I’ve had an interest in philosophy since my teen years, and I had my first panic attack about the impossibility of infinity before I was ten, so I’m no stranger to the burning desire for knowledge that has consumed so much of my life and so much of the world throughout history. I’ve often found myself asking what we can learn by studying the past, from science and religion, from the universe itself, and from looking toward a transhuman, post-singularity future.
It wasn’t until I reached college that I first encountered a physical manifestation of what I call these burning questions. In an art history class at JMU, the professor showed us slides of a painting called Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? by Paul Gauguin. In my search for meaning I’ve so often struggled just to find the questions, let alone the answers. But when I saw the painting, those three questions became the primary mantra in my search for meaning in my life and in the universe itself.
The search for knowledge is maddening. Why are the answers to the questions which seem so vital to our very existence so impossibly elusive? The closer we get to the truth, the blurrier it becomes. If only we had a massive pair of communal reading glasses.
In thinking about the past, the “Where Do We Come From?”, I wonder if we have Adam and Eve to blame for devouring any knowledge fit for humanity, digesting it, and turning it into excrement. If there was a tree of knowledge growing in my garden, I wouldn’t think twice about rebelling against the powers that be for a taste of what’s behind the veil. Rules are meant to be broken, right? Maybe I’d be struck by a divine bolt for my insubordination, but why go to the trouble of planting a knowledge tree if its fruits aren’t meant to do anything more than fall to the ground and rot?
I’ve always been an avid reader and looked to books for my primary source of answers. At the same time, I have an understanding that those answers aren’t in any book, because there most likely aren’t any answers. But recently the maddening thirst for knowledge has hit me with full force, regardless of how much or little I think I understand about the way the world turns. This summer I’ve been devouring books at an alarming rate, usually at least a couple a week, searching the pages for answers, and then, without pause, tearing into the next book, desperately hoping to get a little closer to some universal truth.
Obviously I haven’t come across the meaning of life. I promise I’d share it with you if I had. And if you have, please let me know so I can go back to reading at a leisurely pace. Just leave your insight in the comments section below and I’ll be happy to note your insight and shelve the books so I can go back (as if I was ever there) to sanity.
I’ve also been reading a lot about immortality and transhumanism, thinking about the Where are We Going? question. I haven’t really been seeking these books out, they’ve been finding me.
I don’t know where we’re going. I don’t know the answer to any of the burning questions. But I still ask them. I still madly scour the pages of book after book, looking, I guess, not for answers, but for reassurance that it is okay not to have the answers. That not knowing is fine. That it is good. That it is the way the universe is designed and maybe the meaning is wrapped up in that unknown, a wrapping paper tessellated with question marks. I mean, what’s the point of existing in the first place if everything’s already figured out? Why go through the motions?
But I digress. In all the reading I’ve been doing this summer, one passage in particular jumped out and smacked me across the face, leaving my ears ringing with the sound of one hand clapping. So while I may not have any answers, I’m stabilizing again as I’m reminded that the human concept of meaning might just be the greatest barrier between us and understanding our place in the universe.
Here’s the passage, which is from Another Roadside Attraction:
“But seriously, if life has no meaning—”
“To say it has no meaning is not to say it has no value.”
“But to say it’s all meaningless. Isn’t that a cop-out?”
“Maybe. But it seems to me that the real cop-out is to say that the universe has meaning but that we ‘mere mortals’ are incapable of ever knowing that meaning. Mystery is part of nature’s style, that’s all. It’s the Infinite Goof. It’s meaning that is of no meaning. That paradox is the key to the meaning of meaning. To look for meaning—or the lack of it—in things is a game played by beings of limited consciousness. Behind everything in life is a process that is beyond meaning. Not beyond understanding, mind you, but beyond meaning.” – Tom Robbins