Monday, June 22, 2009

The meaning of life?

And speaking of pseudoscience, allow me to reprise a few paragraphs from something I wrote in the early days of this blog.

I had heard from a high-school student in the midwest who had read my book Skeptics and True Believers, in which, as you may know, I take to task all forms of faith that lack an empirical basis, including astrology and supernaturalist religion. He writes: "Are we just meaningless beasts roaming a meaningless Earth with the sole purpose of popping out babies so we can raise them to live longer, more meaningless lives?

A good question, the best question.

What we have learned about our place on Earth does indeed suggest that we are beasts, related even in our DNA and molecular chemistry to other animals. And, yes, the driving purpose of all animal life would seem to be "popping out babies."

But our uniquely complex human brains allow us to be more than beasts, more than baby-poppers. As far as we know, humans are the most complex thing in the universe, and in our desire to gain reliable knowledge of the universe the universe becomes conscious of itself.

As for myself, I don't need stars or gods to give my life meaning. I work at meaning every day, in the love of family and friends, in caring for my own little pieces of the Earth, in art, in science, and in making myself conscious of the mystery and beauty -- and terror -- of the cosmos.

"Or is there a possibility that there may be more?" asks my midwestern correspondent. Yes, there is almost certainly more to existence than what we have yet learned. Just think how much more we know than did our pre-scientific ancestors.

But that still greater knowledge will have to wait for minds other than my own. My children and grandchildren will know far more than I, and in that growing human storehouse of reliable knowledge I hope they will find some greater measure of meaning.

In the meantime, I attend to the fox that sometimes walks across my windowsill, the morning glory seedlings that reach achingly for the sun, and the moon that hangs like a great milky eye in the sky. Francis Bacon said that what a man would like to be true, he preferentially believes. That's a mistake I try to avoid. I choose instead to believe what my senses tell me to be palpably true.