Transience and Transcendence

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:

Sometimes I pose to myself the following situation, which I’ll call the Smart Ant Conundrum: Imagine a colony of highly intelligent ants. Suppose further that this ant colony lasts for a hundred years. Normal ant colonies last only 20 years or so, when the queen flies off to spawn another colony, but let’s assume that a long dynasty of queens have followed each other to replenish this particular colony. Each individual ant lives only a year, so there have been many generations of ants in this colony. This is an old colony. Over the century, these brainy ants create a great civilization. They build advanced structures underground. They compose music. They create paintings and theater. They write books and record histories of their society. They develop science and make theories about the cosmos, both inside the ant hill and beyond. They have emotions and intimate relationships. Then one day, a flood comes and totally destroys the ant colony. Totally. There is nothing left — no ants, no ant books, no ant paintings, no remnants. Nothing. Everything is completely destroyed. There’s no trace left in the universe of this magnificent ant colony. The question I ask myself: Did the ant colony have any meaning? And now, after the colony is gone, with no record of its existence, does it have meaning?

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:

We shed as we pick up, like travellers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind. The procession is very long and life is very short. We die on the march. But there is nothing outside the march so nothing can be lost to it. The missing plays of Sophocles will turn up piece by piece, or be written again in another language. Ancient cures for diseases will reveal themselves once more. Mathematical discoveries glimpsed and lost to view will have their time again. You do not suppose, my lady, that if all of Archimedes had been hiding in the great library of Alexandria, we would be at a loss for a corkscrew?

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:

It seems perfectly logical that you design a tool to do one thing, and then you find out that it can do some other things as well. That — you might design a hammer to hammer a nail, but you find that you can also use it as a paperweight and other uses as well. And, of course, when we talk about design here, I’m speaking about natural selections — emergence — or you could say design by God, or you could — whatever your preference is. But, it doesn’t seem unusual to me at all that an organ — in this case, the human brain — that evolved to solve immediate life-or-death problems by a certain strategy that in this case is very high intelligence, that that high intelligence would also lead that brain to ask questions about what is the meaning of the cosmos, and so on.

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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