Nobody Knows What’s Really Going On

The ThinkerWhy am I here?

What’s really going on with this humanity thing? What am I meant to do with this mind and body? Is there something important that I’m meant to do on this earth, or are we all just floating through a purposeless existence, being born, surviving and dying, all amounting to nothing? How can we make the best of it?

I’ve finally come to the conclusion that nobody knows.

I mean nobody. Not your parents. Not your guru/rabbi/priest. Not your mentor. Not your therapist. Not your boss (you probably know that already). Not the CEO. Not the hollywood writers. Not the president. Not the scientists, doctors, or supreme court judges. Not the pope. Not me. Not even you!

This is both terrifying and empowering.

 

Growing up I had the sense that most people knew how the universe worked. That most people had a pretty good idea what’s going to happen next in their lives or in the world, and what was the best way to approach that.

As I grew older, I started to get the sense that many people don’t really know how the universe works and what’s the best way to deal with it as human beings, especially as my parents and some of my teachers were more open about saying “I don’t know,” to me.

But I still assumed that some of the most powerful people — high-level business men, bestselling authors, politicians, the president (or some oligarchy who controls the president) — really did have more correct ideas than the rest of us about the best ways to deal with the human condition. In fact, I assumed, that was probably much of why people trusted them to have some form of power. They somehow knew some stuff that the rest of us didn’t.

Wrong again. It turns out that psychopaths are just as likely or more likely to rise to power than truly wise men and women. (See Bill Hamilton’s Saints and Psychopaths.)

At this point, many people would move up the abstraction ladder again to a friendly (or not-so-friendly) bearded dude in the sky, or to an all-knowing guru. If this is your belief, I wish you the best.

For the rest of us, all we have is each other — a planet full of confused human beings wondering how we got here and what we’re supposed to do about it while we putter about trying to make the best of our lives.

 

Most of us also have an awkward habit of believing we know more than we do. A wonderful example of this, and one close to my heart, is the habit of fathers to explain the world to their children or spouses when a more appropriate answer might be, I don’t know. (Consider mansplaining.)

Unfortunately, this belief that ‘I know what’s really going on and I may be the only one who knows,’ is much more widespread and destructive than the kind intentions of our parents or lovers to protect us from the confusion of the world. The belief expresses itself in thinking, ‘if everybody would just use my plan or see things from my point of view, all the world’s problems would be fixed.’

Try contradicting someone with strong opinions in a political or religious discussion and you’ll be able to see it in their reaction. “If he only saw it the way I do,” they’ll think, “he would know what’s really going on and how to fix it.”

 

The importance of realizing that nobody knows why we’re here and what’s going on can’t be overstated. Although at first this realizing might be profoundly depressing (it put me in bed for days on end), as it matures it’s profoundly empowering.

One of the first conclusions I reached when I was finally ready to see the world through this lens is that there is no “the man” to fight against — there are just some people we have collectively given power, who are just trying to do their best. We might disagree with their choices. Their best might not be very good at all. But “the man” is just another human being bumbling along making mistakes, just like you and me.

Perhaps before we complain about all the things our elected officials or other powerful people are doing wrong, we should ask, “in what parts of my life am I abdicating responsibility to these people in power for making my life or the world better?”

 

You might, as I have, also turn this understanding to our concept of “the truth.” Americans tend to be obsessed with the truth. We look to our founding documents, to science, to judges, to reporters, all trying to figure out what the truth of the story is. Who’s fault was it really? Did OJ really do it? Is milk really healthy or not? Is global warming true?

However, if there is nobody who knows what’s really going on, and no all-knowing god or guru, then there’s nobody left to know anything more about the ultimate nature of things than you can know from your own experience.

Now, there are things that are true within context, like in a scientific framework. All relative truth has a context. For example the words I’m writing now are what’s true for me right now, but ultimately they are just some dude’s opinions. It would be tedious to write, “I think” at the beginning of every sentence, but that’s what’s implied on pretty much every piece of non-fiction writing ever. Instead of asking if what I’m writing is true, you might instead ask, is what I’m writing useful to you.

The same could be done for some of our bigger political arguments in America. I hear there is still debate about whether global climate change is “true”. But the thing is, nobody can answer that once and for all if there is no ultimate truth.

What might be a more worthwhile discussion is whether or not its useful to act under the assumption that global climate change is happening.

 

Having no ultimate truth throws all ultimate right and wrong straight out the window. If there is no ultimate truth, then there’s no way to judge whats right and wrong in a moralistic sense. What’s left then is simply the question, is it useful? Is this belief, this idea, this habit I have useful?

The question must be asked then, useful for what? And for that you need to decide what’s important to you. What game do you want to play. What is a game worth playing?

I think this question can only be answered by you. Are you playing the wealth game, the fame game? Are you playing the knowledge game? The art game? There is no right game to play, only whichever game feels right.

For me right now, when I look deeply into myself, I see that I value joy and compassion. I value connecting with other people. I get great satisfaction from creating things, and from helping other people to create things. Perhaps most of all, I value the my natural curiosity to keep exploring my mind, my abilities, my creative capacities.

 

Of course, the “nobody knows” paradigm that I’ve presented here is really just another framework of assumptions. In mathematics, a proof usually starts with a number of assumptions. Similarly, we all live with certain assumptions. The important question is not whether they’re “true”, but whether they’re useful.

The way I see it, this set of assumptions about the world, that nobody knows what’s really going on, is incredibly useful.

 

As we realize we’re all just trying to figure this mystery out together, we can grow more compassionate for the mistakes and missteps of our neighbors and ourselves. We can realize that nobody is coming to save us and take real responsibility of our own lives. We can realize nobody is going to stop the daily tragedies of power abuse if we don’t, and that nobody is going to stop us from falling into powerful positions that easily corrupt us, if we don’t stop ourselves.

I believe that this paradigm is not only useful, its critical to humanity at our current state of evolution. Projects like open sourcing, torrenting, and experimental communities are already acting to decentralize power and put the responsibility of making the world a better place in our hands as individuals.

 

With this attitude, we can shape our lives to be full of the things that matter most, like joy, compassion, generosity, curiosity, community, celebration, wholeness. And we can work on projects that bring more of the most important things into the world.

 

I challenge you to consider how was this framework might be useful to you. Did it trigger any insights, memories, or new things you need to consider? Share your thoughts…

3 Comments

  1. Aunt Sue

    February 17, 2014 at 2:01 pm

    You might enjoy reading (if you haven’t already) some of the classic utilitarian philosophers, such as John Stuart Mill, &c.

    • josh

      February 18, 2014 at 9:02 am

      Thanks. I’ll check them out. So many books to read… 😛

  2. Sally

    February 18, 2014 at 6:18 am

    Really enjoyed this blog. Made me remember when after qualifying as a dive instructor I kept procratinating, waiting for a magic answer or for someone wiser than me to tell me what to do, whether to travel and work abroad or to play it safe and stay in the UK. It was a really empowering moment to realise the one and only person who has to make this decision is me,and whatever I decide will be okay.

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