Meditations on Existence
Concepts and Conversations
We humans share one characteristic, for both better and worse, which sets us apart from other living things. We think about ourselves. We have records of the people who lived before we were born, we are aware of our relationships with other people, and we know that we will die but that the world will continue to exist when we’re gone. 

One consequence of this self-awareness is that humans have wondered about the meaning of all this since the beginning of thought. But for all the thought, discussion, and consideration, scientists and historians as well as philosophers and theologians are really asking only three questions, which appear again and again: How did we get here? Why are we here? What happens to us when we die?

Rather than presenting my thoughts by the typical approach of defining the questions, arraying the available information, and then synthesizing it to get to a conclusion, in this first essay I’m simply going to start by summarizing what I believe, but with no effort to support my beliefs. Then I’ll discuss the forces that started me on my own search for these answers, explore my answers in more detail, and finally explore some implications of my belief system that have occurred to me. 

How did we get here? 

The question of how our universe, our world, and us in it came to be, it seems to me, is well on the way to being answered by scientific inquiry. These answers start with the observation that the universe we’re aware of is huge beyond our ability to visualize, has existed longer than we can possibly imagine, and is almost infinitely complex. 

Scientific inquiry even suggests that there could be universes beyond the one we can observe, additional dimensions beyond those we can comprehend, and measures of time that might loop in circles around our linear basis of chronology. But if the cosmos exists beyond time and space, it is enough to base our understanding on our observations that the sun was rising before humanity was here to watch it, and will continue to set long after the cosmic memory of humanity has vanished. 

But we can explore this question simply by focusing on small things that we can personally observe. In even the smallest aspects of our universe, the wonders of life beggar our imagination, much less our ability to understand their underlying principles. 

Since I can remember, hummingbirds have fascinated me. I must stop what I’m doing when I see a hummingbird outside the window of my office, treading air with its wings while it seeks the juice it needs to maintain its life. How anything that small can be capable of all that it does to survive, how it can have come to be is amazing beyond comprehension. Yet it does exist and is only one infinitesimal element of this universe in which I live.

In that size and complexity – the infinity of the universe and the complexity of its smallest details – scientific analysis has identified a simple principle. When two events occur that are in competition with one another for existence, the stronger of the two survives, and that begets successive events. In large numbers, the more successful molecules, elements, planets and solar systems, outlast those less suited for survival.

Similarly, out of a large group of similar living things, the characteristics of the individuals that survive to breed are passed on to the next generation. This is the process call evolution. The observable fact that this has been going on for a very long time explains the results we can observe: incredibly well-organized systems for survival that take the form of living things at various levels of self-awareness on a world that is incredibly complex in its own right in a universe of unknown dimensions.

So for the hummingbird outside my window to exist, many generations had to have existed, in which some hummingbirds or their predecessor species had, for example, longer bills while the blossoms of the flowers with which they were symbiotic were deeper. In each generation more of the birds with longer bills and more of the deeper-blossom flowers would survive to breed than the competing variations. Eventually, after countless generations we see a system of hummingbirds and flowers perfectly suited to assist in one another’s survival, not because of any ordaining plan, but simply because that’s the way things had to work out.

But what about the question of how the observable universe came into existence in the first place? As far as I’m concerned, the event took place such a long time ago, and we are such a very, very small part of the observable universe, that I don’t see that it matters very much. We need the universe in order to exist, but the universe certainly doesn’t need us. In fact, by any rational measure, the existence of humanity on earth is an anomaly of such vanishingly small probability that we could easily be a short-lived accident in a universe that has always existed, and it wouldn’t change anything about our existence.

For me, one simplifying consequence of this portion of my belief system is that it doesn’t require the existence of a God, at least not one separate from the cosmos like the clockmaker in some mythologies. Assuming that the universe has always existed, in one form or another, the conditions and systems that support human beings and humanity itself could have come into existence without any pre-existing supreme creator. 

On the other hand, if other people choose to believe that a supreme being caused the universe to come into existence and then that creator came up with the concept of the evolutionary process as an efficient means for the universe to continue to develop, that’s fine by me. It doesn’t challenge my belief system in any way, and I don’t see any reason to challenge theirs, except to note that theirs would require an explanation of how such a superordinate being came to exist in order to create the existence we observe. That just makes the question bigger rather than reducing it to a size that can be answered in any satisfying manner.

My system of beliefs also argues against a personal god, one that could or would intervene in my life. In addition, it also argues against the idea of man as being the ultimate end of a creative design, and it certainly has no need of the concept of intelligent design as an explanation for how the observable universe came into being.

Why are we here? 

Scientific evidence tells us that this evolutionary process has taken place over an almost surreal length of time. The universe we know came into existence approximately 7 billion years ago. Three billion years later, the earth and its solar system took shape. Against these measures of time, the human race as a self-aware, social species has only been around for a very short time. 

But that brings me to my second overarching question. What, if anything, is the point of my existence, or that of any human being? As the metaphor for my answer, I can ask: What is the point of the existence of one Monarch Butterfly? Monarchs can only survive and breed within a thin range of temperatures, but they don’t live long enough to follow the seasons as do migrating birds and mammals. 

Consequently each generation that is born must mature then fly to another location and breed where conditions are suitable for its offspring to be born and mature. However, the species follows the same geographic paths from year to year. The Monarchs that we watch in Pacific Grove, California, each year turning a eucalyptus grove from brown to orange and black are in fact three generations removed from those we watched open their wings the previous year. The existence of those butterflies is dependent on the butterflies of each generation fulfilling their role in the cycle of their species’ existence. 

In our human terms, to understand why we’re here, we can consider how evolution has expressed itself to produce self-aware creatures that can communicate with one another, record their ideas, and read the recorded thoughts of the beings who came before them. The simple answer is that we have continued to evolve in response to the same forces that created the universe as it exists today: competition among individual entities for the right to exist and procreate, and survival of those that adopted and then passed on the attributes that allowed them to be successful in the competition. 

The difference between us and two species of trees, for example, fighting with one another for the sunlight needed to grow and release their seeds, is that we’re aware of the competition, we can collaborate with others of our species in the competition, we can record the experience, and we can pass on that information to future generations so that they not only do survive to breed, but they learn how to improve their chances of survival. Recent scientific research suggests that humans, and a few other mammals, have evolved to a point where the individual drive to survive is overlaid but not replaced by a survival instinct shared across a group of humans sharing common resources. Competition still exists as the winnowing force for evolution, but it results in some groups sharing genetic attributes doing better than others, in addition to individuals doing better than other individuals and thus passing on genetic attributes.

If there were enough resources for all of us to survive, and each breeding couple only chose to limit itself to two living offspring so that population did not increase, of course, there would be no need for this competition, and hence no reason that evil would exist. But the baser instincts of survival cause those who can breed to do so as often as possible. Consequently, populations do increase. When a population reaches a point where the territory it controls is no longer sufficient to feed and shelter itself, or external conditions change so that it is no long possible to grow or capture enough food to survive, then the desire to survive and to provide for the young can lead to the bloodshed and cruelty of war.  

But because we have evolved in our level of intelligence, the innate desire to survive also can be expressed by efforts to increase available resources instead of simply taking them away from competing humans. In its most positive and benign form, the desire to succeed can be expressed by developing a better technology, producing a better product, or providing a service more productively or creatively than one’s competition. Those who can do that both increase the supply of resources and get more resources themselves in exchange. The positive consequence has been that our ability to support the human population has also increased. In fact, as the rate of population growth as increased, our resources have increased at an event greater rate. In contradiction to Malthus, living standards have been improving on the earth well ahead of population increase. 

We do need challenge and competition in order to make this progress. Of course, competition pursued to an unacceptable extent – one that takes resources away from others – is not a good thing, but it does occur. In fact, the spectrum of competitive behavior, from total selflessness to total selfishness, might also be described as the spectrum from good and evil.

However, even though human activity is expressed at all points along this spectrum, the only essential requirement for mankind to continue to progress is that the balance continues to tip, however slightly, in the direction of good rather than that of evil. For progress to be made, it is only necessary that those who can express the urge for survival in positive ways outnumber those who express their urge to survive in ways that are more evil.

However, as new scientific findings are beginning to indicate, our survival and evolution, though, isn’t simply a matter of the balance between good and evil randomly tipping in the positive direction. As humankind has evolved, along with our self-awareness has come the ability to feel emotions. This is a characteristic reserved to humans, at least so far as we know. With our emotions, we have the capacity to appreciate beauty. Gazing out over a cliff-side garden with waves of the Pacific Ocean creating endlessly diverse patterns of white and blue below gives me a feeling of happiness, while passing a toxic waste dump makes me feel sad, emotional reactions shared by most humans. 

Similarly, I notice that it makes me feel happy when I can make someone else happy, another aspect of human emotion shared by most people. Scientists have just recently begun research that indicates we actually experience a change in specific neurons in the brain that mirror changes in similar neurons in other peoples’ brains, so perhaps this behavior is physical in nature. To go further, when we find someone with whom we can easily give and receive happiness – because of similarities in personality, or upbringing, or perhaps something more intrinsic to our DNA – we give to that sharing of happiness the term “love.”

This ability to appreciate beauty, and to feel one another’s happiness, may be the added factor that explains why good wins out more often than evil. Certainly we find, in the history of many cultures, individuals who have become important to the culture as teachers of love and good will. Jesus, Buddha, Confucius, Mohammad, and others have central positions in the religions of their cultures as the personifications of positive social interaction. To understand why their teachings have survived, we might simply believe that they taught people to love one another at a point when evil might otherwise have gained domination over good. 

Another metaphor for this belief is an elaborate garden of one of the great houses of antiquity that still blooms and thrives to delight us with its beauty. That garden could only exists because generation after generation continued the work, planting and weeding, replacing and expanding. That's what I believe is the reason for us to be here, to add something to the world we find around us so that those who come after us will be able to enjoy all that we found here as well as what we contributed while we were here.

So this is the second tenet of my belief. As humans, we can express our desire to survive in positive ways and there are benefits to us beyond the tangible rewards when we do so. As a consequence, we exist on this earth to do good for those with whom we live, and for those who will come after, and in doing so we are happier ourselves. Had this principle not existed in the past, then our race of homo sapiens simply would not be here now.

What happens to us after we die?  

The process of evolution as understood by science explains how the earth came into existence, how life began on earth, and how humans came to exist. The ability to care for others and be cared for, to love and be loved, to feel those emotions and to teach them is what gives a purpose to our existence, explaining why we have progressed as a species, rather than dying out. 

But we’re still left with the basic question of life itself. How does an individual come to be self-aware, to understand his own individuality? When his body dies, what happens to that individuality, that soul? We exist, but we can’t be sure why we’re capable of contemplating our existence, and we can’t be sure if that self-awareness continues after our body dies.

From my window I can see a small fountain in the midst of the garden, with the molded figure of a small winged child playing in the water. The figure, of course, is one representation of an angel, a creature that has existed in the shared myths of many cultures for thousands of years. In all these cultures, the angel exists as a messenger between an afterlife or another dimension, and our human existence.

The appearance of this figure in so many cultures and historical eras certainly proves that humans believe that ours is not the only plane of existence. Whether actually real, or just a symbol of something more intangible, the angel suggests for me an answer to my third question, but one that relies on faith rather than on science for acceptance. 

Fortunately, that answer is very simple. It does not rely, any more than my answers to the source of our existence or our purpose in living, on a supreme being or some corporeal existence beyond this one, because such an answer would just create new and more complicated questions that would have to be answered. 

Instead, I simply believe there is an external energy that pervades our world, and may pervade the universe. I believe that the thing we call a soul or, less romantically, an individual personality, is created by an interaction between the brain and that external energy. As long as an individual human brain in its complexity functions in a living body, it focuses that energy, like a prism focuses light, in a specific manner that manifests itself as the individual’s personality or soul.

When the body physically ceases to be able to support the brain, as occurs in most versions of death, the mind is no longer able to maintain that focus. In other circumstances, with Alzheimer’s being the obvious example, the brain itself gradually loses its ability to function even though the body may continue to survive, and the personality that lived within that individual body gradually disappears. Either way, when the brain can no longer keep the energy focused, then the energy simply dissipates back into the overall life energy in the world. 

However, of one thing we can be certain. To the extent that the individual left behind some discovery, or invention, or work of art, brought another life into existence or was instrumental in another individual’s survival, or simply had an influence on other individuals during his or her lifetime, then a portion of the person does live on. Certainly in that sense there is life after death. 

Under most circumstances, however, I do not believe that the focused personality of the individual lives on after death, because if it did, I can assume there would be more valid manifestations of communication from beyond the grave than even our mythology suggests. So, just as I do not believe in a personal god, I do not believe in a grand heaven – or a gory hell – existing in the afterlife. 

Instead, for a description of this life force, which is essential to my belief system, I am perfectly happy with the idea presented as the core of various religions that God is infinite, that God and the universe are one and the same that exists in ways that “transcends our understanding,” that this life force might be termed “the mind of God,” and that when I die (when my body and mind cease to be able to support my soul), my soul will become “one with God” or, simply one with everything that exists. 

So in the simplest of terms, I believe that mankind came into existence through the process of evolution, facilitated by large numbers, random events, and survival of the fittest; I believe that the purpose of my existence here on earth is to do good for others as well as myself to the extent I am able, because in doing so I find happiness while I live and comfort in the knowledge that some portion of me will live on, and that humanity will continue to survive; and I believe that when I die, the energy that has been focused by my body and mind, that thing which I might call my soul, will simply again become one with the life forces of the universe.


My Answers to Three Simple Questions