What Do Elon Musk, Socrates, Nietzsche, (And Maybe You) Share In Common?

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Until April 1st, 2016, the only thing I knew about Tesla Motors came from a news story reporting on an esoteric car company out of California that had appropriated the last name of famous inventor Nikola Tesla, and was marketing an awesome electric car with a price tag of $100,000. The car was clearly desirable, yet since my budget didn’t stretch to anywhere near the vehicle’s purchase price, I basically forgot about the car and the company.

But that April 1st morning brought a news story flashing across my computer screen revealing that Tesla had just announced a $35,000 version of its pure electric car. This was a horse of a different color. Within 15 minutes, I had located the Model 3 ordering page and had authorized a $1,000 charge to my credit card to reserve one copy. I then started to look closer at Tesla. Elon Musk intrigued me because he wasn’t just a talker … he was a doer. He was actually doing things — right now — that others had said couldn’t be done until sometime in the future. That caught my attention, and I started reading and watching everything I could find on Musk.

Of course one of the main themes that emerges when you listen to Musk speak is the notion of a sustainable future: Sustainable energy creation. Sustainable transportation systems. Sustainable civilizations. That’s Big Picture stuff. At a Stanford Business School conference in 2014, Elon summed it up as follows:

“In the case of Tesla, SpaceX, SolarCity, and PayPal … it really stemmed from when I was in college and trying to think: what would affect the future most likely in a positive way? So the three areas I was quite sure would be positive were sustainable energy, the internet, and making life multi-planetary.”

Musk provided a broader answer in 2015 when interviewed for a highly popular and unbelievably lengthy post on the waitbywhy blog:

“What I’m trying to ensure is that knowledge in a human context is still possible in the future. So it’s sort of like—I’m more like the gardener, and then there are the flowers. If there’s no garden, there’s no flowers. I could try to be a flower in the garden, or I could try to make sure there is a garden. So I’m trying to make sure there is a garden, such that in the future, many Feynmans may bloom.”

One thing you don’t hear people ask Elon too often about those themes is, “Why?” For example, why would Elon be interested in creating sustainable energy infrastructures? The answer is too obvious. It’s because we really, really need to get off increasingly scarce, polluting fossil fuels. That’s why. Musk has said that in so many words. But what if someone were to ask Elon, “Is that you final answer?” They might get a surprising reply, because it turns out there is a deeper why behind his motivations. I know this because someone did ask him why.

It happened at the 2017 World Government Summit in Dubai. In a session entitled, “A Conversation with Elon Musk,” moderated by His Excellency Mohammad Al Gergawi, Minister of the “UAE Cabinet Affairs & The Future,” the minister initiated the conversation by inquiring of Mr. Musk, “What is your mission in life? Why you do whatever you do?” Musk replied:

“… When I was a kid, I was wondering — kind of — what’s the meaning of life? Like, why are we here? What’s it all about? And I came to the conclusion that what really matters is trying to understand the right questions to ask. And, the more we can increase the scope and scale of human consciousness, the better we are able to ask these questions. And so, I think there are certain things that are necessary to insure the future is good … and some of those things are — in the long term, are having long-term sustainable transport and sustainable energy generation. And to be a space-faring civilization, and for humanity to be out there among the stars, and to be a multi-planetary species.”

Wow. That statement unveils a whole new dimension as to what drives this man. Bringing up the idea of scaling human consciousness in order to answer the basic questions of human existence … that’s digging down to the core. It seems for Elon it’s not just about continuing the human species. It’s about continuing the human species for a reason. It’s not just that life will be safer and more comfortable once we get off fossil fuels and configure a backup planet in case that errant comet comes calling one day. It’s more. All of a sudden, you see the underpinnings of where “College Elon” got the notion of helping the planet cross a great divide. It explains the why behind the desire to have a sustainable future. Those seeds were sewn in “Grade School Elon.”

Of course, when you start probing the question of “why we are here,” you’re suddenly brushing up against the subjects of philosophy, metaphysics, and even, dare I say, spirituality. This is not well tread ground for scientists and engineers, is it? It’s more the track of philosophers and theologists. These questions have been asked since before Socrates and after Nietzsche. Indeed, for many of us, these are the truly Big Picture questions. And although Musk did not take the philosophy track in college, the goal of self-discovery and understanding our true nature intrigued him enough to set his focus on the notion of mankind hanging around long enough to get some long sought answers to the deep questions of life.

It’s interesting. Here we are still in the month of the seminal Falcon Heavy launch and that breathtaking tandem landing of the boosters. As we push toward outer space to tackle one aspect of Elon’s goal of colonizing space, we are at the same time clearing a path to provide humankind the time to further our inward journey.

And what will we discover further down the inner path? Traditional religious beliefs upheld? Or that life is simply the virtual game simulation that Elon has described? Or perhaps as some Eastern philosophies suggest: that life is in an illusion, that the universe is not real, that space and time are mere constructs … and that only consciousness and thought are real? Quantum physics seem to suggest this. Or maybe all these notions will be proven valid at some level when our true nature is revealed. What do you think?

Key references:

World Government Summit

WaitButWhy Article

Musk Speaking at Stanford, via Inc.

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Steve Bakker

is a semi-retired teacher, writer, and technologist who is currently passing time by attempting to cure his ignorance as to how electric cars work.

Steve Bakker has 26 posts and counting. See all posts by Steve Bakker