On Meaning...

I’ve recently read Leo Tolstoy’s A Confession and it sparked a tremendous amount of thought about the meaning of life and existence. Just a typical mid 30’s mini-mid-life crisis I guess. Here’s a quote that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.

In regard to the realm of experience, I said to myself, “Everything is developing and being differentiated, becoming more complex and moving toward perfection, and there are laws governing this process. You are part of the whole. If you learn as much as possible about the whole and if you learn the law of its development, you will come to know your place in the whole and to know yourself.” As much as I am ashamed to admit it, there was a time when I seemed to be satisfied with this. It was at this time that I myself was developing and becoming more complex. My muscles were growing and getting stronger, my memory was being enriched, my ability to think and to comprehend was becoming greater; I was growing and developing. Feeling growth within me, it was natural for me to believe that perfectibility was indeed the law of the entire universe and that in this idea. I would find the answers to the questions of my life. But the time came when I stopped growing; I felt that I was not growing but drying up. My muscles were growing weaker, my teeth were falling out, and I saw not only that this law explained nothing to me but that there never had been and never could be any law of this kind; I had merely mistaken something for a law which I happened to have found in myself at a particular time in my life. As I examined the nature of this law more closely, it became clear to me that there could be no such law of eternal development. It became clear to me that to say everything is developing, becoming more perfect, growing more complex and being differentiated in endless space and time amounted to saying nothing at all. None of these words has any meaning, for in the infinite there is nothing either simple or complex, nothing before or after, nothing better or worse.

I think the key thought in this quote is the difference between living in a finite universe versus living in an infinite universe. Our current lives on this earth are finite, they have a clear beginning and end. So because of this seemingly finite existence, we tend to see all of existence as a finite thing. Existence was born at some point in time and eventually will reach an end at some point in the future. Thus, our lives have agency in some way, no matter how small that might be. We affect the grand whole and without us, the universe would not go on in the same trajectory from its birth to its death. The universe, and existence itself, is like us and therefore, we are special.

But, what if most people are seeing this wrong and the universe is not finite, but infinite? Then things change, as there is no beginning or end, no birth or death. There is everything, in all time, never-ending. On that scale, seen in that way, nothing we do has any meaning. Everything will always happen. That is how I see an infinite universe. Imagine every single possibility of existence, all are true and will occur. Seen in terms of parallel universes, every single parallel universe exists and will occur, as the universe spins itself into all permutations forever. Literally forever. It is hard to fully grasp that but forever is not simply a really large number, it is eternally never ending. The light will never go out, no matter how long one waits. It’s an almost incomprehensible idea to keep in a lowly human being’s mind. But there it is.

So Tolstoy’s idea is that if we are living in this infinite universe, his life (and everyone else’s) loses all meaning. Nothing anyone does matters as everything occurs and must always occur and every option not taken also occurs, and it all adds up to zero on a universal scale. This leads him down his own mid-life crisis road and into great despair of living in this ultimately meaningless universe.

Reading Tolstoy as he goes through this deep reasoning about existence and the infinite universe, I am right there with him. His logic follows through. So then what? That’s the next question he faces and I encourage everyone to read A Confession in its full text. But, if you want a quick summary, he ultimately decides that he must take a “leap of faith” in a sense and believe in an ultimate, infinite meaning… specifically God. He realizes that there is no logical proof of God but he believes and accepts Him anyway after taking this leap of faith. This restores his acceptance of life and existence and takes him out of his despair.

This is the part of A Confession I’ve always had trouble with, as I had read it many years ago in a college class. He is so logical and systematic in his reasoning, but ultimately comes to the conclusion that one must disregard reason to find truth. I don’t know, it is hard to accept that, even seeing how the alternative to him meant suicide, as why would anyone accept the meaningless existence that reason provides. One gets the sense reading it that Tolstoy bases much of his ultimate acceptance of God conclusion on emotion, on the fact he feels alive and filled with happiness when he accepts God, and depressed and filled with despair when he does not. It’s purely an emotional reaction and without that positive emotion, he couldn’t go on any longer.

To me, the realization in A Confession is not that God exists, it’s that every person must find their own meaning to be able to live a happy and fulfilled life. And that meaning can’t simply be a cold reliance on reason and logic. There has to be something more, some amount of emotional response that points a person towards that meaning.

But if everyone simply chooses their meaning and that is what makes life in the infinite universe bearable, it’s simply a delusion. We basically are covering our eyes to the ultimate meaningless of the universe and simply creating meaning out of thin air. And the meaning can be anything. It ultimately means nothing except to the individual person who creates the meaning.

This leads me to a similar work that deals with these issues, Albert Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus. Camus also uses reason to come to the similar conclusion of Tolstoy that the infinite universe is ultimately meaningless. Yet, he rejects any type of “leap of faith” beyond that realization. He comes to the conclusion that one must accept the meaninglessness (or absurdity as he puts it) of the universe and be content in the freedom of that knowledge. He analogizes it the Greek myth of Sisyphus eternally pushing a rock up a mountain, only to have it eternally fall back down again.

I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain! One always finds one's burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.

I admit, I’ve read The Myth of Sisyphus many times and I still am not sure I fully comprehend it. However, relating it back to the idea that one must create their own meaning, I think Camus basically does that too. He rejects finding a specific meaning in God like Tolstoy, but he seems to find a positive emotional response to the “freedom” one has in realizing the universe is absurd. He even ends on a state of emotion, happiness. Sisyphus is happy, he finds a happy “meaning” in realizing that his task is absurd. So Camus rejects suicide in face of meaninglessness and accepts that one can choose to follow through with an emotional response and continue to exist in the world. He chooses meaning, he chooses life.

This idea also leads me to Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. Frankl comes at the problem from a very unique and heartbreaking perspective, having survived a Nazi concentration camp. In spite of enduring what is certainly one of the worst types of suffering a human being can endure, he is not broken, and finds meaning in spite of the suffering. In this passage, Frankl speaks of an epiphany he has while in the midst of the lowest of his despairs at the camp; he realizes that he still can find meaning, infinite meaning, through the contemplation of his wife and the feeling of love:

A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth - that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, when man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way - an honorable way - in such a position man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment. For the first time in my life I was able to understand the meaning of the words, “The angels are lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory.”

Frankl realizes that this is his own personal meaning, and again it centers on an emotion, the emotion of love. His epiphany isn’t based on some logical proof but bare emotion transcending logic as he is in his deepest moment of existential despair. Frankl would later end up creating an entire philosophical system around the fact that each person must determine their own meaning (logotherapy). He states clearly “the meaning of life, differ from man to man, and from moment to moment.” There is no ultimate “meaning of life” that applies to all man. Frankl doesn’t go as far as Tolstoy and Camus in saying existence is completely absurd and meaningless, but that any meaning one derives from existence must come from oneself, from some inner realization as opposed to any outer force. Humans create their own meaning.

After contemplating these thoughts on the meaning of life, I feel there are two consistent threads that appear:

1) There is no ultimate meaning of existence, at least none that any human being can ever know in their lifetime

2) Once confronted with this absence of ultimate meaning, humans are free to determine their own meaning

To me, this is a very profound revelation, one that many never contemplate. In a sense, humans have absolute freedom because we are creative beings. When confronted with a total absence of guidance, we aren’t stuck, we can create our path forward. Our creative minds are our ultimate salvation in this universe. Even if the reality that confronts us is the ultimate form of suffering (such as being placed in a concentration camp or rolling a rock up a hill for eternity) we can overcome that with our minds. Creativity is our truth.

This brings up the next logical question, how should one use that creativity? In a sense, coming to the conclusion that the ultimate freedom human’s have is our creative minds, merely gets us back to square one. It eliminates the search for ultimate meaning, but then places on every person a search for their own meaning, which can be just as difficult and confounding a problem. This is the issue I’m continuing to explore and hope to write more about in the future.

An Apocalypse For Your Thoughts

On April 6, 2019 the world will end.

Well, maybe not. But that’s an intriguing idea, isn’t it? A specific date that all life on this planet will forever be altered in a dramatic fashion. Doomsday, End Times, Revelation… an Apocalypse. We’re all drawn to that idea in some way, intrigued at knowing the eventual fate of all things. It’s embedded into our DNA and every generation believes they are the ones on the brink, ready to finally witness “The End.”

Yet, it has never happened. For millennia we’ve been obsessed with this idea of an apocalypse, and it has yet to occur. The Book of Revelation was written almost two thousand years ago, and people believed it to be something that was close at hand. Other religions have foretold apocalypses in the near future and none have occurred. There are countless examples of apocalyptic cults that have specific dates that never came to be. October 22, 1844; December 21, 1954; January 1, 2000; May 27, 2012; and December 21, 2012 were all supposed to be Judgement Days, but the earth continued uninterrupted.

However, people are not deterred, and the notion of an apocalypse remains popular. The apocalypse genre in movies and TV shows is so big it has numerous sub-genres. There are zombie apocalypses (Dawn of the Dead, 28 Days Later, The Walking Dead), alien apocalypses (Independence Day, Falling Skies), robot apocalypses (Terminator, The Matrix), comedy apocalypses (This is the End, The World’s End), indie-drama apocalypses (Last Night, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World), global warming apocalypses (The Day After Tomorrow), and even lack of power apocalypses (Revolution). There are also actual reality shows about people prepping for the apocalypse.

In past decades the nuclear war apocalypse genre was big (Dr. Strangelove, The Day After, Testament). This apocalypse obsession was understandable, since the world probably was at its closest point to actually being destroyed during the later half of the twentieth century. There were numerous points during the sixties, seventies, and eighties that if a few different decisions were made, none of us would be here right now. Yet, with the fall of the Soviet Union, the fear of a nuclear apocalypse has waned. However, our obsession with apocalypses has simply changed to other ways we can destroy ourselves.

But why are we so drawn to this idea of the world ending?

I think a big part of it is humanity’s search for meaning. We are all thrown into existence and have no idea why we are here or where we are going. Yet, seeing the end might reveal things to us. While the word apocalypse now usually refers to a cataclysmic event that destroys the world, its original meaning was “disclosure of knowledge.” The apocalypse lifts the veil and reveals to us what everything truly means.

To the religious minded, this would mean God orchestrating the final plan for humanity and the earth… usually some type of battle of good and evil. To those that eschew religion, the apocalypse works just as well for revealing truth, as the total, meaningless destruction of the earth plays very well into an absurdist view of existence. Everyone can read their view of the universe in a potential apocalypse, that is until one actually occurs.

I also think there might be some sense of boredom that inspires us to imagine grand events. We all live fairly hum drum lives most of the time, existing in our small moment in history. Yet, what if our lives weren’t just a random point on a long timeline, but overlapping with the biggest event to ever occur. Just by experiencing the apocalypse we would truly be part of history. As the saying goes, may you live in interesting times.

Going back to April 6, 2019, what if that is the apocalypse? What if the forces of the universe somehow chose a lowly blogger to be the prophet of the end times? Ummm… yeah, I’m laughing right there with you, especially anyone reading this after that date. But, while April 6th most likely will not be “The End,” given a long enough timeline, the apocalypse will happen in some shape or form. We’d like to think humanity will go on forever, but our end in inevitable. Everything that we have built and accomplished as a species will one day be dust, forgotten into the recesses of time.

The Deathbed Time Traveler

Imagine you are 100 years old and lying on your deathbed. Think about it in great detail – the feel of the sheets, the sunlight bending through your window, the tiredness of your fading body. A kind looking man walks in and starts speaking to you. He greets you warmly, smiles, and hands you a small box with a large button on it. He tells you that if you press the button, you will be transported back in time and become your younger self again. You will get to relive your life again from that point. He says this is a great gift and walks away.

You hold the box in your hands as you think back to your youth. A flood of memories comes back to you – all your experiences, all your triumphs, all your regrets. You think about your friends and family, many of whom are gone now. But you could see them again. You could savor the time you had with them. You could savor it all, and live your life to its fullest. You press the button.

You are here. You are your younger self again, transported from your deathbed to this very moment. You have your life in front of you. You can see your loved ones again, you can experience your youth again, you can live in the moment. The gift has already been given to you, go out and live your life.

On Time Travel

A thought experiment. A time machine appears in your living room. A steam punk version, complete with flashing lights and polished metal. A cylinder with a chair inside and a cavalcade of buttons and knobs. You can sit in it, enter any date throughout all time, and it will rather quickly take you there.

What do you do?

It’s a tough question. My first inclination is to travel back to some important historical event – maybe Julius Caesar crossing the Rubicon, the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the Kennedy assassination. These are significant events in the history of mankind that any wise time traveler would of course want to witness in person. However, my mind wanders…

Historical events are interesting, but I don’t have any personal connection to them. Visiting them will satisfy my intellectual curiosity, but won’t hit me at a deeper level. Yet, what if I could travel into my own past? What if I could visit places that don’t exist anymore, people as they were when I was young, even people that have since passed away? The thought of that is very alluring.

However, time traveling into one’s own past raises a multitude of issues. One of the biggest problems is your past self will be there; if you go back to your own childhood, there will the younger version of yourself hanging about. He will be there at the very moments you want to visit, the one’s that affected you so deeply. How can you sustain having two separate versions of yourself? What would you say to him? Would you merely hide from him in the background and observe the past or would you interact?

Even if you went to visit people when your past self wasn’t around, how would you explain your future self? You would be this strange older version of the person they know. Maybe you could explain you are a time traveler and people would accept that, but maybe not. Your future self would be too much of a shock for most to handle in any rational way. Most likely you’d end up being arrested or placed in some type of mental institution.

Maybe if technology advanced to the point a person could transfer their consciousness into another person, then you could transfer your mind into your past self’s physical body. That is what most would really want, not just a simple time machine, but a way to literally become one’s past self again. You could then right all the wrongs that occurred, fix your mistakes, do things right this time. But maybe that would never work, and things would turn into some horrible Pottersville like nightmare.1

All this also ignores the countless time travel paradoxes that could occur. Changing even an atom in the past could have untold consequences on the future, even making your future self cease to exist (a la Marty McFly at the Enchantment Under the Sea Dance). You might even change things to such an extent that you destroy the very fabric of space and time, causing the universe to simply cease to exist. That would not be an ideal situation for a time traveler.

So, in light of all that, should one ever time travel into one’s own past?

Maybe not, maybe the consequences are too severe and the way it would unfold would never be as one imagined. One’s past is one’s past, and will always be one’s past. There is no changing that, and the addition of a time machine would only destroy that past and create something new, something that would have no relation to the memories everyone keeps with them.

on Being Cool

Why is something cool? Why does that slinky slate of a dark curves, elongated over a pitch of floating clouds, permeated with blips of fleeting light seem so, so cool? Was that sentence cool, or was I trying too hard? Maybe trying too hard eviscerates cool, and the truly cool are the ones that don’t have to try at all. Maybe they just hide their trying so well in the cloak of coolness that you just think they aren’t trying. Maybe I think too much.

There are certain historical figures that are cool – Steve McQueen, Ernest Hemingway, Miles Davis. They exude their coolness from beyond the grave, pushing it out into the future like a long exhale of smoke. Smoking used to be the epitome of cool, but is it still? Do the cool kids still smoke, watching with indifference as the geeks wobble by them with jealous yearning. Or are the geeks the cool ones now, expressing coolness by their ability to perform mathematical calculations while simultaneously making biting comments on pop culture.

I sometimes think I’m cool, and then come to my senses when I realize I’m far from. My worn denim, black t-shirt, and sunglasses don’t make me cool, but just create a bubble of superficial coolness around me. Deep in my heart the coolness fades to black and I’m still the same shy teenager I was 15 years ago. Yet I strive to fully embrace coolness, to make it part of me like a Zen master contemplates infinity. I watch others move with their own coolness, fully certain in their own bodies, their own minds.

Coolness is confidence. It’s an unending relaxation in all social situations. It’s rebellion from the norm. It’s peace with one’s past, present, and future. It’s style, to a degree. It’s everything that pushes that person to the heights of their creative powers, and ignores all the ones who don’t believe.

Coolness is in other’s minds, but it’s also in one’s own mind. The truly cool are cool within themselves, and that glows from the inward to the outward. The coolness is part of their being and after awhile they don’t even realize it’s there. They simply live their life as they would want to, pushing upwards through existence. To become like them you must feel cool, walk cool, sleep cool, act cool, eat cool… but above all else, simply be cool.