You only have 4,000 weeks of existence. Use them wisely

Corot-7b exoplanet
The exoplanet Corot-7b, one of many extremely cool things in the universe that won’t matter at all unless we know about it. (Photo: Nasa)

We only live for about 4,000 weeks. If you’re anything like me you’ll find that statistic startling, even though it’s obvious (average 80-year lifespan in Britain, 52 weeks a year = 4,160) when you stop to think about it. It’s particularly troublesome on a Monday morning, when you’re idly wishing the week away, and thus – without the slightest qualm – wanting 0.025 per cent or so of your allotted lifespan to simply disappear.

I worry quite a lot about “meaning”, as an atheist. I’m going to die, and the personally constructed universe that I carry around will cease to exist. About 1,700 of my weeks have already slipped by, without notable achievement. In about another 2,400 (if I’m lucky) there will be no more me. Hopefully I’ll leave stuff behind – children, work, memories – but I won’t know it. I might have had a long life and a good one, or a short and miserable one, but the universe won’t know the difference; I might have died happy or sad, peacefully or in pain, but it won’t matter to me any more. I might have done good things for people, on balance, or bad, but those people will die too. Eventually everyone will, and there will be no one to remember us, no memorial. There will just be rocks and gas, spinning, unaware, meaningless because there is no one for it to mean anything to, and all the art and love and wonder will have been for nothing.

In the 17th century, Baruch Spinoza, a Jewish-Dutch philosopher, wrote of his conception of God, or Deus sive Natura, “God or Nature”. He was promptly accused of atheism, because as far as the Church of the time was concerned, his vision was empty of everything that made God God.

For Spinoza, God was the universe, and the universe was God. God “knew” everything because He was everything, and was all-powerful because all that the universe did was done by Him (although “it” might be more appropriate). But there was no personality, nothing to worship. Prayers went unanswered because the God of Spinoza was not a made-in-man’s-image sort of giant human, but a clockwork God of crystalline laws. This is the God, also, of Einstein: “I believe in Spinoza’s God, who reveals Himself in the lawful harmony of the world, not in a God who concerns Himself with the fate and the doings of mankind.”

I should admit that there’s some argument over whether Spinoza himself quite believed in this God – he once wrote “as to the view of certain people that I identify god with nature (taken as a kind of mass or corporeal matter), they are quite mistaken” – although painting oneself as an out-and-proud pantheist/atheist probably wouldn’t have been a good career move at that point. Nonetheless, the bit of it that appealed to me, as I was struggling to get my head around it in my third year of university, was the idea that “worshipping” this God is silly. As the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy puts it:

Spinoza does not believe that worshipful awe or reverence is an appropriate attitude to take before God or Nature. There is nothing holy or sacred about Nature, and it is certainly not the object of a religious experience. Instead, one should strive to understand God or Nature, with the kind of adequate or clear and distinct intellectual knowledge that reveals Nature’s most important truths and shows how everything depends essentially and existentially on higher natural causes. The key to discovering and experiencing God, for Spinoza, is philosophy and science, not religious awe and worshipful submission.

In the Spinozan model, humans are the universe’s – God’s – way of understanding itself. The cosmos does what it does, but we are the bit of it that looks, and learns, and tries to work out what’s going on. As the Niels Bohr joke has it, “a physicist is an atom’s way of looking at itself“.

As the only bits of the universe that can understand the universe, it’s both our duty and our privilege to learn as much as we can about how the universe works, how life works, how people work; to examine our world and how we fit into it and how we can learn about it. And then to try to spread that information. I’ll never work on the Large Hadron Collider myself, I fear, but I can try to understand the work of the people who do, and do my best to explain it to others, to make my children when they arrive interested in the universe. In my tiny way I can try to help the atoms look at themselves.

But it leaves no room for “mystery”, and that’s how it should be. The way that we find meaning in the universe isn’t standing in front of it in stupefied awe (“the eternal mysteries of Creation!”), but lifting up the lid and seeing how it works, taking it apart and putting it back together again, finding bits that don’t make sense and making sense of them. And telling people what we know, and making the world, the universe, more full of understanding than it was. There is nothing ineffable. We should try to eff absolutely everything we can.

Of course, the human race will still eventually die out, and so will everything else, and there will be a cold dead cosmos of mindless atoms. But there will at least have been a time when the universe understood itself, partially, imperfectly and falteringly. The four-dimensional lump that is space-time has/will have a self-aware bit.

We’ve each only got 4,000 weeks, though, and that’s not very much time. In it we have to learn as much as we can: science, history, fiction (humans are the most interesting bit of the universe, and you can understand them better through literature); our job is to find the stuff that explains as much as possible. Some of us should be specialists, some of us generalists, but we should all be trying to learn stuff. But it also means we have to select carefully the thousand or two thousand books we’ll have time to read, because all the quack pseudoscience, hippie mysticism and stupid conspiracy theories don’t just take up brain space (which we have lots of): they also take up time, which we’re desperately lacking.

And that is why it is your sacred duty not to read Ayn Rand.

Read more by Tom Chivers on Telegraph Blogs
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