Imagine you have in your possession a fantastic new game: a programmable, mechanical ant farm. This farm consists of some dirt and water and plants, as well as a few mechanical ants that have tiny programmable brains in them. These ants are also able, by a fun mechanical diversion, to reproduce.

When you first take the ant farm out of the box and assemble it, the ants can’t do anything. You alone are responsible for their behavior by using a set of rules that their programmable brains will follow. You don’t control every decision or motion they make (where would the fun be in that?) but rather you set up the rules and turn them on and watch what happens. Will their little civilization rise to greatness, forcing you to buy expansion modules to give them room to grow? Or will it wither and die before it ever really gets started? Oh, and one other fun attribute possessed by these ants: They know they’re in the game. Their brains are just smart enough to realize that their inconsequential lives are owed to you, the owner of the game. But they’re okay with it because otherwise they would enjoy no other existence.

Recently I wrote a novel. Well, I didn’t write the whole thing recently, but I did recently finish it, and by finish I mean I’m waiting to hear from my agent if he likes it or not. He’ll suggest changes and so will an eventual editor, so it’s not really “finished.”

Viewed from an altitude of 37,000 feet, the Earth looks a lot different than our everyday experience.

The majestic Rockies are a bumpy patch of acne. Mighty rivers look like static, crooked lines. Teeming cities become their smoggy, Google Earth counterparts.

We build our lives in these places, we take vacations to them, we photograph them in order to precisely relive their beauty at a later time. We make clear distinctions between desolate, flat farmland and the beauty of California, where mountains meet the sea.

But from high above, the differences between these places are blurred.

***

The place where I work is made up of several buildings that surround a courtyard. There is a pond in the courtyard and a small, man-made waterfall. There are trees and grass. And there is a also network of sidewalks in this courtyard that shuffles us workers between buildings.

On one particular sidewalk, there is a place where ants cross from one plot of grass to another. I often stop to watch the ants speed down their narrow highway, wondering where they are going with such single-minded conviction. Sometimes traffic increases, and their roads widen. Sometimes I find them in the process of dismantling a dead wasp, breaking it into pieces and carrying it back to their hidden home.

Occasionally misfortune befalls the highway, and the ants are forced to clean up a group of their suddenly-dead brothers.

Imagine what an ant-produced television news segment might be like:

“Yet another giant footstep kills hundreds on I-280! Field reporter Buggy Buggerson interviews surviving worker ants tonight at 10!”

To ants, an average rainstorm is like Hurricane Katrina. Thousands wash away. Hundreds drown.

Every time a kid knocks down one of their carefully constructed hills, the ants lose their homes and are forced to rebuild.

Your average drainage ditch is the Grand Canyon.

But size isn’t the only difference between humans and ants. We’re also a bit smarter than them. Right?

I mean, we can calculate the orbits of planets and the relationship between speed and time, but we still go around killing each other for money. Or turf. We strap on diapers and shit ourselves during cross-country drives to murder rival astronaut girlfriends.

Is it a blessing or a curse that our minds, powerful as they may be, are so influenced by emotion?

To a biologist, emotions are governed by mappable, electrochemical processes. They can be altered chemically or physically. I can trigger a release of dopamine by drinking alcohol. Doctors prescribe all sorts of drugs that influence (for better or worse) the brain’s delicate chemical balance.

If emotions are so easily influenced by mechanical processes, how should we define them? Are they really as special as we like to believe?

Admittedly, thinking of the world this way–from a purely mechanical point of view–is not very romantic. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t accurate. Romance itself is an emotion, in fact, a filter through which we interpret the world.

And yet these are the brains we have. How would we interpret the world except through these emotionally-charged minds?

Just because we humans imagine the universe in a certain way, just because we like to impart meaning on inanimate objects and places, just because we look for patterns in events that might ultimately be random, it doesn’t mean it is necessarily the only way or even the best way.

How do we know someone or something isn’t watching us like we watch ants, observing our human struggles with a sort of amused detachment and maybe a little pity…pity that our understanding of the world is so limited?

I wonder if we would better off knowing more or knowing less? If it turns out the universe is meaningless, if it really is nothing more than a soup of matter and energy brewing in spacetime, would you like to know exactly how it works? Or would you rather be oblivious, a worker trudging back and forth on the ant highway, day after day, blindly working toward a goal that will never become clear to you?

When you die, does it matter at all?

Does it matter even now?

For the moment I leave these questions to you. I’ll be chasing a little white ball around a plot of grass for the next few days.

-R