The G-File

The Meaning of Life

Dear Reader (or I suppose I should call you Dr. Reader),

Yesterday was Valentine’s Day, every man’s favorite holiday, every woman’s dreaded greeting-card conspiracy. Wait, strike that; reverse it, as Willy Wonka liked to say.

Actually, I’ve never had that much of an objection to Valentine’s Day, compared with, say, the romantic shakedown that is New Year’s Eve. On Valentine’s Day, men know what the minimal buy-in for safe passage is: flowers and chocolate and maybe a nice card. As long as you can afford that stuff, you’re going to get through it all just fine. Meanwhile, for the single man at least, New Year’s Eve is like the prospect of going to prison. You just don’t know how to keep from getting screwed (in a bad way). Staying with a big group to take the pressure off strikes me as good advice for both occasions. But beyond that, there are so many questions you just don’t know the answer to. Do you confidently stand up for yourself? Or does that just invite trouble? Should you avoid eye contact? Who do you buy a carton of cigarettes for? Do you share the apple brown betty on your lunch tray with the first person who asks, or do you wait for a better offer? There are just so many questions.

Uncertainty is of course the spice of life. If we knew exactly what happened next, life would be a terrible bore (ironically, as Dune fans recall, by taking too much of the spice of life, Paul Atreides gained exactly this ability.) But at the same time, it’s the source of so much anxiety.

I’m reminded of the story I told in my eulogy for my Dad:

On these walks – and others like them, for Dad loved to go for walks with his boys – he would pour out guidance, observations, and advice I will cherish always.

(To this day, I clearly remember how he insisted that it was far more likely, in a random universe without a God, that astronauts would find a perfectly running pocket-watch on Mars than even a rudimentary life form, since even single-celled creatures were vastly more complex than a pocket watch.)

But one of my earliest memories is of us walking to Murray’s – I couldn’t have been much older than 7 or 8 – when he stopped, and suddenly tightened his grip on my little hand and said to me, “Jonah, if you are ever pulled over by a policeman in a South American country, you must tell him, ‘I’m sorry officer. I didn’t realize my mistake. Is there any way I can pay the fine right here rather than go down to the station house?’“

If you knew you could bribe the cop and get away with it, or if you knew that all that was in store for you down at the station house was some bad coffee and reruns of a whacky Mexican soap opera, you’d have no reason to bribe him in the first place. But uncertainty makes us anxious and makes us do crazy things – like run with scissors, or feed a mackerel to a wolverine while holding the fish with your mouth, or eat steak tartare at a joint that sells international phone cards at the register, or write about teleology on the fly on a Friday morning.

The Meaning of Life

But since the meteor strikes v what scientists are calling God’s updated drone program – have begun, and since I have nothing better to write about, I figure I’ll take that parenthetical cue from my Dad and write about the meaning of life. Well, how about a meaning of life. Besides, as you might have guessed from my frequent references to, say, Cannonball Run II and Gymkata, I am not a rigorous and well-read metaphysician. My frequent invocations to Crom might also suggest that I’m not Johnny on the Spot when it comes to theology either.

I’ve always thought that teleology has been out of favor since Darwin, Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud bum-rushed God in the 19th century. (Oddly, Marx stood at the mouth of the alley pretending to be on the lookout, but he was actually a bit of a closeted teleologist himself. He just hated God.) But apparently even before that, the idea was crouching in the corner begging not to be beaten like the guy who went to prison and shared his apple brown betty with the wrong guy, according to this intriguing article by Steven Poole. Francis Bacon (mmmm bacon) put teleology in the round file almost four centuries ago.

What is teleology? Basically, it’s the idea that there’s a purpose to all things. (Telos means “purpose” or “goal” in Greek. In Klingon, I believe it means “self-lubricating catheter.” Someone check that for me.) Teleology, starting with Aristotle, says that we should look at things, including rocks, humans, life, existence, even “Cop Rock“ (“No, not Cop Rock!” – The Couch) through the lens of “why?” not just the lenses of “what?” or “how?” Everything has a purpose, a goal, a role.

I’m not an intelligent-design guy, if by intelligent design you mean that evolution is just some elaborate con and cavemen fought dinosaurs. No doubt there are unexplained and mysterious aspects to evolutionary theory – any theory that purports to explain the development of all life is going to need to be tweaked for a while. After all, evolutionary scientists are like people who missed the first 99.9 percent of the movie and are trying to figure out what happened by the last few frames on the screen. But do I believe in evolution? Of course I do. (And please, no e-mail in ALL CAPS with quotes from Darwin about the human eye or videos from Kirk Cameron explaining how to find God in a banana.)

I like the intelligent-design stuff as an interesting critique of materialism and the agendas some like to smuggle into evolutionary theory, and really nothing more.

But I also believe in God. I believe there’s a purpose to things. I don’t presume to know the purpose. I sometimes think I can glimpse it out of the corner of my eye, or feel it in my chest in a moment of dread or joy from time to time. Whittaker Chambers saw it in his son’s ear. Meaning is where you find it.

Show Your Work

But it’s worth noting that you don’t have to believe in God to believe there’s a purpose to everything. In college I read an essay by Robert Wright that had a huge impact on me at the time and has stayed with me to this day. Adapted  for The Atlantic from his underappreciated book Three Scientists and Their Gods, the essay was titled, “What if the Universe is a Computer?” I can’t get too deep into the weeds here, but the piece was basically an intellectual profile of Edward Fredkin, a self-taught computer genius. Fredkin believed that there were really three fundamental elements to reality: Matter, energy, and information, and of the three, information was the most important. Electrons and protons do what they do according to the universe’s operating system, and they cannot and do not exist independent of it. It’s funny how this makes a lot of sense for biological life because we’ve found and decoded DNA, but the idea that there’s a DNA to the immaterial things strikes many as ooogah-boogah talk. All Fredkin was saying, I think, is that the universe has DNA. And that means Aristotle wasn’t the fool the moderns thought he was. Every rock has a purpose, every stone a goal.

Moreover, he believed that there are certain math problems that there are no shortcuts to. You can’t just plug in a formula. You’ve got to just do the math. I’ve always taken this as a great metaphor for life. Some things are more satisfying because you did them from scratch. Some lessons can only be learned in the doing. Showing is more powerful than telling. That’s why I’m always quoting Edmund Burke about how “example is the school of mankind.”

I don’t have the essay in front of me, and I can’t find it on the web, but I did find an excerpt from Wright’s interview with Fredkin in LexisNexis (from the Sydney Morning Herald):

Physicists, Fredkin says, make no attempt to explain why things obey the laws of, say, electromagnetism or gravitation. The law is the law and that is that.

He refuses to accept authority so blindly. Fredkinposits laws but also a law enforcement agency – a computer.

There is, he believes, a machine-like thing that keeps the universe ticking over and makes every bit of the universe abide by the rule of “universal cellular automaton”.

He will not back down on his belief that the universe is a computer. He says he is amazed that rational scientists believe in “a form of mysticism; that things just happen because they happen”.

Why does this giant computer of a universe exist? “The reason is there is no way to know the answer to some question any faster than what’s going on.”

Suppose, he says, there is an all-powerful God. “And He’s thinking of creating this universe. He’s going to spend seven days on the job – this is totally allegorical — or six days on the job. Okay, now, if He’s as all-powerful as you might imagine, He can say to Himself: ‘Wait a minute, why waste the time? I can create the whole thing, or I can just think about it for a minute and just realise what’s going to happen so that I don’t have to bother’.

“Now, ordinary physics says, ‘Well, yeah you got an all-powerful God, He can probably do that.’ What I can say is  . . . I don’t care how powerful God is; He cannot know the answer to the question any faster than doing it.

“Now, He can have various ways of doing it, but He has to do every goddam single step with every bit or He won’t get the right answer.

“There’s no short cut.

“Every astrophysical phenomenon that’s going is always assumed to be just accident. To me, this is a fairly arrogant position, in that intelligence – and computation, which includes intelligence, in my view – is a much more universal thing than people think. It’s hard for me to believe that everything out there is just an accident.”

It’s All Metaphorical

Now, I can’t prove Fredkin’s right (nor can anyone else! Metaphysical Booyah!). But I feel like there’s something to this. I like Thomas Nagel’s image of the birth of biological consciousness as evidence that the universe is “waking up.” I dig all the talk about the singularity. The Couch loves the idea that he has a telos independent of how many funny mushrooms I eat.

But here’s the thing. It doesn’t matter whether it is literally true. It is metaphorically true. And in a way, metaphorical truth is more important. The meaning of life is found in the living of it. This not a materialistic, “you only live once” argument for hedonism. Rather, I’m simply acknowledging the fact that whatever meaning there is to our existence can only be gleaned from existence. If all you’ve got are shadows on the wall of Plato’s cave, you learn what you can from the shadows.

We are all individually working out the math. I don’t mean to belittle or sidestep religion, but to bolster it. Religion is metaphorical too, insofar as God’s will is always a mystery and out of reach. But religion helps most people look beyond the material to the deeper purpose of all things. Atheists who hate religion, it seems to me, often really hate the language of religion because it doesn’t speak to them or because they lack the imagination to see it in anything but the strictest and most literal terms.

Meanwhile, John Donne was right in the small-c catholic and big-C Catholic sense: No man is an island. And whether you want to say that we are “Each . . . a piece of the continent, a part of the main,” or whether you want to say that we are each working on our own little bit of the big math problem, you are still grasping at the shadows to describe a truth too big for your hands to recognize, but that your soul can feel.

In Memoriam

I’m sorry if teleology ain’t your bag (I should have realized that from your book Teleology Ain’t My Bag, Baby). But I guess this stuff is on my mind a bit because since last we talked, the third anniversary of my brother’s death came and went. It’s always strange because the anniversary of his death and my daughter’s birthday essentially overlap. The juxtaposition of the two leads one to thoughts of the sequester and fully funding universal pre-K the meaning of life. I’d planned on simply linking to the eulogy, but I guess I got carried away.

In the first G-File after he died, I wrote:

One of the things that keeps slugging me in the face is the fact that the cultural memory of our little family has been dealt a terrible blow. Sure, my mom’s around, but sons have a different memory of family life than parents. And Josh’s recall for such things was always not only better than mine, but different than mine as well. I remembered things he’d forgotten and vice versa. In what seems like the blink of an eye, whole volumes of institutional memory have simply vanished. And that is a terribly lonely thought, that no amount of company and condolence can ease or erase.

We may be all pieces of the continent, parts of the main, or we may all be simply algorithms in some giant computer simulation, but not all losses hit just as hard. My corner of the continent, my part of the main, has never quite recovered. Josh Goldberg, R.I.P.

Various & Sundry

Since I know I’m going to get a lot of complaints about today’s G-File from folks who don’t dig this stuff, here’s an extra chock-full V&S section:

I’m sorry I didn’t get to write about Westminster this year. But I think this makes a compelling case for why a lab should win.

Speaking of dogs, great tale of a justifiable dognapping.

A great essay on Orwell’s leftward gaze.

Do you have a drone in your neighborhood?

This says these are the worst Valentine’s Day cards ever, but I like some of ‘em.

I know what you’re thinking, we need to lasso more students.

Best wrong final Jeopardy answer ever!

Online dating for everybody!

A mediocre column by me! Supersonic ping-pong bazooka.

On one of these earths, I like to think Phil Gramm was elected president of the United States. Now will you admit FDR’s god-complex?

Milton Friedman on the minimum wage.

And you wonder why the devil has goat hooves?

Attention D.C.-area interns. I’m giving a talk next week at AEI on February 19. The event is from 5:30 to 8:00 on the twelfth floor. If you’re interested in attending you must RSVP to by today. I gather you must also, in fact, be an intern. I don’t want to see any 40-year-old dudes with wedding rings and nice suits in the audience.

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