NOTE: This is the second part in a series on stories that provide the meaning that many humans seek in their lives.
Read a fun short-story (fiction) that starts off an exploration of meaning stories. Read it if you ever wanted to see what a combination of Jungle Book & Buddha’s Four Sights would look like.
This article discussion the most common “meaning stories” one finds & analsyes why they might be under threat.
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 (the best I can do) — 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 distinguishing features between its constituents would be something similar to pre-Big Bang era as described by scientists.
The strange thing is that this obvious seeming quality — i.e., the ability to distinguish an object from everything else is hard to clearly define. Primarily because the nature of boundaries (of how to distinguish) itself seems to undergo changes as it moves from less complex to more complex.
To illustrate the point above, lets start with an arbitrarily complex boundary we encounter in our daily lives — tribes. A tribal identity can consist of many things and while it was traditionally dependent on physical location, digital tribes can exist as well. But tribes usually need to define themselves as separate from others — therefore they usually develop a set of beliefs and practices that help them distinguish tribe members vs non-member. At the tribal level, the boundaries therefore involve some shared belief systems (and presumably physical things such as human DNA vs pig DNA).
Going one level of abstraction lower, we will have individuals within a tribe. They too need to be distinguishable from other individuals. And therefore a boundary emerges here too. Except the boundary is likely based on the sense of self-worth (discussed previously).
Going lower in the abstraction ladder, we will likely encounter different bodily systems within a human body. The heart, liver, brain, blood systems etc can only work if they can be distinguishable from each other. The boundary in this context could be said to be which parts of the DNA were expressed in the cells.
Going deeper into the heart itself, there are many different heart cells that interact with each other to allow the heart to function. These cells need to be distinguishable from each other as well — the boundary in this context tends to become extremely physical (cell walls emerge as a boundary).
We can continue to go deeper into the cell (the boundaries are what will distinguish constituent bits such as the mitochondria vs the cell membrance). Basically we’ve entered how to distinguish proteins from one another.
Going even deeper there will be boundaries that help distinguish elements that make up proteins. A carbon atom is distinguishable from an oxygen atom.
Finally we do get to sub-atomic levels where the boundaries aim to distinguish between different bits such as quarks, bosons etc.
One thing common in this journey of ours was that for any layer of abstraction to work, a mechanism that allowed us to distinguish one constituent bit from another constituent bit was very important. This is what I call boundaries.
Observation 2: Interactions between boundaries is what births reality
At any layer of abstraction that we encountered above, the simple presence of multiple objects with boundaries that lie in pure isolation is not what is commonly observed.
Instead, at every level of abstraction we observe a reality where boundaries (within that layer) are constantly interacting (aka exchanging energy and information) with other boundaries or the layers below it. It is only when such interacts occur that reality is birthed.
To take the above journey again, but this time in reverse:
- the interactions of sub-atomic particles make that layer interact with each other in myriad ways and sometimes leads to creation of atoms
- The interactions of atoms with one another happens in myriad ways but sometimes gives rise to a world of proteins
- The interaction of proteins with each other happens in myriad ways and sometimes gives rise to life itself (admittedly of a very primitive type- cells)
- The interaction of primitive life (cells) happens in myriad ways but can sometimes birth a new reality of multi-celled organisms that have consciousness
- Finally interactions between different multi-celled organisms (and the layers below) is what gives birth to the reality you or I experience in our day-to-day lives.
It’s as if each layer of abstractions is birthed from the interactions of boundaries in the layers below. But that’s not necessarily the purpose of the lower layer.
The lower layer is just the canvas in which boundaries interact in myriad ways — which co-incidentally also leads to birth of new layers of abstractions.
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
Here is where I take a leap of faith — one that is unproveable but seems to fit my own observations of the universe around us.
Observable pattern: Reality seems to be optimizing for maximizing both
- the types of interactions that can happen between boundaries
- the number of boundaries that can interact with each other, and
I call the first pattern an increase in the width (referring to the potential universe of interactions between boundaries). And the second pattern is referred to as depth (that interactions actually lead to new layers of reality with new types of boundaries often created).
Taking the example journey we’re familiar with at this point — the “width” would refer to the fact that at any layer of abstraction, the type of interactions possible will (given enough time) continue to increase. For example proteins were likely interacting with each other in a very predictable ways for a long time, till one day lightning struck & the proteins were interacting in a way that gave rise to what we call life.
While life is a phenomenon that has only been observed on Earth, according to the philosophy proposed, I suspect that it is a common occurrence throughout the universe. More importantly it will likely share the characteristics of life on Earth — a defined boundary that is focussed on surviving and thriving by securing access to resources. The difference might be in the type of resources required through the universe.
This increase in type of interactions doesn’t necessarily have to birth a higher layer of abstraction either. Different atoms interacted with each other to form gas clouds which eventually led to formation of stellar nebula. Some of those interactions further evolved into a massive star, which then became a supergiant star. This would collapse under the right gravity conditions leading to a supernova which would eventually lead to a black hole. That was an example of boundaries interacting with each other at the level of atoms itself, but continually expanding upon what was possible.
It would not be crazy to guess that continued interactions between different existing boundaries will give rise to new phenomenon in the future. For example what happens when super massive blackholes merge is something that we haven’t yet observed. But I feel it leads to new stuff that fits in well with increasing the “width” of interactions possible.
In contrast, the depth would refer to the fact that often an increase in width leads to the creation of new boundaries itself. This was the case with life being birthed.
These newly created boundaries will then interact with other boundaries (both similar and dissimilar) to further increase the depth of interactions possible.
Which will then lead to even more new boundaries & further depth.
It’s a self-sustaining cycle with boundaries and interactions at its very core.
Personally I find it difficult 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.
To me the very laws of physics themselves seem to be structured to help push the universe into a goldilocks zone of stability that places limits on both stagnation (through things like entropy) and chaos (through mechanisms that fight against things like entropy e.g., genetic coding) in order for the width and depth to continue existing — 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 delve deeper into boundaries and interactions. I believe the study of boundaries in particular is woefully ignored and is a science that is waiting to be born.
The observations below are musing from an unscientific perspective, but could be a good starting point for interested researchers.
Width vs Depth
From the examples explored in the previous section, we can see that different layers of reality are built on top of each other.
It’s not a perfect representation, but according to the theory proposed, the universe does (and is expected to continue doing) something like the below diagram.
With the natural laws working together (sometimes in opposition & other times in conjunction) to continue to optimize for width and depth.
A good question that can be explored further is the different speeds at which width and depth progress. I suspect that we will observe that adding new parallelograms is somewhat rarer than increasing the size of each parallelogram.
Newer parallelograms interact in a different way
New parallelograms are predicted to be rare and relate to creation of new boundaries.
As we saw in an earlier example, the way that tribal boundaries are defined will be very different from the way cellular boundaries are defined. This is because the nature of the boundary itself changes — and this nature also determines the type of interactions that the boundary will have with the “outside world”.
I suggest there are three primary ways that boundaries interact with each other — physical, biological and biology+.
Apart from the governing rationale behind each interaction type, the types are also different with respect to the amount of agency that they afford boundaries.
So a cat (which interacts both physically & biologically) can behave in ways that are difficult for rocks (interacting mostly physically) to mimic.
Finally — each boundary likely has elements of physical, biological and biology+ interactions in its repertoire — but in different amounts (more on that below).
Deep-dive into interaction type mix of new boundaries
Over time, as the complexity of boundaries formed increases (i.e., new parallelograms that are added on top of the base layer) there is a proportional increase in the agency that this new boundary has. So a human usually has more agency than a cat; which, in turn, has more agency than a rock.
This means that for newer, more complex parallelograms, the percentage of interactions that can be classified as purely “physical” will get lesser and lesser.
I predict that this will also continue to be true of future parallelograms that are yet to take shape (for example, Artificial Super Intelligence or ASI). Using this theory we can make the prediction that ASIs will be less driven by physical or biological compulsions compared to humans.
Having said that — interaction mix is inherently overlapping as biology interactions use physical mechanisms. And Biology+ interactions will only occur once self-awareness is achieved (for which biological mechanisms are likely needed).
A good illustration is one below- where instead of adding parallelograms, we use a simple XY axis. In this view, moving to a spot along the x-axis is a different boundary (i.e, a new parallelogram)
The illustration shows how newer boundaries may have a different percentage mix of interaction types. As we move towards the right — newer, more complex boundaries with higher levels of agency arise.
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 domain of purely physical interactions. Boundaries such as photons, waves of the ocean, rocks & even stars fall under this area — entities whose interactions with the outside world is following laws of physics alone.
There is very little room to maneuver and there is limited agency afforded to these boundaries — i.e., they are primarily reacting to the outside world in pre-determined ways. To me, even computers & logic machines fall in this section — but perhaps towards the right side of this category.
Continuing to move along the x-axis, we enter the classical definition of an life. Defined here as a boundary that can perceive its own limits and works towards self-preservation. There isn’t a specific place where the difference between life and not-life becomes obvious — rather its a spectrum. In fact, when we first encounter life along the x-axis, it is quite similar to the boundaries we just crossed. And it also reacts with reality in very predictable ways (e.g., viruses following physical laws). The only difference is that these boundaries suddenly have some agency and use this agency to help with self-preservation.
Of course, the difference between life and non-life gets starker the more we move along the x-axis. A little further to the right and we start encountering complex animals, from insects all the way to apes. Each animal represents a step-up in amount of agency the animal has in dealing with the outside world.
If we continue moving rightward, we meet humans. Humans seem to have vastly greater agency when dealing with different boundaries.
However, upon closer reflection most of us 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 interactions are a mix of physical, biological and biology+. Specific examples of interactions we have under each category is further explore in detail in this series of articles.
While the diagram below is only for illustrative purposes, in my experience it would be accurate to say that physical and biological themed interactions dominate the everyday lives of humans. No matter how much we like to self-congratulate ourselves on things such as curiousity, passion and desire to serve others.
Moving even further to the right, we could (theoretically) encounter life forms that may have even greater agency — seen as the percentage of their interactions falling in the Biology+ camp increasing.
Perhaps certain humans can be a good fit for this category as well — especially ones driven by curiosity or goodwill (versus a need to monopolize resources or improve their standing in a tribe).
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 the proposed philosophy, we see this meaningless “survive and thrive” strategy too is increasing the width and depth of interactions between boundaries.
Life seems to be one mechanism for increasing the agency of boundaries — to allow the universe to experience its own potential at a higher layer of abstraction.
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 agency in creating experiences, when compared to non-living objects.
Evolution is the physical mechanism through which life becomes more complex — thereby allowing for even greater degrees of freedom in creation of experiences.
As to why width and depth seem to be important? Or even agency? My own best guess would be that this is the best way for the universe to know itself & experience its own potential.
The greater the agency, the greater the canvas on which the universe can experience itself. With the greatest agency afforded at the level of the universe itself — which seems to have come up with all these rules. Perhaps this aspect of reality is what is referred to as the Void, The Eternal Mother or Brahman by mystics and psychonauts.
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 some agency 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 even more agency than is normally accorded to humans. 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!