An essay for the middle of the night. This is a chapter from the (as yet) unfinished book The Emergence and Nature of Human History, Volume Five. This essay is best read in conjunction with the essay I posted in the middle of last night, which is located here.
In my 61st year, I can say that this is the deepest core of what I believe.
Alone and isolated, for all intents and purposes, in the cosmos, and alone in the uniqueness of their own conscious minds, humans find themselves in an existential dilemma that appears from my vantage point to be inescapable. Their minds are connected to each other only by tenuous threads of communication, and they cannot be certain that any other human truly understands them, or that they even understand themselves. And despite our ardent wish to be of significance in the context of reality, on the scale of having an impact on the Universe itself, we are just too small to matter. That may seem inelegant, even vulgar, to you, shockingly simplistic, or coarse. But I see no other way I can state it.
We are lost in the immensity of space-time, more isolated and cut-off than we typically dare to imagine, the consequences of which we have not yet fully confronted. And we are lost in another sense, as well: we exist in a mental world that we do not yet fully understand, consciousness, the most extraordinarily difficult phenomenon with which we have ever had to contend. It was consciousness that gave us the ability to not only build our unique ways of life, but the ability to record at least a portion of our efforts outside of our own heads. But consciousness, in allowing for the rise of interpersonal and social complexity, proved itself to be so overwhelmingly complex in nature that we have struggled since the earliest days of our awareness to grasp it. The history we humans have experienced can be thought of, in a very real sense, as the story of consciousness—the powers it gave us, the limitations it set on us, the problems it confronted us with, the ways in which we have used it and responded to it, the unexpected consequences and possibilities it presented us with, and the struggles we have had among ourselves (and within our selves) that were caused by its mysterious nature. Indeed, the very existence of consciousness was only discovered over a very long period of time, and we still do not understand this most essential characteristic of our own lives. If we want to understand the human past, our challenge, as I see it, is to try to understand how consciousness came about, how it has manifested itself in human life, and how and why it has caused human history to be the messy, confusing, fantastically complicated, blindingly complex series of interrelated events that it is.
Consciousness has convinced many humans that they must find some broad, universal meaning in their existence. But in my view, humans can find meaning only in the extremely limited context of the Earth and any place in the Universe where human intelligence might spread. The Universe is, as we discussed in the previous chapter, in all likelihood completely indifferent to us. We must confine our search for meaning to our own insignificant world. In fact, in order to maintain human moral conduct, we have to ignore the fact that what we do means nothing in a universal context and focus ourselves strictly and entirely on our own little community. The adoption of a “universal view” could prove disastrous, for then, any brutality could be excused by saying, “Well, in the whole scheme of things, what does it matter?” In a very real sense, it is vital that our conception of the moral universe be confined to the Earth and its consciousness-possessing inhabitants (and, more broadly, all of its sentient beings). Since humans cannot truly conceive of the Universe’s immensity, we generally limit our thinking to this planet, anyway, and mentally it constitutes our total existential universe.
How can a human hold up his or her head with any dignity, if humanity occupies no special place in creation, and knowing that life’s “purpose” was simply to make more of itself? In all honesty, it seems to me that there is a great deal to marvel at and celebrate in our existence, no matter what is ultimately real. And we can rest our claim to dignity on grounds other than metaphysical ones. We have only to open our eyes to do so.
The world may be headed for chaos and entropy, but it is possible to create havens of sanity, security, and even regular joy in the face of it, just as life emerged as a temporary, swirling pattern of reality in the face of the Universe’s unstoppable journey to stasis. Even in the worst circumstances, there are humans who stand for decency, who exhibit unshakeable courage, who find a way to preserve some semblance of a life worth living, if only as an act of defiance to reality.
It needs to be remembered that many people on this planet are, at this moment, living lives that are secure, satisfying, and happy, even if they are not particularly blessed by material wealth. Sometimes these are people who have organized their own lives with superb rationality and tremendous self-discipline. Others are just letting life happen to them, floating happily on the chaos of large, tumultuous, and loving families and networks of friends. Still others are so flexible and gifted with fluid intelligence that they are able to handle the vagaries of existence with impressive calm and equilibrium. Among the most fortunate of all humans are the ones who have found in the people they love, and by whom they are loved in return, realms of meaning made all the more precious by their intimacy and mystery. There are more of these fortunate humans than we might think. Further, there are many humans who exhibit tremendous courage in the face of daunting challenges and hardships, pulling themselves painfully from one day to the next without complaint, doing their utmost to make of their lives what they can, however limited they might be. And of course the great mass of humans can be said, on the whole, to be reasonably decent people, not without their flaws and limitations, naturally, but nonetheless individuals who work hard, behave reasonably, respect others, and do their best for their families and their communities. None of these people has been untouched by suffering and sorrow, living as they do in a reality which is at the constant edge of disaster. But all of them would rather have lived than not lived, and in that there is a very real triumph.
The human race might ultimately not survive. The Earth will definitely not survive. But tremendous numbers of humans are doing what they can here and now, in the present reality, to stand for humane values, and that is the best we can hope to do. Such people are not trying to remake the whole world, and they have no illusions that the Universe will bend to their will, or acknowledge them in any way. But they carry on, and they are the advocates of what Russian novelist Vasily Grossman called The Absurd Kindness—the expression of human love and dignity even in the most desperate and hopeless of circumstances.
And there is more.
Imagine an individual standing shoulder to shoulder in a tremendously long line of humans. On one side, stretching into the mists of an obscure past, are those who came before him or her. On the other, even more indistinct and hazy in form, are those living in a future the outlines of which cannot be discerned. Our individual is part of an unbroken line of humans stretching back perhaps 25,000 centuries and some 125,000 biological generations (if we arbitrarily count a generation as being 20 years in length). He or she is part of a gigantic family the first members of which felt the east African wind in their faces 2,500,000 years ago, and the last members of which, changed beyond recognition and living inconceivably far from their ancestral home, might bear witness to the death of the Universe itself. Not a bad group of which to be a member.
The family of humans of which our individual is a part has made every mistake and committed every sin, and yet it has also counted among its numbers a multitude of individuals whose lives have exemplified all that is best in us. No human has ever combined all virtues in himself or herself. No human has ever been without faults and problems, and no human has ever lived a “perfect” life, however that meaningless term might be defined. And yet, the humans have spread out over the face of this tiny world, keeping this blind expedition going on sheer faith and inertia, fighting with each other incessantly for the control of small pieces of the planet’s crust, and yet retaining within themselves the capacity to be something more, and something better, than just survivors. They may never achieve Utopia, paradise-on-Earth, or the Kingdom of God. But in their aspirations to do so, they may yet cause a positive verdict about the value of the human enterprise to be rendered by our ultimate descendants.
All of our drama, all of our achievements, all of our suffering, all of our workday toil, all of our ordinary experience, all of our tragedy, all of our squalor, all of our evil, all of our nobility, all of our joys, all of our selfless love, and all of our dreams will, in all probability, never be known outside the confines of the humblingly tiny world we inhabit. We have made no visible impression on the Universe whatsoever. Nothing we have done or gone through has meant anything to anyone outside of this fortuitously placed rocky little speck of dust. Many believe that we occupy a special place in a divinely ordained plan, but nothing can show us whether these hopes have any basis in fact. And there is no prospect whatsoever that we will ever be some sort of “shining city on a hill” for the cosmos.
However, none of this means that the human species cannot take an absurdly heroic stand in the face of the blind enormity of reality. Just because something is meaningful only to us, it is not any less real for that. We mentally don’t live in the whole of reality. We live here and now. The human enterprise has meaning for us. It is real to us, and that is sufficient. We in turn are just as much a part of reality as anything, anywhere, in any dimension or any frame of reference. We carry the nature of the Universe within us. We follow its rules; we are its creation. The energy-matter out of which we are composed became aware of itself, and we became the only life form in our world that knew, at least in part, that we were part of something perhaps infinitely larger and longer in duration. If we can only set down our arrogance, our obsession with being the “center of creation”, our astonishing hubris, and our grossly inflated sense of our own significance and surrender ourselves to the knowledge of our actual place, then perhaps we can turn with renewed energy to the true business of humanity: making this world a truly decent place for the first time.
Perhaps we need to “un-anchor” ourselves from the loftier pretensions of our kind. We must stop seeing the Universe as “ours” in the sense of being made for us, and start to see it as “ours” in the sense of being our home. We will never “conquer it” or “own it” but we will always be a part of its history, even if that history is forever unread. And we can make of ourselves and of our world something better than it has been, and that is a worthy and noble undertaking on which to embark.
Too often we have seen others as objects or caricatures rather than flesh-and-blood fellow humans. Too often we have let tribal loyalty and pride blind us to the intrinsic worth of those not in our tribe. Too many of us have had will without wisdom, confidence in our rightness when we had no right to it, and the desire for power or wealth or position for their own sake, even at the cost of everything we claimed to hold dear. Too often our actions have been driven by false conclusions, wrong evidence, ancient prejudices, deliberate falsehoods, wishful thinking, delusions, and the necessity of submitting to an overwhelming power over us. There has been far too much confusion, far too much myth-making, far too much unnecessary separation between humans, and above all—absolutely above all—far too much needless suffering. Any improvement in the condition of humanity will, in my opinion, require that we confront these realities directly and honestly. Whether we will, however, no one can say.
Ultimately, we are left with our individual lives, and the undeniable reality of death. But in the face of this inevitability, this inescapable finality, we can state an essential truth: in the end, it’s what we experienced and did with the only life we are ever likely to have in the history of the Universe that matters, not our death. In using our brief time as well as we can, living lives of integrity, and above all, treating our fellow humans as people just as real as ourselves, we can face the prospect of our death with equanimity, and trust, perhaps, that others will see in our life one worthy of respect, or even emulation. And in comforting the afflicted among us and fighting to give to as many humans as possible the opportunity to make of their own lives what they choose, we are engaged in what is perhaps our greatest work.
At the hour of our deaths, a great deal will die along with us. Everything we will have ever experienced, in all its uniqueness, all we will have ever learned, every passion we will have ever felt, every image and sound we will have preserved within us, will vanish forever. We will have been able to express some of our life experience to others, but most of it never will have been. And yet, as death looms over us, we will perhaps be able to take some solace in the fact that we changed the very nature of our little corner of the Universe by being in it. The life story of every human we ever encountered will have been altered permanently by us. In moving through space-time, we will have caused chains of consequences to be initiated that will play out for more centuries and in more ways than we could ever imagine. We will know, perhaps, if we are still sufficiently lucid as the end of our consciousness approaches, that we were the product of billions of years of sweeping events and the uncounted actions and imaginings of innumerable other minds. We will not have understood all of what we lived, maybe not even most of it. But we may know this: we were here; we existed, despite the incredible odds against our particular life having come into being, and the future will forever be different because of that. We may know this as well: that in the whole of the multiverse, and in every parallel iteration of this one, there was no story that played out exactly as ours did, and there was no person anywhere, at any time, in any circumstance, that was an exact replica of us. In all the enormity of existence, our lives were unique in the profoundest sense of that word. As all of our moments are about to be lost, we may at last say that we were the child of the very fabric of reality itself, and if the whole story of existence is ever pieced together by an emergent super consciousness, we may yet live on after all.
So yes, let us give up our arrogance and our pretenses. Let us stop seeing ourselves as the reason for the Universe’s existence. But let us never forget that we are just as much a part of the Universe as anything. I may be tiny, and my effect on the rest of reality may be utterly negligible, but I am real! I may count for next to nothing, but I will never be nothing. However many zeroes there may be to the right of the decimal point in calculating the percentage of the time I lived in the Universe’s existence, or the amount of space I occupied while I was here, there will always be that 1 at the end of that chain of zeroes. I am that 1, and I am content to be so.