NOTE: This post was revised and corrected from its original form on 2009.09.17.

PART I
Lately I have been watching a lot of documentaries on space, the planets, black holes, and the like. I am overwhelmed by the vastness of space—the extreme distances between the planets and stars—as well as the immense amount of energy being spent or transformed by the Universe. Of course, there is also the inconceivable amount of time that has transpired within the Universe, and the infinite future that lies before it. It seems impossible to wrap one’s mind around it.

While I have no theistic tendencies, I can’t help but wonder what it is all for. Theists of course pretend to have the answers. They simply make up whatever nonsense they want to make up and pretend that their lives have a purpose: to serve the whims of a creator who has a cosmic plan.

Outside of embracing mumbo jumbo, what are to think of, or about, the Universe we see? What is the purpose of it all? Why does it go to so much trouble doing what it does?

Consider the fact that a million trillion miles away there are galaxies being born, stars dying and exploding into super novae, planets coalescing, and a whole host of other natural phenomena—but there is no one there to see it, study it, acknowledge it, record it, or even be concerned about it.

So why does it bother? Can inanimate matter have a purpose or goal? And does any of it matter if there is no conscious life around to witness it, or take part in it?


PART II
Human life will go extinct. It is inevitable. Everything is transitory; everything will fade. If we don’t destroy ourselves, then something else will. The number of threats to our planet are numerous, and all are potential possibilities—with some being more inevitable than others. For example, our sun will turn into a red giant, and then collapse into a white dwarf one day, as all yellow giants do. Alternately, our molten iron core will cool one day, and when it does the magnetic field that protects the earth from the solar winds will disappear, too. Either situation means the end of all life on earth.

The only known witnesses to the passage of time and the unfolding of the Universe, and we will be gone—no one to care that we were here, and no one to acknowledge our existence; all our accomplishments, and everything that defines us—simply gone.

So what’s it all for?

I know that sounds like a theistic question, but it isn’t really. It is a human question.

Earth is the only place in the Universe that we know of in which chemical and organic life has combined in such as way to create consciousness. Surely, the extraordinary importance (and improbability) of that fact is lost on no one here.

From a cosmic point of view, it seems like such a shame to lose it.


PART III
Keeping in mind what I have said so far, I want to pose these questions:

Being that we are the only life forms in this chaotic cosmic drama, do we have a purpose, and do we have a destiny as a species? Whether it is a destiny imposed upon us by the demands of DNA, or a destiny freely chosen and defined by us, do we have one?

In other words: Do we have a cosmic obligation to reach some goal? And if we don’t already, should we create one?

I know I’ve asked a lot of questions here. Please choose the ones you think you’d like to respond to and share your opinions below.

Tags: destiny, humanity, humans, life, life on earth, people, the universe

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To be blunt, purpose has to be given or decided on.

If a purpose has been given to us, and we didn't give it to us, then whatever gave us that purpose would be considered a higher power, or "god".

Seeing as there are no gods, the only purpose that CAN exist is one we make up.


So yeah, absolute freedom, and we make the rules.

... unless of course you're going to try to argue that a "god" gave us purpose... in here of all places.
So yeah, absolute freedom, and we make the rules.

But what about things over which we have no control, like aging and death. Don't those things impose restrictions on our "absolute freedom."

... unless of course you're going to try to argue that a "god" gave us purpose... in here of all places.

No, of course not. I'm only posing questions and making observations. I don't believe in a god or gods.
But what about things over which we have no control, like aging and death. Don't those things impose restrictions on our "absolute freedom."

I don't think so. They impose restrictions on what we can actually do or understand, which IMO is completely different. But so do gravity, our lack of wings or gills, the Earth's atmosphere which made us blind to IR and UV radiations, the low speed of light which limits our knowledge of Alpha Centauri to what it looked like more than 4 years ago. These things are not fundamentally different in the nature of the restrictions they impose on us. Without limits to our potential and knowledge, with the ability to always understand what's going on everywhere, and thus to predict what'll happen next, could we still have "absolute freedom"?

(WARNING: stupid pop-sci(fi) analogy below)

Unless I'm mistaken, you've read or seen the Watchmen comics or movie. What did you think of the big blue guy? Did he look free to you, or locked in his absolute certainties?
Never seen or read Watchemen. Sorry.
I'm not fond of superhero comics, to say the least. Watchmen is the only one I've read I'd recommend. I've not seen the movie, nor have the intent to do so, but for what I know it seems to be faithful to the comics.

In the story, the 'big blue guy' (Dr. Manhattan) is close to omnipotent and omniscient, and more powerful than any other character by several orders of magnitude. Yet the extent of his powers often reduce him to the role of an inert spectator (not by choice but because of the fatalism induced by his prescience, which in turn leads him to apathy and a total absence of responsibility) - where a more limited character would evaluate the situation, make choices and react.

Does this analogy sound stupid to you? Unfortunately, there aren't many beings of this caliber in literature (including the Bible!) who bring up these thought-provoking questions - free will, responsibility, etc. in a 'no-limits' context. The character's development seems as plausible as it can gets to me.
Does this analogy sound stupid to you?

Stupid, no? Accurate, who knows. Maybe I'll watch that movie soon then. I can easily get it from the library.
For one, we aren't the only life supporting planet, this would be statistically impossible.
Probability dictates that there are likely at minimum a dozen life supporting planets within this half of the milky way. Some that likely have supported life for longer than earth. (Earth has only one moon, a horribly inadequate defence.)


Life on the earth appears to have come to be pretty early, say within 500 million years after the period of heavy bombardment, but it took another 3.5 billion years for multicellular organisms to appear, and of course technological beings are a very recent arrival.

If the development of life on other planets follows our pattern, it matters a great deal whether our little rock is ahead of the odds, statistically average in terms of the development of life, or behind the curve.

The fact that we haven't found or been found by anyone else (if you discount the claims of the UFO crowd) tends to rule out the idea we are behind the development curve, and even, given the age of the universe that we are one of many that have developed technology.

Which leaves us with the less interesting likelyhood that our planet is ahead of the curve in the development of technology producing organisms.

It is quite possible, if the odds of sapience developing are long enough, that we are it.

I find it hard to imagine "purpose" without intelligence. I find it equally difficult to imagine intelligence without purpose, even if that purpose is just to find something to eat. But as for an external, cosmic driven purpose- barring the existence of some form of "diety" I cannot even conceive of such a thing.

Of course, I could be wrong. :-)
I find it hard to imagine "purpose" without intelligence. I find it equally difficult to imagine intelligence without purpose, even if that purpose is just to find something to eat. But as for an external, cosmic driven purpose- barring the existence of some form of "diety" I cannot even conceive of such a thing.

Well said. I guess in many ways the questions I've posed here are almost the same as asking the tired old question: If a tree falls in the forest and there is no one there to hear it, does it make any noise?

There is no way to answer that, really. Sure, there are vibrations in the air, but is that sound? Probably not.

I'm just struck by the fact that the Universe goes through an awful lot of trouble doing what it is doing. A billion quadrillion gazillion atoms are doing all these things--forming planets, burning, moving, expanding, collapseing, etc., and all basically following the same basic laws of physics. There is a lot going on in the Universe, but to what end? Just the directionless expenditure of energy? I guess as a human we want to see this from our perspective, and it does seem rather purposeless if it has no end goal to meet.

Maybe that's why so many people cling to religion.

Also, I have no belief in a god, and I think all beliefs along those lines are nonsense. However, from a statistical, mathmatical, or empiracle basis, I can neither prove nor disprove the existence of an all-powerful and eternal being. It just doesn't seem very likely.
If a tree falls in the forest and there is no one there to hear it, does it make any noise?

There is no way to answer that, really. Sure, there are vibrations in the air, but is that sound? Probably not.


Well, if I understand you, here you define 'noise' as a biological (and partial) interpretation of that phenomenon: 'a tree falls', so as long as there's no brain to 'create' noise, there's no noise. Paradox solved ;-)

You could always go a step further and change the end of that sentence with '...does the tree fall?'. Or even '...is there a tree in the forest?', '...is there a forest?', and ultimately '...is there anything at all?'. Jorge Luis Borges wrote a famous story on this topic, where people from a radically different culture never assume objects to exist when they're out of their perception (e.g., if you lose a coin in some place, and find a coin when you return to that place later, these people never assume these two coins to be the same).

There is a lot going on in the Universe, but to what end?

"It is in the admission of ignorance and the admission of uncertainty that there is a hope for the continuous motion of human beings in some direction that doesn't get confined, permanently blocked, as it has so many times before in various periods in the history of man." - Richard Feynman

"I don’t feel frightened by not knowing things, by being lost in a mysterious universe without having any purpose, which is the way it really is, as far as I can tell, possibly. It doesn’t frighten me." - Richard Feynman
It is impossible to assign a universal meaning to life. Even if we come up with some "meaning", there's always the question "what is the meaning of achieving THAT?" that follows, and continues to follow.

Why follow god? To please him? What is the meaning of making god happy?

Logically, you just cannot find universal meaning.
Logically, you just cannot find universal meaning.

While I tend to agree with you, as humans we can't seem to help ourselves in our want to find universal meaning and purpose. I think this is why so many people cling to religion, because it provides safe and easy answers. Of course, I know there are not answers, not really.
Nothing to fear! Our sun will not supernova as it doesn't have enough mass. Whew! However it will grow and eat up Earth but hey! That's 5 billion years away so we have plenty of time to terraform Pluto or any of the moons of Saturn. And hopefully humans will have found a suitable planet in other solar systems for our consumption (cuz that's what we do) for when the sun turns into a white dwarf.

Perhaps this is just the beginning for humans. No telling where our evolution will take us in billions of years.

Which is all well and good until the universe collapses upon itself.

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