Saturday, September 30, 2006

The Universe Story and the Person Story

What's the meaning of existence? Well, that's a huge question, and not one that lends itself easily to reflection. But let me try here. I think there are two parts to the answer:

1. A universe story
2. A person story

The former concerns the meaning of the whole thing, the latter just the meaning of one individual life.


The universe story
Like other good stories, the universe story comes in three phases. For comparison, take your regular movie. Phase one: Harrison Ford arrives in Paris with his wife for a medical convention; all is bliss. Phase two starts when happiness is shattered: his wife is kidnapped. A struggle for justice, freedom and love follows. In phase three, they are reunited, bliss again, but on a higher plane.

Another story like this: Adam and Eve. Innocent tranquility, no troubles, no clothes. Then phase two kicks in, the Fall: They eat from the tree of knowledge and realize they are naked. They now possess moral consciousness and are chucked out into the real world, to toil and slave, trying to bring about the third phase, the new Jerusalem.

Let's see the universe as a whole in terms of the same three phases. In our universe story, we put the first phase before the birth of our universe/world. The second phase is the world we're in right now, and the third is the world much later, or maybe even some period "after" the world.

In the first phase, everything is potential, not yet born, everything is everywhere and nowhere in particular. Everything can be, but isn't yet. In scientific terms, this is before the big bang. Scientifically, we can't much about this phase, but from the fact the universe exists right now we may at least infer that before the big bang there must have been a possibility or potential for a universe, if nothing else.

In non-scientific terms, the first phase is often spoken about in terms of god. It's a divine sphere, and divine powers started the world. Of course, talking about God or gods is a turn-off to many people, and for good (historical) reason. But let's keep the term as one way of talking about the universe story.

The big bang
So the stage is set for the second phase, which starts with the big bang. Through physical, chemical and biological self-organization the universe evolves into the world we know today, with people on the blue planet and who knows what else out there. Religions often cast the creation of the world as a fall from a prior perfect state. To be sure, we no longer have only a potential world that can be all kinds of things, we now have an actual world that only is certain things. Particular laws of nature and other constraints contribute to the order of the world we know today, in the cosmos and in nature, and particular patterns of human psychology and historically emerged institutions have shaped the order of society. But we still can be all sorts of things. The natural and the social worlds are almost endlessly dynamic and creative and the future is very open.

That's about as much as science can say about the second phase. Where we are going, we don't know. With science, we can do no more than observe the fact that the universe has evolved to its present state, which in our cosmic corner is the middle-aged Earth and global civilization in the 21st century.

Let's leave aside science and reach for more humanistic concepts instead. We can choose to see our current state of evolution as a gift to be cherished and a challenge to be tackled. Wouldn't it make sense to say that what we have here is a great opportunity to exploit some of our potentials for making a better world out of what we've got right now: Let's try to make it a better world in the short term, the next 10, 100 or 1000 years. In the long term, let's try to make it a fantastic world, still more incredibly wonderful - a nice goal for the next 10,000 or 10,000,000 years.

As a next step, let's leave the real world for a moment and imagine an endlessly distant goal, a perfect world where all ideals have magically come true: total love, happiness, health, beauty, truth, justice; we can do everything and we know everything. Of course, such a state cannot be reached (and beware of fanatics who know just how to get there quick!), but it is within our power to make tiny, tiny steps in that general direction.

Now, this imaginary state is the third phase of the world story. Such ideal states of the world have been much maligned by liberal critics, such as Karl Popper, who have pointed out, corrrectly, that totalitarian thinking and religious fanaticism always use utopias as justifications for draconian measures. But just as Heinrich Himmler's support of herbal medicine doesn't make camomille tea a nazi remedy against the flu, so dreaming of a perfect world is not necessarily a lapse into totalitarianism.

Imagining a perfect world is, of course, a mainstray in the world's religions, where it is called faith. The world's religions have bundled the attributes of the perfect world, such as love, omnipotence and omniscience, and personified them as gods or, in the three mediterranean religions, just one God.

To the religious mind, God is not just a thing of the first and the third phases; he is everpresent, even in our current second phase. In fact, the faithful draw energy from their faith, it helps them work for a better world, as they see it.

Let's use this in our thinking about the second phase: What religious folks call God, that's the strength and power and conviction and hope the rest of us can mobilize in our attempts to make the world a better place. Our current, phase two-world can still be all sorts of things; it is a potential, so let's work to realize that potential. That way we may approximate that ideal and perfect state of the world we sometimes dream about. Martin Luther King had a dream and worked for it; why don't we all?

In religious discourse, the third phase appears as heaven, paradise or union with the godhead. This phase may also be realized in the fleeting glimpses of the divine sought through prayer, fast or meditation and obtained in transcendence and mystical union.

In the mundane terms of humanism, the third state is simply the imagined distant goal that we cannot define at all and only advance towards by continual learning through trial and error. Elsewhere, I have suggested how our efforts may be helped along by a transformative social science that conducts live experiments with social and political institutions in a theory-guided, yet pragmatic process of incremental improvement.

Now, helped along by these ideas in science, humanism and religion, we may then state the meaning of it all, as seen from our vantage point on Earth: The purpose of the whole show is that we do our best to move it in the direction of perfect love, power and intelligence, the best world that money can buy. The universe started as a giant potential and we're in the middle of unfolding it. We can each care for our own little backyard and let the whole go to hell in a handbasket, or we can make a determined effort to create a better world for all.

Who knows what this means in cosmic terms a thousand or a million years down the road; we can't fathom that, or at least I can't. It's hard enough to think about the looks of a better world a hundred years from now, but the point is clear. The cosmos, or God, or evolution, or life, or society, or my country, or my parents have given me a terrific opportunity to do something about it, so why shouldn't I grasp it and become an active and responsible part of an immense roadshow that could take us to the most wonderful destinations of all?

If we take this to be the universe story, there is a train moving and we can hop on it and try to influence its course, or we can stand by idly and despair for the lack of meaning in the universe.

The person story
This brings us to the person story. Once you have a universe story, the person story is easy, at least in theory. For the person story is about contributing to the universe story in your particular way, as best you can. In this view, the meaning of your life is to help the cosmos, humankind, your community or your neighbor move in the direction of a still better world.

What's hard is finding out what precisely you can to do to accomplish this. The management writer Peter Drucker identifies this as a central question for the modern knowledge worker who no longer spends her working life as a functionary performing pre-defined functions in a factory or a bureaucracy. Her question is: "What shall my contribution be?"

How to conceptualize the worklife part of personal meaning was the purpose of the pre-project Mission and Meaning at Learning Lab Denmark two years ago; read about it here.

The next post, in Danish ("Talent, gavn, fortryllelse"), addresses this issue in terms of three dimensions that I believe a personal life meaning must have:

1. In exercising your life meaning, you must use your talents (because they are your personal share of the potentials present at the birth of the universe)

2. Pursuing your life meaning, you must do good for others (for the reasons just stated).

3. You must experience it as exciting, magical, enchanting. If you don't, it's not the real thing for you, but a burden you carry out of guilt or convention or to meet other people's expectations.

With these three dimensions under your belt, I think you'd find your person story to be in alignment with the universe story.