robot dreams

The meaning of life.

LAST NIGHT, I was talking with friends about things personal and things philosophical, likely kicked off by the Bill Brown talk. One topic that came up as it always seems to was, "What is the meaning of life?"

One friend said, "I don't know."

Another answered, "To spread our genes."

At first I dismissed the first answer. The second answer... well, it's absolutely true in a biological sense. When you get down to the root of everything, it's the real answer.

Earlier, I was walking home from work, passing under a leafless canopy. The bones of the trees were visible. Seeds everywhere. Students on the sidewalk, cell-phones in hand as they headed to their cars to drive off to play or study or build the future in which we will all live. And it struck me like lightning:

We are only hosts for our genetic material. Everything we do, everything we are, is dictated by the tiny machines that build us into thinking meat. We are products of our genes just as trees are the product of their seeds. Organisms - even thinking ones - are manufactured by the nano-factories called biology.

I envy the trees. They are not weighed down with responsibility or questions of right and wrong or considerations of the future. To them, "Why?" never crosses their minds. They do not need to worry about how to be the best tree they can be; they simply live. They are driven by the programming of the tiny machines within them, the machines that manufactured them and maintain them and dictate their future. Those machines help guide them as they encounter wind and drought; if they survive storms and Kansas summer, they produce new seeds. Those seeds grow into new trees that can survive what Kansas throws at them. They don't build civilizations or cities or universities; they don't engineer automobiles or cell phones. They simply live. And that is enough.

We, however - we humans - we are weighted with sentience. This mass of dendrites and other products of our machines make us worry about the future, about morality, about acquisitions. We form friendships and romantic entanglements; these endure or fade or explode in dramatic fashion, and then we write novels about our experiences or film movies or create other works of art. We talk about our victories and catastrophes with friends. With our friends and loved ones, we celebrate success and empathize with failure. We craft paintings, shoot photographs, post websites, write blogs, all in an effort to express ourselves. Our creative expressions consume years of our lives. We assemble bookshelves and paint the walls of our homes that others built and which we bought with money - a concept manufactured in the forebrains of economists - and call the people in our lives using electronics that are the product of centuries of industrial evolution. We talk and write and paint and run and climb and dance; we cry and laugh and drink ourselves into oblivion; we pour the years of our existence into making things, consuming things, building futures for others or destroying them. We believe we are good, or we are not evil, or we question what is good and evil. We describe what is right and moral, and then we question ourselves in the darkness of the night when we sit alone at our keyboards, wondering, wondering. We strive and we fail; we strive and we succeed.

But what does it all mean? Are we only acting out the over-complicated programming humming away within the hearts of our cells? We, products of the products of evolution; what are we? If we are only machines designed to produce more human machines of the type manufactured by the tiny machines that built us, then it is clear that our duty is to create more of those machines of our particular brand. We must prove the value of ourselves by making replicas of ourselves. The meaning of life is to pass our genes into the future. And to build a future best suited to protecting the new machines that we produce and which will carry our genes into that future. So we build civilizations and cell phones and put money in the bank. And when the banks fail or we lose our jobs or our houses are foreclosed upon, this quakes us to our cores, because the civilization we built is like the cradle for the future, the macro-machines that will provide for the human machines carrying "our" genes, and we have failed in our sole purpose.

An aside about owership: It is more true to say that we belong to our genes than that they are our genes. Does Chrysler Corporation belong to my 2004 Crossfire? Or my 1966 Newport? Absurd. Both were manufactured by the same machine (Chrysler Corporation), but in different generations. Yet they do not reproduce themselves, so this isn't a good comparison. Do the fruits on its branches belong to the persimmon tree in my back yard? Does the tree that dropped the fruit that grew this tree belong to it? Neither; it belongs to the genetic material that created the tree that dropped the fruit that contained the seed that grew my tree.

The tree's only reason for being is to survive the seasons, thrive through adversity, produce fruits, and - having survived and earned the right to do so - make more trees like it. It exists to perpetuate its genes. It is a framework and a resource for nothing more than supporting the gene factory that made it, the gene factory whose drive to thrive creates life itself.

This is God. God is within us all. God is the gene, the self-assembling matter of life. God is the biological nanofactory. There is no right and wrong beyond what allows the factory to thrive and continue to produce.

We live and laugh and cry, we build cities and laptops and torture ourselves with questions of right and wrong so that we may provide a lush cradle for the machines that made us in order to do nothing more than deliver those genes into the future.

Our sentience is a burden, something we must carry, something that gets in the way of itself. It is an unfortunate diversion along the road to our genes' future.

This is not a comfort.

This friend also said that the meaning of life is "to seek pleasure." Pleasure, I think, is merely our genes expressing to us that we're taking the right path to provide them with what they need. But sentience does not approve. We build ethical and moral frameworks that limit pleasure and define which pleasures are the correct ones, even when they feel uncomfortable; we define which pleasures are the incorrect ones, even when they feel best.

Either pleasure is not a good guide or sentience is a poor expression of our genes. Or both. And sentience doesn't feel comfortable with the idea that it exists only as part of the product of the machine to which we belong. Even that - the gene - is merely the product of its programming. It is the machine that operates on that programming, as we operate on the gene.

After slogging through all of this meaning and meaninglessness, the first seems the truest answer:

What is the meaning of life?

I don't know.

Chris McKitterick




Posted 11/15/2008