This afternoon I saw Midnight in Paris, a delightful new film by Woody Allen. This man, Woody Allen, is no stranger to pondering the meaning of life. Midnight in Paris does exhibit some rumination on death and what all of this means, but it's specific aim is rather specific: it analyzes the very common notion that things were better in a prior age, that society is in decline, and the good-old days are over. As noted in Midnight in Paris, there are people in every generation who feel this way, so if we were to go back to any historical era that we suppose was better, there would be people complaining that their age is vacuous and it was really another bygone era that was better. The basic message of the movie is that this type of thinking is a defense mechanism for people who can't or do not want to cope with the present. Fair enough.
Before the movie, there was a trailer for Tree of Life, a film which I am quite excited about. I do not know the particulars of the movie; however, a very clear idea of the theme of the movie is expressed in the trailer, one which I often ponder: what is the relationship between our mundane, personal lives and the universe at large? What is the relationship between having your heart broken, feeling joy at the birth of a child, etc., and a star billions of light away years exploding, or the universe continuing to contract for all eternity, and energy being distributed throughout such a large space so as to make impossible biological life?
Here is a pertinent quote by Richard Dawkins, the famous biologist and atheist:
"Presumably there is indeed no purpose in the ultimate fate of the cosmos, but do any of us really tie our life's hopes to the ultimate fate of the cosmos anyway? Of course we don't; not if we are sane. Our lives are ruled by all sorts of closer, warmer, human ambitions and perceptions" (Unweaving the Rainbow).
Well, first off, shit, perhaps I'm insane, because I do often feel our lives must have some connection to the ultimate fate of the cosmos, or else our lives have no ultimate importance. Sure, we can enjoy our lives, and we can even feel people are important, but if all of this will someday be gone without any connection with what will happen billions of years from now, then in a very real sense our lives don't mean shit.
The human project, as it has been called, has been an attempt to cover up, deny, avoid, this problem of meaninglessness in a vast, cold, analytic universe. There is quite a lot of writing in psychology about how humans deny not only more personal problems like fear of intimacy, feelings of inadequacy, anger, etc., but how humans deny the larger problem of existential emptiness. Sanity has often been seen as a culturally mediated way of avoiding what's really going on.
Anyhow, you will perhaps remember that in my last post I began discussing Schodinger's Cat. This thought experiment is used as a way to show that thinking about everyday objects and events like a cat locked up in a box, is different than thinking about particles at the subatomic level. In quantum mechanics, particles can exist and not exist at the same time. However, in our normal experience of the world, a cat is either alive or dead - not both. Granted, newer ideas have developed, such as the theory of multiple universes, in which there is a linked version of reality in which a cat locked up in a box can be dead, and in our universe alive. Clearly, though, we are not aware of any other universes. Or is that true? Perhaps meditation or drugs or dream states are windows into other universes. But let us not consider these possibilities now. The point is, it's silly to think of a cat being dead and alive at the same time - quantum mechanics might be useful for looking at a certain type of problem or situation but not another. Likewise, it might be silly to look at the meanings of our lives as being connected to the larger playing out of the cosmos. We should simply focus on what seems to make us happy and that which seems meaningful, and let physicists determine how long the universe will last, and leave the two as separate issues. Admittedly, at least to me, this doesn't seem satisfying: I want my life to have a connection with the universe. I recently read a book review, which discusses a book that claims that wanting life to matter provides an evolutionary benefit. Still, these types of explanations never feel satisfying, because everyone always just boils down to biological survival. But why do genes want to persist? Why?