Much to my shame and regret, I don’t own a microscope. I think there are two instruments any true student of knowledge and life should own: a microscope and telescope. I possess the latter. In order to use the former, I rent a microscope from my local library every now and then.
In that regard, I recently did something weird. Unknown to my wife, I spirited away a mason jar and hid it. In it, I placed three cups of tap water, one dried leaf found on the ground outside, half a piece of moldy bread, and one spoonful of old milk. After several weeks of letting the mixture marinate at room temperature, I retrieved the jar from my hiding spot and took it with me the local library laboratory, whereupon I signed for a microscope, stuck a dropper into the jar, extracted some liquid (ignoring the smell), and dropped it onto a slide. When I looked through the eye viewer at my strange creation, I saw a microcosm of wonder. All sorts of strange organisms—some with hair, some with tails, some shaped liked cylinders, some with no discernible shape at all—were whizzing through the liquid, moving to and fro with great haste, never pausing to question themselves or the meaning of their endeavors, just taking part in life for no other reason than, from what I could discern, mindless impulse.
As one might do, I likened their movements to that of my own species, which I think is a logical connection to make. Are we not very much like those miniscule organisms? Do we not also zip about here and there with great haste, seldom pausing to assess the meaning of it all? Yes. And yet, in that very same vein, we’re also quite dissimilar, for sometimes we actually do stop and wonder and ponder and assess, often with frustration or even despair, the meaning of our individual lives and of the great collective whole known simply as “life itself.”
Later that same day, as I was pretending to watch a movie with Valerie but was, in reality, thinking of the events in the lab, it occurred to me that this aforementioned difference, this inexplicable practice indigenous to humans of philosophically questioning life, is conspicuous by its absence in the province of single-cell organisms (and the entire animal kingdom).
In short, there is something to be said about the obvious fact that every single form of life on this planet—all 8.7 million of them—go about their regular business without pondering the meaning of it all… except one: us. Just think about that for a moment. Of all the various manifestations of life on Earth, something close to 100% of them don’t worry about existential and philosophical issues like meaning and purpose. They just do what they do and then they die and, as far as I can tell, they do so without complaint. But then you have the human being, who likewise just does what it does (and sometimes doesn’t) and dies and, it goes without saying, clearly complains about it constantly. This one species—the only one that can ponder its own death, by the way—is characterized just as much by what it thinks about as what it does. Ergo, if someone were examining us under a microscope like I did with the single-cell bugs, they would see some of us moving to and fro with haste while others were just sitting there, moaning about existence, bitching about the deficits that abound in reality, and losing sleep and energy over questions they will never have answers to, no matter how intelligent they become, prompting this writer to wonder which is to be more pitied: the amoeba who can’t ask the question, or the human who asks it but can’t have an answer.
Ignorance, as they say, is bliss.
At any rate, it occurred to me, upon drawing these conclusions, that humanity would do better to take a page from the amoeba. Perhaps it would be better for our species to just do what we’re here to do and not analyze it too much, or even at all. And yet that prospect only raises new questions, the chief of which for me involves the distinction between meaning and purpose…
Suppose, if you will, that you’re an amoeba, maybe one not unlike of those tiny microbes scurrying about on the slide of that microscope. If life is precious, then all life is precious—even that of an amoeba. That means that you, as this brainless amoeba, are special. And yet, to the eyes of someone like me, scrutinizing you through a lens, you’re nothing—too irrelevant to matter, too small to know personally, and too transitory to have much of an impact. One could consequently say that your life has no meaning. And really, when you get down to it, does an amoeba have any meaning? No. Maybe it has a purpose. In fact, it most certainly does, even if that purpose is little more than replicating. But having a purpose is not the same thing as having meaning. Even inanimate objects can have a purpose. A hammer’s purpose is to drive a nail, a shovel’s purpose is to scoop dirt, coal, and snow—but neither of these have meaning, nor do they go looking for it. A virus has a purpose: to infect a host and weaken it. But does it have meaning? I would say no. A bumblebee has a purpose. It exists on Earth to pollinate the flora. But does it have meaning? Does a bee, upon returning to a hive after a long day of fucking flowers, retreat to some dark corner and ask why he just did what he did? No, he just goes out the next day and does it all over again until that day when finally he dies. Likewise, does your dog ponder her meaning? Does your house cat pore through philosophy books to ascertain why it exists? No. Only the human does that. Therefore, all objects, living or not, have a purpose. But few of them have meaning. And to be honest, probably none of them do, it’s just that humans, creatures of thought that we are, demand one.
And that’s where the pain comes in.
I have written elsewhere, and again at great length, about that state of being known as the human condition. One might say it’s my métier. In my studies and ongoing investigations, I have come to believe that this “condition,” such as it is, is really nothing more than the product of thought. Reason, which I have elsewhere described as a two-edged sword, is the culprit here, for without the ability to think, we humans couldn’t flirt with the possibility of overthinking. Once a species attains the ability to compute facts and implications, it thereafter inexorably attains the ability to draw conclusions. Ergo, it’s all too easy for humans to look at their lifespan and, when measuring it against the backdrop of existence, deduce that it’s too short. When that happens, it becomes incumbent for the human to ensure that the limited time he does have is used sensibly and for the maximum benefit. And yet this aspiration is thwarted, time and again, by the obstinate natures of chance, chaos, and probability. In short, bad shit descends on us with or without provocation, life can end prematurely, regardless of how many safety measures are taken, the best-laid plans can go south on a whim, and tragedy, which is always hovering just above the shoulder, can strike us at any moment. This produces a deficit, characterized by the following equation:
X (our expectations, the result of thought) + Y (the nature of reality) = Z (a persistent sense of loss and discontentment)
This deficit, when felt, is felt acutely, and every human being who’s ever lived has been the victim of it. And that, I think, is the truest understanding of the “human condition.”
Ah… but what of the “amoeba condition?” I saw none as I observed those single-cell organisms moving about on the microscope slide. What of the “monkey condition?” I detect none when I visit the local zoo. A monkey does have a purpose, even if that purpose is only holding up its end of the food chain, but it has no meaning… and doesn’t go looking for one, nor does it worry about it.
In my observations of life and in my studies of intellectual matters, I have seen nothing in existence to dissuade me from concluding that Camus and Sartre and Nietzsche were right. There is no inherent meaning present in this Universe. Even the Universe itself has no meaning. It surely has a purpose. It has many purposes, and these it carries out without question or complaint, but I see no meaning at work here.
It doesn’t cheer me to observe this fact or to state it, but I pride myself on being a dealer of straight dope, no matter how hard it might be to swallow. Yet I, as one of these humans I’ve been talking about, crave meaning just as much as everyone else. What am I to do, therefore?
It’s at this point that I frequently begin speaking about the necessity for the individual to assign his/her own meaning to his/her life. And it’s also at this moment that theists, usually Christians, pipe up and offer their two cents: that meaning can only be derived from knowing or believing in a deity, which is almost always personified by the god they happen to believe in. I confess, as I’ve done before and will do again, that I find it more than a little perplexing that some people are so eager and willing to allow someone or something else to decide their meaning for them. To even allow another human to determine your meaning is, in my opinion, an indulgent, unwise waste of resources. But even worse than that is the insane willingness to allow a deity, whom you’re not even certain is there, whom you only believe in tentatively (let’s face it, even the stoutest of faiths is, when subjected to the greatest of sorrows, revealed to be beyond weak), and whose intentions can only be nebulously guessed at through the erroneous human interpretations of a supposed sacred text, to determine the meaning of your one and only brief life on this planet. Why are so many people, the victims of that aforesaid deficit, the unwilling partakers of that human condition, ready to allow the meaning and direction of their fleeting lives to be defined by someone other than themselves? Some believe that to do so is an act of humility. I quite disagree. Humility, as I understand it, is the decision to be less when the prospect of being more is offered. Simply admitting the deficit is not humility, nor is dumping the deficit in someone else’s lap and expecting them to make it right. That, if you ask me, is little more than immaturity, indecision, and an appalling lack of self-confidence.
If the meaning of my life is to be determined by anyone, it is going to be determined by me, and any deity who would deny me that right or condemn me to hell for exercising it must be categorized as a selfish, egotistical narcissist. (Not a deity, in other words.)
Therefore, while I too grapple with accepting the inherent meaninglessness of existence, I also attempt to assign my own meaning to it. That’s my prerogative as a form of living matter in this Universe. Perhaps my meaning means nothing to you, but so what? I don’t live in your mind, nor do you live in mine. Maybe some would say self-assigned meaning means nothing on its own, but to me that’s the same as saying your marriage is meaningless simply because your sister doesn’t love your spouse like you do. Is your love for your spouse only measured by how much everyone else doesn’t love them? Of course not, and neither is the meaning of your life. Everything is relative, as Einstein pointed out. Even meaning.
And so, when I think of those tiny bugs that made a home in the mason jar concoction, I remind myself that, yes, I have a purpose—a purpose which is the product of my biology and my own interests… and I have meaning, which is the product of my own self-assignation.
And I am just fine with that.
Taken from my book, Letters From a Dissident Philosopher.