Recently I went out for a meal with a friend who is also a science graduate, and our conversation turned to deep matters. My friend was pondering our insignificance as creatures on a tiny planet in a single galaxy in a vast cosmos. Did our lives have meaning?
This proved a golden opportunity for me to gain another perspective on the question whose interpretation has always foxed me, the question of whether life is the kind of thing which actually has meaning.
For my friend, a fellow Catholic, if there were no afterlife, there would be no cosmic consequences to our moral actions; then, the only consequences of our human acts would be ephemeral memories which are mostly wiped out when our generation of friends is dead, and totally obliterated once our sun goes nova – if the earth hasn’t already been destroyed by some other cosmic catastrophe.
I looked at things differently. What is the difference between performing an act of kindness, and not doing so? The most precious memories of my life are a handful of times when someone has communicated affection to me powerfully. If those friends had not done the affectionate things they did, I would not have those memories. Each memory is a jewel, and given the choice of having no jewels or a handful of jewels, I am surely better off to have a handful to cherish.
For my friend, these kinds of memories were ‘insignificant’, because once I am dead and gone, they will be in the past. They are not a lasting legacy. Compared to the size and duration of the Universe, they are infinitesimal.
For me, these are peak human-scale experiences in my human-scale life. That matters. I am not comparing them to the Universe at large – only to the alternative of “no such experiences”. Something is infinitely more than nothing, even if the same something is infinitely less than everything! My friend compared himself to the vastness of the Universe. But I myself am vast compared to the millions of millions of bacteria in my body, and the trillions of trillions of atoms of which I am composed. I live at the scale between atoms and galaxies – which is (thank you JBS Haldane!) exactly the right size for a human being!
I love teaching and helping others. If I had not started believing in God, I think I would still have lived a life where the things that made me happy also happened to help other people. Helping others is not ‘insignificant’ to me or the others involved.
I do sometimes wonder what my legacy will be. What will I leave behind when I am gone? There are some niche scientific papers I authored or co-authored. There is this blog, which I hope will continue to be useful to Aspies and their friends. I wonder for how many decades, if not centuries, it will be archived somewhere accessible? Maybe someone will write a better blog which deals with the same matters with greater insight and wit. If so, it would not bother me for you to read that blog instead because what matters to me is that you are blessed with the best insight, not that you must reap from my personal labours. I write in case for some readers, right now, this might be the best currently available.
You can read everything above without Christian faith being relevant. Add faith, and my legacy increases. By my preaching and celebrating the sacraments, I will have affected whether certain souls will spend eternity in heaven rather than Hell. My own moral choices will have eternal consequences on Judgment Day when Christ says ‘well done, good and faithful servant’. These things matter too. But if I didn’t know eternal life was real, I think I would be happy to settle for making other people happy in this life as the best consequences I could obtain.
What if I had grown up differently, seeking pleasure through crime, illicit drugs or some other addiction? Those ill-gotten ‘peak experiences’ might have seemed significant to me, even if they blessed no-one else and even caused distress to my family. I seem to remember Robert Spitzer writing of our growth through seeking our own happiness, through the happiness of others, to doing good because we grasp that some acts are transcendently good.
In the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, there is a machine called the ‘Total Perspective Vortex’ which causes a person to see how insignificant their life is compared to the universe at large. Perhaps Douglas Adams was grappling with these same questions. When I bade farewell to my friend at the end of the meal, only then did I discover that we had been dining at Table 42!