How do I find meaning, beauty, and purpose in life? This question has been asked of me many times over the last few years. Considering the fact that I come from a conservative culture, many people still wonder how one can not label himself after a theological doctrine. Being a ‘non’ is still scandalous for many people, who cannot imagine how someone can get morals or the desire to be good without a punishing (and rewarding) deity, even for someone like me who is a deist without following any organized beliefs. This week’s detection of gravitational waves is a good time to explain how I find meaning, beauty, and purpose in life.
All of us, and everything we know, come from the stars and supernova. The nuclear core of a star can only create elements up to iron, and any higher elements (including basic elements in our body like zinc, copper, or iodine) come from the extreme energy created when a star explodes as a supernova. To paraphrase Carl Sagan – we are all stardust, born in the cosmos from some of the most violent events in the Universe. When compared to the history of the universe, we are a very young species. Heck, we are extremely young when it comes to life on Earth. Our civilization is only about 10-12 thousand years old. Not too long back we used to sacrifice virgins to seek favors from the gods. Today we can detect gravitational waves. We can fly into space; we can create organs in the laboratories; we can detect viruses; we can predict hurricanes. Science now has explanations for which women were once burned and killed. It is amazing to know how far we have come as a species, but it is even more humbling to think about how far we have to go – how much we have to change, improve, and learn about reality and our universe.
We come up with beliefs when we have no other way of explaining nature. We came up with rituals and incantations when meteorology or medicines weren’t available to us. The universe has had 14 billion years to evolve. Our planet and life itself has had nearly 4 billion years to evolve. In a quantum universe with infinite probabilities, any outcome is possible (steering clear of parallel universes in this essay!). We are just one of those outcomes, selected by nature through trial and error. Natural selection keeps improving us, but we still aren’t perfect. I find that to be beautiful and humbling. Through billions of years of trial and error, we have developed concept of love and empathy. Not just us, even other species have evolved to have emotions. We aren’t even the only hominid species to have evolved. Others have come before us who have gone extinct – others with their own rudimentary beliefs about themselves and the afterlife. The fact that they have gone extinct makes me appreciate our existence even more. It makes me want to work hard to make sure our species survives any natural or self-inflicted calamities.
Yesterday we would call people ‘crazy’. Today we have a greater understanding of mental illnesses. We are trying to treat depression by balancing chemicals in the brain. We are learning about microbiota and how it affects our health and body. Despite all the advances we have made in science, we have barely scratched the surface. If we look back and see how far we have come from superstitions, we should be able to appreciate how far we will go in the future. We are not limited to our present. One of the debates I have had with friends over last 5-10 years is about social progress. Many think the beliefs/practices/understanding we have today is how it will be forever. Yet the same people have progressed a lot in the last few years. Doctrinal beliefs had made them homophobic and they had strict ideas about gender roles. Yet today most of them have changed. Unfortunately, the idea still persists that how the world is today will always be in the future. That is something I am trying to change. If we can only see how far we have come as a species, we should not limit ourselves to the past or the present. The future will not be what it is today. And that idea is humbling to me.
When we consider our place in the universe, our parochial attitudes and differences feel too small. Many of our beliefs feel too small. We are more than our regional allegiances. We are more than our beliefs, race, ethnicity, or nationality. In the vast arc of time and history, we are all one and the same. We all came from the stars, and we are all going to the stars. Isn’t that information humbling? We belong to the human race. We share the same building blocks of life with every living being on planet Earth. Life has survived through extinction events. Life from this planet has the potential to spread in the galaxy. Considering we are designing artificial chromosomes, would it be shocking if we in the future become ‘gods’ and create different building blocks of life itself?
I have a Hindu Brahmin background, and I was quite religious most of my life. I believed I was quite special, that my Best Friend Upstairs was listening to me and doing everything for me. Childhood was good times, living in a happy and protected bubble. Religion, prayers, meanings, and purpose was a lot about me, me, and me. In a way similar to Buddha, growing up and seeing reality started changing things. I remember telling someone 10-11 years back while I was still very religious, that “I am not interested in heaven until hell is empty and everyone is in heaven”. The notion of eternal damnation was unacceptable to me. Finally, seeing all the suffering in the world, especially of children, knocked me off the notion that everything in the world was just, fair and that everything had a divine purpose. I got to realize how lucky I have been where I was in life and how much I have in life. There are adults and children who have known nothing but misery and abuse. Parents bury their kids. Children are born with painful deformities. Old people die in pain and neglect. With so much suffering in the world, I felt very guilty and selfish in my beliefs. Just because things were great for me doesn’t mean it must be great and fair everywhere. Whenever I hear “there is a reason behind everything”, I ask – what is the reason a child is sexually abused for years? If a leaf cannot move without the will of a deity, what is the reason a child would suffer that torment? Around this point in my life, religion was no longer about me. It was about what was good for everyone throughout space and time. And with countless dead and living religions, and every person having their own interpretations of the same doctrine, there were no singular meanings or purpose to existence.
Yet we as a species have evolved to ask questions about our place in the universe. Every indigenous group in every corner of the planet came up with their own beliefs. Despite what science can answer, and we have unimaginable years of scientific discovery ahead of us, there are questions about the natural world that we can never answer. For some people the universe has always been, without any creator or reason. For many others, god is the reason for everything. But neither can answer – why is there something rather than nothing? Even if we invoke a deity, ‘why is there a god?’ cannot be answered. For me personally, god is the end-answer to why is there something. I know that doesn’t answer who made god. But all of us will reach a point where we cannot answer why is there something rather than nothing. I have seen and learned enough about the natural world and life around me that belief in a personal god has become impossible. Such ideas seem childish to me, like it did to Albert Einstein. And I don’t even know how to explain a god. Maybe the universe or multiverses itself are god. These spiritual questions can never be answered. And even if we have figured out the function of every pathway in the cell and every neurotransmitter, even if we can design a human being on a computer and build it in a lab, we will always have these spiritual questions about the meaning of our existence.
The difference between science and organized religion is that science cannot provide black and white answers. Our technology and knowledge of the universe is still too rudimentary. And in a quantum universe with infinite possibilities, it is impossible to come up with “reasons” for something. Yet our brains haven’t evolved to accept probabilistic answers. We desire Truth. We want Yes or No. We want to know what works and what doesn’t. In a universe governed by random errors and mutations, by probabilities and chances, giving absolute answers about the natural world is impossible. Such answers might feel hollow when we crave certainty. Yet, isn’t it humbling and beautiful to see how small we are in the vastness of the cosmos, how small we are to come up with absolute answers? I certainly consider myself lucky that I exist, even if I don’t know why. I consider myself lucky to be able to experience reality, friendships, love, kindness, compassion, and laughter. Considering my uncertainties about any afterlives, I feel a great obligation to fight for justice, equality, and human rights. Knowing how lucky I am to be alive, I have tremendous motivation to treat everyone right. Any and all negative emotions aren’t worth it anymore. Hatred, bitterness, and jealousy is a waste of emotions and time when we only have this one life. I cherish every moment that I am with someone, knowing I might not see them again. When justice is uncertain in an uncertain afterlife, it is paramount to fight for justice today. It has become extremely important to understand the human body so we can have a world without mental illness and pain and suffering in this life, not a hypothetical afterlife. Reducing human beings, their emotions, and ‘sense of self’ to neurotransmitters, epigenetics, genes, and environment might take away the sense of ‘specialness’ we have about ourselves. And I accept that scientific reductionism isn’t for everyone. But my emotional pain and intellectual pursuits over past 10 years has led me on a path where it is less important to feel special about my personal existence and more important to understand ourselves at the molecular level. This can lead us in providing better quality of life for generations to come – for humanity and any other species.
I hope I have shown that those without any organized beliefs can still find a lot of meanings and beauty in life. We aren’t dead inside nor living a life without purpose. Our morals come from having a sense of empathy. I care about the happiness and suffering in this life. The scientific method has brought a lot of understanding to our lives and our place in the universe. If we look at the exponential growth of discoveries over the last few decades, just imagine where we are going to be a few hundred or thousand years from now. I hope we can come to an acceptance that whether we are theists or atheists, agnostics or deists, or whatever else we want to define ourselves – that all of us are capable of finding meanings, purpose, and beauty in life. I hope it will lead to all of us accepting each other for who we are because we are all on the same path to the same place. We are all evolving in our beliefs and values. So let us accept each other and support each other – our friends and parents, children and spouses, and everyone else. Let us celebrate and accept our differences, knowing no one has the right answer, yet everyone has something to teach us.