Transience and Transcendence

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Photo by Neal Herbert

Alan Lightman wonders if anything transient can have meaning. No matter how long we live, no matter what we accomplish, no matter what we leave behind as our legacy, if it is transient, then what does it ultimately matter? He talks about this in his book, Searching For Stars On An Island in Maine and in our EconTalk conversation about the book:

After all, the sun will eventually exhaust its fuel. The universe will ultimately grow colder and colder and everything alive will die. Can life have any real meaning if eventually it all comes to nothing?

In a conversation with Rebecca Goldstein on meaning, Lightman puts it this way:

I am not sure of the answer to Lightman’s question. Are transitory things really meaningless? I remember hearing of a poetry contest where third prize was a silver rose, second prize was a gold rose, and first prize was a real rose. There is a poignance from impermanence that gives it a richness that the immortal cannot match.

Does death make life meaningless? I like what the character Septimus says in Tom Stoppard’s play Arcadia:

Lightman might answer that when the sun and universe grow cold, the march of humanity that we all contribute to, just becomes one slightly more impressive colony of smart ants washed away by the flood.

But if we lived forever and the universe did too, would life have more meaning than it does now? It’s not obvious to me that this is so. In fact, the opposite seems more likely. If we live forever, any one act seems of zero consequence, every sin is forgivable, every moment has zero impact relative to the whole.

The easy answer to Lightman’s question is that God is our way of becoming immortal, either through an afterlife that is eternal or simply by connecting to something eternal. Religion gives meaning to life. Many find this answer childish or irrational. I do not. But I don’t want to defend that answer here. Instead, I want to raise a different question.

Why should the meaningless of life trouble us?

If we are all mortal and part of a physical, mortal universe and if there is nothing besides that physical universe, no God demanding responsibility from us, no God encouraging a life of purpose and achievement, if it’s all just neurons firing and pleasure and pain, then why should we care at all about meaning, about our lives mattering in any way at all?

Where does this demand and desire for meaning come from? What is disturbing about a life of vast or modest physical pleasures from food and sex and great music and exotic travel that goes on for some number of decades and comes to an end? Why aren’t those pleasures enough? Sure, it would be great if it lasted even longer than the good part of a century. But if this life is finite and part of nothing larger than itself, is that really a problem? Why does it haunt us, this quest for meaning?

I asked Lightman a variant of this question and his answer was that our desire for meaning is a by-product of the evolution of the brain:

That’s possible, of course. But it’s a rather strange by-product, this desire for meaning. Why this by-product rather than one that lets us ignore meaning and purpose and get on with other things? And what about other things we care about that seem unrelated to survival — the human desire for transcendence, our taste for the sublime, the enchantment of awe. Lightman writes beautifully about these wonders in his book.

All of these things would seem, on the surface, to be mere by-products of our brain and provide little in the way of survival value. It could have been otherwise. Music could leave us cold. Yosemite Valley could look no different to us than a barren landscape. A wasted life or the early death of a artist with transcendent talent could make us shrug with indifference instead of breaking our heart. The Milky Way could bore us. But, instead, we are enchanted. We care. We long for the infinite, the transcendant, the sublime. Perhaps there is more going on within us than meets the eye or even the best microscope. I like imagining the possibility that we are more than just an ant colony that happens to rise a little higher above the earth and lasts a little longer.

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I host the weekly podcast, EconTalk and I'm the co-creator of the Keynes-Hayek rap videos. My latest book is How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life.

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