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metaphysics personal life philosophy rambling reflections Uncategorized

“The Universe is Having a Wank”: Teleological Explorations, By Way of Birthdays

Evan Tan Writer in Manila

There’s nothing that drives you further down into introspection like the waning high of your birthday that’s almost about to end (except probably a close brush with death, a bus speeding at 100 kilometers per hour barely colliding with the car you’re in at a highway—but that’s another story.)

I’m writing this two hours before midnight, the next day after my birthday. That is technically an arbitrary measurement of passing time since I could always measure my age in Martian years, or if I wish to go grander, on a cosmic scale (meaning: how much has the universe entropied since I was born.) Whichever measurement I go with, I can either justify celebrating or not celebrating.

Anyway, here’s what I did for my birthday: I decided to spend my birthday working since there’s really nothing much to do but work. That isn’t a complaint: I enjoy what I do. Granted there are times when I wake up and think about how dreary the whole experience is (the drudgery of labor, I mean). Still, I think everyone goes through some existential crisis thinking why we’re constantly trying to actualize ourselves through the work that we do–as if we’re validated by the outcomes of our work. (Oh shit, utilitarianism!)

This isn’t a missive to discourage people from working. But neither is it an argument to anchor one’s worth on one’s work. In the Coursera course I am currently taking, “Moral Foundations of Politics” by Yale University professor Ian Shapiro, I encountered one interesting concept from English philosopher John Locke—the Workmanship Ideal, which states that man as the creator has ownership and authority over what it creates. However, as you go on in the course, another question pops up: if our capacity to create is simply a result of our genetic advantages, which is purely out of luck, what claim can we really have over the things we produce? 

Our ability to transcend our human limitations is a topic that has piqued my interest for quite some time now, since I am convinced with a little bit of prodding and a few tweaks here and there, you can actually push yourself to become more. But what if that narrative is a lie, and that we’re all merely beholden by the confluence of our genetics and environment? 

In the Unherd article entitled “The Myth of the ‘Growth’ Mindset”, author Tom Chivers busts the idea that the potential for human improvement is limitless:  

“Growth mindset has become something of a phenomenon. […] It’s also hugely popular outside education: Google, Nasa, the British government and Bill Gates have all recommended it.

But despite all this excitement, when other scientists tried to find what the original researchers found, they often struggled. Tim Bates of Edinburgh University was the first researcher I became aware of who was explicitly trying to replicate it. His three studies of 624 children aged between 10 and 12 found no effect: children’s IQ did not improve, nor did their educational attainment, or their ability to get over setbacks.

Another pair of meta-analyses found that the correlation between growth mindset and academic achievement, on a scale where 0 is “totally random, no link” and 1 is “perfect 100% correlation”, was 0.1, although it was a bit higher (0.19 and 0.15) for children and adolescents.”

I find that interesting, in the context of how we are entirely convinced in our personal and collective teleological myths–the idea of a grand plan that takes us somewhere, a purposive endpoint to our existence. 

I mean, if we can’t imagine the future as some sort of progress from our current state, how else can we imagine our future at all? (Insert Tumblr inspirational quote “If you’re not growing, you’re dying” here.) But while it is a comforting thought, how real is it? How much can human ingenuity influence the outcomes of our future? Or is everything actually predestined, and we are just witnessing things unfold as they are, while we are entirely convinced that we’re active participants of our destinies? 

And what if we are just little universes observing itself? And I don’t mean “observation” in the human sense, with any end goal or value judgment in mind, but perhaps there’s an awareness going on right there. 

Astronomer Carl Sagan said once: “We are a way for the universe to know itself.” 

Here’s what I think: we are the universe having a wank–the ultimate narcissist, checking itself out in the multiple mirrors of its self, amused at the sound of its own voice. 

By Evan Tan

Evan Tan is a writer & communications professional based in Manila, Philippines. www.writerinmanila.com

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