If there’s no God and no universal consciousness, and human existence is an infinitesimally brief, infinitesimally tiny eyeblink in the vastness of space and time… then what the heck is the point?
After I put up yesterday’s post (How Perfect Is the Universe, Anyway?), I realized that I left it on a bit of a downer. Something I don’t normally like to do. I wrote this whole piece about how it makes no sense to see the universe as having been designed so that human life could come into existence, since the possible lifespan of the human race is pathetically short compared to the ultimate lifespan of the universe… and I pretty much left it there. “Tough cheese, pals,” I basically said. “Suck it up.”
Sorry about that.
Today, I want to take that view of the universe, and try to respond to it with some actual humanist philosophy.
Now, the hardassed, “Reality doesn’t care if it hurts your feelings” response is… well, that reality doesn’t care if it hurts your feelings. The fact that you find reality upsetting doesn’t make it any less real. “I don’t want to live in a world without God” is not an argument for God’s existence. Tough cheese, pals. Suck it up.
But is there a more compassionate answer? A more joyful answer? An answer that doesn’t amount to “Life sucks, then you die”?
Can there be meaning and joy in a universe where human life is essentially an unusual chemical process on one hunk of rock orbiting one of a hundred billion stars in one of a hundred billion galaxies… a chemical process that’s only been going on for about 200,000 of the Universe’s nearly 14 billion years, and that’s pretty much guaranteed to end in another billion years, if not sooner, while the Universe continues to expand forever into an enormous expanse of mostly nothingness?
I think there is.
But it means letting go of a big chunk of ego.
I think this can be one of the hardest things about letting go of religion. It certainly was for me. I hated the idea that my soul wasn’t going to live forever; that there was no God or World-Soul animating the Universe for all eternity who nonetheless cared about my little contribution to it. I found it profoundly upsetting. (Yeah, so I have a bit of an ego. I like to think of myself as important. What’s your point?)
When you let go of religion, your life can still have meaning. You just have to let go of it having meaning on an immense, universal scale. You have to let go of the arrogant belief that the very source and guiding hand of the Universe cares about what you do. You have to scale down the sense of where your life is lived: down from the cosmic, eternal scale, and onto a human, finite scale.
But it’s not like the human scale is any less real for being relatively small and relatively brief.
Here’s a way of looking at it that I find comforting. Let’s pretend, for a moment, that quarks and other sub-atomic particles have consciousness. And think of the quarks in the atoms of, say, your hand. To them, through their quarky little eyes, you would be as big as the galaxy is to you; heck, even as big as the Universe itself, if I’m doing my math right. And the atheist quarks might be having all sorts of identity crises because they’ve realized that the Person doesn’t have any personal knowledge about them, and doesn’t care about them, and that their existence is on an unbelievably minuscule scale compared to that of the Personverse.
But it’s not like the subatomic scale isn’t real, and isn’t important.
In fact, when you let go of the idea of a creator or a world-soul, the whole question of which scale of things is the most important suddenly becomes moot. Because when you let go of the idea of a creator or a world-soul, you then have to ask yourself, “Important to whom?”
Being an atheist means that you don’t have to be a size queen. There’s no reason the cosmic scale of galaxies and universes is objectively more important than the human scale… any more than the human scale is objectively more important than the subatomic scale. We are, in the immortal words of Mickey Mantle, children of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars, yada yada yada.
We’re just no more than the trees and the stars, either.
In an atheist world view, the only thing that cares about us is other people. Other flawed, crazy, messy people, living on the same human scale that we are. (Well, plus some cats and dogs and stuff… but you know what I mean.) There’s no immense, eternal, perfect being watching our every move, feeling elated at our triumphs and devastated by our failures. Just a bunch of other screwed-up bags of water and flesh, with their own problems.
And this can be a hard pill to swallow. It can be hard to ask yourself, as Douglas Adams put it in the first Hitchhiker’s book, “Does it really, cosmically speaking, matter if I don’t get up and go to work?”… and have the answer be a pretty resounding, “No.”
But it also relieves us of a certain amount of responsibility. I mean, I have a hard enough time feeling hyper- responsible just on a human scale. I have a hard enough time with the burden of responsibility for the effect I have on poverty and racism and corporate imperialism and global warming. It’s kind of a relief to not have to worry about whether I’m letting down the World-Soul as well.
And I think it’s a mistake to think that longevity is the truest measure of importance or value. A five-minute dance in the park can be more valuable than an ugly abandoned building that never gets torn down; a half-second of transcendent joy and connection with a lover can be more important than a boring job that you slogged through for ten years. The movie “Rivers and Tides” was a profound influence on me for that reason: it reminded me that fleeting moments are every bit as valuable as stone monuments. In fact, fleeting moments are really all we have. We should make the best of them.
And finally, if you want to be all egoistic about it…
As far as we know, we’re the only beings in the Universe with consciousness. (Well, again, us and maybe dogs and cats and stuff.) And that doesn’t just mean that we get to create meaning for ourselves. It means that we get to decide which scale is the important one. In fact, if we are the only beings in the Universe with consciousness, our scale is the most important one, pretty much by definition… since “importance” is a concept that only makes sense if you have consciousness. The scale of living things is arguably the scale that matters most… since livings things are the only things to whom anything can matter.
Contrary to the canards that get tossed around about atheists by people who’ve never bothered to talk to one, atheism doesn’t mean that life has no meaning. It simply means that we get to create our own meaning. The meaning of our lives isn’t handed to us by someone else: we get to choose the meaning of our lives, based on the wiring of our brains and the values of our culture and the experiences that we and we alone have had.
And the same is true for the importance of our lives. Being an atheist doesn’t mean that life isn’t important. It means that we get to create our own sense of importance. The human scale is where we live. It’s what we have. And if we decide that that’s the most important scale for us, there’s nobody out there to tell us otherwise.