The “how” and “why” of existence is an endless rabbit hole that we, collectively, have been sticking our heads in, probably, from the moment we became self-aware. I like to think about existential thinking, itself, as portrayed by Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. The turning from the wall of shadows to see the fire, and the realization that the shadows are shadows, and that the prisoners are observers, could be equated to self-awareness. “I am. What I perceive is outside of myself, and what I considered reality is merely the projection, the shadow, of something greater.” We could assume that the prisoners watching the shadow show might find some joy in its simplicity, but for the prisoner who had gained awareness, and was now aware of the fire behind them, the shadows’ appeal would lessen.
Existential thought, then, might be the realization that the prisoners were in a cave, and that there were a larger, brighter world outside the cave. “What is beyond what I can perceive now? Why am I in this cave? Why is the cave here at all? Who put us here, and for what purpose?” We could look out through the opening of the cave at the blurry, overwhelmingly bright shapes and unfamiliar forms of the outside world, and we might talk amongst ourselves about what we imagine them to be, what purposes they must fulfill, who put them there, and why. Many would feel anxious and overwhelmed by the enormity of the questions, and would return to the fire – perhaps even to the shadow-show, where they felt most safe… where things were familiar and simple.
A few of the brave existentialists might choose to leave the cave and venture into the blinding sunlight, as they did in Plato’s allegory. These psychonauts would get further and further out each time, before the pain of the sunlight and the terror of confusion and disorientation drove them back inside. Each time, they’d bring back stories of the things they’d seen, and they’d try, in vain, to comprehend and describe these forms to the others, who, without any frame of reference, might regard these descriptions as not only nonsensical, but pointless and moot, considering they only seemed to make things unnecessarily complicated.
Death, perhaps, to those living inside the cave, would be to leave the cave and never return—either as a result of choice or of wandering so far from the familiarity of the cave that one becomes lost forever. To everyone in the cave, that person would cease to exist, save for in their memories. They would be, essentially, dead. Is existential thought, then, the exploration of the experience of death, from a living perspective?… or is thinking about that transcendence as “death” only valid from the perspective of those still in the cave, while to those doing the “dying”, it is simply a movement to a vastly more complex experience? (stay with me, atheists, this is a thought experiment)
Even as I imagine this, it gets slippery, and I’m forced to re-imagine it in other ways, like I’m circling my target in the dark, finding its location sightlessly by first eliminating everywhere it is not.
I saw a movie once that I admittedly remember nothing of save for one scene, and that scene had a great impact on me. The movie was I Heart Huckabees, and the scene was one between Dustin Hoffman and Jason Schwartzman in which Hoffman describes the nature of the connectedness of everything in the universe. The things and people and feelings we perceive are merely ripples, lumps, and folds in the blanket that represents everything in the universe. My brain took it one step further. As he’s holding the blanket in his hands, making said bumps and folds with his hands and fingers underneath the blanket… what are his hands and fingers, in this analogy? What is causing the folds and ripples? What’s under that blanket?
Duncan Trussell, who I highly recommend you listen to, has often talked about the idea that human beings, or rather our individual souls or consciousnesses, are protrusions into this reality of a single god, or collective universal consciousness. I’ve always liked that idea. Imagine if Dustin Hoffman cut two holes in the blanket and stuck two fingers through. One finger he named Me, and the other You. Me and You believe they are separate, because all they can see are one another in contrast with themselves, and everything else around them, and they may have no idea that anything exists at all underneath the blanket, let alone that, under the blanket, they are both connected to the same hand which is connected to Dustin Hoffman. If Me and You are given individual consciousnesses, or rather, it is imposed upon them by Dustin Hoffman, then they can only believe that the whole of their existence is as individual fingers, opposite one another, on a vast blanket. They might not even have a concept of “hand” or “Dustin Hoffman”. If one of them figures it out, and tells the other “Hey, you know, underneath this blanket might be a thing called a hand, and we both might be connected to it. We might be the same.” The other might respond, “You can’t prove that. Even if you could, what does it matter? We’re here, now, and that sort of conjecture only serves to complicate things unnecessarily and make us unhappy.” You can see this dichotomy in the division between atheists and those who have faith in an afterlife. In both cases, though moreso in the latter, I believe people are comforted by these ideas. I consider myself an agnostic, because the only honest answer I have regarding the question of a creator and an afterlife is “I don’t know,” and I’m not sure I can trust anyone who claims that they know definitively, one way or another, that which, to my knowledge, can’t be known. Perhaps they do know, but how can I know, for certain, they they know for certain? I can’t. Still, regardless of what’s true, I am made equally uncomfortable by either option. I’ll try to explain why.
First, though, let’s finish with the blanket – imagine that Dustin Hoffman had the power to, himself, forget, and localize his own consciousness into each of his fingertips, such that his consciousness existed wholly above the blanket, divided among his fingers which each believed themselves to be individuals, and none of whom had any memory or concept of the now dormant Dustin Hoffman below the blanket. Death, then (or transcendence – the leaving of the cave) would be one of these fingers pulling itself down through the hole in the blanket and seeing that it was connected to all the other fingers via the body of Dustin Hoffman – that it, in effect, WAS Dustin Hoffman, and that it had merely forgotten. When that finger returned above the blanket, if it were able, how could it communicate this to the others fingers? Would this knowledge be troubling? Depressing? Overwhelming? If so, and if the other fingers saw this change, would they be afraid to look under the blanket for fear of upsetting their simple, content existence? Would they, like the prisoners, be afraid to leave the cave, and prefer to simply stay above the blanket where things were familiar?
Those of faith might say, “But why would they be troubled by this knowledge? Wouldn’t they be comforted by the idea of a greater being, and another existence beyond this one, as I am comforted by the idea of a Creator and an afterlife?” This brings me back to why I’m not. Regardless of whether you’re a person of faith, and believe in an afterlife, or an atheist, and believe that our consciousness is snuffed out upon death, there’s one thing we can all agree on – infinity. You might call it eternity, which implies that time, along with space, is endless. Faith and science seem to agree on an infinite universe. If space is infinite, so too must time be, for as long as there are things moving in space that are relative to one another, time exists. Regardless, let’s talk about eternity. If time and space are infinite, and human life is finite, then it raises an interesting question about the human perception of its own existence on that timeline. If you look at the entirety of your life in contrast with its place on an infinite timeline, then by comparison, your life is infinitely short. It’s so short, in fact, that it may as well already be over. I don’t mean that in a symbolic sense, but in a mathematical one. Perhaps it is already over. Perhaps your entire life is merely a memory of having lived it. Your life is a song, and your memory the needle tracing out the grooves on the record, and the record player, in this case, is your enduring consciousness, above and beyond the limitations of this singular experience and perspective. When we stop playing the record, it still exists. The groove, and all the information in it is already all there – static and persistent – even though the needle only experiences it one moment at a time, in one direction, and at a consistent pace. That method of experience, then, might be life, and the song that plays might be our way of perceiving that life.
If we individual consciousnesses/souls are the fingers of God (by God I could mean a universal collective consciousness or merely the original “it” from which all things in the universe sprang, whether by intention or purposeless happenstance) – if we are the fingers of God protruding above the blanket into reality as we know it, and we have forgotten that, not only are we protrusions or extensions of God into this reality (from a greater reality or plane of existence), but that we in essence ARE God, then it begs the question – has God retained God’s own identity as well, watching us through a great one-way mirror, or has God intentionally forgotten God’s own identity, preferring instead to sleep and experience life as a multitude of individuals who do not remember they are the same, or that they are God? If so, why?
Alan Watts once imagined that if God were a self-aware consciousness, and were eternal, it may subject itself to individuality/mortatlity/etc., in order to forget that it was God, out of sheer boredom. Imagine the overwhelming mundanity of having always existed, and knowing you will always exist, and of knowing everything that would happen for all eternity. If you extrapolate probability on an infinite timeline, then you run into the interesting problem that all possibilities not only become 100% probable, but it becomes 100% probable that every possible outcome will occur an infinite number of times… on and on and on, over and over and over again, endlessly. This is the life of God. We like to imagine eternity, and the idea of an endless universe, as infinitely complex. However, if this means that all things that can exist do exist an infinite number of times, then eternity really isn’t complex at all, but the ultimate simplicity. All things – always.
Perhaps God forces itself to forget that it is God, and subjects itself to billions of simple, simultaneous mortal lives, in order to keep from going completely insane with boredom on levels we can’t even comprehend. If existing eternally means you will infinitely re-experience every possible outcome of existence, then what purpose, if any, does existence serve? Maybe God created the cave, and the shadow-show, and then made itself into the prisoners, and forced itself to forget that it had ever been God, so that it could relax and just enjoy some simple joys of shadows for awhile.
Perhaps, in death, we see outside the cave and below the blanket – we remember that we are God, and in remembering, we are overcome with the vastness of eternity. When we mortals wake up from a beautiful dream into a less beautiful life, we often wish we could go back to sleep. Maybe this is how God feels each time we die and remember we are God. There is a realization, and then a choice to forget again, and go back to sleep… back to the limited, simple experience of a mortal, because to be God might otherwise be unmanageable.
What good does this knowledge do, other than to make life itself seem moot. If we’re going to do this an infinite number of times, and we’re going to live every possible life an infinite number of times, what exactly are we trying to do with this one, in particular? If we cease to exist upon death, and we simply sleep, then that sleep, too, will last for eternity. Try to imagine an eternal non-existence. When you sleep deeply enough (or go under anesthesia), it’s as if you cease to exist, because upon waking, it’s as if no time has passed. Now try to imagine that same concept, only you don’t wake up again – ever. The rest of eternity, of infinity, is a single instant from which you never emerge, of which you will never again be aware. I’m not sure which idea is more overwhelming – that of an eternal creator with whom we will spend said eternity, the idea of infinite reincarnations, the idea that we ARE God, or the idea that upon death our consciousness is snuffed out into eternal non-existence. Perhaps the real struggle is knowing that any of these outcomes are possible and trying to find happiness and purpose in life anyway.
In closing, consider the fact that your perspective is the only one you know. Your memories all occur from your perspective. Your experiences are all from your perspective. Your perspective is the only one you can ever be certain exists at all. How do you know anyone else is real? How do you know that other people, things, and the universe in its entirety isn’t simply a projection of your own perspective, around itself, in order to keep you occupied and fill out your experience of this life? How can you be certain that you aren’t God, playing the role of a human being, and creating around you the life and experiences of a human being, in order to forget about being God for awhile? Perhaps, when you die, you’ll remember that you are God, and you’ll look around and realize that you’re all alone in an otherwise empty eternity – you have always been alone, and you will always be alone. Forever. You might choose to go back to sleep – to forget.
But hey, what do I know? I’m just some guy.