Self-Organization and the 'Meaning of Life'
In my writings on pantheism, I have often offered a short but thought-provoking maxim - "the meaning of life is Life itself." In this article, I hope to explore some of the reasoning behind such a vague but intuitive statement, and the possible implications for a pantheist worldview.
Can it be said that life has any meaning? In the most general sense, most pantheists tend to believe that the answer is no. This stems from the fact that pantheism tends not to accept any one overarching purpose for life and existence in the fashion that traditional theists do - we find it difficult to believe in any entity which would be capable of imbuing such a universal purpose. If the Universe is self-contained and self-creating, as science suggests that it is, there can be no purpose-giver external to existence which could grant to it singular meaning and purpose.
While this conclusion is logically sound, it is not necessarily attractive to the human mind. Our evolution has left us with a mental structure which seeks causes for effects, purposes for events, and meanings for phenomena. It is simply our nature to seek out these explanations, to give order to our experiences, and to make sense of it all. If it is true that the Universe has no external purpose, where does that leave the pantheist? He or she is as human as any other member of our species, and the thirst for meaning will not disappear simply because it is shown to be illogical or in vain.
This is the point at which one often experiences the 'existential crisis' - the awareness that life is without any overarching purpose or meaning leads to a deep psychological confusion, because the nature of reality does not mesh with the nature of everyday experience. The existential crisis places one in the midst of a bizarre and vague sort of anguish, for all of existence seems chaotic and pointless. However, the crisis need not be unresolvable - many who experience it pass through it fairly rapidly, arriving at a point somewhere beyond the range of confusion and personal anguish. How does this journey through they eye of the storm occur?
For the pantheist, the first key lies in the crucial tenet of pantheism itself - 'the Universe is God, there is no God but the Universe.' With this in mind, we realize that expecting any external meaning or purpose to apply to the Universe is a false hope - not only do the definitions of those terms preclude their application to a self-contained whole such as the Universe, the very assumption that they should be applicable to it denies the divinity of the Universe itself. If purpose and meaning are expected to be imbued by something outside that which is taken to be God, there must be something greater than God (the Universe) capable of imbuing them. The pantheist necessarily rejects such a conclusion.
The second key lies in this question:
"If the Universe is taken to be God, what then does God do?"
And in a single word, the answer to that question is "create." The Universe, when reduced to its most fundamental level, is nothing more than a singular, infinitely creative whole in constant flux. The formless Creative Principle by which the Universe creates itself, and the product of such creation, are collectively termed 'Nature.' By viewing Nature as both the Creative Principle and the product of creation, we see that the 'Nature of Nature' is infinite creativity.
Through what natural process is self-creation accomplished? This question is of importance to the pantheist only because he or she seeks naturalistic, rational explanations for phenomena. The pantheist is not always interested in knowing exactly how something happens, but she wants to at least be sure that it can happen, in accordance with the laws of physics. Since it is assumed that a naturalistic framework is sufficient to account for all aspects of existence, the 'supernatural' is generally held in little regard by the pantheist. Because we will not settle for irrational dogma or simplistic generalizations, we are left with a need to understand how things come about. We want to know how, without violating any natural law, the Universe is able to accomplish self-creation.
The answer lies in a term similar to, but more specific than, self-creation. That term is 'self-organization' - the natural tendency of energy to structure itself through ever-increasing levels of complexity. We see this in Nature all around us every day, but it is perhaps most enlightening to view it from a historical perspective.
At the instant of the Big Bang, the Universe was, according to cutting edge physics, simply a homogeneously chaotic field of zero-mass geometries. For reasons that can only be guessed at, the nature of this field somehow caused it to become unstable and rupture, bringing into existence a flood of energy and space-time. In the millenia following, energy slowly became self-organized enough (through 'cooling') to 'congeal' into matter. Matter led to atoms, atoms to molecules, molecules to gravitationally governed dissipative structures such as stars and galaxies, and eventually to complex chemicals, organic compounds, and finally to Life.
The chronology of this process is revealing. Obviously, stars, galaxies, and complex compounds were not the pinnacle of self-organization, because they were followed by even more complex forms. To date, life is the most complex form of self-organization known in the Universe. What is more, life exhibits a crucial characteristic that sets it apart from other forms of self-organization - the ability to self-replicate. This ability allows life to carry on the process of self-organization at a highly accelerated rate, because the dynamics of biological existence (natural selection and evolution) ensure that organisms will be ideally adapted to their environments, allowing them to survive and replicate with a high degree of success.
Furthermore, as self-aware organism, the human animal has reached yet another discrete level of complexity. By mastering thought - the ability to construct internal conceptual realities and act upon the external world based upon them, we have extended our capacity to act as agents of self-organization to exponential new levels. We can consciously co-create with Nature, adapting our environment to ourselves as easily as we adapt to our environment. Armed with our thinking minds, we can re-shape entire worlds and impart self-organization to everything we encounter, transforming environments of low complexity to ones of high complexity on a grand scale. Readers may wonder, "if we are the ones consciously doing the organizing, how can it be seen as self-organization?" This is a common and valid question, but it ignores another crucial tenet of pantheism - we are integrated aspects of Nature, not separated from it. We are not only conscious organizers unto ourselves, but more importantly, we are agents by which self-organization may occur.
The sentient mind is the highest level of self-organization known in the Universe. Because of this, it can be said that 'the meaning of life is life itself' is especially true for humans. We represent the cutting edge of the Universe's 15 billion year odyssey of self-organization, so our existence is eminently self-justified within a pantheistic framework. If this sounds like circular reasoning, it must be remembered that linear reasoning can only be applied to realities which include more than one discrete entity - a criteria that the Universe taken as a whole does not meet.
It is worth noting at this point that 'the meaning of life is life itself' is a statement that applies to all life, even the potential life inherent to matter/energy. All aspects of the Universe are thus sacred, and it is not our right as sentient beings to destroy or mistreat that which our evolution has entrusted us with. Rather, it is our responsibility to understand the process by which we came about, and to recognize that such a process gives no specific mandate for dominance to any one form of self-organization, even the highly advanced sentient life form. It is not through design or purpose that we find ourselves in this exalted position, but though the inherent nature of matter/energy and its capacity to self-organize. Therefore, we have no right to view ourselves as masters, but more appropriately, we should view ourselves as keepers. Nature is the process by which the Universe brought us into being, and our fellow creations of Nature should be respected and prized as the vitally important links that they are, links without which we could not exist.
In conclusion, it seems that the all-encompassing purpose and meaning of the sort that so many people crave is not to be obtained - but an internal meaning of a very profound sort does indeed exist, for those who are willing to look to the 'Nature of Nature.' The meaning of life is life itself - for there can be no other. Shouldn't it be enough?