Everywhere one looks these days, one sees Elon Musk blazing a trail—an audacity not without its sparks and, yes, the occasional firestorm. Most recently, Musk had some choice words for advertisers leaving X in protest over his controversial posts on the platform.
But online provocateurs, even very rich and successful ones, are a dime a dozen.
What makes Musk’s star so bright—a brightness by turns illuminating and searing—is not just that he is the richest man on the planet. It is that there is such an outlandish drive behind that outlandish persona. When it comes to new technology, he has had his hands, and his pockets, in just about everything, from reusable rockets and electric cars to artificial intelligence and brain implants. One can close up the X app and step outside for fresh air only to see a string of his Starlink satellites—widely mistaken for UFOs—traversing the night sky.
Amid both the furor and the fascination, a surprisingly scant amount of attention has been paid to the Musk’s own worldview. To paraphrase Chesterton, his opinion on X matters; his opinion on politics matters; his opinion on all things, however, does not seem to matter. “Everything matters—except everything.” What does Elon Musk believe about everything? What drives him to do what he does?
In the same New York Times discussion in which Musk blasted X advertisers, Andrew Ross Sorkin made bold to ask the question. Musk answered:
If I were to describe my philosophy it is a philosophy of curiosity. I did have this existential crisis when I was around twelve about, “What’s the meaning of life? Isn’t it all pointless? Why not just commit suicide? Why exist?” I read the religious texts. I read the philosophy books that—especially the German philosophy books—made me quite depressed, frankly. One should not read Schopenhauer and Nietzsche as a teenager. But then I read Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which is a book on philosophy in the form of humor. And the point that Adams was making there was that we don’t actually know what questions to ask. . . . My life is finite—really a flash in the pan on a galactic time scale—but if we can expand the scope and scale of consciousness, then we are better able to figure out what questions to ask about the answer that is the universe. And maybe we can find out the meaning of life.
Musk has touched on this “existential crisis” in interviews before, but we find a more detailed accounting of the episode in Walter Isaacson’s Elon Musk biography. The prelude to the crisis, Isaacson writes, was his mother taking him to Sunday school at the local Anglican Church. The young Elon questioned the miracles of Jesus (“That’s not possible”) and the idea of the bread and wine becoming the body and blood of Christ (“Is this a weird metaphor for cannibalism?”). “Elon came to believe early on,” Isaacson writes, “that science could explain things and so there was no need to conjure up a Creator.”
But neither religion nor science, Isaacson notes, gave Musk a solid answer to the great “why” of the universe. So he turned to philosophy—Isaacson adds Heidegger to the list of existential German downers—which “had the effect of turning confusion into despair.” He eventually found his answer in science fiction, especially in Hitchhiker’s challenge to challenge to find the right question. And the rest is history.
Today, Musk’s stance toward philosophy and religion seems to be one of respectful if bored indifference. He recommends Superintelligence by Nick Bostrom and entertains the Oxford philosopher’s theory that the universe could very well be a vast computer simulation. And he confesses, with Einstein, the “God of Spinoza,” and endorses, in the spirit of Jefferson, “the teachings of Jesus.” But his heart and his mind appear affixed to that same bright blazing curiosity that first ignited that young mind—the excitement of tech innovation and space exploration.
For Musk, this excitement, not the dreams of the sages and saints, is our greatest hope.
Love him or hate him, Musk has at least dared to dream of a bigger and better future for humanity. But can his philosophy bear the weight of the world? Musk’s passion for human life led Google co-founder Larry Page to accuse him of being a “specieist.” His frustration with advertisers has him bemoaning “people who care about looking good while doing evil.” All the while, he is busy contending with what he calls the “wild storm” of his mind—a storm evident in his own digital footprint. (Is it a happy storm, at least, Sorkin asked? Musk’s blunt response: “No.”)
The onslaught of this triad of inhumanity, wickedness, and inner chaos—in traditional Christian terms, the world, the devil, and the flesh—cry out for a deeper engagement with the wisdom of philosophy and religion, which would not only shield curiosity, but strengthen it.
But supposing that it could, and that a philosophy of curiosity could one day take us, on its own strength, all the way to Mars, fulfilling Musk’s great ambition. What would we find there? Maybe a finite sense of meaning—but an ultimate one? Perhaps the wonder of a new frontier—but without the same old wounded nature, or its same old existential predicament?
Philosophers of curiosity would benefit from reading Walker Percy, a friend of Isaacson’s, who followed the opposite course from Musk: from science, through existential philosophy, and into religion. Percy knew existential despair; his own father and grandfather both committed suicide. And his wry Lost in the Cosmos, another philosophy book disguised as humor—published, incidentally, in the very same year as Musk’s crisis—grapples with the great mystery of the self, from everyday alienation of modern life up through a future “space odyssey” in which a small contingent flees Earth to colonize one of Jupiter’s moons. For Percy, the scientific search, even in its greatest success, only deepened the mystery of the spirit.
The brightness of Musk’s achievements are certainly something to behold. But will his philosophy amount of more than just an impressive flash in the galactic pan? The answer might just depend on its communion with eternal light—and a willingness to ask the right questions.
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