, but our solar system was not at the center of our galaxy. Later in that decade, we would learn that our galaxy was but one among many.

Close on the heels of that discovery, Edwin Hubble proved that the universe is expanding. We were becoming a smaller part of the whole all the time. And at an accelerating rate: at the close of the century, we realized that the universe is flying apart faster and faster.

Working the expansion backward, Alexander Friedmann had suggested, in 1922, that the universe could have been born in what we now call the Big Bang. Even Einstein initially called the idea “suspicious” but by mid-century, it had begun to take hold. Apparently we are even less than the dust of the Earth: we are detritus from a random quantum fluctuation.

In 1600, Giodano Bruno got himself burned at the stake for, among other heresies, suggesting that the stars were suns much like ours, with inhabited planets. It was not until the time of America’s Civil War that conclusive proof was found that he was right about the suns, and not until after the first Gulf War that he was right about the planets.

When I was a schoolboy, I was taught that our world was almost certainly the only inhabited one in the universe. The scientific consensus now seems to be that life on other worlds is inevitable.

I was also taught humans were the only animals who could reason or use tools. I just finished a book about an African Grey parrot who could hold an intelligent conversation, in English, infused with a mischievous sense of humor. Many species have been observed not only to use but to make tools.

Our self-concept has come a long way from being the apex of creation, in a domed terrarium made especially for us to inhabit, only a few thousand years ago. We now know we are specs on a pale blue dot that orbits a larger, white dot that occupies a not-so-special place two thirds of the way down one of the spiral arms of a galaxy that has, at its center, a supermassive black hole.


rsz_black-hole-milky-way

Coming toward us at 110 kilometers per second is the Andromeda galaxy — three times as large at the Milky Way and with its own supermassive black hole. Fortunately, space is so vast that it will be 4 billion years before the galaxies collide. Our best guess is that when they do, the Earth will first be pulled toward the dual black holes and then ejected to intergalactic space.

But nobody will be here to witness Earth’s ignominious end. Three billion years earlier (only a billion from now) the radiation from the Sun will have grown so intense that it will have extinguished the last spark of life on our planet.

Life was born here 3.5 billion years ago, and has less than 1 billion to go. Now that we are well past middle age, perhaps it is time to reflect on our accomplishments.

If we can be proud of anything, it is this: that we have discovered the vastness of space and time in the universe, and our correspondingly humble position in it. After centuries of fighting against our change in circumstance, we may also be proud of having exchanged our offense for awe.