What’s ‘meaningness’? or The Wrath of God
In which, over hot spiced tea, a friend coins a new term and things starts to shift.
I had declared God dead, and patted myself on the shoulder. “Well done, me!” I told myself, as if it was an achievment. I thought myself a rational person, a Scientist, and that there could be no truth outside the rigors of science. I was done. I saw our place in the universe, I saw the insignificance of us and universe both, and I thought people living their lives as if it meant something were blind and naive, with their faux traditions and priorities. I knew an obvious truth and it was a lonesome burden. So I cynically distracted myself with pleasure, entertainment and people. I no longer agree with me then. Am I still patting myself on the shoulder, as if this is an achievement?
It was autumn again, the rain knocked on the windows of my city flat as the doorbell rang quite expectedly. I opened the door for my soaked friend.
Notme: “Please! And a towel, maybe?”
While we were waiting for the kettle to boil, and while Notme dried her hair with the towel I had lent her, she asked:
Notme: “Have you heard of a writer called Ziba Znapper?”
Me: “Yes, I have. Because you told me about her, remember.”
Notme: “Oh, really? She’s quite mysterious isn’t she?”
Me: “Yes, very mysterious.”1
Notme takes out her electronic library and starts fiddling with it as she says:
Notme: “She has a story set in the far future and written almost in the form of an obituary over a recently deceased evolutionary scientist of some kind, named… ah yes… Nadia Meguid, who had become very famous for finding scientific evidence for the existence of God. It starts like this: “Much has been said by many opinionated and influential people about who Nadia Meguid was and what she discovered on those planets and mo…”
Me: “Wait, are you going to read me the whole story?”
Notme: “Do you mind?”
Me: “I’ve already read it, so save your breath. Weirdo.”
Well, maybe you, the reader have not, so I’ll intersperse some of the excerpts I’ve found from the story in question into the conversation between my friend and I. Here’s the beginning:
The Wrath of God
by Ziba Znapper
(Published with permission)
******Much has been said by many opinionated and influential people about who Nadia Meguid was and what she discovered on those planets and most of it is lies to cover up an uncomfortable but undeniable scientific fact. As someone who knew her and her work better than anybody, my words should carry some weight in the matter. Therefore, I have decided to tell the story as it happened.
******I first met Dr. Meguid long before she became infamous in our parts of the galaxy. She had just obtained her doctorate for her exo-archaeological works on Trincot 54, a planet which never developed a Space Race. We worked together for many years after that until she made her breakthrough, which would almost overnight turn her into the highly controversial figure which she remained until her death. I think it safe to claim that no-one has had a larger impact on life in our Galaxy than Dr. Nadia Meguid.
******I was already becoming an expert on evolutionary exobiology the day Nadia approached me to ask how species develop certain traits. Throughout the universe, wherever life has emerged, there are many traits which are quite similar among different species. All known living planets have swimming creatures with fins, creatures with eyes and ears, creatures which run, jump, climb, and so on. There are larger creatures which can fly on only one in twelve of these planets, and only on about one living planet in ten thousand has an intelligent Space Race emerged. What Nadia wanted me to explain was how these very rare and distinguishing features like higher intelligence evolve. I will spare you the details; the important thing is that such extremely unusual traits develop so rapidly that exo-archaeologists back then saw sudden leaps in the evolution of traits when they investigated the remains of these species. That was before the invention of the INIS–the Instant Neutrino Intercrustial Scanner.
******After hearing the explanation, Nadia told me of her findings on Trincot 54. Nadia was one of the first to use the INIS, the new set of tools that archaeology engineers had developed. This equipment now enables exo-archaeoligsts to swiftly scan an entire planet for all biological remains, and determine their chemical composition and age with such high accuracy that they no longer have to talk about a missing link in the evolution of species. It turned out that Nadia had found one species on the planet Trincot 54, which showed every sign of rapidly developing intelligence. It exhibited some use of rudimentary technology, of construction of habitats, and even some remains of aesthetic expression. And then, for no apparent reason, the species died out. She had found no changes in climate, nor any other signs of catastrophic events on the planet which could explain it. I thought it curious, but did not take it very seriously since species become extinct all the time in the history of living planets.
I filled up our cups with spiced tea and we made ourselves comfortable on my couch. I asked Notme a question, mostly to tease her, so the reply she gave while rolling her eyes took me by surprise:
Me: “What’s the meaning of life?”
Notme: “That’s such a boring question.”
Question: What is the meaning of the word ‘meaning’? Used in a sentence: What is the ‘meaning’ of life?
Me: “Wha-hrm… boring?! It’s the most important question there is!”
Notme: “But it really isn’t! And besides, I thought you already had all the answers, so why do you even bother asking?”
Me: “And I thought that you still found the question important.”
Notme: “No, I think it is the wrong question. I guess you’re thinking about the meaning of life as a matter of our purpose in the universe, or even the purpose of the Universe as a whole. That’s where you go completely awry with your thinking. The fact is that the meaning of the cosmos will remain ever eluding to us, be it divine or not, be it there or not. The brevity of our lives and the vastness of the cosmos have lead many ‘great thinkers’ into despair, because the meaning of life is viewed in such a functional cosmic manner.“
Notme: “Yes, functional in the sense that you seem to ask what good you could serve for the universe, being such a brief flicker of carbon dust. I don’t want to fall into this trap, and neither into the trap of thinking that the only way out is the presence of a divine being, giving us meaning in our existence.”
Fyodor Dostoyevsky: “For if there’s no everlasting God, there’s no such thing as virtue, and there’s no need of it.”
Me: “See? That’s what I’ve been saying all along: there is no meaning in this world, thinking anything else is vanity!”
Notme: “That’s where you are completely wrong! That’s the fallacy of confusing cosmic meaning with the meaning of life, the personal meaning of living and being in this world. I fear that much of this confusion comes from us having too narrow a vocabulary. I like to think of the personally felt meaning in our lives as not ‘meaning’, that term is reserved for the cosmos (of which we are a part, of course), but the term ‘meaningness’.”
Notme: “Yes, indeed. Meaningness. The limitation of cosmic meaning is that either it’s there, or it’s not. There is not much we can do about it either way. So the existence of cosmic meaning cannot have any impact on our lives. It doesn’t provide an incentive to engage with anything, least of all our own lives. Meaningness on the other hand, we can strive for, meaningness is something we can achieve, exactly by engaging. It’s not something that just happens to us, it is something we need to work on, sometimes hard, sometimes a lot, often together. Meaningness does not come for free, it is earned.”
Me: “Still–’Meaningness’? Your own coinage?”
Notme: “Yes, and I like the term. Unlike happiness, it’s something to strive for.”
Me: “And it’s one letter away from ‘meaningless’.”
Me: “Is there meaningnessness as well then?”
Notme: “Sure, why not.”
Me: “So, what exactly is ‘Meaningness’?”
She did not answer. We grew silent and sipped our tea for a while. Mine was still too hot for me to drink, but I enjoyed the fragrance of the soaked leaves.
******When we met again, Nadia was distraught. By now she had been able to repeatedly confirm her discovery on hundreds of planets: the remains of a species which showed every sign of developing higher intelligence and then, inexplicably became extinct. The emerging pattern could no longer be considered a mere curiosity, but she had yet to come up with an explanation for it. She had discussed the issue with several colleagues, and no one was able to provide anything beyond speculation. What disturbed her was not that all these seemingly intelligent species became extinct, but when it happened.
******All Space Races at a certain point in their history develop rituals, often connected with burials, but also for other forms of worship of deities. Not only do all intelligent species have these rituals in common in their past, but they also emerge during the same phase in the evolution of their minds. What Nadia had found was that this happens during the same evolutionary phase by which the species she studied died out, and always without any trace of deity worship. To rephrase it in order for the enormity of this discovery to be clear: She had found that all intelligent species in the universe at a certain phase in their development either start to worship some sort of higher power–or become extinct.
Me: “Not that I do, but what about if you believe in God, does that not bring meaning to life?”
Notme: “Yes, sure. But so what? Unless God speaks directly to you and tells you what to do, how could God be relevant for how you live your life? And if God did tell you what to do, you would just be a slave under God’s command. So, God only constitues a form of cosmic meaning, and is thus irrelevant, since God does not provide meaningness. The plight of the modern era comes from simultaneously declaring that God is dead, and imagining that this matters. Thinking that it matters lead one to despair about our place in a vast cosmos. It may vainly make one seek eternal recognition through legacy building, or it may lead one to seek distractions from the falsehood that nothing matters, instead of pursuing what does. You see, thinking that something matters affects how we live our lives. Belief that cosmic meaning matters makes one disengage from life, no matter whether one believes that there is meaning or that there isn’t. It may even lead to an arrogant notion of seeing oneself as rational, based on the sole fact of one’s declaration of God’s death. Conversely, the simultaneous declaration that there is a God, and that this matters may be equally detrimental to our pursuit for what does matter. ”
Me: “And what matters would be meaningness?”
Notme: “Yes indeed.”
Me: “So, what exactly is ‘Meaningness?’”.
She did not answer.
******Nadia and I may have had disagreements when it came to matters of faith, being the headstrong atheist that she was, but we both found her data equally and deeply disturbing. Given later events I find it necessary to clearly express here, the opinion I had. I firmly held that science can neither prove nor disprove the existence of God. If one tries to argue that science cannot explain everything, and therefore something mystical is needed to explain the questions that remains unanswered, one’s faith is put in a power whose domain in the universe is ever shrinking as science progresses. And yet, to me, without an omnipresent loving creator, this Universe lacked meaning. Nadia disagreed with me; she saw no point in believing in anything that could not be proved scientifically, and I suspect in this she found solace. However, we did agree that one cannot use science to show that any of us is right or wrong in what we believe. Also, my belief and her atheism had never affected our scientific work.
******As a scientist Nadia was now becoming immensely frustrated. She had made a major discovery but without having a scientific explanation for it she was not able to publish her findings. We started to explore all possibilities in the search for an answer. I analysed her data countless times and while our efforts did not lead to any answers, nor to any scientific publications on the matter, at least me and Nadia formed a deep friendship.
******It was around this time, partly as a joke, that we started referring to the data as “The Wrath of God”, a phrase we would come to regret when words of our research reached beyond the small academic circles in which we confined ourselves. The lack of scientific publications did not prevent most media outlets from picking up and abusing Nadia’s findings, which put Nadia in a position she detested. It was among other things claimed that she had scientifically proved the existence of God, and that those societies who chose not to believe in God had been punished and became extinct. Time and time again she felt forced to defend herself against these claims, but since she lacked a convincing alternative interpretation of the data, her protests, and the protests of those who were of a similar view as she, were to no avail. They were not heard over louder voices in the media. This went on for over a decade until things took a yet unexpected turn.
I refilled our cups with hot water. I somehow felt compelled to show Notme that I was casually interested in what she was saying; she seemed so sincere after all.
Me: “So, well, you seem to say that religions don’t matter then.”
Notme: “I did not say that. I think that the declaration of God’s death is liberating. And not from a paternal moral authority figure which sees and judges our every action, or weighs our bad and good karma, or what have you. It’s an intellectual liberty that frees our minds up so we may concern ourselves with what actually matters. To do this, one may or may not believe.”
Me: “So you are saying that faith is of no importance!”
Notme: “No, not at all! Listen, religion is very important, and for two reasons. First, what we believe does affect our views on life and how we engage with it, and with other people. By disregarding cosmic meaning and pursuing meaningness I may engage with life in a different way than I otherwise would. Secondly, even if I may engage with life in a meaningful way, even if I have found meaningness in my life (and I am not saying that I have), I will still interact with people who have not, people who live their lives as if cosmic meaning was significant. And that will affect how they interact with me, and therefore distance me from them whether I want to or not. There are many ways to live one’s life away from meaningness; belief in the importance of cosmic meaning is one.”
Me: “Well, I believe that ‘cosmic meaning’ as you call it matters–and that there is none! I’ve already told you that you are a distraction from that fact for me, and that I believe that I am the same to you. Does that hinder you from having this conversation with me?”
Notme: “We have known each other for so long now, and I am not ashamed to admit that I care about you. You can still find meaningness in your life.”
Me: “What? Are you trying to save me or something?”
Notme: “Why are you being defensive? I’m just telling you what I think matters in life. I’m trying to engage with you.”
Me: “I’m not being defensive! And I’m listening to you, amn’t I?”
Of course I thought that she was the one being defensive, I think she did want to save me, try as she might. But I let it pass. Instead I tried to seem interested:
Me: “So tell me, what exactly is ‘Meaningness?’ ”
She did not answer. It will have to take the rest of this blog-season to at least try to wriggle the answer out of her. This is still the beginning; this is just where the question is asked. This season is about Meanings. Over the last three episodes, Me, Notme, and I have investigated three distinct kinds of meaning: cosmic meaning, the meaning of stuff, and meaningness. We will discuss many more aspects of meaning over the next episodes, such as the meaning of time, and happiness, and much about meaningness, how it is obtained, understood and what to do about it. Next season may try to go beyond that, see where it leads to, beyond the personal. But first one needs to understand the personal, and to understand understanding. Next episode will continue to investigate our understanding of understanding.
Notme and Me had fallen silent and listened to the roar of the wind as it shook the chestnut trees on the street outside, and to the rain against the windows. I fetched us a couple of glasses and a bottle of single malt whiskey.
******As often is the case, what led to the breakthrough was a coincidence. Nadia and I went to one of our regular restaurants, and they were so busy we had to share the table with another couple. One of them was Dr. Akilah Kouri, and during the long and pleasant conversation which followed I asked Dr. Kouri about her work, and she said she was an exo-pathologist whose job it was to determine the cause of death in suspected criminal cases. It began as a mere joke; I told Nadia that she could use someone like Dr. Kouri to determine the cause of death of the specimens in her data collection. It turned out that Dr. Kouri was well aware of our predicament, and she was eager to give it a try.
******The following week Dr. Kouri brought her tech-laboratory to Nadia’s collection, and after showing her how things worked Nadia and I left her alone. She had free access to the data collection and she came a few evenings a week for the better part of a year. Late one evening, she approached us and told us what would finally enable us to publish the paper which would turn everything around, the paper that would make us famous in the scientific community and make Nadia a celebrity outside of it. Nadia was already a controversial figure at this point, but the media attention she used to loath, this time she embraced.
******The tone of the analysis in the paper we published together with Dr. Kouri was as logical and sober as one could expect from scientists of our magnitude. But for Nadia it was not enough to publish a monumental paper and gain academic fame. She made herself a front figure for the atheist movement, expressing stark contempt for all religions, claiming loudly and often that she had disproved them. While it gained her a strong following it also made her a despised person not only in the more orthodox religious circles of most faiths, but also amongst more liberal believers; the hatred that was whipped up against her in some media was both shocking and disgusting. But even if the religious response was often out of proportion, it was not entirely without merit. Their standing was no doubt threatened at a level never before encountered.
******What the controversy stemmed from was the following. At some moment in the evolution of Space Races, they reach a point where indiviual specimens are able to ask themselves “Why?” as in “Why hunt?”, or “Why gather?”, or “Why continue living?”. It seems that it is not an evolutionary certainty that these questions will find a collective answer within a species, or individual answers for specimens. When it does, the answer may take any form, religious or otherwise. Nadia’s interpretation of the data was such: faith is a mere evolutionary necessity for advanced species to continue living after becoming intellectually advanced enough to ask themselves “why?”. That’s why there are so few Space Races in the galaxy. I resisted for the longest time interpreting the data as strongly as Nadia.
******It would still take a while for the full implications of our results to hit us: That it was not only the religious beliefs that we had nullified, but also any non-religious–even atheist–belief systems. This was an aspect which media did not pick up on, and thus it was not widely discussed and understood. When the realization of the wider implications hit her, Nadia succumbed to its logic, and acted accordingly, which came as a complete surprise to everyone.
I was carefully sipping the malted spirits, my mind engulfed by its oily flavour and the sting, first in the mouth, then down the throat, at last lingering warm in the stomach.
Notme: “You never told me what you thought of the ‘Wrath of God’ story. What’s your take on it?”
Me: “You mean apart from the dryness of her prose?”
Notme: “Yes, what’s your take on the content?”
Me: “Well, it seems like Ziba Znapper agrees with me: to survive one needs to either not question existence, or believe that it has some meaning which will ultimately be a lie–we need distractions or we’ll die!”
Notme: “Ha! Not at all! What she is showing is how the notion of cosmic meaning being important is utterly absurd, and she does it by showing us what would happen if it wasn’t so! I take this story to be a case for my argument. Meaning is meaningless, it’s meaningness that matters!”
Me: “Let’s agree to disagree. Cheers!”
******This is what Dr. Akilah Kouri told us: After investigating thousands of species the data was overwhelmingly conclusive. They did not become extinct due to some sort of catastrophe on the planets. No signs of disease had been found. Neither could anything be ascribed to violence within the species nor to the wrath of a deity (however that may look). No, by far the most common cause of death Dr. Kouri had found in the remains in Nadia’s collection was suicide.
******Most species either never develop a higher intelligence, and those who do kill themselves. It is only in the very rare occasion that the evolution of higher intelligence is paired with a propensity for beliefs in a higher meaning (religious or otherwise) that a species may survive.
******We now know this. The question is what we do with it. Do we continue to believe in the lies that are religion as some still choose to do? Or the lie that the ‘search for truth’ will give us meaning in our lives, which Nadia used to believe? Or do we follow Nadia’s example, as so many have done, and end ourselves in the face of the complete lack of meaning? I know what I will do, because the real Wrath of God, which was first unearthed on Trincot 54 all those years ago, is the fact that there is no God.
So what do you think? Is what Notme calls “cosmic meaning” important to you? Why (not)? Who does Ziba Znapper agree with, Me, Notme, neither or both? Or do you have a different interpretation of her story? What do you think “meaningness” means anyway?
Next Episode: Understanding understanding II–Explaining Explaining
TT, Thinking of Things, 2014.