The Void and I: A Story About Everything
Scene one: I don’t believe in God, I think to myself, comparing It to the sum of the ten digits I have finished colliding in my head. Numbers make sense to me. God doesn’t make any sense. I’m sitting in the washroom as I do this, trying to piece together the things going on in my life, many of which don’t seem fair. I have seen a lot in a short period. I have lived through a lot in a short period. I’m not very old. In fact, I’m young enough to be losing the kind of innocence that I don’t even realize I have.
Thought one: Reading is an interactive activity. To get the most out of something, particularly non-fiction, you have to go into the mind of the writer and try to replicate their thinking patterns in your own mind. The words on the page themselves are secondary. It’s the dance they create that matters — the context in which they are meant to be understood. It means that words can’t be looked at as static. They have to be dynamic. Reading the King James Bible, for example, makes no sense if you are going to read it like you would, say, Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species.
Scene two: It’s spring, and the sun is mellow but bright, the wind light on the skin, the grass greener than yesterday. We are walking to class after our first break, and my friends are laughing with me. Everything is as it should be, but I feel a pang of guilt. I saw the look on that kid’s face before we left, and I know that we almost made him cry. We have been laughing at him for the past few days. But he’s annoying, and sometimes I’m nice to him, and he knows that I don’t really mean it. What does it matter anyway?
Thought two: Writing is a generative activity. Words have their limitations in reflecting reality, but there are times when what comes out on the page is a more complete representation of your thinking patterns than the patterns you are consciously aware of. Much of what we consume or understand concerning our actions in the world gets stored beneath the surface, but it still influences how we go about life in meaningful ways. This is stuff that we don’t know how to talk about because it’s not stuff that can be talked about. Writing momentarily changes that. When you are in that state of flow, you have access to corners of the mind that are otherwise shut.
Scene three: It’s 1 PM. I’m mildly bothered that I am awake because my day usually starts an hour or two later. But I guess I don’t actually mind, because at this point in my life, I don’t mind most things. I get out of bed, walk to the fridge, and grab a bottle of Lucky Lager. It’s what you drink as a student. It’s what I — waking up feeling like I have a hole in my brain — drink as a student. I don’t know that cocaine is physically doing that to me yet, but I’m becoming more and more intimate with the feeling. A beer helps. A workout, too. Lectures don’t. At night, the bar does.
Thought three: Earlier this year, John Nerst wrote 30 Fundamentals to talk about his personal beliefs and assumptions. I learned a lot because it gave me exactly the context needed to make sense of his other pieces. It also verbalized many things that I also understand about the world but had never thought to put into words. My writing is still young. In fact, I’m still young. Both it and I are evolving, and I’m not sure where it’s all leading. That said, there are now general premises behind what I write, and I think it’s good for readers to know what they are and also for me to give things a concrete form as a way to understand what’s going on.
Scene four: There is a message on my phone. It’s the first time I see her name after our post-breakup conversation. I remember it being friendly and secure. It was also sad. “Did you hear that [a mutual acquaintance] passed away,” the message reads. I did. And I feel like I should care, that I want to care — to show some kind of emotion. But it has already happened, and it’s not like my caring is going to change anything. “Yeah” is all I say. It’s the last time we speak.
Thought four: Like John’s piece, this one started off in a list format, but I soon realized that I have way too many thoughts going in way too many directions and a list wouldn’t adequately capture everything in the way I would want it to. This format, naturally, still doesn’t capture everything, but it does fill in most of the gaps, and it does make it more interesting for me personally. It’s also maybe more helpful to someone who is having similar thoughts but hasn’t had the time to give form to them. In the sections ahead, I touch on everything from the big questions of reality and truth to the more immediate ones concerning purpose, meaning, and morality, all as I try to uncover the relationship between history, culture, the present moment, problems and solutions, and where we are going in the future. Different parts will interest different people, but I think if you take the time to read each section, it starts to fall into place in a way that’s at least interesting.
Scene five: I wake up in the middle of the night and notice tears in my eyes. This is new — different. I’m not sure what to think. I know that I’m not depressed; not anxious; I don’t even think I’m lonely. But what’s left? I can’t put my finger on it. It feels like the whole Universe is silent — that it’s right here, everywhere, inside of me, outside of me, and that it has nothing to say to me, nothing to ask of me. I sit with it. I watch it. This silence has been growing for years I suddenly realize, and until now, I have just done a good job of either distracting myself or intellectualizing it away. I know that this can’t be the truth. I decide it’s time for a change.
Thought five: This is not a theory, or an ideology, or anything of the sort. It’s a story — from one personal, fallible point of view. Naturally, given that it’s a story and that it reaches across so many disciplines, I make compromises. Wherever I have used and referenced someone else’s work in a way that doesn’t make sense, the fault is most likely my own. Wherever you feel a hint of originality sparkling through, the inspiration is likely someone that I have either forgot to mention, or whose influence I didn’t realize, or whose name I didn’t reference for some other reason. Any effort like this is always going to fall short. I’m fine with that. Let’s see where it takes us.
I. Reality and Truth
“I think, therefore I am,” Rene Descartes famously wrote, uncovering the fertile ground for his philosophy. My own starting point? Something is.
Before I go on, I will say this: For most of my life, I have been a scientific materialist — as in, what most atheists implicitly are (I’m still an atheist, too). I’m willing to concede that it may still be likely, but the more I think about it, the less appealing it seems. I’m making this clear before I dive in because some of the following might sound superstitious unless you’re familiar with metaphysical and ontological claims in philosophy.
So: What is this “something”? Different people call it different things, but it’s the only objective thing that exists: Consciousness. While we can think of it as objective, it is only ever experienced as change, and it can’t be pinned down in language without distorting it. That said, I roughly like Process philosophy, as per Alfred North Whitehead, and some Continental philosophy.
(I’m skipping a lot of steps here, going from suggesting that “Something is” to actually answering that question, but I’m aiming more for clarity than a show of pure reasoning. I know that I can’t do philosophical logic even the slightest bit of justice here, hence the curiosity is to make interesting connections rather than to build a complete framework.)
Consciousness is mathematically infinite (or Absolute Infinity as defined by the mathematician Georg Cantor), and it’s also what we think of as the void. Around 13.799 billion years ago, a state which we call the singularity sparked this void, giving birth to the Universe, including space and time, energy and matter, and the laws of physics as we know them. As space began to expand after this event — called the Big Bang — atoms formed from elementary particles, stars and galaxies emerged, and at some point, planets — among them Earth — came to be. This is all basic physics and chemistry. As we fast forward to Earth, we see biological evolution begin to work its magic, giving us the diversity we observe in the biosphere.
I’ve created a nice distinction here between Consciousness and the Universe, but in actuality, they are tangled with one another: two sides of the same coin. This is why, I suspect, that conscious agents do have a form of creative free-will even though the hypothetically deterministic laws of physics negate the possibility. In Buddhism, the concepts of Form, Emptiness, and Non-Duality are used, which is roughly where I stand, but they are even harder to talk about. The Vedantic view (with their slightly contradictory concept of true self) perhaps captures this most accurately, but again, I think the differences are mainly born from semantic difficulties.
The main point is that I don’t think Consciousness is a product of evolution. I think that Consciousness is primary. Evolution simply organizes physical matter in such a way as to create a body (what we call life) — with specific abilities, adapted to specific ecologies — that provides an opportunity for this elementary Consciousness to observe itself as a part of the Universe. As such, other animals are conscious, too, but in a different way because they have different bodies. Here I’m on board with much of Riccardo Manzotti’s Spread Mind theory (as wild as it is).
Although Consciousness is objective and non-dual — a kind of oneness — the fact that we all have different bodies through which this Consciousness manifests for us, we experience the world relatively. We all collect fragments of different spaces, smells, tastes, sounds, and sights, and over time, they all come together — due to our ability to connect them via abstract thinking patterns — to create our individual, subjective self, something that uses memory to highlight the separation between our body and everything else, which I’ll talk more about in the next section.
As for science, it allows us to use these same abstract thinking patterns to create knowledge, but this knowledge isn’t about truth; it’s about utility — about what works, with some degree of certainty, under particular conditions. (This is my epistemological position in general, applied to other avenues of knowledge, too.) Truth itself, or Consciousness, is infinite and can’t be measured by science, but the utility science provides will slowly reach towards this truth. We will infinitely keep getting closer but never quite get there, as per the beginning of infinity hypothesis of David Deutsch. As far as the philosophy of science goes, I think Karl Popper’s falsifiability and Thomas Kuhn’s paradigms can complement each other.
Now, due to the fact that the truth is infinite and that no linguistic or mathematical framework can fully capture it, contradictions will always be inherent in our understanding of reality, as assumed by Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorems. Because we can’t capture the whole truth when talking about it, there is no ultimate foundation that we can build a map of reality on, and thus everything is bound by context. In one context, one thing is right. In another, something else is. That said, some forms of scientific knowledge, especially in physics, are sturdy enough to be right in pretty much all contexts — meaning different truths have a different reach, and the reach of physics is currently the gold standard.
There is a crucial point to be made here: Just because human truths are contextual (based on utility) and because subjectivity makes our individual and collective experience relative, it doesn’t mean that one thing can’t be truer than another thing when they come into conflict. We can think of each context as a smaller part of a whole, and each one has a particular truth that makes the most sense based on how well it fits with the situation. When two different contexts (parts) come into conflict, we have to merge them (into a whole) and then evaluate what is most true relative to this new context, and this can go on and go on towards infinity.
At some point in the future, the scientific method will have to evolve if it is to effectively study utility beyond just the world of matter. We will need a better version of science to effectively study Consciousness itself. Buddhism has been doing this through meditation for millennia, and Continental philosophy has started to do this via language. I suspect they will both merge in an interesting way for us to take the next step, and I also suspect that more complex forms of art will play a role in understanding the objective in the future. As the poet John Keats said: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.”
II. Personality and Self
In the second part of the Genesis creation narrative, God supposedly created Adam, the first man, from the dust of the Earth and then subsequently Eve, as his companion, both to live in the mythical Garden of Eden. After their original sin, however, they were banished from this Garden, which catalyzed the creation of human civilization on Earth as we know it today.
I’m sympathetic to the literary and moral value of this story, but I personally trust that evolution has greater explanatory power. Just as the Second Law of Thermodynamics (stating that the total entropy, or disorder, in the Universe will increase over time) is inherent to reality, so is evolution, which has been in motion since the Big Bang.
On Earth, approximately 4 billion years ago, biological life emerged due to this process. What makes biological systems different is that they use energy in such an efficient way as to create order, even though the Universe around them is decaying due to the Second Law. There are good arguments that evolution is a fight against this decay. Now, does evolution have a purpose or is it completely random? I personally lean towards randomness, where evolution creates variation and then selects traits based on how well they fit the environment, blindly going on. That said — and young me would have hated to even ponder this — I don’t think it’s insane to consider that there’s something else going on at a larger scale of emergence.
Nonetheless, humans are just one species in a long line of progress. With time, living systems have gotten more complex as to adapt themselves for survival in different ecologies. The biodiversity that we see on Earth is a result of different evolutionary pressures forcing the selection of different traits in species. Humans have different bodies than, say, lions, because over millions and millions of years, our living situations and our demands have diverged, leading to different needs and uses.
Each body, whether it’s that of a human or a lion, provides an opportunity for Consciousness to be experienced, but the actual experience, of course, varies based on the capabilities of the body. All humans have similar bodies, which is what makes us a species, and that also means that there is such a thing as human nature — deeply embedded behavioral patterns that manifest in reality pretty consistently — and it explains a lot of what has played out in history. Evolutionary psychology does have a place.
Each person has a genome that is a mix of what their parents gave them. This means that all of us are born different in various, complex ways. When it comes to how we look, nobody would argue this fact. But for some reason, the idea that some people have bodies that are innately suited to make better logical connections or to play certain sports or [insert a different biological advantage] seems to cause grief. I think it’s important to note that nature isn’t destiny, but it’s just as important to acknowledge that it does play a huge role in how we experience Consciousness.
IQ tests and the Big Five personality traits aren’t by any means perfect, but they do adequately measure these differences between us. While I’m not for extrapolating too much based on them, it’s important to acknowledge their role so that we can more honestly use some of their information to help play everyone to their specific strengths.
Personality — which I will broadly use to term a body and its brain’s general disposition towards particular traits and desires — is real. The self, the voice in the brain that we all live with, — or what we think of as our identity — however, isn’t. Personality does play a big role in shaping the direction in which the self develops (and the self, in turn, shapes some parts of the personality), but the self is a product of our random cultural conditioning, which I will talk more about in the next section.
When we are born, our body has no self. There is no I there, and even other people aren’t yet distinguished as objects or persons. Our conscious experience is pure sensations, something neuroscientists call affect — a label I personally use for any state of consciousness experienced by a human (my understanding here comes from Lisa Feldman Barrett’s work on the theory of constructed emotions). Nonetheless, slowly, as we begin to move around in the world, and as we begin to relate to language, we create conceptual models to draw different boundaries within this experience of affect.
At first, these conceptual models are built using metaphors that are learned via how the body moves in the world (George Lakoff’s work). Eventually, however, language helps solidify these metaphors into concrete thinking patterns, which are essentially habitual modes of reasoning that clarify how we relate our body to the outer world. These thinking patterns and the conceptual models they form in our mind eventually merge to create a sense of self that we use to interact with reality. This is what we commonly call our subjective experience, and it’s built on the memories we store about how this self relates to the broader world.
At its core, the self is our meaning-making apparatus. Over time, it makes sense of our experience of affect — which includes emotions, movements, and thoughts — to add coherence to it, turning it into a story. Our affect operates within the pleasure-pain axis, meaning that our body uses information from the outside world to create an experience that ranges between good and bad. In simplistic language, if you feel good, you have been rewarded for an action that is worth doing again; if you feel bad, then it’s time to do something else or rethink your situation. This axis is far more diverse, granular, and complex than simply good and bad, but this is roughly how we learn.
Over time, our cultural environment conditions this self in various unobvious ways that shape how we interact with reality, influencing our wants and our desires, our modes of reasoning and our general biases. Contemplative traditions like Buddhism aim to deconstruct the self by shifting what the mind pays attention to so that we can watch the desires of the biological personality underneath. Much suffering in the world is born from the fact people have constructed a self that is conflicted in various ways, especially as it relates to purpose and meaning, which I’ll talk more about in a couple of sections.
Some advanced meditators and other mystics claim to be able to reach a blissful state of pure Consciousness — which is often called enlightenment or awakening — where the illusion of the self completely vanishes, where they experience mystical oneness. This is likely a state similar to what we imagine newborns are in, except that the practitioners have transcended the self and can use it to operate in harmony with the world, as opposed to being overwhelmed by the initial cluelessness of birth and life.
There was a time when I was skeptical of such claims, but as I’ve explored more across different cultures and traditions, this skepticism has faded. I still won’t go as far as to suggest that these experiences tell us anything certain about the nature of reality other than the fact that there is more to the mind than most people commonly think, but it would also be dishonest of me not to acknowledge the extent of their influence on how I see things.
There is an old Zen kōan — a kind of dialogue or story used in the tradition to test a student’s progress or to provide guidance — that summarizes my own intellectual progression in this particular area. It illustrates the difference between the silence I heard when I lived to make sense of everything linguistically compared to the same space seen directly. It refers to an interaction been an old Japanese master and a university professor who has come to visit him to learn more about their way.
As the master receives the man, he quietly begins to fill an empty cup with tea. He does this until the liquid reaches the brim but doesn’t stop. He doesn’t at all pay attention to the guest. He pours and pours and pours. Confused, the professor watches this for a while, until he can no longer restrain himself, blurting: “It’s overfull. No more will go in!”
“Like this cup, you are full of your own opinions and speculations,” the master says. “How can I show you the way unless you first empty your cup?”
III. History and Culture
The cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker argued that humans are the only animal that can imagine the future, and as such, imagine a world in which they are no longer alive. Because we are aware of our mortal body, we instead create a symbolic self (as discussed). This self is immaterial, and it has the potential to defy the destiny of death. What we call culture is the immortal battle-ground of all of our interconnected selves.
Just like the biosphere emerged some 4 billion years ago and then evolved to become more complex, a collective conscious reality of human minds emerged as we began to create selves, culminating in a large network of connected nodes. This reality is a separate plane of existence — a social sphere that evolves and selects ideas just like evolution in the biosphere selects genes. In fact, it’s this collective consciousness that makes us so different from other animals in nature; that allows us to transcend the limitations of the human body to alter space and time in a way we otherwise wouldn’t.
No other animal can cooperate as flexibly and in as large of numbers as we can because they don’t have this extra plane of existence. It’s what gives us ideologies and religions, knowledge and myths, norms and morality, technologies and artefacts— all things that have pushed progress from a life of hunting and gathering to a civilized world in which we have spaceships and museums and corporations and the internet.
History is the name we give to this cumulative movement of culture, and it’s driven by language, embodied in reality via oral traditions, books, and modern media devices. The successful ideas (or memes) in culture are the language games that have survived the onslaught the great destroyer: time. The survival of a language game depends on three things: utility, or how useful it is to our brains; replicability, or how easy it is moved from one mind to another; and most importantly, objectification, or how tangible it is as a systematic physical structure (like a church) and how much is sacrificed to it through time and effort as a ritual (like a prayer).
Old ideas are defended by existing systematic structures and rituals, even if they have lost their utility. New ideas have to win over minds far more persuasively (with either utility or replicability) before they can perpetuate themselves over time through structures and rituals. Just like the biosphere has continued to evolve and progress as life has gotten more and more complex, so history continues to evolve and progress as culture has gotten more and more complex. Today, as the social reality has moved to the internet, becoming even more interconnected, we are seeing even further cultural complexity in shorter periods.
If we hypothetically imagine the first cultures, they would have been shaped by a collection of selves that collided with each other, mostly being driven by their bodily personalities. As new individuals began to be born into existing cultures, however, the pressure dynamic switched: it was now cultures that predominantly conditioned the selves on top of the bodily personalities. Cultures began to perpetuate themselves in human minds by programming them as they grew up within their bounds. While personality is a product of a body, connecting us to the biosphere, the self is a product of culture, connecting to the collective social consciousness.
This brings us to the main course: I don’t believe the existence of culture has improved average individual happiness. What we think of as happiness depends on the relationship between our subjective experience and the objective world. Roughly speaking, when our expectations are met by reality, we are happy. When they are not, we experience dissatisfaction. This is deeply embedded in our biological hardware, and it doesn’t matter how much culture improves the external world. Happiness is relative to your relationship to things, which is (mostly) an inside job. Sure, living in a world with lower child mortality and less total crime matters, but once you learn to expect that, your anchor readjusts. In fact, in many ways, given the diverse world we live in, with the constant choices and comparison, a world so different from the environment we evolved for, we are now perhaps more depressed and anxious than we have ever been, at least in the West.
This isn’t a new insight, but it generally leads the believer in one direction: progress is evil, capitalism is soul-sucking, and we need to put a stop to it and focus inward and inward alone. This is a problem, too. It fails to realize that cultural progress isn’t a choice we can deny. It’s just what humans do. Ever since the social reality emerged all those thousands of years ago, there has been nothing we can do to stop it from evolving. We may temporarily be able to halt it and limit it in one place, but over a long enough timeline, it will re-emerge and re-evolve, and trying to stagnate it is its own form of tyranny. The best we can do is recognize the problems and point this evolution in the right direction, hoping that one day it improves our average individual happiness, too, which is more than possible. Even if it doesn’t, culture has now created the potential for what we call purpose and meaning, which are now more important to our health and well-being than simple happiness — something I’ll talk about in the next section.
To add to that, progress actually isn’t evil. It’s the driver of all things we think of as good and true. Contrary to our implicit assumptions, there is no objective law of nature that says you should be kind, love your neighbor, and value human rights. Like culture, morality is an emergent phenomenon. Humans are a social animal, and that has given us a conscience. That said, this conscience isn’t always fair. It might care that you cheated a loved one or a tribal member, but it doesn’t innately care if you murder a stranger. And yet, most of our psyches today would care a lot if we murdered a stranger, even if we got away with it. What has changed?
The answer is norms and standards. Due to progress, we have moved from a world of relative scarcity to relative abundance. This means that we have been able to bring more people into a collective community of shared resources over time, which has in turn expanded our circle of empathy. Our tribe has grown from a few hundred to the whole world. We, of course, still fight and argue within this world, but overall, it’s broadly understood that every human life has value. Now, being raised in a world where this is collectively understood, our minds get deeply conditioned to abide accordingly, whether we explicitly want to or not. The alternative is what you observe in a Dostoevsky character, even after they have committed the perfect crime: a conscience tortured by isolation, guilt, and loneliness.
If we consider our impact on Earth and on other sentient beings, humans are perhaps the most destructive animal to ever walk the planet. That’s hard to deny. But we are also the only animal to show the potential for a world of unbounded love and decreasing violence, both of which have their roots planted on the ground formed by progress and cultural evolution. We may be a blip in the Universe, and all of this speculation may be completely off-base, but this simple fact is of such obvious value that even if nothing means anything, the light of moral goodness we have ignited is worth spreading, even if only to see where it could lead us. We are a species approximately 200,000 years young. That’s compared to an average mammalian species that lives for 2 million years. In a relatively short period, we have come far. If we survive long enough, there is no telling how far we can still go, what good we can create, which corners of the galaxy we can explore.
Today, the biggest problem we face is the juxtaposition of this hope, this light, that cultural progress shines in the world with the obvious dissatisfaction many of us collectively feel even as it continues to do its work. Part of the issue is that just as progress has solved many of our problems, it has also brought new ones with it, as it always does. We may be less violent, but modern tools have created greater existential risk. Technology may have set us free, but it’s also ruling our lives in unanticipated ways. Earth may be our playground, but the climate is now fighting back. All of these are true, but they are also things that further progress can potentially solve if we do the work.
There is, however, a deeper, thornier issue that needs to be addressed, one that is partially responsible for our modern misery, and the solution to which could potentially even bring us together in such a way as to help us fight some of the problems that have been created by progress.
It’s often said that Western civilization is a footnote to the Greek philosopher Plato, the man who indirectly inspired the birth of Christianity and consequently shaped the direction of modern civilization with his ideas. Well, I think we are now living in a new epoch, one where West and East have collided, one that will in hindsight be looked back on as a footnote to Friedrich Nietzsche. For the past few hundred years, culturally, we have been stumbling from one broken paradigm to another, but the most important question remains: How do we live in a world without God?
IV. Purpose and Meaning
Religious and supernatural beliefs are human universals — that is, some form of them exist in every single culture that we have studied. The reason is that nature is incredibly complex, and not only do we not have enough knowledge yet to fully understand it, but even if we did, our brains wouldn’t be capable of translating all of this knowledge into understanding.
To condense complexity, we use heuristics, particularly stories. These are never literal truths, but they are both true and simple enough for practical purposes, like providing moral frameworks that we can use to build the backbone of civilization. Hence, God and religion aren’t about metaphysics; they are about survival. Given that we are animals, survival comes before truth, and these beliefs are indeed logical from a utility perspective. Ironically many atheists who feel strongly about these beliefs have their own superstitions that they live by to survive, except that these are often more hidden. This isn’t something we can help.
The reason Nietzsche is so important is that he was more of a cultural philosopher than he was a metaphysician or logician concerned with a grand theory of everything. He realized that with the Age of Enlightenment, which helped drive science and elevate reason, we had slowly started to kill God, and with Him, the structure underlying modern civilization. This, he saw as the defining problem of the future, the solution to which he claimed to have found but never comprehensively wrote down in a useful way.
Nietzsche lived in the period known as modernism, which indeed rejected God, but replaced Him with other grand narratives inspired particularly by the Industrial Revolution, like the infallibility of progress — an ideology still influential today in leading thinkers. But skepticism about these narratives began to build up, and in the 20th-century, we started to see the dominance of post-modernism, which in many ways has its roots in Nietzsche but leads in the opposite direction. Post-modernism deconstructs everything from meaning to truth, leading exactly to the problem that Nietzsche was trying to avoid — nihilism. It says that there are no narratives and that knowledge and beauty and everything we value is all subjective.
Now, these descriptions of both modernism and post-modernism are quite simplistic. The actual philosophies and the thinkers in both movements identified real problems and tried to provide real tools to deal with them. Anyone that claims alliance to one while completely discounting the other likely hasn’t done the work required to understand the core issues. That said, while these simplistic descriptions may not be directly representative of the leading thinkers in each school, in terms of the trickle-down cultural impact on the day-to-day lives of the people who have lived in these periods, they are broadly right. Modernism buried God and replaced Him with a different grand narrative; post-modernism destroyed all narratives.
For more than 2,000 years, with the fuel provided by the philosophy of Plato, in spite of His shortcomings, God gave us direction. The arguments that staunch atheists — like, say, Sam Harris whom I respect — make is that civilization and its norms have come far enough that we no longer need God to provide a moral framework — something I agree with, but it doesn’t mean that we have replaced the purpose and the meaning functions that God once provided us with. On the other side, you have people like Jordan Peterson — whom I also respect —arguing that humans need to be told what to do by some objective force to keep them in check from their darker sides, which I also agree with in part. The problem? Nietzsche was right: We are way too far past the stage where we can get everyone to believe in the old God.
Today, we are stuck in a strange predicament: With the blood of post-modernism flowing through us, we no longer explicitly believe in anything. But given that humans aren’t programmed to simply not believe in anything, the modernist narrative of progress is still what implicitly guides us. We may not call this progress God, but for all intents and purposes, it is currently our God, which it’s not suited to be. When progress becomes God, hedonism, materialism, and atomization become our source of meaning — all of which have a short shelf-life. This is what has created the tension between the good that progress continues to create and the collective misery we feel living in this supposed utopia. Now, the question: What’s next?
My thinking here has been influenced by David Chapman and his Meaningness framework. His solution, if I understand it correctly, is to push culture towards what he calls fluidity (other sources are labeling this meta-modernism) which respects part of the certainty of modernism and its attempts to keep us pushing, while also valuing the inherent uncertainty made clear by post-modernism. In other words, there is purpose and there is meaning, but neither are fixed. They are not objective, or given by some God (or in the case of modernism, by progress), but they’re also not entirely subjective, or meaninglessly made up in our own minds, as per post-modernism. They emerge from the interaction between the subject — the self, the you — and the conception of an object.
Human culture as an entity is the most advanced known expression of Consciousness, and we now live in a world where no single part of this culture — whether that be a particular ideology with a God at the helm or the modernist assumption that progress alone will carry the mantle — can do the whole job. The total entity, however, changes and evolves in a way that, on the whole, has the potential to create more and more goodness in reality as we know it. In my mind, fluidity sees culture itself as a living, breathing thing.
This switch — from God being a creation of culture that then transcends itself to give us objective morality and, subsequently, purpose and meaning to culture essentially being its own life-force — means that when it comes to determining how we are to act in the world, the focus turns away from objects and subjects to interactions — to how things relate to each other. The power of the social reality is that it’s built on connections between different nodes, and the power of connections is that they can be shaped by agency — by how a particular self chooses to relate to something from moment to moment.
In a fluid culture, we no longer have a defined purpose, but the simple fact that it evolves and spreads the moral brightness that illuminates our tiny speck of dust in a very large cosmos means that there is a purpose to our actions even if we can’t predict where exactly we are being led. Each movement in this world, then, matters because it gives this culture a new form, which in turn shapes matter in a very tangible way. When you are kind to someone, this interaction changes how that person relates to the physical Universe, subsequently changing how our collective consciousness manifests, creating ripples in a great web with unbounded potential.
If the self is indeed our meaning-making apparatus, then a healthy and non-conflicted self consistently acts in the right way, and by consistently acting in the right way, it develops more and more agency. In a world with a religious God, this kind of purpose and meaning comes from doing what that already-existing God tells you. In a fluid world, it comes from an evolving interaction, at each and every moment, where you are directly responsible for creating the kind of expression you want to see in the world.
For this to make sense, let revisit our bodily personality and our conditioned self. The personality has innate traits and desires that it prefers relative to other bodies; the self is conditioned to keep these traits and desires in check in certain circumstances due to norms and standards. (Example: Your body may have a lot of physical energy to expend, but you know it’s not a good idea to expend it by hurting someone else.) But sometimes, the self gets conditioned so that it conflicts with the manifestation of our preferences as per our personality for no reason, which creates confusion when it comes to purpose. Our body wants one thing, but our self another. To clarify the purpose of our body, we have to unconditioned parts of the self and better align the two, which naturally happens over time with awareness or can be done through contemplative practices or even therapy.
Once a body’s purpose stops beings clouded by the self, it can manifest in various ways and then recreate a more holistic being. This is why IQ and Big Five personality tests are valuable because they can show you your body’s disposition, which can help you better uncondition the self, in turn allowing you to zone in on a range of things that might better reflect your strengths than whatever you stumbled onto because of societal expectations.
Once the purpose becomes a little more clear, we can create meaning, which emerges when an agent with a purpose acts in such a way as to fit a contextual environment. (This is inspired by some of Sarah Perry’s essays and them pointing me in the direction of the design philosophy of the architect Christopher Alexander.) This means that meaning isn’t something that’s just there. It’s something that you do — an action — in every moment, in a different way, depending on what your purpose is as it relates to the given environment that you happen to find yourself in. Put in a different way: Meaning is what you get when you relate to culture, in a specific moment, within a defined context, to connect to it in a way that honors your bodily purpose; or better yet, meaning is a logical form of creativity — logical because its source is a cohesive, non-conflicted self and creative because every action that emerges from this self is different depending on the cultural frame.
Times have now changed. Whether you call it fluidity or meta-modernism, today, culture itself is God. Except, it’s not an objective God with strict rules and expectations. It’s a God that respects both what we know and what we don’t know. It values progress but it doesn’t overlook the fact that we have to also change how we collectively interact with it. Most of all, however, it allows the dance of nature to continue as it has for billions and billions of years: one interaction after another, slowly evolving to create new levels of emergence. As uncivilized animals, simple happiness was enough for us. But with the birth of culture, what we need are purpose and meaning, both of which manifest when we nudge the collective consciousness along the way as we connect it to our own relative existence.
V. The Very Obvious
In an old interview, the late novelist David Foster Wallace once said that, in a post-modern world, one where everything is moving so fast and we are all so connected and no one really believes anything anymore, the role of fiction is no longer to describe culture as it is.
All cultures are now accessible to us. It’s not like the 19th-century when the best way to understand Russian society was to read Tolstoy. Rather, in such a world, the role of fiction to is to highlight the really, really absurd things that we have now been conditioned to think of as normal: the deification of a clock that tells you exactly what to do and when; tacitly mistaking the entertainment obtained through a screen for the intimacy of human connection; the normalization of manipulative advertising.
A further result of this is that some of the most obvious and important truths of our existence have been layered beneath so much noise that they are even harder to talk about than they already were. I’ll mention one right here: Much of what I have just written could be wrong. I have a good reason to be uncertain about everything I say and certain only about the fact that I am a very small part of a very large existence, one that only requires me to act. And yet, because all the surface-level noise is so immediate to my attention all the time, conditioning my sense of self on a daily basis, I live believing that I am indeed mostly right in how I think and that this rightness should dictate how I interact with the world, and in turn, how the world should be.
Here is another obvious thing: All of this is really hard. Everybody is doing the best they can with what they have in any given moment. We can talk about agency all day, but you didn’t choose the body you were born with, nor did you direct the laws of physics to determine which of the billions and billions of causes would come together at each and every moment in your life to nudge you in one direction rather than another. Even if you are a high-agency person now, taking full responsibly for your life, making things happen mostly by the power of your own will, there was something out there, at some point, that inspired the realization of this agency, something that many other people didn’t have the luxury to be exposed to.
Now, here is perhaps the most obvious but difficult thing to talk about: Whatever the purpose of life is, it has nothing to do with you. I have intentionally avoided going into morality so far, other than to state that it is emergent and that it evolves and that, with or without a religious God, it exists. But morality is about what we do (actions) and how we should do it (right and wrong conduct) when interacting with other sentient beings, which is the base that builds out the ideas of purpose and meaning, and it so obviously matters that reason can neither fully defend or refute it without getting in its own way. And that’s because it’s bigger than us.
I’ll illustrate this by first asking a question: Leaving aside the odd exception, why is it that, say, a father who is extremely homophobic, genuinely believing that there is something logically and morally wrong with two people of the same sex deciding to be intimate with each other, is more likely to accept his gay son than he is a stranger? Maybe, over time, even reconsidering his position in a way that he otherwise wouldn’t.
A good response is that it’s his biological offspring, and he has a lot invested in ensuring that this offspring, carrying his own genetic material, survives. He has no such interest in a stranger. This is a rational and scientifically sound answer. But how about as a matter of day-to-day experience? Is it this logic that changes his mind? Of course not. It’s a feeling of conscious love. And not love in the sense that Romeo is infatuated with Juliet and willing to die for it, nor the selfish love you feel towards things that will satisfy your desires, but love in its most selfless, expansive, and throbbing form; the kind of love that momentarily transcends the linguistic conditioning of the self; the kind of love that makes life worth living, even when it brings pain.
In fact, this pure experience not only transcends the self, but it also transcends your bodily personality. Have you ever wondered by so many brilliant Western philosophers throughout history have come to so many different conclusions? I suspect that they are all born with different brains that prefer different starting points in the infinite expanse of Consciousness, and such, they end up manufacturing different linguistic realities, even though, ultimately, they are grasping at the same thing. This has nothing to do with irreconcilable truths where one of them is absolutely right and the rest are wrong; it’s a language problem. They are discussing truths in different realms, and they can’t see that because they haven’t taken the time to look beyond words.
When a father who abhors homosexuality looks at his gay son beyond a label produced by the subjective feelings of his own self, he is able to love, only then seeing the real sentient being standing in front of him. And then, because he is able to love, he accepts the truth of his linguistic reality, and they negotiate to find a better truth, maybe one that even changes the father’s mind on the topic. This kind of love comes less naturally to us when dealing with strangers, but what if we were to love other people and respect their experience in the same way so that we can create a truer and more honest collective experience? Isn’t that a more moral way of interacting with people than following linguistic rules (deontology) or pretending that we already know what’s good for everyone (consequentialism) or a self-centered, feel-good definition of what is charitable or benevolent (virtue ethics)?
If we actually saw people — like really saw them — beyond our own conditioning and then simply acted to reconcile our truths, wouldn’t that eventually self-correct, say, like evolution or a complex system does, to point culture towards a greater collective truth? Wouldn’t that as a byproduct of itself be what creates the best reality for everyone?
Several decades ago, the Eastern philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti began to roam. Before leaving his home in India, he dissolved a religious organization that had groomed him to be their leader since childhood. Realizing the limitations of dogmatic thinking and the importance of an individual taking responsibility for finding their own path, his travels took him around the globe, with the intent of just talking to people.
On one particular day after a lecture, a man asked him point-blank if there was a God. He argued that if there wasn’t one then life couldn’t possibly have any moral meaning, in which case we would then have to invent one. In the process of inventing one, however, we would be separating people by belief and creed, leading to pain and division down the road.
Krishnamurti listened and then told him that God, as linguistically conceived by tradition and memory, was not what he was looking for. But if he stripped his words away, he would be left with something that simply is: change. The man pushed, and they went back and forth for a while.
Finally, the man amusingly said:
“Then is love changeable? If everything is a movement of change, isn’t love also part of that movement? And if love is changeable, then I can love one woman today and sleep with another tomorrow.”
Krishnamurti, first, gave him an abstract answer, then, simply ended with:
“God, or whatever name you give it, is when you are not. When you are, it is not. When you are not, love is. When you are, love is not.”