To better understand the rationale behind the choice of purpose that I will be proposing, it is necessary to first say a little more about the nature and consequences of learning.
Learning brings understanding, and understanding opens doors toward modifying and controlling events and things. When humans first lit fires in caves to keep warm, they were using what they had learned. These days, just about every aspect of our environment can be modified using our knowledge. However, while we have become adept at modifying, our ability to control is still in its infancy.
Just think what we might be able to control in the future. Scientists may soon be able to use stem cells and a patient’s DNA to grow body tissues and organs for “rejection-less” transplants, and physicians may be able to suppress the development of (perhaps even eradicate) most or all of the approximately 1,500 diseases thought to be genetically induced. Before long, we expect to be mining our neighbouring planets for rare minerals (NASA is already investigating the techniques needed), then manufacturing products on those planets. This increases the probability of eventually doing the same on exoplanets orbiting neighbouring stars. One day, perhaps not long now, physicists will learn how to build machines that will control nuclear fusion (the process that drives the stars) and so obtain virtually unlimited amounts of energy. Some day we might even be able to scan and map the position of each atom within a living entity. All we will then need is a means of fashioning atoms to such a blueprint, to recreate the exact creature, with its entire memory intact, anywhere we position a receiver.
Learning, then controlling, is limited by only two things: by our mind’s capabilities and the constraints of the universe. There will always be facts we do not know and events we cannot control, but these will become fewer and fewer in number over the centuries and millennia ahead. Someday, perhaps a billion years into the future, perhaps sooner, life forms—possibly even remote descendants of humankind—may learn how to control the behaviour of the stars. Maybe even reposition galaxies! No law of physics prohibits such activities.
Learning how to progressively exploit our environment will not stop until life itself ceases. (We will see why this is so in the next chapter.) The extinction of one species does not prevent life from continuing. If, for example, all species upon an island are eradicated, the life continuing in the surrounding seas, the air above, on other lands, will soon encroach to colonize the empty niches. If we annihilate ourselves, other species will survive and fill the void we leave. The story of life would continue, and we would not even be missed, a few thousand years into the future. If some occurrence were to obliterate every living thing upon this planet, life would begin again once conditions permit. This is because all the while, everywhere throughout the universe, life explores and exploits its inherited options.
Inevitably, ultimately, life will learn enough to be able to control all that can be controlled from its position within the universe. Evolution will culminate in a life form that seemingly possesses god-like powers. It won’t be a god—it will still be just life. But what an entity!
It is easy to understand why this must be so: to those living just a few hundred years ago, people of this century would appear to have abilities approaching omnipotence. Any inexplicable controlling ability may confer such a title, and impart a mystical awe—ask any successful magician. If electronic, medical and technological progress continue at today’s pace (to say nothing of the many other fields currently being exploited), then in no more than one or two hundred years time humans will certainly possess abilities that would be incomprehensible and astonishing if witnessed today. But think ahead another two thousand, or two million years. How would such powers not seem omnipotent, and where does this accumulation end?
Yet, we cannot say that it is life’s purpose to develop such abilities. Evolution’s consequences may produce a seemingly omnipotent entity, but we cannot state that this endpoint must therefore be the inherent purpose that guides life’s evolution. Immense competencies accrue simply because life compiles useful abilities, compounding one upon another as it evolves—progeny taking synergistic advantage of its inheritances. As previously stated, we cannot say that life is purpose-driven because we would first have to say that life’s supersystem, the universe, was purpose-driven. And, since we can’t position ourselves outside of our universe, this can never be determined.
This omnipotent consequence of evolution is just that—a consequence. It is not, and should not be considered, an ordained purpose.
- Physicists have been working on this for decades. Controlled fusion is still only possible for small periods of time, and energy input still greatly exceeds energy output, but progress is being made. The internationally funded Iter Project, based in Germany, intends to build a new research and development facility (see http://www.iter.org for their latest news), and it has the longer-term goal of constructing a prototype fusion power plant. (It has been recently shown that smaller fusion reactions can be controlled more easily than large. This may reduce the projected twelve billion dollar cost.)
- Beam me up, Scotty! Star Trek, and similar programs, are more than just science fiction to many. They seem to be calling to, and resonating with, dormant feelings of human potentiality. However, the amount of energy required to construct the reassembling matter (or convert a supply into the form needed) will doubtlessly delay this achievement several millennia. Too far ahead for you or I to benefit, but not too far for humankind—if it survives.
- Teilhard de Chardin had a similar idea. He held that all the universe’s material and spiritual content would eventually converge into a super-consciousness that he named the “Omega Point.” See The Phenomenon of Man (New York: Harper & Row, 1959). First published in French as Le Phénomène Humain (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1955).
- Omnipotent, because with knowledge comes power; omniscience would simply be a precondition to this final state.