Two big questions in human history still remain unanswered:
- Is life confined to earth?
- Why are we here?
First of all, are we alone in this universe?
Our universe is 13.7 billion years old according to the latest evidence, with the number of stars now estimated to be up to 10 to the power of 24. Considering that life exists on our tiny blue dot, it seems more than likely that it probably originates (and becomes extinct) randomly throughout the universe on suitable planets that orbit their stars.
Frustratingly, we might never know if we share this universe with other forms of life. This is because of the immense intergalactic distances involved, as well as the expanding nature of the universe. Our Milky Way galaxy lies within a so-called Local Group of approximately 26 galaxies. Our nearest galactic neighbour, the Andromeda, is 2.5 million light years away*. Within the group, galaxies stay together or are moving towards each other, but outside of it, galaxies are speeding away from each other. These might be reasons why SETI and other endeavours have so far failed to find signs of extra-terrestrial life.
* Speed of light = 300 000km/sec. It will take 4 months of constant driving at 100km/hr by car to cover 300 000km… 1 Light year = distance light travels in 1 yr, = 9.46 million million km!
Secondly, are we, as a sentient species, in the cosmos for a “purpose”?
It seems very unlikely.
Other than our own (often inflated) opinion, there does not appear to be any objective evidence that we ended up on the third rock from the sun for any specific reason or purpose. We merely seem to be very advanced (and intelligent) products of evolution. This sobering suggestion might have been staring us in the face all along.
Matter and energy probably have been in existence forever in various forms and combinations. Similarly, our universe could have existed in many forms, either alone, or as part of a suggested multiverse. It might even be the result of a quantum fluctuation.
To repeat, we are (generally) too arrogant and self-centred in our thinking to entertain (let alone accept) the possibility that we are here for no particular reason at all. Most likely we are not far enough evolved yet to come to terms with this unsettling thought.
This last point is underscored by observing how thin the veneer of society is. Open any newspaper at random and scan the headlines…
Yes, we are unique because of our ability to think and solve complex problems. Sadly, we too often take this for granted and miss seeing the big picture. It is time to hop off from our man-made pedestals, as we’ve only mastered walking yesterday. We need to be sprinters before, for example, the next big asteroid visits earth. Ask Tyrannosaurus rex…
Would a realisation that there is no obvious purpose or reason for our existence (from a “cosmic point of view”), necessarily lead to feelings of despair or that there is ultimately no purpose or reason for living?
All the things that give meaning to your life right now would remain unchanged. These might include; Love, family, friends, work, art, hobbies, music, sport, nature and many more. In fact, you might even appreciate them more, should you realise that you are not in the cosmos for any predetermined reason…
Arguably, the highest or most important collective goal we can strive for as humans is to discover and understand our natural world. The more we learn, the more we realise how little we know. As per Donald Rumsfeld: “There are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know”. We don’t need to be academics or scientists to participate in this endeavour. Libraries are everywhere and of course, the Internet literally opened a Pandora’s box of knowledge for one and all.
Above issues aside, take a moment to reflect on your own presence. You are here as a result of (and also despite) some extraordinary events. Abiogenesis for one, although not yet fully understood, occurred despite an extremely low likelihood (of occurring). We, and an abundance of life on earth, are testimony to that fact. Whether life originated on earth, or spread here from elsewhere in the universe, is irrelevant in the big scheme of things. It happened. Next, think about all the intricate interactions that must have occurred during the slow process of evolution to yield complex life, and ultimately you. As an example, if not for the sudden extinction of the dinosaurs, you would most likely not be here reading this piece of speculative writing. Your very long line of ancestors had to dodge some very hazardous events over a period of more than 3 billion years. Last, but not least, one sperm out of a few million competing candidates, contributed to half of you.
No matter what our personal circumstances, whether rich or poor, content or in suffering, we should at least appreciate Life for what it is.
I think, therefore I am*
I am, against all odds…**
* René Descartes
**You, the reader