Communing with Nature: Is That How We Find Life’s Meaning?


Chris Crawford at Cologne Game Lab in 2011

My recent post elicited this thoughtful response from the game designer Chris Crawford. His thinking reminds me of Thoreau and the Taoists.

… The very question “What is the meaning of life?” raises my hackles, because the question has no intellectual substance. One might as well ask “What is the meaning of hamburgers?” My physicist-mind demands that I boil it down to something concrete, something — well, not tangible, but certainly something that I can nail down.

But when I attempt to translate the question into some form with a clear answer, I fail. Can we phrase it as, “What is the purpose of life?” That doesn’t help. “What is the significance of life?” No, that’s no good, either.

So I step back even further and ask “What would motivate a person to ask such a question in the first place?” Here I get my first solid answer: a person asking that question has no sense of purpose in life; they feel that they are wasting their life on petty, useless nonsense. They have no goal to aspire to, and the lack of that goal makes them feel that their life is an exercise in futility.

That’s something I can wrap my mind around. It immediately leads me to the realization that we have long had institutions designed to provide us with that answer: religion. A big guy named “God” has declared a purpose for us: we must seek to go to heaven, and we can accomplish this by obeying God’s dictates. My first problem with this idea is that it begs the question; once you get to heaven, what do you do next? What is the purpose of your existence once you have already attained the purpose laid down for you by God? Why continue existing without purpose? If the lack of purpose makes your life seem a waste, then why wouldn’t the lack of purpose in heaven make your afterlife seem a waste?

One answer to this is that we shall have all of our wants satisfied in heaven. Great movies, the latest smartphones, sexual partners galore, and we can eat all we want without getting fat. Sounds pretty good. And it makes sense when you’re a starving peasant living in a filthy hovel. But it would seem that we moderns are pricing Heaven out of the market: we already have a great deal of that stuff already. Well, yes, I must admit that I still don’t have all those nubile nymphs fawning over me, nor can I eat all the chocolate ice cream I desire, but nevertheless I’m in pretty good shape.

Still, the deal is nicely packaged, loaded with all sorts of impressive rituals, ancient (and presumably correct) books, wise people offering their support, lots of friends, and plenty of patting on the back. For somebody who is too busy worrying about paying the mortgage and getting the latest video games for the kids, it’s a quick, simple solution that doesn’t require much intellectual effort.

If that works for somebody else, more power to them. But I’m not so desperate to grab the fast-food solution. If there really were a big shot named God, and he came to me and told me to shut up and do what he tells me to do, I might well knuckle under. But I’ve never seen this guy. All I have to go on is what some people say about what other people said about what other people said about what some people wrote about what they claim to have witnessed. If I were on a jury, I certainly wouldn’t convict anybody on hearsay evidence that far removed from the source. No, I don’t get off that easily.

My solution comes to me from a walk in the forest. I am fundamentally no different from the living creatures there. I am of the same fabric as the smallest germ or the biggest tree. I am akin to the little spider and Mr. Bear and the ducks in their enclosure. Sure, I’m different in many ways, but from a cosmic point of view, those differences are of little significance. Like them, I am born, live, strive, and die.

Here we collide with human vanity. “How dare you call me a spider!” the indignant human sputters. “I’m different! I have an immortal soul!” A less religious person might not claim a soul — he’ll merely claim “consciousness”. That’s really just the modern euphemism for “soul”. I’ll not be distracted by such a silly exercise in vanity. I’ll not swaddle myself in the comforting robes of self-importance.

I see no problem identifying myself with other living creatures. That realization doesn’t diminish me; it exalts me by making me part of a gigantic system. I am one with all the other DNA-creatures. I share their deepest makeup. I pursue goals very similar to the goals they pursue. Just like them, I’ll die someday. So what? It’s part of the unity I share with them. I find it more satisfying to realize that I am one with nature, and death is just one part of that unity. To reject death is to distance me from the majesty of earth’s biosphere. Why in the world would I want to do that?

Reflections – This is a beautiful and profound statement of the meaning we can find by realizing our oneness with nature and, ultimately, the cosmos itself. As for me though, I don’t think of death as majestic and I doubt many people will believe that when death is no longer viewed as inevitable. And, given a number of caveats, I believe that science will defeat individual death and that our posthuman descendants may also defeat universal death too. In short, I believe that death should be optional.

Liked it? Take a second to support Dr John Messerly on Patreon!
Become a patron at Patreon!

4 thoughts on “Communing with Nature: Is That How We Find Life’s Meaning?

  1. Certainly death is not that majestic if you die in a car crash at the age of 25 because of a drunk driver…

  2. Death is already optional.
    Perhaps I can have eternal life in agape loving; the source of oneness.
    Such love is the meaning of life because maybe it is eternal.
    Hence: ‘Make love your aim’ Paul; 1 Corinthians 14:1

  3. First, I want to comment on the “majesty of death” comments. Here’s that sentence again:

    “To reject death is to distance me from the majesty of earth’s biosphere.”

    My point is that death is fundamental to the entire biosphere. Every living creature eventually dies. Every living creature spawns from a single cell. Every living creature has DNA, and shares a number of design features deep in its genes that are shared by all creatures. It’s a majestic community, and I am a part of it. To close my mind to the inevitability of death is to deny a fundamental component of my existence. Better to look it in the eye and see it as part of the whole, than to glance away in fear.

    Another point: my particular species of “oneness with nature” has little to do with the common spiritual striving for that oneness. That is, my own version is based on my scientific grasp of nature. Galileo once wrote that you can see the entire universe in a single glass of wine. He meant that all the laws of physics manifest themselves in that glass of wine. I can look at the blue sky and see photons passing overhead, with blue ones being scattered preferentially over redder photons. The sky is blue for the same reason that the sunset is red; there is unity in that truth. The motion of objects, the transfer of heat, the chemical reactions driving living systems — these are all comprehensible — in principle — in science.

    Photons and photosynthesis; pressure and primates; gnats and notochords; kin selection, evaporation, and gravity — these things all tie together into one magnificent whole. It has taken me decades of study to see enough of the pieces that I can imagine the entire picture. For most of my life, those pieces were an incoherent jumble, but now, even though there remain huge empty expanses in my perception of the whole, I can see the layout, the way many of the pieces fit together. And one of those pieces, an especially tiny one, is me. And I can see where it fits.

  4. Is something that changes every action and perception you will ever have count as a fundamental difference?

    “I am fundamentally no different from the living creatures there.”

    If you get an itch, do you look to go scratch a squirrel’s back? I mean there isn’t a fundamental difference between your back and a squirrel’s, right? So it accomplishes the same thing if there is no fundamental difference between the two.

    Or do you mean fundamental in some unusual sense? As in secondary to the distinction of the utmost significance?

    This might matter when you try to swaddle in the robes of the majesty of the bioshpere.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.