The Meaning of Life

I wrote the below Thursday. The Internet was meant to be getting set up in our flat in Maastricht that same day, but now has been delayed a week. -- JB

I woke up sad today, which is particularly strange because I'll be seeing Will tonight. In fact, I'm writing this on the Eurostar; right now I'm in the chunnel. It was a beautiful morning and the sun was coming in the windows in our beautiful Georgian front rooms. I had a couple of hours before the train so I went to a coffee shop with free wireless (our Internet still hasn't arrived -- late in both countries.) And I found out that KC's wife had died of leukemia, leaving him with two nearly-grown sons.

KC & his sister Krissy used to live across the street when we were growing up in Carol Stream. He was very cool -- smart, funny, good toys, a pitcher in little league. And he let me play with him & his other (male) friends. He was the natural leader on our block from the age of 5-10, when his family moved away.

We didn't keep in touch. One summer when we were all in highschool Barb's & my parents decided to go visit his parents. KC looked totally different -- he'd taken up wind surfing. (Krissy looks the same today as she did when we were growing up.) But after a little while it was all the same as it had been five years earlier -- running around catching snakes & riding bikes. I think I finally got my favorite books back from Krissy she'd taken with her when she moved. But that was it. Life is pretty arbitrary when you are a kid, because you just get warped into contexts by your parents. Maybe it's different now with email & IM, but I kind of doubt it -- being a kid is very much about being where you are.

I think the most recent time I'd heard of KC was when I was about 25, and apparently the people who made my very favourite software product of all time (center line / saber C -- the best IDE I've ever used) put something I'd said on the box of their product. The company didn't tell me, but KC apparently saw it on the box & asked his mother if it was the same Joanna Bryson, and his mother asked mine. And then a few weeks ago we friended on facebook, but he hasn't been at all active there. Now I know why.

I suppose when you are over forty (& you spend too many nights alone) you are likely to think about not just what you want from life, but life in general. Will's grandmother has been hospitalised, and it was hard to write a letter to her, because as far as I know she mostly watches TV anyway, so I'm not sure how much things have changed, though I suppose she must not like having the strange people around. I've been hospitalised a couple times, but I never really minded very much. I guess it's part of my general neophilia -- it all involved lots of anesthetic and weird new things happening. Besides, I like fixing things or having them fixed, and so far it has always been positive outcomes. I hope Nan is entertained by my card; she seems generally to have a good sense of humour.

One of my friends recently was complaining about a committee he'd just been put on. The committee is very powerful -- well, over some people's careers, not really over fundamental decision making at his institution. My friend was appalled by the people on it seeming to just be revelling in the exercise of power. I have noticed that for some people just exercising power, or exerting dominance, seems to be one of their hobbies. Like lying to the face of a subordinate, when both sides knew they were lying & that the subordinate couldn't really do anything. I can see enjoying the power to do something useful, but in general I like fixing things (as I said) and I'm always happy if that turns out to be easy. I can't understand how just asserting the obvious ("I'm more senior than you", well duh, it says that on the website) can give anyone pleasure. And anyway, of the things that do give you pleasure, why waste time on the ones that don't really accomplish anything further? Personally, there are tons of things I enjoy, but I try to do the ones that are going to give me or someone else some utility at some point.

Noticing this thing about some people & power (and perhaps it's bizarre I only noticed this so late in life) has given me a slight edge in that it's helped me to be able to anticipate (if not truly understand) some people's behaviour. And how to make them happy -- by saying "oh yes, why look, you are very powerful indeed." It all reminds me a bit of Elizabeth Taylor's scenes at the end of "The Taming of the Shrew" -- you don't believe for a minute that she believes her own lines, yet what's clear is that she has learned how to get along.

This posting is only dancing around the topic of life, but in a way that's the only way such topics can be addressed. Once a Christian said to me "I don't know how you can be an atheist, because if I didn't know all these people were going to burn in hell I'd go nuts." More recently someone asked me to toast the defeat of mutual enemies. I told him about Kurt Vonnegut's line in the forward to one of his books (Slaughterhouse Five?) Vonnegut's father was dying, and so Vonnegut was visiting him, and his father asked "why are there no villains in any of your books?" And Vonnegut said "It's something I learned at University of Chicago, Dad. After the war." I went to University of Chicago too. I don't think there are enemies, just people you can trust more and less. Will has my favourite line in enemies though. I was referring to someone as a friend who had been one, but Will knew this guy had treated me badly (professionally). And I said "I'm not sure what to call him now." and Will said "I believe the technical term for a friend who stabs you in the back is `enemy'". I don't know though, the trust thing seems like a more useful distinction. But anyway, the point of this is that power gives you control over some things and not others. You can damage or assist other people's careers, but you can't entirely anticipate what the consequence will be for you or for them. You can affect but not eliminate aging and disease.

Since I got further into biology, I think about life all the time. I'm actually working with a biologist on natural selection for aging, or put another way, on what determines lifespans. Given that a particular environment can only support so many of any particular kind of species, does it make more sense for those individuals to be old or young? If it weren't for cognition, I think the answer would be "young", because the faster you reproduce, the faster you can evolve, and therefore the more able you are to adjust to the fact the world and your ecosystem are always changing.

However, cognition (and other kinds of individual plasticity) gives you an option. Essentially, before you reproduce, you can gather quite a lot of data, and that might be used to affect what kind of children you have. This way, although you reproduce less frequently, the change that happens in the next generation is more informed, and thus maybe you can evolve just as quickly. This is a controversial idea, though with some evidence -- it's called "maternal effects", and is also related to the Baldwin Effect. Of course, all this requires evolving the capacity to change your offspring in response to your environment, and that also takes generations and therefore time. Life had gotten more & more complex, and all kinds of things are happening with it now that wouldn't have when life was younger and simpler. Life could be more complicated still, and most likely will become so. But there will always be at tradeoff. Different species have different optimal life spans, because of their particular niche --- the set of tradeoffs their ancestors wound up falling in to. But so long as there is death there needs to be birth, and so long as there is birth there will generally be an advantage to having newer configurations of genes.

Possibly, if you happen to be in a species where you not only affect the gene expression of your offspring, but can actually alter their behaviour through teaching them, then you might really be on to a new thing. This is called culture, and some people think culture is a new form of evolution. Of those people, some of them (like me) think of the two evolving systems as mostly complimentary & interacting. But some people think culture is the new big deal, and that biological evolution will be left in the dust. Some subset of these people think that ideas & culture are more important than bodies & children, and that they would be happier to have their behaviour in machines that "live forever" than to stay animals. One of the terms for this is "AI Heaven" -- the idea you can offload your mind to a computer and become immortal. I honestly know people who think this.

Some people who don't believe in AI Heaven still do believe that we can pass our culture on to robots, making them as important as we are, and again making our society (if not themselves) immortal. We could build intelligent self-replicating space ships that would outlive the sun. I've been writing papers recently saying this is stupid. But I have to admit, I'm not certain. That's one of the things about being a scientist -- no, two of the things. First, you should never be certain of anything. Second, you should act anyway.

I have sympathy with the idea that culture matters more than an individual life -- that's why people fight in wars. But I'm not sure that culture matters without any life. At least, our culture is so dependent on our lives, on our being a particular kind of animal with aesthetics and needs rooted in our biology. What would it even mean to give that to robots? Let alone, what would be the utility of doing so.

When I try to decide what to do every day, I balance the things I should do in order to keep having the choice (things related to maintenance, like house work & keeping my job), the things I think I should do because they are useful or important, and the things I should do because the matter to me aesthetically. You can't easily separate these actually -- maintaining the aesthetic pleasure in life also keeps me working as well as a primate like I am can, so I can do the other things that I'm obliged to do. I take aesthetic pleasure in parts of my job like teaching & science as well as in art and "pleasures of the body".

I'm not sure if this is meaning, so much as a formula -- a formula for keeping things going. And the formula keeps changing the more I learn, and as my body changes -- the older I get. But anyway, some people think that's the definition (if not the meaning) of life -- a formula that keeps itself going.