A few weeks ago I was in Salem, Massachusetts. It's a really nice town on the ocean with quaint red brick buildings and lots of trees. It's also full of shops selling jokey witch knick-knacks, cashing in on the Salem witch trials.
The witch trials were three hundred years ago, a mere instant in the cosmic timeline, and we're already over it. he murders and suffering that took place back then are forgotten in any context other than a purely academic one.
We also don't really care about the atrocities of World War One or prior wars. World War Two and the Vietnam war are both recent enough that we can still connect emotionally with them, but that probably won't be true a few generations from now.
In a way, the horrible things that humans have done to each other in the past don't really matter. They mattered a lot to those involved, both directly and tangentially, and some of them mattered to successive generations, but their importance has an expiration date.
If we look forward hundreds or thousands of years, we can imagine that even the most important events of our lives, both good and bad, will be forgotten. Any individual impact we have is likely to be diluted to nothing by that time.
The argument that nothing really matters is a fair one. Emotionally this doesn't feel true at all, but looking back historically and projecting forwards, it's not much of a logical leap to say that life is futile. Given enough time, whatever you and I do will be completely unimportant and forgotten.
Some people find this depressing and use it to justify doing nothing. What's the point, they ask? I think there's a different way to look at it, though. Life is pointless, but that's also a reason to do everything.
Over a long enough time horizon, failure looks just about the same as success. Either one is a speck so small that it can't be individually noticed. Remove failure and success, and the one thing left is this human experience. Even if there's no real point to this existence, it is a sublimely interesting and enjoyable thing to have. The awesomeness of the existence of consciousness is trumped only by the fact that we've each been lucky enough to experience it.
We get to be in this incredible universe for a very short time, and then it's over. Since it is the one concrete thing we have, why not make the most of it?
Making the most of life means different things to different people, which is sort of the point. None of it actually matters, so you may as well make the most of it in your own little way. My way of doing that is to try to experience and understand as much of life as possible, knowing that I'll only barely scratch the surface.
At the same time, I have a sense of reverence for the experience of others, and I hope that as I explore and seek to understand, I can help others get a little bit more out of their own lives. In my own strange way of thinking, the two best things I can do are good things and novel things. Good things make other people's experiences better, and novel things make my experience better while providing fuel for other good things I might do.
Is life futile? In the grand scheme of things, it is. That line of thinking can be used to discourage, or it can be used to motivate oneself to make the most of the brief existence we have. I think the latter is a better way to do it, but then again... it doesn't really matter in the long run.
Photo is some hieroglyphics from the Met in NYC. Ancient writing about something that was extremely important then, but irrelevant now.
Speaking of the Met, check out my friend Nick's new AWESOME museum tours: Museum Hack. His tours are completely responsible for me loving art.
I've always hated nihilism, mostly because if any of its adherents actually believed what they said, they would shuffle off this mortal coil without bothering to explain how pointless it was. It struck me as just the high-brow version of what we now call wangst.
I'm much more of a fan of the absurdist school, which accepts virtually everything the nihilist says about the fundamental pointlessness of everything and answers "Ain't that a kick in the ass?" Life isn't pointless, it's *absurd*. To assign meaning to anything is to delude yourself, so at least latch on to some happier delusions.
I spent my first forty years asking myself "What is the meaning of life?" It seems discordant to realize that there is no answer to the question, and it is in fact the wrong question. A much better question is "How do you find meaning in life?" The answer has both short-term and long-term horizons. For me it has brought my focus back to family (and selected friends) first, and has helped me place work, hobbies, and charity/volunteering in their proper slots.
Overeating, reading until I get to the end of the internet, and computer games are all my drugs of choice, and all feel futile on pretty much the same day. Less (or none) would be better.
On the other hand, my work projects, and time spent on my bicycle, or with my camera/processing photos, or working at the local bike kitchen fixing little kids' bikes all bring me lots of long-term satisfaction. In the long run, these are futile too, because people will eventually forget my photos, and the kids' bikes will all surely break again. However, in time spans ranging from days to decades these activities are all effective, helpful, and worthwhile.
I'm surprised you call this an "incredible universe." This universe is far from it; it created sentient life, which as you point out, suffers repeatedly. You talk about the "human experience" being "enjoyable" and how consciousness is "awesome." You need to understand a couple things: 1) while I sit hear enjoying the Internet or whatever it is I (or you) "enjoy" there are TONS of sentient organisms suffering at this very moment. How can I (or you) really enjoy what I'm doing knowing this? 2) the only joy we get is caused by the lessening of the deprivation all sentient life experiences; from birth, we are all in a constant state of need, and only when the need is fulfilled do we feel happy. So these good feelings are simply what we experience when we're relieved of the bad feelings, the needing, the wanting.
There's a guy who calls himself Inmendham on YouTube. He has a bunch of videos that break life down to the brutal core. Check them out for a better understanding.
Hey Tynan are you still registered with Alcor? Haven't seen you post about cryonics for ages, and it seems relevant to this subject.
Great article! I have often thought on this subject and have found that human life itself is not futile in the grand scheme of things i.e when you look at it from a scientific/natural point of view. Humans are like any other species on earth; we are on earth to serve a purpose, and the belief that we are all important, (or a mere nuisance) is a form of human arrogance- we believe we have all the answers yet we do not, and cannot. As individuals, our activities and achievements will be forgotten just like the efforts of the bird that gets eaten or the tree that withers and dies. It is up to us to give our lives meaning, for ourselves, while we are alive. www.frauwyler.blogspot.com
Brilliant post, Ty¡ I have often thought along these lines myself, and always come to the conclusion that life is a big adventure that needs to be lived to the maximum. We are, in a way, directing a movie of our own lives, and we had better make it as fun and interesting and valuable as possible - although it will all be forgotten in due time.
I like your points, but would add that for people who believe in an afterlife, eternal life, reincarnation, karma, etc., the things we do really do matter.
If our universe is more than materialistic then while the choices I make today may have little effect (if any) on the creatures living in our universe 1B years from now, they still have great affect on the quality of afterlife for the people in contact with me, therefore my actions and choices have deep meaning.
It's early and the whole day is in front of me. How will I spend my time?
When I was in middle school, frozen yogurt was served during recess for fifty cents. Sometimes I had fifty cents, other times I had to borrow it, and other times I didn't get to have frozen yogurt. Back then, it seemed like a pretty big deal. But now, looking back, whether or not I had frozen yogurt had no impact on my life. I don't really remember how it tasted or any particular times that I ate it. If there's any impact, it's probably that I lost a few hours of expected life by eating it.
It's interesting how things that seem like good ideas, or even seem important, can turn out to be completely irrelevant. The anguish over young love, which seemed so strong and so important back then, yet now isn't much more than a blur. The hours spent in school learning things like biology, which have now been totally forgotten. The acquisition or denial of that amazing gadget that we just have to have for Christmas. I waged a yearlong campaign to get an Atari Lynx, and considered not geting one to be one of the toughest struggles I had gone through back then.
I don't bring all this up to say that what happens in childhood doesn't matter, though. Not at all. In that same era, I think about how I met my childhood best friend, Charlie, who taught me Chinese and took me to Taiwan with him. Even today, those experiences (along with many others) are with me. We were issued TI-85 calculators back then, too, which was the first device I ever programmed on. I learned a lot. My parents never really let me watch TV back, and that, amongst so many other good decisions they made, have shaped me in positive ways.
When we have a rigid idea in our heads of what we are supposed to be like, or what the world is supposed to look like, we get seriously confused and conflicted when external reality doesn't match up to that idea.
That's why idealists (and most everybody else) are usually bitter and frustrated.
Last night, my mother was so upset over a situation at work, that she popped a blood vessel in her right eyeball. All that built up pressure has to release some way.
My mother is a very spiritual person, and in the heat of the moment, crying and feeling generally miserable, she kept reminding herself of what she was "supposed" to be like.
"Be present to the moment!"