Mere Mortals

At some point, all  thinking people must confront the puzzle of existence and mortality. Bertrand Russell once said that the central question of all philosophy is why is there something rather than nothing? More specifically, why me? why not me? It is a stupendously difficult question to answer, and what’s worse, we have such a narrow window of time to try to answer it.

It could very well be that at the bottom of it all there is no answer. Existence simply behaves the way it behaves for no reason with no cause. Our lives are a fortuitous accident of chemical processes, evolved over billions of years into  semi-rational primates who are capable of asking the question “why are we here?” but cannot arrive at an answer. From where we are standing, this seems to be precisely the case, however unwelcome this conclusion may be.

Our existence is a speck of cosmic dust, leftover from the explosion of an anonymous star. Our planet is just one of many lost in a sea of solar systems, floating around in many galaxies, possibly in many universes. And all this is taking place on a scale so grand, so magnificent, that we can’t even begin to contemplate our own relative unimportance. In the long run, every thought, feeling, and emotion means nothing because the universe does not care. It will continue to exist thoughtlessly long after our sun dies and our planet is wiped out.

For some, this is a disconcerting notion. It is simply too nihilistic a pill to swallow, and it’s impossible to reconcile it with our egocentric concept of existence. Humans are too elegant, too powerful, too purposeful for it to all be completely meaningless at the bottom.

This is not a trivial objection. I have no predetermined bias against the possibility that there may be something more to it all. However, we ought to exercise extreme caution when entering the precarious waters of the unknown.

Of those who find the “purposeless universe” conclusion unwelcoming, many assert that the only alternative is to posit a deity to solve the problem. This seems on its surface a harmless and viable solution to the puzzle. But here we seem to encounter an even more puzzling dilemma. This deity, if it exists, has decided to remain hidden. None of its attributes are discoverable rationally or empirically. Rather than showing itself, making its will and plans clear to each of us, offering a definite answer to the most important questions in life and death, it leaves us with an irreconcilable hodgepodge of myths, prophets, and holy books. This god chooses to leave us with the burden of determining what to believe and what to disregard, and it gives us no viable means to do so.

Here the question of existence moves from intrigue to danger. The unwelcomed ambiguity creates a state of affairs in which anybody is justified in reaching any conclusion he desires regarding this deity. Indefensible, illogical, untenable truth claims all become common place, and so long as they are correctly labelled as “religious” by nature, they cannot be called invalid. What’s worse, the proponents of these assertions so often claim to hold a monopoly on the truth. They dismiss any rival speculation, and they stake their lives and purpose in their assumptions. This is all dangerous enough, but they do not stop there. They go on to claim that anybody who does not embrace these claims will be tortured for all of eternity upon death. And, of course, it is perfectly acceptable and commonplace to indoctrinate young children with these beliefs.

Any thinking person should be able to deduce that these narrow-minded claims are defeated via reductio ad absurdum; yet they persist. They permeate the world in which we live, our daily lives, our language, our art, our political climate. They plant themselves in the back of our minds, and no matter how unreasonable or disconcerting, they simply will not go away. Such is the nature of the unknown.

The famous philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal formally presented the quandary in what’s famously become known as Pascal’s Wager. I do not wish to dignify the “wager” by explaining it here, but suffice It to say that it is perhaps the most despicably arrogant and damaging notion that a cognitive being could construct. It is intended to frighten us all into conformity. It celebrates thought crime and attempts to vindicate mindless intimidation under the guise of “probability,” as if life and death are a casino game. Yet we are all forced to confront it, and as we approach mortality, we are left with the decision to enter the unknown with conviction or to cower into submission.

I would like to think that any deity worth its salt would reward the bravery in confessing the limits of our knowledge rather than the cowardice of asserting a belief without evidence. And I certainly hope that on my deathbed I have the courage to maintain as much. I will not know until I am there, but I hope to follow in the footsteps of those who held their infidelity to their dying breath. In the meantime, I strive to live as morally as possible, and I hope that any possible deity would be more concerned with virtue than dogma. In any case, I value virtue in its own rite, and superfluous deities almost seem to cheapen it.

I propose that the possibility of an indifferent universe should not be feared but celebrated. Instead, let us rejoice in what we know: that whether by design or by accident, we have this life and this universe. Of this much we can be certain. It is our right and our responsibility to harvest the fruits of existence and seize what we know. I implore all people to embrace existence on its own terms. If the universe has no value at its bottom, at the very least, we can choose to create our own fleeting value in our lives, our decisions, and in our convictions.

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