How trivial seemed the history of the gods to what [Prometheus] now heard of the history of men! Were these indeed the beings he had known…. to whom he had given fire and whom he had taught memory and number, for whom he had “brought the horse under the chariot, and invented the sea-beaten, flaxen-winged chariot of the sailor?” And now, how poorly showed the gods beside this once wretched brood!
— The Twilight of the Gods and Other Tales, Richard Garnett, 1903.
Gilgamesh, Whither Rovest Thou?
We humans have long been haunted by the awareness of our own mortality. One of the best examples can be found in the ancient Epic of Gilgamesh. Here the man-god and tyrannical ruler of Uruk, Gilgamesh, goes off in search of the secret to eternal life after his closest (and only) friend the wild-man Enkidu falls sick and dies. The alewife Siduri, who seems to harbor amorous feelings towards Gilgamesh, sensing that this is a futile quest, attempts to dissuade him, telling him to enjoy life in words that foreshadow those of the Philosopher in the Book of Ecclesiastes:
Gilgamesh, whither rovest thou?
The life thou pursuest thou shalt not find.
When the gods created mankind,
Death for mankind they set aside,
Life in their own hands retaining
Thou, Gilgamesh, let full be thy belly,
Make thou merry by day and by night.
Of each day make thou a feast of rejoicing,
Dance and night dance thou and play.
Let thy garments be sparkling and fresh,
Thy head be washed, bathe thou in water.
Pay heed to the little one that holds thy hand,
Let thy spouse delight in thy bosom,
For this is the task of mankind.
Naturally, Gilgamesh refuses to listen to Siduri and pushes on with his perilous quest. But even though he does find a plant that has the ability to make the old young again, he manages to lose it. So his quest ultimately ends in failure.
In a similar vein to Siduri, Albert Camus, the famous French-Algerian existentialist thinker and author, depicted human existence as a futile labour of Sisyphus. For daring to defy the gods, Sisyphus was condemned to roll a large boulder up a hill only to watch it roll back down, and he would have to repeat the task over and over again, for all eternity. Similarly for man, according to Camus, the realization that he is destined to die makes a mockery of life. In fact, Camus put the matter quite starkly in his most famous work, The Myth of Sisyphus:
There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest—whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories—come afterwards. These are games…. the meaning of life is the most urgent of questions.
Camus admired the “absurd hero” who chooses to live with optimism (rather than commit suicide or “give in”) while recognizing that life, or the quest for any higher meaning or purpose to life, is ultimately futile.
Ultimately, Camus’ philosophy is very much like Siduri’s counsel to Gilgamesh. And it boils down to this. There is no meaning or purpose to life outside of life itself, and that is destined to end. We just have to accept this fact and live our lives as though none of that mattered. In our view, this is ultimately a philosophy of despair and surrender which is based on a view of human existence as a closed circle with Sisyphus rolling the rock to the top of the hill only to watch it roll down again. We believe that the human journey is an open-ended and not a closed-ended affair, and that there’s a good chance that the fate of our species lies not in the hands of the gods but in our own hands!
Behold, We Are Sun Gods!
Going about our daily lives, we rarely give much thought to that giant yellow object in the sky we call the Sun. However, ever since the beginning of civilization, we humans have worshipped sun-gods and goddesses who represented the Sun itself or one of its attributes. For instance, the Mesopotamians and ancient Egyptians worshiped Shamash and Ra, the Romans worshipped Sol Invictus, and the Aztecs sacrificed humans to the sun god Tonatiuh believing that without human sacrifice Tonatiuh would refuse to move through the sky, plunging the world into total darkness.
Then came that day of singular significance in the history of our species. On the 16th of July, 1945, in a stretch of desert ominously named Jornada del Muerto (which may be loosely translated as The Place of Death), the first test of an atomic bomb was conducted by the United States Army. As a ghastly white glare filled the desert, the enigmatic genius J. Robert Oppenheimer, who was there to witness the test in his role as the scientific director of the atomic bomb project, the so-called Manhattan Project, recalled the words of the god Vishnu from the Bhagavad Gita: “If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the sky, that would be like the splendor of the Mighty One.” And then as he watched the sinister, giant mushroom cloud rise above the desert, Oppenheimer was reminded of another line from the Gita: “I am become Death, the shatterer of worlds.”
The idea of the atom was first proposed by the Greek philosophers Leucippus and Democritus nearly 2,500 years ago, but they could never in their wildest dreams have imagined that we would one day be able to “shatter the atom at will” (to borrow a phrase from Einstein). Yet, on the 16th of July, 1945, we managed to do so!
But as amazing as the splitting of the atom was, something even more incredible was on its way. The hydrogen bomb. Unlike an atomic bomb which works on the basis of nuclear fission (splitting an atomic nucleus into two or more smaller pieces), the hydrogen bomb works on the principle of nuclear fusion. In this process two or more atomic nuclei are joined or fused together to form a single heavier nucleus, a process which is accompanied by the release of vast amounts of energy, surpassing the amount of energy released by an atomic bomb. What’s more, the process of nuclear fusion is the same process which powers the sun and every other active star. Hence, it wouldn’t be too much of an exaggeration to describe the hydrogen bomb as a miniature sun, albeit an unstable one that doesn’t last very long. This means that every time we detonate a hydrogen bomb we create a miniature if short-lived sun. Our ancestors worshipped the sun. Now we are the sun gods!
But as astounding (and frightening) as our ability to manipulate as elemental a part of nature as the atom is, we have gone even further by building a device which is without doubt one of humanity’s crowning achievements. This is the Large Hadron Collider. With this device we hope to simulate the conditions that existed at the very beginning of the universe itself, before atoms or the first stars were even formed. We hope this will help us answer many of the fundamental questions of physics. These are questions such as the true structure of space and time and how quantum mechanics and general relativity can be reconciled. In essence we would be digging into the deepest ontological mysteries of the universe, seeking to understand the ultimate nature of everything that exists!
Prometheus would be proud. We, the wretched brood to whom he had given fire and whom he had taught memory and number, have become sun gods and more. Yet, for all we have achieved, it seems that we are still beset with a sense of existential gloom. Indeed we are all too ready to dwell on the apparent futility of existence, our shortcomings, and all the things that are wrong with the world. But such wallowing in weltschmerz seems to ignore the unprecedented possibilities now open to us. At the same time we have also entered into a new world, vastly larger, stranger, and more forbidding than anything we have known before. To help us find our way through this new world, new ways of thinking about ourselves and the world are needed as old intellectual and cultural paradigms can no longer be counted on as good guides.
Our Open-ended Odyssey
In his book, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space, the scientist, visionary and sage Carl Sagan offered his views on a picture taken from the Voyager 1 spacecraft, which shows the Earth as a tiny blue dot almost lost in the vast engulfing darkness of space. In what is without doubt one of the most stirring passages ever written, Sagan says the following:
From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of particular interest. But for us, it’s different. Look again at that dot. That’s here, that’s home, that’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species, lived there on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.
Carl Sagan meant for us to be humbled by the insignificance of our planet against the overwhelming backdrop of space. “The Earth,” he said, “is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena.” But there is also something else that could have been added. That we have a picture of the “pale blue dot” at all is thanks to human ingenuity. It was Voyager 1, a man-made object, which took the photograph of the planets of the Solar System, including the Earth, from a point 3.7 billion miles away from the Earth. This should be considered a prodigious achievement, considering that it was a mere 500 years ago when Ferdinand Magellan first circumnavigated the Earth. Now man-made objects hurtle through the vast oceans of space to other worlds. We have split the atom, unravelled the source code of life (DNA), and are now busy recreating the conditions that existed at the very beginning of the universe itself. Unwittingly, we have become like the gods we once feared and revered. But the question may still be asked, what is it all for?
As we saw at the beginning of this essay, the French-Algerian existentialist thinker Camus and the alewife Siduri in the ancient Epic of Gilgamesh, were emphatic about the ultimate futility or “absurdness” of life. For them, existence is a closed-ended affair with everything ending in death, like a punishment for a crime that we never committed and from which there is no reprieve, to paraphrase Camus. Though we accept that we may be nothing more than the accidental products of a cosmic lottery and that there may be no ultimate meaning or purpose to be found in the universe or emanating from some god, unlike Camus and Siduri we do not believe that life should necessarily be viewed as some kind of pointless Sisyphean punishment. Instead, rather than take the view that we are the victims of some cruel punishment, we can take the view that we are the creators of our own lives and the authors of our own story and that our own happiness and fulfillment is our own responsibility. Sure, we will continue to suffer and die and life will be precarious, but is the problem here the actual suffering and dying or the awareness that suffering and dying exists? We suspect that it is the latter. The awareness that suffering and dying exists seems to be something uniquely human, something that other creatures do not experience. Nevertheless, we are inclined to believe that self-consciousness and its corollary the awareness of suffering and dying, is an acceptable price to pay for that most valuable of all gifts, the gift of intelligence.
Then again there are those who might argue that intelligence is overrated and that it would probably be better if we were unintelligent creatures living in peaceful, incurious ignorance. Ultimately, this may be a matter of value judgment with no simple definitive answer. Our position is closer to that of the philosopher J.S. Mill, that it is better to be a Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied! J.S Mill goes on to suggest that were a pig capable of understanding what it means to be intelligent, it would not hesitate to give up its life of blissful ignorance! Unfortunately, as we can think of no way to put the question to a pig to see which side it would choose, we will just have to take Mill’s word for it!
In conclusion, there is no reason for humankind to succumb to despair. The central message of existentialism after all is not one of despair or “life’s a bitch, then your die,” but rather it is a message of living without illusions. Gilgamesh’s quest for immortality was predestined to fail, but it has yet to be shown that the universe has set any limits on our own quest for knowledge and mastery over the forces of nature. At any rate, no jealous god has stepped in to thwart us so far!
Talk about intelligence also requires us to distinguish between cleverness and wisdom. Cleverness is what allows us to make all the spectacular breakthroughs. Wisdom is what tells us how to use our knowledge in the most sensible and beneficial manner. Cleverness allowed us to harness the power of the atom, wisdom is what should guide the use of nuclear technology. Sadly though, while the world abounds with cleverness, wisdom has always been in short supply. Yet, if our odyssey is not to meet a premature end under a mushroom cloud or some other self-inflicted catastrophe, we need more wisdom. “[O]ne cannot have superior science and inferior morals,” observed the science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke. “The combination is unstable and self-destroying.”
Albert Camus. The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays, trans. Justin O’Brien. Vintage Books, 1955.
Richard Garnett. The Twilight of the Gods and Other Essays. John Lane, 1903. Accessed May 15, 2011. http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/10095.
Samuel H. Hooke. Middle Eastern Mythology. Penguin Books, 1976.
Carl Sagan. Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space. Random House, 1994.