Is Fame The True Measure of a Human Being's Intrinsic Value?
What Is Lost When The Memory of Someone's Life Itself Fades Away?
Everyone likes to feel as if their life has great individual purpose and meaning, at least for their family and close friends if not for the world at large. While searching for such purpose might seem like an ethereal, philosophical question with no real practical value, it has profound implications for how human beings live their lives. Almost all of the activity of our lives is built upon a search for meaning, whether its through our religious and political beliefs, or through the things we try to accomplish in our work to change the world and make it a better place. Even the raising of children is ultimately about finding meaning in one’s life and contributing something to the world that makes a difference when you are gone.
Yet even famous leaders, inventors and artists often fade from awareness quickly after they are gone. A few select characters in history are remembered for generations past their lifetimes like Alexander the Great, Einstein and Mother Theresa. Those that served alongside them are often completely forgotten.
While the names of the great may become common knowledge for centuries, the near-great soon become as obscure as any other Tom, Dick or Mary living out run-of-the-mill lives. Who remembers Cleitus the Black, an officer in Alexander the Great's army who saved his life at the first pivotal battle between eastern and western forces, the battle of Granicus River in 334 BC? Without the bravery of Cleitus fighting besides Alexander, who was overwhelmed and surrounded by the soldiers of Darius III, Alexander would never have went on to conquer the known world, promoting democratic ideals of freedom beyond the local city-states of the Aegean. Only Alexander had shown an ability to unite squabbling Greek chieftains, a task his father Phillip II utterly failed at, and his untimely death may have produced a world today ruled by a vast Persian empire centered in Iran.
Wolfgang Pauli, a contemporary of Einstein, discovered the Pauli Exclusion Principle in physics which is foundational to explaining the very existence of the physical universe, yet outside of a small scientific community, his name is unknown. Susie King Taylor was a 19th century African-American slave on a Georgia plantation. Through incredible courage and self-education during her enslavement at the time of the Civil War, she transformed popular views of racism, setting the stage for later reforms. She is one individual among billions who has long been forgotten, yet had an unseen impact on the world.
If we so quickly lose sight of these secondary heroes in history, it’s not a stretch to imagine that our own ordinary lives will be even more quickly forgotten after we die. Is the mark of a great life that your name is written in history books along with your accomplishments? Rich and powerful societies like that of the Sumerian or Babylonian empires no doubt had their own long lists of heroes, heroines, social pioneers, artists and inventors. Yet the passage of a few thousand years has wiped all such names and accomplishments from collective memory. In the ages to come people we take for granted as part of history such as Abraham Lincoln and Mohandas Ghandi will also be forgotten, long lost to the cobwebs and rubble of crumbled civilizations that today we think are indestructible.
Fragmentary records of the past hide the truth of what brought us to where we are today. What we think of as history is really just an immensely small tip at the top of an ever growing pyramid of lost knowledge. What’s known is greatly overshadowed by unrecorded events and discoveries throughout time. These unknown influences likely had a much greater effect on the development of civilization and the success of our known heroes as well than we can ever imagine, but what that affect is may forever remain a mystery. Without a true understanding of history does humanity’s presence on the planet itself have any meaning? Can we know where we are going if we forget where we have been? Is your very existence dependent on a whimsical decision your great grandmother or grandfather may have made one day that caused them to meet their significant other?
This limitation of historical and personal records of our past is known as the problem of “silent evidence.” Silent evidence is the cumulative experience of the vast majority of the 107 billion people estimated to have lived and died on Earth so far. Often a loss of such knowledge is considered trivial and unimportant because we view rank and file individuals of the past as unimportant, even though that means we are as well.
Even in special, unique cases, we tend to dismiss past experiences which caused events to play out a certain way as mundane and trivial, worthy of fading into obscurity. Do we need to know where Hitler first went mad, leading to his deranged domination of the German people? Would it change anything now if we did? Is it important to know what unique flowering plant or insect species are like that slash and burn loggers may unknowingly be driving to extinction in the Amazon basin to clear land to raise cattle for fast food chains? In such cases lost knowledge of the experience of unremarkable individuals can result in great tragedies, avoidable world wars, or undiscovered cures for cancer and AIDs.
In the arts, we applaud the writing of Tolstoy, but what about his contemporaries? Hundreds of other writers of his day may have wrote equally provocative novels and stories which were never published due to accidents, distractions and quirks of fate. Tolstoy’s many works, (aside from the famous War and Peace itself), are said to have had enormous effect on the lives and actions of both Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. as well as on Christian thinking. Such decisive impacts created from his fiction changed not only the people of his homeland in Russia but the lives of many others around the world as well from the inhabitants of China to Germany.
We think of Tolstoy (and all great achievers) as unique geniuses of their time and other contemporary writers as substandard. Its more likely that genius is just an aberration of luck, someone who was able to both avoid premature death, and meet a special set of circumstances that gained their work unexpected notoriety. A sudden house fire, food poisoning from an otherwise routine dinner of slightly undercooked chicken, or a surprise letter from an uncle to come join the family cobbling business may have committed to obscurity dozens of half-finished cultural masterpieces produced throughout history. Lives lived in anonymity seem to rob cultures of enormous potential value, yet what that value actually is remains unknown to the present age.
In capitalist arenas we emulate tycoons of the past like JP Morgan or Rockefeller who built their vast fortunes based on employing certain common traits such as audacity and fearlessness in negotiations. Endless varieties of books are written about such common wealth generating principles, suggesting that if you just follow them yourself it is inevitable that you will become rich and famous. Many others however have used the very same tactics year after year and failed.
Nicholas Trist was a US diplomat under the Polk administration in 1848 who was charged with settling the Mexican-American War on reasonable terms. It was a lofty position, and promised him great notoriety and wealth when successfully completed. When he boldly demanded huge concessions from Mexico on behalf of the US government he instead was ridiculed by the US Congress and fired by the president for what seemed to them like behavior of sheer lunacy.
Despite this Trist hid the loss of his official status from the Mexicans and illegally went on to negotiate the concession of a vast swath of territory. Claiming that it was demanded by the US government, he obtained from Mexico what are now the western U.S. states of California, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico and portions of Colorado and Wyoming. They were surrendered for a bargain basement price at the time of only five cents per acre. Yet Trist is rarely mentioned in U.S. history books. A hero that acquired nearly half the land area that the U.S. relies upon today for its success, he has long been forgotten by most Americans, if they ever knew anything about him at all in the first place.
The unknown and the imagined effects of our ancestors on our lives is purely speculative and we cannot determine what impact they did or would have had. But we often use historical examples to guide our present actions, when the successes of such noteworthy individuals may just be a fluke of statistics. Survivors of a plane crash may all attribute their survival to living “a good, clean life”, or something as commonplace as reading their morning horoscope and following its advice, when many of their fellow passengers did the same things and died in the crash anyway.
So if we can’t trust historical evidence to guide us forward, and most common human experience of the past is lost to us, how can we know our lives have any meaning and that we’re really moving forward? Is society progressive, or just repeating the same mistakes over and over and forgetting it did so? Pioneering, revolutionary ideas may have been repeatedly discovered and lost over time, ideas that could have transformed the world of today. Is your idea for a way to easily grow food on the surface of the ocean the same one your great-great grandfather had, but everyone thought he was crazy as well? Did your family once grow a plant in their garden back in the old country that seemed to prolong their lives for many years, but the plant is now extinct, while the seeds your ancestors saved were destroyed when their ship sank on the way to the New World?
Every small and large discovery of humanity over the ages is only of value if it can be remembered and passed on. This seems to be true as well concerning our own individual lives. What does the sum total of your life mean if ultimately no one will remember you ever existed? If you acquired land for millions of people to inhabit and develop long after you were dead as Nicholas Trist did, does it ultimately mean anything if you yourself are forgotten? Is altruism a good enough justification for living even when no one remembers your good deeds?
Astronomers have been gathering evidence on the size of the physical universe for many years, and the accumulation of this evidence from the 1990s onward now strongly suggests that the universe is infinite in size. This may seem like an academic distinction by comparison to a finite universe billions of light years across, but it offers profound implications for the meaning of our lives. An infinite physical universe also leads to the conclusion that time itself is also infinite and that the Big Bang moment in the distant past was only one local creation event among many.
It also means that, similarly to the little we really know of human history, what we have observed of the universe compared to its actual infinite size is effectively 0%. When you have only observed nearly zero percent of something, you have to admit that you know very little about it. Our assumptions are that we understand the cosmos and ourselves pretty well in today’s modern world, but all of our ancestors believed the same things and were proved wrong.
If we’ve observed or recorded close to zero percent of our past, what do we really know about our past? The Library at Alexandria may have held stores of knowledge contributed by and well known by common people of the time, proof of where we came from and why we are the way we are. But it has long since burned to the ground, and those who read and knew its contents well have passed to dust. It may take only a few hundred years for an individual to be forgotten, and several thousand for a society, but eventually all awareness of the past is lost. Atlantis is a legend that few believe was real, and one day even the legend will be forgotten. How long will it be before our civilization goes the same way?
The vast majority of human beings and the societies they build die in complete anonymity, forever forgotten by future generations. This suggests that anonymity is the very foundational nature of reality itself. The world quickly forgets who we were and what we contributed. The full meaning of history, (real history instead of the sketchy, primitive ideas of what took place that we have written down in books), may forever be unknowable.
In an infinite physical universe, scientists are faced with the same fact: that knowing the fundamental nature of the universe, where it came from and what is possible within its confines, are eternally unsolvable questions. With infinite time, and infinite space, you have to conclude that anything is possible and you can never know where actual, impenetrable limits and boundaries to existence lie.
Meaning to life and physical existence itself therefore can never come from recognition or remembrance by other people. If everything you are and were is eventually forgotten by those who come after you, your life can only have permanent meaning if it is remembered somewhere else. The only true meaning to life therefore must come from infinity, from that which preserves what you are and will be in a way so that it can never pass away.
Whatever that preserving force may be, it too must be infinite in nature, and ultimately unknowable to finite beings that die. Without permanence, any society or individual that exists for a time then passes away, and is quickly forgotten, can be said to not be a true living thing at all. Life is only real if it is eternal. Human beings seem to know this innately at their core. The entire focus of our short existences on the planet seems to revolve around understanding the dilemma of not why we are here, but why we fade away.
A life of anonymity is inherently meaningless, unless, somewhere, somehow, that life can be continued, indefinitely…