Sacred nihilism: An attempt at finding meaning while avoiding God & nihilism
Note: A conversation between the author, Alexander the great & a monkey serves as the prelude to this article. Inspired by Godel, Escher, Bach.
Who is this for?
Why do something instead of nothing?
A question that most of us ask ourselves at some point. But that doesn’t mean that most of us have found an answer.
Instead we choose to sweep this question under the rug. There’s too much to do and not enough time to wonder why we must do it!
I have always felt that a better understanding of one’s underlying motivations would lead to better choices. And it is on this gut feeling, that I have always been a vocal advocate of self-awareness.
Over the years, I have also come to appreciate that this “gut feel” was too simplistic. That perhaps my mother was right, and that sweeping this question under the rug may have been better.
After all, “ignorance is bliss” for a reason.
BUT the problem is that some of us just cannot sweep this question under the rug, can we?
If you’re one of those people, welcome — I’ve written this article in honour of you! You may have already found satisfactory answers on your own journey of curiosity; but on the off-chance you’re still searching, I invite you to read through another perspective. Take what you want, discard the rest.
A quick introduction to evolutionary psychology
Why do I believe in the “ignorance is bliss” mantra? It is because often self-awareness & knowledge is a double-edged sword. On the one hand it can guide you through stressful situations & enable you to become a better problem solver (simply by making you aware of the problem you’re solving for). On the other, it has the potential to lay bare all the epic trivialities that lie beneath the surface of your grand plan & ambitions.
My own journey through self-awareness (including what is captured in many of my articles) has been through a relentless focus on understanding the underlying motivations that drive human actions. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been trying to find (in my own amateurish way) a grand theory of human psychology/behaviour.
Early on in this journey, I came across a framework that helped me make sense of a majority of behaviors I had noted in myself & others. This was a psychological framework based on evolutionary theory.
I’ve written about this framework in detail here.
As many people have pointed out (including me), any framework can’t represent reality but only approximate it. To that end, I was never interested in “truth”, but rather a simple framework that can explain many (but not all) behaviors that I see around me.
For those of you coming across an evolutionary psychological framework for human action for the first time, the basics are deceptively simple.
- This planet favours organisms that do two things well: (1) survive, and (2) thrive
- Earth is also an environment that prevents organisms from doing these two things by placing two big constraints: (1) scarcity of resources, and (2) chaotic & unpredictable changes
- Given these constraints, one exceptionally successful strategy, that many species use, is to monopolize resources and/or ability to influence outcomes. This can help with both surviving in the present, and (hopefully) in the future too — if the ground-reality changes
- For the most part, humans too are simply following this tried & tested strategy at its core (hoarding money, gaining status, protecting culture etc.)
- However, in our case, the simplicity of why we do certain things is masked by (a) the complexity that comes with having very advanced brains, and (b) the differences in what each person believes should be the focus of survive and thrive (ideas and values become just as important as persons)
While this simple framework seems to be able to describe human behaviours very well, it also has the unintended consequence of making one aware of how much control your “lizard brain” really has.
That can’t be all there is…right?
While surviving & thriving are important for…well surviving & thriving, they also seem quite uninspiring reasons to live.
Viewed from this perspective, life (at least for some of us) starts to become devoid of a certain meaning or nobility.
Nihilism, a philosophy that has meaninglessness of everything at its core, may be an accurate representation of reality, but it is devoid of a reason to live.
This is probably why my mother would tell me not to think about philosophy too much.
But I was always intrigued — what if there WAS a way that evolutionary psychology could co-exist with a deeper purpose?
This article lays out a hypothesis that does just that — and does it well. Hopefully you can find some use from it as well.
The foundation supporting it all — boundaries & interactions
As a pseudo-nihilist, I start with the premise that life in itself is not special. It is simply a part of reality — nothing more, nothing less.
I’ll take a leap of faith and say that if any purpose (other than to simply live) to life exists, it must be trickling down from the purpose of reality itself. In other words, life’s purpose must be derived from reality’s purpose itself.
It is similar to how there is no “purpose” for the cells in my hand to exist in isolation to me. “I” exist to survive and thrive & the cells in my hand are a means to that end.
Under this thinking, for life to hold any purpose, the nature of our reality acquires utmost importance. All other meaningfulness should serve the over-arching purpose of the reality itself.
Observation 1: Boundaries are the basic building blocks
For our first observation, we acknowledge that the presence of boundaries gives meaning to reality. Unfortunately boundaries are still poorly understood (and should be studied in greater depth as a scientific subject), but in layman terms — they’re the quality that allows us to distinguish between an object & its surroundings.
It may seem obvious but reality takes shape only when we introduce such a distinction-forming concept. I.e., only when there are things that are distinguishable from its surroundings can a universe exist.
The concept of a universe with no distingiushability makes little to no sense.
Observation 2: Interactions between boundaries is what births reality
Presence of objects with boundaries that exist in pure isolation relative to each other is not what we observe in our universe.
Instead, we observe a reality where boundaries are constantly interacting with each other or the surroundings. It is only when such interacts occur that reality is birthed.
What are these interactions? Do they require living entities?
Interactions requiring a sentient observer are only a sub-set of the full universe of interactions possible.
Instead, when I say interactions, it is a more wider notion — referring to an exchange of energy between two different boundaries.
For example, an interaction occurs when a ray of light is blocked by a solid object — light particles have interacted with something else (a solid wall) & a new reality based on this energy exchange has taken place. Or when celestial objects influence each other through gravity.
To sum it up then,
(1) life’s purpose should flow from the overarching purpose of our reality
(2) our reality flows from series of interactions (energy exchanges) between things that are distinct (i.e., have boundaries),
Observation 3: Width & depth
Observing everything around me through the lens of the first two statements, a pattern begins to emerge.
Emergent pattern: Reality seems to be optimizing for maximizing both
- the number of boundaries that can interact with each other, and
- the types of interactions that can happen between boundaries
I call the first pattern an increase in the width (referring to the potential universe of boundaries that can interact with each other or their surroundings). The second pattern is referred to as depth (reflecting that the nature of energy exchange between boundaries can continue to evolve & generate new types of interactions).
An example of former would be that over time a number of different boundaries have started interacting with each other as the physical universe continues to evolve. E.g., blackholes interacting with the mass around it — even though blackholes didn’t exist at the beginning of the big bang. Or even the emergence of boundaries that can perceive the universe around them and interact with it accordingly (enter life & even humans).
An example of the latter would be the evolving nature of interactions between humans and the Earth. The interactions started with a simple dependence of humans on hunting & gathering, and has since moved to exploitation and innovative use of natural resources (incl. mining, harnessing renewable energy etc.). This doesn’t mean we stopped hunting & gathering — but rather added to our repertoire of possible interactions with the Earth.
It is almost impossible to argue against this premise as almost every observable phenomenon will simply be an interaction between different boundaries & will lead to a maximization of width or depth.
In fact, the very laws of physics themselves seem to be structured to help advance this underlying need — refer to this line of thinking as an illustrative example.
Understanding boundaries & interactions
Using this hypothesis as a starting point, let’s see if we can categorize the different type of boundaries that could exist into some sensible framework.
There is no way to know the right answer for this, but the drawing below is one framework that seems to make a lot of sense
A few elaborations
Firstly, the above three domains that influence boundaries are likely built on top of each other. After all, life can’t exist without relying on the fundamental physical laws that govern physical processes.
In fact, each boundary will likely follow guiding principles of all three domains — but in different proportions.
Perhaps a better illustration is one below — it breaks down the primary drivers of the nature of interaction between a boundary and external reality (i.e., what lies outside the boundary). As we move towards the right, the quality of interactions starts to become increasingly complex — i.e., the depth of interactions possible could be said to increase. This is referred to as degree of freedom in interacting with the reality.
The lines below are drawn for illustrative purposes. There’s no deeper meaning to the slope or curve of the lines.
We start at the left edge of the spectrum within the purely physical domain. Photons, waves of the ocean, rocks & even stars fit in this category. These are parties to interactions whose “experiences” are totally bound by physical laws. There is very little room to manoeuvre and there is a limited variability in type/end-result of interactions that can emerge from the same starting point. To me, even computers & logic machines fall in this section — but perhaps towards the right side of this category.
After a certain point, we enter the classical definition of an observer. A living thing that can perceive & interact with a physical universe that lies outside of its own boundaries. However, most of perceivers occupying this category will still react with reality in predictable ways. Ways that are governed by the basic laws of life — i.e., an innate desire to survive and thrive.
Of course, not all animals are equal. So a bacteria would be both towards the left-end of this middle path, and be very similar to certain objects in the first category (perhaps a simple program or computer).
As we move towards the right side, we encounter more complex animals, from insects all the way to apes. Each animal represents a step up in terms of the impact that survive & thrive drivers have on it ability to interact with its reality.
As we move towards the right side, we meet humans. Humans seem to have vastly greater degrees of freedom in crafting different experiences from the same starting place. This is especially true due to our mastery over physical constraints through the use of technology.
However, upon closer reflection most of us (at least till date) are still largely governed by biological imperatives of surviving and thriving. It is an increase in brainpower (and tech) that has led to increased types of interactions & variability of experiences, not a fundamental shift in what is driving our actions.
To iterate, human experiences seem to occupy only a portion of this entire spectrum (see below) & our actions are often driven by the three domains in predictable ways. This is further explore in detail in this series of articles.
If we move even further to the right, we encounter life forms which have maximum degrees of freedom when it comes to interacting with reality. While they too live in a physical & biological world, their interactions give them greater ability to overcome the limitations of previous realms (i.e., natural laws & biological imperatives). Certain humans can be a fit for this category, ones driven primarily by curiosity versus a need to monopolize resources. I suspect some sort of human + AI combination too would occupy the portions of this category over time. Perhaps hyper-evolved alien civilizations occupy this spectrum as well.
A good question is where insanity fits into this :) For all you know insane people who truly act in a chaotic manner could look very similar to a hyper-evolved AI/Human hybrid when dealing with reality.
So what does this all have to do with your life
As mentioned before, I’m someone who truly believes that evolutionary psychology is the best framework for explaining a lot of the actions that I (and others around me) take. And this makes me very cynical — the innate need to survive and thrive is useful to stay alive but robs life of any noble meaning.
However, when viewed from the perspective of a “purpose” of our reality — we see this meaningless “survive and thrive” strategy too has an important role to play.
As time goes on, the physical universe seems to favour increasing levels of degrees of freedom in creation of interactions (i.e., it seems to like adding depth to its repertoire of interactions).
For example, even Earth started on the left side of the spectrum (with only volcanoes and chemical reactions); over billions of years, it now has creatures of all types occupying it. Creatures that have more degrees of freedom in creating experiences than non-living objects.
Life then is simply a mechanism that aids in this “true purpose” of increasing the depth (and to a certain degree width) of interactions possible between different things.
Evolution is the physical mechanism through which life becomes more complex — thereby allowing for even greater degrees of freedom in creation of experiences. However, there may be other mechanisms that allow for greater number of experiences within a reality.
There are few observations about this “grand framework” that I keep reminding myself of.
- As a human, I believe we are naturally at the right-end of the middle-section. I.e., while still within the “prison” of biological urges, we have managed to create a lot of degrees of freedom in our experiences through our advanced mental faculties
- I believe that our abilities to think, be self-aware & experiment are blessings that can help us experience the third “hyper-evolved” as well — even if only at the left-most edges. Evolutionary urges will always be around (we’d be dead without them), however they don’t have to be the dominant force in shaping our experiences.
- Moving to the right of the spectrum isn’t special. However, once you do move to the right it becomes difficult to go back to the way things were. Take modern humans for example, it’s a no-brainer that none of us would choose to live like animals (their degrees of freedom are much less than ours due to biology) — but this doesn’t mean animal lives are worthless in the context of the universe. More importantly, it is also true that most of us wouldn’t want to live like people 2,000 or 20,000 years ago. Once you get used to certain degree of freedom, it’s hard to go back.
By choosing to mindfully create experiences that have more degrees of freedom I can play a part in the over arching purpose of our reality AND have fun doing it too.
Talk about having your cake and eating it too!
Something feels off to you? Is it the absence of the concept of soul in all of this?
This is something that I cover in a companion piece here