Monday, December 25, 2006

The meaning of life

My title is misleading. A reader might imagine that I'm using the expression in the same style, say, as a distraught individual who cries out to a friend (or a priest or a psychiatrist): “Life has no meaning for me; I’ve decided to commit suicide.” There, it’s a question of “to be or not to be”: that's to say, meaning (or rather lack of meaning) à la Hamlet, à la Albert Camus:

There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest—whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories—comes afterwards. These are games; one must first answer.

I first read those opening words of The Myth of Sisyphus when I was eighteen, out in Australia, and I was so impressed by the French Algerian-born author that I purchased several of his translated works, and even carried these books with me in my suitcases when I came to France in 1962... which was truly a case of bringing coals to Newcastle. Since then, I've totally revised my appreciation of the existentialist Nobel laureate. Like the US physicist Brian Greene [see The Fabric of the Cosmos], I’m no longer on the same wavelength—if ever this were the case—as Albert Camus. I don't, for a moment, consider that the pursuits of scientific research are mere "games" that should be put aside while an individual is deciding artistically (or otherwise) whether or not to blow his brains out. That suggestion, to my mind, is stupid, indeed grotesque. Besides, I'm not—and have never been—in the least bit suicidal. Human life on Earth—like all life in the Cosmos—is such a precious and fragile essence that one should not spill a drop of it.

The meaning of life is a clearcut affair for those who believe in Jesus... or any other divine entity, for that matter. Nonetheless, if a skull is ominously present, holding up the open Bible in this splendid depiction of Bruno in prayer (a curious visual reflection of the monk's own bald skull), this suggests that believers are constantly pursued by the gentle all-pervading presence of death, of human mortality. And this is normal. In extreme cases such as that of the Chartreux monks, whose earthly existence is characterized by a good dose of mortification, it might even be said that the global meaning of a monk’s life is to be found in the expected aftermath of his death.

But I said at the beginning that my title is misleading, since I was not referring to meaning of either the Hamlet/Camus or the Bruno kind. So, we might ask: What’s the meaning of “meaning” in my title? It’s a word whose archaic etymology is linked to the notion of mind. To look for the meaning of X is equivalent to asking: What do we have in mind when we refer to X? More precisely: What do we have in mind when we evoke the notion of living creatures such as plants, animals and Homo Sapiens?

That question found answers of a revolutionary kind in 1859, when Charles Darwin brought out a book with a long-winded title: On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. Living creatures of a successful kind share a dominant feature. [That last sentence contains a hint of a pleonasm. If a creature is living vigorously—thriving, one might say—it is necessarily “of a successful kind”. Creatures that are not successful in life simply die out. Somebody once said that commuters only complain about trains that run late, whereas nobody ever talks about all the trains that run normally on time. On the great railway of life, it’s the opposite. We only meet up with creatures that have managed to get aboard the right train. All the rest disappear during the trip, and never reach their destination.]

As I was about to say, before getting led astray into talking about trains, thriving creatures share a dominant feature: that of being highly successful in the art of procreation. Years ago, when I was working in French TV, I found myself visiting the research laboratory of a French specialist in a bizarre discipline, linked to embryology, known as teratology: the study of monsters. He showed me his vast collection of malformed fetuses and babies, displayed in big jars of formaldehyde lined up on shelves along the walls of his laboratory. A teratologist uses a vocabulary of weird terms to designate the various kinds of monsters. If I remember correctly, “acephalous” indicates that the creature has no brain, and “cyclopean” means that there’s a single eye in the center of the forehead. I was impressed by a curious remark made by the teratologist: “Nature generally ensures that the most extreme kinds of malformations give rise to a creature that cannot survive. Consequently, we don’t normally encounter many striking teratological specimens in the everyday world around us.” Hearing these words, my mind flashed back to a lovely old Anglican hymn that we used to sing in the cathedral at Grafton:

All things bright and beautiful,
all creatures great and small,
all things wise and wonderful,
the Lord God made them all.

[See a quaint presentation of the words and music at]

I wondered whether the hymn would sound so nice if we changed a line:

all things weird and terrible...

Procreation is essentially a matter of copying genes, which is a process that may or may not be carried out in a two-parent sexual situation. The replicator device at the basis of all life—plants, animals and Homo Sapiens—is the DNA molecule, whose structure was explained by James Watson and Francis Crick in 1953.

Shortly before then, a mathematician named John von Neumann, working in the USA, produced operational computer-type models of the replication process, summed up in a famous book that was published posthumously: Theory of Self-Reproducing Automata. For those of us who were meeting up with the phenomenon of computers at that time [I first came in contact with IBM in 1957: the year of von Neumann’s death], the great Hungarian-born mathematician was something of a hero, because it was he who actually invented the fundamental concept of a stored computer program. And he also played a pioneering role in the theory of games... which may or may not have concerned the activities that Camus was designating in the quotation at the start of this post. We all felt that, in programming electronic machines to perform all kinds of tasks, we were exploiting an extraordinary art devised by von Neumann.

Today, if you were to ask me about the meaning of life, I would not hesitate in replying that one thing I have in mind (more than suicide or God or any other boring stuff), when I reflect upon the magic of all living things bright and beautiful (and otherwise), is John von Neumann’s work on self-reproducing automata.

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