Delivered on July 18, 1999
Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Harford County
I saw the movie Meet Joe Black when Marlene was out-of-town recently and was enthralled by the three-hour presentation. It caused me to reflect on a host of things that I find wondrous. The movie is based on a story called Death Takes a Holiday. It seems that Death, that entity that assists humans from this world to the nether world, has been on-the-job for a long time (many thousands of years) and wanted to see what these beings called humans were made of. So he leaves his job for a holiday as a human. That is all I am going to say about the movie, but the situation affords us a chance to view our circumstances from a fresh perspective, which is what I spent three hours doing, three times.
Many questions are addressed throughout the presentation that I have pondered and continue to ponder. I know that each person here has wondered about their nature at various times in their lives, but usually we are too busy living to really appreciate the wonder of our situation. But if we do stop every so often and reflect on our existence, what can we say that provides real sense and satisfaction to our life and eventual death. These are the questions that everybody wants answered and people spend their time and fortunes looking for answers to the questions that are raised because of this awareness.
I believe that the emergence of conscienceness happened so rapidly during the last growth period of the brain's cortex that we were biologically unprepared to deal with our newfound ability to ponder our own existence and death. Thus there was a very large void between our ability to speculate and our ability to feed that speculation with correct and validated information about the universe and its nature. As a consequence, religion was born to deal with these new abilities.
In my own religious development the first question that grabbed my attention at a very early age (as far back as I can remember) is, "Why is the person occupying this body here?" I was told many reasons. "God made you to worship him and to be happy with him in heaven." I remember rejecting that dogma in third grade. However, the best argument I ever heard for a god was the watch without a watchmaker argument. It goes something like, "If you found a watch, wouldn't you assume that there was a watchmaker someplace?" However, that argument only relieves the problem at the ponderer's level of existence and pushes it to the next. You see, any living entity still has to answer the same question about its own existence level. And, why would you assume that there was only one immutable watchmaker? That is not consistent with everything else found in life. The solution to the watchmaker argument may provide some local relief to the problem of existence, but it simply pushes to problem away instead of addressing its essence.
So how do we address the purpose of our existence. An answer came to me in my early teens. Does there need to be a purpose? I concluded that a purpose does not need to be defined in order to have a meaningful existence. In fact without a predefined purpose, the meaningfulness of the individual life and of human existence in general seems to have been expanded significantly. If each person can legitimately choose a purpose, than what would that mean and how would it affect human existence? From what I could see, it seemed like there were plenty of purposes already defined by various people who wanted you to ascribe that purpose to your own life. So, choosing for yourself, instead of adopting someone else's meaning, made a lot of sense to me. And I did. It took me a long time, into my late teens, to develop a good purpose. It was very simple, however - to make myself truly happy. It is not an easy task, and I struggle with that every day. I have already talked about that and will not go into it here, but that seems enough purpose to me.
All of these issues on being human are introspective. They are important and there are many more introspective aspects that could be addressed, but the introspective spills over to the outside world very quickly and I would like to address some of those now. How is the individual connected to the human communities? The family? the extended family? the local community? the nation? the world and the universe? Let's start with the basics, with the children. Along with cockroaches, we are a very successful species. The cockroaches are successful because they breed quickly, eat anything and are so very, very tough. They can live trough just about anything. We on the other hand are successful because we are the first species that changes our environment to suit us instead of adapting to suit the environment. As you may have recently have become aware, we are extending this approach to the global environment, which may prove to have a severe population-limiting effect. In any case, we pass on our humanness through our children and through the instruction of other people's children - an awesome responsibility in the link between who we are and who we will become.
As a consequence, we raise our children to be as much like us as possible. That is the parents' job. But since we are adept at changing our environments to suit us, the children try to be as different from us as possible. That is their job. So the struggle is set in those simple terms. The parents trying to preserve the successful ways that have kept them alive since the beginning of humankind, and the kids trying to be as different as possible to ensure that the next generation exercises its secret adaptive weapon that has been the hallmark of our success. In the process of transference of knowledge and skills that are necessary for children to learn to survive, the children are ultimately at our mercy. When they have to reach deep into their pockets to pull out a needed thing (like what to do with a sick child at 3 AM or how to handle a person caught in the act of lying or stealing) they have almost no choice but to take what they learned from their parents. They are predispositioned to exercise and enforce those handed down mores. That is why it is almost impossible for children to be very much different from their parents. Those who are significantly different are few and far between, and are at terrible risk of failure. However, some parents are so bad that they leave the children no choice but to try to be different. Some general principles that I have used in raising my children are the following:
i. By the time a child is 4 or 5 most things are set for life. So the early years are important.
ii. Children always know what you mean, no matter what you say.
iii. Never threaten what you cannot follow through with and always follow through with what you threaten.
iv. Base the consequences of a child's action on the natural results of that action.
v. In any power struggle between parents and children the child always wins.
vi. Avoid all power struggles.
It has been my experience that recognizing these statements and abiding by these rules increases the respect between young and older, and the children can confidently experiment with actions to increase their ability to judge good behavior. There is an old saying:
So now that we have successfully raised our wonderful children and they are venturing off to make their way in the world. They have been stocked with the mores and information needed to experiment and succeed. They have been interacting with the local community and may find a mate to continue the process. And the process extends to ever widening circles to encompass larger and larger communities with their different and expanding roles. I do not intend to go through each group, but I would like to address the top group, the earth community, and circle back to the beginning. The problem of purpose. While I concluded that it seems reasonable to consider that there does not need to be a purpose, it would be satisfying to find a reasonable purpose that is consistent with what we know about the nature of the human condition and the universe in which humans find themselves.
However, before I go into that, I need to digress a bit. I want at this point to emphasize the importance of reason. In all the experiments that have ever been done, in any organized study in which controlled processes were used, it has never been observed that a recognized law of nature or logical connection of any kind has been found to be violated. Ever. This is attested to every day you live. When you turn the ignition key on your properly maintained car it starts, every time. Every time. When you command your air conditioner to work, it works, every time, or you find out why it doesn't. When it does fail there is always a reason that it does fail; every time. There is nothing supernatural. There does not need to a supernatural. The natural is full of enough wonder to last a any lifetime. This observation reflects the raw power of nature. There are things we do not understand and there will always be things we do not understand (I'll talk about that in a minute.) However, when we understand the essence of a system or process we can draw boundaries around it that are controlled by reasonable principles that are never violated. These principles need not be simple or absolute, but the principles can be defined and fall within the norms of behavior that are not violated. Reason is a system that works and is relied upon every day by many billions of people. In controlled experiments there has never been a violation of this principle. There have been illusions; there have been tricks; there have been mistakes; there has been ignorance; there has been deceit; but there has never been a violation of reason. Einstein said that the most remarkable aspect of the universe is that it is comprehensible. Ayn Rand states: "Contradictions do not exist. When you think you are facing a contradiction, check your premises. You will find that one of them is wrong." There are many facets of nature. All of them are consistent with reason and logic. However, reason and logic do not limit the complexity and diversity found within the natural world. I am done with my digression.
After years of trying to come up with a reasonable purpose for the human condition I finally came up with one that I thought might meet the strict requirements I set for myself. Perhaps humans are an attempt by the universe to understand itself. That people have evolved to permit a process of discovery which will lead to self realization by which the universe can understand itself, i.e. the universe is undergoing the same process that we are, but at a different level. It must be realized that if this is true, and the universe is as complex as we believe it to be, than we most likely represent only a single attempt. It would be reasonable to guess that there are many other attempts going on within the universe that would expose and emphasize other natures and facets. I like this idea. It seems reasonable and consistent with our observations, and does not overly exercise our human prejudice.
In my previous talks I have delved into the complexity found within nature. I have talked about chaos and how we understand time to move forward. In these descriptions one thing seems clear. The universe seems to be infinitely complex. No matter how much we delve into the smallest aspect of our reality, there is a structure that provides unlimited robustness, which is essential to the nature of the process of becoming. This furnishes nature with a necessary and unlimited richness that can provide the structure and allow a method of extracting meaning at every level of existence. These are the conditions needed to support a self contained universe, and this is the universe we are coming to understand.
So what do we do with this infinitely complex , multi-leveled universe. I have four suggestions that I think will enhance your appreciation and increase you capacity to engage yourself in your living.
1. Revel in your existence. Not because a God does or does not exist, but because you do not need one. If you choose to believe in a God or Gods realize that they are is in the same situation that you are. They face the same challenges, the same problems, the same choices. These may be at some other existence level, but the nature of the interaction with life should be comparable. Reason and the laws of nature still hold for God otherwise there would be contradictions. There has never been one discovered yet. If we discover one then we will have to change our concept of nature.
2. Celebrate every chance you get. Celebrate birthdays, death days, the starting of a project, the ending, the middle. Celebrate the sunrise, the moonrise and ever single star rise (there are quite a few). Celebrate nothingness or the lack of nothingness, which is everything else. This will enhance the awareness of your existence. The awareness of your existence is such a delight.
3. Be humble in your approach to life. Realize your limitations, but do not be bound by them. Seek ways around them. The universe is infinitely complex. Take advantage of that complexity. Realize that you are finite in the sense that your existence may be limited to the time that your body lives. That can be extended by teaching children the ways of good human existence. Understand that this limitation is OK and may be necessary. The universe is not only infinitely complex, it is infinitely diverse.
4. Love Children. Love yours (you cannot help that) and love everyone else's as much and as often as you can. They will carry the meaning of our lives into the future. They will carry your smiles, tears, laughs, and emotions and teach these things to their children. They are your means to live forever. My father is more alive today than when he was at twenty-five. He is living in at least 35 people now. I happen to snore for him.
I have laid before you a brief glimpse of my stake in the future, the meaning I have found in being human, and my ideas of how the universe is put together. It is exciting and meets the requirements that I have placed upon it for a viable and good thing. But this concept is a finite model and therefore incorrect. The real universe is infinitely more complex and intricate. I believe that when I die my conscienceness will go out of existence. I believe that that is necessary for the continuation and development of human thought. I still plan to teach many children the good things that I know. I plan that my grandchildren will have a part of me to carry (Jason does not snore, yet), and if they do not, I have planted a good many seeds in the minds of the Fellowship's children. They know me and I make sure that I talk to them. And.......I love all of you, too. You are a large part of my world. I love each one of you a little differently. But, you see, if you would just look at yourselves, what else could I do.
It does not matter when you meet Joe Black. You have been alive. You have had the chance to feel. You have conjured meaning in relationships. You have had the chance to love. You can take that dive into reality over and over again and know it and reflect upon it. You have shared some essential piece of yourself with others. You have been and continue to be a most wondrous Human Being.