While some may appear to lead a life unperturbed by fear and doubt, many are driven by forces less benign.
Who knows the answers to questions I have spent my life asking. Some believe, fervently even, that they have found terra firma in an ever shifting universe. Others see only an uncaring cosmos which, wondrous as it undoubtedly is, leaves us to make our own meaning, since none is provided out of the box.
With ever increasing conviction, I believe that the ancient philosophies of the east have the answers. At heart, the infinity we see around us just “is”. And always has been. Live with that, says the Tao. Do not battle the forces which surround you, row your boat gently down the stream.
Buddhism seems to go a step further. Recognize, it says, your own non-existence. Accept that your “self” is a mere illusion and abandon all attachments that your senses crave. Much like Susan Blackmore or Daniel Dennett might tell us, consciousness is not what it seems.
I do not believe that this absolves us of responsibilities, nor that it necessarily precludes enjoyment of the material world. Hard as enjoyment is for some of us to find. Nothing obliges us to act in any particular way (“good or “bad”), and I find it increasingly hard to concede that moral absolutes exist in objective reality. And yet we can proclaim our own rights and wrongs, our own morality. We can and must create our own meaning.
If we do not exist, then in a very real sense we have created a seeming existence out of nothing. For there is indeed “something that it is like” to be human.
Perhaps we too are creators then. Spawned by inert matter and blind mathematical evolution , we seem to have “emerged”. In a phrase used and abused by science and philosophy alike, we appear to be more than the sum of our parts.
And in that, a certain beauty may be found, hope even.
My hedonic set point is below average and yet I see how, as creators, that might be changed. For me, for all. If we arose from nothing, then we became quite something.
We became beings able to alter our own circumstances. To better ourselves. To develop societies and morals, fire and farmed food.
And yet, it is said, we do not exist. Perhaps clarification is called for. We exist to the extent that we feel emotions, we have senses. Pain and pleasure perhaps being the most obvious. Anger, greed and lust belonging to the least desirable of those qualia.
We exist to the extent we have memory, necessary no doubt to be able to navigate our way around a complex physical environment. We exist to the extent that we are aware of ourselves and our world, even if we do not grasp its true nature.
Now there is duality, if ever that word had meaning. A duality of existence and non-existence.
We are like a flowing river perhaps, or a candle flame, little more. A physical process which just happens to have evolved a way of being aware of itself and its surroundings. A material interaction commonly known as “life” which on its own, means little else other than biological self re-production.
None of that is to say that we can not become more. The birth of life from inert matter is a miracle which may be bettered. Bettered by ourselves, bootstrapping ourselves from the level of the beast to a technological prowess undreamt of even decades ago.
There, then, lies my optimism in bleaker moments.
In the power of the mind to elevate and improve ourselves. To paint glorious works of art, to build structures of exquisite beauty. To think wondrous thoughts, to write great novels and ethereal music.
To cure all ills, to provide a world where scarcity becomes a dim memory. Where money becomes an arcane memory.
Those then are my dreams, my better moments. Where beauty and hope is to be found.
In the patter of gentle rain, in the pounding of waves on a beach. In the gentle Norman chapel, and the light of stained glass. In the trance of Tchaikovsky, Handle and William Byrd.
We may not exist in the way we might suppose we do. But we have created something out of nothing. Black horror as well as paradisiacal beauty.
I dream of more of the latter and less of the former.