Jeffrey’s Ontology & Epistemology
Ontology is the study of the nature of being, becoming, existence, or reality. Epistemology studies the nature of knowledge, justification, and the rationality of belief. This essay is an effort to describe my personal ideas on the nature of being as well as what I believe to be true. It is also an attempt to justify these ideas and to finally apply techniques to cope with them in order to live the happiest life possible.
While practically none of the individual ideas presented are original, the specific combination is definitely my own. I’m sure there are others out there who share a similar belief system, but there are many others who maintain very different ideas of Life. I’m not naive enough to think this will change anyone’s viewpoint – and I’m not trying to! I’m merely describing one person’s worldview in the hopes that, if nothing else, it will inform the reader that there are alternate ways of thinking other than their own.
Many concepts are subjective; however, there are many that are factual – although I will be the first to admit that there will be objective inaccuracies. I tried to be as logical and honest as possible but I’m sure I am wrong on more than a few points. Furthermore, this is not supposed to be an exhaustive account of any particular idea. Rather, it’s an extremely simplified synopsis of each, sometimes accompanied by the occasional anecdote or revelation. I’m not an expert on any of these ideas and there are plenty of resources available for additional, more thorough, investigations and explanations. In other words, don’t take my word for it, go see for yourself!
PART I: Reality
It’s All an Illusion
We don’t exist. Well, at least not in the way we imagine ourselves as existing. To our human brain, we see ourselves as an isolated being from a first-person perspective with ‘us’ in here and ‘the world’ out there. But the more we learn about that world out there and the world inside ourselves, we’ve come to realize that’s not how things really are.
What we see is one individual of one species perspective; my perception of the universe is different than yours, and our perspective is different than a cat’s or a spider’s. All of these perspectives are different, yet equally valid. The stuff that makes up the universe is static and constant, but the way this material is observed and interpreted is vast and dynamic. There are countless species on this planet alone, never mind the practically infinite number of life forms that (more than likely) exist out there, all viewing this universe from a unique perspective. So, what does the “real” universe look like and how do our perspectives of it differ from each other? What are we exactly? What is consciousness, and is our consciousness that much different than a bird’s or even a computer’s? First, let’s start with what we are:
It’s cool outside. You’re not sure of the actual temperature but you think to yourself that you may need a jacket soon. No matter, it feels good to finally get some fresh air. You take a look around and start to realize your surroundings. You watch the leaves of the trees shiver against the backdrop of a thousand twinkling stars. There’s a slight wind creeping across the dew wilted grass as the whispers of Nature start to creep their way into your ears. Rubbing your arms, you tilt your head back and are startled by how many stars there are. Were there always this many stars? You can’t remember the last time you actually took a moment to really look around you and notice where you are. Of course, you’re at home in your backyard – but now you’re starting to notice where you really are.
With all the stuff happening at work, trying to remember if you paid your car payment, worrying what the weather will be like for the barbecue you’re throwing this weekend, it’s too easy to forget your place on Earth. It’s too easy to overlook your place in nature itself. In today’s society, you suddenly realize how easy it is to become overworked and overwhelmed as you watch the fireflies make their own mini galaxy in your very own backyard. You’ve never really thought about it before, but now as you look up at the breathtakingly blackness of space, you wonder what all those twinkling lights are.
Thinking back to your grade school science class, you know they’re all just stars just like our Sun, but much farther away. You remember why you never really got into all that astronomy stuff. Stars, to you, are boring! You look up and that is all you see. Where are the colorful glowing nebulas from the pictures you’ve seen on the internet? Where are the giant planets with golden rings or the dazzling comets streaking through the sky you hear so much about? They say we live in a galaxy with billions of stars, each with a possibility of planets like our own which may harbor life, but you’ve never seen one. It’s hard to relate to something that for all practical purposes to you, doesn’t really exist! Well, you’ve seen the pictures and trust the scientists and know such things do exist. Since you have the evening to yourself and just want to relax, you pour yourself a glass of wine, lean back in your folding chair, look up at the night sky and do a little daydreaming – or nightdreaming, as it were.
Where to start? You wiggle around in your chair a bit to get a little more comfortable. As you move your feet across the ground you think about how the Earth is a planet too, just like the pictures of Mars or Venus. You think about Mars and how far away it is and remember the stories of Martians and aliens, and you can’t help but think that all of those things are something completely different from Earth. There is something inherently different about Earth than all these other ‘space objects,’ right? But there isn’t! You can imagine aliens coming to Earth thinking how wildly different and ‘alien’ Earth is, just as if we visited another world like Mars or even a planet in another solar system. You start to realize that Earth is a planet just like all the other ones from the photos.
You stand up and look out over the horizon and imagine the Earth for what it is: a giant rock. You feel this rock beneath your feet. You jump up and down and feel the immensity, the solidness. In your mind you can see this enormous rock floating in the blackness of space, and you’re actually standing on it! You are, right now, standing on a bona fide planet! A planet in space – Spaceship Earth. Smiling to yourself, you start to realize you are not as disconnected as you thought. Maybe your planet isn’t as boring as you imagined, and what’s more, you get to be a part of it. This is kind-of fun! Let’s have another drink shall we?
Your mind is set on these planets for now so you continue with the thought. If the Earth isn’t unlike the other planets, then the other planets must not be much different than Earth. You wonder what it would be like to visit them. Since Mars has been in the news lately, you imagine yourself roaming the base of Olympus Mons, the tallest mountain in our solar system. It would feel much like it would here on Earth except for the obvious lack of breathable atmosphere – but those are just details and you’re daydreaming; there’s no reason to get too picky. Disregarding semantics, you walk around the foothills of this mountain, kicking the dirt, picking up rocks, taking it all in like you would here on Earth on a hiking trip to Appalachia.
As you look out over the Martian horizon it dawns on you: all these far-too-distant, ‘non-existent’ places are real! You could actually go to these places. They’re not just pretty pictures someone created on their computer, but actual places you could visit – just like the pictures of Old Faithful in Yellowstone or the canals in Venice that you’ve never been to but always dreamt of going. They are no more real, or un-real, than those places here on Earth. You breathe deep, sit back down in your chair, and are completely engulfed in your own world of imagination and realization.
What else is out there? You notice something vaguely odd that you’ve never really seen before; a band of light stretching across the sky from horizon to horizon. It almost looks like a river of stars across the sky… almost like someone had spilled milk over the entire dome of the night sky. That’s it! It’s the Milky Way! You remember being taught our galaxy’s name growing up and now here you are, all these years later, finally seeing it for yourself. Once you realize what it is, it’s breathtaking. You bring up images you’ve seen on the internet or in books of those grand spiral galaxies and their spinning arms in your mind and it finally hits you. You’re inside one of those galaxies right now. You are standing on a planet, circling one of a billion stars, looking out from the inside of a spectacularly huge galaxy; a structure so grand it’s almost beyond human comprehension. You almost feel like a space traveler from a movie gazing out across the vast landscape before your adventure.
You get goosebumps because you know it is entirely possible. If you really wanted to, and humans had the technology and capacity to take on such a quest, you would be on your way to the stars ready to explore just like Magellan was a few hundred years ago. You see him standing on the shores of the Atlantic mentally preparing for his round the world voyage with the wind in his face just as you stand here now on the shores of Earth, looking out across the abyss. These things are starting to make sense now. The pictures are starting to come to life. They really aren’t just cool photographs of imaginary places, but of something completely real and attainable. You are feeling more a part of nature than you have in a while, and you haven’t even left your backyard!
You are starting to understand your place in creation. And as you sip your wine, you close your eyes to contemplate your new discoveries, something still just doesn’t feel right. Sure, everything you’ve recently realized is astounding and welcoming, but it’s still ‘nature’ and you are still ‘you.’ You feel more a part of it than your mind will let you. Your logic is saying that you’re a human that is alive, and that rock you’ve been holding between your fingers is not alive. You are made of completely different stuff… right?
Maybe it’s just the wine talking but maybe the Native Americans were right and we’re all a part of nature, coming from the ground and then returning. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Maybe we really are more a part of nature than we ever let ourselves be. It feels slightly embarrassing to think like this since you’ve always been a straight thinking business person bent on the facts rather than a New Age tree-hugger talking about ‘oneness.’ Well, what do the scientists say? Maybe they can reconcile your thoughts and feelings. Again, you think back to those science classes you took growing up. Those boring afternoons in biology class, those ridiculously hard physics tests you took, trying to memorize the Periodic Table of the Elements in chemistry… ‘Why in the world would anyone need to know this stuff?’ you thought at the time.
Ok, let’s think about this. Your biology teacher said that your body is made of cells. But what about plants? What about trees, mushrooms, and jellyfish? Come to think of it, all living things are made of cells you conclude. Well, you’ll take that as a start to your “oneness.” So if all living things are made of cells, what makes a cell a cell? Flashes of drawings of cells you made back in grade school start popping into your head. It’s hard to remember details but you know your drawings looked like a round blob with a… what’s the word? Right, a nucleus in the middle. With all the new breakthroughs happening almost every day in genetics, you know your DNA is what makes you you, and that your DNA lives in the nucleus of your cells. Genetics is almost inescapable in this day and age. Every time you turn on your TV or even open a newspaper it seems like another new DNA discovery or finding is announced.
That reminds you of the article you read just this morning about how humans share about 98% of their DNA with chimpanzees. That is, 98% of our DNA exactly matches the DNA of a chimp. The article went on to prove that no less than 50% of our DNA matches a banana’s of all things! It only now just hit you though: all living things are made of the same building blocks and we all use the same instruction manual to put us all together.
The Evolution Theory you always took with a grain of salt finally comes together for you in a blinding instant – it makes sense now. It’s just far too coincidental that all living things share the same exact make-up to not be related to each other. The biologists were right when they said we all share a common ancestor. The first life form must have started out, if nothing else, with DNA, or at least some form of it. The first spark of life then went on to become every living thing you’ve ever loved. Wow, that’s amazing. Talk about the Garden of Eden! That warm feeling of ‘connectedness’ is really starting to sink in now. We’re not really alone are we? How much different are you than your pet dog? You both breathe, eat, sleep, etc… but maybe on a more important note, fear, play, hate, and love.
Well, at least biologically you feel in good company, but what about this rock you’ve been rolling around in your hand this whole time? Is it important to feel connected to rocks and dirt? Not necessarily. But you know that Space is an awfully big place and as far as you know, dust, rocks and gas are the only things out there. So what are dust, rocks, and gas made of? ‘They’re made of atoms’ you say. The basic fundamental building blocks of anything and everything are atoms – everyone knows that right? Well what kind of atoms are there? Are there different kinds? If so, how many different kinds are there?
Chemistry has never been your strong subject; most of that stuff just goes right over your head. But who could forget that giant wall-sized poster of the Periodic Table of the Elements in Chemistry class? You know it had a bunch of numbers and language on it that you didn’t understand and frankly, didn’t care to understand. But it’s the Periodic Table of the Elements; it is a table of the elemental stuff that makes up everything in the universe. It is a table of atoms. Whatever the table actually showed doesn’t really matter to you other than the fact that there wasn’t many different atoms on there. Well, it doesn’t seem like there’s that many relative to the abundance of different materials that you can think of offhand. I mean, there’s everything from apples, axes, and apes to zinc, zippers, and zebras and everything in between that make up our universe. How can that small number of atoms make up the diversity of everything in existence? It must be how they’re put together you think to yourself, but that’s something you’ll have to google later. “What is a molecule?” You can only imagine the search results you’ll get from that! At any rate, that rock in your hand is made of the same things as your hand: atoms. ‘Not so much different indeed’ you say to the rock as it falls back to the Earth where it came from.
You then realize that rock will become sand and that sand will mix with dead trees and the like and eventually become dirt. Grass will grow and live off that dirt while the cows eat it. We’ll skin the cows for leather to make wallets in which you’ll hold your money. The money was the tree that gave those cows shade and that will also keep you protected when you’re put in the ground in your wooden casket. Protected of course until it, and you, disintegrate back into the soil that will eventually become that rock again. The author, Chet Raymo, put it very eloquently when he said, “Everything flows. We are a river of atoms – we coalesce, we effervesce, we disperse. A human soul is an eddy in a whirlwind. Enjoy it while you can.”
So with astronomy you’ve shown that those far off places you could only dream of aren’t so far off after all. With biology you’ve proved that we’re the same as all other living things. With chemistry you’ve proved that all living things are fundamentally not any different than non-living things. And if you didn’t have that last glass of wine, you could probably figure out with physics and the most famous equation of all, E=mc2, that matter (atoms) and energy are one in the same. You could recall what the letters actually stand for since you won that bet against your friend all those years ago, and for some reason you never forgot: the E stands for energy, m stands for mass, and c squared is, well… some huge number. Energy equals mass multiplied by a big number. So in other words, a little mass is the same thing as a lot of energy. Energy equals matter. Matter, the “stuff” of the universe is nothing more than slowed down energy… basically frozen energy. Astronomy, biology, chemistry, physics, life, rocks, matter, energy… we’re all the same. We are all connected. Not bad for a night under the stars with a few glasses of wine!
The Periodic Table of the Elements represents all the different kinds of atoms that make up everything in the universe. There is a very small and finite number of them. To make something, you just put these atoms together in different patterns. Glass is made of silica, which is silicon dioxide, or one silicon atom and two oxygen atoms. Put those together and you get glass. Water is H2O, or two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom. People are made of a bunch of different atoms but mostly we’re made up of oxygen (65%), carbon (18%), and hydrogen (10%). We are made of atoms; we eat them, they make us grow bigger. We breathe them in, we exhale them. We die and our atoms go on to make up other things.
Think of the universe as a giant sandbox and atoms are the sand. You make a little figure in the sand and that’s a person. You smash the figure, it “dies,” and then you make another figure and that becomes someone or something else. We are all just patterns of atoms. Trees and monkeys and rocks are all made up of the same stuff, just put together in different arrangements. These arrangements are extremely special. There will never be another ‘you’ – an object with the same exact arrangement of atoms – for all eternity. But is our ‘pattern’ the only thing that makes us special? Is it only our pattern that makes us who we are?
Next to the poster of the Periodic Table on the wall was a poster of an atom. It was wrong. Electrons aren’t tiny hard balls orbiting around the nucleus like planets in a miniature solar system. In actuality, evidence shows that electrons are more of a ‘point’ that exists in a ‘cloud’ a certain distance away from the nucleus. This cloud represents a certain probability you’ll find an electron at any given spot. There’s a higher probability you’ll find it at a certain distance and a lower probability that it’ll be another distance away from the nucleus. Usually it is found at a particular distance, but there is a chance that it’s actually at this other point, twice the distance away. That’s like saying that you’d normally find your cat in the backyard when you let her out, but there is a chance that she’s hanging out in a back alley in China somewhere. All of the quantum world works this way.
Fundamentally speaking, everything is based on probabilities. This means that the universe ultimately comes down to patterns governed by probabilities.
What we perceive the world to be is not what it is. Things aren’t solid; atoms are actually mostly empty space. Imagine a sports stadium with a couple marbles in the middle – that’s an atom. The electrons are dots flying around the upper seats while the protons and neutrons are hanging out in the middle with the vast majority of the atom completely empty! What we perceive as “solid” is actually a force not unlike the effect you feel when you try to push two magnets together with the same pole facing each other; there’s a repelling effect. All atoms you encounter on a daily basis have electrons in their outer shells. Remember: electrons have a negative charge. Negative repels negative. When you put your hand on a desk, your hand isn’t actually touching the desk, it’s hovering a miniscule distance above it because of the repelling effect of electromagnetism. If electrons had a neutral charge, your hand would effortlessly pass right through the desk.
Light isn’t what it seems to be either. Remember that beautifully dramatic colorful rainbow you witnessed that one summer evening? It didn’t exist. Despite how ‘real’ color seems, color only exists in your brain. Light is made of photons and sure, photons have different frequencies and intensities associated with them, but they’re not ‘colors.’ There isn’t a red photon and blue photon. What we perceive as red and blue is actually our brain’s interpretation of those associated frequencies and intensities. Colors exist only in our minds.
The same goes for sound. What we recognize as sound is nothing more than something vibrating – usually air. Those vibrations enter a hole in your head which then get translated through a few different mechanisms involving tiny bones and hairs, turning them into electrical impulses. But those electrical signals don’t mean anything at this point. Not until they are received by your brain and are interpreted do they start to make any sense to you. And only then do they make sense because your mind has understood this particular vibration to mean a particular ‘sound.’ Sound, too, only exists our minds.
Even though we think of the speed of light being practically instantaneous, light actually takes time to travel. This is especially apparent to astronomers whose job it is to study things very far away. When we look up at the North Star, we’re not seeing it as it is now; that star is 434 light years away, meaning it takes light 434 years to get here. We’re actually seeing that star as it looked 434 years ago! Our own Sun is 8 light minutes away so when we look up at the Sun, that’s what it looked like 8 minutes ago. This effect is a function of distance, so the farther away something is, the greater the effect. But it’s just as real during our daily interactions with each other. When you are speaking to your friend sitting across the table, you are actually seeing them as they were a few microseconds ago. You’re never experiencing things “now,” you’re always a bit behind. And the farther something is away, the further in the past it is.
So, the “solid” world around us isn’t actually solid; rather, mostly empty space. Colors don’t actually exist, they’re merely our mind’s representation of a physical aspect of a particular substance. What we perceive as real-time is actually a delayed experience, and the concept of “now” isn’t particularly accurate. These are just a few examples of these perceptual inaccuracies. There are many more – even more egregious ones. In fact, the way our consciousness constructs a 3-D environment inside our minds involves a massive amount of “guess-work” and the way we perceive the world around us is substantially flawed. Lucky for us, our evolved biological awareness prevents this from being a problem – on a day to day basis anyway. Just as long as you don’t think too hard about actual reality…
Are We Who We Think We Are?
There is an old thought experiment called ‘The Ship of Theseus’ that investigates the idea of whether an object that has had all of its pieces replaced with identical pieces remains the same object. The thought experiment describes a famous old ship that needed repairs; some of the wood was rotting so a few bad planks were replaced with new planks. At this point, most people would agree it is the same ship. But as the ship got older more pieces rotted and withered so more pieces were replaced with new – but physically identical – parts. Eventually, all the parts comprising the ship were replaced. The ship now looks physically identical to the original ship, but is this ship the same ship? Did this new ship sail the same seas as the original? I think most of us would say, “No.”
We can try this same thought experiment with humans as well. Ever hear of the ‘Transporter Paradox?’ Imagine a not-so-future scenario where your dream has always been to travel to Mars. You haven’t made the trip yet because rocket travel has been too time consuming and cost prohibitive. But lucky for you, teleporters have recently been invented, not unlike those seen in Star Trek. As you excitedly step onto the platform, you think about how long you’ve waited for this moment. You think back to your childhood and remember how space travel back then was strictly sci-fi, but now here you are, about to take a trip of a lifetime. As the transporter energizes, you recall more memories – happy times, sad times, embarrassing times… and before you know it, you’re standing on a platform with a sprawling red landscape out of the window in front of you. You’ve made it to Mars! Or did you?
See, the way these transporters work is that they don’t actually beam your physical body across millions of miles of space – you might as well stuff your meat bag into a rocket ship. What really happens is a highly-complex scanner makes note of every single atom in your body – the type of atom, its location… all the necessary details. But in order to do that, it picks apart your body one atom at a time and stores it in a cache – a ‘raw materials’ box – to use later. The data from the scan then gets radioed to the destination. A similar cache box is used on the other end (on Mars) enabling the machine to reverse the process, use the data stored from the scanning process, and put your body back together in the same exact pattern. The process is so fast that it only takes a few moments. You feel like you’ve merely dozed off and awoke again, except now you are on Mars.
But is that you on Mars? Are you the same person? By precisely arranging atoms and molecules together like the person on Earth, you have the same memories, feelings, and physical body. But these are not the same atoms. They are the same types of atoms, but not the same exact atoms. Like the fresh planks of wood used to refurbish the classic boat, you have been completely replaced with all new parts. The new you is alive and well on Mars but the old you exists only in a pile of elementary particle dust back on Earth. Was that the same ship that sailed those ancient seas? Is this the same ‘you’ that had those childhood dreams of travelling to Mars? Is the real you dead? That being most certainly does not exist anymore – at least not on Earth. Would you step onto that platform knowing you’re about to be… essentially, murdered?
You’ve Been Replaced
What’s slightly eerie is that this actually happens all the time, except on a much smaller scale. Whenever you shake someone’s hand, some of your atoms rub off onto the other person’s hand and vice versa. You’re essentially swapping some of your hardware, as it were. What if we took this idea a bit farther and imagined a scenario where you could actually swap out identical atoms with another person. This scenario is a bit more of a stretch since logistically, it doesn’t really make sense, but for argument’s sake, pretend you swapped 10 – 100 – 10,000 atoms at random with a friend. You’re both still the same person. But keep going… eventually you’ll reach a point where you’ve swapped exactly half of your atoms with each other. Who is who? Where is the point where you become them and they become you?
Actually, this is exactly what happens as you grow. When you eat food, your body uses the atoms (molecules) from the plants and animals you’re consuming to produce energy, but also to replace old dead and dying cells along with adding new ones. Sure, some cells last longer than others, but none of them last forever; they’ll all need to be replaced eventually. Think about it, that’s how babies get bigger, right? That ‘baby mass’ has to come from somewhere. Babies don’t just magically get bigger. Their bodies use the raw materials from the food they eat to make more of the baby and it grows. Literally, you are what you eat.
In addition to your own cells, your body houses a significant amount of foreign cells in the form of bacteria, mites, and the like. Quantitatively speaking, there are more bacteria in your body than your own cells! Yet, we depend on them and wouldn’t be here without them. If you are going off the numbers, when you introduce yourself, it would be more proper to say, “Hello, my name is ___ and these are my bacteria.” Especially when you consider there are more of them than you. Not only do they keep you alive, recent studies have shown that these bacteria play a significant role in your overall health and even influence your mood.
I’ve heard it said that after about ten years, your body has naturally replaced every single cell in your body. Some cells are replaced quickly after only a couple days while others take months or years before they’re replaced. Sounds plausible, so for the sake of argument, let’s go with it. That means that you are literally an entirely new person every decade. Seeing your friends for the first time since high school graduation at your ten-year reunion is like seeing a completely new set of people – physically speaking anyway. But my understanding is that there are a few select types of cells that never regenerate, however, and last your entire lifetime – like certain nerve cells for example. That’s why we haven’t been able to make paralyzed people walk again; we can’t repair them, and they can’t repair themselves. Ok, so maybe a few cells are the only cells that don’t ever get replaced… If that is true, are those few cells what makes us who we are? Are we merely a small selection of particular cells?
Original vs. Replication: Is There a Difference?
Getting back to the idea of replication – because, that’s basically what a teleporter is: a long-distance replicator. There are many things we use on a daily basis that are ‘replicators.’ Computers, for instance, replicate data and documents all the time. If we bought the same version of Microsoft Word, we’re both using identical copies of the same piece of software. We could imagine the documents it creates is its ‘memories.’ I type up a family recipe and save it on my computer. That is one of my computer’s memories. You type a short story and save it on your computer. Now both of our computers have memories. What if I transfer all of my computer’s memories to your computer and you do the same to mine? Provided we purchased the same model computer, I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between my original computer and your computer we converted to behave like mine. What’s the difference between transferring data from one computer to another and transferring a body’s data from one location to another?
Things start to get a little murky when we think about cameras and photographs. Someone can say they’re holding the original picture of Buzz Aldrin on the Moon, but what about more pictures produced using the same negative? Are those pictures ‘original’ too? I can make multiple copies using the same negative but who’s to say which is the original? What about super-high definition scanning and printings of images which are virtually indistinguishable from the original? Those images are, for all intents and purposes, identical. In this respect, what makes something original?
Reproducing photos is common, but we do the same thing with famous paintings as well. I wouldn’t consider a store-bought poster of the Mona Lisa a replica, but it’s close. To a lay-person or someone unfamiliar with today’s current replication technology, they would probably argue that they’re practically indistinguishable. An exact replica of a statue is very easily created nowadays with 3D scanning, modeling, and printing. But here’s where things get interesting: imagine a famous statue at a museum and an exact replica of the same statue at a museum across town. Even if admission to see the replica was significantly lower than to see the original, I’d bet on a much longer line of people at the museum with the original statue. But, why?! Why do we care if it’s the original or not?
Have you ever heard of a child who has a favorite blankey or stuffed animal? You know, the dirty tattered one they’ve had since they were born? Try replacing that old one with a brand new one recently purchased from the store. Not going to happen. You can even put the same rips in it, spill the same juice on it, and mash dirt into the exact corresponding spots as the original and they won’t care. There have been actual scientific studies done with children where they give their favorite stuffed animal to a “clone scientist” and the scientist pretends to make a perfect clone of their animal. The clone, however, is actually the original. Unsurprisingly, the child no longer wants that stuffed animal even though it’s literally indistinguishable from the original – it IS the original! Attributing meaning to objects seems to be an innate human desire.
Studies were also done where a person would strongly refuse to wear a sweater previously worn by a serial killer despite it being thoroughly cleaned and disinfected. Think about it: would you like to wear a sweater that a murderer wore while performing their heinous deed? People attribute ‘magical’ qualities to things – things like childhood teddy bears and cursed sweaters and even people themselves! People travel all over the world to catch a glimpse of their favorite musician or author. They want the real thing, not imitation.
Perception is Key
So what is the real thing? What makes the real thing so valuable? If your pet goldfish died while under the care of your forgetful friend and that friend replaced it with an identical looking goldfish, you, being none the wiser, would act as if the new goldfish was indeed your original pal. You wouldn’t care. You couldn’t care, because you wouldn’t know. Your perception of that object hasn’t changed despite the object itself changing. So it seems that value lies in the perception of the thing, not the thing itself.
So, value lies in our perception of objects. Can the same be said for animate and inanimate objects alike? I think the previous hypothetical proves it does, to a certain extent at least; simple things like pens and books and goldfish seem “replaceable” as long as they are attributed with originality. But what about more complicated things… like, humans? We most certainly cannot replace our loved ones. But again, what if we didn’t know? Would it matter?
Pretend you’re a gamer. Online multiplayer games are your preference since it enables you to play online with your group of gamer friends. You have your weekly gaming night where you play as a devious ogre who fights for glory in a vast fantasy realm. All your friends have similar characters as well, each controlling a digital avatar. You enjoy your time playing online with friends so much that whenever you think of these friends, you actually recall their avatar instead of the person controlling the character. You can actually tell who is who just by the way the characters move and react on screen.
Most of your time in game is spent leveling up your character by taking down NPCs (non-playable characters) – computer controlled characters. This is tough because the folks who wrote the computer algorithms controlling these NPCs made them act incredibly human-like; their movements, their responses, even their decision-making. This was easy enough for the creators since computer A.I. (artificial intelligence) has gotten so sophisticated over the recent years that incorporating human-like A.I. is practically trivial, but it makes it hard on the humans having to compete with opponents similar to their skill level rather than just simple, ‘dumb’ computers. Computers are smart and are getting smarter every day.
It’s not hard to imagine a computer that could mimic the play-style of a human, provided it was programmed sufficiently. Any human… say, your friend even. If the game programmer (or computer!) studied your friends movement patterns, preferences, combat tactics, etc., for long enough, mimicking their avatar would be a piece of cake. This could easily be done well enough to fool you anyway. And as long as you didn’t know it wasn’t your friend, it wouldn’t matter. You would still feel like you were playing with your buddy and your perceived enjoyment would remain untarnished.
This could even be done deliberately. What if your friend, whom you had played countless hours with online and you feel is one of your closest friends on the planet despite mainly interacting with them in cyberspace, had an accident and couldn’t play online anymore? You could fill that void with their likeness and continue the friendship. Again, it’s not about the object – or person in this case – rather, it’s your perception that matters.
Real Imaginary Friends
As computer A.I. gets even better, I can easily imagine a future where the lines of human/human and human/A.I. interaction will blur. We’re already talking to our phones asking for directions and restaurant recommendations as it is. There will be a point when our interactions with artificial intelligence will become so commonplace and essential that we will depend on these computers to an alarming degree. We will start naming and caring about our computerized companions, not unlike the way we anthropomorphize our pets today. Attributing human qualities to non-human and even inanimate objects like pet rocks and Mickey Mouse is intrinsically human.
At that point, will there be a difference between people and A.I.? As long as our perception of these objects isn’t skewed by their material form and our bias, we may begin to think of them – on a similar level at least – as real humans. I’ve known quite a few people who have named their cars or guitars and they are not thought of as ‘crazy.’ People drop their phones nowadays and practically mourn over their loss. People have authentic feelings for their devices.
Have you ever cried over a book? You realize that the characters you care about so deeply – the ones you feel like you have went through everything with – aren’t “real,” right? Someone made them up out of thin air. And all of your knowledge about them is acquired through funny black shapes all lined up in rows on stacks of small pieces of paper. Are printed pages any more real than a device that convincingly speaks to you through speakers? At least you can hear their voice. There are definitely people out there who care for certain fictional characters more than other actual human beings. Again, those are real emotions – emotions for non-existent beings perceived as existing.
…On Being Alive
So what is the difference between humans and things that simply act human? We’re “alive” and they’re not. What does it mean to be alive? Well, self-replication for one. Everything we consider to be alive is born, replicates, and dies. Unfortunately, it’s not as easy as that. There are many scenarios we can imagine that fit these simple criteria that make something ‘alive’ for which we do not consider alive. Take fire for example: Fire is born, it eats, it grows, it produces waste, it can even replicate creating new fires, and eventually dies. It literally covers everything I described as a prerequisite for life. But fire isn’t alive. So what makes something like fire not alive?
It is subtle but extremely important: the ability to pass on information. Fire is the same every time it gets ignited; it never changes in complexity. Fire is a very well defined chemical reaction which does not change and cannot pass on information of previous fires. Life utilizes information which gets passed on to future generations. Earlier, we defined a person as a specific combination of molecules put together in a specific pattern. That pattern is coded into our DNA and that coded information gets transmitted every time the creature replicates.
What’s equally important is the fact that that code gets tweaked ever so slightly each time it’s passed on resulting in slight changes. Sometimes these changes are bad resulting in the death of the organism (and the accompanying faulty alteration), and sometimes the mutation is good making the organism more adaptable and more likely to survive to pass on its modified code. This is evolution. Life evolves by adapting to its environment and passing on its genetic information, while a fire is a static creature merely mimicking true life.
That’s fire, but what about computers? Computers carry information, and we even use computers today to help build more computers. Only a small leap in logic is required to see a future where the entire process is automated; machines autonomously roaming quarries scrounging for raw materials, smelting, purifying, molding wires and circuits, building components, assembling modules, ultimately creating more autonomous machines that do the very same thing, ad infinitum… (well, until the resources run out). So, it doesn’t seem replication – even with information transmission – is a necessary prerequisite for life.
Another seemingly glaring difference between machines and humans is that the machines have been programmed and we haven’t been… right? Some folks might feel as if they have been programmed by some great, all-powerful programmer in the sky, but science has recently shown that life has evolved over billions of years, morphing smaller and less complicated life forms into more sophisticated ones. We’re not programmed, it’s just a “natural process.”
But if we take a look at life on a molecular level, we’ll find that all cellular life forms have one thing in common: DNA. By diving into the realm of DNA and RNA, we’ll find that these molecules are in fact programs themselves! Whereas computer programs are all fundamentally made up of two electronic states, ones and zeroes, DNA is similarly made up of two objects called base pairs. Stored inside every computer are programs with very specific patterns of these ones and zeroes. Likewise, inside every living thing’s cells resides a coded molecule that, when interpreted, produces a life. It turns out that we have been programmed after all.
It is a challenge for scientists and philosophers to define life because life is a process, not a substance. It just doesn’t seem that “life” is what really matters here since there are so many things we consider both alive and not alive that share the same characteristics. A super-intelligent, self-replicating computer that interacts and adapts to the environment is fundamentally no different than a weed in your garden. I know I wouldn’t have much more ethical concern over flipping the computer off than I would pulling the weed from my garden. And they both do practically the same thing: consume energy, grow, produce waste, replicate. The only difference is what they are constructed of and how they are put together. One is made mostly of heavy elements like metals, and the other of lighter stuff like carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. You could consider both alive or both a machine, depending on the way you choose to define them.
Robots are quickly becoming extremely advanced. In many circumstances they’re beginning outperform humans in many tasks, especially repetitive ones like manufacturing and assembly. This is a bonus for productivity since they can work indefinitely without needing breaks or complain that they’re hungry – they just don’t care. They’ll just keep on going until the power is shut off. But this illustrates one major difference between a human and a human-like machine: self-motivated reasoning; the ability to want – not because it is programmed to – but because it has some innate desire. Humans care, machines don’t.
The Phenomenon of Understanding
Humans also have an element of understanding that machines don’t (well, not yet, at least). Take chess for example. Chess is a finite game; there are only so many moves that can be performed. You could, in principle, design a computer that can work out every series of chess moves possible. This is how computers have been able to beat human chess players in fact, with brute force.
Now let’s take a much more simple concept like counting. You could program a computer start counting, ‘one, two, three, four…’ and it would go on for eternity since numbers are infinite. A computer would try, no matter how seemingly pointless. But a person – even a child – would start counting, and then would quickly realize that the task is un-resolvable. They would understand that there is no end.
Understanding is a special concept. It’s the idea that an entity can think outside of themselves or the task at hand. It is able to think outside of the box, as it were. A computer won’t see a task as moot, but a person – a consciousness of a certain level – will notice this fact. Furthermore, a person will attempt to find ways of understanding why this circumstance exists and perhaps come up with additional creative ways to engage with the scenario.
What are some of the most meaningful things in a person’s life? Most people probably consider their friends and family (along with their relationships with those people) the most important things. And what sets them apart from other things that are alive? They have beliefs and opinions; they interact with you in some meaningful way; they have desires and feelings. In short, they’re not only alive, but they’re also conscious. On a practical level, whether something is alive or not isn’t necessarily important. What truly makes a difference – from a human perspective anyway – is whether something is conscious or not.
So far, despite the amazing advances in computer technology and artificial intelligence, humans have yet to create what is thought to be a truly conscious, self-aware machine. We have been able to make devices act as if they are conscious, but are actually lacking that characteristic. With certain types of life, out of all the complexity emerges consciousness. That is something unique and special.
So what is consciousness? I think defining consciousness is just as difficult as defining life. We can say that a normal human is conscious and a rock is definitely not, just like a human is alive and a rock is definitely not. But there’s a vast middle ground where the lines blur and it becomes more difficult to say whether something is definitively conscious or not. Dogs are usually thought of as conscious, but plants aren’t. Well, what about crabs? What about insects? Worms? How big of a role does intelligence play, or is it simply a function of complexity that produces a consciousness?
The common cockroach has around one million neurons. In comparison, your high-end desktop computer’s CPU has around two billion transistors able to perform two hundred trillion instructions per second and your computer’s memory is capable of storing many terabytes of data – enough to hold tens of millions of photos. So, depending on how things are quantified, it seems that a modern computer is many times more complicated than a common cockroach. Additionally, computers can perform extremely complicated tasks, do statistical analysis, and even out-perform humans at certain logic games and puzzles like chess, Go, and Jeopardy! Humans have around 100 billion neurons (one hundred thousand times more than a cockroach!) but even our brains cannot come close to doing the types of complex calculations that computers can.
Now, a -very valid- argument can be made against the comparison between transistors versus neurons. This is fair since organic brains and central nervous systems don’t work like modern computers and electronics. In fact, a single skin cell has arguably more moving parts and components than an entire computer – again, depending on how parts are quantified and how their functions are valued and rated.
The Human Brain Project is an international collaboration of over eighty scientists working to create a digital simulation of a human brain. Their first step was to mimic a small portion of a rat’s brain, and that first step alone has taken twenty years to develop. A human brain has 100 billion neurons and one quadrillion connections between these neurons. This team was trying to recreate only thirty thousand neurons, each with an average of ten thousand connections. This doesn’t sound like a very big ‘first step,’ but when you take into account that the computer this simulation was running on needed tens of thousands of processors, it sort-of puts things into perspective. The supercomputer was so large and generated so much heat that it cost a million dollars a year just to cool! Needless to say, we have a long way to go before we get a grip on the mechanics of consciousness, let alone what the phenomenon of consciousness actually is to begin with.
Is this simulation ‘thinking?’ Does it have thoughts? Does it have an imagination? This particular rat simulation, as complicated as it sounds, does not have any ‘thoughts,’ per se. It is simply mimicking a small selection of neurons that is isolated from the rest of the brain and body, so nothing meaningful can be produced. But from a physical reductionist standpoint, in principle, if the physical properties and electronic interactions can be fully simulated and the proper input/output devices (i.e. some sort of body) are implemented, there is no reason to believe that this ‘machine’ would not be very similar to a real person. It is theoretically possible, in my opinion, that there could exist a device – whether it be hardware, software, or wetware – that could have thoughts and feelings.
I‘ve been using certain terminology to describe concepts that professionals in their respective fields have already made practical definitions for. Technically speaking, consciousness is defined as “the fact of awareness by the mind of itself and the world.” I’ve been using it a little more loosely. In that case, computers cannot be thought of as conscious – even ones I’ve described as super-intelligent and self-replicating which interacts and adapts to the environment. But, in my opinion, that does equate to sentience. That computer gathers information in the form of sensory data, performs various analysis and computations, determines a result, and performs actions based on its conclusions. Sentience is “the ability to perceive or feel things,” and that computer is most certainly perceiving things. Finally, self-awareness is defined as “conscious knowledge of one’s own character, feelings, motives, and desires.”
Given the definitions, those terms can be arranged in a sort-of hierarchy. Starting from the bottom, some sort of feedback loop needs to occur, whether it be internal like a computer with no monitor or keyboard that is running computations and algorithms, or a sleeping dog dreaming of a bone. Or external like a classic Simon game that has an input and output and interacts with an operator, or a jellyfish responding to stimuli in its environment. A step up from there is sentience. Sentience is the hyper-complex robot equipped with cameras, face recognition software, and genetic learning algorithms, able to perceive and “understand” its surroundings; and it’s the intelligent crow who can perform complex tasks and solve logic puzzles but doesn’t understand what the concept of “me” is. A crow doesn’t look at itself in the mirror and know that it is looking at itself. There is no self-awareness. Self-awareness is what comes next, and when something is sentient and self-aware, it becomes conscious.
Recent insect studies have shown that insects seem to have the ability to plan, but not to imagine. Bugs are not self-aware, but I believe they’re a type of sentience, just like a computer and a dog are types of a sentience. Bugs are running basic computer code in their minds, simply reacting to outside stimuli and making algorithmic decisions based on their innate need for food and reproduction. They are competent without comprehending what they’re actually doing or why they are doing it. Ants, for example, don’t know they’re building an anthill, they are simply following the orders of their internal code. But out of these basic rules and procedures emerges a complex system that is greater than the sum of its parts.
Who Am I?
We’ve all had times in our lives where we’ve experienced different states of consciousness, whether it be that moment between sleep and wakefulness, or have been drunk on alcohol, or even taken some type of hallucinogenic drug. Have you ever ‘blacked out’ drinking, struggled to remember the night before and decided afterwards that the person with the lampshade on their head last night was not you? That was a conscious person – who may or may not have made bad choices – but was conscious nevertheless. Even though you don’t remember ‘that person,’ or remember making those questionable decisions, there was a consciousness making choices.
People with lobotomies, despite missing a major portion of their brain, are still functional (to a certain extent) and considered conscious. Some people get in accidents and damage their brains, but we still consider them the same people despite a change in the way their minds work. Someone could be blind, or deaf, or paralyzed from the neck down, and still be a fully conscious human being.
But is it our consciousness that makes us who we are? Our physical bodies do not make us who we are; you can cut off our arms, legs, or even parts of our brains, (as long as a critical amount of our brain is intact) and we remain conscious. And since we don’t regard that person who took off one too many pieces of clothing at the company holiday party last year a good representation of us, perhaps there is something more to being human than just being alive and being conscious. We must be missing a critical element.
Sense of Self
Earlier, we defined consciousness as sentience with self-awareness. So, what does it mean to be self-aware? What does it mean to have a sense of The Self? Well, there is a physical aspect where we feel like we are in a body; we can feel various sensations and occupy a volume of space. It is plausible, if not probable, that many animals have this feeling as well. We could imagine a dog knowing it has limbs and understands that it controls these limbs and knows that if it moves its head down, its mouth will be closer to the water in the bowl. That is the bodily Self.
But there is also a cognitive Self. That’s our individual history. If someone asks you who you are, you tell them a story about yourself – where you were born, where you went to school. These are recollections of experiences. It is a remembered narrative of events of our lives. Basically, it’s our memories. If you woke up one day with amnesia and had absolutely no memory of who you are with no recollection of how you got there, would you be the same person? Sure, you are a conscious being, but your friends probably wouldn’t consider you the person they grew up with; conversations would be extremely awkward and discussions about the past would be practically pointless.
Brain disorders like Alzheimer’s removes the sense of self from people. Most Alzheimer’s patients can move around, carry on conversations, and interact with their surrounds very much like a normal person does. But when their family members visit, not only does the sufferer usually not recognize their own kin but may not even comprehend why they are there or who they are. They’ve lost the memories of their life and thereby lost who they are.
Not to sound too insensitive, but at that point, aren’t these people merely walking meat-computers? If they’re not self-aware, what makes them different than, say, a ladybug? It seems that our physical bodies are not what makes us who we are, and even being alive and conscious doesn’t imbue a personal meaningfulness. It’s only when all of these things combined with the critical elements of self-awareness and memories does a meaningful being arise.
How does someone (or something) get to that point? When does consciousness arise? And how can we tell? Is the state of consciousness achieved at a particular point after reaching a certain threshold or is it more of a spectrum where something can be “more conscious” than something else?
Spectrum versus Threshold Phenomenon
Let’s take a look at wakefulness for a second. Being awake is a threshold phenomenon. You can’t be awake unless you have a certain percentage (~40%) of your cortex working. If you have 39% of your cortex working, you can’t achieve that threshold of wakefulness. That’s what the laboratory studies have shown anyway.
Is having a sense of self also a similar sort of threshold phenomenon? As we’ve seen, it appears that sentience is definitely a continuum and doesn’t need to reach a defined point; a variety of things may be considered sentient. But I believe consciousness does require a certain amount of complexity and internal-feedback-looping in order to create an understanding and comprehension of The Self.
Folks with certain brain disorders and diseases have been known to have their personalities altered by brain damage. Likewise, people have had portions of their brain deliberately removed by surgeons in order to stop such diseases without affecting their minds. In both cases, people may or may not have their consciousness changed, suggesting that not all of our brain is needed for consciousness, and there is no single spot that can take that consciousness away.
Based upon the latest neuroscience, there is no ‘seat of consciousness.’ No one has found the spot in the brain from which consciousness emerges. Turns out, every little piece of the brain contributes its own small portion to what we perceive of as a state of consciousness. If you think about it, that makes total sense – all of our senses gather information about our surroundings; our eyes see, our ears hear, our nose smells… all these data get combined with many sub-layers of unconscious processes which creates what we perceive as consciousness. All of these ‘components’ implies complexity. So in a sense, a certain amount of complexity is required to reach a state of consciousness. Complexity may actually be the defining factor.
It is very difficult to define consciousness for the same reasons it is hard to define life, because like life, consciousness is a process, not a physical thing. Consciousness does emerge from a physical thing – that thing being your brain – but you can have a brain that is not conscious (i.e. dead). A brain is the platform, but it is the process that happens on that platform we call consciousness. An analogy of this phenomenon is wood and fire. Wood is the platform, and under certain circumstances involving oxygen and temperature, a phenomenon we call fire emerges. The fire doesn’t physically exist – it’s a product of a chemical reaction which gives off heat and light which we perceive as a thing we call fire.
In our brains, a similar process is happening involving billions of neurons and trillions of connections. Each neuron is acting and reacting based on a “simple” set of rules. An individual neuron will react to its neighbor and either fire a certain way or not fire a certain way. Then, its neighbor will react accordingly, firing or not firing to its neighbors… on and on. From this process emerges what we perceive of as consciousness.
The same idea governs ants and anthills; no individual ant knows what it’s building, but a complex structure emerges. Each ant acts and reacts based on its neighbors and simple rules, self-organizing without a leader, to create an anthill. What I’ve just described is a relatively new science called Cellular Automata. Personally, I believe this idea of cellular automata – complexity emerging from very simple components governed by simple rules – is the key to understanding consciousness. Is it correct? I don’t know. But in my humble opinion, it’s what makes the most sense right now.
Degrees of Consciousness
Consciousness seems to be an extremely nebulous, subjective, and slippery concept. I’m going to stop here before I expose the true depths of my ignorance. I don’t know what consciousness is. Actually, no one does; consciousness has evaded the understanding of the greatest thinkers, philosophers, and scientists who have ever lived. But there are many folks out there who understand it far better than I do.
Suffice it to say that consciousness exists, and it exists on many different levels; from people to dogs to lizards to insects, down to single-celled organisms and super-computers to thermostats. On each of these levels there is some sort of loop occurring whether it is internal or external. And whether you call it consciousness, self-awareness, sentience, a glorified feedback loop, or and on-off switch is a matter of semantics. A Venn diagram mapping out these concepts would have many overlapping sections.
There are many forms of consciousness, all at different levels of individual comprehension. These consciousnesses have varying degrees of awareness and ability, but let me be clear: I don’t believe computer simulations, insects, or even lizards think the way we think. I believe they run through patterns and attempt to find matches and correlate things and events but aren’t aware in the same sense that humans are aware.
We can’t know for sure what it’s like to be someone else – what their thought process is and how it feels to be them. If we’re comparing humans to humans, we can make a reasonable assumption. But it is harder to know what it is like to be a dog. And much more difficult still to know what it’s like to be a cockroach… or even a thermostat! These organisms, these beings, these things… each have their own flavor of consciousness. Their consciousnesses, I believe, are equally valid and simply run parallel to our own. And I don’t see anything wrong with that.
‘If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it makes a sound?’ As a child, I believed this was a thought experiment designed to question whether or not you could prove something happened without being there. As an adult, I realized that it’s actually a deep philosophical question about ‘meaning.’ Does it make a sound? Of course it does… that’s not the point. The point is, did it happen if no ONE is there to experience it? More to the point, does it MATTER if someone isn’t conscious of it?
A million galaxies with billions of stars and trillions of planets, each with countless rocks and rivers, could come into creation, go through eons and eons of growth and catastrophes, then eventually get sucked into a black hole and blink out of existence… but if no one was there to experience it, it wouldn’t matter. If there were no conscious beings in that universe – that universe, for all intents and purposes, need not exist. It only matters if there were a consciousness there to contemplate, to think and understand, and to love and to hate.
In our universe, we do live in a world full of conscious beings. Lucky for each us, we get to be one of them! None of the things that exist outside of our consciousness matters; it’s our consciousness’s perception of that outside world that matters. Fundamentally speaking, the only things that matter are the things we are aware of and decide to attribute meaning to. So I believe the answer to the original question is, no, if no one (i.e. no consciousness) is there to experience the falling tree, the tree never fell.
A person can perceive a couch in a room and a couch exists. If another person enters the room and is aware of the same couch, that does not mean there are two couches – that’s not what I’m saying. Things exist whether or not someone is there to perceive them. However, those things do not have meaning unless someone is there to attribute meaning to them.
Out of all the chaos in the Universe, pockets of uniformity occur; like a giant bag of assorted jelly beans, there will be a few areas where only green jelly beans are clumped together. Uniformity eventually leads to complexity. A certain type of complexity produces replication, information transference, and sentience. Once that sentience reaches a certain critical mass, a consciousness can arise. That consciousness threshold is ultimately what is most important, because once a flavor of sentience can achieve a self-awareness and comprehension develops, that is the point at which the Universe matters. That is the point where the tree has fallen and someone was there to hear it.
Soul in the Machine
Up to this point, I’ve described the universe from a purely materialistic standpoint. You may wonder why I haven’t brought up the subject of a ‘soul’ yet – especially since many folks consider their soul the thing that truly makes them who they are. Unfortunately, there is no scientific evidence of a soul. No one has found empirical proof of its existence, other than the personal feeling that it does. I can’t take it any farther than that since my version of a soul is different than your version is different than the next person’s version… Until a universally accepted version of a soul can be agreed upon, there is no use in discussing it… unless, we play with definitions for a moment.
Well, what is a soul? Honestly, I believe that the feeling is the key. Because, what is a soul other than a person’s (their “Self”), or another person’s (another “Self”) acknowledgment of a perceived consciousness? That’s all that seems to matter anyway, right? What is a ‘soul’ if not a recognition of a consciousness, thereby giving it meaning? There is no such thing as ghosts or angels or demons, but there is a soul in the machine – if by soul we mean an emergent property of a complex system being more than the sum of its parts. And this emergent property is what gives meaning to everything in the Universe. I think that justifies the word “soul” in my book.
It’s All in Your Mind
Consciousness is so fragile though, isn’t it? Think back to before you were born. No consciousness; you didn’t exist. What about the story from the company holiday party? To you, it never happened; you weren’t there. Think about 3am last night. Can you recall what happened? No, because you were asleep and you were unconscious for many hours. We go to sleep every single night and lose consciousness and it’s as if those hours never happened. You were essentially teleported to the next day.
Every morning you wake up it’s like the computer has been rebooted. You wake up groggy and slowly remember where you are (which can be challenging if you travel a lot, ha!). Yesterday’s events ooze their way back into your mind. You start to remember the things you have to do that day and what you were planning to wear. All these thoughts and memories coalesce to recreate, you. But I can’t prove to you that you are who you think you are. There’s nothing that I can say or do to show you that those memories – those things that make you who you are – are reliably yours.
Despite being nowhere technologically close to being able to actually implant memories, you could imagine a scenario where a device has been invented to do that exact thing. What if someone used that device on you last night, while you were unconscious? They implanted an entire life’s worth of memories into your mind, and upon waking, you “know” those are your memories – and your life. You could have been anyone the day before! You could have been synthetically printed last night and programmed like some sort of biological robot and you would never know the difference.
Of course, this sounds conspiracy-theory-crazy and doesn’t seem like the most plausible explanation of your current state of mind. But it nicely illustrates just how delicate and malleable our consciousness is. In fact, we could take it even a step further and argue that we’re all living in a computer simulation. No one can ultimately prove or disprove that the entire universe isn’t just some simulation being ran on an alien super-computer somewhere, not unlike the rat brain simulation discussed earlier.
The fact that consciousness is, by definition, subjective, and that the world we perceive only means something because we are aware of it proves that this world only exists within our minds. The Universe exists only because you heard it fall. One day, you will lose consciousness forever and that universe will cease to exist. When someone dies it is, in a way, the death of an entire universe.
There is nothing inherently special about us. As we’ve seen, our bodies are made of the same stuff all the other living and non-living things are made of, just put together in different patterns. What separates us from things like rocks is that we’re alive; but there are a lot of things that are alive. What makes certain living things different is that some achieve consciousness, and consciousness is special. But it’s not necessarily the phenomenon itself that is special, but rather the fact that it has the ability to attribute meaning to things.
Our perceived acknowledgment of our consciousness, for lack of a better word, is our soul. It is our soul that gives the Universe meaning. But our soul is so demonstrably delicate that we’re not completely certain of what this consciousness is. What is this consciousness that I’m feeling? Other things may or may not be conscious, but there is one thing I know for sure, and that is: *I* am conscious. And that IS real… at least to me.
I think, therefore I am.
Part II: Coping with Reality
I have an aunt who, in my opinion, is a good representation of the average American – specifically when it comes to her religious beliefs. She has grown up in a Christian/Catholic environment her entire life and practices her beliefs fairly regularly. She’s also the type of person who – like a lot of people out there – look for meaning in everyday coincidences and is a bit superstitious. She considers herself ‘spiritual’ and believes in certain supernatural events and entities like astrological anomalies and ghosts.
During a recent family get-together, we were all having a good time and by the end of the night we were getting a little nostalgic – like we normally do. That’s what I love about our family (and extended family) though: we’re all so close and get along so well and have SO many good memories to reminisce over. We are lucky in that regard, that’s for sure. But I’ve been thinking a lot about her since then because of a few things she said that night that I’ve heard her say many times before; things about ‘where we are going’ and the afterlife… stuff like that.
I’ve always loved talking with her (and her daughter; my cousin) about science and religion because I feel like we listen to each other and appreciate each other’s viewpoints no matter how much they differ. And, we find enrichment in hearing and understanding someone else’s perspective.
We’ve talked about spiritual things before and they seem very important to her. They also seem like they are concepts she struggles with and is conflicted over. Let me say: I can relate! I’ve been struggling with the concept of life and death half of my life, no exaggeration. It started back around my high school years when I was old enough to not only realize that death is real and not just something you see in the movies, but also old enough to appreciate what it actually meant.
It meant that one day I was never going to see my parents again. My dad, who had been no less than a god to me, wasn’t going to be around anymore. There will come a time when I won’t get to say goodnight to my mom again. When you are young, your parents are your literal world; they determined what you were allowed to do and where you were allowed to go. You depended on them for food and gas money and to pay the cable bill so you could watch your favorite shows. They literally gave you life! And one day, that would all be ripped away from you.
Furthermore, that meant I was going to die one day! Well, I had never died before and have nothing to even relate it to so I have no idea what to expect… and that’s scary! I love life! Heck, it’s the only thing I know! I love my friends and family and eating pizza and singing songs… I don’t want that all to go away.
So around twenty years ago now, I started questioning. I wanted to know why. Why does something as terrible as death have to happen? And why does it have to be so finite? I have been in and out of a slight, but persistent depression trying to come up with these answers. You could call it an existential crisis, or you could call it a twenty-year mid-life crisis, but I just call it Life. It is pretty much who I am now. I think this quest for answers has literally shaped who I am as a person. And honestly, I’m completely okay with that. But I’ve only recently become okay with it. Let me explain…
You see, I feel like I have reached a point in my life where I am actually comfortable with these ideas -more than I’ve ever been before anyway. I feel like I’ve been through the tough phase. It is a blessing and a curse. I’ve been thinking and worrying and struggling for practically half my life – which was not fun – but I also feel that I’ve had plenty of time to think about these Ultimate Questions and feel I’ve arrived at a place that I’m comfortable with. And that’s the ultimate goal in my opinion: to reach a place that you’re comfortable with. It is extremely subjective, however; my ‘place’ is probably not your ‘place.’ Everyone’s place is going to be different.
So, my goal here is to merely describe my path that lead me to my place in the hopes that, if nothing else, it will help you understand that all paths are unique and that each person has the opportunity to choose their own path, and that path can be altered at any moment. If there is one thing in this life that we’re all entitled to as a being, it is our right to think the way we wish and to have the freedom to do so. You are allowed to think however you want and should not be punished for ‘thought crimes’ by any one or thing (God included).
“You are a child of the Universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here.” -Max Ehrmann, ‘Desiderata’
I’m not going to “attack” religion in the traditional sense by pointing out the myriad of inconsistencies and contradictions and blatant incompatibilities with the universe as we know it; the way the world’s religions describe the world we live in is simply not the way nature works. If you’d like to see examples of these conflicts, pick up literally any book on anatomy, physiology, biology, physics, astronomy, cosmology, ecology, etc., etc. and you’ll see that the Earth was not made in seven days (Judaism), we’re not riding on the back of a giant turtle (Hindu Mythology), and people don’t rise from the dead (Christianity).
But I understand. Religions exist for a reason. They’re here because people require answers. It’s innate in us to want to know “why.” Religions are a product of ancient peoples’ desire for answers to these Ultimate (philosophical) Questions. Religions aren’t supposed to describe the way the natural world works, although some religions attempt to and usually fail miserably. But I don’t hold this against these ancient peoples! The folks who created these stories so many centuries ago didn’t have access to the modern technology we have today which does give us these answers. They were working with what they had so I don’t fault them.
Instead, I’d rather describe how the world’s religious ideologies are fundamentally flawed. I think they are incompatible with peoples’ lives today. I believe they force people to think a certain way and have a certain set of beliefs that unless they are followed to the letter and to a life-encompassing degree, they’ll ultimately cause the person more grief rather than provide them with meaningful answers. The slightest bit of doubt will bring the entire belief structure down. It’s an extremely gaudy building atop a very rickety foundation.
But what if you didn’t have to force your beliefs? What if instead of being told what to believe, you could form your own ideology? And instead of trying to reconcile dogma and your life experiences you could simply fashion your own personal belief system? I know, I know… this is blasphemy, right? But the fact that you have reservations even considering imagining a mindset where you’re not chained to the beliefs you’ve held for so long should sound an alarm in your head. The fact that your belief system vehemently prohibits simply exploring other options should make you a little worried.
Believe it or not, we’re each allowed to believe whatever we choose. Sure, most religions forbid ever contemplating such an idea, but who’s to say your particular religion is right? There are a plethora of religions out there, so why should you blindly follow the teachings of any particular one? I started asking myself these questions which made me start to learn more and more about all of these other religions. I found out that despite the specifics of each, they all were generally the same: they all have a creation story; they all claim to have the answers to life’s big questions; and they all require an unwavering belief – no questions allowed!
For me, the answers those religions provided didn’t satisfy me. The more I questioned, the less the answers made sense. So I took what I knew to be true based off of my life experiences and the world around me and started developing my own beliefs. I took comfort in the fact that my experiences were the same as other folks’ experiences. That was not the way with religion. If you took two people with different religious backgrounds and had them discuss their worldview, they’d be drastically different. If we all live on the same planet in the same universe, how could two people come to such differing conclusions? But when you base your beliefs on shared experiences – real experiences we’ve all had at one point or another – the world becomes a lot more friendly.
But the best part was that I wasn’t afraid anymore. ‘You mean to tell me I won’t ACTUALLY be punished for thinking differently?’ And what’s more, there actually ISN’T a god up there who not only watches my every move (even while in the bathroom), and hears my every thought (even those not-so-acceptable ones), and who cares about who I sleep with and in what position, and who doesn’t like people who sleeps with people of the same sex yet is okay with stoning a girl to death because she wasn’t a virgin on her wedding night… that’s what the bible says anyway… You mean I don’t HAVE to believe that?
Once you make that realization… it is SO scary. It feels like you’ve had the rug pulled out from underneath you. It can even be embarrassing; you feel like you’ve been duped your whole life! ‘So, you’re telling me that this idea that I’ve literally based my entire life around wasn’t true the whole time?!’ You feel alone and uncertain and lost. It’s almost as if you’ve lost your job, your house, and got a divorce and moved to a new city. You don’t know anyone, this town is SO different from your old one and you have no idea where to begin.
Here’s the good news: Unbeknownst to you, life is SO much better in this new town of Not Believing. Sure, there are some tough growing pains – getting to know people, learning new things, and just getting used to this new way of thinking. You end up recognizing that your old partner wasn’t as nice and helpful as you thought they were. You realize this place is far more “in-tune” and accommodating with the way you want to live your life. And once you’ve completely let go of that old, oppressive way of thinking, you can’t believe you ever let yourself be controlled like that. It’s literally one of the most empowering and enlightening moments of my life. –That was my experience anyway, yours may differ. But I’ve read so many other stories of people who went through the same process and had the same (sometimes better!) experience.
On the surface, following a religion seems to be the perfect way to live your life. It’s got all the answers! Everything is taken care of for you: What happens when we die? We go to Heaven. Where did this all come from? God. But for people like me who need a little bit more, we start to question. And when we question, we’re left either more confused or empty-handed. (That’s exactly why ‘questioning’ is the enemy of any religion: once people start questioning, the whole thing falls apart. Blind acceptance and teaching kids that asking “why” is bad is the only reason why religion has lasted as long as it has.)
“We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light.” -Plato.
You’ve been told your whole life to think a certain way simply because you were born at a particular place at a particular time. If you were born in India, you’d be Hindu and think that you had been reincarnated many times and base your daily decisions on karma. If you were born on the American plains 2000 years ago, you’d worship the tree and river spirits and believe rain dances would have an actual effect on the weather. If you were born in modern day Libya, you’d believe in the prophet Mohammed and might think that suicide bombings were completely justified. You only believe that Jesus is part of the Holy Trinity and that you are going to a Christian Heaven because you were born to parents who believed the same. I don’t mean for this to sound derogatory, I’m merely pointing out that you’ve been told what to believe your entire life.
There are so many people around the world who believe all these different religious teachings… well, they can’t all be right. And who’s to say that one religion is any more right than the other? Who gets to make that decision? Why is this person’s belief in the Ten Commandments that came from a small nomadic tribe 3500 years ago any more credible than say, the teachings of the Egyptian Empire of the same time period?
Christianity tells us that we should give up all responsibility and have unwavering faith in God. God is the one and only answer to all questions; Why did my cat die? God; Why did I get a promotion? Must have been God’s will; The Patriots won the Super Bowl because God wanted it to happen… Not only is that completely unfair (and frankly, illogical; why would God care who won the Super Bowl? Plus, that means he didn’t want the other team to win? Tough break for them…), it’s also very convenient. It removes all personal responsibility. You no longer have to take credit for the bad things that happen in your life. “Jesus take the wheel,” right? Sure, that makes things very easy to cope with when things don’t go your way. But it also takes away the things you have worked so hard for that you deserve! You didn’t land that job, it was God’s Plan. That is not fair. That is not fair to you and that is not fair to all the people who’ve helped you along the way. God made sure your cousin recovered in the hospital and is healthy now? What about all the doctors and nurses who busted their butts saving them? (Let alone the countless generations of people who have literally devoted their entire lives to furthering our collective understanding of science and medicine so that we can live the healthy and prosperous lives we enjoy today.)
The definition of faith is believing in something for which there is no logical reason to believe in it in the first place. Following the teachings and practices of Christianity means putting your life in the hands of people who wrote a book thousands of years ago (which has been subsequently translated and modified many times) who said, “Trust me.” Personally, that’s not a good enough reason to believe in something. Instead of thinking about what you know, think about how and why you know it. Why do you think the way you do? Where did that information come from?
One could argue that believing in Christianity is no different than “believing” in science. But science isn’t a doctrine or a belief system; it is a set of tools. Chet Raymo described it well when he said, “science is a map of the world, not the world itself.” It’s the best method that humans have developed to provide us with trustworthy, reproducible answers based off of reliable evidence.
Imagine a crime scene: In a bedroom, there is a bloody knife on the floor next to a dead body. A large set of boot prints trail from a pool of blood towards an open window and the lock on the door has been noticeably damaged. Based on these few pieces of evidence, any reasonable person would safely conclude that a murder happened. Furthermore, one could even theorize a set of events that took place. Based off the size of the boot prints, we could say a male committed the murder. Since the lock was broke, we could assume there was a forced entry. The victim was probably stabbed with a knife, then the suspect escaped out of the window, given the trail of blood.
Ask fifty people what they thought had happened given the data and I’d bet most would come to the same conclusion. That is science. Science is merely a method to describe the events and mechanisms of the natural world based off of what we all collectively observe and agree upon.
Religion, on the contrary, is the person who lives in the apartment below coming up with a story involving a vindictive knife, gravity-defying windows, and spontaneously exploding locks, writing a description of those events, and telling you to “trust him,” simply because you live in the apartment next to his. Moreover, he convinced everyone else on your floor to believe the same despite them not actually being there to witness the crime. Then, every Wednesday, the whole floor gets together to discuss the motives of the miraculous knife, then base their daily decisions on their interpretations and give themselves purpose by deriving meaning from the knives’ actions.
Any reasonable person would, in this case, doubt the validity of this guy’s story and question him on how he came up with these claims. While doubt is the enemy of any religion, science encourages doubt. Science doesn’t work without it! Don’t believe something? Go try it for yourself! Science only works because of reproducibility. And that reproducibility equates to a shared experience for all. Science is fair and provides us all with the same opportunity to make our own discoveries and allows us to come to conclusions about the world in which we can all agree.
Faith is believing in something in the face of opposing evidence. Why would anyone want to deliberately deceive themselves? You know who you should have faith in? Yourself! Because you are a known quantity. You know what you’re capable of, and you know what you’ve accomplished. Don’t let someone (or something) else take credit. My point is: take credit for what you deserve.
“Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans. Keep interested in your own career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.” -Max Ehrmann, ‘Desiderata’
Furthermore, taking personal responsibility for your actions and decisions also means you have control, and control is particularly important. Control means that you get to decide; you have the opportunity to make whatever choice you want. Look, this is YOUR life, not anyone else’s (not even God’s). You only get one and it is only fair that you get to make your own decisions. If God has a plan for all of us then that means we don’t have a choice. We’re basically his toys; robots programmed to carry out whatever he has in store for us. I don’t see how this idea can make anyone happy. In fact, I’d say that it’s borderline evil! Is it God’s plan that my friend Corey died at the age of 23 and consequently his mother suffer for the rest of her life? What kind of God lets millions of people die horrible deaths in ovens and suffer in concentration camps? If God is omnipotent, one could easily imagine a world that He could create that doesn’t involve bone cancer in children. That’s downright wicked. What purpose does that serve?
Some folks also use belief in God as an answer to the question, “where did we come from?” So, why does this universe exist? Why are we here? These are perfectly reasonable questions, and scientists are the last people to claim they have an answer. In fact, while science tells us a great deal about everything from the infancy of the Universe through how our planet was made to how life has evolved into what it is today, it has yet to uncover why it all got started in the first place. Some of the greatest scientists and philosophers and thinkers who have ever lived say that there is a chance that we may never know!
But I’d argue, why do we need to know this answer at all? Would knowing what or who made the universe make it any more (or less) exciting or interesting? Who cares how it got here? It’s here, so explore and enjoy it! Think about it this way: can you have fun on a roller coaster without knowing who the mechanical engineer who designed it was? Of course you can. Knowing something’s origins doesn’t make the thing any more or less special. And it definitely doesn’t make it more special by inventing a story to explain it. What’s wrong with saying, “I don’t know?” There’s no reason to be frightened by not knowing. Personally, I’d rather not have an answer than to make up an answer that’s wrong.
The last big question that religion attempts to answer is death. Death is a very touchy, scary subject. It’s just so final, isn’t it? It’s the only thing in our lives that is inevitable. It’s going to happen whether we like it or not. It’s the only thing in our life that is ultimate and infinite. There’s literally nothing else in our earthly experience that we could even hope to relate it to. And I think that is one of the reasons why it is so scary! We have such a hard time even trying to imagine what it is, and not knowing is scary.
Additionally, humans are innately self-centered. And I don’t necessarily mean that in a bad way. I just mean that biologically, how our brains work to form this emergent property called ‘consciousness,’ we tend to think of ourselves from this first-person perspective. This means that “we” (or, “I”) is the most important thing. We live our daily lives with the goals of: one, keeping ourselves alive; and two, trying to do what is in the best interest of this “I.”
What makes matters worse is that in today’s society, we’re brought up with a privileged mindset. We believe and teach that we’re uniquely special. While fundamentally true, this also gives us a false sense of importance. (Why do you think social media is so popular right now? It’s because people can share even the most mundane portions of their life and believe others should care about it. We’ve all had a lunch before, I don’t need to see a hundred pictures of other people’s lunches every day.) This puts us in the unfortunate position where we have trouble with the very concept of dying. “No, not ME! I can’t! This is not supposed to happen to ME! I’m too important!”
The truth is, death is nothing to be scared of. Sure, the ACT of dying can be scary… it might be painful, but it might not. It’s definitely going to feel different than anything else you have experienced. But so what? There are tons of things you tried for the first time… no big deal! I always think of the Woody Allen quote when he says, “I’m not afraid of death; I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” Haha! But the perfect accompanying quote is from Mark Twain when he said, “I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.” But it makes sense though, right?! I mean, think about it… you were technically dead before you were born. Was it bad? Did it hurt? Were you bored? No! You just weren’t. You didn’t exist. And while that’s an extremely scary concept now, it won’t matter once you’re dead.
Personally, one of the reasons I used to be afraid of death is because I felt like I was going to miss out on things. I love today’s emerging technologies and the advances Humanity is making in medicine and science and space travel… and I want to see where we are in one hundred; two hundred; one thousand years! But then I realized something along the same lines as the Mark Twain quote which is that, I can’t be upset that I’m not going to see the future unless I’m upset that I didn’t see the past. And I’m not upset that I wasn’t there to experience the past. Would I like to go to some point in the past to visit? Sure… maybe. But I’m actually very happy with the time period that we live in. I should accept my lot in life and be happy with what I’ve been given. We’re extremely fortunate for MANY reasons to live in the time period we do.
Death is one of those subjects that becomes so much easier to cope with when analyzed scientifically. Take cancer for instance: cancer is one of those scary diseases that has effected practically everyone on the planet, either directly by developing cancer themselves, or indirectly because a friend or a loved one developed the disease. But when you realize what cancer actually is in addition to how our bodies function and just how complicated our bodies are, it’s amazing that the cancer rate is as low as it is!
Cancer is actually a very natural process; it’s simply an error in the replication when the cells divide. It can take around 24 hours for a single cell to complete the entire division process, which seems like a lot of time for such a tiny thing, right? But our cells have an error-checking mechanism built in so that while the cell divides, it is also checking the entire length of its three billion base pairs to make sure it got the copy exactly right. That’s a lot of work in such a small amount of time. Furthermore, your body is constantly replacing old cells with new ones at the rate of millions per second. By the time you finish reading this sentence, 50 million of your cells will have died and been replaced by others. So, billions of checks and error corrections are occurring many millions of times throughout your body every single second. That’s astounding.
Sometimes an error happens and sometimes it results in cancer. To me, the fact that this process works at all, let alone to the astonishing degree that it does is mind-blowing. Whenever I hear about cancer I think of this fact and I thank my lucky stars that I’ve lived as long and as healthy as I have. And that’s just cancer; there are many, many more examples of the borderline miracles your body performs on a daily basis in order to keep you alive and kicking. Do you know how many times your heart has had to beat every minute of every day of every year of your life?! Do you have any idea how complicated your circulatory system is? Have you ever heard of the Krebs Cycle? Be grateful for the time you’ve been given. It’s amazing that any of that works and that we’re here at all!
“We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here. We privileged few, who won the lottery of birth against all odds, how dare we whine at our inevitable return to that prior state from which the vast majority have never stirred?” -Richard Dawkins, ‘Unweaving the Rainbow’
While we don’t know exactly how dying will feel, I believe science – and personal experience – can give us a good idea. Because, what is death? Technically speaking, it is the lack of oxygen to the brain. This causes us to lose consciousness – a state from which we never regain. But what about other times we lose consciousness? Have you ever been put to sleep for a surgery? You weren’t conscious then. Or what about last night? Can you remember 3:45am? No… because you were asleep; unconscious. In fact, those six or seven hours don’t exist to you. You, for all intents and purposes, didn’t exist until you woke up this morning. So, we essentially die every night. But we’re not afraid to go to sleep every night! Why should we be afraid to go to sleep and never wake up? There’s no logical reason to be afraid of death.
A quick anecdote: in our stupid-kid days (i.e. the ‘Yellow House’ days), we would play this “game” where we would pass each other out. (I know, how stupid could we be? I’m embarrassed to even tell this story.) We would basically hyperventilate ourselves, then hold our necks (to stop the blood flow to our brains!) until we passed out. We were basically killing each other! (I know! I know!) Luckily, it was only momentary and we would wake right back up. But the reason I’m telling this story is because I believe we essentially died, if only for a few moments. I can tell you – from experience – that it was not bad at all! It was actually a very calming and soothing experience; nothing to be afraid of, for sure. And since we didn’t completely cut off blood flow, at a certain point between consciousness and unconsciousness, we would have the longest, most intense dreams we’ve ever had – dreams that seemed to last hours even though it was only a few seconds real time. (This, incidentally, is what I – and most scientists – think is the source for all near-death experiences. But that is a whole other subject.)
It sounds like I’m being very blunt and cold about all this death stuff, but I think it’s important. I think we owe it to ourselves not to sugarcoat the hard realities and deal with them head on. That is the only way we’re going to be able to cope with them like mature, thinking adults. The alternative would be to either not think about it – which will ultimately bite us in the butt because we’ll have to face it one day whether we like it or not. Or, we can try and convince ourselves that we’re going to some magical place in the sky where we’ll see our relatives. OR, we can think of it rationally, come to a sound conclusion, accept it, understand it, then move on with our lives.
“It is only when we have the courage to face things exactly as they are, without any self-deception and illusion, that a light will develop out of events, by which the path to success may be recognized.” -I Ching
(A quick note about the Christian heaven: That concept just never made sense to me. I mean, if Heaven is a place of unconditional, ultimate love, then that means you’ll love everyone and everything equally. If you meet a ‘stranger’ in Heaven, you’ll love them just as much as your mother. You can’t love something less or more if the love is ultimate and unconditional, right? Furthermore, according to Christian teachings, as long as you’ve repented and accepted Jesus as your savior then none of the sins you have committed in your life matter. Again which means, you will love the person who committed multiple rapes and murders just as much as your own beloved daughter – as long as that rapist made amends during their last moments in the electric chair. That just doesn’t seem fair – at least in the framework of Christianity.)
If I could know how my life would turn out – all the good and bad – would I still choose to live my life? Even if I knew something agonizingly terrible would happen? Even if knew my daughter was going to get terminally ill one day, for example, would I still choose to have a daughter? Even though I knew I was going to have to go through the most excruciatingly terrible thing conceivable as a parent, watching your child innocently suffer through treatment only to buy her a few more precious months to live? Even if it meant only having a decade or so to spend with her, total? Would I choose to endure that heartache – just to experience the good times as well? Astoundingly, I believe my answer would be, “yes!”
It may sound selfish; who would choose for their child to suffer like that?! And I agree! I would never wish that upon anyone. But in our world, we can’t know. That’s the difference. The hypothetical only goes so far. Of course I would never choose that life. But the amount of love and pride and amazement and humility and adoration and respect… a parent has for their kid(s) is indescribable to anyone without children (and even some with children, sadly). It is the most powerfully rewarding emotion, I believe, a human can experience. There’s nothing more *real* or important than the love of a parent for their child. Every moment with them, no matter how small, would be worth it in the end.
There is one thing we do know that will happen, and that is that we will all die. So, if I know I’m going to die one day (which I do), what is the difference? Pretend I knew I was going to get cancer at age 45 or I knew I would die of old age at 97… it doesn’t matter, I would still choose to live this life. Here’s the key: the only difference between knowing and not knowing would be that I wouldn’t take so many things for granted – even seemingly insignificant moments with my daughter, or “boring” times with my friends and family. If anything, I think I would appreciate them even more. But I do know I’m going to die. We all know we’re going to die, eventually. So we should all appreciate the precious time we have now!
The last thing I want to say about death is, it would be irresponsibly selfish of me – or anyone – to wish for immortality; to not want to die. My atoms are your atoms. My energy is your energy and the next generation’s energy. There are only a finite amount of basic resources on this planet and it’s only fair to share them. It’s the circle of Life, right? If nothing died, the planet would VERY quickly become overcrowded and result in an extremely miserable experience for all. We all get our time in the sun, albeit small. But if we use that time wisely we can make it worth it – and make it worth the next generation’s time.
“Death is nature’s way of portioning out the energy, wringing the rag of energy dry, exploiting every ounce of vanished mass at the core of the sun.” -Chet Raymo, ‘Natural Prayers’
Do you see how just a sampling of some of these religious teachings can form a worldview that makes it extremely difficult to be happy? I mean, you’re not even allowed to think certain things without God punishing you (coveting thy neighbor’s wife, etc.). Knowing that I’m not even safe inside my own thoughts because I may be judged and punished is a terrifying idea that I’m very glad I don’t have to deal with anymore. Again, I’m not trying to poke-fun at a religion, I’m simply trying to show you that, in my opinion, the core teachings of Christianity make it extremely difficult to live a happy and fulfilling life, and if you’re conflicted on any of its ideologies, it’s downright impossible.
My path has lead me to, what I’ve come to realize is, a ‘Naturalist’ worldview. I’ve heard it called Humanism, Naturalism… whatever it is, I didn’t set out to find something to believe in, per se. I just happened to build a worldview for myself that others have independently and naturally arrived at, and they happen to call it those things. My worldview is fundamentally based on the fact that this life is all there is. Period. The hard part is finding a way to be comfortable with that fact. “This is it, and that’s OK.” Easier said than done…
This is where I think peoples’ paths will differ the most since coping mechanisms are so subjective. Personally, I’ve coped with this by using a variety of different tactics, but I think the main aspects could be boiled down to learning and appreciation. Learning has come easy for me since I’ve grown up ‘wanting to know,’ so I simply embraced what came naturally. Being inherently curious, I’ve spent most of my time learning as much as I can about the physical aspects of the Universe; from galaxies and stars, to DNA and atoms. Since the religion I grew up on didn’t provide answers that satisfied me, I was forced to learn things on my own.
I would learn about the world around me in phases. I went from being intrigued by the pyramids in Gaza and learning about ancient civilizations to wondering who came before them, only to discover that the world was MUCH older than I thought! I learned about astronomy and how scientists determined the age of the Earth and the Universe itself. I wanted to know how humans got here and for a while, I was obsessed with biological evolution and discovered that all life on Earth is related. From there, self-organization, complexity, and emergent properties fascinated me because this giant web of life had to come from somewhere. On and on, I jumped from one discipline to another, and all the while I was perpetually astounded by the revelations around every corner. Once you’ve learned these things, natural progression leads to appreciation; it’s impossible to not be astounded after the true mechanisms of the universe have been revealed to you.
The most amazing – and unexpected – thing to me was that these “secrets” of the universe weren’t secrets at all. You merely had to stop and look in order to see these things for yourself. Science isn’t like religion where only a privileged few get the sacred texts passed down to them so they can interpret and dole out as they feel fit. With the natural world, everyone has equal opportunity to observe, study, and come to their own conclusions. Take supernovae for example: how do these scientists know that stars grow old and will eventually blow up and die one day just like everything else in the universe? They simply put in the effort to look. Am I supposed to just take their word for it? Nope. The remnants of exploding stars are up there for all of us to see. One clear night, I swung my telescope around to the right point in the sky and there it was: the ashes and echoes of a long dead star hanging in the inky blackness just above my head. Astounding. Invigorating. Free for all…
“The opportunity to understand the universe is the fundamental reason it is better to be born than to not exist.” –Anaxagoras
A lifetime of learning has ultimately led me to find peace and happiness in the simple appreciation of the natural world. I’ve actually been able to find enjoyment out of everyday things I used to consider boring or mundane. I can appreciate a basic leaf and its amazing complexity – not because God made it (boring), but because of the processes and events that had to take place over eons for this thing to exist! (That’s exciting.) I can even appreciate everyday manmade things because I know someone -a living person; a conscience; a being- spent part of their life creating that thing. Things like that aren’t trivial and should not be taken for granted.
I could go on and on about ancient civilizations and planetary biomes and stellar evolution and the Krebs Cycle and languages… that stuff is truly amazing. How can one be awed by a burning bush after peering through the eyepiece of a telescope and seeing stars being born? Or look through a microscope and reveal the intricate complexities on such a tiny scale that completely surrounds us? Once you start to learn a little bit about the ACTUAL world around you, appreciation and wonder come easy and the connectedness you feel becomes more tangible than it ever has.
“Praise this world to the angel,” says Rilke. “Do not tell him of the untellable… Tell him things. He will stand astonished.” –Duino Elegy #9
Who hasn’t had an awe-inspiring moment while watching a sunrise? Who hasn’t felt a sense of something a little more when experiencing a sunset? Or stood in amazement witnessing the power of a thunderstorm with the thunder reverberating off their chest and watching one billion volts of raw energy scorch its way through the air? Or just gazed in wonder at the intricate details of a delicate flower? Peered up at the stars and stood face to face with eternity? Felt pure peace on a calm, drizzly, gray morning? Stood on a beach and was struck by the vastness and mystery of the world’s oceans?
These experiences are REAL. Nature is here. Nature is dependable and constant. She will always be there for you when you need her most. There’s nothing like having a bad day then taking a peaceful stroll through your favorite local park. Maybe you take a hike through the woods to decompress. You walk calmly pass the logs covered in velvet-soft moss as you breathe in clean, slightly humid air. Maybe you like to fish… standing there on the bank just as the sun starts peaking over the horizon and birds announce another day.
Nature tells stories and keeps secrets. These tales are sacred, though. She reveals them only to those who choose to take the time and effort to look. To listen. Some She displays proudly like a pristine waterfall and gives up easily like a delicate butterfly. Some She even flaunts in the form of volcanoes and tornadoes. Others She makes you work for; Her history is locked up tight in fossils and strata. The stars put on a magnificent display every night, but to be able to fully appreciate them one must devote an inordinate amount of time and patience in order to decipher the mysteries hidden in the code of light spectra.
Sure, some secrets may require quite a bit of effort to reveal, but Nature rewards handsomely. A flower is beautiful on its surface but knowing that the flower displays more colors invisible to humans that insects find irresistible is amazing. The oceans are awesomely vast and beautiful, but look just below the waves and uncover an entire thriving ecosystem that most of us would believe was extraterrestrial if it were not for the devoted scientists who have discovered so many sunken scientific treasures.
There are some folks who choose to create their own versions of reality by insisting that supernatural events are real. But there’s a reason why those events are deemed ‘supernatural.’ Super-natural. Not based in reality. To me, the universe is more amazing than anyone could ever dream up! The true stories Nature tells are mind-blowing. And the best part? They are true! They are there for all of us to experience and be a part of. For me, when I see Nature expose Herself as something even as simple as a calm autumn afternoon, it inspires a sense of mystery, wonder and awe. It makes me smile, and I feel safe in my natural happy-place.
We are not separate from Nature, we are Nature. We are one of Nature’s creations. We are from the dirt and stardust. Curiosity is an innate human trait. The dirt made us curious. The dirt IS curious. When we study Nature, the Dirt looks back on itself; it can know itself.
By watching the lives of plants and animals, we see what’s truly important and notice what really matters. Paying attention to Nature enables us to reflect on our lives through the observation of all other life. Taking the time to slow down is increasingly imperative in today’s fast paced world and observing Nature is the perfect opportunity to slow down, think, and appreciate this vast world we are so intimately a part of, yet, so disconnected.
“Nature everywhere speaks to man in a voice familiar to his soul.” -Alexander Von Humboldt
Special, Yet Insignificant
While this world seems vast and never-ending to us down here on the surface, on an astronomic scale, we’re but a ‘mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam:’
“[The Earth:] On it, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives. The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilizations, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every hopeful child, every mother and father, every inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species, lived there – on a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam.
“The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and in triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of the dot on scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner of the dot. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light.”
-Carl Sagan, ‘Pale Blue Dot’
Whenever I read that passage, an image of a tiny fragile rock hanging in the vast, black, emptiness of space speckled with a light veneer of life emerges in my mind. It conjures up feelings of meaninglessness and insignificance; with one simple swipe of The Creators thumb, everything we have ever known would vanish. Simultaneously, it makes me realize just how unique and important we are as a species, and also as individuals. As far as we know, there is nothing else like us in the known universe.
We are special, yet insignificant. What a startling concept! Those words are practically antonyms. They seem to contradict each other. Can something be both? It seems counter-intuitive, doesn’t it? It’s a beautiful contrast for sure. But I see no reason why they can’t coexist. Life, as we know it, is unique in the universe. Furthermore, each one of us is unique. The DNA inside our cells – the code that makes each one of us who we are – is so complex that no two individuals are the same. Every single living thing has a unique strand of DNA wriggling around at the center of each of their cells. That is special.
Yet, we’re confined to a tiny mote of dust in a cosmos so large that we cannot begin to comprehend just how small we are. On a universal scale, we are but a single grain of sand in a desert the size of millions of Sahara’s combined. Imagine picking up just a handful of that sand and watching the grains pour out of your hand until a single one remains. Then, look up at a seemingly infinite ocean of sand stretching off in all directions. That is insignificant.
Even on a global scale, we’re but a tiny aspect of an unfathomably large, complicated, and intricate system. There are weather systems and ecological systems; there are economic and financial systems; there are vast networking and computer systems; there are militaries and governments of all sizes with a myriad of levels… television shows, educational institutions, plate tectonics, political philosophy, hairbrushes, grandfather clocks, cities… To construct something as commonplace as a building, there are engineers and construction workers and layout planners who specialize in every one of the hundreds of facets required to complete such a structure. It is physically impossible for any one person to comprehend even a small percentage of the colossal entity that is the modern-day Earth. And that doesn’t even take into account time; imagine the eons that have passed and the countless number of events that occurred in order for Now to exist.
At first glance, this may seem overwhelmingly depressing. But personally, I have found solace in this fact. I take comfort in the ambiguity. I get reassurance from the anonymity. I feel safe here in my burrow from the crazy complexity that surrounds us. It is impossible to compete with. Once you acknowledge and embrace your insignificant uniqueness, the pressures disappear. You can be who you truly are without fear and anxiety.
Ultimately, we are insignificant. We really DON’T matter. It’s painful to hear, but it’s true. In fact, the reality is that one day, about four billion years from now, the Sun will swell up, engulf the entire Earth, and reduce it to ashes. That is a fact. That is science. And the funny thing about science is: science is real whether you believe in it or not. So you can choose not to believe that the Earth will return to dust – just like everything else in the Universe, including you and me – but that doesn’t make it real.
Everyone will be gone one day. Every thing will be gone one day. Every self-absorbed actress, every egotistical boss, every bum and every president, every disease and every cure for that disease, every award and every regret, every championship and every embarrassing moment… all of it, wiped clean. All of the stories we’ve invented of gods and demons and good and evil won’t even be a memory, they just won’t be. So, why even get up in the morning? If nothing matters, and everything we have ever worked for will be for naught, what’s the point?
Have you ever made a nice dinner? Have you ever really wanted a nice manicotti and decided you wanted to make it yourself? You go to the store, spend time choosing a specific brand of noodle, go back and forth over what type of sauce and what kind of cheeses to include… go home and pre-heat the oven, mix the filling, prepare a side dish, then maybe have a glass of wine while you wait the hour or so it takes to bake. You pull it out, plate it on your finest dinnerware and get everything set. You sit down and get to finally taste that delicious flavor your stomach’s been growling for the entire day. It tastes so good that you clean your whole plate.
What was the point in making that dinner? When all is said and done, the end result was basically to stave off hunger for just a little bit longer. You spent the whole day creating something that didn’t exist by the end of the day. You could have scarfed down any old meal if that was your goal. But of course, that was not your goal. Your goal was to create something – not only out of necessity, but also for pure personal enjoyment. You also got to enjoy a few real moments savoring your creation; you got to sit down and experience a pleasant sensation that brought joy to your life, and you got the satisfaction of knowing you created it.
Have you ever done a crossword puzzle? Finishing that puzzle didn’t solve the world’s problems, did it? No, but it was fun while it lasted. Have you ever listened to music? You didn’t listen because you thought it’d provide some tangible result; you listened because you liked the song. Period. You like the way it sounds and love singing along. No one ever puts on a song just to fast forward to the end – that would defeat the whole purpose! Have you ever given a gift? Maybe you spent lots of time doing research and picking out the perfect thing, or maybe you even made it yourself, just to give it away one day. You did those things because they made you happy…
Why do I get up in the morning? I like oatmeal. I like drinking coffee. I like seeing my daughter and watching morning cartoons together. I like going for a walk in the park, then getting something to eat for lunch. I like catching a movie, then maybe taking a nap on the couch. I like cooking dinner with my wife in the evenings and sitting down to dinner with my family. I like having a drink and maybe splurging on a dessert I know I probably shouldn’t have. I like feeling the hot water of the shower run down my back on a cold winter night. I like crawling into bed and shutting off the world around me, closing my eyes and imagining things I may or may not ever get to do – just for fun. And I LOVE getting the chance to do it again the next day. THAT’S why I get up every morning.
“A bird does not sing because he has an answer, he sings because he has a song.” –Joan Walsh Anglund
Knowing that this life is all there is and there’s no ultimate meaning or purpose can be very depressing. But, when you realize you can DECIDE what matters; what has purpose; what gives you meaning; it eliminates the depression and even make you feel more empowered than ever! When God is gone, everything is holy. When nothing matters, everything matters. More specifically, when nothing matters, anything CAN matter. This mindset levels the playing field and you get to choose what’s most important in your life. You get to choose your meaning, your purpose. You have complete control over the reason you are here! You can’t get more empowering than that!
Religious people are told what is good and what is bad and who to love… they have their meaning told to them. But if you don’t have these limitations imposed upon you, you get to choose what has meaning. I choose relationships with my family and friends to be the most important thing in my life. Now. Not in the afterlife. Now. I choose to get the most out of life now, and I’ll humbly accept the day I depart to make way for other beings in this miracle of experience.
“Man has every right to be anxious of his fate so long as he feels himself to be lost and lonely in the midst of the mass of created things. But let him once discover that his fate is bound up with the fate of nature itself, and immediately, joyously, he will begin again his forward march.” –Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
One of the most unexpected, yet empowering side effects of having this worldview is that it can even protect you from everyday annoyances that can ruin your mood. How many times has someone cut you off in traffic? Your blood pressure rises, you get angry, and it ruins your whole day. But you know what? The only person that is affecting is you! Being upset with someone is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die. It’s simply not worth it. A few moments later, they’ll be gone and you’ll never have to interact with that person again. Don’t let them control your mood. Again, it’s your mood – your life – and you’re the only person who has the right to control it.
When something gets on my nerves, I just have to remind myself, “it doesn’t matter – let it go!” And it is the truth! I can let my shoulders down and breathe a little easier knowing that in the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t really matter that I spilled something on my new shirt. It’s truly no big deal. When I made this realization it was such a release! It was like a pressure valve was turned and a weight was lifted from my chest.
I remember actually getting angry at people who liked reality TV shows. I’d judge them thinking, ‘How the heck could anyone like this crap? It’s boring and pointless… it’s just people arguing all day! They could be doing so much more with their lives!’ But I’d remind myself that people are allowed to choose whatever makes them happy in their life and they have just as much right to pick whatever they want as I do. They want to sit on their couch and watch the Kardashians surf Facebook instead of washing their car or updating their resume? So be it. Who am I to judge? –I let it go and I’m happier for it. (And so are they!)
Ever have an embarrassing moment? Doesn’t matter; one day, no one will remember. Ever have a boss who thinks they’re way more important than they are? They actually don’t matter; their own great-grandchildren will probably never even remember their name. (Think about it: can you name all eight of your great-grandparents?) Feeling guilty because you spent a perfectly good sunny afternoon with the curtains drawn binging on an entire TV show series? Doesn’t matter; the world will go on. It is astonishing how much guilt and anguish you can save yourself with this mindset.
I’ve never really liked the label ‘naturalist.’ Come to think of it, I’ve never really liked any label, be it atheist, humanist, democrat, secularist… because they put too many limits on things. And people expect certain things out of you when they hear you’re this or that. Regardless of what you call yourself (or not), it all comes down to finding out what makes YOU happy! Maybe you’re a ‘baby-ist.’ Ha! Or maybe you’re a sports-ist. Or a cooking-ist. Or maybe you’re a baby-sports-cooking-ist! Just find what makes you happy and do it. If you want travel, do it! Or, if you’ve been traveling a bunch and just want to hole up in your house for a long weekend and read a book, be a hermit-book-ist.
Get into photography, or painting. Or play the stock market… not because you ‘have to’ or think you should, do it just because! Do it because it makes you happy. And if it stops making you happy, don’t do it anymore. You want to spend two hours picking out the perfect outfit for the day? Do it! You want to wear the same thing every day? Fine… because it doesn’t matter.
(Two quick caveats: One, there are things you must do if you want to live a certain lifestyle no matter what. But ‘boring’ things like doing the dishes can be made a little more enjoyable like listening to music or an audiobook, for example. And two, you can’t hurt anyone else – even if it makes you happy! By hurting someone or negatively affecting them in some way interferes with their free will and that’s not fair. You wouldn’t like it if they did it to you.)
Do what makes you happy, but balance and moderation is essential. We all know from experience that too much of anything is bad. I’m not talking about eating a diet that consists entirely of chocolate cake, but treating yourself every once in a while is crucial to happiness. Sometimes you need to get out of your comfort zone and try new things, but you also need to do things you’ve done a thousand times before that you love and are comfortable with. Sometimes that means spending hundreds of dollars on a dinner and a theater show you’ve never seen, and sometimes it means recognizing and embracing something as simple as that warm cozy feeling you get when you pull on a pair of nice warm socks after getting out of the shower. Lots of little joys throughout the day with a couple big ones conservatively sprinkled on top.
For me, nature is my sort-of perennial happy place. But as amazing and awe-inspiring as nature is, even it can become a little dull after a while. It’s no different than anything else though. I mean, you can only eat the same food so many times before it gets old no matter how amazing it was the first time you tasted it. Luckily, nature is like pizza where, sure, it’s technically the same food, but you can have an almost unlimited amount of toppings and enjoy it prepared so many different ways. Balance and moderation is key.
Another essential part of happiness is to appreciate the moment we find ourselves in at any time, no matter what we’re doing. How many times have you said, “I can’t wait until this weekend because…”? Don’t wish your life away! The weekend will get here eventually… whether or not you want it to, in fact. Take solace in knowing it will arrive in due time, so relax and enjoy the time now. Because right now will never happen again. You’ll never get it back. Go ahead and check your Facebook status while in the doctor’s waiting room, but remember to also take a break, set the phone down, take a deep breath, and remind yourself that this is a real moment you get to be alive. Think of the billions of people who died prematurely that would give anything to have even a simple moment like that. Appreciate it.
There is no punchline to life. This is life. Now. Even the boring moments. We’re always looking forward to the weekend or our annual vacations or to when we finally get that promotion or graduate… but the time in between is just as real. I’d argue that they’re more real than those other moments. Those punctuated moments only make up, say, under five percent of your entire life? Understanding that the seemingly unimportant time you spend driving to work or waiting for the microwave to finish are genuine portions of your life which enables us to fully appreciate a much larger amount of life instead of a select slice.
On a final note, I’d just like to mention a few simple things that can be done on a daily basis that I’ve found to be extremely beneficial, adding to my overall happiness. And guess what? They’re all the things you’ve heard a million times before: exercising, eating well, good sleep hygiene, keeping a journal, and mindfulness. I know, how cliché? But they’re cliché for a reason – because they work! I’m telling you from personal experience. But the only way these techniques can be effective is if you actually do them and be consistent. Persistence is key, as it is with most things in life. Practice makes progress.
A good diet and exercise are both good for instant gratification as well as a deeper satisfaction; you feel so good afterwards and you have the satisfaction of knowing you did something good for yourself later that evening when it’s time to wind down. And you don’t have to kill yourself on a daily 90-minute workout routine. A brisk 30-minute walk through your local park is sufficient. Look, I don’t have to tell you for the millionth time about all the benefits of exercising, but I can tell you from first-hand experience that they’re all true. It’s common sense. Same with eating well. You know what you’re supposed to eat. Should you eat that double cheeseburger for the third day in a row, or maybe change things up with a turkey wrap? People complain about wanting to lose weight but they all want the easy way out. The truth: there is no magic pill. Eat better, move around more… simple as that.
I never realized just how important sleep was until I started taking steps to improve my quality of sleep and experienced the benefits myself. As a kid, I would sleep so long and so deep I could easily be confused with someone in a coma. But as I got older and had kids of my own, that all went away (as tends to be the case). Short nights and broken sleep cycles all contributed to irritability, not being able to think, an even increased anxiety. I got fed up with feeling bad and decided to take steps to enhance my sleeping experience like setting bedtime schedules, limiting caffeine and alcohol, and neutralizing things that would wake me up at night. Sleeping well made a dramatic difference in my daily attitude.
Have projects and set goals. These things give you ‘purpose,’ but on a micro scale. They keep your mind thinking and forces you to be creative – even if you don’t consider yourself the creative type. There are few things more rewarding that stepping back from a finished project and thinking to yourself, “I did that… how cool!” It instills a sense of pride and accomplishment that is essential to a healthy mindset. And it can be whatever you want! Knit something. Draw. Create a painting – even if it’s terrible! Paint a scale model. Or go a little deeper and pick up an instrument. Write a song. Make a fancy dinner. Brew beer. Heck, learn a new language! Not in the mood right now? Just do a crossword puzzle. Try Sudoku. You could even figure out how to fix the leaky faucet yourself instead of calling a plumber. Don’t worry about whether you can actually fix it or that you might make it worse; it doesn’t matter what it is, it can be fixed. These things give you something to look forward to. They keep you occupied and give you a tangible purpose and provides tangible results.
Keeping a journal has become my new favorite thing. I started just over two years ago for a number of reasons. One, simply because I have a terrible memory and I wanted to write things down to help me remember. Also, I’ll get to go back and read them one day, sort-of like how we used to watch old movies of us growing up. You know, ‘the good ol’ days!’ Maybe my kids or my family would like to read them when I’m gone just so they can spend a few moments with “me” again. Keeping a journal is great for all those reasons but it also helped me relieve a little anxiety by simply ‘having someone to talk to.’
“The unexamined life is not worth living.” –Socrates
Another reason keeping a journal is beneficial is because since you have to physically write down the things you want to say (as opposed to typing it on a computer; no ‘select-all + delete’), it forces you to take your time and slow and actually think about what you want to say before you write it. This extra ‘thinking time’ is actually the thing I think I needed the most in life in order to attain a more fundamental “peace” to help me reach my ‘place.’ People nowadays are calling this “Mindfulness.”
Mindfulness is like meditation that doesn’t take itself so seriously. It’s something that can be done just about anywhere for any length of time. It really boils down to what I previously described while waiting in a doctor’s office: setting your phone down and being completely and utterly aware. Some people describe their technique as ‘clearing their mind’ and just not thinking of anything. While this may work for others, I find that I can’t completely stop thinking; the voice in my head is always there no matter what. What I do is instead of not thinking is crowd out all other thoughts (like worrying, guilt, to-do lists…) with physical sensations. I concentrate solely on my breathing; how it the air feels slowly moving in and out of my nose. I feel my chest moving up and down. I think about how my arms and legs feel at that moment. Maybe there’s a slight tingle in my left foot for whatever reason. I listen and notice sounds I didn’t even realize were there a moment ago.
All of these feelings crowd out any negative or pressing thoughts I may have had and lets me be aware of the world around me and actually take part in this thing called Life. Existence is bittersweet, for sure. But I relish in the fact that I get to experience this most-uncommon and privileged state of being alive and conscious at all. I take solace in the fact that despite the inevitability that there will come a day in the future where I won’t get to have this experience, at least I get the opportunity to have it now. That’s something to truly be thankful for.
“Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.” -Ludwig Jacobowski, ‘Leuchtende Tage’
Getting old can be scary. You know you’re inching ever closer to that impending day. You don’t feel as spry and energetic as you once did. Your body starts to ache in lots of weird, sometimes disturbing ways. But it shouldn’t be something to be scared of; getting old is natural. It’s supposed to happen. Be glad you’re getting old! If you weren’t getting old, that means you’d be dead! At least you get to experience old age unlike so many unlucky people who were taken before their time. Embrace it! You already got to poop in diapers, watch Sunday morning cartoons, be sent to your room, graduate high school, land that first job, have kids of your own, and watch them have kids of their own… Now is the time to slow down and enjoy your time on Earth, whatever you choose to do. Instead of worrying about that pain in your elbow, think to yourself, “Ha! So this is what getting old feels like, huh?
“Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth. …do not distress yourself with dark imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.” -Max Ehrmann, ‘Desiderata’
Remember: emotions are a habit. If you’re constantly worrying about this thing or that, you’ll be perpetually worried and glum. But if you recognize that you are sad, worried, or feeling guilty, ask yourself, “why?” If it’s something you should be truly worried about, talk to the person and figure things out. Or, go to the doctor. Or figure out a plan to pay the bill… Then, forget about it! The more you “practice” being happy like smiling at people for no reason, or thinking of goofy jokes to yourself throughout the day, or listening to songs that make you happy, the more you will be happy. It’s okay. Everything is okay. Truly, it is.
“’Supposing a tree fell down, Pooh, while we were underneath it?’
‘Supposing it didn’t,’ said Pooh after careful thought.
Piglet was comforted by this.” -A.A. Milne
I hesitate to even tell you any of this (too late now, ha!) because it can be such a long, hard, hard road. Again, it has taken me half my life to get to the point I am now where I’m mostly comfortable with the idea of Life and Death. Who knows, maybe I’ll relapse one day. Or, maybe I’ll find true content-ness! And it may not be the path for everyone. Maybe it takes a certain type of person to travel this path, so I hope I’m not added to the confusion. And I really hope I’m not offending you in any way – that is definitely not my intention.
This essay will not change your beliefs – it’s not supposed to! Your beliefs have been formed, molded, shattered, rebuilt, and solidified your entire life. Altering your worldview is literally a lifestyle change. No, it’s more than that; dieting and exercising are lifestyle changes, this is a fundamental change in not only WHAT you think, but HOW you think. But I believe we change on a day-to-day basis more than we’d like to admit. Sometimes we have epiphanies and sometimes the change is so small we don’t even recognize it. I think simply understanding that there are alternative life-paths you can follow and are not restricted to one or another can broaden your outlook and make you more open-minded, at least. At most, you may flip your entire perspective on Life and become utterly content.
Think for yourself… you may be happier for it.
“We are like butterflies who flutter for a day and think it’s forever.” -Carl Sagan.
Keep looking up,
-You may have noticed that there were many quotes from Max Ehrmann’s ‘Desiderata’ throughout this essay. I found the poem, ‘Desiderata,’ a few years ago and it quickly became my “Ten Commandments” of sorts. Not only did it describe behaviors I felt aligned with my personal outlook on life, it also brought to light ideas I hadn’t previously thought of which has helped me cope with many situations. I have found that, like with any good piece of art, its meaning can be interpreted differently by changing perspective, depending on which scenario it is applied to. Try it for yourself…
Go placidly amid the noise and haste,
and remember what peace there may be in silence.
As far as possible without surrender
be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly;
and listen to others,
even the dull and the ignorant;
they too have their story.
Avoid loud and aggressive persons,
they are vexations to the spirit.
If you compare yourself with others,
you may become vain and bitter;
for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.
Keep interested in your own career, however humble;
it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.
Exercise caution in your business affairs;
for the world is full of trickery.
But let this not blind you to what virtue there is;
many persons strive for high ideals;
and everywhere life is full of heroism.
Especially, do not feign affection.
Neither be cynical about love;
for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment
it is as perennial as the grass.
Take kindly the counsel of the years,
gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune.
But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings.
Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.
Beyond a wholesome discipline,
be gentle with yourself.
You are a child of the universe,
no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you,
no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.
Therefore be at peace with God,
whatever you conceive Him to be,
and whatever your labors and aspirations,
in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul.
With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams,
it is still a beautiful world.
Strive to be happy.
-Max Ehrmann, ‘Desiderata’