Philosophy is to be studied, not for the sake of any definite answers to its questions, since no definite answers can, as a rule, be known to be true, but rather for the sake of the questions themselves; because these questions enlarge our conception of what is possible, enrich our intellectual imagination and diminish the dogmatic assurance which closes the mind against speculation; but above all because, through the greatness of the universe which philosophy contemplates, the mind also is rendered great, and becomes capable of that union with the universe which constitutes its highest good.
What day is it? I check my so-called-smart phone. It’s Wednesday. I grin as I notice the tiny label in the corner of the screen: No Service. Who cares? I’ve had no cellular phone for more than half my life. The little gadget in my hand, possessing more computing power than the room-size IBM mainframe I first learned to program on, is silently and futilely calling out to whatever cellular tower might hear its puny signal. I visualize the invisible radio waves floating over the grand desert before me, fading away into the hazy horizon.
I am listening to the calls of various birds and insects scattered in the landscape around me. I spent the last three days camped in a forest clearing by the edge of an alpine lake, on top of a volcanic plateau, high above the sandstone desert. Around me, a forest of fir and spruce trees still harbors remnants of last winter’s snows in shaded recesses. The meadow I’m in is dotted with new blooms: buttercups and dandelions, penstemons and columbines, sky pilot and prairie smoke, and many others. Small blue butterflies hover among the flowers, sometimes gathering around a patch of wet soil for a drink of water. On occasion, a trout jumps out of the little lake making a small splash. A chorus of coyotes greeted each of the preceding evenings with enthusiastic barks and howls.
By coincidence, I get to witness the scene before me at a time in Earth’s history marked by the dominion of a species of hairless primates, one of which I happen to be—now the only, and likely last, surviving member of its genus. Geologically speaking, this volcanic plateau was formed just recently. The lava cooled into rock just a few million years ago (still about an order of magnitude longer than my species has been in existence). On the scale of geologic time, this volcanic plateau is eroding under my feet as I write; its debris, along with those of the magnificent sandstone desert below, which is also eroding rapidly, will ultimately wash away into the Pacific Ocean in just another blink of the geologic eye. Someday, when all this rock is gone, and for several hundred million years after the last of the hairless primates will have likely departed, new life may continue to evolve that is beyond my ability to envision. A couple of billion years after that, this planet, and the star whose light now illuminates the scene before me—one of an estimated septillion (a trillion trillion) others in this universe—will also be no more.
All our stories and dramas, politics and myths, cultures and empires, sciences and arts—our very existence as living beings and as arrangements of particles—will, as far as we know, someday be erased beyond recall, and there is not a thing we can do to change that. We are each a tiny part of the cosmic churn, already at work for billions of years, with unknown billions of years yet to come.
As far as we can know, there is no meaning to existence in any objective, universal, sense (if there is, it is likely beyond our ability to find, perhaps even to understand). Meaning only exists in the realm of the subjective, and only for the duration of one’s conscious living. But this is a philosophical, rather than a practical, distinction. From a practical standpoint, it doesn’t matter whether meaning is inherent in the universe or is just the sensation of neurons signaling to each other in some parts of our brains we consider as conscious. Being ephemeral entities, ephemeral meaning is all we have, regardless of whether that meaning is real in any sense outside ourselves. The absence of universal meaning frees us to make our own.
To consider existence on a cosmic scale—the only scale that is not bound arbitrarily to the limitations of our minds, to the brevity of our lives, or to any other context—is profoundly liberating, because when factored into practical decisions on how to live, let alone how to create, the recognition of our insignificance often leads to different priorities than those rooted in contrived considerations such as popularity, legacy, fame, ideology, or mythology. What good are any of these if in pursuing them we end up spending our all-too-brief spans of conscious existence in bitterness and anxiety, anger and frustration, rivalry and war, needless labor and mindless compliance with tribal rites long rendered obsolete by knowledge and technology?
In biological terms, our species has accomplished many firsts (at least on this tiny planet), perhaps the most notable of which is what we consider to be our high intelligence relative to other forms of life. In this sense, intelligence can be compared with the sense of sight: both make possible knowledge and perceptions not attainable by other means, and that can be put to great benefit. Indeed, the first creatures to evolve a sense of sight had tremendous advantage over other beings. Still, our sense of vision today is far and beyond what those first sighted creatures had. And who’s to say that our celebrated intelligence is not similarly a first, rather than the ultimate, of its kind? Some of our best sciences: neuroscience, evolutionary biology, psychology, to name a few, leave little doubt that we remain to a large degree slaves to our primitive urges, and that many of our perceptions of the world are just temporarily-useful delusions. Certainly, there remains much room for future evolutionary improvement. That is, unless our much-hyped intelligence, driven by primitive urges— competition, greed, and lust for power—will prove ultimately to be a blade sharper than we can be trusted to wield, and lead us to eradicate life from this planet entirely.
We are a species in transition, but we are also the first species on this planet capable of deriving more value from our existence than just satisfying our material needs and passing on our genes. We may well consider ourselves the first species in a position to consider and to influence not only our fitness to our world, but also our world’s fitness to us.
So long as we allow our primitive urges to supplant those things we know—by way of our intellect—can make our living experiences not only richer, but also more sustainable, and better fit to our changing environment and limited resources, we are likely to bring about our own extinction, just as the great majority of species to exist on this planet, have. Extinction, after all, is the most natural and predictable fate of any species. Such is the ruthless indifference of natural selection. “Mother” nature’s design is not benevolent; it is to kill all its children, sometimes in horrific ways, so it can continue to evolve better-fit ones, until nothing is left to fit into. To the natural order of life, “better” means just one thing: having a greater chance of passing one’s genetic blueprint to future generations. In this sense, the natural order is at deep philosophical odds with our interests as living beings, whose rational definition of “better” is (or should be) to maximize the value of our brief spans of conscious living, while we are alive.
Among the modes of thought considered as “common sense” among our species, is the need for allegiance to some tribe—a culture, a country, the human species. Many align their sense of goodness and purpose with what’s good for their tribe, or, among those who consider themselves more enlightened, what’s good for the perpetuation of the human species. But why would any of us living today care what empire may rule the human world in a thousand years; or whether, a million years from now, the highest form of life on Earth will be human or some other intelligent ape, or some intelligent (or unintelligent) insect, rodent, or reptile, or some other form of life not yet in existence? Or whether, long after our passing, the Earth, or any other place, will harbor any life at all. So far as we can predict it, a time will come when this universe will no longer be able to sustain life as we know it.
This may seem a pessimistic view, but in fact I believe it to be the opposite because it implies that we should free ourselves from the constraints of worrying about things that we have no rational reason to worry about, and from whatever contrived responsibilities we assume for ourselves in the name of allegiance to tribes, rites, and ideologies that have outlived their usefulness. Only in such freedom of mind can we appreciate beauty and goodness in the purest forms available to us, and assign to them meanings in relation only to the experience of being alive and conscious; without need for, or distraction by, any other context or justification. Only in such freedom from the frustrations of speculations about, and pursuit of, meanings not available to us (and that may not even exist), can we find meaning in the subjective, within our times as living beings—the only kind of meaning available to us (“us” meaning the most advanced life form at this random point in time we call “now,” with hundreds of millions of years of evolution still remaining on this inconsequential clump of cosmic dust, in an existence vast beyond our ability to imagine, let alone comprehend).
Now, to think that, rather than appreciating my living experience in such magnificent surroundings, contemplating such thoughts, I could have spent this time in idle banter, arguing with strangers, bored and frustrated with mundane trivia, work, political turmoil, celebrity gossip, and other maladies of the modern human world, or perhaps building up my online presence, pandering to attract new fans, or being amused by entertaining distractions, if only I had “service.”