Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Enigma of Life (Part 2 of 2) — The Meaning of Life

Human lives are no more significant in the grand scheme of the universe than the lives of cockroaches on the same scale of magnitude.


Humanity and all life enveloped by it, is a by product of a cosmic matter engine. — Image by Jamie Beck
When you think about the complexity of life on this planet, our first instinct is to think that the meaning of our lives extends from the complexity inherent in life as we know it. The truth is that wherever life exists in the universe, irrespective of its complexity, the purpose of that life is exactly the same. There is no greater relativistic significance that is attributable to humanity.


The Hubris of being Dominant Species

The truth is that human life is no more special than say that of microbes, bacteria, plants or even insects, all of which significantly outnumber humans by several orders of magnitude. Our status as 'dominant life form' is a sliding scale. Unless humans become adept at conquering other worlds, we too will go the way of the dinosaurs who were considerably larger animals.

The dinosaurs taught us that size is not a guarantee against extinction. So the problem with the human animal is that we rely too heavily on the fact that we have bigger brains, which we think makes us special. However, the human animal only became the dominant species simply because our ape ancestors were second tier on the food chain. So our attitude is just hubris.

Below the human animal are incredibly intelligent creatures, such as Apes, Octopi and perhaps even Dolphins. If the melting ice due to global warming shifts the balance of domination from humans when our cities are flooded and the human animal fails to adapt to their new water world, Octopi could become the new dominant species due to their rather incredible intellect.

This is not scientific speculation. The Octopus is shockingly intelligent and sports a naturally occurring tactile genetic advantage that makes it an incredible hunter. As the environment changes, a new animal will take the helm after millions of years of evolution. The Earth has all the time in the world and shows no favour to any particular species in any way, shape or form.

That is the point of the Planet of the Apes science fiction franchise. The human animal has a time, just as how the dinosaurs had a time. Thus as a living thing, time is not something we have on our side. Evolution favours the most genetically advantageous animal. This means that if there is intelligent life on another world, it is not very likely to have a humanoid shape.

Human hubris in Science Fiction: If there is any intelligent life out there, they are far less likely to look as humanoid as the guy on the left and more randomly bizarre (as DNA tends to be in real life) as the guy on the right. — Pictured: A Vulcan from Star Trek (1966) and the antagonistic Xenomorph from Aliens (1986).

This is where science fiction franchises such as Star Trek lack credibility as most of the non human species have humanoid forms. This is a perfect example of the manifestation of human hubris. Because humans are the highest life forms on this planet, we presume that any other intelligent alien species will also have a humanoid form. This is wrong for an obvious reason:

No two planets are likely to have the same evolutionary path for all the same reasons no two humans are likely to have exactly the same finger print. That is even less probable than the occurrence of life itself. Star Wars actually does a better job of representing the randomness of alien life in the universe—even though it gets the physics of space travel completely wrong.

In fact, it is this same human hubris why our gods from varying cultures tend to also have humanoid features. In fact, one can safely say that god has hands and feet for all the same reasons aliens in Star Trek wear pants and speak English. It would be more believable if the aliens in Science Fiction are unable to enunciate at all. Most other animals on this planet do not use speech to communicate. Therefore the spoken language is an intrinsically human idea.

I suppose if Octopi became the dominant species on this planet, that their version of Jesus Christ will also have 8 legs (or maybe they won't have religions at all). Their versions of Star Trek will likely have 8 legged protagonists wielding 6 light sabres (or maybe they won't make science fiction at all). Our place as dominant species heavily colours our view of the universe.

Our precarious and very temporary status quo as dominant species is underscored by the fact that for us to even be here in the first place, there has to be a set of universal constants that has to be just right to give humans that advantage. You are on this planet, contemplating these ideas, reading this blog, focused on this very line precisely because conditions in the universe were just right to facilitate your existence, and not that of, say Apes or even Octupi.

Scientists call that:

The Goldilocks Principle

The Goldilocks Zone — an orbit at a distance from a star just right for a planet to be in order to be likely to manifest life. A whole science is dedicated to identifying such planets as is shown in the above diagram.

The universe seems barren of life precisely because it is so damn difficult to produce. Not only do you need to have a chance occurrence of complex carbon molecules in a particular order, smashed into existence by an incredibly complex sequence of molecular chain reactions that must happen in a very specific sequence, it needs a very exacting amount of energy, lots of liquid, a planet of just the right size, and one or more moons of a specific ratio to the size of that planet to create a gravitational influence on the water to cause life to exist. That's not all.

What are the odds that all of these things are in place at just the right spot in the galaxy at just the right time to cause life to occur? Well that's exactly the issue. The odds are incredibly low. In fact, these odds are so astronomical, that scientists have called a particular distance away from a star where planets can bear life the "Goldilocks zone" — and quite aptly named.

If you recall the tale of Goldilocks and the three bears, you'll recall that she always took to baby bear's belongings, because they were "not too much, not too little, but just right". The very same thing can be said about where life occurs in the universe. It has to be an area near a star that is not too hot, not too cold, but just right for life to appear if a planet is right there.

Any closer to a star, and any chance of life would vaporize. Any farther away, and the planet would be too cold for life to evolve. Earth sits within the "Goldilocks" zone around our sun. That's exactly why life exists on Earth and not on Mars, or on Venus, or Mercury, or Jupiter, or Saturn or Uranus or on most of the other planets that may exist anywhere else in the cosmos.

Not only does a planet have to sit within the Goldilocks zone around an appropriate star, but the planet also has to exist on one of the outer rings of the galaxy in which it was formed where there is far less violence in the form of asteroids, supernovas, black holes, comets and all that life shattering thuggery. Life didn't evolve on earth until it had drifted into our galaxy's backwaters, away from the center of the galaxy where all that world smashing chaos reigned.

Eventually, the Earth will drift out of the "Goldilocks" zone and become a barren wasteland — just as Mars is right now. Does this mean that Mars was once teeming with life as the Earth currently is? There is overwhelming evidence to suggest this. This means that we may have come into existence long after the Martian civilizations were established, thrived and died out.

This likely happened long before Earth drifted into this zone and spawned life of it's own. So the cycle of life within any given solar system may only favour one planet at a time, as their slow orbits lose energy, causing them to drift away from the Sun. The same may happen to Venus, whose life forms may explore a dead Earth just as how we explore a dead Mars today.

The Fragility of life

In human terms, tomatoes have a very short shelf life. In universal terms, so does humanity.

If there were civilizations on Mars, they probably went through the same cycles of biological and evolutionary development as we have. They probably even became a space faring race, and probably too late before their planet's atmosphere thinned out after drifting out of the Goldilocks zone, thereby becoming inhospitable to life. It likely happened so long ago that any trace of their civilization is now forever lost in the arid rusty dunes of their long barren world.

This is the fate of our planet. One day all life on this world will dry up. Our oceans will either evaporate when our sun becomes a red giant, or freeze over when we finally drift out of the Goldilocks zone. There will be a massive extinction of all traces of DNA. All of our knowledge, all our religions, skyscrapers, machines and even our women will simply become dust in the wind.

It will take so long for life to evolve on another planet (most likely in some very distant solar system) that by the time they evolve to become an intelligent space faring race, our world will have already become a distant red planet, devoid of any trace that anything ever lived here. The same thing obtains for all the Goldilocks planets that we have since discovered out there.

Life was not meant to last.

Why we seem to be alone

The Universe is huge. If there is intelligent life out there, we may not find it in humanity's lifetime.

Because space is so vast and life is so improbable, fragile and short, the odds of discovering another intelligent race that we can communicate with are incredulously remote. Even if we do make first contact with a friendly civilization via remote communication, by the time their radio signals got to us, their planet will have been long dead. We would've been talking to ghosts.

That is why a universe teeming with life as is often portrayed in Star Trek and Star Wars is so incredulous. Both science fiction properties have taken great liberties with the vast distances between life faring worlds. They would be so far apart that it would take far more than warp drives or light speed engines to discover races with which we can enact commerce and trade.

How are you going to form a galactic alliance with another race of beings if they're so far away that it takes longer to travel to them than it takes for an entire biosphere to live and die out? Space travel with anything less than wormholes is impractical for that reason alone. It would require more energy than humanity puts out over its entire existence to cross our own galaxy.

...let alone between galaxies.

This flying bomb is not a viable means of exploring space.

Now that we know that the size of the universe presents a problem for us where discovering other races are concerned, we must therefore acknowledge that we can't cross the universe in something as primitive as rocket ships. It would take too long, require too much energy and cost far too much. We need a new technology that harnesses the laws of physics to do that.

This is why the US Shuttle program was scrapped. Flying our people into space on a giant bomb is impractical for all kinds of reasons (cost and risk of death being chief among them). Flying people to another planet would take too long (longer than a human life span) and cost more than the US owes China. It would also require far more energy than the Earth has the resources to manufacture. Clearly we'd have to rethink our strategy. Space is much too vast.

In fact, space is so vast that by the time an alien civilization discovers our SETI signal sent out in the 1980's, life on earth will likely have already shriveled up. The entire span of life on any given planet is only a tiny fraction of that planet's existence. Earth is estimated to be some 4-6 billion years old. Of that time span, life has only been here for a few hundred million years.

Of that time, humanity has only been around for 350,000 years. Civilization is barely 10,000 years old. It takes 100,000 years for a radio signal to cross our galaxy. Now you can see the sheer astronomical odds against us. At distances outside of a light year (6 trillion miles), life is too fragile to withstand the effects of deep time. That is why for life to mean anything outside this planet, we have to build technologies that will enable us to traverse the stars on a whim.

I have no doubt that we will detect simple extra terrestrial life forms soon enough. We've already learned how to detect planets that have them. Finding intelligent extra terrestrial life however, will be a lot more difficult. If you remember the creation list, you will remember that life is at the bottom of the probability list. Even further down, would be intelligent life. Why? Because it would be even harder to make naturally than simple life forms such as microbes.

So for the time being, when we look up at the night sky, we are staring at the faded images of stars that have have long since died. Space is so vast, that the light we see at night is over 13 billion years old. We are looking at the universe as it was 13 billion years ago. With such vast distances in the universe, it is not inexplicable why we are tempted to think we're alone.

Even though we're probably not, we might as well be.

That's why we created such narcissistic fallacies such as religion to comfort ourselves in a god that seems oddly preoccupied only with our existence. We haven't seen anyone else but us. So we rationalized our apparent loneliness as a god who created a universe 93 billion light years wide just for us, completely oblivious (or should I say naive?) of how lucky we are to even exist. For if the electromagnetic force were even a tiny bit more or a tiny bit less than the force of gravity, the entire universe would never have come into existence in the first place.

It was as if the universe was tailor made just for us. Some would quickly argue that it was god who then made this big universe just so that the probability of life could exist. Not only is this argument inherently narcissistic, but it obscures an even more rational explanation: That we would not even be contemplating these things if the universal constants were not just right.

We wouldn't exist in the first place.

The universe wasn't made for us. Our lives are too short and trivial. Human lives are no more significant in the grand scheme of the universe than the lives of cockroaches on the same scale of magnitude. In fact, by all indications, cockroaches will outlive humanity. Therefore life is too fragile to be religious. It's too short to be cowering in fear of something we have the brain power to harness for our own immortality — and that brings me to the point of this post:

The meaning of life

How are we going to preserve humanity when our sun threatens life on earth? — Image: Greg Martin

If a doomsday meteor struck us tomorrow morning, our entire existence (from cavemen to the digital age) would be all for nothing. We would pass out of existence faster than it took us to evolve here. All of our science, religion, philosophy and intelligence would be permanently erased form the universal record without a trace. All of our hopes and dreams — gone forever.

So why do we think our lives have meaning? So long as everything we've ever known exists only on this planet, then our lives mean nothing. We must conquer the universe by becoming space explorers. We must become intergalactic conquistadors and spread our seed to the farthest corners of the galaxy. Until we have done that, we are still effectively a primitive race.

Even though the Greek empire is no more, it lives on today in our science, our mathematics, our philosophies, our laws, our politics and our social structures. Even though Rome is no more, it lives on today in our languages, in our cultures and our political demarcations. If the human empire on earth were wiped out tomorrow, how would the universe remember us all?

Who would mourn the death of the human race? Who would commemorate the flurry of life that once thrived on our intrepid blue home planet? Would anyone care that we discovered the relationship between mass and energy? (E=MC2) Would anyone grieve the loss of our music, our paintings, our sculptures and our cultures? Would an intergalactic museum be set up in our honor? Probably not. There wouldn't even be anyone to forget us in the first place.

Our existence (for all we know) is unknown.

If your answer is that god will remember, then you are probably more naive than you give yourself credit for. Even the Bible's description of god doesn't paint that being as being even remotely preoccupied with human existence. He appears to just be doing his thing while we get in the way. He tells us not to kill, and then commands us to commit genocide. He chooses a people and then let's 6 million of them be massacred by someone claiming to be his vicar and servant. If there is a god, he doesn't care about us. That is why I do not believe in a god.

God appears to be a product of human engineering — like tooth fairies and baby storks.

The purpose of our existence then is to ensure that our the totality of our existence is not for naught. The only way to guarantee that is to work towards our collective escape from the confines of this planet with a view to ultimately seed the galaxy, to become a truly dominant species. If that happened, we are likely to evolve into different species of human on each world we conquer—but at least we won't go extinct from an Earth shattering doomsday event.

Every living human being, no matter how trivial your life appears to be, is a direct contributor to the advancement of the species. If you are a phenomenal pioneer, you were inspired by those who failed. If you are a failure, you will have inspired those who can become pioneers. Every success and failure plays together in grand harmonic build towards a human ascension.

Every human life becomes a precursor to the empire that we must build. Realizing the size and depth of space should be enough to make us realize that there is no real backup of humanity anywhere else in the universe. Our lives would mean nothing if they were to all be suddenly lost at once. We must then do as the Romans did, and make sure that we have a legacy. That is the purpose of our lives. That is the meaning of our lives — to thrive. Our race must survive.

A matter of Survival

Survival is hard coded into every form of life that we know. No living thing that is self aware wants to be harmed. No living thing wants to die. Grab a dog by its tail and it wrestles to be free. Toss a cat into the air and it automatically rights itself for a landing on all fours. Swim into a school of fish and they scatter in a heart beat. Drive onto a crowded sidewalk and humans dart in every direction for safety. Living things want to live. It is absolutely that stupidly simple.

If the human species doesn't find a way to become extra terrestrially dominant, then another earth bound species may rise to the challenge. As I've mentioned before, the status of dominant species is only temporary and is a much shorter space of time than the entirety of the existence of a planet's biosphere. Remember, life is a fragile thing. It wasn't meant to last.

Therefore, when we look down at other animals and consider them primitive because they have no higher function other than to spread their DNA, we are merely being arrogant. Their objective is exactly the same as ours. All of our stock markets, our cities, or religions and sciences mean nothing if our DNA isn't propagated. Our bigger brains are just a single biological difference. It amounts to nothing if we do not use it to our evolutionary advantage.

By the time the next doomsday event comes around to shift the balance of power from humans to another living creature on this planet (maybe Apes, Octopi or Dolphins), the human collective will demonstrate the sheer desperate determination with which their continued existence should remain relevant. That powerful will to survive defines the very meaning of life.

Therefore the meaning of life is not defined in religion. Life predates religion by millions of years and never needed religion to survive. It is not superseded by our intellect. A genius who failed to pass on his seed to the next generation before dying will have permanently exterminated his biological legacy. Our survival is above all things and beyond everything else.

It is not enough that the radio and television signals that have escaped our planet will soon be available to an advanced alien species hundreds of light years away. By the time they may discover our transmissions, life on our planet will have been long gone. This is no longer in the realm of science fiction. The finality of humanity should be immortalized by our own ingenuity.

While I may concede that anything that has a beginning must also have an end, I would also assert that our cognitive evolution will ensure that such an end is not without consequence.

Why a god doesn't add meaning to life

The forces of nature obey the laws of physics, not the laws of mythology. So why are people still trusting in god to deliver them from danger? Faith alone is fatal. Pictured: Tornado in Saddle Rock, Aurora, Colorado.

The object of life is to thrive. That's why anyone who worships god would even bother to do so. However, simple explanations that can be empirically proven are statistically better at preserving life than ones that require faith. This is because they have fewer conceptual parts, which mean they have a lesser likelihood of failure. If we are wrong about an explanation, it could have potentially life threatening consequences. Just ask all the people who died in Joplin Missouri when they were hoping that Jesus would save them from a deadly swirling tornado.

Oh right. You can't ask them. They're dead.

Similarly, if we are wrong about our calculations when we build a ship to travel into space, we could end up killing someone. We have to be right when we explain something. Our lives will depend on it. Apropos, while faith has its place, it is no substitute for certainty. This is why it isn't necessary to seek god to give life meaning. It isn't necessary to replace the obvious with the mysterious. If we can trace the causality of life, then there's really no need to invoke god.

Life exists because of the vastness of the universe. It doesn't exist in spite of it. It is inherently narcissistic to think therefore that our existence is central to the purpose of the universe when the universe will continue to exist long after we go out of existence. Therefore, inserting god at the center of the meaning of your life is the same as robbing you of that life. You may be altering your life to please a figment of your imagination. You are only unnecessarily putting your life at risk through faith as that effectively amounts to leaving it at the hands of chance.

This is dangerous for obvious reasons.

People who have defined their lives by the one they expect to live in another reality are doing nothing more than robbing themselves of enjoying the existing reality in exchange for one they can't possibly prove exists. The meaning of our lives is manifested right now, while we are still alive. There are no guarantees. Therefore there should be no regrets. When it ends, it ends forever. A supernatural god however, may not have selected you as one to live forever. So with or without god, you still lose. You will only have one life to live. There are no do overs.

Empires don't spread for the sake of spreading. They do so for the sake of survival, which is achieved through power. The more of it there is, the harder it is to die. Similarly, a human race holed up on a single planet has less resilience than one spread across the galaxy. Apropos, we are less likely to conquer space if we continue to think that god gives our lives meaning. It causes us to sit on our hands and feel comfortable with self defeating speculation. The very meaning of our lives is defined by our need to survive. Everything else is therefore irrelevant.


It is very easy to frighten someone into believing that the decadence of our sparkling champagne and our manicured existence are sinful pleasures that may rob us of a life after death. — Image by Craig Schott

"So how do you know that there isn't a hell on the other side?" asks a close friend of mine. "I don't" I said in reply. "But your reaction to religion is a manifestation of your will to survive, not your love for some dead man upstairs". I continued. "Everyone who clings to religion is only using it as a survival tactic. None of them know whether or not there is a heaven or a hell either.", I said. "They are just reacting to their fear of death and the unknowna natural animal instinct".

My friend continued: "But what if you're wrong about hell?". I chuckled for a bit and responded: "You can make up anything about what happens after death and it would have exactly the same effect on everyone, because there's no way of verifying it. So why should I fear something that someone made up?". At this point, he grew uneasy as I rolled his mind into unfamiliar territory.

I continued:

"An intelligent God would realize that of everyone worshiping him is only doing so to avoid death and bar them from entering heaven.", I clinched. "The mere fact that you think someone has entered heaven is proof that your all knowing God isn't as smart as you think he is". The truth of that last line hit my friend like a tonne of bricks. That ended our talk. We haven't spoken since.

The reason we think our lives have an opportunity for redemption post mortem is a function of our powerful will to survive. It is a function built deep into our brains to ensure that we do everything that is necessary to hang on to this fleeting vapour we call life. This is how we invented religion. It is a failed science that attempts to answer ultimate questions about us.

This is consequently why I fear neither heaven nor hell. Both ideas were created in a vacuum, quite likely by ancient schizophrenics who were experiencing something that for the first time frightened other humans who didn't know what they were seeing. People hear voices in their heads all the time. Our big brains are not exempt from malfunction. Therefore the time at which these mental patient potentials emerged rendered them the immortal status of prophets in an age where all such things were considered a mystery before science  emerged.

If our understanding of the muscle powering the human mind was as advanced then as it is now, no religion would have ever evolved. We would have conquered our fear of death long ago. Then no one would ask such a stupid question about the true meaning of life. The point of these two posts then is to restate the obvious, since the obvious is not so plainly obvious.

To an animal with a big brain, the obvious often needs repetition.

E-mail: accordingtoxen[at]gmail[dot]com

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