It is a primordial music of mind that sings from the depths of our species’ history and within the forgotten past and presence of each individual: the wonder of self-recognition in the perception of pattern all around and inside us.
As children, we lay back in the grass and saw the clouds taking shape and coming to life (what do you see in the picture at right?). It wasn’t fantasy or infantilism at work: it was the operation of a natural faculty; our inviolable connection with our primeval origin — the capacity to sense, respond to, and create, order.
We sense patterns and a seeming design around and within us because the universe, in all likelihood, is a design — perhaps a holographic one. We may never understand the design intellectually; but that does not mean we give up on our apperception or on our scientific curiosity — both of these arise, after all, from the same essence within us. Einstein rode light waves through the spaces of his adolescent daydreams before he was ready to revolutionize science. In any event, the least that can be said without skepticism is that we are pattern-receivers, even if there is no objective or “real” pattern or design to perceive.
Still, whenever you talk about this natural receptivity to the universe’s pattern-making capacity, you feel the need to defend yourself from being perceived as just another “intelligent design” mouth-breather. Well, I have no particular defense to offer on that front. Insight tends to provide its own protection. It is a matter of following life over belief; pure experience has no room for ideology. What I am learning (and therefore teaching) is not a function of linking backward (the meaning of the Latin root of the word “religion”); it is instead about connecting inward.
When I use that word “inward,” it is not in a solipsistic or navel-gazing sense. Inward is the way to the universal, that’s the sense I have in mind; of a connection that opens the gate of cosmic consciousness and our shared identity in the great web of being.
Thus, to say that our species (among others) tends to perceive pattern in the universe does not mean that we assume purpose. Alan Watts used to highlight this distinction by talking about dance: there is no finish line on a dance floor; we just move and sway in rhythm to the music until we are done, without looking for any destination or encrusting the experience with Purpose or intent.
Therefore, sensing the presence of pattern within and around us is nothing to be self-conscious about, even for the most hard-boiled empiricist. Pattern is just pattern; purpose is something superadded that, whenever it is projected (one might even say “pre-jected”), always seems to ring false or hollow. For when we allow it to, reality always far surpasses whatever purpose or outcome we might have saddled it with in the arrogance of our expectation.
It has been my experience in my own life that purpose is discovered rather than prefigured; revealed instead of written. So I do not deny the reality of purpose; only our capacity for ordering it into being before its time. Most of us find our purposes retrospectively, after the dust of an affair or a relationship or a series of events has long since settled. But until then, purpose is something that is best left to mature in silence, beyond the noise and artifice of our expectations and fears.
When we talk from the pedestal of expectation and demand about purpose, we are typically seeking an answer to a question that has no practical meaning. Nearly as often, we complicate the matter further by answering the wrong question after all, because we are misdirected by our assumptions. Consider Dr. Tyson’s remarks in the video below: is he answering the question being asked?*
The question is: “does the universe have a purpose?” Not: “does the universe have a purpose for humans?” The answer to the original question, to my mind, is: of course the universe has a purpose; it probably has many purposes, in fact. I’m just pointing out here that we don’t know them and probably can’t know them. How can we guess the purpose of a dolphin or a cockroach (or, to use Tyson’s example, gut bacteria), let alone the purposes of alien beings in other star systems, other galaxies? The universe’s purpose is not within our neurocognitive scope; but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there. To me, all that means is that purpose is forever elusive to our ideologies and our pre-calculations. On that point, it would appear that Dr. Tyson and I are in a certain agreement. But his percentage-based estimate is a meaningless dismissal which again fails to address the actual question that is being asked.
In the grip of ego’s assumptions, we tend to project our own blindness, our own limitation of perspective, onto the beings and spaces around us. If humans are purposeless, then the universe must be too! Well, all right: if that’s the game you wish to play, very well, have at it. I just think it’s a curious and probably myopic use of the gift of reason. This leads me back to the holographic universe theory, which is almost always couched in terms such as, “we and our entire universe are just (or mere) mathematical projections…”
The other day, I was sitting in an application development meeting, when one of the managers of the project announced that the database component of the app hadn’t yet been finished, and he concluded: “but that’s just a technical matter…” The developer interrupted him here: he smiled and said, “did you just say ‘just a technical matter’?” Everyone laughed, but the point had been made.
In the same sense, to claim that we are “just” holographic projections is to deny the beautiful reality of mathematics. It is a very strange statement for a scientist or a science writer to make; but look at the reporting on this topic on the Internet, and you’ll see it all over the place. Now really, science: do you need a no-name office worker and part-time Taoist pyscho-cosmologist like me to tell you this? Should I have to be the one who tells you that — for a universe or a human person — it is far more significant, far more wondrous, to be a holographic projection than a silly clay creation of the Hand of some fairy-tale God from the deserts of the Middle East?
You may see this differently, but I would tend to feel a far greater sense of purpose as a hologram than as a distant scion of Adam and Eve. This, in fact, is precisely the point: as a mathematical entity, I do not need to know my purpose in the way that the intelligent design believers seem to demand theirs. It is enough that I feel its presence.
Presence, after all, is purpose. Not merely physical presence, though: I am referring to conscious presence — the living sense of being here and now in this almost intolerably beautiful place and moment within the space-time continuum. True presence can’t be planned, expected, deduced, empirically demonstrated, and least of all known (in the sense of thought).
Presence — this kind of presence, anyway — is within you. It doesn’t have to be learned, bought, derived, or even believed. It can’t be, for it is yours and no one else’s; so it must be experienced. When you have discovered that experience, you will find that there is no longer any room for doubting your purpose. For even if you can’t know it, you will never stop feeling it. And that will be more than enough.
*Let me be clear about one thing: I have immense personal respect for Dr. Tyson: I lived in New York City when he took over the directorship of that planetarium at the Museum of Natural History; so I know what an extraordinary contribution he has made to science and to civilization. The point of the exercise above is to show that unexamined assumptions can lead even the greatest minds (and Tyson’s is clearly a great mind) into a swamp of error. Having gone into such swamps many, many times in my life — far more, I’d bet, than Dr. Tyson has — I can offer some good news: it is not hard to extricate oneself. You just need to keep your awareness open and your heart humble.
An audio version of this essay is available.