"Nothing has inherent meaning. It is what it is and that's it. We just choose to project meaning onto things. It feels good."
(I've yet to read The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives, but I suspect it might have something to offer in this conversation.)
I agree with Sivers, for the most part. The conscious lens through which we view the world is the result of events that are as seemingly random as those that give rise to stars, trees, bacteria, or monkeys. If all we are as human beings is just the result of natural processes of evolution--if we're simply animals, somewhat more evolved in our level of consciousness and brain capacity than other forms of life we're aware of--then how meaningful is our existence?
In the grand scheme of the Universe, perhaps not very meaningful at all. After all, we occupy only "a quarter of a second in the month of June," as Martin Rees put it. But, in a humanist context, there can be plenty of meaning. Not only does it feel good to "project" meaning, as Sivers says, but there is perhaps more truth to this perceived meaning than we would otherwise be led to believe by the seeming randomness of everything else in the Universe.
Think of it this way: It's not so much that things "randomly" happen--they happen because they are caused by something else; and this "something else" was caused by something else before that...which was in turn caused by something else before that...and so on, all the way back to the initial moment of the Big Bang (or whatever else may have set this all in motion).
What I'm getting at is the idea of timing, the idea of everything being in its right place...the fact that by the logic of causality and determinism, there is nowhere else you could be right now; so, your particular vessel of consciousness is where it is in time and space at each specific moment such that it intersects with other "things" or "events" happening in the Universe in a way that seems very much inevitable and predetermined; all of these individual, intersecting components, it would seem, have been set in motion by some initial cause. Therefore, as you are wherever you may be to witness and be a part of these events--this moment in time--are you there merely to "project" meaning, or are you perhaps there to discern truth? Of course, ultimately, we're always projecting, I suppose...that seems inevitable...but it also seems true that your perceived notion of "truth" or "meaning" would be a derivative of choice--if you happen to notice certain connections, you have the freedom to choose what you believe and whether or not these events have any larger meaning, if only as large as the existence of your individual life itself. But, in order to make a choice, in the truest sense, it would seem that you must be aware of that choice in the first place. So, if you don't perceive any connections or coincidences in your life (for whatever reason), are you capable of choosing whether or not they hold any meaning? Obviously not. Or, perhaps, irrespective of whether or not you've been aware of such "coincidences" in the past, you've already decided what to believe, and you've negated the possibility that any coincidence or connection might hold any larger meaning in your life; in this case, it would seem you've made a choice to believe something--that any such coincidence or connection in your life holds no "higher" meaning--with absolutely certainty. (I prefer Richard Feynman's espousal of uncertainty.) I guess, ultimately, we believe what we believe, and there are consequences to our choices as to what we believe. But if you "project" meaning--whether this meaning is "true" in any absolute sense or not--is the effect any less actual in our humanist context? Maybe it is all random...maybe all meaning is merely a projection of our "evolved" consciousnesses; logically, this makes sense. Personally, though, there have been enough incredible coincidences in my life over the past several years to make me at least doubt the apparent randomness of the Universe; and, at the very least, my perception of meaning has brought me immense joy in recent years. I can assure you that this effect is very real. It's the seeming connection of all things that can be known viscerally rather than logically...the way thought can anticipate events in a manner that seems almost too strange for mere coincidence...but, of course, you must be listening or looking in the first place...and, of course, this is just me projecting...
When someone asks me, "Do you believe in God?" I feel like what they're really asking me is, "Do you think there's really any point to this? Do you think there's any higher meaning? Is there a purpose to our lives here on Earth? Why are we here?"
As human beings, we project meaning onto our lives and onto our entire existence as a species, perhaps out of necessity. Believing in "God" may have even been evolutionarily advantageous. We search for meaning, we desire purpose, because otherwise, what's the point?
I guess what I'm ultimately saying isn't very profound and maybe not even any different from what Sivers was saying: yeah, it's random, but there is still tremendous meaning in our existence. The relatively new revelation for me is that meaning is a choice...similarly, peace, love, joy and happiness are choices, as well. (The level of choice is of course altered by other factors...choice itself could open up a whole other conversation.)
I'm reminded of a quote from the intro to Chuck Klosterman's Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs, which I read in high school: "In and of itself, nothing really matters. What matters is that nothing is ever in and of itself."
This--Earth, life, us--is all part of a much larger whole, and we can't be certain of much else other than what we know here on this planet. That's the context in which we find ourselves, from which we derive a sense of purpose and meaning and answer the question, "Why?"
To this end, the conclusion I've come to after 25 years of life on this planet is that the purpose of humanity is to:
1) Increase joy
2) Move it forward.
In essence, that's it. Make our temporal, finite, time-bound individual existences more filled with joy, and expand the bounds of what we know ("move it forward"). In doing so, we leave the Earth perhaps a little better than how we found it--we pass on the torch, humanity continues to push on, and we become good ancestors (I'm stealing this idea from somewhere, I'm sure).
Sivers concludes his essay by saying that, "Even if presented with proof that it's totally random or neutral, we decide it has meaning anyway. It makes life more poetic and beautiful."
I guess that's really how you have to look at it....find meaning, find joy, find purpose, and have fun with it...it's your choice...this is incredibly liberating to me...you get to choose whatever meaning life holds for you. My only question is still whether or not any of this is truly "random." But I suppose that question is truly not answerable.