Friday, August 12, 2016

Chasing the Wind - A Legacy of Knowledge

A while back, Neil DeGrasse Tyson was speaking in front of an audience, and was asked, "What is the meaning of life?" This was his answer:
So — what is the meaning of life? I think people ask that question on the assumption that 'meaning' is something you can look for and go, 'Here it is, I found it. Here's the meaning. I've been looking for.' That scenario, however, doesn't consider the possibility that 'meaning' is something you create. You manufacture it for yourself and for others. 
So when I think of 'meaning' in life, I ask, 'Did I learn something today that I didn't know yesterday, bringing me a little closer to knowing all that can be known in the universe?' If I live a day and I don't know a little more than I did the day before, I think I wasted that day. So the people who, at the end of the school year, say 'The summer! I don't have to think anymore!' — I just don't know. To think brings you closer to nature. To learn how things work gives you power to influence events. Gives you power to help people who may need it — to help yourself and your trajectory. 
So when I think of the meaning of life, that's not an eternal and unanswerable question — to me, that's in arm's reach of me everyday. So to you, at age six-and-three-quarters, may I suggest that you explore nature as much as you possibly can. And occasionally that means getting your clothes dirty because you might want to jump into puddles and your parents don't want you to do that. You tell them that I gave you permission.
His questioner was six years old, so you can see how this is an answer for a child on some level. He might just as well have added, "Eat your veggies and drink your milk." You can also see the post-modern perspective in there as well, replacing Meaning with "meaning," where "Whatever gets you through the day" is meaningful. To each his own, etc. I'll have to address that another day.

All the same, Tyson is a scientist (well, depending on who you ask), and this is definitely a scientist's answer on the question of Meaning.

It's fair to ask, "So what?" to this response, though. What will any amount of learning merit a person? Usually, the merit of knowledge is what you do with it, and we generally prefer benevolent applications, but whatever one accomplishes with a lifetime of learning, they will still see their life end. Even the smartest people of the ages are quickly forgotten.

This is the perspective the Teacher considered. He spoke of wisdom, but I think it applies equally well to learning of any variety:
Next, I decided to consider wisdom, as well as foolish behavior and ideas. For what more can the king’s successor do than what the king has already done?
I realized that wisdom is preferable to folly, just as light is preferable to darkness: The wise man can see where he is going, but the fool walks in darkness. Yet I also realized that the same fate happens to them both.
So I thought to myself, “The fate of the fool will happen even to me! Then what did I gain by becoming so excessively wise?”
So I lamented to myself, “The benefits of wisdom are ultimately meaningless!” For the wise man, like the fool, will not be remembered for very long, because in the days to come, both will already have been forgotten. Alas, the wise man dies – just like the fool!
So I loathed life because what happens on earth seems awful to me; for all the benefits of wisdom are futile – like chasing the wind. - Ecclesiastes 2:12-17 (NET)
Learning can provide a lot of benefits, but it doesn't change much in the end. Still, this was the smarmy, "After-School Special" answer Tyson gave. Tyson, however, is a scientist, and the drive to pursue knowledge runs much deeper in scientists than this. It's not just about personal enrichment.

Science education is absolutely awash with names. After all, it's hard to talk about science without talking about how we discovered certain facts or principles. This means talking about the people who discovered them (Darwin. Bohr. Watson & Crick.) If you don't talk about those people, you at least talk about the things that are named for them (Avogadro. Planck. Mendel.) Perhaps you use instruments or equipment named for them (Bunsen. Erlenmeyer.)

This isn't even including the Nobel Prize. What budding young scientist doesn't dream of winning the Nobel Prize for some world-changing discovery?

You might think that all of this is the recognition and notoriety of these things speaking to the ego of the scientist. It wouldn't be entirely untrue; much as scientists might scoff at the idea, we're not immune to the temptations and vagaries of the human experience.

However, scientists at all levels, when they talk about their reasons for getting into science, or continuing their current work, will talk (inevitably) about the "body of knowledge" of science. That is, perhaps you're not currently creating a new super-material, discovering a new element, or curing a horrible disease, but your work is contributing to the overall enterprise of the scientific endeavor. Someone, someday, might build upon the work that you did to achieve something great. As if all scientists are working on an enormous jigsaw puzzle; the piece you add may not seem important at the time, but others will build upon it to create something wonderful.

I remember the first time my name was added to a publication. I was really proud. I'd achieved a small measure of immortality! Whenever someone searched PubMed for arthritis vaccines, they'd see my name on that citation.

The shine wore off fairly quickly. You can see that desire, however, to create something that will last. It's not unusual. Nobody starts a business thinking, "It'll be nice if this only lasts a year or two." No monument is designed or built with the intention that it'll be gone in twenty years. When people think about Meaning, they're quite often concerned with whether or not their actions will have made any impact, especially after their life is over.
The Teacher wasn't a scientist, but he understood that this desire to create something permanent is deceiving:
So I loathed all the fruit of my effort, for which I worked so hard on earth, because I must leave it behind in the hands of my successor. Who knows if he will be a wise man or a fool? Yet he will be master over all the fruit of my labor for which I worked so wisely on earth!
This also is futile!
So I began to despair about all the fruit of my labor for which I worked so hard on earth. For a man may do his work with wisdom, knowledge, and skill; however, he must hand over the fruit of his labor as an inheritance to someone else who did not work for it.
This also is futile, and an awful injustice!
What does a man acquire from all his labor and from the anxiety that accompanies his toil on earth? For all day long his work produces pain and frustration, and even at night his mind cannot relax!

This also is futile! - Ecclesiastes 2:18-23 (NET)
I have to say, I've met many scientists whose minds cannot relax. Their work consumes them. It's not much fun making small talk with these folks.

Still, however much a scientist accomplishes in his lifetime, the end result is that his work gets passed on to others: His students, his colleagues, or those inspired by his work. In time, the sum of his life becomes nothing more than a single blip. A name attached to a fact or a figure that nobody considers for long, or a citation at the end of a paper that nobody reads. Who was the person behind the name? What were his dreams? Did he lead a happy life? Did his achievements make any difference to that whatsoever?

Perhaps those to come may celebrate both the life and the work of the scientist. Maybe the scientist just wants his work to have a lasting impact. What comfort is there to be found in that? You're dead. Does the recognition reach into the grave to comfort you?

If this life is all there is, then it's meaningless.

The Teacher doesn't rest there, though. He concludes:
There is nothing better for people than to eat and drink, and to find enjoyment in their work. 
I also perceived that this ability to find enjoyment comes from God. For no one can eat and drink or experience joy apart from him. For to the one who pleases him, God gives wisdom, knowledge, and joy, but to the sinner, he gives the task of amassing wealth – only to give it to the one who pleases God.
This task of the wicked is futile – like chasing the wind! - Ecclesiastes 2:24-26
The Teacher's conclusion on this is straight-forward. Work can, and should, be enjoyable. God worked, and He took great pleasure in it. Although the Fall introduced some complications to our relationship with it, as creatures made in the image of God, we still derive enjoyment from our labors, whether that's a scientist's path of discovery or something else.

If we try to find a path to immortality through our labors, we will be disappointed. If we think we can fulfill that longing of the heart with it, then we will be left without comfort. When we find our fulfillment in God, everything else can be held in proper perspective.

No comments: