Category Archives: Nature

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

Chris-Crawford.jpg

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.

Walking in Nature

Free stock photo of wood, dawn, landscape, nature

A reader sent me a beautiful description of the tranquility he finds walking in and communing with nature. It seems my friend has become a forest dweller in the Hindu tradition! I think that if we don’t find peace in this way, we probably won’t find it anywhere, for many seers and sages have found something vastly preferable in nature and solitude.

Here then are the words of a modern-day Thoreau.

I can heartily second Seneca’s suggestion of an outside walk, although I enjoy an opportunity not readily available. I live on 40 acres of mixed forest with a creek running across the middle. When I go outside, I am not confronted by the galling presence of even more members of this appalling species; I am surrounded by pure nature. I have rooted here; by walking over every square inch of this land, I have come to know it intimately. I recognize every tree; I know where different kinds of rock lie on the surface or just beneath it.

The blatant seasonal changes no longer attract my notice; now I recognize subtle shifts in the foliage with the passing seasons. Some places retain their green longer into the summer because the buildup of humus from the fallen leaves and needles holds more water. I note how the Douglas firs in some areas are dying, and make a note to thin the trees in that area so that the survivors will have enough sun and water to stay healthy.

In past years, I felt somewhat guilty about thinning the forest; every time I brought down a live tree, I felt like a murderer. But now I see the forest as a complete organism. The individual trees are only parts of the whole. I am nurturing the entire organism when I cut down a badly placed tree.

I see the sunlight reflecting off the foliage and see in my mind the photosynthesis taking place in the greenery. Carbon dioxide from the air and water brought up from the ground are energized by photons of light to build adenosine triphosphate molecules that are then used to power the activities of each cell. That energy goes into energy-bearing carbohydrates that spread between cells and help grow more cells. Bees and other insects collect some of those carbohydrates, drawing energy from them. Birds and lizards collect some of the insects, drawing energy from them. The energy from the sunlight spreads through the entire organism, nurturing it.

The forest is a huge calculator. It experiments with every square inch of ground, trying to find the perfect plant to place there. The precise conditions of sunlight, groundwater, and soil are all taken into the calculation, and the ideal plant grows in that place. Dozens of different species are scattered around the land, each in its own perfect place.

I have become part of this organism. I plant seedlings, water them in the summer, cut away thick brush, and clear away fuel to protect my forest in the event of a forest fire. The forest can live quite well without me, but my nurturing makes it stronger and more vigorous. The forest has sent its tendrils into my soul even as my hands have helped it grow. We are becoming one, the forest and I. We are both stronger for it, combining our “strength of life”, whose syntony is greater than the sum of our separate contributions. Communing with my forest renews my confidence in the overall goodness of the world. Let the humans stew in their own sewage; the natural world continues regardless of human idiocy.

Here on the same topic is one of my intellectual heroes, Will Durant.

We suspect that when our fires begin to burn low, we shall want the healing peace of uncrowded mountains and spacious fields. After every idea has had its day with us and we have fought for it not wisely or too well, we in our turn shall tire of the battle, and pass on to the young our thinning fascicle of ideals. Then we shall take to the woods; we shall make friends of the animals; we shall leave the world to stew in its own deviltry, and shall take no further thought of its reform.