Reality and Meaning


I talk a fair amount about what I don’t believe, which causes people to ask what I do believe.

Here’s an attempt at a short version.

I don’t think we know everything about reality; far from it.

I think our universe is likely to be material and mechanistic, meaning things exist and interact based on physical rules.

I doubt our universe allows for the supernatural as most people on this planet imagine it, e.g., religions.

At the grand scale of the universe I am an agnostic, meaning I have no idea about the underlying nature of reality, what came before the big bang, or whether or not we’re living in a simulation.

But at the human scale, on Earth, in the year 2000 or so, I am an atheist. I make this distinction because I am denying specific claims made by others. They’re saying these gods exist, and that they have these rules, and I say Bollocks. That’s atheism, and I’m as sure of that as I am of most anything else.

But at the cosmic scale I have no such certainty. I am an open-minded curious person who is completely open to evidence. If you told me a bunch of Mormons were running our simulation and that they were actually Gods, and you could show me their planet, I’d believe you. In short, I have no idea about the underlying nature of reality. All I mean by atheism is that I don’t believe anyone else does either. Here’s my one-word summary of my type of atheism: “Nope.”

“Hey, this one god did this and wrote this book and says you can’t eat pork!” “Nope.” That’s the root of athiesm. It exists in the context of a claim. It does not stand alone

Nobody is an atheist of the god Babbbrookamagooga, who worships Tupperware. Why? Because nobody has claimed that god is real and tried to teach it in schools. Get rid of all of that nonsense and you get rid of the atheists at the same time.

There are around 100 billion stars in our galaxy, and around 2 trillion galaxies, so, yes, I do believe in life on other planets.

Furthermore, I believe in lots and lots of intelligent life on other planets. How much? Who knows.

I think humans are, in that sense, extremely non-special, or at least we would be if we could see the totality of other life that exists.

But there’s a duality here that will keep coming up: just because something is unspecial in its uniqueness doesn’t make it unspecial in its value. Value can be added to something by someone valuing it, or—to say that another way—by appreciating it.

There doesn’t seem any way for us to have free will as most people think of it. Either things are mechanistic and determined, which gives us no freedom, or they’re random, which also gives us no freedom.

This doesn’t matter at all to me. We end up behaving as if we have it anyway. The reason the distinction matters is so that we can design our reward and punishment systems accordingly, but in a practical sense we will continue to behave largely as if we had free will.

I don’t think we know everything about reality; far from it.

I think humans are the way we are because evolution made us that way. We’re meat puppets with evolution’s fingers up our butts.

Evolution wants us to survive and have sex, so we try to do those things. Go in to any bookstore and look at the magazine rack. Those covers you see with attractive people talking about money and material belongings—yeah—all that is evolution talking.

Put another way, every single thing you’ve ever wanted is because evolution gave you those desires. You can’t decide not to like tall men if you like them. You can’t decide not to like blonde women. If you’re a deeply loving person, or like kittens, or enjoy ice cream, those are all things that came in the box.

We are—as conscious beings—some very strange consequence of evolution making lots of creatures that compete with each other.

We have all these opinions about why we believe this or that, or feel this or that way, or why we have this type of strong moral character. It’s all silly. Not really. But it is.

We are precisely what our genes and our environment made us to be. And evolution made us competitors. Competing to survive, and competing to have sex with the most and/or best mates possible. This explains every single thing you see in this world. From sailboats to hand grenades. From ice cream to doggie spas.

We are mindlessly (or mindfully if you pay attention) acting out programming that rises within us from nothingness. You want this ice cream instead of that one? Why? Hard to say, but it’s not because you decided to want one vs. the other. You don’t decide what you want. Evolution did that for you.

We are a species of competitors trying to navigate a modern world using the rules set out by evolution’s punch card programming. This is why people are often so perplexed at their own behavior. They are not the authors. None of us is.

So, if there’s no supernatural, no religion, and no gods, and evolution programmed us to be sock puppets. What do I believe? And why do I get up in the morning?

Easy answer: life is fucking amazing. We as these silly sock-puppet humans have so much capacity for curiosity, wonder, beauty, and happiness.

Do we have free will? No. Is our basic programming set by evolution to be a silly meat popsicle that competes for stuff and mates? Sure. But so what?

This is all true, but it doesn’t make ice cream taste any worse. It doesn’t make watching Netflix with the love of your life any less magical.

And that’s the word I’m using—magical.

We’re flying around a ball of burning gas, one of 100 billion in just this one galaxy. And we’re in a spiral arm next to many other galaxies just like ours. Soon Andromeda will crash into our galaxy and we mostly won’t notice because most galaxies are empty space. Plus we’ll probably all be dead.

The point is that this whole thing is so arbitrary and silly. Random physical constants create certain shaped life forms, and they end up becoming conscious for whatever reason. And now we can experience all this pain and pleasure and anguish and euphoria.

Sure, you could just take that information and become a nihilist, or a hedonist. All about you, all the time. More pleasure, more fun…why not? Nothing matters anyway, right?

Sure, at some level nothing matters.

And at some level, platinum and Rolex watches are just atoms. At some level, a smile from your lover is just an atomic configuration of cells full of bacteria and viruses.

Is that “reality”? Sure. And there’s no such thing as an airplane wing because it’s just a bunch of metal atoms.

No. A lover’s smile is more magical than a trillion suns orbiting a trillion black holes. Yes, there’s a black hole at the center of our galaxy.

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Objective reality isn’t what matters when you’re measuring…what matters. Humans are the judge of that because we’re the ones experiencing it. Objective reality is a tool we should stay tied to so that we can maintain a baseline of truth with which to run our societies, but it’s no way to have a great time at a party.

At a party, or with a lover, or with a friend, what matters is how they react to the food you made, or the joke you told, or the life-altering news you gave them. Meaning is the happiness and suffering of humans (Harris). Everything else, including “objective reality” is details.

So, what to do with one’s life.

Live. That’s what. Live. And help others do the same.

What does that mean?

It means fully embracing this silly and wonderful existence, which had little chance of happening in the first place. I mean, what are the odds? We are looking at all these stars and galaxies in our sky, and it’s a tornado of silent death and atomic violence.

Yet here we are typing on keyboards and reading what some other advanced monkey said about the same. It’s all really weird.

So rejoice!

You currently only get one life, so lean into that shit.

I have a few tenets that I really respect. First, from Bertrand Russel: “Inspired by love and guided by knowledge.” That’s a way to live a life!

Second: “Increase happiness and reduce suffering.”, by Sam Harris.

Third: “Provide value, give thanks.” by Scott Adams.

Those are pretty solid, and I generally see Stoicism as the best path to resilience that facilitates happiness and meaning. But not the subdued and boring Stoicism that you probably think of today. Stoicism isn’t about not feeling things; it’s about not feeling unnecessary things. Orgasms, smiles, and laughter are necessary things.

My approach to life is simple: figure out what you want based on knowledge of all of our building blocks—which is mostly evolutionary biology—and then build a model for pursuing those things.

For me that’s exploration of this wondrous world we live in. It’s finding all the amazing things we can do in it, and trying them out. It’s living fully. It’s explaining that world to others. For work it’s helping make that world safer. And most of all, it’s about helping others do the same!

Every part of that can fill a thousand lifetimes. Just exploring. Just enjoying. Just explaining. And just helping others do any or all of them.

I’m honored to get to spend my days dabbling in each of them, and organizing them into a life arc and methodology that helps me pursue them.

Some say that a materialist or atheistic view of the world is a hollow one. Don’t believe them. I see the world as it is—or at least as it seems to us—without any unnecessary fantasy added to make it more palatable. It’s platable as it is, even with all its quirks and flaws.

I’m ok being not far from a monkey. I like monkeys. They’re fucking glorious, and so are plants and rocks and milkshakes.

And so are you.

Embrace the world. It’s unspeakably wonderful. Embrace it and spend some of your time helping others get to a place where they can take joy from it as well.

That’s how I view reality and meaning.