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