I was taking a roadtrip up to Olympia, Washington this past Thanksgiving and gazing out the car window at the passing fields of southern Oregon, and as I do more and more frequently these days, I began to ponder what exactly was taking place in my staring at these fields of overgrown grass. I call it thinking in terms of physics. Light that had been emitted from the sun a whole eight minutes prior was now being absorbed and reflected, depending on the wavelength of the light, in all directions by the atoms that make up each blade of grass. One narrow range of wavelength in particular was being reflected more than any other, and some of that reflected light was beaming through the cloud of air molecules toward my car and piercing through my car window to my eye, at which point the light was then being focused by the lens of my eye to the retina at the back of my eye, causing an electrical signal to propagate up the optic nerve and into my brain. Multiply this phenomenon a countless number of times over to include each wave of light at each given moment, and my brain was unconsciously processing each and every one of those electrical signals simultaneously, causing me to “see” the green color of the grass.
But does the grass really possess the color green? Upon coming to a deeper understanding of the underlying reality involved, we realize the answer is a rather obvious no. The grass has no inherent color. Even the light that it reflects has no inherent color, but is instead only a specific frequency of electromagnetic wave. There is no color involved until after our brain has processed that sensory information and we project some sort of meaning or interpretation onto that information. It is only this interpretation that our brain makes of the sensory input of visible light that gives rise to the concept of color. Without our own interpretation of light, color does not exist.
In fact, without our own interpretation of light, the concept of what something “looks like” is meaningless, even non-existent. There is nothing that a given object “looks like” inherently. It is just a collection of matter; of atoms and particles that make up those atoms, and these atoms absorb and reflect light of various wavelengths according to the laws of physics, but none of this looks like anything in the absence of one doing the looking.
This is a rather peculiar idea to ponder. And what’s even more odd is that this principle applies to all five of the senses. What does bacon smell like apart from our own brain’s interpretation of the electrochemical stimulation of olfactory sensory neurons in the nose? What does a watermelon taste like without the brain’s interpretation of the stimulation of taste buds? How soft is a carpet in the absence of the brain’s interpretation of stimulated nerve endings in our skin? If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, then it indeed makes no sound. Without our brain to interpret the varying frequencies of pressure waves in the air into the thing we conceive of as sound, sound does not exist.
Our five senses are simply the means by which our brain interprets the world. It takes in this flood of chaotic sensory input as electrical impulses and outputs this beautiful, orderly, unified picture of sight, sound, taste, smell, and touch into our conscious awareness. From here we ascribe further meaning and interpretation on top of these baseline senses. We perceive a sunset not merely as a mixup of reds and yellows and pinks, but as something beautiful, breathtaking, and awe-inspiring. We interpret the music of Beethoven and Mozart as more than just a sea of sound; there is order in its tempos and rhythms, coherent movement and beauty in its melody and timbre. Yet as dull and dismal as it might be to say, there is no inherent beauty in a sunset or a piece of music. A sunset is merely a sea of photons of varying wavelengths, streaming from the sun and scattering through the air and the clouds. It is we who ascribe any beauty or significance to it. Beauty is indeed in the eye of the beholder.
It’s in a similar manner that we look at our own loved ones and see more than just a swath of color and sound and smell; we perceive significance, value, something worthy of trust and companionship, something that possesses empathy and intelligence. Your mother’s smile is interpreted by your brain as having meaning above and beyond the mere shape and color of her lips and teeth; there is emotional expression and communication there. And if ever we were to witness the tragic death of one of our loved ones, we would perceive not just the sights and sounds of the event, but would be consumed instead by the terror, the horror, the anger, the heartbreak, the despair, and the overwhelming helplessness that would be our brain’s interpretation above and beyond the raw sight and sound of such an event.
This is how our brain has evolved to interpret the world. Certain patterns of stimuli trigger an immensely complex network of biochemical algorithms that work to process this stimuli. What we experience is simply our brain’s interpretation of the world, and this interpretation has been designed and shaped by biological and cultural evolution, as well as our own individual life experiences.
The end conclusion of this realization is that there is nothing inherently significant or valuable about ourselves or the people and things we generally value in life. In the same way that our five senses are nothing more than the brain’s interpretation of the world, so too is it true that things like beauty, value, love, meaning, and significance are merely qualities that our brain projects onto an otherwise dull world. Significance and value don’t exist apart from someone to whom things are significant and valuable.
For many, though, this conclusion is uncomfortable, depressing, and nihilistic. Many will jump in here and instead insist that God is the ultimate being to whom certain things are valuable, thereby ascribing an inherent value to them. God is said to have created us in his image, and since God values things like life, love, relationship, creativity, beauty, and peace, then this is the reason he programmed our brains to interpret the world through a similar lens.
It is important however to recognize that this belief arises from an appeal not to reason, but to our desires and emotions; to a longing for that deep sense of fulfillment found in a life of perceived worth and purpose. It simply doesn’t stand to reason that God must exist just because we so vividly and desperately intuit God’s existence from our own powerful longings and desires. Our brains have necessarily evolved this perception of significance and meaning in certain people, places, things, and events. We are wired to see certain things as seemingly too powerful and significant to be mere inventions of the human mind. But nonetheless, that is precisely what they are. However contrary to our desires and intuitions, the fact remains that significance and value are merely an interpretive technique of the brain.
And this realization need not lend itself to nihilism. Yes, significance is entirely relative to and emergent from human experience, but so what? Last I checked, you and I were both humans; both a part of this human experience. This means that the people, places, things, and events that we find of significance and value are significant and valuable precisely because they are significant and valuable to us. We are valuable human beings for the precise reason that we are valuable to human beings. We ourselves are valuable because we are valuable to ourselves and to others.
Need we really think ourselves of cosmic importance to find purpose in our lives? Must we really possess such a level of arrogance that leads us to insist on playing the lead role in the unfolding narrative taking place on this grand cosmic stage? Are we really unwilling to accept the life we’ve been given simply because we find it too small a part to play? Even if there were a divine being to grant us the lead role we so desire, what then do we gain? To what end are we playing this role? Couldn’t one conceivably look at the lead role, a relationship with God, eternal life, and still wonder what ultimate purpose there was in any of it?
The end goal for humanity has never been playing lead for the sake of playing lead. The end goal has never been eternal life for the sake of eternal life. And perhaps most importantly, the end goal has never been God for God’s sake. God has always been a means to an end. It is our longing for that deep sense of fulfillment and purpose that leads us to desire the lead role, eternal life, and God himself. It is a life of fulfillment and flourishing that is the end goal for all of us, a goal that was hardwired into our brains by years upon years of biological and cultural evolution.
And this fulfillment can be found in any number of things, including religion and a belief in God, but certainly not exclusively or even most effectively so. However big or small our role in the cosmic drama, we are all tasked with bringing our own sense of meaning and purpose to that role. Many of us find our relatively lowly role on the godless universe’s stage to be in fact full of meaning nearly everywhere we look. The religiously inclined spend their time looking for some inherent significance to themselves on the grandest scale imaginable, and in doing so almost entirely miss the significance that humanity has created for itself. Letting go of one’s own sense of self importance and desire to transcend human experience, and instead embracing the human experience for everything it is, actually leads to its own kind of transcendent experience, because you come to realize that perhaps the most magical thing about the human experience is that there’s no magic at all, and yet you still get to play a part in it.
Michelangelo’s famous work, Creation of Adam, depicts the very moment that God placed the spark of life within Adam. But there’s perhaps a more subtle and truthful narrative being illustrated in Michelangelo’s painting; that God and all the heavenly creatures are encased in a shroud whose shape is eerily resemblant to that of the human brain. Perhaps it is not God who has shaped the course of evolution, but evolution that has shaped God. Perhaps it is not we who are made in God’s image, but God who is made in ours.