“We are an impossibility in an impossible universe.”
― Ray Bradbury

Michael Woronko
Jul 23 · 6 min read

The human organism attributes meaning to things, whether or not that meaning is justified or rational or logical or worthy, so much so that it could be argued that it seems to be the biggest desire held by humankind.

“I have always believed, and I still believe, that whatever good or bad fortune may come our way we can always give it meaning and transform it into something of value.”
Hermann Hesse

As the curious creatures we are, we humans seem to have a full spectrum of emotion for reasons unknown, along with insatiable thirsts for discovery and knowledge, answers and explanations.

I often say that if we weren’t meant to feel grief or anger or sadness or pain, we wouldn’t have the capability to feel it in the first place, and that if we weren’t meant to find answers regarding our own purpose, we wouldn’t be looking so fervently for them. So there’s something about this human journey that requires us to experience such meaningful events at some point or another.

Then, the other day, I paused and I asked myself why I’m instinctively assigning meaning where, in all truth, meaning may not be due in the first place.

Unfortunately, to answer this question, I had to ask plenty more. So if you’ve found yourself a moments time to read this, strap yourself in for a frustrating carousel of rhetorical questioning, zigzagging thought, and philosophical meandering through a topic that has no concrete answer in sight.

“There is no such thing as nothingness, and zero does not exist. Everything is something. Nothing is nothing.”
Victor Hugo

Why do we feel the need to assign meaning? What biological purpose does it serve? Survival? Reproduction? Evolution? Is it a byproduct of our progression towards communal existence?

I feel it has to go beyond these points, beyond mere survival or sole tendency. The deep, discouraging sense of worthlessness that we may sometimes encounter, the need to prove something to ourselves, that certain spark from within that drives us towards our ambitions and our desires — why do we have this instilled in our core being?

We could float along aimlessly and still survive; we could reproduce without feeling what love really feels like or even understanding why we reproduce; we could live life without fully living it but we experience so much more in each of these categories for some inexplicably enigmatic reason when we realize the inherent meaning attached to each of them. Some relegate it to a religious purpose and others to the exhalation of a cosmic breath, while some yet maintain a strictly biological perspective and others point to the fact that we’re just not meant to know.

We hold a few hard facts under our hat: we know that we’ve evolved to need community because it comfortably accommodates survival; we know that both genetics and environments seem to shape us; we know that some are more deficient than others with respect to certain qualities. But these pieces don’t form a cohesive puzzle that sheds light on the overall picture.

For the larger picture can be approached in one of two ways:

In the first, we’re both lucky and cursed to have developed this imaginative and infinitely capable brain that unrelentingly drives us to think on so many deeper levels and that we’ve biologically evolved to this point whereby we’re placing continuously higher standards upon ourselves as we ground our existence and purpose into a socially-constructed and scientific context. We’re of a sophisticated hive, of hundreds of millions of years worth of organic growth.

In the second, we can concede that something else is driving us. Some larger force, some innate influence — internal or external — that we’re pushed or compelled and that this is all more than mere tendency.

Personally, I’m of the camp that there’s something beyond our evolved and culturally-injected pre-dispositions. Aesthetics argues that there’s something more, as do the innumerable laws of nature that aren’t worth muddying the waters of this post with. It’s a disagreeable and contentious point, surely, but such is the nature of this debate.

Looking beyond my own thoughts, why is it that we have a long and colorful history of assigning meaning to everything from weather and famine to our own creation and destiny? Gods, stars, animals, peculiar land masses. Maybe it’s this innate tendency to look for meaning that should be questioned above all else.

For if it hadn’t been for a shooting star that sailed over the head of Constantine I and his army on October 28th, 312 A.D., Christianity wouldn’t be a dominant religion in the West today. Or if ancient cultures hadn’t deified the skies as much as they had, we wouldn’t hold such a deep understanding of our cosmos as we do today. The point is, of all the tendencies we’ve developed — self-preservation, empathy, creativity — perhaps it’s the fact that we assign meaning that, well, means the most.

So what’s behind our need to do this? Is it that we innately know that greater forces are at play so, by extension, their will trickles down to our experience? Or is it that we create a sense of these greater forces because we can’t accept a meaningless reality?

Some argue that, because we have the capacity to idealize meaning, we act on this capacity. Paired with a need to answer the unanswerable, the human brain evolved to believe that a superior force had been the reason behind natural disasters or good harvests.

“It doesn’t take supernatural beings to explain why so many people believe in them — just natural evolutionary processes”

— Bridget Alex

Many point to the invariable cognitive adaptations that helped our ancestors survive and evolve, eventually overextending these tendencies or attributing a false sense of meaning to them.

This is the general scientific consensus, but what if we were to try and idealize a different source of this happenstance, one that’s formed outside the bounds of our evolved mental processes.

Can it be argued that we just know, innately, of the existence of some force? Do we assign meaning, not because we have the mental capacity to, but because in a fractally-structured existence full of macro-cosmic events beyond our comprehension, we instinctively know there’s always a greater force beyond ourselves?

We can think of it this way: Not very long ago, belief in religion reigned much more supreme, which has now shifted towards scientific materialism. Despite this shift, we haven’t necessarily ridden ourselves of a higher power. Instead of believing that a bearded man in the heavens watches us with a close eye, we’re now at the mercy of our sun or of earthly decay or of impending cosmic disaster.

The point is that there’s always something bigger than us, whether it’s able to reason or whether it’s a natural occurrence. We’re not really in control of our existence, though we’re trying to branch out into the black waters of space to gain an upper hand.

“We are an impossibility in an impossible universe.”
Ray Bradbury

Ultimately, we know that we’re inferior to certain forces — intelligent or not. We know that we’ve also sensed a greater force and, for a tremendously long time, we’ve ascribed meaning to this force that we’ve since began to wash away.

So where do we go from here? Are we facing a horizon whereby we’re looking at a world devoid of meaning or do we create a new meaning — maybe in technology, maybe in the atomic world of inexplicable physics, maybe in the stars? After all — it wouldn’t be the first time we’ve constructed meaning out of seemingly thin air.

Despite the cascading array of questions posed by this essay intending to simply get the mind to wander paths of discomfort (which, I’ll be the first to concede, is exceptionally frustrating), perhaps the overarching theme to be extracted is this: we crave meaning.

The human organism attributes meaning to things, whether or not that meaning is justified or rational or logical or worthy, so much so that it could be argued that it seems to be the biggest desire held by humankind.

Is it worth fighting this instinct because of scientific bravado or materialistic posturing? Or is it worth transcending this tendency by creating our own meaning?

Regardless of what we should do, it may simply do us best, at this juncture, to simply and reverently pause to anticlimactically ask: why do we desire meaning so?

Read On: The Sails of Theseus

Observing reality through the idea of a living universe and acknowledging the force of life

A Philosopher’s Stone

A place for a discussion of the ideas all around us in society, culture, philosophy, and more.

Michael Woronko

Written by

www.borealism.ca — Exploring nature and human nature

A Philosopher’s Stone

A place for a discussion of the ideas all around us in society, culture, philosophy, and more.

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