My last five posts have had self-reliance, self-sufficiency, and going-it-alone at their core. Number eighteen described my forty-year suppression of a UFO sighting in the 1970s for lack of personally convincing evidence. Nineteen argued for self-education over formal, purchased education. Twenty, twenty-one, and twenty-two chronicled my private war with academia, religion, and the military at the University of Rochester and the U.S Naval Academy during the 1960s.
Today I'll explain the philosophical basis of my belief in the solitariness of human existence, a belief underlying my point of view in the past five posts and throughout these Consolations. I see human solitude both as a tragic fact of life and as one of life's major consolations.
I start from the assumption that human life is a random accident in a basically non-human All, "All" being my term for the material order whose essence is absolute Being and from which all subsidiary being like that of our own cosmos has emerged. In our cosmos, this process of emergence is now so well understood that everyone who accepts modern science knows how it happened. Some thirteen billion years ago, an unexplained, probably random burst of infinite heat and density broke the symmetries among time, space, and the four fundamental forces of whatever material state preceded it and, in a fraction of a nanosecond, swelled and cooled into the physical realities that produced the cosmos and us.
At the instant of the Big Bang, everything that was to become the cosmos existed in chaotic relationship to everything else. Time, space, gravity, electromagnetism, and the strong and weak nuclear forces were in some unfathomable way symmetrical. They did not interact. Their imperviousness to reciprocity -- their resistance to exchanging, blending, or sharing with each other in any way -- was, in its perfect symmetricality, also of course perfectly chaotic. It was a state of absolute mutual isolation, in which everything was absolutely cut off from everything else. From this initial state of cosmic symmetry, I infer that the All as a whole is is some ultimate way similarly symmetrical and chaotic. Further, I infer from the fact that our cosmos is materially unified that the All is also materially unified.
Though how everything can be at once both chaotic and unified is an impenetrable mystery, it's a mystery everywhere manifested in the natural order surrounding us. In physical nature, for example, photons and quarks are both waves and particles. Particles randomly decay into other particles. Gravity bends space and time. Order everywhere produces disorder and vice versa: galaxies coalesce and collide, gravity crushes protons into neutrons that then, given sufficient mass, explode into supernovas; stars and human beings are born and die as much through probablistic chance as deterministic cause and effect. From observing, experiencing, and learning facts like these, I've deduced that ultimate matter is similarly chaotic and unified. That is, from the cosmic materiality I see everywhere around and within me, I extrapolate an absolute metacosmic materiality. All of this is speculative, of course, but it rests on proven science rather than hope, faith, or charity.
Further, it's led me to think that the All's state of absolute Being must also be a state of absolute solitude. The ultimate, material components of the All, whatever they may be and do, do not, I believe, interact. Infinitely separate, they comprise a featureless, oblivious ocean of material Being whose individual drops, or parts, are absolutely unique, identical, and symmetrical. Radically separate from each other, theirs is the solitude of chaotic flux, which, as in the Big Bamg, inexplicably and randomly breaks its essential symmetries and somehow effuses itself into the disorderly order of subsidiary, asymmetrical existence like that of our cosmos.
If so, human solitude may not be just next to but the same thing as godliness. Sensing your aloneness among the galaxies may be analogous to being one of those drops of featureless, identical matter in the All's primal flux. Imagining myself as such a drop actually consoles me: I share in the All's fundamental materialness and at the same time in the infinite separateness and uniqueness of each of its ultimate parts, whatever they may be: -- infinitely dimensional or non-dimensional "objects"? metacosmic "energy fields"? vibrating "strings"? "membranes"? quantum vacuum "ripples"? infinitessimal "uncertainties"? I'm also consoled to think I'll be nearer that absolute state of Being after I die than I am now.
In other words, my conception of ultimate reality -- that is, as a state of complete disconnection and non-interaction among bits? traces? waves? loops? of material stuff whose symmetry is so perfect that nothing but their featureless sameness, paradoxically enough, binds them -- raises solitude to the level of a primal absolute. As one of a handful of such absolutes (others are infinity and eternity), solitude seems alien to humanness only if humanness is defined as somehow immaterial, as containing some kind of supernatural ingredient or essence.
Philosophical materialism rejects any such definition. Existence is just as material, natural, irrational, and chaotic beyond our cosmos as within it. Nature here shares some kind of insentient essence with everything else in the All. Sentient life is rare, accidental, and aberrant everywhere it appears. No supernatural planner or designer creates it. It evolves randomly from the flux.
Obviously I set great philosophical weight on solitude. But I value it in mundane, human terms too. For one thing, it often helps me understand and accept death in general and my own death in particular. Walking alone through forests, deserts, or mountains, or contemplating bodies of fresh or salt water by myself, leads me sooner or later to the problem of dying. While birds and animals may notice me at such times, usually to keep as far away as possible, the rest of the wilderness ignores me. Leaves flutter, clouds hang and drift, rain or snow falls, the sun moves overhead, all without reciprocating a single thought or feeling I may have about them.
They're as unaware of and indifferent to me as I'll be to them when I rejoin them as part of inorganic nature. Though their masses and energies will continue interacting with the masses and energies of my corpse, as they do now with my living body, I'll know and feel nothing of it. In becoming as unconscious as they, I'll in one sense have become vastly more like them than I am now. But in another sense I'll have radically distanced myself from them by entering the solitude that's a primal attribute of every material object.
It won't be a disagreeable solitude. There, ignorance really is bliss. The lack of self-awareness all inanimate things have is an existential condition most human beings long for in one way or another. Addicts try to achieve it through alcohol and other narcotics. Many people crave it as a way of overcoming shyness and loneliness. If only I could forget myself, they hope, I'd be more confident, likeable, and popular. Many want to get away from self-consciousness for other reasons -- they think they're too fat, too thin, too tall,, too short, too dumb, too smart, too garrulous, too quiet, too glib, too serious, too good, too bad. Some mystics try to transcend selfhood to states of depersonalized being. And almost everyone at one time or another gets tired of making a living, coping with illness and other mundane problems, or simply being alive.
Above all, the solitude of death will be restful. Having already, at age seventy-six, lived an active and reasonably happy life, I look forward to leaving the clamor of human existence. I long to escape the dissatisfactions of daily life, its pain, frustration, disappointment, and unhappiness. To me, one of materialism's greatest comforts is on the one hand its denial of personal immortality and on the other its insistence that sentience and cognition are permanently extinguished at death . There is no heaven, hell, or afterlife, merely the natural peace that passes all understanding.
Countless other thoughts also occur to me when I'm alone. Hiking by myself, I've often found myself admiring the splendors of nature itself. Few of the places I've been to in the world have failed to show me how magnificent our planet is. Coastal and mountain California, the Rockies and the Tetons, the Mississippi basin, the Louisiana and Florida swamps, tidewater Maryland and Virginia, Appalachian New York and New England, and the maritime provinces of Canada have all revealed breathtaking landscapes, waterscapes, and seascapes to me.
The territories of western Europe, especially Germany, Austria, Switzerland, France, Italy, and Greece, have impressed me too. There, however, nature has been more often modified and enhanced by conscious human effort than in North America. Awesome as the Swiss Alps are as a wilderness filling horizons with rows of jagged peaks, they're also unforgettable as a human habitat. Massifs of rock and snow tower over valleys softened at lower altitudes by evergreen forests and fields and farms that have been worked into them with immense human effort. I find this combination of inhuman, invulnerable wildnerness and human, vulnerable agriculture moving.
Another stunning mixture of humanness and wildness is the ancient Greeks' building of gorgeous structures on spectacular natural sites. Everyone's seen photographs of the Parthenon in Athens, but fully to appreciate it you must see it live. So too the amphitheater at Delphi and the stadium at Olympia. Best of all, for me, is the temple of Poseidon near Athens at Cape Sunion, which has stood for more than two thousand years in the splendid isolation of its seaside promontory.
This habit of preserving and enhancing nature is evident everywhere in European town zoning and especially in Germany. Villages and cities there follow much stricter rules about what can be built where than in the U.S. Almost all German villages are marvels of compactness. Residential, commercial, and agricultural buildings are tightly bunched on central streets, while surrounding fields and forests lay unbroken on all sides. Cities and industrial zones are less tightly controlled, but even there cows graze next to factories and forests are within walking distance of downtown centers. A major reason for Europe's heavy subsidization of agriculture is that Europeans are willing to pay to keep their living space green.
Besides recharging my love of both wild and humanized nature, getting away from people and being alone consoles me in yet another way. It helps free me for a time from the bedlam and mayhem of humanity's greed, stupidity, selfishness, and cruelty and get over the anger, frustration, and depression they often cause me. Like many earlier materialists, I do not adore much of what I see in myself and the rest of my species. The surviving writings of Epicurus, the earliest materialist documents that exist, recommend friendship mainly as a safeguard against human viciousness. Lucretius, whose Nature of Things was the only full exposition of classical materialism to survive the first millennium and a half of Christianity, ignores Epicurus' doctrine of friendship and instead recommends science and reason as the best defense against the "howling rage" of the religious masses. And d'Holbach's 1770 System of Nature, the first great materialist treatise after Lucretius' poem, concludes that atheistic materialism isn't "suitable to the great mass of mankind."
By disposition and circumstance, I too have always been a loner. Though probably reinforced by my being orphaned at thirteen, my lonerism stems mainly, I think, from my having gotten used to living alone with my mother during my Vermont boyhood and, after she died, from having pretty much made my own way through high school, college, and graduate school into college teaching. Yet I've also always needed close or intimate relationships with at least one other person. I always had at least one close male or female friend before I met my wife in graduate school, after which she was my best friend till our separation twenty-three years ago. Our children remain two of my best friends, and she and I maintain contact. I met my current best friend, my partner, six months after the separation, and she and I have been virtually married ever since.
So despite my somewhat hermit-like avoidance of cocktail and dinner parties and holiday gatherings like Thanksgiving, Christmas, and the Fourth of July and, more importantly, of humanity in general, I still manage to amuse myself with communal activities like golf and poker that require contact, however superficial, with others. I find I enjoy such contact in limited doses. I much prefer it to the virtual socializing that more and more pervades the internet and other kinds of social media. However anti-social and misanthropic my kind of lonerism may seem to others, it strikes me, at least, as a lot more friendly than communicating via Twitter, Facebook, and the like. Yet I do like writing and sharing this blog with others.
And despite my philosophical and personal bias in favor of isolation, separateness, solitude, and aloneness, I'm finally and powerfully aware of how comforting and consoling it has been to me to be able, however briefly, to reciprocate love and affection with other human beings in a universe that seems to be primordially incapable of such feelings. Though humanness is evidently inessential and accidental to the All, it has as much validity and reason for being as anything else. Material existence, which is the only kind there is and can never not exist, is also infinitely self-justifying and valuable no matter what form it takes. I'm delighted I've had the extremely rare and improbable chance to live, know, think, and feel with human clarity and passion. I look forward to the calmness, serenity, and solitude awaiting me when I die, and I look back just as contentedly to the interactions I've had with everyone and everything here on earth. The view strikes me as sublimely mysterious in both directions.