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Finding meaning in life without religion
Religion does not have a monopoly on meaning.
- Meaning is a relative term, though some religious sects claim to have a stronghold on a definition.
- While meaning is possible through doctrine, there are other ways to find meaning in life.
- The story of activist and model, Halima Aden, highlights how meaning can come from many angles.
Can life have meaning without religion? The common sentiment, expressed by the religious, usually translates as, "How could anyone refute the notion that a rough approximation of the god I believe in exists?" Though oceans of theological disparities exist between religious factions, many rely on doctrine to derive meaning from existence.
Is it actually doctrine, or the community espousing it? Religion can certainly instill meaning into life. Yet "meaning" is widely dispersed. If you ever desire an intentional bout of induced dizziness, glance over the list of Christian denominations—then recall that this is only one religion, with numerous others (also with numerous factions) contributing their own definitions.
To be fair, a handful of common definitions transcend denomination. Perhaps the most often expressed: "something greater than myself." Sadly, this platitude is effectively meaningless, hardly a strong candidate for a consummate definition of meaning. A tornado is certainly greater than me; it can strip my life of meaning should it rob me of my home. Then again, I can rebuild. Meaning can be found in objects, yet often we define it as an inner state.
Instead of big definitions, let's look at a specific example—not so much a synonym, but how meaning plays out in life.
Halima Aden was born in a Kenyan refuge camp in 1997. The Somali Muslim moved to America at age six. Three years ago, she garnered attention for competing in the Miss Minnesota pageant donning a burkini and hijab. Though she walked away without the trophy, she did make the semifinals while infiltrating the media. Flipping conventional American beauty standards over, she said,
"Not seeing women that look like you in media in general and especially in beauty competitions sends the message that you're not beautiful or you have to change the way you look to be considered beautiful, and that's not true."
Model and activist Halima Aden on the importance of uplifting young girls and women
Aden recently reemerged in the spotlight for posing in this year's Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition. During the shoot, she discussed her incredible journey back to her homeland.
"I keep thinking [back] to six-year-old me who, in this same country, was in a refugee camp. So to grow up to live the American dream [and] to come back to Kenya and shoot for SI in the most beautiful parts of Kenya—I don't think that's a story that anybody could make up."
Aden then discusses unfair beauty standards placed on women and the notion of self-worth. She champions American values, such as the ability for a refugee, in the face of some of the harshest circumstances imaginable, to become successful while remaining proud of her heritage. Aden found meaning in life when the odds were stacked against her. It is a profound and inspiring story.
Then I made the mistake of sharing the article on social media.
You can also scroll through the comments on her Instagram feed, though you can likely guess what's being expressed. Islamists deride her for lack of modesty—even covered head to ankle she's still showing curves, which is apparently a problem. SI is supposed to be about fitness, says another: they need to loosen up and reveal more of her skin. A woman cries that America is going to hell by allowing such a travesty to occur; Sharia law will soon be installed here, etc.
This is not a pass for the blatant oppression of women in many sects of Islam (or anywhere). But the binary seems to be problematic for the religious. You can be against systemic intolerance and oppression and cheer women that flip the script by being empowered by the symbolism of their culture. In America, secular Judaism is as (if not more) common than Orthodox factions, yet somehow Americans believe the same cannot be true of Islam.
Halima Aden poses for portraits in front of Eniko Mihalik and Julia Restoin Roitfeld (back) at the amfAR Gala Cannes 2018 cocktail at Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc on May 17, 2018 in Cap d'Antibes, France. (Photo by Pascal Le Segretain/amfAR/WireImage for amfAR)
To be seduced, then enraged, at what is normally expressed as the meaning of Islam is to ignore anyone that derives meaning from their culture on their own terms and not yours. One anecdotal observation: no one that negatively commented on my posts about Aden were Muslim women. The fact that she finds meaning in her presentation of herself does not pass the test of others who prefer their own definitions.
Aden might pimp major fashion brands on her feeds, yet she's also an activist, supporting meaningful causes on a global scale. She was educated in that Kenyan refugee camp by UNICEF. The fact that she now represents the organization and gets to return the favor likely provides more meaning than a holiday photo shoot for Tiffany's.
Is meaning derived from Islam or through helping the next generation of refugees? I can't speak for Aden, but likely both. She writes about modesty in dress and childhood education; she reminds women that beauty is not defined narrowly. Feeling fulfilled from flat abs or a busty chest isn't sustainable, given the transience of biological life; finding meaning in providing clean drinking water to children in a refugee camp can last a lifetime.
Extrapolate from there. Meaning is wherever we focus our attention. Religion doesn't have a monopoly on the term even as it provides one fertile place for definitions. By the very nature of religions, however, any singular definition will be incomplete. The notion that one particular denomination nails it while those tens of thousands of others are off the mark is ludicrous, though it does speak to the tribal sentiments many factions promote among their ranks. So long as my tribe gets the spoils I'm fine spoiling it for you.
Or maybe there simply isn't a meaning of life, but many meanings over many days that extend (hopefully) for many decades. Such a mindset seems more consistent with the evidence than discovering an elusive proverbial needle in an earth-sized haystack.
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Certain water beetles can escape from frogs after being consumed.
- A Japanese scientist shows that some beetles can wiggle out of frog's butts after being eaten whole.
- The research suggests the beetle can get out in as little as 7 minutes.
- Most of the beetles swallowed in the experiment survived with no complications after being excreted.
In what is perhaps one of the weirdest experiments ever that comes from the category of "why did anyone need to know this?" scientists have proven that the Regimbartia attenuata beetle can climb out of a frog's butt after being eaten.
The research was carried out by Kobe University ecologist Shinji Sugiura. His team found that the majority of beetles swallowed by black-spotted pond frogs (Pelophylax nigromaculatus) used in their experiment managed to escape about 6 hours after and were perfectly fine.
"Here, I report active escape of the aquatic beetle R. attenuata from the vents of five frog species via the digestive tract," writes Sugiura in a new paper, adding "although adult beetles were easily eaten by frogs, 90 percent of swallowed beetles were excreted within six hours after being eaten and, surprisingly, were still alive."
One bug even got out in as little as 7 minutes.
Sugiura also tried putting wax on the legs of some of the beetles, preventing them from moving. These ones were not able to make it out alive, taking from 38 to 150 hours to be digested.
Naturally, as anyone would upon encountering such a story, you're wondering where's the video. Thankfully, the scientists recorded the proceedings:
The Regimbartia attenuata beetle can be found in the tropics, especially as pests in fish hatcheries. It's not the only kind of creature that can survive being swallowed. A recent study showed that snake eels are able to burrow out of the stomachs of fish using their sharp tails, only to become stuck, die, and be mummified in the gut cavity. Scientists are calling the beetle's ability the first documented "active prey escape." Usually, such travelers through the digestive tract have particular adaptations that make it possible for them to withstand extreme pH and lack of oxygen. The researchers think the beetle's trick is in inducing the frog to open a so-called "vent" controlled by the sphincter muscle.
"Individuals were always excreted head first from the frog vent, suggesting that R. attenuata stimulates the hind gut, urging the frog to defecate," explains Sugiura.
For more information, check out the study published in Current Biology.
The design of a classic video game yields insights on how to address global poverty.
Poverty can be a self-sustaining cycle that might require an external influence to break it. A new paper published in Nature Sustainability and written by professor Andrew Bell of Boston University suggests that we could improve global anti-poverty and economic development systems by turning to an idea in a video game about a race car-driving Italian plumber.
A primer on Mario Kart
For those who have not played it, Mario Kart is a racing game starring Super Mario and other characters from the video game franchise that bears his name. Players race around tracks collecting power-ups that can directly help them, such as mushrooms that speed up their karts, or slow down other players, such as heat-seeking turtle shells that momentarily crash other karts.
The game is well known for having a mechanism known as "rubber-banding." Racers in the front of the pack get wimpy power-ups, like banana peels to slip up other karts, while those toward the back get stronger ones, like golden mushrooms that provide extra long speed boosts. The effect of this is that those in the back are pushed towards the center, and those in front don't get any boosts that would make catching them impossible.
If you're in last, you might get the help you need to make a last-minute break for the lead. If you're in first, you have to be on the lookout for these breakouts (and the ever-dreaded blue shells). The game remains competitive and fun.
Rubber-banding: A moral and economic lesson from Mario Kart
In the real world, we see rubber-banding used all the time. Welfare systems tend to provide more aid to those who need it than those who do not. Many of them are financed by progressive taxation, which is heavier on the well-off than the down-and-out. Some research suggests that these do work, as countries with lower levels of income inequality have higher social mobility levels.
It is a little more difficult to use rubber-banding in real life than in a video game, of course. While in the game, it is easy to decide who is doing well and who is not, things can be a little more muddled in reality. Furthermore, while those in a racing game are necessarily antagonistic to each other, real systems often strive to improve conditions for everybody or to reach common goals.
As Bell points out, rubber-banding can also be used to encourage sustainable, growth programs that help the poor other than welfare. They point out projects such as irrigation systems in Pakistan or Payments for Ecosystems Services (PES) schemes in Malawi, which utilize positive feedback loops to both provide aid to the poor and promote stable systems that benefit everyone.
Rubber-banding feedback loops in different systems. Mario Kart (a), irrigation systems in Pakistan (b), and PES operations in Malawi (c) are shown. Links between one better-off (blue) and one worse-off (red) individual are highlighted. Feedback in Mario Kart (a), designed to balance the racers, imprAndrew Bell/ Nature Sustainability
In the Malawi case, farmers were paid to practice conservation agriculture to reduce the amount of sediment from their farms flowing into a river. This immediately benefits hydroelectric producers and their customers but also provides real benefits to farmers in the long run as their soil doesn't erode. By providing an incentive to the farmers to conserve the soil, a virtuous cycle of conservation, soil improvement, and improved yields can begin.
While this loop differs from the rubber-banding in Mario, the game's approach can help illustrate the benefits of rubber-banding in achieving a more equitable world.
The task now, as Bell says in his paper, is to look at problems that exist and find out "what the golden mushroom might be."
Satellite imagery can help better predict volcanic eruptions by monitoring changes in surface temperature near volcanoes.
- A recent study used data collected by NASA satellites to conduct a statistical analysis of surface temperatures near volcanoes that erupted from 2002 to 2019.
- The results showed that surface temperatures near volcanoes gradually increased in the months and years prior to eruptions.
- The method was able to detect potential eruptions that were not anticipated by other volcano monitoring methods, such as eruptions in Japan in 2014 and Chile in 2015.
How can modern technology help warn us of impending volcanic eruptions?
One promising answer may lie in satellite imagery. In a recent study published in Nature Geoscience, researchers used infrared data collected by NASA satellites to study the conditions near volcanoes in the months and years before they erupted.
The results revealed a pattern: Prior to eruptions, an unusually large amount of heat had been escaping through soil near volcanoes. This diffusion of subterranean heat — which is a byproduct of "large-scale thermal unrest" — could potentially represent a warning sign of future eruptions.
Conceptual model of large-scale thermal unrestCredit: Girona et al.
For the study, the researchers conducted a statistical analysis of changes in surface temperature near volcanoes, using data collected over 16.5 years by NASA's Terra and Aqua satellites. The results showed that eruptions tended to occur around the time when surface temperatures near the volcanoes peaked.
Eruptions were preceded by "subtle but significant long-term (years), large-scale (tens of square kilometres) increases in their radiant heat flux (up to ~1 °C in median radiant temperature)," the researchers wrote. After eruptions, surface temperatures reliably decreased, though the cool-down period took longer for bigger eruptions.
"Volcanoes can experience thermal unrest for several years before eruption," the researchers wrote. "This thermal unrest is dominated by a large-scale phenomenon operating over extensive areas of volcanic edifices, can be an early indicator of volcanic reactivation, can increase prior to different types of eruption and can be tracked through a statistical analysis of little-processed (that is, radiance or radiant temperature) satellite-based remote sensing data with high temporal resolution."
Temporal variations of target volcanoesCredit: Girona et al.
Although using satellites to monitor thermal unrest wouldn't enable scientists to make hyper-specific eruption predictions (like predicting the exact day), it could significantly improve prediction efforts. Seismologists and volcanologists currently use a range of techniques to forecast eruptions, including monitoring for gas emissions, ground deformation, and changes to nearby water channels, to name a few.
Still, none of these techniques have proven completely reliable, both because of the science and the practical barriers (e.g. funding) standing in the way of large-scale monitoring. In 2014, for example, Japan's Mount Ontake suddenly erupted, killing 63 people. It was the nation's deadliest eruption in nearly a century.
In the study, the researchers found that surface temperatures near Mount Ontake had been increasing in the two years prior to the eruption. To date, no other monitoring method has detected "well-defined" warning signs for the 2014 disaster, the researchers noted.
The researchers hope satellite-based infrared monitoring techniques, combined with existing methods, can improve prediction efforts for volcanic eruptions. Volcanic eruptions have killed about 2,000 people since 2000.
"Our findings can open new horizons to better constrain magma–hydrothermal interaction processes, especially when integrated with other datasets, allowing us to explore the thermal budget of volcanoes and anticipate eruptions that are very difficult to forecast through other geophysical/geochemical methods."