I sit here surrounded by books and wonder, what’s the point? No. Not an overly dramatic-life-threatening-self-injury-thought-thing like that, but more, what is this goal, this imbibing of knowledge, when life itself is so fleeting? A friend of mine just died. I’m processing this. And I look at the books scattered before me and wonder, why?
A few years ago I got serious about re-learning things, paying attention to the greater ideas that I once glanced over in college, and now my house is filled with Amazon shipments. Marcus Aurelius keeps me warm at night, with his pondering that “Thou art a little soul bearing about a corpse,” on his dark journal nights, or more cheerfully, “Either it is a well-arranged universe or chaos huddled together, but still a universe. But can a certain order subsist in thee, and disorder in All?,” meaning, get over yourself, ego-man, everyone has challenges holding it all together. What little I’ve gleaned from Marcus is that souls don’t continue to exist, because the universe has no room for all the energy of all the human and animal and plant souls that preceded us; the storage locker of infinite data would just get too full, so we are best off simply acknowledging that we will pass on, absorbed into the light of future creatures and elements, and that when this too shall pass, it’s OK, just the natural order of things. Marcus was a downer.
Even less cheery, the atheist Richard Dawkins glowers on my bedside table with his “The Selfish Gene,” arguing that people don’t really matter at all, we are simply lumbering robot clouds of biology that pass like waves as our genes spurt out to meet others, recombinate, and let their predictions of the future succeed or fail in a casino-lottery bet in which only the best genes get to live forever. Bodies don’t matter, just what’s in your egg or sperm. Jesus, Richard.
While Dawkins also coined the concept of “Meme,” an idea that spreads like genes through our biological social networks, Yuval Noah Harari takes story-telling further by suggesting the collective stories we tell ourselves — about religion, or money, or nations, or corporations, none of which exist, because after all, can any of these fictitious entities feel pain? — make our species successful. It’s not you that matters (as Marcus would say), or your little spermy-egg genes (Richard), but the stories we create, which allow enormous groups of soldiers or religious zealots or Amazon.com executives to band together. The fictions we create that become embedded in our species’ collective hive mind at large are what make us thrive and live forever.
Those are just three ideas of the many floating in the books in my house — that the universe can’t accept the information load of past souls; that souls don’t exist because they are simply the information processing units of the genes that fight for evolutionary survival; or that neither souls nor genes matter, because the greater data output of the human species stories is a form of meta-information that will outlast any individual.
But I call bullshit. I knew my friend. The spark within him was not a fiction, nor a gene cascading upward into some giant fantasy to fuel its next sex to be passed forward, nor a meta-story about a new religion/money/corporate concept to drive groups toward shared ambition. My friend had a soul. I could see it in his eyes, hear it in his laughter, fear for it when he tried to steer me around Austin’s SXSW in a rental car when this guy really didn’t know how to drive.
The soul lives on a thin wire, between DNA pulling for propagation from its greedy lower nuclei and the tug of millions of other humans who spin stories of shared meaning. On one side, we have gritty genetic particles trying to spread and mix little codes; on the other, massive information waves rippling forward. Balanced in the middle is each of us humans. Our little spheres of energy may indeed dissipate into the ether, if Marcus Aurelius is right, since the universe must have balance. But the universe is expanding, propelled by some unseen force. Perhaps all philosophers, old and new, are missing the truth of our human expansion after all.
If our giving to others is not a zero-sum-game, where every win requires a loss elsewhere, perhaps if we give love in new ways, unfettered, freely caring for others, we can expand our futures. Falling in love, sharing in love, spreading that love, is an unbounded resource that leads recursively to each soul’s survival.
Which means my friend’s energy is still out there. All I can do now is love others to help the wave move on.