Existential Therapy from the Universe

Existential Therapy from the Universe: Physicist Sean Carroll on How Poetic Naturalism Illuminates Our Human Search for Meaning – Brain Pickings

This article is about our human search for meaning, which becomes so difficult when living with chronic pain.

When concrete accomplishments become almost impossible, I struggle to define my place in the world. When I feel really bad, I wonder if there IS a place for me in the world.

We are — as far as we know — the only part of the universe that’s self-conscious,” the poet Mark Strand marveled in his beautiful meditation on the artist’s task to bear witness to existence

Where poets and scientists converge is the idea that while the universe itself isn’t inherently imbued with meaning, it is in this self-conscious human act of paying attention that meaning arises.  

Physicist Sean Carroll terms this view poetic naturalism and examines its rewards in The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself (public library) — a nuanced inquiry into “how our desire to matter fits in with the nature of reality at its deepest levels,” in which Carroll offers an assuring dose of what he calls “existential therapy” reconciling the various and often seemingly contradictory dimensions of our experience.

By the old way of thinking, human life couldn’t possibly be meaningful if we are “just” collections of atoms moving around in accordance with the laws of physics.

That’s exactly what we are, but it’s not the only way of thinking about what we are.

We are collections of atoms, operating independently of any immaterial spirits or influences, and we are thinking and feeling people who bring meaning into existence by the way we live our lives.

We have to be willing to accept uncertainty and incomplete knowledge, and always be ready to update our beliefs as new evidence comes in

Poetic naturalism strikes a middle ground, accepting that values are human constructs, but denying that they are therefore illusory or meaningless.

Life is a process, not a substance, and it is necessarily temporary.

We are not the reason for the existence of the universe, but our ability for self-awareness and reflection makes us special within it.

Purpose and meaning in life arise through fundamentally human acts of creation, rather than being derived from anything outside ourselves.

When we look into the eyes of another person, it doesn’t seem like what we’re seeing is simply a collection of atoms, some sort of immensely complicated chemical reaction.

We often feel connected to the universe in some way that transcends the merely physical, whether it’s a sense of awe when we contemplate the sea or sky, a trancelike reverie during meditation or prayer, or the feeling of love when we’re close to someone we care about.

In human terms, the dynamic nature of life manifests itself as desire. There is always something we want, even if what we want is to break free of the bonds of desire… Curiosity is a form of desire.

We are bubbling cauldrons of preferences, wants, sentiments, aspirations, likes, feelings, attitudes, predilections, values, and devotions.

We aren’t slaves to our desires; we have the capacity to reflect on them and strive to change them. But they make us who we are.

It is from these inclinations within ourselves that we are able to construct purpose and meaning for our lives.

All lives are different, and some face hardships that others will never know.

But we all share the same universe, the same laws of nature, and the same fundamental task of creating meaning and of mattering for ourselves and those around us in the brief amount of time we have in the world.

Three billion heartbeats. The clock is ticking.   

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