This article was originally written in 2009 during a period of self-discovery.
There once was a little boy whose mom told him that the key to life was happiness. When he was in school one day the teacher asked the students to write down what they wanted to be when they grew up. Some children wrote down that they wanted to be Firemen and Policemen, others wanted to be Lawyers, Actors or Astronauts. But the boy wrote, “When I grow up I want to be Happy”. The Teacher told the boy that he didn’t understand the assignment. The boy told her that she didn’t understand life.
Every now and again I find myself listening to or reading people’s opinions and debates about the meaning of life, the purpose of life. Confronting the “meaning of life” is bound to happen, especially when you interact with a lot of intelligent, curious minds, or if you enjoy reading about the history of philosophy. The meaning of life must be one of the oldest questions in existence. In fact, it quite possibly played a role in the creation of religions: “Why are we here?”, “What are we meant to do in this life? I feel lost”, “Where do we come from?”, “What makes me so deserving to have been born? Is this life like a qualification test to be considered for a job after death?”
I can’t help but laugh sometimes. Asking “Why am I alive?” seems like a question coming from those who are bored with life. Is the miracle of life with all its beauty and mystery not enough? Do you ever go to the doctor and say, “Doctor, why am I healthy?”, or do you only go because you’re sick?
The Never Ending Questions
“What is the meaning of life?” Life is not man-made so how can there be a man-made answer to that man-made question?
Birds don’t ask themselves why they are here, plants don’t either, in fact no other living thing does. Only humans who have chemical imbalances inside of their brains, known as intelligence, do. Life has existed billions of years before us and will continue once we become extinct, we are just a blimp in history of existence.
Science can tell you how things happen but not the complete why. “Why are almost all planets spinning in the same direction?” … “Well the solar system is supposed to have formed from a dust cloud that contracted due to gravity, the cloud rotated in a certain way, so to conserve the spin the planets maintained that direction.” … “Where did the gas come from?” … “Ermm…well, from a primordial hot and dense initial condition at some finite time in the past.” … “Where did the hot and dense condition come from?” … “Ummmm….go away!” … “Why are trees green?” … “Because the chlorophyll in the plants color it green.” … “Why did the plants use chlorophyll and not some other color from the many in the rainbow?” … “Perhaps it was in the right place at the right time or that chemical was better absorbed to create matter.” … “Why did it want to create living matter?” … “Argh, just shut up Sol!”
As you can see, an answer can only create more questions (i.e. “Who created the creator of the creator?”) There will never be an absolute answer that completely answers every single aspect of the world. I mean how could there be? The thought that the vastness of existence itself can be reduced to knowledge is absurd. What mind or even man-made computer could contain the answer to every single detail and aspect in the world’s vastness … the reason behind every single rock, plant, animal, bug, person, chemical, as well as how and why they are all there in that specific position and for what purpose?
The logic behind this is simple: how can we give an objective answer when we are in such a subjective position? To try and figure out life we would have to try and take a step backwards, as though we weren’t part of life ourselves. We would have to detach ourselves from life to find out the meaning of life … and how is that possible?
Life is a mystery, it cannot be solved. There are, however, different ways to look and live through life.
Asking for the “meaning” of life is to try and give life a purpose. There is no purpose to life because there is nothing to achieve from it – the very act of life is the achievement itself. You can live and enjoy that achievement in many ways doing many different things, but the interpretation you give to life, or what you discover in it is all up to you to find out.
Life is a purposeless cosmic play of energy. Giving it a purpose or a mission is trying to convert it into something serious, something that will take the fun out of it. Why? Because suddenly life becomes a task.
In my recent trip to Spain, being in the birth city of Picasso I couldn’t keep myself from visiting the new Picasso Museum.
I don’t understand anything about art but I delight myself with the colors and let my imagination flow with random ideas when I see paintings. So, I stood in front of the “Mujer en un sillón” looking thoughtful when two Englishmen came to stand beside me. One, called Gareth, commented: “Great isn’t it? I think the neo-plasticism of the abstract design proves the mystical, metaphysical and non-humanistic approach to the objective concept of abstraction“. Charlie, the other guy, added: “Yes, you have a point there! In fact, it’s obvious even from a casual glance that this painting was created by a paranoiac-critical activity, brought about by somnambulistically inclined dynamic sensations, companologists, who create a picture of transcendental non-curvilinear and curvilinear objects expressing subjective feelings in a cubistic manner“. They both turned to me expecting me to add something more … “Umm … I just see a lady with a bad hair day drawn by a 9 year old … :-S ”
You can find patterns, coincidences and meanings in anything if you analyze it hard enough, because opinions are colored by our past experiences, and recent perspectives and knowledge.
I told you the above anecdote because the “Why are we alive?” question reminds me of Italian Aesthetics Philosopher Benedetto Croce. Croce spent his entire life trying to figure out “What is beauty?”, including how to define it and analyze it by scrutinizing and dissecting all sorts of theories. At the end of his life, in one of his books, I read his conclusion: “Beauty is indescribable“. Anyone could of told him that – what a wasted life with pointless research!
Just imagine a person who is born blind. How would you explain to them through words, the beauty of the stars? Or of a spring day? Or of a painting? How could they associate the word ‘light’, ‘beautiful’, and ‘red’ to a visual memory they never had? How exactly does “beautiful” describe anything anyway? A shell can be beautiful … a person can be beautiful, but is it the same type of beautiful?
Yet Gareth & Chris so vigorously tried to describe beauty while falling in love with their own intellectual words.
Beauty has to be felt through art, music, attraction, and sight. Beauty cannot be thought about. In the same way life has to be lived, life cannot be thought about.
Plato in one of his works, stated that in his ideal Utopian society known as the ‘Republic’, he would not allow poets. This startled me: why would such a great philosopher not want any poets? I came to the conclusion that either the poems back then were very fantasy oriented (and Plato disliked irrational, ignorant thinking), or because like all other philosophers, Plato valued logic over all else. Perhaps to the logical mind poems have no value to them because poets don’t ask why a rose is red, they just feel how red the rose is and write about it. To an intellectual philosopher always wanting answers to their “Why’s” poetry is unthinkable …”Isn’t he as afraid of the unknown and uncertain as me? Why is he so happy simply admiring his feelings?”
Logic works by separating things, and by dividing them into pieces in order to reach some kind of understanding.
A rose isn’t a rose to the logic-centered mind: it’s a compound of different chemicals and names for its parts, i.e. there are petals, thorns, a stem, roots, leaves, etc. But all these are words we have created to analyze objects better through language and knowledge. Yet the the world, nature and life doesn’t work separately.
A rose isn’t created by a bunch of thorns saying “Hey … see that group of stems, lets run over there and attach ourselves to them … and we’ll call ourselves a ‘rose’ “. Instead, a rose grows all together from the beginning.
The whole world isn’t divided into parts like language or logic makes it seem. What we call a “rose” is connected directly to what we call “soil” and that connects to “trees”, and “land” meets its path with the “ocean”. The “Planet Earth” isn’t some separate entity from the other planets or universe: they all work together in a harmonious balance, a cosmic play of magnetic energy.
Western medicine uses logic to separate our bodies into different organs (heart, liver, lungs …) and treats organs individually, while ancient Chinese medicine was aware that there were different “parts” inside our bodies, but they didn’t treat them individually. Instead, Chinese medicine saw the body as a harmonious balance, that worked well in sync together, and could be treated thus wise.
William Shakespeare so eloquently wrote in his Romeo and Juliet play;
What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title. Romeo, doth thy name,
And for that name which is no part of thee
Take all myself.
Logic is great for our daily lives, for the advancements of science, medicine and technology. But it has one big flaw in its system when it comes to answer profound questions such as “What is the meaning of life?”
Even science itself can prove that life’s meaning isn’t possible to find out through logic. The entire world, the very core of all universal matter is composed of Electrons, Protons, Neutrons, and if you put any of them under a microscope you will see that they all bounce around randomly … they follow no logical pattern.
So forget Plato. I say the best thing you can do is to become a poet and feel the world. Life has no absolute philosophical truths. Philosophers are always having endless debates over what they believe is an absolute statement or not, but they can rarely agree upon anything. In fact, I’ve noticed how many intellectuals don’t ask questions to find out the answers, but rather to appear knowledgeable by being “inquisitive, profound questioners”.
Remember that logic separates and divides things apart, but feeling brings things together. You can’t think the world, you can only feel it.
When I was in Year 9 we went on a school excursion to the mountains. After hiking to the peak everyone sat down for dinner, while I wandered off to sit on a rock nearby, admiring the magnificent array of colors that were visible in the horizon after the sun had set.
After a few minutes my professor approached me: “Matty what are you doing here all alone? Ahhh, what a beautiful sight … Did you know the colors are due to light passing through a clear fluid with suspended particles being scattered? Wavelengths like blue are scattered more strongly, and John Tyndall in 1859 was the first to notice this. The reddish sunset sky is light passing through a lot of air removing the other spectral colors as the angle of the sun changes“.
In that precise moment, even though I found all his information interesting, the same thing happened as with Gareth and Charlie: the explanation didn’t fulfill me at all. Only the sight of the actual red sky did. And even more so, the thought process of continuing the conversation with him spoiled the beauty of the scenery because my complete focus was no longer a silent admiration of the horizon. My focus was now on arranging my thoughts to communicate with him why I wanted solitude in the first place.
If his explanation wasn’t fulfilling, can you imagine what would happen to people who fall in love? Just imagine if these people knew what the other was going to say and do in every moment, what they were thinking, all the knowledge and memories stored in their heads, the fact that yoghurt makes them fart … Just imagine if they knew everything. How horrible would that be?? They’d be bored of each other from the beginning because there would be nothing left to find out or discover: they’d already know everything that was going on.
It was through these experiences that I learnt one of my most valuable lessons in life:
To find out the meaning of life would take away all its beauty. An explanation is dead because it’s always the same. An explanation is based on a memory, and all memories are static, while life, nature and the universe is always dynamically changing, expanding, growing and dying.
You can fall in love with a mystery but you can’t fall in love with an explanation.