From nearly the beginning, we have struggled to understand how the world around us works. But for all that we have a naturally inquisitive nature, this has never been about artless curiosity or pure research – we want to discover the mechanisms driving cause to effect. We want access to the levers of the former, and to be less at the mercy of the latter.
We want to be in control. At the very least, we want to feel like we can comprehend the landscape, and safely navigate our way through it.
Inevitably, as we posit this or that model for explaining this mysterious and frightening universe that daily reveals our utter misapprehension of and witless dependence on it, we turn to the questions of who we are, what is the meaning of our existence, what does the future hold. Marcus Aurelius, in The Meditations, touched on the centrality of this concern for us:
In a word, if there is a god, all is well; and if chance rules, do not thou also be governed by it.”
The interesting thing about this quote is the power it has to bring us all on board, to help us accept the wisdom that we will or can progress, and that we must or ought to live moral and meaningful lives.
But the question will not so easily be evaded. After all, what if chance really does rule? If it does, then why on earth shouldn’t we also be guided by it? Why shouldn’t we order our lives on the presumption that we are little other than the surplus energy thrown off by the coincidental congregation of so many particles randomly – in accordance with purely mechanical rules, but animated by chance encounters – triggering attractions, repulsions, spins, charges, and who knows or cares what else among themselves?
What if it all is really just that? What if Bach’s Goldberg Variations performed by Glenn Gould that I’m listening to as I write are, in the actual grand scheme of things, the meaningless detritus sloughing away from the quantumly chaotic meshing and unmeshing of the gears of the real world?
What if Bach’s inspiration means little more than that he happened to have been composed of this set of particles in those conditions at that particular time? What if Gould’s interpretation is little more than a pale mockery of the concept of quantum entanglement – attempting to activate it across time? And the joy I take in listening to this magic – what if it really is just that: smoke emanating from an entirely unrelated source; mirrors distorting a reality I imagine this music to be helping me divine beneath the surface of things?
That’s why Aurelius’s words are so gripping for us – even calming. Because we can’t imagine that there is no wisdom in them. There really is no reason to believe that chance rules – or, perhaps, that it inevitably always will. There is too much force in our irrepressible insistence that we do – or can – mean more than that.
In the end, we’ll all be left with little alternative but to accept whatever truth reveals itself to us – that’s not the issue here. The issue is that whatever forces are at play around us, to whatever end, and with whatever relation to us, we are able to define ourselves, to make our own meaning, and to derive and develop our understanding of value from that – to create our own landscape and chart our own course through it.
Plenty to be thankful for in that.
See you next week.