In the End

IN THE END, there is silence. There is nobody left to record what there is, nor is there anything left to record. In the vast emptiness of the cosmic void, our sun, bulging, will come to engulf the Earth. It will continue to expand, until, running out of fuel, it will die. As stars that once lit the universal ceiling flicker out, one by one, there is dread. As black holes, the final refuges of interstellar travellers, vaporise into inexorable nothingness, there is silence. Nothing works, nothing remains. It is the Heat Death of the Universe, although some clever physicists would rather prefer to call it “thermodynamic equilibrium.” The temperature is the same, everywhere, all at once. There is also no more matter—not that it would matter, of course.

Although it seems counterintuitive that matter itself could self-destruct, there is a hypothesis in physics circles that speculates on a type of proton decay. As anyone who has taken even the most entry-level chemistry class can attest, matter is made of (and defined by) protons. If protons can decay, then their eventual self-destruction will take all of tangible reality with them.

Of course, there is nothing really tangible about protons, or reality, or, really, anything.

For example, consider the case that we both look at the colour red. Because we have both been conditioned growing up that the colour “red” looks “red,” we will both agree on what the colour red is. Similarly, when asked what the colour “red” symbolises, we will both have similar responses because all “red” things are “red” and so, culturally, we may both respond with ideas like blood, love, violence, or excitement. But, objectively, how would I know that what you mentalize as “red” is the same as what I mentalize as “red”? How would I know that your “red” is not my “green”? We cannot test wavelengths, because language has already taken root. Neither can we test responses. Sure, our inputs can match our outputs, and we can be content that traffic lights work, but psychologists agree that what happens during cognition is ultimately one great mystery.

In the end, what is objectivity? As humans, we are the products of millions of years of evolution. How, then, can we be sure of the objectivity of our senses? We know that our eyes have limits on wavelength, and that our ears have boundaries on frequency. As humans, this is all that we can trust. Of course, biology did not evolve humanity to be the objective observers of the universe. Biology, like most of history, is a series of happy accidents. When you look at a metal object—a subatomic sea of nuclei and electrons—you are not looking through the lens of objectivity. You are looking through the lens of biology, and biology does not care about any semblance of objectivity. Biology cares only for what survives, and so biology is the ultimate culmination of “good enough.” As George E. P. Box once said, “All models are wrong, but some are useful.”

At the end of his life, German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche is alleged to have said, “Mutter, ich bin dumm.” Of course, Nietzsche is famous not because his last words were, “Mother, I am dumb,” but because of his radical and absolutely unnerving observations on the state of 19th century philosophy. Nietzsche, observing the societal upheavals of his era, reportedly reported that “God is dead.”

God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers?

As secularism and science continued to sweep religion out of the societal picture, Nietzsche concluded that the foundations of civilization—the ideas of morality and values—would begin to crumble. After all, Nietzsche argued, morality was most often based on religious beliefs. What would happen next?

An inevitable descent into nihilism, says Nietzsche.

Nihilism, as an idea, is both inherently appealing and inherently contradictory. Of it, Nietzsche writes:

A nihilist is a man who judges that the real world ought not to be, and that the world as it ought to be does not exist. According to this view, our existence (action, suffering, willing, feeling) has no meaning: this 'in vain' is the nihilists' pathos—an inconsistency on the part of the nihilists.

How can a man believe in nothing? Nietzsche asks. After all, to believe in nothing means that you believe in something. Although such an objection seems logical, the human mind is magnificent in the ignorance of its own hypocrisy. Nihilism asks nothing of its believers. In a world with burgeoning institutions, soulless systems, and the Heat Death of the Universe, nihilism rides the wave of science. A nihilist does not care that his belief system is flawed. A nihilist only cares that, in the end, there is no meaning, and that anyone who says otherwise is only fooling themselves.

In the end, what is the meaning of life? Many will scoff at such a question—what instruments might we use to measure this supposed value of meaning? A nihilist will tell you that there is none, and that everything is simply, merely, inherently meaningless. So much for meaning. Somebody else might tell you that the meaning of life is the pursuit of happiness. Happiness—and the pursuit thereof, after all, is one of those three inalienable rights. It takes a seat in the Declaration of Independence next to both life and liberty. Who doesn’t want to be happy?

Thomas Jefferson wants to, at the very least.

In the Anthropocene, happiness has become the buzzword. Technologies (cloud) and ideologies (privacy) come and go, but “happiness” is the Capitalist’s fundamental campaign. The Capitalist will tell you that if only you bought this, or did that, or looked like this, then you would be happy. Why wouldn’t you buy this combo meal? Why wouldn’t you buy this dress? Don’t you want to be like the celebrities on television? Don’t you want to own a useless, massive, resource-draining lawn? Don’t you want to be the best?

Don’t you want to be happy?

A biologist would tell you that happiness, as a metaphysical concept, doesn’t exist. Happiness is simply the firing of neurotransmitters, honed through billions of years of evolution to reward you for doing biologically-useful things. As such, the irony of the pursuit of happiness is that, when you finally reach happiness, the happiness is long gone. Happiness is in the pursuit of happiness. To try to find meaning in happiness is to be like Sisyphus, eternally rolling boulders towards an unreachable goal.

At a chemical level, neurotransmitters like dopamine incite our wants and desires. It is in these neurotransmitters that pleasant sensations arise. Of course, the irony of dopamine is the irony of happiness. When you break it down, the campaign of the Capitalist is to hook you on dopamine. Dopamine makes you crave, but it never makes you satisfied. A chemical that satisfies is an evolutionary disaster.

So then, dopamine, the “pleasure chemical,” has become co-opted in the New Age resistance against the establishment. Dopamine has become so ubiquitous that it has wormed its way into the mainstream. People talk of “dopamine detoxes”. They think that dopamine, in the end, must be bad—it’s practically synonymous with addiction.

In the end, then, what is the purpose of the pursuit of the pursuit of happiness? And, if happiness is the vice, then what is the meaning?

Siddhartha Gautama did not live in the Anthropocene. When he first sat under a tree in India for 49 days, there were no capitalists trying to convince him to part with his money, no biologists to tell him about the dopamine neurotransmitter, and no hippies to sway him into the New Age. Of course, an argument might well be made that Siddhartha Gautama was the world’s first hippie. Siddhartha Gautama, more commonly known as the Buddha, sat under a tree for 49 days and came to the revelation of Buddhism. Nietzsche, on the topic of Buddhism, claimed that it was an example of a successful religion.

Buddhism, at its core, is built on the tenant of craving. Or, more specifically, the consequences thereof. Although we may feel happy occasionally, Buddhism argues that, in a perpetual state of pursuit, we will never actually be happy. This is because we cling to pleasant feelings, and we crave them when they disappear. Buddhism presents the pursuit of happiness not as a noble goal, but as a pointless venture. To pursue happiness is to try and save the rhythmic waves on the shore, not knowing that they must inevitably recede into the ocean blue.

Buddhism, in the end, tells us that it is not that we must fear fear or that we must seek pleasure. Instead, the only way to contentment is to detach oneself from one’s emotions. Detachment, so it seems, is the way to bliss. It is to learn to have feelings and to recognize them for what they are. When we can watch the waves without being obliged to save them, we will truely and finally be free.

In the end, there is a calmness that descends over everything. Leaves rustle in the evening breeze, overcast by the reddish-orange glow of the October sunset sky. Cars whistle by on the distant freeway. Laughter echoes—a sound that, in the mind’s eye, looks like simple things. A lively game of basketball ensues down the avenue. The hollers and bickers merge into vividness.

It’s pleasant to be alive.

As individuals in the Anthropocene, it sometimes feels as though everything is fast—too fast. The climate is changing—we are changing the climate. Every year, there is something new—something crazy, something dangerous, something unprecedented. We live in a world where the most conventional life is to be a cog in the machine of bureaucracy. A hulking machine that, itself, is being more and more threatened with each passing year. Change incites the brakes, but this is a machine that has no brakes. The machine is all of us, and that all of us is divided. It is more important now than ever to find that meaning, whatever meaning means for you. Knowledge has given us nihilism, but now is not the time to despair. We can ride the wave of life, and watch the Greatest Show on Earth.

Robert Frost once wrote: “Like a piece of ice on a hot stove, the poem must ride on its own melting.”

So it is with poems, in the end, so it is with us.

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