Four Remarkable People on a Quest

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Part 1 – The Meeting

Once upon a time, there were four remarkable men.  Well, actually there were two remarkable men and two remarkable women.  A confluence of circumstances brought them together in perhaps one of the strangest coincidences in history.

Jamal was from the north.  He was one of the highest scorers to ever take the Mensa Genius Examination.  When he was only four years old, he developed a program to block credit card companies from calling his parents on their cell phones.  When he was seven years old, he developed a new form of cryptocurrency which was impossible to hack, easily transferred, had high usability and presented a respectable means of acquisition.  The currency was so popular that Jamal became a billionaire when he was 15 years old.

Isabella was from the south.  She graduated when she was 12 years old from the University of São Paulo with a Ph.D. degree in Physics and Philosophy.  She burned through required credits like a hot knife going through butter.  She had no problem paying for her tuition since she was hired by the University of São Paulo physics department to help with a particle research project they were undertaking, while she was earning her degree.  When she graduated, half of the physics departments in the world tried to hire her.

Li Na was from the east.  She was born in Chengdu, a sub-provincial city which serves as the capital of China’s Sichuan province.  She was the only child of an older couple who really wanted a boy.  Li Na learned to play soccer, baseball, table tennis and hockey at a young age.  She wanted to please her parents.  She was an excellent athlete who competed in all four sports in the Olympics.  However, her athletic abilities were far overshadowed by her intellect.  Li Na had mathematical abilities that rivaled any mathematician in history.  She could take any number and give you the square root of the number down to 1000 roots without a calculator or even an abacus.

When Li Na was fourteen years old, she decided to tackle all six of the remaining Millennium Prize Problems set by the Clay Mathematics Institute in 2000.  Li Na was able to solve all six of them within a month, but she decided it would be unfair to accept the prize money as the solutions were so easy.  She therefore rejected the prize and kept the solutions to herself.  Corporations all over the world engaged her with solving problems that defied normal mathematical solutions.  She gave her money back to her parents to help support them and to put into savings.  No one knew what she was worth, but it was assumed that she was a mega millionaire.

Elijah was from the west. He was born in California in a commune that practiced a form of communal marriage.  Elijah was never sure of who his father was, and he seemed to grow up with several mothers.  At an early age, Elijah showed a talent for music.  When he was three years old, he taught himself to play a violin.  At four, he learned to play an oboe and at five, he learned to play a harp.  When he was six, he took first place in the Menuhin Competition beating out every other contestant regardless of age.

As remarkable as his talent for playing music was, Elijah’s skills and abilities in the area of composing music were even more incredible.  He had written six operas, twenty movie scores and five symphonies before he was 16 years old.  Orchestras all over the world were playing his compositions when most people did not even know his name.  Elijah hated publicity and avoided any of the usual celebrity events.  He donated most of his money to help other aspiring musicians.  He was well known among musicians and performers for his humility and kindness towards others.

cafe-wrenEach of our four remarkable people were into their middle years when by chance they met at a small cafe and restaurant in a town called Luck in Northwestern Wisconsin.  Luck is a small town of about 1200 residents, which in its heydays was the home of the Duncan Yo-yo.  In fact, it was once known as the Yo-yo Capital of the world.  Sadly, Yo-yo’s had declined in popularity and so had the fortunes of Luck in terms of prosperity and jobs.  Now perhaps, the high spot of Luck was the Wren Cafe.  A place that had excellent food, good beer and a unique ambiance imbued by its extremely creative owner Stephanie Lundeen.

The café is well known to locals and to many of the cabin people who come up on the weekends to enjoy their sojourns from the “big city” of Minneapolis.  Li Na, Elijah, Isabella and Jamal were each brought there by friends who were locals and who knew that the Wren was a very good place to eat.  The Wren being a small place and small towns being where everyone knows everyone, introductions were soon flying like falling Wisconsin snow.  Our four remarkable people sensed that a new chapter in their lives was about to begin.

Thus, at 12 PM on a cool summer day in Luck Wisconsin, Li Na, Elijah, Isabella and Jamal experienced a nuclear fusion of intimacy.  The result was like a billion tons of dynamite going off at once or the largest fireworks display in the world.  The talent that each had was like a magnet that created an instant bond between the four.  Finding other people of comparable abilities and demeanor was something that they had only dreamed about.  They all found the rapport and affinity they had for each other to be amazing.

After an hour or so of rapid conversation intermixed with more general discussion with others in their parties, our four remarkable people decided to meet again when they could have more time to discuss their lives without anyone else present.  Unbeknownst to their friends and families, Li Na, Jamal, Elijah and Isabella all had serious inner doubts that they had never been able to share with another living soul.  Each believed that they had found some kindred souls with whom they could share their secrets and perhaps find some piece of mind.  They agreed to meet again at the Wren the following week.  It was a week they knew they must spare from their busy lives.

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Part 2 – Four Doubts

For several years now, Jamal had begun to feel that there was no meaning to his life.  He had even contemplated suicide because he felt that he had nothing left to live for. The world did not seem to have people that cared about anything but their new smart phones or how fast their Internet speeds were.  Life was one vast merry go round with people constantly jumping on and off and reacting to whatever the current fads and trends were.  Nobody cared about anything but how much money they had and how many things they could buy.  Jamal desired to know if there was a true Purpose in Life or if life was simply meaningless.

Elijah had many of the same feelings as Jamal.  Elijah no longer found value in anything in life.  Everything he had ever owned or purchased soon became worthless in his mind.  The best yachts, cars and homes that anyone could buy could not make him happy.  Fame and talent and beauty all seemed to fade over time.  People were fickle.  One minute they loved you and the next minute they loved somebody else.  Elijah knew what it was like to be famous and admired but it had lost any value to him.  He thought that being known as the greatest musician in the world would satisfy his inner longings.  Even though he had obtained this goal, it did not seem to provide the value that he had hoped for.  Elijah longed to know if there was any true Value in Life or if everything was really worthless.

Isabella had once believed that there was a hidden truth to life that remained to be found.  She had studied physics and philosophy thinking that they would lead her to this truth.  She had spent many years searching for this truth.  However, every time she found a truth, she soon realized that it was also a lie.  The prophets and great religious leaders had always taught that “The truth will set you free.”  Isabella could never find the talisman that would set her free.

She desperately wanted to believe that there was some truth to existence and that life was more than just a series of lies and deceptions.  She had a desire to find this truth, but she had become increasingly discouraged.  Each day she read the news and only found “Fake Facts” and deceptions masquerading as truth.  The world seemed to have misinformation and disinformation but no truth.  Isabella wanted to find the Truth of Life.

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Li Na was another tormented soul.  A brilliant mathematician, she could not discover a single constant in life.  Every time she thought she had found a concept in mathematics that would provide such a constant, Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem would rear its ugly head proving still again that it is impossible to find a complete and consistent set of axioms for mathematics.  If mathematics had no constants, how could life have any constants.  Was is simply true that death and taxes were the only constants in life?  Li Na wanted to believe that there was more to life than simply death and taxes.  Li Na desired to find the one Constant in Life that would really make life worth living.  If she could find this constant, she believed that it would put her soul at rest and she might find true peace on earth.

Part 3 – The Doubts Unfold

To Be Continued:  I will publish the next part of this story when it is finished.  I appreciate your patience. 

Time for Questions:

What do you think so far?  How do you like the four people in the story?  Have you ever shared similar doubts?  What did you do about them?  What do you believe about life?

Life is just beginning. 

“Doubt as sin. — Christianity has done its utmost to close the circle and declared even doubt to be sin. One is supposed to be cast into belief without reason, by a miracle, and from then on to swim in it as in the brightest and least ambiguous of elements: even a glance towards land, even the thought that one perhaps exists for something else as well as swimming, even the slightest impulse of our amphibious nature — is sin! And notice that all this means that the foundation of belief and all reflection on its origin is likewise excluded as sinful. What is wanted are blindness and intoxication and an eternal song over the waves in which reason has drowned.”
― Friedrich Nietzsche, Daybreak: Thoughts on the Prejudices of Morality

Ecclesiastes: The Wisest Book of All Time?

EcclesiastesI want to write about Ecclesiastes this week.  It is one of the 24 books of the Hebrew Bible.  It is among the canonical Wisdom Books in the Old Testament that can be found in most Christian Bibles.  It has been called by some a book of skepticism.  Others see it as one of the most profound and erudite books that has ever been written.  Much of the writing in this book reminds me of the Shakespeare passage in Macbeth wherein he says:

“Out, out, brief candle!  Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”  ― William ShakespeareMacbeth

vanities“Vanity of vanities!  All is vanity,” says the Preacher at the beginning of Ecclesiastes.  In some sense echoing the same sentiments as Macbeth, Ecclesiastes tells us of the folly of wealth, riches, power, fame and even wisdom.  Herein lies the great paradox in EcclesiastesEcclesiastes is a book of wisdom which has the audacity and temerity to decry the power of wisdom.  Whereas most tomes praise the power of wisdom to solve all the evils of the world, to Ecclesiastes, wisdom is also just another vanity.

“I applied my mind to know wisdom and to know madness and folly.  I perceived that this also is but striving after the wind.”  — Ecclesiastes

dissipationIf power, riches, fame and wisdom are folly to pursue, that would seem to leave us with only pleasure left as a goal of life.  A sybaritic existence of hedonistic pursuits measured by the wine, women and song we have endured.  Epicurus said: It is impossible to live a pleasant life without living wisely and well and justly.  And it is impossible to live wisely and well and justly without living a pleasant life.”  The Hedonist position has often been criticized starting with Socrates and Plato who felt that a Hedonist was endorsing a doctrine that was contradictory to right living (see Plato’s Gorgias).

Just when it might seem we have a goal in life that can be mutually satisfying for everyone, Ecclesiastes says:  “I will make a test of pleasure; enjoy yourself.  But behold, this also was vanity.”

Everything is vanity.  If Saint Ignatius was right in proclaiming that “ingratitude” is the fountain of all sins, Ecclesiastes shows us that the other side of the coin is vanity.  Rich or poor, wise man or fool, famous or obscure, death will take us all and care not one whit about our history.  “How the wise man dies just like the fool!” – Ecclesiastes

Another book which I think has a great deal in common with Ecclesiastes was written by Max Stirner and is called “The Ego and Its Own.”  Stirner (a 19th Century German philosopher) has been labeled a nihilist for the pessimism he exudes in this book.  For instance, Stirner says:

Man, your head is haunted; you have wheels in your head! You imagine great things, and depict to yourself a whole world of gods that has an existence for you, a spirit-realm to which you suppose yourself to be called, an ideal that beckons to you. You have a fixed idea!  Do not think that I am jesting or speaking figuratively when I regard those persons who cling to the Higher, and (because the vast majority belongs under this head) almost the whole world of men, as veritable fools, fools in a madhouse.” — (The Ego and Its Own, New York 1907, p. 54)

You may well ask “what is the difference between nihilism and skepticism?”  One answer to this question which I found on the Internet is as follows:

“Skepticism is a critical attitude, orientation or outlook towards a proposition or a thesis.  It typically is characterized by doubt about, or at least dubiousness towards, its substantive truth value.”

nihilism“Nihilism, on the other hand is an attitude, orientation or outlook of indifference towards a proposition or thesis.  The nihilist refuses to engage in an epistemological process of examination, discovery or analysis into its truth value.”

These definitions and more about the differences between these two concepts can be found at http://phenomenologicalpsychology.com/2011/03/what-is-the-difference-between-skepticism-and-nihilism/

Ecclesiastes skepticalTo sum the differences up in my own words, skeptics doubt everything while nihilists do not give a damn about anything.  Some would describe nihilism as extreme skepticism.  Hence, reading the works I noted above might lead you down either path.  You could decide that nothing is worth doing since there is no truth or value in anything we can accomplish so why bother.  Or else you could decide that you simply do not care about the world so why bother with any of its myriad blandishments.  I somehow think both paths might ultimately bring you to the same place.

meaninglessThere are many people who believe that the world is nothing but a mad house and that we are all inmates in one large global asylum.  My father often said that heaven and hell were both on earth and that it was our choice which one we lived in.  As Yoda noted in Star Wars we make a choice whether to go to the dark side or the light side.  Of course, a determinist would say we have no choice, that fate or life has already determined which choice we have to make.  I am constantly at odds with a good friend of mine who has staked this position out for his life and decisions.  In some ways, it is very difficult to refute.  I can refute all of his arguments but at the same time, I can refute all of my arguments against his arguments.  This leads me to the inexorable conclusion that life is more complex than I can explain or understand.  My trying to understand it is my own particular brand of vanity and folly.

“Fear is the path to the Dark Side. Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, and hate leads to suffering.” –YODA, (Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace)

If we do have a choice, then I think we have two coins to choose between.  We can choose a coin of ingratitude and vanity, perhaps this is the dark side or we can also choose a coin of gratitude and humility. Is this latter choice, the light side?  Jesus said:

Blessed are the meek,
for they shall inherit the earth.

It is kind of amazing when you think about it how many people today are guilty of unbridled arrogance and hubris.  Does that mean that more people are choosing the dark side than the light side?  My friend would argue that they have no choice.

prideWhen I was young I was taught that “Pride goes before a fall.”  It would seem to be an aphorism that too many of our leaders and people in positions of power have forgotten.  Some people believe that this lack of humility comes because we have forgotten God.  It reminds me of the stories in the Bible about the Israelites in the desert who had to be taught again and again that it was God who was the instrument of their salvation.  As soon as a little time went by, they would forget the help that they had been given and begin to ignore God and act arrogantly.  You don’t have to believe in a God to have this problem.

money is meaninglessWe are all much like the Israelites.  We forget the little people that helped us.  We forget the people that looked out for us or assisted us when we were in need.  We begin to think that we are smarter, stronger, wiser and better than other people.  We develop a mythology that attributes all of our success to our own self-discipline and hard work.  It is true that even Thomas Jefferson believed that luck comes from hard work, but it is also true that all the things that we will ever attain in life can be at least partially attributed to the support we have received from other people.  The Beatles set it well with their song:

I get by with a little help from my friends.  (Click here to hear the entire song)

So what would Ecclesiastes say about the folly of arrogance and pride?  I borrow from my wife’s Revised Standard Version of the Bible dated 1952 for the following:

“In my vain life I have seen everything; there is a righteous man who perishes in his righteousness, and there is a wicked man who prolongs his life in his evil doing.  Be not righteous overmuch and do not make yourself over wise; why should you destroy yourself?  Be not wicked overmuch, neither be a fool; why should you die before your time.”  Ecclesiastes 7:15-17

This passage was from Karen’s confirmation Bible which she received when she was 13 years old.  She still has the Bible and has highlighted, annotated and nearly worn the binding out from much usage.  I am proud to say that my wife is one Christian who reads the entire Bible from Genesis to Revelations and everything in between.  We often have discussions on the meaning of certain passages and I respect her belief in Christianity as she respects my agnosticism.  We both respect Jesus, Mohammed, Moses, Buddha and many other prophets whose wise words have guided us in our lives.

I conclude with some advice knowing full well the old adage “Never give advice. Wise men don’t need it and fools will not heed it.”  Nevertheless, hope springs eternal in my breast and I must break with the aforementioned sage advice to offer the following:

  1. Believe nothing of what you hear and half of what you see. Our senses are deceiving.
  2. Take science and religion both with a grain of salt. Today’s wisdom will be tomorrow’s folly.
  3. Regard both the expert and the idiot with a healthy bit of skepticism.

Time for Questions:

Have you ever read Ecclesiastes?  What is your view of this book?  What wisdom in it do you pay attention to in your life?  What follies do you fall prey to?  Have you found a way to avoid vanity?  How do you do so?  What advice from this book would you give others?

Life is just beginning.

“Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”  — Martin Luther King, Jr.
 

The Ninth Greatest Mystery of All Time:  What is Life?

lifePeculiar that question is!  Perhaps it is the most peculiar of all the mysteries.  Life is life is it not?  I am either dead or alive.  When I stop living my heart stops beating.  I stop breathing.  My mind dies.  Rigor mortis sets in and my limbs become rigid.  My body begins to decay — BUT STOP– We are describing death not life.

Life is joy.   Life is action.   Life is love.  Love is friendship.  Love is compassion.  Life is charity.  Life is pain and life is pleasure.  Life is complex and life is simple.  Life is toil and life is rest.

In the famous story Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, a number of graves are robbed to provide body parts for a scientific experiment.  The goal of the experiment is to create life.  The patched up body is connected to a bunch of electrodes which are connected to some electrical conductors that are fed by huge electric generators.  At some point in the experiment, the generators explode amidst a large amount of sparks and electrical charges.  Somehow this has the effect of giving life to the dead body which is subsequently named Frankenstein monsterFrankenstein after the scientist who created him.  Of course, a body that is stitched together with multiple body parts lacks a certain symmetry that is considered necessary for human beauty.  Thus, Frankenstein is labeled a monster since he does not conform to traditional norms in terms of his physical appearance.

It is interesting that we find electricity to be connected with life.  Atoms resonate at a certain speed and when they stop resonating death ensues.  If we can mix the right ingredients in a petri dish or a test tube (some call it primal soup) and then run an electric current through it, will we create life?  We have described life earlier but we did not really describe life.  What we described were the symptoms of life, the effects of life.  Animation as opposed to stagnation.  Life is movement.  Death is stillness.  But what is life itself?  What is that spark that we think is connected to an electrical current?

See http://whatislife.stanford.edu/LoCo_files/What-is-Life.pdf  — This is the famous lecture given by Erwin Schrödinger in 1943 at Trinity College in Dublin.

While we live, we defy the logic and order of the universe.  We defy entropy and we defy chaos.  We defy all the known laws of existence.  On this planet, third from the Sun in a not so unique solar system in one of a zillion galaxies in perhaps one of a zillion universes, life has sparked.  Was it electricity, solar energy, geothermal heat, magnetic waves, primal radiation, DNA or will power?  What was the key which created animation from inanimate matter?

Genetics pioneer J. Craig Venter announced Thursday that he and his team have created artificial life for the first time.  Using sequences of genetic code created on a computer, the team assembled a complete DNA of a bacterium, then inserted it in another bacterium and initiated synthesis, or in Venter’s words “booted up” the cell.  In a statement, Venter called the results “the proof of principle that genomes can be designed in the computer, chemically made in the laboratory and transplanted into a recipient cell to produce a new self-replicating cell,” controlled only by the synthetic genome.   Time.com: Scientist creates life.

So we have self-replicating computer cells, interesting but the snag is that they started with a living cell.  They created a new cell out of an already living cell.  Quite a feat but not the same as creating life.  If we are going to create life, it seems we must first find out what life is.  Philosophers, scientists, generals and theologians will all have a different definition of life.

Socrates:  Life is honesty. Life is integrity.  Life is the search for truth.  Life is understanding yourself.

Edwin Schrödinger:  Life seems to be orderly and lawful behavior of matter, not based exclusively on its tendency to go over from order to disorder, but based partly on existing order that is kept up.

General George S. Patton Jr.:  Better to fight for something than live for nothing.

St. Thomas Aquinas:  The soul is like an uninhabited world that comes to life only when God lays His head against us.

DNASeems kind of funny, that no one whether they are a philosopher or scientist can answer the question “what is life?”  Well, they actually do answer the question, but it really tells us little or nothing about what “life” is.  Is life some type of electricity, organic plasma, atoms with a soul, a spirit or the breath of God?  What magic elixir or unknown form of energy renders inert matter into something living, learning and loving?  We can create babies but we cannot figure out how life begins or where the will to live comes from.

“It is interesting that Hindus, when they speak of the creation of the universe do not call it the work of God, they call it the play of God, the Vishnu lila, lila meaning play. And they look upon the whole manifestation of all the universes as a play, as a sport, as a kind of dance — lila perhaps being somewhat related to our word lilt”  — Alan Wilson WattsZen and the Beat Way

I remember years ago (from biology) that it was thought that the smallest unit of life was the cell.  Bacteria were considered to be alive but viruses were in some kind of limbo.  I still don’t really understand this since viruses seem to be doing the same think humans do: Replicating, killing and dying.  Here is what they say about viruses:

Viruses, like bacteria, are microscopic and cause human diseases. But unlike bacteria, viruses are acellular particles(meaning they aren’t made up of living cells like plants and animals are), consisting instead of a central core of either DNA or RNA surrounded by a coating of protein.

Viruses also lack the properties of living things: They have no energy metabolism, they do not grow, they produce no waste products, and they do not respond to stimuli. They also don’t reproduce independently but must replicate by invading living cells.

cold-virus-virus-The above sounds like a reasonable argument to make that viruses are not “living” in the same sense that cellular creatures are.  Nevertheless, they replicate, die and seem to have some will to live or at least as much will as many humans have.  If we assume that the opposite of living is dead, viruses are certainly not dead.  If one were to ask what the “life force” in a virus was or what motivates a virus to take over another organism’s cells, one would have to know what creates life.  The same problem with defining the life force in humans applies to viruses.

“For about 100 years, the scientific c community has repeatedly changed its collective mind over what viruses are. First seen as poisons, then as life-forms, then biological chemicals, viruses today are thought of as being in a gray area between living and nonliving: they cannot replicate on their own but can do so in truly living cells and can also affect the behavior of their hosts profoundly. The categorization of viruses as nonliving during much of the modern era of biological science has had an unintended consequence: it has led most researchers to ignore viruses in the study of evolution. Finally, however, scientists are beginning to appreciate viruses as fundamental players in the history of life.”  — http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/are-viruses-alive-2004/

So, where does that leave us with the initial question “What is life.”  I think the answer must remain we don’t know.  Is it willpower?  Is it a germ that we have not found yet?  Is it some chemical that when mixed with something else creates animation and sentience?  Is it some mysterious force in the universe that we have not yet identified?  Why are animals alive and rocks dead?  Could this mysterious force create “living rocks.”

I promised an answer to the 12 greatest mysteries of all time when I started this series of blogs.  In each one to date, I have attempted to provide some sort of an death-07answer.  Until now, I was fairly happy with my responses to each question.  This ninth question has me stumped.  I cannot think of any place to find an answer.  What makes life for humans may not be the same thing that makes life for a virus or a bacterium.  Goats and dogs might have very different definitions of life but seldom write books or poems about their feelings.   We may someday find out how to extend life but I think we are a long way from finding out what creates life.

“To be alive, it seemed to me, as I stood there in all kinds of sorrow, was to be both original and reflection, and to be dead was to be split off, to be reflection alone.”  ― Teju ColeOpen City

Time for Questions:

What do you think creates life?  Do you think humans will ever be able to create life? Why or why not?  What do you think living means?  Do you live to the fullest or do you take life for granted?  What is the secret to your life?  If you could redo one thing in your life, what would it be?

Life is just beginning.

“The beginning is always today.”  ― Mary Shelley

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