“But Why?”

The act of discovery is an act of destruction. Think about that sentence for a moment. Every time we discover something, we end up destroying something in the process. The discovery of fossil fuels is destroying our environment. The discovery of a new idea about something destroys the old idea. Human’s insatiable need to know has brought us flush toilets, garage door openers, and this computer I’m typing on. It has also brought us the atomic bomb. The “discovery” of the American continent brought the destruction of millions of lives. The insatiable need to know. It has brought us many wonderful things, and some not so wonderful. Don’t get me wrong, I like my flush toilet. But I can’t help but ask what drives us to continue to ask why? Asking why drives us to discover the answer, and thus to the destruction of discovery in the process. Why do we ask why?

I watch my dog a lot. She has curiosity just like most humans. She hears a noise and perks up her ears. As she walks her nose is sometimes to the ground to discover new smells. But when I ask her about the origin of her species, she doesn’t care. So why are humans so driven to know? I did an internet search with “Why ask why?” It yielded up all kinds of things about the human condition and such but nothing very satisfactory on why humans need to know. Ironically in my search to know why we ask why all the time, I too am asking why.

Why couldn’t we have just been satisfied that the Sun is in the sky providing warmth every day? Why did we have to know how it does it? As a species, our need to know is so strong it’s like a drug. We are absolutely driven to know new things, to discover how everything works and how the things that make everything work, work. Why couldn’t we have been satisfied with knowing how to provide food, clothing and shelter for ourselves?

I wonder about the satisfaction derived from finding an answer. We feel better about doing things like going to work, saving money, etc. if we know the reason why, if there is a purpose to what we’re doing. In this light, the reason for a flush toilet becomes obvious. But what about other discoveries? Like climbing a mountain. On May 29th, 1953 Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay climbed to the top of Mount Everest. What was the purpose in doing that? Did they expect to find something there? This may seen strange but I’ve never understood the idea of doing something just to do it. Like running a marathon. Nope. I’m perfectly happy never knowing whether or not I could do that. But some people aren’t happy with that. They are driven to find out. To push themselves to their limits. Why? I guess if people didn’t want to push themselves to their limits we wouldn’t have the Olympics. And I like the Olympics. So maybe I should stop wondering why and just not worry about it. But….why?


Do You Believe In God?

Here is a question that has plagued humans since the beginning. Is there a God? And if there is, how do we know? How do we know that God is real? Philosophers have questioned whether we can actually know anything at all. What is the difference between human belief, and human knowledge? We can believe anything we want, but can we really know that what we believe is real? People have been thinking these thoughts and more, since well, forever. And we are seemingly no closer to an answer now than we were at the beginning. I’m going to take a closer look at the God question and what I believe about it.

First of all, human understanding comes very slowly. Whether you believe that humans are around 6000 years old or 200,000 years old, it is a fact that we are very slow at discovering anything. Around 450 BCE, a Greek philosopher named Democritus speculated about cutting a piece of matter, an apple for instance, into smaller and smaller pieces. He felt that a point could be reached where you wouldn’t be able to cut any smaller. He named these smallest pieces “Atomos,” where the word atom comes from. And it wasn’t until 1983 that we developed a microscope powerful enough to be able to see them. The discovery of the visible light spectrum came in the 17th Century and Marconi first used radio waves for transmission in the 1890’s. So humans have been around for thousands of years and yet we’ve discovered very little about ourselves or the universe. This is important in relation to our belief in a God. In the grand scheme of things, we know next to nothing.

It has been estimated that people have believed in over 3000 Gods during our history, most of whom have been proven to not be real. Greek Gods, Norse Gods, Egyptian Gods, etc. If you study all these beliefs you’ll find that other than creating “miracles,” they have all been attributed human characteristics. Love, goodness, anger, jealousy. This is because human characteristics are all we know. And miracles are something we can conceive of. But is this really what a God is like? Anger, jealousy, envy and the like are most often thought of as negative human traits. Would a God, whom is presumably so far removed from being human really have these attributes? That of course is very debatable.

My view on the whole question is this: If there is a God who has the ability to create life, to create atoms, turn those atoms into molecules, and turn those molecules into living, breathing flesh then that God would be so far removed from anything we know as humans that we wouldn’t be able to conceive of it. The human mind at this point and thus all other points in the past would not be able to understand an entity such as God. We could not begin to discuss or conceive of God. Does that mean that I believe no such God exists? Certainly not. What it does mean is that we have a long way to go before we ever figure out whether God is real. We just don’t know. It’s comparable to discovering the electromagnetic spectrum. We knew we could see and hear but we had no idea how we could see and hear. It has taken humans thousands of years just to discover these things, and we are still a long way off from knowing all there is to know about the human body, about nature or the universe. There is so much to “know” that we will never reach the end of knowledge.

Religion has many things to say about God. All of which are only things we can imagine. And yet we forget that people who lived in the BCE time frame couldn’t even conceive of the electromagnetic spectrum and yet today we know it is real. How can we believe that we know about God considering that a God would be so far removed from anything we can even imagine?

Should we give up then, stop wondering if there is a God? In my opinion, no we should not. The only way to discover something is to study it. I’ve been fascinated by the question of God my whole life. I’ve read the Bible cover to cover twice, and studied many other religious books and texts. I’ve studied religious beliefs from Islam to Christianity to Jainism and on and on. The one constant in all these beliefs is the human attributes people assign to their Gods. Our God is a jealous God. God is angry. God desires worship. God desires. All these things are only things we can imagine. But I believe that if God is real, the reality would be so far removed from what we can now conceive of that none of these human attributes would be a part of it.

To settle on the human imagining of God is a mistake. Taking religious belief at face value says that we have given up on conceiving of God in any other way. In the time of Hippocrates it was believed the four basic “humors” of earth, air, fire, and water were responsible for all life. What if that explanation was settled on as the ultimate truth and no one ever looked beyond it? With that in mind, how can we accept that today’s modern religious thought is the ultimate knowledge of God? Considering all we have discovered since the time of Hippocrates, we must surely understand that we know little if anything about a God. All we can do is keep looking.

The Social Contract

What is a Social Contract? This definition is taken from Wikipedia: “Social contract arguments typically posit that individuals have consented, either explicitly or tacitly, to surrender some of their freedoms and submit to the authority (of the ruler, or to the decision of a majority) in exchange for protection of their remaining rights or maintenance of the social order.” Thomas Hobbes, a British Philosopher of the 17th century posited in his book, “Leviathan,” that without social order life would be, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Basically meaning that if there were no laws, humans would have the freedom to do as they pleased. This may sound great but when you consider that that could include, rape, murder, theft, etc., it loses its appeal. Therefore most of humanity has given up the freedom to do these things in order to have the protections and benefits that the society in which they live afford. Further broken down it means that I agree to follow the laws of my state and country in order to receive the benefits that my state and country offers. That’s a social contract. Most people agree to the social contract on the idea that others also agree. A society built on the idea that only some of the people have to live by the rules usually will not last. History bears this out.

Thomas Hobbes

A social contract is an abstract thing. No actual contract exists. It only exists as a theory because we agree to it. So what happens when the contract breaks down? When some citizens are afforded rights, benefits, or protections that others are not? Basically the whole fabric of the societal system starts to come unraveled. An obvious example of this is the Civil Rights Movement. There were different rules for whites and for people of color. As I said earlier, the idea that makes a social contract work is that everyone agrees to the contract. When some under the contract receive benefits that others do not, or have to live under separate rules, the contract doesn’t work. And when the contract doesn’t work it loses its effectiveness. Society breaks down. The civil rights movement affected the entire country. Even in my little white town in Minnesota, we were affected by it. We saw the riots on TV. We saw the marches. We saw the speeches, and the protests. When people do not receive the benefits of the social contract they are living under they begin to wonder why they should still have to live by the rules. Social disorder ensues. In order for the social contract to be balanced, people need to be convinced that doing so is good for them. People of color obviously knew this. Civil disobedience helped convince white people that it was in their best interest to change the laws. If they don’t want people rioting in the streets they need to make some changes.

Detroit, 1943

The Gay Rights Movement is still going on today. The idea is the same, that the social contact is unfair for some. What surprises me, and I suppose it shouldn’t, is that after so many years of living in society many people still think that rules should be different for some than for others. And the ones who do think this way are obviously the ones who will benefit more from the imbalance. In every social movement you find the same scenario, people aren’t asking for more rights, they’re asking for equity in rights. Gay people don’t want to be treated better than everyone else, they want to be treated the same. It is amazing to me how hard some people will fight to keep their exalted status over others. What makes a person feel that they deserve more or better than others? I know all the arguments and many of them have to do with religious belief. People of color were touted as inferior races and the churches supported this idea. Gay people are seen as immoral or unnatural and the churches support this as well. Many religious people believe that the laws of their god supersede the laws of man. That idea attacks the social contract because not all people agree.

The question that arises for me is, when will people learn? Will they ever learn? In order to have a social structure that works, equity needs to rule. Fairness and moderation in all things. In what will become known as, “The Trump Years,” we can see this idea of equity being attacked again. The idea that some people deserve more or better is rearing its ugly head and eventually it will be subdued, but how bad it will be is still unknown. What damage our society will suffer will determine how society is shaped for the future. Will it lead to civil disobedience? To rioting in the streets? What will it take to right this imbalance in the social contract? Only time will tell.

A Revelation

As I said in my last post, I am re-reading, “Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance,” by Robert M Pirsig. Published in 1974, the back cover states, “One of the most important and influential books written in the last half century.” It is the tale of a father and son as they take a motorcycle trip across America’s Northwest. During the course of telling the story the author recounts his own life, his mental breakdown and subsequent recovery. He dives deeply into philosophy, reason, ethics, morals and other subjects not often understood. It is one of the most important books I have ever read and therefore deserves another go. As of today, I’m on page 218, so not quite half way through. Yesterday I read something quite profound that I’d like to share.

At one time in the authors life he was a college professor. At the time he is talking about he described himself as a fanatical teacher of reason. While writing the book he was exploring his past life and trying to understand some of the things he did. He was having a hard time with why he was in fact so fanatical with his students on the subject of reason. He discovers that he was actually having a kind of crisis in faith when it came to the subject of reason. He had come around to believe that reason wasn’t the answer to life’s issues. Here is what he says from pages 189-190:

“You are never dedicated to something you have complete confidence in. No one is fanatically shouting that the sun is going to rise tomorrow. They know it’s going to rise tomorrow.When people are fanatically dedicated to political or religious faiths or any other kind of dogmas or goals it’s always because these dogmas or goals are in doubt.”

Reading this caused me to set the book down. Really, I thought? I had always assumed that fanatical people were that way because they believed so fully in what they were doing. Now this guy claims just the opposite. Then he goes on with this example:

“The militancy of the Jesuits he somewhat resembled is a case in point. Historically their zeal stems not from the strength of the Catholic Church but from it’s weakness in the face of the Reformation. It was his lack of faith in reason that made him such a fanatic teacher.”

I was totally blown away by this idea. I sat for quite some time reasoning through this. Then some things came to mind. How often have I read that some fanatically anti-Gay political or religious figure was arrested for sexual molestation of same sex children? I’ve read several times about anti-Gay public figures found to be having Gay affairs. And in my own experience, the people I have known who are the strongest Christian believers are also the people who fear death the most. (Read my post, “What Scares You?) Maybe you, my reader won’t find this as profound as I have, but it makes sense. We don’t have to be fanatical about things that we have complete confidence in. We know they’re good, we know they’re right. It’s the things we’re unsure of that we get fanatical over. Are we then trying to convince ourselves that the things we feel strongest about are right? It seems so.

This seems so totally backward to me but it’s making more sense all the time. It’s amazing how you can read or hear something and suddenly you have a revelation! The sun comes out, a choir of angels sings! It’s like finding the gold at the end of the rainbow! I have often wondered why some people get so fanatical about things. Now I know. They’re having trouble believing it themselves. They want too, but they’re not sure, so being fanatical about it is their way of trying to convince themselves. If they had confidence in their belief, whatever it is, they wouldn’t need to be raving about it. And if they can convince you of the truth they themselves are trying to swallow, they feel more assured about it. Their fanaticism is a confidence booster. This just makes so much sense.

Okay, (deep breath) I sound like a fanatic. So am I trying to convince myself that I know what I’m talking about? Maybe. I might be exhibiting the very behavior I’m talking about. But that’s good, isn’t it, serving as my own example? It shows that no one is immune from being human. As much as we’d like to believe that we’re above it all, we’re not. We’re all human and we all do human things. We all make a lot of the same mistakes, We all judge, we all assume, we all fit the same mold. This is why I am interested in philosophy and psychology. To understand human behavior and try to improve. Because like most everyone else, I’m just an average person.

I Don’t Know

There are many things, that I don’t know. Which candidate will make a good president? I don’t know. When will this Winter end? I don’t know. What will my life be like a year from now? I don’t know. Will there be peace on Earth? Will there be war? Is there life on other planets? Is there a god? What will this summer bring? What will…. well, you get the idea. As a matter of fact, I don’t know most things. Our world is full on knowledge that I don’t know. Throughout my entire life, I have loved learning. Knowledge for the sake of knowledge. I want to know. Why, you ask? I don’t know. Seems like a paradox, doesn’t it? If I love to learn, shouldn’t I know why? But I honestly can’t answer that question. I’m curious. I want to know how things work. Why things work. But I don’t know why.

I’ve studied philosophy off and on for years. I’m curious about the mind. But is it necessary to know how and why the mind works? Can’t I just be satisfied knowing that it does? Apparently not. Many people go through their entire lives not wondering about these things. For them, it doesn’t matter how the mind works, as long as you can think with it. And they’re just fine with that. But I can’t do it. My insatiable curiosity pushes me to know. And you’d think there would be some kind of reward for my learning new things. Some reason for doing it. If there is, once again, I don’t know what it is. Unless it’s a chemical thing that pumps endorphins into the pleasure centers of my brain. That could be it. But I don’t know.

It seems that there are many people like me. We have to have answers. It’s the main reason why civilization has advanced to this point. People need to know. To discover. Even though discovery is a violent act that destroys as much if not more than it discovers, We as a species still seem pushed to do it. Lately we seem to have a renewed interest in space travel. Private companies are now getting involved with NASA and we will probably know more about space in the near future than we have learned so far. Why? Curiosity. Drive. Ambition. We have a desire to know. There are days however, when I just don’t care to know anything. I can float through my day reading a good novel, watching television, or writing poetry and not have a single care about the world around me. On those days, I don’t leave the house. I spend all day in my sweat pants. I drink tea and I’m lazy all day. And then there are the days that I devour a philosophy text book or spend hours on the computer looking things up, feeding the curiosity monster within.

I have always had a sense of wonder. That childlike quality of bliss upon discovering something new. I remember being young and looking up at the night sky and wondering what was out there, squatting at the rivers edge, turning over rocks to look for crayfish, or seeing how many times I could skip a flat stone across the water. I loved those days as a child, when the world was new and waiting for me to jump in. And jump in, I did. Funny enough, I’ve never lost that quality. I still look up at the night sky and wonder. I still want to go tromping through the woods just to see what’s there. I still want to know.

So I’m glad for that. I’m happy that I still want to know. And I’m happy that some days I don’t. As this Winter winds down to a close I have a renewed sense of wonder. New beginnings. Spring won’t be long now I feel. A time for coming out of my cocoon. Getting outside with my camera and capturing new life brought by warm sunlight and longer days. Walks in the woods without all the heavy gear of Winter. And I think about my wife. She loved Springtime. Curious like me, she loved to learn. Time to learn something new.

The Meaning Of Life

What is the meaning of life? Here is a question that has kept sages and clerics and ordinary people busy for most of human history. What is the meaning of life? It is a question that has kept me busy as well. Why? Because I want to know. Just like millions and probably billions of other people, I too want to know if there is any meaning to life. There are lots of opinions as to the answer, but has anyone really come up with it? Douglas Adams, one of my favorite writers, has his characters in the classic, “Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy” ask the question, “What is the answer to the question of Life, the Universe and Everything?” A super computer, built for the sole purpose of finding that out, took 10 million years and came up with the answer, “42”. Everyone was quite disappointed, having waited 10 million years to get an answer they didn’t understand. When they consulted the computer about the answer it said, the answer to the question of Life, the Universe and Everything is 42. The problem being, they didn’t actually know the question. This sent them on another, millions of years quest to find out what the question was. I think Adams was trying to tell us, that there’s no answer to that question. Not that that has stopped anyone from asking, however. Inquiring minds want to know. What are we doing here? What is our purpose? Is there any meaning to anything we do? Lots of people have theories. Lots of others claim outright that they know the answer. But do they? How do we find out?

You can ask anyone the question, “What is the meaning of life?” and you’ll get answers from, “I don’t know, to “The meaning of life is to love God” and just about anything in between. I’m going to postulate a theory here. This is it: There is no such thing as life. Now, before you go banging your head on the computer, or cussing me out, stop and think about this. What is the “life” that we’re wondering about. If we can ask the question, “What is the meaning of Life?” then “life” must be something tangible, that we all belong to or are a part of in some way, right? It’s like asking, “What is the meaning of a NASCAR race. Before asking that question, we should know what a NASCAR race is. Once we know that, we can fathom the meaning. Like “The Hitchhikers guide to the Galaxy”, we won’t understand the answer if we don’t know the question.

So what is life? I’m postulating that life, as we think of it, doesn’t exist. Now some of you are probably thinking I’m going to get all metaphysical on you. That’s not it. But I’m going to show you why I think “LIFE” as we have come to think of it, doesn’t exist. Here goes. Consider all life on Earth. Human, plant and animal, right? Since science tells us that humans are the only life form capable of reasoning the question of life, we really don’t need to think much about animals or plants. Like this: Does a Fox question the meaning of life as she hunts her prey? Does a Bee wonder why it’s attracted to flowers? Science tells us, it’s only humans who ask those kinds of questions. So let’s concentrate on them.

Say for a moment that we could remove all humans from the Earth. Snap! Like Thanos, except 100% of all humanity is gone. Right before the snap happened, someone was contemplating the question, “What is the meaning of Life?” Now that all the people are gone, where is the “LIFE” that this person was wondering about? If we are all part of life, and we can contemplate its existence and meaning, is it not then, tangible? Can we not then, so to say, put our hands on it? Or, and here comes the messy part, Does life only exist because we think it does? Now I know what you’re going to say. Of course life exists, because I’m alive, you are alive, my dog is alive. That however, is not what I’m talking about. Yes, life exists. Rene Descartes said, “I think, therefor I am.” Proving that life is tangible and real. But, is that the same as “What is the meaning of life?” I don’t believe it is. Now if we make one small change to the question, “What is the meaning of life?” to “What is the meaning of MY Life?” Now were getting somewhere.

Each individual has a life. There is my life, there is your life. That is how life exists. There is not, an entity called life. So there is no answer to the question, “What is the meaning of life.” Because there is no “life”, there is no meaning. But there is, MY life. There is, YOUR life. And those things have meaning. People have searched for the meaning of life since life first began. Finding an answer to that question has given birth to religion and philosophy and consumed people, some people for their entire lives. But really, shouldn’t we be asking, what is the meaning of my life? And why aren’t we asking that question? Why aren’t we looking deeper into our own lives as opposed to looking for the answer to a question that’s unanswerable? If we turn the question of meaning to our own lives, then we have to start taking personal responsibility for their meaning. We must be in charge. We must decide what, if any, meaning there is to the things we think, do, and say. And that can be hard.

To take conscious responsibility for every aspect of our lives isn’t easy to do. We have to constantly monitor ourselves and look deeper into the meaning behind every thing we think, do, or say. Rather than thinking of “life” as something “out there” that we can’t control, asking the question, “what is the meaning of my life” puts the responsibility of answering that, squarely in our own laps. And it’s a big responsibility. Watch the news on television or read the paper. Look closely at all the horrible things people do each and every day. What is the meaning of their lives? Is it to screw people over? Is it to take as much as they can? Is it to hate, or is it to love? The only way to improve “life” in this world is for each of us to ask ourselves, what is the meaning of my life? What am I meant for? What am I here to do? They are much smaller questions than asking, what is the meaning of life, and yet the answers put upon us much greater responsibility. We are now faced with answering that question and then acting upon it if our lives are not meaningful. If we can answer these questions for ourselves then we have found the meaning of life.