Sunday, 30 November 2008

Philosophical Catharsis

As a child I yearned to know everything. I read everything I found, I remembered as much as I could, I asked every question I could think of and argued every point that did not satisfy me. I was always filled with questions and wonder, and only constant reading and asking and learning could hope to quench my thirst. Over time, I lost the obsession, but the wonder stayed, I grew more entangled in the world, and over time, decided that Science was the only discipline capable of answering questions about the world. By definition. I considered the humanities and economics as fraudulent and misleading studies, I dismissed god in a deluge of convincing and impenetrable arguments, and I enjoyed it. I rejected religion, I laughed at spirituality, I mocked the arts. I tried my very best to find in science the right attitudes to life, the universe and everything, I tried to find in science the key to happiness and fulfillment.

And this is the answer I got - there is no meaning. There is no greater purpose. We are marvelously complex self replicating, persistent structures. When we die, the structure dissolves. What we do is immaterial. The universe is too vast for us to comprehend, if we had an appreciation for its vastness and beauty, we would never have been foolish enough to think we were special. And this disturbed me not in the least, for I was young and knew that I could never die, and I delighted in the weakness of my fellows as they clung to their crutches and tried to be happy in the face of the immense insignificance and pointlessness of our existence.

I grew older, and forgot about such matters in a few years filled with the excitement and tribulations of any young adult, but the attitudes I had developed in my impetuous youth remained with me. I took random turns on the road to life and ended up doing this very interesting course bordering both science and engineering on the beautiful and lonely continent of Europe. Thus separated from my country and my friends and all else that was familiar I was forced to live with myself again, and to think and examine life. I naturally slipped into the intellectual framework I had already developed, and with further reading and thought I made it harsher and more brittle. As loneliness set in, the first signs of uneasyness began to appear. I began to wonder what I wanted to do and why, and what, if anything made sense. I grew disenchanted with politics, literature and people (since I hardly ever saw any).

Divorced from common small pleasures that make the day livable, my own life seemed meaningful only to the extent that I understood the beauty and immensity and mystery of the universe through science, and I gravitated toward that all absorbing task like a moth toward a lamp. My work - which had seemed so exciting a few months ago - began so seem impossibly dull. Every day I strained against the ties and responsibilities that bound me, I despised the mere engineering research I was constrained to do. I yearned to gaze at the stars and contemplate the worlds and realms of truth and reality beyond our experience, I yearned to delve into the secrets of space and time and chance, to contribute my little bit to my poor species' understanding, and thus spend my life doing the only thing that had any value in my scheme of things - deciphering all that surrounds us.

In effect, I had given mankind and myself a purpose and a meaning - Understanding Everything. What more worthy goal could we possibly set before ourselves ? What more could we possibly aspire to ? Nothing.

As the strain inside me grew, between the role I was blindly walking into (an engineer and a man of the world) and who I wanted to be (an observer and student of all that is) I grew more unhappy and uneasy. I hated the fact that I would die and cease to part of things, I hated the thought of leaving without understanding. I thought about loss, and about suffering, and I grew ever more strained and uncomfortable. I saw no point in the immediate and the transient, and I saw no hope of the eternal and true. I struggled to find a way to reconcile what I considered the only worthy pursuit (lofty science) and the aspirations and worldly matters I was loath to abandon.

I had (and still have) avenues leading both ways, but yesterday, I made my choice. I will be an engineer and a man of this world. I will do everything I intended to do in the confines of the society I come from and I will enjoy myself, learn and life a healthy life with enough time left over for study and contemplation. I will be happy and cease to be bothered by mortality and the pointlessness of humanity in the larger scheme of things. An appreciation of beauty (science), inward contemplation (peace) and the pursuit of worldly happiness seem to be excellent things with which to fill up the time that is given to me.

Intertwined with this immensely relieving reconciliation among the powerful forces that once threatened to pull me asunder, is a new appreciation for the value of individual contemplation. I am willing to grant the possibility that philosophical insight gained through non scientific meditation may have value, though the vast majority of "spiritual seekers" ingest and spout nonsense of the worst kind. I am not talking about insights into the universe, but insight into human life, and what one should make of it. The universe has overwhelmed me enough for me to believe that the vagrant sadhu with an honest and clear mind is just as close to the mysteries that surround us as the brilliant physicist, though they would never agree, and the scientist is far more useful and accessible to me. Beyond a certain point, science ceases to give answers, but illustrates questions with more power and beauty than anything else.

"Why does the universe bother to exist ?" I will probably never know, but on the whole, I'm glad it took the trouble, and last night, I slept peacefully after a long, long time.


Random traveler said...

You reclaimed your peace and sleep.That is most important. Keep it within you clutches...It is worthless to think on something whose answers cannot be ratified by anybody/anything.

Verbal Sot said...

I think I've been there too.

The long agonizing questions about the universe...the answers that never seem to come...the seeming futility...

And yet it's somehow worth the thought.

I've always thought the purpose of education was to open up minds to such questions - however education in our country is rarely education and generally, just training.

Shoesmith said...

Is it supposed to be a struggle or is it supposed to be easy? Are we dustmites or are we magic? Are we something in between? Black&White or all a blur of grey?

Hang on, we're free to believe what we want to believe.. and wallah! that becomes our truth!

Thanks, typing it out helped!

you prat ! said...

I too was in the same predicament only a few months ago. I too decided to stay an engineer, than become a scientist. You contemplated what you want to do with your life etc, for me the deciding factor was more predetermined - my colleging. Engineering schooling has rooted in my subconsciousness its philosophy. I believe, every time we were taught a concept, we were told what problem it was created to solve, what we could make of it, how we could solve any problems it got into. That, primarily, has taken out of me the ability to chase after 'truth' for its own sake. Engineering got me young. Result: I help but think of purpose and use. But, engineering hasn't wiped out all of the curious (almost passionate) wonder about science I had developed earlier (here I accuse IIT coaching. Rigorous probs which made you fall in love with science). So, I have accepted the fate my colleging imposed on me, and am content reading the newest articles on science. This gravitation towards science helps if one decides to go PhD, I think. You'll have to wonder and query all the same on tangible things, though not on stars and the universe.