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What’s the Point?

May 15, 2024

Having developed a perspective that modernity is fated to fail, and that many of our culture’s current pursuits and institutions are misguided efforts to prop up temporary structures, I often encounter the reaction that I am being defeatist. If what I am saying is true, then what’s the point? Yeah: what is this point that others believe justifies all the craziness? Whatever they think “the point” is could well be based on unexamined and incorrect beliefs.

I will attempt in this post to explain what I mean by this, in multiple passes. A starter example may seem a little patronizing, but could still be helpful. If your world only makes sense and has meaning on the premise that Santa Claus exists, then you’ve put yourself in an unfortunate place. Others have found ways to appreciate life without that requirement based on a falsehood.

Let’s also try generalizing the concept before getting to specific examples.  We start with something I present that happens to be essentially true (or indeed comes to pass in due time), whether or not we can say so with absolute certainty. Then imagine that the reaction is: “well, if that’s true, then what’s the point of living?” Well, we obviously are living, and if we do so in the context of this truth, then it makes little sense to say there’s no point in living. The problem must then lie in what the person believes “the point” to be, and therefore must be wrong about that. In this sense, a “what’s the point” challenge might be taken to signal a flawed worldview.

Okay. That’s the template. Let’s do a few practice cases (optional if you want to cut to the chase), and work our way toward the main event regarding modernity.

Determinism

As we have no demonstrable evidence to the contrary, it is likely true that the universe operates as a quasi-deterministic symphony that writes itself in real time as the tangle of relationships described by physics play out. I say quasi-deterministic because quantum probabilities add spice to the details of the unfolding, but still in a prescriptive way. Most people have serious problems with this view, because life does not at all feel like it operates deterministically. I get it. Truly, the “undetermined” sensation is not lost on me for a second! But so what? Why would the actual real universe as it exists before us care what notions and hang-ups I construct in my brain about how it works?

Mind-bendingly complex and cool things can emerge from “the stage”—as far as we know all 100% consistent with the laws of physics that we have carefully elucidated, and to which no replicable experiment has found exception. That’s a strong bit of evidence on the side of determinism: we can’t override the physics that makes our neurons do what they do, for instance. Life certainly feels undetermined and open-ended, because the complexity is so extraordinarily insane that the only conceivable way to reveal the outcome is to play it out with the actual full universe as expressed in unfathomably rich inter-relationships between all the particles. No one—including the universe itself—knows for sure exactly what comes next in every detail (though broad brush predictions about things like sunrise tend to be pretty solid). Just because it’s deterministic doesn’t mean there’s a plan or a script: just rules and scads of interactions.

So, if in rejecting the notion of determinism, someone says “what’s the point in getting up everyday if I’m just executing a script?”, then whatever they imagine the point to be is whacked in the context that determinism is actually the way of things. Something doesn’t make sense in their view of the world (which I will alternately label as worldview or cosmology), in a broken sort of way. In other words, if the only thing that makes sense to someone is to live in a world that is not deterministic, but the world is indeed deterministic, then that person’s sense-making of the world is essentially misguided. They have no authority to determine whether determinism is true or not, so what’s their coping strategy if—as mountains of evidence suggest—the universe turns out to be deterministic? Do they have a plan for that besides reactive rejection, or does it break their whole cosmology and leave them rudderless? What a shame, if they short-circuit based on their own chosen flaw: an unforced error. I suppose they can also just never accept determinism and continue to be comfortable within their cosmology, fragile as it may be.

Free Will

It goes pretty similarly with the sensation of free will. Again, I get that our perception of the world convincingly fools us into mistaking agency for free will. But what if that’s wrong? Yes, we have agency in that we are actors in this self-writing script and have impacts on the rest of the performance—impacts that are hatched by our own neurons without violating any laws of physics. But there’s no sign of a “soul” that can override the relationships between all the stuff that makes us up. If physics (e.g., neurochemistry) were that easy to override, then how can drugs gain the upper hand? How can anesthesia make us go completely blank for hours without even a sense of time (where does the soul go)? Why does our sense of soul/awareness/consciousness coincide with our biological birth and subsequent development as biological beings? It’s dazzlingly impressive how resistant people can be to the notion that we are wholly corporeal beings.  What a spectacle!

Anyway, it is unacceptable to many to suggest that we don’t have free will—which has every likelihood of being the case with no firm evidence to the contrary. Again, we don’t get to choose whether it’s true or not. If in someone’s mind there’s “no point” to living without free will, and indeed there’s no free will, then we have another case of a self-defeating choice of beliefs: another unforced error.

Consciousness

A third related piece and then I’ll move on to modernity. We are aware of ourselves, which we call consciousness. Many elect to see this as a state of transcendence. Whatever. Call this fascinating piece of emergent complexity what you like, but it seems to be a quality of many forms of life, and this totally makes sense. It is hard to see how you would stop even a moderately complex being with many sensory inputs and a brain from building a mental model in which the organism is a “self” or “entity” that needs to maneuver and perform certain functions in certain ways in order to be a successful member of the community of life. Evolution sees to it that those unable to conjure this capability are less able to operate successfully in a soup of other “entities” who can manage to do so.

If your standard-issue human supremacist has trouble accepting that consciousness is not unique to humans, but just another cool outcome of the evolution of complex organisms, then they have managed to set themselves up poorly—because loads of evidence points to (probably) universal consciousness (not all of identical form, naturally). So if the point to being human is this special power, then it’s a stupid corner to have painted oneself into. Angry reactions then boil down to anger at oneself for engineering another unforced error.

Modernity

I hope these relatively brief starters laid the groundwork for understanding the main topic, and weren’t just annoying tangents.

Let me attempt to frame the modernity version in a series of conjectural statements I might make, followed by reactions I might get from mainstream members of modernity.

Statement: We probably won’t have electricity or much in the way of metals in a thousand years (give or take a thousand years or so).

Response: That seems crazy and nearly impossible to imagine playing out short of nuclear annihilation: it would make all our progress to date pointless.

Statement: Earth almost certainly can’t maintain 8 billion people or anything near it for even a century or two—especially without fossil fuels.

Response: It is our ethical obligation to make it work, and we surely will via innovation and technology (fossil fuels are not what makes us amazing: we just are amazing). Otherwise, what’s the point of our having risen to this state?

Statement: Science as we practice it is a net harm: deployed for short-term human gains at great cost to the ecosphere’s health.

Response: If that were true, then what would be the point? Obviously there’s a point to science, which expands our knowledge and provides ample benefits via technology.

Statement: Centuries from now we will have lost much of the knowledge that science has worked hard to accumulate.

Response: That would be tragic if true: then what’s the point if it’s all going to get flushed?

Statement: I spend much of my time trying to get people to see modernity as fundamentally unable to succeed in its ambitions.

Response: If you think it’s really that bad—doomed to fail—then what’s the point of bothering to write about it?

It would be interesting to collect thoughts about what such respondents do think the point is. How anthropocentric, ecologically ignorant, unrealistic, impractical, short-term, or even delusional are they? What sort of detached utopia do they dream is possible? How much context do they have to ignore or exclude to leave room for this tidy vision of artifice? Trying to remember what it was like to think this way, here are some possible answers:

  1. Eliminate hunger and inequity; achieve world peace; perfect democracy; no barriers due to race or gender; bend the arc or history toward justice; education and good jobs for all.
  2. Pursue science until we answer all key mysteries, cure all diseases, perhaps even defeat death from old age via molecular biology insights (telomeres!).
  3. Star Trek: leap from our earthly cradle and grace the universe with human greatness.
  4. We’re just starting the good life, which we want billions to experience indefinitely.
  5. Exercise and perfect our dominion over Earth as granted by God (just swept up a few billion Abrahamic subscribers).
  6. Preserve and expand human accomplishment in art, writing, music, architecture, science, technology, etc. These things differentiate us from animals and from our animal past, and are the whole point of being human.
  7. Eventually merge our consciousness into digital form and become more than human: unleash new powers and live (forever) in the cloud.

Quick responses to each in turn:

  1. Santa Claus again? A pleasant set of fantasies, but very anthropocentric; ecology-blind; unachievably naive. As an aside, success on the first point inevitably grows the population, scaling up the current tension with respect to planetary limits.
  2. Unachievable hyperbole; we’re not accidentally structured to be capable of understanding everything, and that’s okay; mystery and awe can remain; curing all diseases and achieving effective immortality would be ecologically disastrous!
  3. Mind-numbingly delusional in terms of realism, and also very Human Reich.
  4. The “good life” is rapidly wrecking our home, and will thus prove to be short-lived.
  5. And how’s that supremacism working out (in light of a sixth mass extinction)? Failing the test, are we?
  6. Neat things, to be sure, but part of the package (Human Reich) that is destroying what it means to be other species. Focusing on one side of the coin isn’t helpful. These things can’t exist long-term if their very pursuit drives ecological collapse. Attempts to differentiate ourselves from animals is itself a deeply flawed and problematic practice.
  7. Whoa. This degree of disconnected delusional dreaming is almost to the level of mental disease, and ought to be looked at by a professional. Read Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and His Emissary to learn about the imbalance inherent in this kind of view.

Wrong Cosmology

I think a universal observation about these sorts of objections is that my original statements are incompatible with the cosmologies of the respondents. They fail to compute, within the worldviews of those folks. It feels like unfamiliar nonsense, when “sense” is constructed from a misguided notion of what this existence is all about and what the future promises to hold.

The distilled logic is: “if what you say were to be true, then my worldview falls apart, so what you say doesn’t seem like it can be true.” More bluntly: “I reject your premise, as preserving my worldview is more important to me—even if it’s utterly wrong (which it can’t be, somehow).”

In one sense, the “what’s the point” question is a form of progress. It acknowledges a deep disconnect. Problem identified. Maybe the real point is not at all what was imagined! I view it as similar to the fact—which I relish—that racists hate being labeled as racist. That’s a form of progress: they know it’s not okay, and get all defensive. When someone says “then what’s the point?” they have made a big step to appreciating the incompatibility. The harder trick is to get them to re-evaluate their cosmology as the chief source of disconnect.

Once allowing the cosmology to shatter, many of my statements are far easier to entertain, and may even become obvious or seem the most likely truths—to the point of being attractive, even. Cosmologies can therefore seriously distort and limit our thinking—affecting our judgment.

Progress?

A quick detour about the word “progress,” which I used three times previously. The first instance was embedded in a mainstream response, used in its common form to reflect technological development, medical advances, access to economic/material “needs,” social tolerance and justice, and the like. Politically, the term “progressive” applies to those seeking expanded human rights and “fair” distribution of earth’s loot for all (humans).

But the second use reflected a much different form of evolution: questioning the traditional meaning of progress is itself progress. Abandoning “progress” as it is usually defined is, to me, progress. Ronald Wright’s A Short History of Progress helps paint the word in a different light.

Existential Vacuum

A serious barrier to abandoning any cherished cosmology is that without anything to take its place one is left staring into an abyss. It’s scary. What meaning, or purpose could possibly exist? It feels like nihilism. Those who make it to the other side know better. There’s life after Santa Claus; life after shedding God; life without free will; life (literally) with conscious critters to keep us company; life after modernity. By life here, I mean love, joy, meaning, awe, community. Also pain, loss, death, and other counterparts that must exist hand-in-hand to give substance to the pleasant bits. I’m not trying to sugar-coat: just indicating that rewarding experiences are every bit as possible—if not more so—without modernity.

Think of the picky-eater kid who would only ever eat chicken nuggets, pizza, and hot dogs. Frustrated parents catered to the kid’s limited palate, all the way through high school. Now imagine that during college, the kid (still earning that label) goes on an exchange trip to Thailand. It seems super-scary at first: “Nothing to eat here! I’ll starve!” But eventually they try some of the less intimidating items, find that they’re quite delicious, and before long discover that Thai food is amazing. The door is open. The original problem, in a sense, was living in a skewed world that allowed or even promoted the maintenance of an unhealthy, limited tolerance for a broader understanding of the world of possibilities.

Once dropping the problematic cosmology that defines the point of life in terms of human “accomplishment” in the narrow context of modernity, a universe of other values systems becomes available to offer sustenance. To think otherwise is to arrogantly assume that thousands of generations of humans who came before were miserable because they had not found their “special purpose” (not referring to The Jerk movie, here). Modernists are nodding, because this sounds right according to their mythology. But that strikes me as delusional bull$#!+! Joy is part of the package of being human, and always has been! Likewise, all the other plants and animals of the world are not frikin’ miserable because they lack modernity! I could turn the tables and say that the modernity disease produces far more misery (for all life) than any other worldview that has ever existed on the planet.

If successful in sloughing off the mantle of modernity, you’ll see it as a hideous garment. Why did you love it so? It filled your head with crazy ideas that caused loads of damage and had no chance of working in the long run anyway. It was completely out of place: clashing contemptuously with the rest of the community of life. Once shot of the foul wrappings, you’ll see that something wonderful has been staring at you all along: life on Earth. It’s amazing, and quite a privilege to be a part of it. You’ll find no shortage of meaning, in a multitude of dimensions (plants; birds; mammals; amphibians; something for everyone). You’ll feel like now that you’re awake from the fever dream, you can imagine living on the planet without the evil trappings and pulls of modernity. You’ll want others to find the same hope and truth, so that you’re not stuck on the destructive treadmill that is too big for you to stop on your own. You need other people to come with you, and leave the piece of junk behind to rust and crumble, as life reclaims its prominence on the planet.

So, What IS the Point?

If modernity is not to last very long, what’s the point in pretending that it will?  What’s the point in holding onto a worldview predicated on modernity’s survival?  What’s the point of our current choices, jobs, ways of living?  To what end do we pursue the things we presently do?

Just because a lot of the things we do today will turn out to be pointless does not mean there’s no point to anything!  What a huge and unwarranted leap that is!  In the context of a completely different lifestyle as subordinate partners among a cast of many in the community of life, one might find innumerable sources of meaning.  Living, loving, caring, helping, singing, laughing, learning, respecting, offering gratitude, appreciating beauty, jabbering, teasing, playing, sharing—for instance—are all part of being human and of being one form of life among many others on this planet: lots of room to find meaning and “points” that validate life.  If the meaning in your life is contingent on modernity, then maybe you’ve come to the wrong shop, and ought to look for new forms of meaning that are built to last.

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a professor of physics at the University of California, San Diego. An amateur astronomer in high school, physics major at Georgia Tech, and PhD student in physics at Caltech, Murphy has spent decades reveling in the study of astrophysics. He currently leads a project to test General Relativity by bouncing laser pulses off of the reflectors left on the Moon by the Apollo astronauts, achieving one-millimeter range precision. Murphy’s keen interest in energy topics began with his teaching a course on energy and the environment for non-science majors at UCSD. Motivated by the unprecedented challenges we face, he has applied his instrumentation skills to exploring alternative energy and associated measurement schemes. Following his natural instincts to educate, Murphy is eager to get people thinking about the quantitatively convincing case that our pursuit of an ever-bigger scale of life faces gigantic challenges and carries significant risks. Note from Tom: To learn more about my personal perspective and whether you should dismiss some of my views as alarmist, read my Chicken Little page.