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Man, the meaning-seeking animal

In my last post, Origins, I concluded by arguing that humanity is a mere speck in the vastness of the cosmos. Compared to the 14 billion-year history of the universe, human history passes in a blink of an eye. We humans we have this peculiar and irrational self-importance, however a brief consideration of the scale of the universe deals a devastating blow to it. We realise that our worries and fears, hopes and desires aren’t all that big. Our natural response, as Sagan noted, is to feel insignificant. It takes courage and humility to accept that we’re not so important after all, Sagan argues.

My reaction is a bit different. It doesn’t make me feel small. I feel big! Sagan’s understudy, Neil deGrasse Tyson, who incidentally wrote and presented the 2014 reboot of Cosmos, Cosmos: A Space-time Odyssey, describes our astral roots. We share the same origin as all the wondrous stars, nebulae, quasars and black holes that watch over us in the night sky: our universe started out as a single infinitely small, yet infinitely dense point. As such, we are intimately connected to every other body in the cosmos. We all make up the universe.

Is it that simple though? Do we just naturally mould ourselves into the shape of the universe? I’d argue otherwise. Homo sapiens is an anomaly. Man never cared much for the status quo: we humans are an unusually troublesome, rebellious lot. The distinctively human quality is that we ask questions. While the rest of nature goes about its business without causing too much of a fuss, simply doing that which it knows to facilitate its survival, humans have this irritating need for motivation. Humans just won’t get on with what they ought to do unless they deem it valuable.

What separates man from the rest of nature is his uncanny knack of asking questions. Children want to know how everything works, and are always asking “why?”

Why? It is the most penetrating question. Often we neglect to ask ourselves why we really act as we do. Or why we think this way or that. Or why we say what we do. An individual who lacks the personal integrity to regularly question his/her motivations isn’t a fully functional human being. When we look deep inside of ourselves and find a lack of purpose, we feel empty. Man needs meaning to function properly. We are the meaning-seeking animal.

Meaning requires context; context requires perspective that is external to a system. Our species has the ability to disconnect from our circumstance and see the bigger picture: we try to connect the dots and find the meaning in it all. We are self-aware. To our knowledge, we are the only self-aware creatures in the universe.

“We are star stuff which has taken its destiny into its own hands”

Carl Sagan, Cosmos

Cogito ergo sum. It is through us that the universe for the first time is aware of itself. For the first time, the universe can experience joy, love, sadness, hope and everything else that makes life so beautiful. I’d like to extend this argument: for the first time, God can feel joy, love, sadness, hope and everything else in between. Within reason, we have the ability to shape our own destiny. Stories are such a fundamental part of human life, and ultimately the greatest story is the one of which we ourselves are the author. It is the life I decide to create, and the meaning I wish to connect to it.

It’s not that we are more important than the universe, it’s that we are responsible for it. It’s not that we are less important than the universe, it’s that we are a part of it.



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