What I Learned About a Meaningful Life From a Hamster

Hubble Space Telescope image of Westerlund 2 cluster and its surroundings. What artist could do better?

Imagine that the chair you are presumably sitting in right now suddenly started shaking. Before you have time to react it starts rising, lifting you high into the air. If you were watching this scenario unfold from a nearby vantage point you would see that your seating had begun to morph into a cartoonish monster with bulging eyes, a blobby torso, and—oops!—a growling mouth right where you are sitting.

uh oh!

As you reach outwards the monster swallows you inwards and you slide down its slimy, narrow monster-esophagus for what feels like ages until you spot a pinprick of light in the distance which grows larger and larger. Finally it fills your field of view until you burst through it and land with a splat onto a sidewalk of a skyscraped city-center. There are weird people with suits and briefcases bustling to their jobs, and now you have a decision to make: In this moment, do you say: “Well, I guess I need to get cleaned up and find a well-paying job” or do you say “What the heck is going on, where am I, who are these people, why am I here??”.

I would posit to you that we are all in nearly the exact same situation now, only instead of a monster’s esophagus it was our moms’ birth-canal. We never got the opportunity to ask these questions when we were born, but that doesn’t make them any less relevant. In fact, I think the only rational response to our situation properly understood is one of what-the-heck-is-happening confusion and wonder.

In many self-help articles and existentialist writings you can read about how life has no inherent meaning. This fortunately false idea stems from the fact that we are all very confused about being popped into existence, and all of the explanations given thus far seem to be questionable at best.

Roman copy in marble of a Greek bronze bust of Aristotle by Lysippos, c. 330 BC

Aristotle was confident he had explained it: We are born to fulfill our telos (the Ancient Greek word for end-goal or purpose) which is endowed to us by nature; rocks fall to the earth because nature endowed them with a telos to be at the center of the universe and humans try to be happy because nature endowed us with that telos.

But then we discovered gravity and heliocentrism and that humans are actually the result of billions upon billions of lifeforms competing and dying and living seemingly at random with no aim or purpose other than that they got lucky enough to be born with specific, lifeless genes that allowed them to reproduce better. All of that made Aristotle’s whole premise that nature was thoughtful and benign rather than arbitrary and uncaring seem less likely. If we are the result of accident and chance, how can we be meaningful?

The religious were confident they had explained it: “Not nature, but God!” they said. God made the entire universe for us! If that doesn’t make us meaningful, what does? For instance we are the center of the universe—darn it Copernicus!—Okay, well we are at least innately superior to all other lifeforms by virtue of our divine origins—darn it Darwin!—Okay, well we…

After several centuries of these kinds of blows, the religious claims to meaning have begun to appear more like inventions than discoveries. God himself has started to exist only in an ever-shrinking pocket of domains science has yet to provide adequate answers for—the big bang, the origins of life, etc.. However, even in these last few fortresses of hope, “I don’t know” is laying siege to the persuasiveness of “God”.

Photo by Calvin Craig on Unsplash

All of these fallacious explanations filled with unwarranted confidence have taught us that all the world was mad in the past; humans always thought they were meaningful, but every source of meaning they proposed proved to be fantasy. The solution is apparently not to correct the mistakes and really be right; rather it is not to think you are meaningful at all. Thus we arrive at the nightmare of pervasive purposelessness most people inhabit today.

What is baffling to me about this pessimistic vision of meaninglessness is how sorely it misses the point of the whole debate. Although they understood themselves to be arguing about whether meaning existed, Aristotle and Christianity were actually arguing about where meaning comes from.

Meaning is an adjective describing a particular kind of human experience, not a noun endowed to us by some outside agent be it nature or God. When these sources were expelled as realistic candidates, the experiences of their adherents didn’t retroactively not happen. They still experienced the meaning they claimed! They were just confused about its source.

The problem of meaning with regards to humans is the same as the problem of meaning in linguistics. In linguistics, nobody doubts that somehow whenever I say the sentence “The brown dog chased the frisbee in the park” I meant something with my words which you understood.

The question is how this remarkable feat occurs, not whether it exists at all. It would be absurd for a linguist to claim that “if you say that my linguistic theory of how words have meaning is wrong then you must be claiming that there is no meaning in language at all!”

And yet, when we say that this religion or that philosophy doesn’t appear to have any evidence in support of it, we receive the accusation that we must therefore think there’s no meaning in life. Of course not! We’ve just felt it when we helped that person or overcame that struggle or saw that awe-inspiring thing. We are simply saying that your explanation doesn’t adequately explain the phenomenon.

As a child many of Harold’s friends mistook him for a potato. It is a very sore subject for him.

Imagine a poetic hamster named Harold who has an active imagination. He believes that his hamster wheel is a supernatural portal that transports him to a rolling green pasture each time he runs on it. “How lucky am I”, he says, “that I was chosen to receive this incredible wheel!”. But then through some scientific investigation he finds out that he was wrong and sings this song:

“If a hamster wheel is just a hamster wheel,
then maybe I’m just a hamster
and not something fancier
like I dreamed…

If a hamster wheel is just a hamster wheel,
and not a grazing pasture
then what was it I was after
that whole time?

If it made me feel significant
it wasn’t the wheel, it was my predicament!
That I have this power I don’t even know

The hamster wheel is inanimate
it was me, the way I handled it!
that made me feel so meaningful

And so if a hamster wheel is just a hamster wheel,
then perhaps it’s not the universe
which bestows meaning onto us
but rather we the universe.”

My guess for the truth about meaning is that we are all Harold the Hamster. It may be the case that we are bathing in mystery and confusion on many subjects, and that this will always be our destiny. But whether we experience that as depressing or meaningful is up to us. We don’t have to wait for some external force to tell us how to feel. Personally, I find it wonderful that the universe will always be much richer than our ability to understand it.

“There are two extremes to worry about. One is the extreme in which everything is known and there’s nothing left to do. The other is where everything is so complicated you can never begin to do anything. We are lucky to live in a universe where there are laws of nature and things to discover, but they’re not impossibly difficult, so we can understand them to some extent. But they’re also difficult enough so that we’re nowhere near understanding them all. There are exhilarating discoveries yet to be made. It’s the best possible world.” — Carl Sagan

As for what I’d do if I was swallowed up by the monster and transported to that bustling city; I’d find a friend and start figuring out what I could. Most importantly, no empirical fact I discovered could ever remove my gratitude and wonder at being able to engage in the process in the first place.

Yes, all the matter within the universe, your mind, your friend will eventually form dark, solitary, cold black holes which will themselves pass into oblivion, like you, untold. And yet, today the sun is shining. I am smiling. Or I’m not, and the dark sky is incommutable—either way, both are beautiful.

Studying Political Philosophy at UT Austin | Interested in the origins, philosophy, and science of earthly happiness and morality. | www.tarekzaher.com

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