The Meaning of Life, Part I
The Importance of Doubt
We believe certain things. We believe in knowledge. We believe in importance. We believe what we do in this world matters and we believe that other people are important and what they do matters, too. We accept these intangibles because if we do not there is nothing else.
Few of us ask questions beyond the superficial. Those who do we call “philosophers” and we revere them (though often not until long after they have parted us). While anyone can question, philosophers possess one special skill that enables them to think more critically: the acceptance of doubt. Most fear doubt; fear of doubt is ruin.
Most bloody wars in history have had at the root of their cause religion. Religion is bred from doubt; it is born out of fear of the unknown. Over the thousands of years of human intelligence, the fear of the unknown has forced the creation of myths to explain away what we cannot any other way. Those who fear the unknown fear death. It is impossible to know what if anything happens after death, so religions have manufactured promises of life surviving the destruction of the earthly body. No lasting culture on earth has ever accepted that when humans die, all the evidence says nothing happens. Heaven and hell are notions created and written down by living humans with the same knowledge you or I have of the after-life: none. Through repetition, they are concepts that most of the world accepts blindly.
The modern philosopher Thomas Nagel says in What Does It All Mean? that we cannot be absolutely sure of anything: “If you think about it, the inside of your mind is the only thing you can be absolutely sure of.” How can we be sure anything is real? What is “real”, anyway? How do we know that everything going on around us, the entire world and every one in it, isn’t all in our head? These questions have no answer. There is nothing we can be sure of; certainty does not exist; that’s terrifying. Perhaps nothing I have ever done, do, or will do matters.
Ultimately, the search for certainty is useless. You can idle for your entire life and make nothing of your perceived time on this planet and no one will be able to convince you that you are apart of anything worth wasting. Certainty is impossible, so to move on to more important matters we must accept doubt in the way of things and renounce this blind faith in unreferenced answers. There is only one thing worth convincing ourselves of: that what we do here on earth is the only thing we know; if anything matters, it is this.
Immortality in a Mortal World
As humans we are struck with this concept that life is somehow important. There is little evidence for that. The universe has existed for 14,000,000,000 years and humans have inhabited the Earth for fewer than 0.0002% of them. The idea that anything any one of us has ever done has had even the slightest impact on anything further away than our Moon is laughable. The dinosaur dynasty lasted for over 135,000,000 years but what have they left behind? Fossils? Birds? Virtually nothing. Their only legacy is the oil we use to power our cars that in turn pollutes the Earth’s atmosphere. Not much to aspire to. Even if we do manage another 134,800,000 years, are we destined to be but a casual mystery to whatever species usurps us? It is a disconcerting reality that as we learn more of the universe, our own existence feels increasingly insignificant. But that belief, that life is important… It does not fade.
We remember past figures for their accomplishments. King Narmer, Otto von Bismarck, Abraham Lincoln: we remember these people because they marked history. It is reasonable then to assume that if we do important things and change the world, we will be remembered also. Steve Jobs once said of death:
No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life.
Immortality through reverence and remembrance is a real, observable phenomenon and the only meaning we can assure ourselves we can achieve.
Sit idle if you want and I cannot say for sure you’re wasting anything. But I will narrow the scope of my universe; to a human being that will live about 80 years, 200,000 of them feels like a pretty long time. I will never possess the ability to affect the universe as a whole, but I can surely affect the other humans here with me. I will ignore reality; I will muddle the facts because if I do not, I am nothing. “There’s no point,” wrote Nagel. “It wouldn’t matter if I didn’t exist at all, or if I didn’t care about anything. But I do. That’s all there is to it.”
Enjoy the Little Things
“Is Fortune’s presence dear to thee if she cannot be trusted to stay, and though she will bring sorrow when she is gone?”
— Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy
Fortune, good or bad, is transient. And that being the case, is there any point to finding Fortune’s good graces? The impression from Boethius is no. “True happiness” is fulfillment. It is found through wisdom and knowledge which cannot (at least, cannot easily) be taken away, as Fortune can. Fulfillment gives one importance and reverence in life, which can make one eternal. I am enrolled in the most prestigious and expensive university I was accepted to because I know a college education is an important step toward fulfillment. I come from a lower-middle-class family with little extra money to spend on college, and I did not impress enough in high school to get anything better than a partial scholarship. I cannot afford to be here. I am scheduled to pay off this semester with considerable interest by 2042. Yet here I am. I should be on the right track. But I am not happy.
Every week I have a “bad” day: a day when it gets to me the extent to which I am in-over-my-head. I have long imagined a Wall, a barrier to success brought on by my ability to meet the A-grade expectation in high school without putting forth any effort. I am not totally devoid of drive, but certainly I lack it in the worst way wherever I lack interest. At some point I think I will be put in a situation where I cannot meet expectations without putting forth the effort I have witnessed peers pour into schoolwork in the past. When I finally am, I worry that I will simply fail. The Wall is one of my greatest anxieties, third only to equity and loneliness.
Will I be able to feed myself next week? What about over the holidays when the dining halls are closed? As much as I would love to say that money is not important, and that we can be happy without it, in truth I know that there is a certain level of wealth that is paramount to being happy. No one is content in poverty. I do not long for riches, but I long for Enough. Until I can take a friend out for a nice lunch spur-of-the-moment and foot the bill without concern, I do not have Enough.
I have struggled with friendship since sophomore-level high school. While I have consistently had one or two best friends, I have struggled with finding groups of friends large enough that I can associate with people that I like on a daily basis. I have always been particular in choosing friends, which has helped me to achieve a small group that I can already assert as life-long. But my particularity has run to by greatest fear: that of being Alone. Whether I am in my dorm room with only my laptop or in a coffee shop with strangers, if I am not with people I can joke around with, I am Alone. My “bad” days consistently line up with those that I spend a majority of Alone.
These anxieties: hitting the Wall, having Enough, being Alone, they each eat at me every day despite my adherence to the path toward fulfillment. Because of this I stress the importance of Fortune. Life is a mix of good and bad; the good does not make up for the bad but likewise the bad does not spoil the good. Despite its transience, good Fortune is important to a happy life because fulfillment takes a very long time. Along the way there are many toils and without little, fleeting, happy moments I could not cope. This is why I treated my friends to a Broadway show I could not afford, it is why I joined the quidditch team, and it is why I spend so much of my money on first dates.