Tuesday, 24 July 2012

The Meaning of Life

On my way to work I often pass the big, inviting glass double-doors of a church annex. Large, friendly banners are draped above and either side advertising The Alpha Course and displaying a cartoon figure struggling to carry a question mark almost as big as himself. The slogan offers a chance to explore the meaning of life.
I find the concept of a meaning to life to be without meaning. As a teenager I was desperate to understand things that I believed were obscured by esoteric and unfathomable mysticality. It seemed obvious to me that science was merely a way of measuring things, but that the occult offered a way to look deeper. Astrophysicists scratched their heads over quasars while UFOlogists brought the distant universe much closer. My physics teacher copied words from a text book onto an overhead projector and made no effort to teach us, yet mystics spanning centuries keenly bestowed their knowledge. Tarot seemed able to reveal more aspects of the human spirit than Freud could.
It took a long time, many years of reading and a bachelor’s degree in science for me to realise that the problem wasn’t with science, it was with me. I lacked sufficient knowledge to judge correctly and had taken a short path that gave quick rewards. The methodology was always out there for me to find but my guides in the sciences were woefully poor at introducing me to the concepts and values of empirical experimentation and the axiomatic language of maths that underlies reality and slowly, piece by piece, reveals its nature to us.
I read Douglas Adams religiously and watched as many Monty Python films as I could find on video or get to see on the big screen by lying about my age. I knew this ‘meaning of life’ issue was a big one much debated by comedians and philosophers alike. I assumed that anything such luminaries chose to debate must be a worthy topic. Why else would it crop up so often?
I didn’t then know of any neurological reasons behind the genesis of such questions in the human psyche. I’d never heard of teleology - the act of assigning agency to something, placing meaning and design in a naturally occurring phenomenon - and how we are inclined to take that view owing to the statistical advantage it gives to any animal in surviving long enough to breed and rear its young.

I had no idea about the sophistication of belief and the tenacity of unfounded certainties. Asking for the meaning of life makes as much sense to me now as asking for the meaning of the sea. It’s just the wrong question. Like the six yr old on ‘Nina and the Neurons’ who asked “what are trees for?” Meaning assumes intent. Intent assumes a designer. I don’t believe in a designer of any kind. Belief requires a provocation. To me there is sufficient evidence of naturally occurring processes that would give rise to life and enough time for it to happen. To me that’s a marvel far greater than anything dreamt up in mythology or occultism.

Imagine a parallel universe where, shortly after time began, human civilisation and 2012 technology had sprung into existence. Complete, whole. Unchanging. 13 or so billion years later you go to a job interview. Two smartly dressed people ask pertinent questions and, at the end of the interview, they tell you to expect a response once HR had processed their assessment. Three days later you get a call to say you were successful and after a week a letter arrives to confirming the appointment. You report for duty and dutifully carry out the tasks you receive by email from your boss who is stationed overseas. Every month HR sends you a payslip and the money shows up in your account. A lot of what you do requires initiative and self-management. After a year in the job you start to wonder if your boss is really earning his pay and whether you get paid enough for what you do.
One day you find an error with your pay and call HR to let them know. No answer. You head over there and find the office where they’re supposed to be is empty except for someone vacuuming the carpet. They tell you in all their years of vacuuming they’ve never once seen a single person working in HR. How could this be? You try to contact your boss and get no reply. No surprise as the two of you have yet to speak. You contact the two people who interviewed you and they have no answer for you. No, they’ve never actually met anyone from HR and never seen the boss, but there are thousands of employees at the company and they themselves have worked there for years without any problems with payslips. The company has been around for hundreds of years, as everyone knows, and sometimes there are errors but they always seem to sort themselves out in time one way or another.
You start investigating. Your role gives you privileged access to important data. Unlike many employees you can see, if you look hard enough in the right places, how things fit together, company history, structure, communications. What you find shocks you. The company isn’t hundreds of years old, it’s thousands of years old! And, to your utter amazement, it’s origins go back billions of years!
After months of research you finally manage to put together a picture of how it might have happened. It all started when a single speck of static emerged from the background fuzz, its only distinction that it could bind together with another speck. Something innate in the specks caused them to bond in pairs under certain circumstances. The right kind of communications network was all it took. The double-specks had different characteristics and certain qualities began over millennia to emerge. They began to bind with other pairs and, eventually, an arms race began. Some collections of specks were harder to absorb due to the interference they generated in the static. Some were able to negate that interference with another type. On and on. A process of random traits and the resulting vulnerabilities or advantages emerged and after countless iterations and variations more complex groups were formed that sustained themselves and caused the static around them to form into identical structures.
One day a complex ball of static found a way to attach itself to an email. It travelled between accounts mindlessly and without purpose. Each time it landed it left an imprint which spawned another version of itself. Harmless to the system it travels through, soon there were many copies, undetected at the time and multiplying exponentially. In a short time there were countless trillions of them and the free static required to make new copies became scarce. Another arms race ensued. The complexity increased and in time forms arose that used the medium in which they travelled to give them shape and sustenance. They mimicked the communications they attached themselves to, appearing as spam emails and random jumbles of letters. Millions upon millions were deleted by users every day. But some emails, those that seemed to have some meaning in them, were occasionally saved or replied to, giving the complex patterns hidden within them a chance to replicate and an advantage over the others. The more meaning hinted at in the jumble of letters the greater the chance of it being saved from instant deletion and the greater the opportunity to reproduce.

Countless years passed by, the emails became more complex. Human users were as oblivious of the transmission of the purposeless emails as they were of the bacteria on their skin. Eventually, after billions of years, a complexity arose out of the simplicity of avoiding deletion and gaining opportunities to reproduce. The emails had formed into whole chains of apparent meaning, mutually supportive and collectively perpetuating the perfect environment to continue without end. The system developed a richness and became reliant on many varieties of emails to sustain itself. Wider communication networks gave rise to whole new levels of interaction between what appeared, to the unsuspecting humans passing the communications back and forth, to be individual people and departments. Random changes in the pattern gave rise to these varieties, some taking the form of more complex communications such as payment instructions to and from banks. Anything that met with resistance – anti-virus software, security checks, failure to complete the process – was quickly erased. But among the billions and billions of electronic messages spawned in the teeming ocean of cyberspace there were some which by chance met the criteria of the banks and completed a transaction. Mostly these were seen as errors and corrected, the payments repaid. But a tiny number happened under circumstances conducive to their success. Namely they gave rise to a payment paired up with a communication that explained it sufficiently. The bank and recipient allowed the transaction to stand and a new kind of symbiosis came into being. Eventually an ecosystem of self-sustaining communications had created an environment that not only allowed for successful transactions and the supporting communications, but also created them. Blindly manoeuvring the required ingredients into place by a process of multiple discarded failures and few retained successes, over vast reaches of time and after incalculable numbers of individual attempts, the appearance of a company and employer was formed. Without intent and only seeming that way to human eyes because that is the only way they can explain such things. Why else would it be so? Not how. ‘How?’ would be the better question, but centuries of civilisation have wasted time and effort asking instead ‘why?’, a question that, counter-intuitively, blinds us to the world we live in. Only you, having seen a crack appear in the status quo and having cause and desire to question it, were able to fathom the mystery of how the company came to be, when all your fellow employees failed to even notice there was a question to be asked.

Science, unlike the occult and the mystical, doesn’t seek to ask the question that closes avenues of possibility. It seeks to ask the questions that lead to more questions. By its nature science will always give rise to more mystery and more confusion because that is the nature of the universe and is the wonder of it all, and far more wonderful than anything dreamed up by human beings.

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