“Life would be tragic if it weren’t funny” Stephen Hawking
Part I. – My Agnostic Leaning Thoughts
This essay is a kind of thought experiment, written from a stream of consciousness, like an abstract painting. The meaning, if there is one, really depends on what resonates with you, the reader.
I wonder what Hawking really meant when he made the statement about life? For me his statement underlines the “oddness” of our existence and that in many ways the world is a ludicrous place. This position sometimes leads me to think there’s no point in trying to make a difference… it’s not so much nihilism that I feel, it’s more of a mood of indifference.
Yet, I admit that I also intuitively feel there is an underlying spiritual force in the universe; and, I have experienced euphoric, mystical moments that seem to confirm this belief. However, I cannot give these feelings a name and do not subscribe to any notion of god– in fact, I find the idea of a god as exceedingly comical. And, for all feminists out there I am furious about the cabal of males who hijacked religion in ancient times and then deleted the “feminine” from heavenly beings - although I do think it’s strange to think of a divine being having a gender in the first place.
If I am correct about there being no god, then we are left with a world of humans, animals, various macro and microorganisms, plants along with many geographical features, subatomic particles, atmosphere, heavenly bodies, etc. but little evidence of another reality. Those who do experience an enlightened spirituality, can never describe it. And we are told that it is only attainable after many years of discipline, worship and study – a world for monks and mystics committed to following a different, often ascetic, path. As for the rest of us, we may well be left just sitting on a large orb, lost in space:
“The fact that we live at the bottom of a deep gravity well, on the surface of a gas covered planet going around a nuclear fireball 90 million miles away and think this to be normal is obviously some indication of how skewed our perspective tends to be,” Douglas Adams
In the Salmon of Doubt, Hitchhiking the Galaxy One Last Time, Adams paints a preposterous, kind of hopeless, picture of our precarious situation – a situation that germinated all the great religions.
First, there was worship of the sun god, and the stars. Animals were also given mystical powers - anthropomorphized within the limitations of priestly vocabulary and experience. Soon the idea of other gods emerged. The result was the “gods” of antiquity, for example the Greek gods, ruled by Zeus and living on Mount Olympus…and their Roman counterparts. Simultaneously came Buddhism, Hinduism, and, eventually, Christianity and Islam. As the religions grew they were controlled and administered by priest classes that built, especially in Western traditions, hierarchies that served their own interests as much as those of their followers.
Another powerful description of our predicament comes from Carl Sagan who in observing the earth as seen from space, described it as a “tiny bluish dot” and then said,
“Our posturing, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.”
However, mankind, ever resourceful, has created the help to save us from ourselves in the form of god(s). Faced with a world that was seemingly ineffable, we needed some comfort and meaning and there was no shortage of shamans, seers and priests, to give us answers.
Some may have truly experienced divine enlightenment, but their stories lack empirical evidence of the visions and gods with whom they claim to have communicated. A good example of this involves the controversial founder of the Mormon religion, Joseph Smith who was given golden tablets from an angel named Moroni, which contained a new revelation for Christianity. After translating the information, later called “The Book of Mormon,” the plates were returned to the angel, never to be seen again. It is interesting to know that a number of witnesses, all believers, said they too saw the plates before the angel took them away. Stories like the founding of the Mormon religion only increase my scepticism of religions that refer to and require gods.
I’m sure some would accuse me of being contradictory, denying the supernatural on the one hand, while still holding onto a notion of a spiritual “force” in the universe. Maybe it’s true. But if it does nothing else, it puts me firmly in the agnostic camp.
Or, maybe, if I think about it I’m just a proponent of Pascal’s wager. Pascal said there is no rational way to determine if there’s a god so we might as well believe a god exists because the reward is an infinite life in heaven. If we refuse to believe, and there is a god, then we could be doomed to an eternal hell. But if god doesn’t exist then we just lose our life of pleasures, friends, etc. So, if you boil it down then if you win, because there is a god, you win big. If there is no god then you lose nothing. Betting on god is the smart bet. Although I decline to take it.
Part II. - Absurdism Meets Optimism
Absurdism, as described by the New World Encyclopedia, “is a philosophical perspective which holds that the efforts of humanity to find meaning or rational explanation in the universe ultimately fail (and, hence are absurd) because no such meaning exists, at least to human beings.” This perspective usually “implies a tragic tone and feelings of frustration” because our human quest for meaning is fruitless – the truth about our existence is inaccessible. I call this feeling “angst”, and it seems to be a common affliction of modern people.
Yet, when combined with the two descriptions of our predicament from Adams and Sagan it gives me a sense of freedom – and a reckless and carefree attitude about life. Sometimes coming close to a courageous giddiness. It reminds me of Bertrand Russell who created a compelling image in one of his books of a person standing fist up, defiantly, in the face of an uncaring, onrushing universe - a kind of middle finger “Fuck You!” attitude.
Hey folks, we’re the whole show! This causes me to be strangely optimistic! With this mood I go on treating life as if it were a Cabaret, just like Sally does in the movie musical “Cabaret”, ignoring the negative situations around me and enjoying the moment.
So, like the song says “Don’t worry, Be Happy.1” I’m lucky to have been born with a sunny disposition. Even as a very young child my mother said I was always content to sit in a playpen and amuse myself. In fact, she’d sometimes joke that she’d have to come into the room to see if I was still alive! And there I would be playing with some toy.
Early on I followed the old adage “…grant me the serenity to accept things I cannot change: courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference. Living one day at a time; enjoying one moment at a time…” ( this is from the “Serenity Prayer by the theologian Reinhold Niebur).
How can a cheery approach to life affect your experiences? Recently I read an article that was posted by my Buddhist friend Ken on social media. The piece was by well-known meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg. She describes the feeling of “sympathetic joy” – something you experience when you rejoice in the happiness in another. She says that by being happy for other people’s successes and good fortune, you personally get a sense of gladness. The word she uses to describe this state is “mudita.” Salzberg says that it makes us feel less alone and more connected to others. In celebrating other people’s triumphs, we benefit from their joy. This idea resonates for me because I like to sincerely compliment the accomplishments of my friends and staff…I get a sense of sharing the moment with them…it raises my spirits (especially if we toast their good luck with a glass of Champagne!). Fundamentally all people want to be happy, don’t they? So why not help whenever you can? I don’t feel alone in my attitude and find the best way to enjoy life is to try to make other people happy, and spend most of my time with upbeat individuals. Good moods and dispositions are infectious.
Laugh at the Absurdity of Life
I find, on an empirical level, there is a strong element of the absurd in the human condition. There’s little evidence of any other dimension other than the physical world (of course there is Quantum Mechanics, but no one will find solace in that quagmire). Even though this Essay is largely about scepticism, often associated with a gloomy perspective, it also brings out, as mentioned above, the optimist in me. I don’t think that is too unusual either. In his book “Black Swan” Nassim Taleb writes about the famous philosopher, David Hume (known for his doubting philosophy and claim that all knowledge is uncertain, at best):
People imagine us sceptics and empiricists to be morose, paranoid, and tortured in our private lives which may be the exact opposite of what history (and my private experience) reports. Like many sceptics I hang around with, Hume was jovial and a bon vivant, eager for literary fame, salon company, and pleasant conversation.
This discussion leads me to a final conclusion or observation, that in general, too many people are awfully serious. Since life and its meaning is beyond our grasp, and absurd in many ways, then why not laugh at our foibles, experiences, beliefs and convictions? There are so many crazy ideas floating around in the world, including some religious teachings and claims, why not laugh at them more. When I say “crazy ideas” I mean ridiculous. Just check out Fox News in the U.S. – viewers of that channel must have a “screw loose” if they take their “reporting” as factual - it is so extremely biased, often bordering on outright lies. Some folks are so gullible. It reminds me of that disruptive and perceptive comedian George Carlin (I was lucky to see him perform once). He said. “Think how stupid the average person is; and then realize that half of ‘em are stupider than that.” Not that there is any pleasure in disparaging our fellow citizens, but there are times….
My message is, quite simply, no one has all the answers. And if you think about our precarious existence on this tiny orb called earth, which could be wiped out at any moment by a giant asteroid or a nuclear war and is located in an infinite and ever expanding universe, it all seems beyond understanding. So, why not add some levity to your life. Tell jokes. Be positive. After all, “Nothing in the affairs of man is worthy of anxiety,” advised Plato. Try changing your perspective in all things; and, make a conscious effort to see the silver lining in events. As Alphonse Karr wrote, “Can we complain that rose bushes have thorns, or rejoice because thorns have roses?” Why not choose the latter? And, be an optimist.2 Laugh as much as possible at our peculiar lot in life. From my viewpoint, it is largely absurd.
“Some people see the glass half full. Others see it half empty. I see a glass that’s twice as big as it needs to be.” George Carlin
1. This was a #1 hit song, done in acapella, by the talented artist Bobby McFerrin on his album “Simple Pleasures.” The phrase comes from Meher Baba, the Indian spiritual master, who said “Do your best, then don’t worry, be happy. Leave the rest to me.”
2. Qualification: My advising people to simply “be positive” as a solution to life’s mysteries, and its ups and downs, is more than a little facile. I recognize that some people have serious mood disorders (e.g. caused by chemical imbalances in their body or mind, and/or psychological damage from severe life traumas) and there’s nothing easy about finding the silver lining in events. In fact, it’s often impossible. To those folks I recommend medical treatment or psychiatric sessions with a qualified practitioner…and to seek the company of upbeat, happy people.