Archive for February, 2010

Inescapable Truth #5: Humans Seek Meaning

Monday, February 15th, 2010

By any reasonable measure, I have everything I have ever wanted: a beautiful wife who loves me in spite of my faults; two great kids (one at Princeton another with a good chance of getting in); a big house in a great neighborhood; good friends all around the world; good health; enough money to retire on. And yet, as I sit on my back patio, smoking a cigar and drinking a fine scotch, I feel like there’s more I need (other than to fix my propane space heater, fix my tractor and mow my lawn!).

Yes, I just turned fifty but I do not need a convertible. I do not need a blonde. I do not need to find myself.

I am not at all religious, but I sympathize with those who find themselves seeking God.

I believe that my sense of need is simply part of who I am. I am a scientist and an engineer. Scientists are fundamentally people intrigued by questions. Why does something behave the way it does? How does that thing work? Engineers take things a step further and say, “now that I know the answer to my question, let me build something cool with that knowledge.”

I believe that all humans, to some degree, have the the “quest for knowledge”  itch fundamentally etched into their DNA. I believe that, someday, a neuroscientist will discover that the human brain differs from that of other species because it has a feedback loop that rewards the establishment of new, strong, neural connections with a flood of endorphins (i.e. that the human brain rewards learning by making us feel good.) The stronger and less obvious the connection, the larger the reward.

My sense of unrest is the result of my brain itching to answer some new question or to build some new cool thing.

Not everyone is an engineer. Someone who has the itch for knowledge but not the mechanical and mathematical proclivities will channel the itch elsewhere. Perhaps artists are people who create objects that, in some way, answer their unvoiced questions. Perhaps preachers are people who find that God best answers their questions. Perhaps nymphomaniacs, alcoholics, and psychopaths are people who find that sex, drugs and violence, if they don’t answer any questions at least dull the need to search for answers.

I wonder if, perhaps, there is a correlation between “itchiness” and happiness. Are people who lack curiosity generally happier than those who don’t? I think that’s what Paul was telling us in the bible when he sets forth the notion of original sin. When Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge, they lost their innocence and became miserable. I never did care much for Paul. I’d rather be human and mortal than immortal and ovine.