On finding meaning in Science
There was once a genius young boy. When I use the term genius, I don’t mean the boy was unusually intelligent and intuitive. He wasn’t just smart. He was smart smart. By age 5, the boy had taught himself calculus. By age ten, his grasp of theoretical physics was the same level as a university graduate. He could hold his own in a philosophical debate, and had a good knowledge of history. The boy had largely been home-schooled by tutors as his parents quickly realized his gifts. But he quickly surpassed his tutors in knowledge, his thirst for learning never sated. He was like a sponge, and the questions of the world were his water.
As the boy learnt about the workings of the world, a question began to weigh heavy in his heart. It was a question as old as time, a question that men and women have asked since the dawn of civilization. But the question was doubly heavy for a boy so young.
The boys parents noticed a change in the boy. The boy seemed sad. No.. not so much sad, more as if a dark cloud hung above his head. Melancholy. Pensive. But boys are boys, and for a time they waited, expecting the cloud to lift, and for the sun to shine again. But weeks passed, and it appeared as if the clouds had thickened, they had not seen their boys beautiful smile in some time. That evening, after the family sat down for dinner, the boy’s parents asked the boy if the boy was okay.
‘Son, your mother and I have noticed that you are quiet lately, is everything okay?’ his father asked.
‘Everything is fine dad,’ the boy answered with a weak smile.
‘You know you can always talk to us son, no matter what it is, we love you unconditionally and are here to help,’ his father paused, trying to find the right words to say. ‘Its just, your mother and I have noticed that you seem a little sad’.
‘I’m not sad, that’s not it Dad,’ the boy smiled reassuringly at his parents. In that moment, he seemed more like a young man than a boy of 10. ‘I guess.. I guess I just wonder what the point of all this is?’.
‘I see,’ his father said, ‘the point of what exactly?’.
‘Life I guess,’ the boy answered, ‘Mum and dad, its no secret I’m different from other people my age, I understand things, I question things, it.. it just makes me wonder, with all that I’ve learnt and all that I know about the turnings of the world, is there any meaning to all this, to life I guess’.
It felt good to talk about it, to say those words, to open up to his parents. He had been carrying around that heavy question for some time. The question now felt a little lighter in his heart, the burden he carried weighed a little less.
His parents spoke of the meaning of life, of the importance of family and friendship, of being kind and just and honorable. As answers to questions go, they were good answers. They were the noble answers of good people, and they brought comfort to the boy and filled him with love for his parents. But the boy knew they weren’t the answers he was looking for, they weren’t the right answers. Both the parents and the boy went to bed troubled that night.
In the following years, the boy’s parents moved him into regular schooling. They thought that having friends and playing sports would help the situation. And they were right; there was nothing better for the boy than building healthy, positive relationships. The root cause of unhappiness is generally the relationships in our lives. A poor man with deep, strong relationships can be far happier than a world leader with few meaningful relationships among his associates. So the boy made new friends, he joined the chess club and he was quite a good basketball player. These things made him happy, and he enjoyed doing them. He also liked school, despite generally knowing the topic better than the teacher. In these cases he helped explain the subject to his friends, taking on the role of a tutor for his class mates. He enjoyed teaching and helping others learn, that of all things, brought him the most happiness.
The boy’s curse was not that he was sad or unhappy, so while these changes were good, they did not answer the question in his heart. What is the meaning of all this? What is the purpose of life? The boy was cursed with understanding. He looked at his religious friends, not daring to tell them their imagined human self importance were inconsistent with scientific observation, and he struggled to relate to the troubles of his friends which seemed so minor on a universal scale. This made him feel different, alone. He wondered how life had been so cruel that he must carry this heavy question, the meaning, or lack thereof, of life, while the questions his friends carried where about which character would be victorious on there favorite television show, or which basketball player was the best in a glimpse of time on a 4 billion year old planet.
The town the boy lived in was relatively small, but large enough to have its own university. The university was the prize jewel of the town, a talking point of pride that such a small town was important enough for such an esteemed education facility. The boys mother had contacted the Professor at the university, and asked if she could bring their son along to meet the Professor and to find answers to his questions.
One morning while the boy was about to get ready for school, his mother entered his room and told the boy he wouldn’t be going to school today, but to the university to meet the Professor.
‘I’ve arranged for you to spend some time with him, you can ask him whatever questions you like’ his mother said, kneeling down and putting her hands on her sons shoulder. ‘Son I know I don’t always have the right answers for you and I suspect I or no one ever will. No matter what you believe or do in life, your father and I will always love you, unconditionally and irrevocably’.
She hugged her son in one of those motherly hugs that always seem to say ‘I love you’, and took him to find the answers to his questions.
The Professor was a surprisingly youthful man, with neat hair that was just starting to grey. He had a friendly face, with a smile that broke easily. The boys mother dropped him to the Professors office, and left to wait outside.
‘My boy,’ the Professor exclaimed cheerfully, shaking the boys hand, ‘Come in and have a seat, I understand you are something of a prodigy’.
The boy sat and they shared pleasantries. The boy immediately liked the Professor. It wasn’t a respect for his esteemed position or obvious intelligence and this surprised the boy. It was the kind eyes and gentle voice that seemed genuinely pleased to see the boy. It was the sincerity in his voice. The boy felt comfortable, knowing he was in the company of a good man.
‘So, I’m sure your mother didn’t bring you here to share idle chit chat with a boring professor’, the Professor said, ‘what is it you seek the answers to child?’.
‘Well sir,’ the boy replied, ‘I am trying to work out if life has a meaning. I know the universe was formed in the Big Bang. The earth is about 4 billion years old, and human existence is but a fraction of that time scale. Furthermore, we are highly intelligent, but are still just an animal like the rest here on Earth. It seems my efforts and entire life will be for naught, as the suns fusion reaction will one day run out of hydrogen, or an asteroid will wipe out life on the planet. And the universe is so large, we are so small and insignificant.’
The Professor was taken aback by such a heavy question for one so young, but recovered quickly and his smile returned to his face. ‘I can’t give you the answers you seek. That question is one we must all find our own answer to. But I can help out, come, let’s go for a walk’.
The Professor and boy went for a walk around the University grounds. The Professor had not said anything since leaving his office, and the boy did not want to break the silence. Finally they stopped at a garden bed.
‘Do you see those ants down there?’ the Professor asked.
‘Yes sir’ the boy replied.
‘If they were bigger, twice the size, one hundred times the size, would their life have more meaning?’
The boy shook his head, ‘I don’t think so sir, they would still be small on a universal scale.’
‘What if the earth was bigger then, or the universe was smaller, would our lives have any more meaning?’
Realization dawned on the boy, a smile coming across his face. ‘I never thought of that’ he admitted, ‘it seems quite ridiculous now that size has anything to do with importance or how meaningful something is.’
The Professor was impressed the boy grasped the meaning of his lesson so quickly, but smiled at the boy, ‘It’s a common misconception that human life would be so much more meaningful if only we weren’t so small on the scale of the universe. Profoundly untrue, but we’ve all held the belief at some time or another.’
The boy nodded ‘I realize the flaw in that argument now, but I am still no closer to an answer.’
‘You most certainly aren’t’ the Professor agreed, ‘come along’.
They walked to a nearby building and the Professor began climbing the stairs. The boy followed all the way to the top floor, where the Professor had stopped, leaning against the balcony railing.
‘Do you want to jump off?’ the Professor said, then as if correcting himself, ‘Would you jump off?’.
The boy looked at him shocked, ‘No sir, I would either die or be severely injured’.
‘True,’ the Professor said, ‘but if life has no meaning, it does not matter. Why then, do you not want to do it?’
‘I.. I.. I don’t know’ the boy stammered, ‘I just know I don’t’
‘I suspect it has something to do with evolution and survival instinct, but it is good that you have it,’ the Professor said, ‘I always found it fascinating that one could understand and realize that life can be meaningless, but still want to live, I think it teaches us a lot’
The boy looked over the balcony railing, thinking on the Professors words. The boy knew he did not want to die anytime soon. He had hopes and dreams. He wanted to spend more time with his family and friends. He wanted to help people and make the world a better place. He wanted to contribute to mankind. One day he wanted to fall in love and have a family, and raise his children just liked his parents had raised him.
The Professor looked at the boys thoughtful face, and said ‘Son, I can’t give you the answers you seek, the question you ask is a personal one, and only you can answer it. But I can give you my answer. You will have to find yours for yourself’.
‘When I first asked that question, I was much older than yourself. About 21,’ the Professor said. ‘I thought on it for two full years before I found peace with my answer, and some of that I have tried to teach to you today. The beauty of science is it helps us understand things and find truth, but we’ve all done a very bad job of teaching meaning from it. It is the reason you are here today, because you learnt the truth but failed to find the meaning.’
‘I would argue that I find more meaning in life because I understand the science, I appreciate the worlds beauty and complexity more. I understand it at a fundamental level, but am still awe inspired by even the smallest things, that may be common on Earth, but potentially unique in the entire universe. It gives me perspective about what is truly important to dedicate my life to, it has humbled me and deflated my sense of self importance. I see others as equals and try to treat them that way, crew mates on spaceship Earth. And it helps me dream larger dreams. The world available to me was so very much smaller when my life didn’t have the meaning science has given me. The possibilities are endless, and while the universe may not exist solely for my pleasure, I understand this and appreciate each second I have on this wonderful planet, it drives me to make each second count and leave Earth a better place.’
As answers to questions go, it was a good one.
Inspirations and teaching from Carl Sagan, Thomas Nagel, many others and general life experiences pondering heavy questions.