PHILIP PULLMAN NOVELIST
Here we are, alive and conscious, in a universe that seems to be made of material things like atoms and quarks and Higgs bosons and so on, which are undoubtedly there but possess enigmatic, ghostlike properties that are hard to grasp, such as entanglement and the wave/particle duality. What are we to make of it all?
I start with consciousness. I am certainly conscious, and I’m equally certainly made of matter; so I conclude that matter is capable of consciousness, and there’s no need to make up a thing called a soul to do the consciousness while the dull, inert, clod-like body does the carrying around. I’m certain that animals are conscious, and I see no reason to deny a form of consciousness to plants too. Don’t they sense where the sun is, and turn towards it?
Humans and animals and plants are alive, though. Perhaps consciousness depends on being alive, and not just on existing. Surely stone, air and water aren’t conscious?
I’m not so sure. It’s not hard to imagine that consciousness might be a normal property of matter, like mass. Thanks to the Higgs boson and its associated field, we now know how mass exists. Maybe there’s another field and another particle, as yet unsuspected, which deal with consciousness. Maybe what we call dark matter and dark energy are aspects of that very field. Or maybe not. But when by chance complex structures like the human brain evolve, consciousness is able to think about itself, and reason, and imagine, and empathise.
That sort of self-reflexive consciousness is a good thing. The more of it there is, the better we’re able to understand and create and be kind. So here I come to what the point is: the point is to bring about more consciousness. By teaching, or doing mathematics or science or philosophy, or writing novels and poems, or making music, or painting pictures, or studying history, or healing the sick, or bringing up our children to be generous and kind, we leave the universe a little more conscious than we found it. And that’s the point.
MARY MIDGLEY PHILOSOPHER
Richard Dawkins has told us that the cosmos is pointless. Our universe has, he explains, “precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good”, nothing but “pitiless indifference”. This suggests that human life—which is, after all, part of the universe—must be pointless too. Dawkins, however, plainly doesn’t think so, or he wouldn’t find it worthwhile to work so vigorously at spreading his philosophical views. And in our biosphere this perseverance is not exceptional. A vast variety of organisms, from snails to eagles, work fiercely and persistently at their own business. Acorns buried under paving-stones don’t just settle down there in comfort. They do their damnedest to wriggle out and grow up into proper oak trees. Human beings, too, often work incredibly hard, tilling the soil, catching fish, exploring deserts or busily writing books to cure other people’s errors.
Sometimes, however, the road before them runs out into the sand and they must look around for alternative possibilities. What they want then is a wider context, a larger hope to which their work can contribute. Thus, when Tennyson’s Northern Farmer looks back over his life on his deathbed, he is happy because he can claim that he “stubb’d Thornaby Waäste”—that is, he has cleared it, making it fit for crops and cows—fit for the decent agriculture that he believes in. His son, however, very differently, forbids his own son (quite in today’s style) to marry a girl with no money:
“Wot’s a beauty? The flower as blaws –
But proputty, proputty sticks, an’ proputty, proputty graws …”
We might not now want to endorse either of these world views. But we surely follow the same method of looking outward towards a larger perspective, even if that means looking as far as the limits of the universe. What we aim at is surely the welfare, success and prosperity of whatever cause, or whatever people, we most love, honour and wish to be part of. That aim is what gives point and meaning to our lives—which is why we need to choose it so carefully.
JOHN BURNSIDE POET
As any teenager can tell you, it’s a short step from asking the question: “What does it all mean?” to arriving at the inevitable answer: “Nothing.” Meaning is constructed by each person after her own fashion, his own nature; there is no universal formula or divine plan—no “all”—that can make individual lives meaningful. At first, such a realisation can lead to dismay: befuddled by the schemes and promises of our elders and betters we had trotted dutifully to school and kirk and community discos full of the blithe enthusiasm youth is cursed with, in the sure expectation that a worthwhile life would just fall into place, with a modicum of effort, so long as we did the right things. Maturity, love and marriage, job satisfaction, happiness—they were all out there, waiting to be achieved. So we thought, until this perennial teenager’s question cropped up, and we began to doubt.
Doubt is a good thing, most of the time. As is the shedding of illusions, however painful the process. For after dismay, after the insomniac nights and the hollow feeling in the pit of the mind, what follows (if our supposed betters can be persuaded to refrain from meddling) is the gradual understanding that, since meaning is neither fixed nor universal, it is determined, to a significant extent, by the power of the individual imagination. True, there is a world out there that would compel us to conform, to consume, to render unto Caesar. But we are, nevertheless, free to resist, free to imagine, free to furnish our lives, and the terrain we inhabit, with meanings that derive from our own natures, and from the nature of our home terrain.
Henry Miller remarked that “life has to be given a meaning because of the obvious fact that it has no meaning.” But he also said that “the aim of life is to live, and to live means to be aware, joyously, drunkenly, serenely, divinely aware.” In a conformist society, the attainment of that joyous, drunken, serene awareness is both an act of resistance and a personal achievement, for it says to hell with Caesar and his tawdry coin, and leaves each of us to invest life with all the intangible and unaccountable forms of wealth that the imperial minions in their counting house can scarcely begin to imagine.
ELIZABETH KOLBERT REPORTER
The “point”, Darwin taught us, is to pass on our genes. This is as true for humans as for any other organism—chimpanzees, for example, or planaria. The formula worked for life for the 3.5 billion years before Homo sapiens came along, and it isn’t likely to change now, just because people tend to find it unsatisfying.
Most of us would, of course, prefer to believe our lives have a higher purpose than those of E. coli. The very capacity to aspire—to truth and beauty, fame and fortune, intimacy and immortality—is one of the characteristics that sets modern humans apart from other species. But the mistake is to project the structures of our minds onto the nature of existence, to demand that the world conform to the way we think about it. “Endless forms most beautiful” evolved without us, and will continue to do so after we’re gone.
Perhaps the wisest thing we could try to do is to make peace with pointlessness. This is not so much a prescription for personal happiness as a petition on behalf of creation. Right now, expressions of human purposefulness are transforming the planet—reshuffling the biosphere, altering the atmosphere, and changing the chemistry of the oceans. We’ve ushered in a new geological age, the Anthropocene, which is likely to be marked by the highest extinction rates since the asteroid impact that did in the dinosaurs.
How might we pursue a less purposeful existence? We could begin by trying to do less. This might seem like a negative goal, but it would actually be hugely consequential. As it stands right now, humanity’s most lasting accomplishment will be our pruning (or hatcheting) of the tree of life: a sad legacy, and one we should do everything in our power to avoid. The challenge to us as a species is to let other species pass on their genes—to allow them, too, to have a point.
YIYUN LI NOVELIST
A while ago, I worked as a researcher in a hospital laboratory, studying asthma with mice as the animal model. My job was to inject ragweed into the mice over a period of time and measure the effectiveness of a new drug. There was a glass chamber, I remember, where I put the mice to induce asthma, and then analysed their breathing patterns. That and other methods gave me the data of their illness, though imperceptible to me was their physical sensation: suffering, which is an individual feeling, cannot be measured.
Asthma comes from a Greek word, meaning panting. But in ancient Rome, the doctors nicknamed it “rehearsing death”. I ran into this detail while reading Seneca’s letters to his disciple Lucilius. Seneca, like Dickens, Proust, Dylan Thomas, E.B. White, Elizabeth Bishop—the list could go on—was afflicted with asthma, an ancient disease that hasn’t, unlike many others, gone away. There was no one trying to cure the illness by dissecting mice in Seneca’s time.
Everyone, sooner or later, draws their last breath. What’s the point of living, one could ask, if we all have to come to a dead end? What’s the point, if life never tires of offering situations like asthma? Far from fatal, these nevertheless cause inconvenience, suffering, even despair—in a letter Stefan Zweig wrote before his and Lotte Zweig’s suicides, he mentioned her incurable asthma as one of the reasons for their decision.
When asked for the secret to a long life, an old woman in Chinese folklore says: “There are two things we all do in life: to be born and to die. We’ve done one, what’s the hurry for the other?”
Patience: there is plenty of rehearsing time for one to understand the script better. “To philosophise is to learn how to die,” wrote Montaigne, Seneca’s intellectual offspring. To philosophise, however, is not the only way to rehearse: to live through a moment of triviality with courage is laudable, too. As Charlie Brown says in a strip, after looking into the vastness of the starry sky, “Let’s go inside and watch television. I’m beginning to feel insignificant.”
STEPHEN GROSZ PSYCHOANALYST
In my 25 years of practising psychoanalysis, I can’t recall anyone ever asking me this question. Patients do ask what’s the point of doing such-and-such or being married to so-and-so. And I’ve been asked—more than once—“what’s the point of analysis?”
Typically, the people who come to see me are in pain. They may be confused, or anxious, or depressed but, more often than not, their complaints are specific. They might be suffering because their husband has died, their marriage has collapsed, or they can’t find someone to love. They don’t ask “what’s the point?” They don’t want to know the meaning of life—they want the suffering to stop so they can live their lives.
Often, part of the suffering is that they can’t articulate it. Pain is resistant to language; it can reduce us to a stage before language—to the confusion and anguish, the cries we had before we had words. Karen Blixen said, “All sorrows can be borne if you put them into a story or tell a story about them.” But what if a person can’t tell a story about his sorrows? Experience has taught me that there are stories that we never found a way to voice, because no one helped us to find the words. When we cannot find a way of telling our story, our story tells us—we dream these stories, we develop symptoms, or we find ourselves acting in ways we don’t understand. My job as a psychoanalyst is to help others find a way of telling their story.
We will probably never know what’s the point, but we can find meaning, and ourselves, through speaking and listening. We are born into a world of feelings and words; we become who we are by sharing our stories. We need others to help us make sense of ourselves. From our first words to our last, we’re storytellers, but we can’t be storytellers alone—we need someone to listen.
ANN WROE BIOGRAPHER & OBITUARIST
The point is love.