What is the meaning of life?
Is it a buzz kill, or the only question that matters? Is it a movie, some kind of kitsch commodity? Is it ill-posed, nonsensical, or just plain misdirected? Is it more easily answered now than a thousand years ago? Is it even thinkable? Will the answer blow minds, beggar belief, or rot souls? And what does it have to do with the mad pace of technological change around us? Why are things becoming more strange, more difficult to reckon—more meaningless?
For that matter, what is meaning, anyway? Everywhere we turn its me-me-meaning this and me-me-meaning that… Surely we know what it is.
Except, we don’t. We only pretend to. Some of us pretend so hard that we actually wager innocent lives on what, when all is said and done, amounts to no more than wishful thinking and pedestrian conceit. No one can agree on the nature of meaning because no one has a clue as to what it is. All we have are guesses, conferences where confreres confer, rallies where the religious rail. Is it really just a coincidence that those guesses uniformly flatter the souls making them? My god. My good. My meaning.
All we have are self-aggrandizing hopes. Since only fools hope against the worst and prepare for the best, I think it’s time we set the flattery aside and begin exploring the ugly guesses, the humbling possibilities. If everyone has the wrong happy answer to the question of meaning, perhaps the right answer is the horrific one. What if no one can agree because there is no such thing as meaning, at least not in any sense resembling what our fractious ancestors assumed? What if human civilization is about to outgrow choices, purposes, and values the way it has outgrown destinies and gods, enter an age that can only be conceived nihilistically?
Storytelling is my primary means of sounding these darker possibilities. The centerpiece of my project is The Second Apocalypse, the tale of a monastic outcast who rises from obscurity to shake the world. Through flawed gazes and broken hearts I try to paint a canvas as savage and sage as those rendered by my adolescent idols, Howard, Herbert, and Tolkien. I’ve lived with this story for thirty years now (!) and I’m pretty sure I’ll never have a better one to tell. “Perhaps the best fantasy series written in the past decade…” The Atlantic.com recently declared. And I’m just getting to the interesting bits now.
Three Pound Brain is my secondary means of sounding these questions, a kind of philosophical scrapbook where I try to make theoretical sense of what seems to be happening—the nature of the biological, social, and technological processes behind our ongoing ‘semantic apocalypse.’ You don’t have to be a philosopher or SF writer to know that something profound is afoot: Even as ‘smart technologies’ populate our world with counterfeit agency, cognitive scientific research and big data are drawing back the curtain on our own personhood, rendering us more machinic. Some of the troubling answers I explore have been showcased on CBC’s Ideas, as well as published in Nature (with Eric Schwitzgebel) and The Journal of Consciousness Studies (forthcoming).
R. Scott Bakker
March 26th, 2016