There are several big questions about the nature of the universe that we now believe we can answer, more or less, or at least we can see how we might get there, that we might find an answer at some point in the future. That is, we don’t think the big questions are unanswerable, we just believe we need more data and more time. Some of those big questions are, for example, how the universe began – in the big bang. What the universe was like just a nanosecond after the big bang. How matter formed in the universe, how solar systems – the stars and their planets – became scattered across space. How life could have formed from the interaction of a few basic chemical ingredients. How life evolved along Darwinian evolutionary principles, and what the nature of consciousness is and how it works and creates pictures inside our heads about how other things work, like little marionette theatres.

But among all the big questions we can start to answer there is one big question that remains, and always will remain unanswered. And that’s the question why things are the way they are and not some other way, why something and not nothing makes up the actuality of the universe and why, when matter and life itself formed into some semblance of initial order, it didn’t just fall apart again and go off drifting back into emptiness through all eternity. No matter how you approach this question, at some point you have to accept that some things are given, or at least this one big thing is given, and we have to start with that when we start thinking about anything at all.

One of the things we start with as a given is ourselves, and our mind’s ability to think about the world. If there was no one here, if there were no people and the world was just a barren rock, then no thinking would be going on. So, what we think of the world, and whether we can judge whether we are right or wrong about what we think of the world, including all those big questions, rests on this single factor of our ability to represent the world and think about it, and to think about ourselves and our own thought processes.

So here we have two givens, neither of which we can get away from. That the universe ‘out there’, whatever it is and however it is, is something. And the thought process ‘in here’ is also something, something else, without which we wouldn’t know anything, either about the world or about ourselves.

Now, this is an interesting situation. Although we know we can’t know anything about the world without a mind to know it, one of the things we know is that the world came into being a long, long time before we did. It might be nice, in a mystical sort of way, to think that mind, as some sort of ectoplasmic soul material, came into existence at the same time and we sort of picked it up like a virus as we evolved from amoebae to humans. But we all probably recognise that what we still conveniently call ‘mind’ is a function of the brain in the cranium of the skull which is part of the bone and flesh and blood and viscera of a particular kind of animal, the human animal. The picture of the world we hold in our minds, a picture that when we think about the big questions of the universe actually seems to fill the universe in its attempt at comprehension, in actual fact is like those palaeolithic paintings at Lascaux hidden deep in caves lit by a primitive oil lamp, painted somewhere in the neocortex of individual human beings illuminated in ways we can’t yet understand. So if we can stand back from ourselves and ask where in the wide universe is all this reality that we observe – the answer is it is just something made up by all these ant-like creatures that when we get closer up are actually not ants at all but a late branching off of a primate species whose social and technical and cooperative and language skills have got them all to believe more or less the same thing, that the world out there circulates around them in a Ptolemaic sort of way with the subject at the centre of the objective world looking out at it and deciding what things are and how they work and what they are for.

But I like to think of the mind as something like a prism, something that itself is just another object in a world of objects. Light goes into a prism and comes out again, and what the prism does is break it up into its component parts. The mind is a place where phenomena get broken up and sorted out. But that does not mean that the reality of the world resides in the mind any more than the nature of light resides in the prism – it’s just stuff that happens along with millions of other interactions between elements of the physical universe. It happens for a purpose, for a strictly functional and necessary purpose. Just as in any functioning organism, information, data, sensation goes in and, in some instances it is also actively sought, and in the light of it the organism is able to orientate itself, act in its own interests, eat, defend itself, find a mate etc. The mind is this same stuff in a more complex and sophisticated model, but none the less one that serves the same end, namely the self-interests (which might be mutual interests) of the organism. The subjectivity that arises out of this is a local phenomenon – something that happens in the brain that makes the person think he is in control of something, but in fact when you stand a few feet back, or a few million light years back, is just another one of many objective fizzes and sparks that happen among the flotsam and jetsam of the hurtling wreckage of the big bang universe.

If you look at things like this, then you have to say that the universe is without meaning, simply because meaning is just one of many odd concepts sparked off in the neural firing of the brain circuitry that might matter to the mind but matters not at all anywhere else.

Reality – and when I say reality I mean absolutely everything that matters to us in the totality of our existence – has nothing to do with the universe itself. It has to do only with the mind making a living in it. I know this because, from time to time, I enquire of other representatives of the living world what they think. The busy bee, I know, is too busy and the worker ant is at work. They never look up. But the frog has a lot of time on his hands, sitting on a lilypad and waiting for a fly to get within range. I ask about epistemology – what the world is. I wait, and then ask about teleology – what the world is for, what it all means, where is it all going, what’s the point of it. These are big words for big ideas, but the frog has never learned to ask the questions and has no possible interest in the answers. Nothing in the world is dependent on its own reality to get along just fine. To make that important distinction – we all need know-how knowledge, but we don’t need know-what knowledge.

We humans know a lot more than we need to know to get along. Sorting out what is essential and what is inessential is not an easy thing to do. If we know a lot we can plan a lot more, experiment more, model alternative outcomes and benefits, act on things in ways that have never been tried before. We don’t know at the beginning what that knowledge will lead to, so the more knowledge we have the wider our scope for discovering things of advantage. In the animal world, all knowledge is essential knowledge. There’s not much hanging around watching the world go by just for the sake of it. Even when the dog is curled up half asleep and half awake in front of the fire, it’s unlikely, as the Catholic philosopher Miguel de Unamuno once commented in relation to the leisure time of the crab, that he is preoccupied solving equations of the second degree. You can argue that most of our knowledge is for use, or at least for potential use. But just knowing for its own sake is interesting too. Knowing that we know is what gives us the keen sense of being alive. But self-consciousness brings with it a knowledge of some things that other unself-conscious creatures know nothing about. Anxiety, guilt, regret, apprehension about the future, fear of death and an unsettling need for a sense of purpose, meaning or worth to justify being alive at all.

The human species has got itself into a dilemma over the extent of its knowledge. It is as though knowledge has spilt over the capacity that was needed to fuel the better management of our own interests as a social species, and swamped the mind with junk that has no essential value at all. Junk like philosophy, poetry, literature, art, gothic architecture, Bach’s mass in B minor, moon rockets, porch swings, holidays abroad, stamp collecting and explaining your ideas to other people. They are decorative and help pass the time, but irrelevant. That is, irrelevant to what we generally take to be the role of evolution in ensuring survival and competitive advantage.

But evolution has always thrown up a whole lot of anomalous phenomena that, like the dinosaurs, eventually don’t work and become history. Strange and inefficient ways of making a living are commonplace. I have a note of a comment made by one Lionel Willis, a grocer from North Carolina, on hearing that a species of eel migrates half way round the world in order to mate: It may be right but it ain’t reasonable. We ourselves still have the stump of a tail, males have nipples that are of no use to them, so far as I know, and we have facial hair that most of us have to shave off every day. It can’t have been the point of having a beard to eventually create a profitable environmental niche for the refined steel industry.

So maybe all the reality of the world we see around us, represented in the brain in the head, is what we should rightly call an epiphenomenon – an accidental by-product of the need to have a representational model of the world in our minds in order to act on it, find our way in it, prosper, survive, make a living. Now, millions of other creatures orientate themselves in some sort of model of the world, let’s say the spatial relationship between a bird, a twig, a nest and a tree that ensures that when the bird’s biology urges it to start moving around in the spring it does so in a hardwired sort of way that recognises those coordinates but doesn’t stand around contemplating, observing, reflecting, wondering, puzzling what things are and thinking isn’t it a nice day for the time of year etc. We can do the same thing. But we have extra baggage to carry. We are burdened with a second order representation of that model of the world, with our capacity to know it and, moreover, our inability to escape from it. Consciousness is a burden, the burden of reality. That’s why as humans we get stressed, depressed, apprehensive, anxious, suffer mental breakdown, become suicidal, unlike animals who, not having this sense of reality, not possessing it have nothing they need to escape from. The animal, as the poet Rainer Maria Rilke said in his Eighth Elegy, is always looking outward. Only we turn and look back, look inward, not merely living in the world but reflecting on our lives and how we live and why we live.

With all its eyes the natural world looks out
into the Open. Only our eyes are turned

We might describe ourselves, therefore, as permanently in two minds. In one respect the mind is an elaborate extension of the nervous system that takes in data from the world, regulates the function of the organism, seeks out information in the world in order to map its own interests and needs and not get things wrong too many times. You can see how evolution might have brought that about, both biologically and socially – because so much of our recent evolution we should think of in social and cultural terms – by selection for advantage, keeping what works, discarding what doesn’t work. That’s the basic mind, the core mind, the natural mind, the necessary mind, the functional mind. I’d like to refer to this as the essential mind. It distinguishes us from the animal – but not by very much, because it’s a tool for survival, and a tool that, as we know, has led to the production of other tools from stone axes to microprocessors.

What does distinguish us is not our essential mind, the mind we need for getting things done and for getting on, but the inessential mind, the one that asks big questions about the nature of the universe, the one that resolves equations of the second degree, the one that prompts us to take the scenic route to admire the view, the one that writes, explains, theorises, creates, paints, plays the piano. In one word, the mind that knows – and wants to know more.

What is interesting as we do get to know more, and as we approach the answers to the big questions about the universe, is that we can see ourselves more and more clearly as just one of the many products of a self-organising system, and that the system that gave rise to atoms of matter also gave rise to single celled organisms, to bacteria, to plants, to animals, to humans, to patterns of behaviour, to brains, to consciousness. We are still, in essence, fragments of that self-organised system. We know this because we know that a hundred years ago you and I did not exist and the possibility of you and I existing now and just as we are was not planned and no one was looking out for us. And shortly we will resume our indifferent place in the system as just more, but different and less interesting particles. But what prevents this fact from making us utterly contemptuous of ourselves, terminally pessimistic and hopeless, what rescues us is the value we place on the centrality of our inessential minds in determining who we are and why we go on living. No one really believes that making a living, surviving, prospering is all there is to life, that living, just living, is an end in itself. That’s why social utopias based on a theory of economics can never work, why creating wealth is never enough and why religion keeps breaking through against all reason.

Now, evolutionary psychologists and sociobiologists will argue that these inessential and decorative aspects of our minds do have an evolutionary and preservative role. In sexual selection, for example. This is to take a very narrow, a very thin perspective on the role of knowledge and understanding in our lives, and to push the Darwinian rationale beyond its limits. The Darwinian, evolutionary necessity of a mind that will help the body make a living certainly got the mind to where it is, but now we are here our necessary minds are free to think unnecessary thoughts.

I don’t believe that everything we do and everything we think is purely and simply a more ornate, a more ornamented way of making a living. Or an elaborate peacock-like way of ensuring we get a healthy mate and go on reproducing ourselves and our genes. The idea that we are more than the sum of our biological components is fundamental to our idea of ourselves. The idea that life is just about being born, living at all costs and at anyone’s expense – and then dying – will never be enough to make life worth living. I cannot deny that I am fundamentally a beast, a creature of nature. But I can deny that I will live like a beast, driven solely by my biological needs and hungers, and I can insist that I live in the light of my knowledge and understanding, however imperfect that might be.

So as the big ideas begin to reveal to us our true place in the universe and that nothing, absolutely nothing is going to rescue us, we are thrown back on our own resources, and we have only one resource, and that is our mind. We are sheltered from existential despair because in the final analysis what matters to us is not living – living empty lives – but living in order to know, to understand, to appreciate, to recognise and to accept the world, the world that consciousness has revealed to us, to delight in it, to rescue the universe from oblivion by translating its objective indifference into subjective reality, and by believing that to have lived is to have mattered, and that to know is all we need to know.