Elephants All The Way Down
I remember when I first realized as a young child that the world did not rest on anything, that it was floating in space as a self-contained ball – never thrown up, and never to come down. That day my father told me the story of a woman in the audience when Betrand Russell explained this to a crowded lecture hall in London. “Young man” she is supposed to have said, “everyone knows the world rests on the back of four elephants.” When Russell asked her what the elephants stood on she said, definitively, “It’s elephants all the way down.” It was much later in life that I realized that world of values is like the physical world – it too rests on no ultimate foundation but is nevertheless a beautiful, self-supported, gem.
The universe we live in is an utterly neutral place. It is neither malevolent nor benevolent. It is not out to get us and will not reward us for good deeds or a well-lived life. There is no ultimate judge, no final judgment, no definitive resting point for our assertions of value. There is no purpose or meaning to be found in the existence of the stars, the rocks, the trees, or even the duck-billed platypus.
This does not mean that there is not good or evil, beauty or venality in this world. It is just that they are of our making and judged by our understanding. The values that color this neutral universe come from us – from our desires and beliefs – and they are made real in our actions and words. We don’t live in a moral world, but we do bring one into being by the way we live.
There is both freedom and an attendant responsibility in this realization. Yes, we are free to make the world according to our desires but, when the world we create is ugly, harmful, or demeaning we have no one but ourselves to blame. No devil, no original sin, no dark side of the force. And when the world we create is humane, or luscious, or vibrant, or joyous, then the credit is ours as well.
Choosing to act is choosing to make real the value that the action embodies. If I cheat on my taxes, chicanery finds a greater toe-hold in the world. If I help a small child up a difficult flight of steps, compassion blossoms just slightly. And when I craft a finely wrought phrase or a delicate line, beauty comes to life. Without actions, without actors, there are no values.
The world we live in is, as the philosopher David Hume once said, one that we “gild and stain with colors borrowed from our sentiments.” The world of values rests on nothing. There are no elephants all the way down. But it is a rich and vibrant world – a jewel hanging in space, held up by nothing, but alive with possibility.
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