Why bother to do anything, when life will continue no matter what we do, and when, anyway, life may be ultimately purposeless and meaningless? These, indeed, are compelling questions.
If we take the short-term view, say for the next one hundred years or so, then, exactly, why bother? Why not just enjoy ourselves? Who cares what happens to life after we and our immediate descendants have gone? Does it matter that the world’s quality of life will deteriorate as resources run out and pollutants pile up—people will get used to it and will know no better. If all that really matters is we who are living right here and now, then, certainly, why bother?
I suppose that narcissists, despotic and repressive dictators, psychopaths, and perhaps a few others may think this way. But I’m certain that you do not, for you would not have read what I have written so far were this the case. We must bother, because we care, and the majority of the world’s population also cares about others and the future they will have. Proof exists everywhere: thousands of schools, libraries, parks, museums, art galleries, specialty hospitals, and institutions throughout the world, owe their origin to individuals who cared, and their continuance to others who still care. Millions of individuals dedicate their time, energy and resources to help others less fortunate. Caring about and for others is part of the human condition.
The choice of meta-purpose and definition of a universal purpose must not be left to our various levels of government. Those who govern are seldom inclined to look more than five or ten years ahead—we need to think in terms of five or ten hundred years and more. Surely it is aggregated actions of individuals, not governments, that instigate enduring change.
However, it is important that the choice of meta-purpose not be left to any single individual—it must be a collective judgment. Consider inaction once more, but from this perspective. Let’s say that we do nothing, that we ignore the eventual need for a universal, integrating, fact-based religion. Almost certainly, some visionary will see the need and will come forth to lead us into a new (or back into an old) world-correcting religion. Many scenarios are possible, of course, but, to me, none seem attractive, for in all of them we would be lead by a single mind, and relinquish our freedom to choose. No matter how pleasant our existence might become, no matter how benign or how benevolent such a person might be, it would be their personal bias, their mental construct, we would be following. Effectively, life would just be putting in time until that person’s conception was overtaken by events or facts and required rewriting, just as may now be happening with our old religions. We would merely be swapping existing imaginings for a new set, repeating history (possibly even locked into a never-ending cycle), with humanity slowly decaying under its load of competing faiths and goals.
It is for this precise reason that the impartial facts must show us the way, not one individual’s emotional constructs. Let a multitude work together to interpret the known universal facts, then collectively design a morality that fits both reality and human needs—one that can be up-dated as new knowledge dictates. (But more about how this might be done later.)
Again, we could do nothing, and just aim to enjoy ourselves. And, why not? Isn’t this, more or less, the way many of us already live? Does it even matter—for in the long run the human species will certainly be replaced by another, just as has happened with other species so many times in the past.
Yes, certainly, humans will eventually be overtaken by, or evolve into, other species. So, in the longer run of things, why should it matter what we do today? Is there significance to anything we do? If not, why should we exert ourselves?
We must make this effort because, within the past quarter-million years or so, life has attained the ability to build upon the intellectual gains of the past. This development is extremely valuable, and to simply throw it away would be an enormous setback to life. Previously, life’s evolutionary masterpieces left little more than decaying matter and a minuscule amount of knowledge for future species to utilize. This is no longer the case. Humans now leave records of their errors and achievements that others can use and benefit from. Our knowledge and understanding, often almost in its entirety, is passed on to the future. We must care about what purpose we select to guide our moral and practical decision making, because the lives of our descendants will be affected by how we behave as we follow our choices. We must not sit back and let unreasonable fundamentalists or irrational fanatics set our path, for they often destroy records of the past in trying to ensure the future of their fantasies. We cannot risk having our hard-won knowledge destroyed, as we now have so much to contribute.
Let me describe what I think we present-day humans have to contribute to the future. I might best do so by discussing three time periods: the near term, the middle term, and the ultimate.
As we begin this new century we bring with us more than two millennia of religious conflict. This discord exists at the personal level, where, in many minds, fears of afterlife “penalties” battle with hopes of an everlasting reward. And it exists at the community level, wherever the Catholic vs. Protestant, Christian vs. Muslim vs. Hindu, and all the other religion-based conflicts, occur, in so many places around the world. If we do not attempt to unite differences under a collective universal purpose, this situation is bound to continue. But if we choose a new purpose that looks forwards instead of continually backwards, there is a chance that these conflicts may eventually die out. What is preferable to pass to our successors: fears, bitterness and outdated notions from the past; or consideration, vision and reality-based hope for the future? The best short-term contribution we could possibly make would be to revise our view of what is important in life. We bequeath a disturbing legacy to our children if their only choices to satisfy their need for a religion are those that rule by fear and ferment discord. We must offer an alternative—one that might be developed if a suitable collective meta-purpose were first adopted. In my view, this would be the best short-term contribution we could make to humanity’s path forward.
To appreciate the possible value of the middle-term contribution I will be suggesting, we must project into the future. Eventually, although perhaps not for several hundred years, we will encounter intelligent life elsewhere. This may be via electromagnetic radiation of some frequency, such as radio waves, light waves or the like. Perhaps this will occur by way of interacting space probes, or through quantum space tunnelling. Or, maybe we will develop something like telepathy, if ever such a transmission mode is uncovered. However it occurs, when we do interact with an intelligent alien species what will matter most in what we communicate will be our identity, not our knowledge, because they will more than likely possess at least our level of understanding about the universe. As part of assessing our merits, what will likely be of most interest to exospecies will be who we are, what we think about ourselves, and what is important to us. To convey that we periodically take up arms and kill each other, that we routinely destroy our own habitats, that we have not supported the continuance of other species—these attributes should disgrace us, not to mention alarm those we communicate with. But to also reveal that the majority of us fear death while nevertheless believing that after death we assume a loving relationship with the “Creator” after destroying what He has created—what kind of fallacious thinking is this? (I am glad that I will not be here to witness us tell aliens this, for I would be so ashamed of our human condition.) I would not blame any sentient being for immediately terminating contact with entities advocating such beliefs and actions.
But to convey that we think, or even believe, that life, everywhere, is embarked on a journey of discovery; that it will learn and grow in ability as it voyages; that it will unite in learning with other sentient beings along the way and eventually coalesce into one entity that possesses “god-like” abilities—would be wonderful. Were I in their shoes, I would want to learn from a civilization with such concepts, for their convictions accept and embrace me, as well as all of life. Indeed, a universal belief such as this could well be our most valuable medium-term contribution to life’s future.
Our possible long-term gift may be to contribute to the way this universe ends. Let me elaborate.
I fantasize about life’s potential behaviour as it approaches an omnipotent state. This may take place in several locations throughout the universe at more or less the same time, or it may happen only once, in some well-favoured locale. I ask myself what such an entity would do next. All its history has been spent acquiring knowledge and learning how to control matter and events, but this magnificent endeavour would be reaching an end. Presumably, it would have long since sought and found other pockets of advanced life, then merged and consolidated knowledge and abilities. Presumably too, if there were other such beings, all would unite to form one “oB” for the same reason. Eventually, there would be nothing new to learn, nothing which hadn’t been experienced at least once, or couldn’t be experienced if considered worth the effort.
And ultimately, this being would be all alone. After maybe thousands or millions of millennia spent learning from, being with, and perhaps uniting with a multitude of other complex life forms, there will be none of equal capabilities remaining in the universe. In effect, oB will have consolidated all knowledge and experience into its own being. It will have no mental companions and few challenges left to surmount. What might such an entity do?
Moreover, time within the universe may be coming to an end for life. There may be very few energy differences remaining to exploit, as expansion and entropy take their toll on all that is physical, or as the universe collapses into a terminating singularity. And this entity’s abilities will be retained only as long as there remain energy differences that can be exploited and put to use, for even it must obey the laws of physics and the demands of its supersystem, the universe.
Surely, as the sole and complete repository of all that is to be learned from within the universe, oB wouldn’t just wither and expire. I find that very hard to imagine. But, there might be one last endeavour that it might undertake, some deed that would represent a fitting end for a being of such capability. Conceivably, oB could perhaps arrange matters so that the universe would rebound and restart, creating a new one from the old. Such a scenario might just be possible. Knowing all there is to know might point to a way that this could be done. A complete fantasy to us, yes, but to it? We do not know enough to judge.
The additional challenge for oB then, would be to see if it could somehow improve upon the past universe, perhaps slightly modifying one or more parameters, so making it possible for life in the subsequent universe to develop in new ways.
This, to me, is a very attractive thought. It opens the possibility of life being truly without end. In this fantasy, life effectively hibernates at the end of each universe, its existence to be reconstructed in the next. Each successive universe is given its initiating parameters in the final act of the oB of the universe past. In this way, we might have an endless, continually varying succession of life-bearing universes. Reincarnations without end.
Indeed, if this is what might come to be in the far, far distant future of this universe, then it follows that it could also have happened in the past, before time in this universe began. What can happen endlessly in the future can also have happened countless times in the past; an infinity of times in one direction necessitates an infinity of times in the other. And (but, I think, only in a context such as this), we could then even say that a god did create this universe. A god of the universe past, formed from the life that evolved in that earlier universe, itself created by the succession of gods of prior universes, without beginning or end. Who knows; perhaps this past god did implant the conditions necessary and sufficient for life to form, when it structured the laws of physics that we are beginning to understand and utilize today.
In this scenario, if we need to give praise to anything, it would have to be to the life within universes past that created the universe present. And future life, in future universes, would be indebted to the final life form that evolves within this universe. Formed, perhaps, with a contribution from us—if we survive to contribute—for this is where we might provide our long-term contribution.
In the very long run, millions or even billions of years ahead, what we have to contribute, I think, is our emotional perceptions of life’s significance. We don’t have to contribute our rationality, or our knowledge and understanding, because life forms everywhere will evolve toward intelligence, and will uncover exactly the same facts about life and the universe as we are discovering. The universe is everywhere governed by the same physical laws, and any conscious life, anywhere in the universe, should eventually be able to discover its properties and underlying controlling forces. However, humankind’s emotional outlook is unique to our species, and much of it is fleeting.
What might perhaps become our long term contribution is sometimes called our “spirituality” or our humanity. We feel it when we look at the stars, when we are alone by the sea, or in a quiet forest clearing. A wonder, an awe, a sense of beauty or mystery, a feeling of immense peace and oneness. We sense it, but it is very difficult to convey to others because words are defined by personal memories—individual mental constructs and their meanings reside only in individual minds. However, these very emotions may be what is important to contribute to life’s evolution in the long run.
We can’t precisely contribute these feelings by words, paintings or sculptures; such items are culture-bound and contain nuances that could never be fully comprehended many, many, millennia into the future. But we may be able to contribute our emotions through our music. The music of Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Sibelius, and of so very many more wonderful composers come to mind. Their symphonies, concertos, requiems, sonatas, masses, love-songs, blues and jazz—all convey something of the essence of what it is to be human. Just possibly, morsels of music might survive passage through the ages, a million or more millennia, and contribute a little of what it has meant to be human toward the final shaping of that which life will become and may do.
But exactly what difference would any of this make, in the very long run?
One last dream. Maybe, just maybe, perhaps through music, perhaps by some other means, the essence of our humanity, what we feel about life, now, in these still early stages of life’s intellectual journey, will be conveyed through time and make its way into the thoughts of oB, the god-like entity that life may become. Maybe our contribution will demonstrate how we feel about this marvellous life we live. Maybe our emotions today will affect oB’s outlook at time’s end.
And, maybe, just maybe, this is where we have most to offer. Maybe our feelings of happiness in simply being alive will influence the way oB designs the parameters that control life’s evolution in the next universe, if it were to take that last, final, step. For instance, oB might make a change that could allow all future life to know more frequently the joy in living that today most of us only intermittently feel. To enrich the design of that which follows—what a contribution to make! To participate in creating a new beginning! That act alone adds purpose and meaning to each speck of life that has ever lived.
But, to make such a contribution, we must survive. And, we must make efforts to sustain our feelings of joy and spirituality, by living in expectant anticipation of the future. We must cease living in fear, mired in ideas from the past, as many of us seem to be today.
- The great library of Alexandria, for example, was deliberately burnt (on three occasions, by order of three different rulers, according to legend). Jewish relics were destroyed in Nazi Germany, as were 1500 year old colossal Buddhas and other museum artifacts recently in Afghanistan (where Taliban rulers thought their existence “un-Islamic”).
- The amount of information our senses detect from the total available in the full electromagnetic spectrum (and discounting any other spectrum of information that might exist) is probably comparable to the fraction represented by one day out of a full year.
- That the exact parameters necessary for life to arise and evolve within the universe were built into the universe at its beginnings has been postulated by many authors. Perhaps the most significant contribution to this discussion has been made by Barrow and Tipler in The Anthropic Cosmological Principle. They maintain that a life-giving factor had to have been designed into the origins of the universe. Their rationale is that none of the fundamental dimensionless constants of physics can be altered without resulting in a universe that could not support life.
This theory, of course, has been countered. The most significant rebuttal contends that this universe could be just one of an infinite number of universes, each somewhat different from the other. Those that provide conditions that allow life to exist, eventually develop life; those that do not, do not. By definition, we must exist within a life-developing universe, and the fact that its parameters cannot be changed without making it unable to support life proves nothing. Martin Rees has written an interesting and relatively short book that explores the significance of these universal constants, and prefers this latter explanation of our existence. (Martin Rees, Just Six Numbers: The Deep Forces that Shape the Universe [New York: Basic Books, 2000].) Superstring theory (see Gödel’s Theorem, General Systems Theory, and The Conservation Laws) actually predicts the existence of an infinite number of universes.
Barrow and Tipler conclude that we must be the only intelligent life to exist (which might be inferred from the title they chose for their publication). This is an unlikely possibility in most scientists’ view, given the vast number of planets that must exist. Toward the end of their book Barrow and Tipler argue that, once begun, life must continue to evolve until it has “regulated” everything within all possible universes (pages 675 and 677). I agree, as the similar conclusion formed in this book indicates.
- This is where the “life-becomes-god” scenario differs from the gods of old. Previous conceptions of god install him before the universe began; this book’s vision sees a god-like entity emerging as the culmination of life’s evolution, not existing until the universe has spawned life and life has developed to its full. In this scenario, either the universe developed spontaneously from nothing (or vacuum energy, see The Expanding Universe, footnote 9) or, as earlier noted, there was no beginning and no end, just an endless succession of universes, some generating life that evolves to possess god-like abilities.)