Recently a young man from Sacramento asked on Craigslist for people to respond to the question: “What is the meaning of life?” He was compiling an anthology of differing answers to the question.
I responded, as did my friend, Dr. Bobby. The young man seemed delighted, if argumentative, about our answers.
Now he has disappeared. Hopefully I did not cause him sadness.
Because I’m 84, somewhat dying—at least dying faster than most—the young man’s question resonated with me.
Before I could have a useful conversation with anyone in real life about the meaning of life, I decided that person needed to start out agreeing upon certain basics:
1. Man evolved from monkeys over the last four or five million years.
2. As probable as the sun will rise tomorrow, there are millions of earth-like planets in our galaxy, and in each of the other millions of galaxies.
3. As sure as the sun will set this evening, mankind on earth will destroy itself in a quick series of nuclear wars within the next 10 generations.
4. There is enormous waste in the universe. Billions of failed experiments, the birth and death of stars, the teeming blind fish-like masses in the deepest oceans, the creatures which exist in temperatures higher and lower than our imagination can comprehend, existing for no reason, dying out for no reason – we would assassinate any creator we were aware of who killed off his creations so capriciously, blindly, senselessly. We wouldn’t excuse that the seemingly stupid experiments took millions of years to conclude.
5. Before discussing which of the 1000 religions created in the last 200 years (.ooo4 of our evolution time from monkeys) is closest to preaching the correct meaning of life, correct description of afterlife, we need to agree no discussion is possible if either party believes in faith over fact. Religion over science. “Taking something on faith” doesn’t work here. Faith is as useful as the tooth fairy, as dangerous as a poke in the eye.
Having agreed upon these five basics, we, the remaining 1% of the populace, can discuss the meaning of life.
The meaning of life – is LIFE. It’s here, human life a bizarre exception, accident, temporary, amid dumb, cruel, pitiless, mindless chaos.
Until we destroy ourselves because our scientific development is superior to our more complicated non-scientific self, we are the living experiment of cooperation versus competition, both elements necessary for survival evolution thus far.
The experiment is nearing its end. It took 4 million years of utilizing both competition and cooperation to survive, evolve to now. Competition will now overcome cooperation, a global final war within the next 10 generations, about the same time as between the U.S. Declaration of Independence and now.
Logic says that is an optimistic prediction. Most likely our earth experiment will end within the next four generations.
That said, if we agree mostly on the foregoing, what is the meaning of life? What created life? For what purpose?
If, scientifically, we agree the creation of life has been enormously inefficient, dumbly cruel, monstrously wasteful, capriciously evil, it’s easy, necessary, to despise such wanton idiocy, know we can excuse such a creation only if it is mindless, soulless, without identity.
That done, and aware of the billions of failed life experiments, failed planets, failed stars, failed fish, failed beasts, failed humanoids, we know our tiny experiment here will also fail, soundlessly, no ear to hear.
That said, we can make up religions faiths, fairy stories to buy us band-aid surcease…
Or we can look for what is positive in our existence: a child’s smile, a mother’s sweet tear, Beethoven, certain opera arias, Van Gogh, sex of people in love, the playful squirrels out my living room window, and the exquisite communion of close friends, the new rose now blooming outside my bedroom window, my dear family, children, grandchildren, my dear friends each my angel, the joy of NOW, moment to moment, alive.
The meaning of life.
The day after the above. Side effects.
The genie is out of the bottle, cannot be put back.
This drama is obviously played out over and over throughout the universe. Both competition and cooperation required for evolution. Competition periodically overcoming cooperation.
In “Star Trek,” Spock’s forbearers recognized this, forced over a period of generations the eradication of emotion, anger weaned out.
Our earthly religions were created to ameliorate the problem, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” “If your brother smites your right cheek, turn the other,” “To he who gives, it will be given.” And the religions said, “Admit you are by nature selfish and sinful. Turn over your life to the Holy Father, God, only He can save you.”
As for my existential thoughts here, one might suggest, “The old man is dying, so he doesn’t want anyone to live beyond him.”
Contrary, it’s highly likely my family and friends will live out their natural lives before the Holocaust. The species will die, but not immediately, not our loved ones.
When I was 17, soon after the atomic bomb was used by us to end the war, “saving millions of American lives,” (this will be the holy chorus which accompanies each country’s entry into Holocaust), I suddenly saw the future: one part of our brain, the scientific part, had progressed past the confines of the other part. The genie was out of the bottle, could not be put back, as Einstein and others worried, we had no way now to survive beyond a short time (short in relation to the 4 million years it took to come this far.)
At age 33, I published an objective discussion in “The Nation” which described the numerous efforts of small socialistic groups to escape “the bomb” by fleeing to New Zealand and other parts of the world supposedly less susceptible to the radiation winds of inevitable war.
At age 38, soon after “the Cuban Crisis,” part of my job at the time involved inspecting in the Berkeley hills dozens of “bomb shelters” in basements and backyards, built at considerable expense so the owner might survive what seemed at the time an inevitable war involving nuclear weapons.
On earth, and throughout the universe, species die out periodically due to errors, “cancers,” in their makeup, competition out of bounds with cooperation. Happens to fish, insects, and men.
A more useful question than “What is the meaning of life?” might be: “Which species if any, survive successfully the natural conflict between competition and cooperation?”
The word, “atheist” is too small, limited. At age 84, dying, I prefer the moniker “Positive Existentialist.”