I am sometimes asked why I stopped believing in the existence of God. There are many reasons, but first and foremost is that I’m an empiricist. I need to see the evidence for a given claim, and it needs to be objective evidence that can be analyzed scientifically. Without such evidence, no knowledge can be claimed in an intellectually honest manner.  From here, my empiricism has led me to the philosophies of naturalism and materialism, the belief that the natural and material world is all that we can thus far know to exist. This is simply because no scientific evidence suggests there is anything else to reality. If in the future we uncover evidence to the contrary, I will adjust my worldview accordingly. Finally, it is from my materialism and naturalism that I am led to reductionism, the idea that everything in reality is ultimately reducible to just a few simple and fundamental parts, everything including you and me.
At the most fundamental level we are all made of matter, of just three fundamental particles: the up-quark, the down-quark, and the electron. Yet what makes us so special is not the substance that makes us up, but the arrangement of that substance. We are matter that has almost miraculously arranged itself into the unfathomably complex patterns that make up the human body and brain. It is these patterns that give rise to neurons and blood cells, and—as all the current evidence suggests—even to consciousness and the sense of self as well. 
Yet many people find this reductionist picture discouraging. If we are all just matter, if there’s no eternal soul, no God, and if we only get this one life to live before it’s all over and we return to nonexistence, then what’s the point? Why do we care about anything that happens if in less than a hundred years we will cease to exist? So the Nazis committed unfathomable atrocities, so ISIS terrorizes the Middle East, so what? None of it matters. None of it means anything.
But let’s break this down. What does it really mean for something to mean something? What makes a story meaningful? What makes a work of art an inspiring one? What makes a fact about reality a profound fact? And why do we even care about meaning and purpose in the first place?
What makes any given thing meaningful, whether it’s a word, story, fact, creative work, or life event, is the number of connections that that thing has with other things in your brain. Think about a simple word: pencil. When you read that word, it means something to you. It’s more than just pixels on a screen. It represents something. It connects to something outside of itself, namely, the concepts and ideas that make up our understanding of the pencil as a writing utensil, even the sound of the word spoken out loud. It’s these sort of connections that give any word—and in fact, anything—its meaning.
A standalone piece of information in the brain that has no connection to any other piece of information, whether or not there is any such thing, is by definition entirely unmeaningful and utterly irrelevant to you. It does not inform anything else in your mind. On the other hand, a piece of information in the brain that is highly interwoven and integrated with many other pieces of information in the brain will be perceived to be much more meaningful to you. The greater the interconnection and integration, the more meaningful. Life is more meaningful as an adult than it is as a child because you have the ability to make more connections across different aspects of life.
Meaning also often has a strong emotional component to it. The most meaningful works of art are those that we can most relate to on an emotional level, those that we feel inexplicably connected to, those that descend into the far reaches of our mind and prey on our deepest nature, our most fundamental programming. If you connect the taste of your mother’s lasagna with the deep-seated emotional recollections of family and fellowship, that taste will be more meaningful to you than it would be without such a connection.
One of the more subtle—yet stronger—rewards in the brain is that which we receive when we successfully make these connections between bits of information, recognizing patterns and making generalizations from specificities. This is likely because doing so resulted in a huge survival advantage in our past. The better the brain is at processing and understanding the sensory information it obtains, the better it can predict future events and plan accordingly; the better it can respond to certain patterns of sensory input; the better it can learn from past failures or successes. Thus, nature selected for the brains that happened to be the best at this task. For humans, we definitely take the gold in this category. No other ape seeks out an overarching narrative in life. As far as we know, no other animal has any sort of spiritual life whatsoever. Our brains are unique in how far they exceed other animals in their programmed drive to find meaning in life by identifying patterns and connecting pieces of information in a coherent and logical manner.
We experience this programming subjectively as a desire to connect facts, stories, and events within our lives into associative patterns and causal networks. The result is a web of interconnected ideas and other bits of information in our brains, creating meaning within our life.
This network represents all of life as we know it. It represents all the neuronal connections in our brain. Any given node within it is necessarily connected to other nodes, providing meaning for itself.
But what about the network as a whole? What is it connected to? We can find plenty of meaning within the natural world, but what’s on the outside? What does the whole of reality itself mean?
This is the ultimate question that religion has historically tried to answer. We can successfully connect much of the contents of nature to other contents of nature, but in order for nature itself to mean anything, we have always needed something outside nature that nature as a whole connects to. Thus we invented the supernatural, the world outside the natural, the world that gives meaning to the natural.
What does this life mean? Some religions might say it’s about being in communion with God, in relationship with the benevolent Creator of the universe within the supernatural heavenly realm for all of eternity. And what an existence that would be. But might I dare ask still, what does it all mean? What’s the point of any of it? So we live in bliss for eternity; so what? Of what outside significance is such an existence?
Obviously, we can keep asking what it all means ad infinitum, but barring an infinite number of layers to reality we eventually must stop somewhere. The question is, where do we stop? My answer is that we stop wherever our current level of scientific knowledge stops. To go beyond that would be to build a network of connection within a world we don’t even know to exist. I propose we work with what we, with sufficient confidence, know to be true.
And it’s important to realize that regardless of where we stop in this infinite regress, we are always able to ask, so what? We always have the option of taking the nihilistic outlook on reality, regardless of worldview. We also must realize that reality doesn’t owe us any meaning that appeals perfectly to our emotions and fundamental programming. Why would it? Instead, it is up to us to make what we will of the truth we find in the world. It is up to us to interpret the truth in a way that pulls at the heartstrings, inspires and motivates us, and gives us a sense that this life is worth living. The choice is ultimately ours.
So perhaps religion has traditionally asked too much of reality. We have almost always sought to derive meaning in life from an effort to transcend the natural world and this material existence. But when we recognize that this material existence is what gives rise to the desire itself to find meaning, as well as to the seemingly transcendent, then we realize that we have no choice but to willingly accept our status as material entities. And I firmly believe that when we do this, life becomes so much more precious and worth living along the way.
For millennia, humans have clung to almost innate beliefs in the supernatural, the divine. And as this belief in the supernatural increases, the less exciting the natural world becomes. In light of the transcendent beauty and perfection of the divine, the physical world becomes that much more dull in comparison. “You can have all this world, just give me Jesus.” And as the world becomes increasingly more dull and less profound, the more one finds oneself longing for an escape, a way to transcend the boring day-to-day of this life. And as one’s longing for this spiritual transcendence is enhanced, the more one’s belief in the supernatural is reinforced out of emotional necessity.
But if one is fortunate enough to escape this deadly cycle somewhere along the way, then life becomes something different entirely. As belief in the supernatural dissolves, the realization dawns that all of nature exists and sustains and evolves in the absence of the supernatural. Nature becomes a magical place, precisely due to the realization that there was never any magic to begin with. And as one’s appreciation for this life grows, one’s emotional dependency on the supernatural or the afterlife recedes even further. And as that recession continues over time, one’s own material existence is appreciated more and taken less for granted. This cycle continues, and one begins to look for meaning solely within the material realm, and to look excitedly.
We want meaning, and we now know that that means we want connection. Well I have good news. The truth is that we are connected. Though we may not be connected at the supernatural or immaterial level, we are connected physically through our material nature to everyone and everything across the whole of the cosmos.
We are each a unique and ever-changing relationship of quarks and electrons; a focal point of the universe, struggling to make sense of its own existence. I see it at the most basic level as a kind of cosmic symphony, a cacophony of voices across time and space. Everything we see is ultimately composed of these quarks and electrons. Yet these particles are actually just quantized energy disturbances in their own respective quantum fields that permeate all of space. I see these disturbances as the individual notes of the symphony, vibrating at various frequencies on strings that are quantum fields. On a cosmic scale these individual notes number up to 1097, a number so incomprehensibly large that there doesn’t even exist a fathomable “to-the-sun-and-back-x-number-of-times” analogy to help us fathom just how large a number it really is. It would take an unfathomably large number of such analogies to describe how unfathomably large this number is. You simply cannot get more things than the number of things in the universe.
Furthermore, these dancing fluctuations of energy are governed by a set of rules—the four fundamental forces of nature—which dictate how they interact with other quantum fields, other musical notes. The strong and weak nuclear forces, the electromagnetic force, and gravity; these rules are what specify the harmonies of the symphony, dictating which tones can interact and which cannot. The 4-dimensional concert hall in which this cosmic symphony of energy unfolds is that of all of space and time. And finally, we have nature as the grand composer, the one who arranges these entities in such a way as to create truly the most astounding work of art imaginable.
Little by little, the stage of spacetime has allowed for an ever-evolving creative composition. It started with the strong nuclear force instantly pulling together three quarks to become the first proton and create the element of hydrogen. Next, the attractive force of gravity slowly pulled these three-in-one gas particles together over a period of hundreds of millions of years, creating entire stars and fusing protons into heavier elements within these stars. And it was the death of these stars that gave birth to planets and, ultimately, to life. These heavier elements—carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, iron, etc.—are what compose life on Earth. We come from the stars, from suns that gave up their lives so that we might have ours. The individual atoms that compose your right hand likely come from different stars than the atoms in your left hand.
Life started on Planet Earth through the creation of a melody so elegant, with such perfect harmonies that it began to replicate itself, spreading this refrain across the globe. Nature started a process of selecting what we might consider the most graceful and beautiful of melodies from among those taking place on Planet Earth. These themes evolved into more and more spectacular works of art—from the fish to the bird, from elephant to human. Nature has taken these entities and arranged them in patterns of such perfect complexity and organization, composing a symphonic score so overwhelmingly awe-inspiring that it created us.
Yet that is not to say that we represent the ultimate work of art; far from it, for surely, the potential creative works of nature far transcend humanity. But perhaps most importantly is the fact that the pen is now in the hands of the music itself. What nature has composed now has the creative power to recompose nature. We wield the paintbrush. We write music in harmony with our own. The choice is now ours as to what we will compose and where we will take our creations.
We all want to live a meaningful life. Yet all a meaningful life is is a connected life. We long to be connected to humanity, to all of life, and to the whole of reality. I think the poetic view of reality I’ve laid out here speaks to this need for connection—for meaning—in a way that does not require us to claim knowledge where we have no right to do so. I think it expresses the unity felt throughout spiritual traditions, the truth that tells us that we are one with nature, intertwined in this melodious harmony that stretches to the far reaches of the cosmos. It is this truth that I think informs us of our ultimate purpose, to join voices in the common human chorus, seeking deep connection with the lives of others, dealing kindly and compassionately with one another along the way, and bringing healing to all suffering, that in doing so we might truly once and for all welcome Heaven to Earth.
“Through our eyes, the universe is perceiving itself. Through our ears, the universe is listening to its harmonies. We are the witnesses through which the universe becomes conscious of its glory, of its magnificence.”
– Alan Watts