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
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.