Documenting the Coming Singularity

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

What's the Freaking Point?

Although we can’t know this for certain, it seems likely that we are alone in the animal kingdom in this respect: We search for meaning. We want to know why. Perhaps my fish, as they swim up and down their tank, are thinking, “Why am I stuck here in this godforsaken place?” Unlikely, but possible I suppose. More probably it is only we who ask: Why did my puppy die? Why do good things happen to bad people? Why did I lose my job? Why am I here? What is the purpose of my existence? (OK, that was a “what” question, but you get the point.) What is it about human beings that leads to this distinction? Many people would say that it is that we were created by God with this in-built need to find meaning, to find Him. Others, like myself, say that our quest is a function of our consciousness, which arises from the complexity of our brains. Whichever is correct, the search for meaning seems to set us apart.

At the root of our search for meaning may be our innate gift and propensity for pattern-recognition. In my bathroom there is a shower curtain with an abstract conglomeration of various shades and shapes of black and gold. If I make my eyes go out of focus as I look at the shower curtain, I sometimes see the faces of outlandish animals and strange-looking people. When I look more closely, of course, there is nothing there. My visual system has created a pattern out of chaos. Apparently it likes to do that, which is very helpful to me, since it enables me to recognize and differentiate between people very easily, a feat which computers are still unable to do very well without a massive amount of processing power.

This search for patterns in visual terms may extend to the circumstances of our lives. We can easily see the value of this pattern-seeking behavior in evolutionary terms. Jim was eaten by a crocodile yesterday. Why? He went down to the river’s edge to collect water and was suddenly snatched by the unseen predator. Perhaps we need to make certain there aren’t any crocodiles near the shore before we go down there for water. Trying to find a pattern in events enables us to avoid harm and repeat successes.

But sometimes we make up patterns that are not really there, just to make ourselves feel better. Just a few days ago 20 or so people were killed in a severe storm here in Central Florida where I live. The inevitable reporters descended and pointed their cameras and microphones at the survivors. And we heard people claiming that they were spared “for a reason.” One man said that his guardian angel was there that night. We might logically suppose that his dead neighbor’s angel was off duty, or perhaps incompetent. Another women said that God was looking out for her. Again, was God either unconcerned, or angry with her neighbor who was swept away? The meaning or pattern may be illogical when carried through to its logical conclusions, but we cling to them nonetheless, because they calm our fears about the whims of nature. If we offer our sacrifice, perhaps the corn will grow plentiful this year.

Our search for meaning, however, goes beyond this type of practical application. Our bellies can be full and our kin safe, and yet we worry about the meaning or our lives. We want to know the point of everything. Somehow, having a certainty of meaning and purpose gives us an emotional satiation. Not everyone concerns himself or herself with such existential matters, of course. Many people are completely satisfied by their daily struggle to find food, clothing, shelter, sex, status and diversion. But many of us seem to need more.

When I was 17 and just starting out in college, I remember attending a dance in the basement of my dorm. I was standing there alone, not knowing anyone, and feeling a diffuse sense of emptiness. I don’t remember ever forming a clear thought like, “There must be more to life than this,” but the feeling was there. Looking back on it now, I want to say to my earlier self, “Yes, there is more. You just need a bit of patience to find it. One day you’ll have lots of friends here. One day you’ll have a career. One day you’ll have a community to serve. One day you’ll have a family, a wife, kids, maybe even grandkids. You’ll love them and provide for them, and they will love you back. That’ll be enough.” For me, it is enough.

(This article is featured on the Carnival of Improvement!)


Spaceman Spiff said...

This is a solid piece of thought. I'm going to make two comments. This one will be an apologetic response to the general thrust of your post, and the next one will be
an apologetic for those religious people you mention.

It may be that man is alone in his search for meaning and purpose, but it is an equally possible option that meaning and purpose is inherent in the nature of reality, and man is not, in fact, alone in his perception of these things.

We have to ask ourselves, which explanation makes the most sense of what we experience? We know that *in this world* consciousness, arises more or less from simple chemistry. But all the chaos theory in the world can't answer the question of why that is the way the world is. Either there is no explanation, and it is more or less an inevitable but nonetheless surprising accident, or meaning and purpose are everywhere because at its very core, meaning and purpose are built into reality.

I think you are wise when you point to family, community, work and love of actual people as an answer to your emptiness. I don't think you're far off the mark.

But I find it unsatisfying to think that my love for and responsibility to you, mom and my wife is merely good because it makes us feel better and helps us survive.

I concede it may be a sublimation of my psychological need to find patterns and meanings, but I believe that the fact that my wife's love makes me happy, and the fact that I'm convinced I should love and serve her even when it hurts, point to something bigger about the way the world is, rather than just serving to fill needs the two of us have. I believe that those things are in some larger sense, True. That in some way, it would be Wrong to abandon her or you guys, no matter how much I would benefit from it.

If in fact, it is merely to meet our own needs, then it seems to make sense to toss those commitments when it costs me more than I can see getting back. But to me, that misses something that resonates so deep within me that I'm convinced it has to do with the way things really are, and not just my or her needs.

Spaceman Spiff said...

Martin Buber said there are two distinct ways of interacting with the world (this includes God, others, and the natural world): I/it and I/thou.

We can either treat others, and the world, as objects, or as subjects. To treat them as subjects means we believe they have a unity and autonomy that we perceive ourselves to have. Thus we should seek to understand them, to serve them, and benefit them. To treat them as objects is to treat them as part of the background, or furniture, of the world we live in, to be manipulated for our benefit.

I would say that these religious people are exhibiting a simple form of I/Thou thinking. They believe that God is interacting with nature, and with them. The problem arises when interaction with nature and God becomes superstition. If they believe they can manipulate God into saving them, then they are in fact still treating God as an object to be manipulated for their benefit.

So I don't want to defend the comment completely, but as a parent of four I'm sure you have discovered what I've found as a teacher of 125. What is good for one kid is not always good for another. Kids don't understand that very well, but as the adult, you know better what each of them needs. Sometimes one needs mercy from something while the other one really wouldn't benefit from it.

So it isn't quite as inconsistent as you make it out to be for them to believe that God saved them. It doesn't necessarily mean He was punishing or not looking out for the other ones.