On my daughter’s left shoulder, nicely inscribed, is the number 13 encircled with the words, Live Authentically. I had not seen the tattoo before and pointed out that I didn’t think she was the tattooing kind. She immediately told me the story behind the tattoo, which involved a lesson I had taught her when she was six years old. We were visiting San Francisco, CA and it was the first time she had stayed in a high rise hotel. While standing in the elevator she noted that there was no thirteenth floor and asked, “Daddy how come there is no 13th floor?” I explained that some hotels believe in the superstition that the number 13 is bad luck and that customers would not want to stay on a thirteenth floor. Of course, even at six years old she could count and said, “but there is a thirteenth floor.” We had a nice conversation about the silliness of it all. But what I did not know is that this conversation would stick with her the rest of her life and impact how she thought about the world. Her mother later pointed out to me that when playing sports she always chose the number thirteen. You might be wondering, as I did, how 13 and “live authentically” are connected. To live authentically is to live from within, rather than from external influences. The writer and philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson, put it this way, “accept your genius and say what you think.” If you live authentically you are creating spirit, purpose and meaning. Instead of searching for the meaning for life as if it is an entity outside of yourself like some buried treasure, you understand that the purpose of your life is to live moment to moment and in the process create meaning. As much as I love science and the scientific method, there is a kind of number 13 superstition that pervades science. It is that by reducing things to their fundamental constituents we can somehow create meaning. Yet at the same time we are reducing things to their fundamental constituents we not only lose the miracle of the whole, we actually lose meaning in the process. All of the properties and qualities of water, for example, “emerge” from the combination of hydrogen and oxygen, its constituent parts; and while great technological advances have been made as a result of understanding the chemical formation of water from its components the question of meaning still remains. Meaning itself, is an emergent property, just as the qualities of water are emergent. From the biochemical and electrochemical workings of our brain the mind emerges and from our mind emerges the search for spirit purpose and meaning. No matter how much we understand about the physical properties of the constituents of our brain, we can’t explain why it all leads to the emergent property of questioning, a sense of wonder, awe and an almost incredulousness at our own existence. Human beings are clearly “programed” to create meaning. When we wonder at our own existence and when we ask questions we are in the beginning stages of creating meaning. Let’s take the tried and true onion example to get to the bottom of meaning. Everyone is familiar with the analogy of peeling back the layers of an onion to discover the meaning of something. In science and philosophy this is known as reductionism. But as the analogy makes clear, when you are finished peeling back the layers of the onion, nothing is left and you are no closer to understanding the meaning of something than when you first asked the question. If you asked what does an onion mean, the answer is in the tears you cry when you slice it, the flavor it adds to recipes of your favorite foods, and the feel of it when you handle it. All of these qualities combine to give meaning to the onion. In fact the experience we have of everything from color to music is described by something known as “qualia”. While the color red can be reduced to electromagnetic radiation of a particular wavelength if you close your eyes and think of the color red what comes to mind is the experience of “qualia”, an indelible sensation unique to red. This experience is derived from living, it is meaning. Some of you may be thinking, so what, this doesn’t help me understand the deeper questions of the meaning of life and why we are here. Well, let’s see if we can satisfy your deeper yearning for meaning with this foundation. The natural urge to ask questions, most ubiquitous in a toddler, is the natural next step after learning to talk. The most common explanation, scientifically of why we question is that it is a survival mechanism that evolved and was selected for because those who questioned things had a selective advantage over those who did not. However, life is not only about survival and I believe “questioning” is our way of extracting meaning. Now biologist and social scientist tell us that even our deeper questions, like why do I exist? Why is there something rather than nothing? How can this all be? Even these questions according to some scientists are a survival mechanism that allows us to create myths, religions, and social systems in answer to these questions that ultimately help our species to survive. But how shallow and meaningless is a life that is only about physical survival. One well known evolutionary biologist goes so far as to conjecture that we as human beings only exists so that our genes can survive. Anthropomorphically(and to be fair, metaphorically) he calls this the, “selfish gene”. On the face of it this is silly. Yet this his how some scientists define meaning. Our proclivity to question is the first step toward completing the divine circle of Life. That is why my constant emphasis on Oneness with God. I believe we are endowed by God with the ability to ask questions. Questioning is an emergent property that leads to spirit, purpose and meaning. The ultimate question that many believe they are prompted to ask, is why, or what or who is God? Our existence is the beginning of the answer to that and the life we live yields the final answer. For that, to God be the Glory, forever and ever. Amen Dr. D.
The Meaning of Life