An essay for the middle of the night. This is a chapter from the (as yet) unfinished book entitled The Emergence and Nature of Human History, Volume Five.
Human: An animal which has evolved a nervous system with a brain sufficient for the emergence of consciousness, and thus a relatively high degree of intelligence compared to other animals. This trait, combined with the human’s habitual upright posture and flexible hands, has allowed this animal to control, to a small degree, the affairs of an extremely small planet orbiting a very average star in a galaxy of over one hundred billion stars, which is in turn one of over one hundred billion galaxies in a Universe of incomprehensible enormity.
From time immemorial humans have looked into the sky on cloudless nights, and more often than not, felt both awe at its magnificence and a sense of kinship with it, a sense of being an integral part of the scene they were looking at. They were indeed a part of it, but as it turns out, the stars had not come into existence for their benefit, nor was “the vault of heaven”—the belief that the sky was a roof that covered us alone—anything more than an illusion. The idea that the vast majority of these humans held, or still hold—that this vault had come into existence through the will of unseen actors with superhuman powers and knowledge—had insinuated itself into their brains through their dreams, their visions, their imaginations, and most of all through the projection of their own natures, hopes, fears, hatreds, and loves onto the reality they perceived. They had in a way, taken themselves and imagined those selves magnified and made immortal. The vast majority of humans throughout our time on this planet have possessed a sense that they were being watched and evaluated constantly, either by a being with an independent, immanent nature or a conscious and aware Universe itself that somehow “kept track” of their kindnesses and cruelties. They saw themselves, in short, as the actors in a mysterious and deeply significant cosmic drama, one being played out on the vast stage of human history, and one which occupied the time and “attention” of the unseen powers who lurked constantly in the background of life. It meant that all of their struggles, their sufferings, their aspirations, their terrors, their joys, and their faith were known. That was the important part, this belief that the unseen forces knew of their most intimate experiences and feelings. Whenever a sense of isolation or loneliness closed in on them, they had this one, final consolation: I am never alone because someone knows about my life. Is this the real reason for the continued belief in the divine—the hope that our experiences, and especially our sufferings matter to someone?
The ultimate way in which most of us hope to matter is through transcending our own physical death and becoming a part of eternity itself. In particular, the hope of an afterlife is our way of denying the power of death over us, reducing physical death to the status of a way station, not the end of the line. The fear that there is no afterlife, as I pointed out earlier in this work, represents, in one way, the fear that all of our existence was for nothing. At one time we were not; then we are, vividly, warm-bloodedly, kaleidoscopically, overwhelmingly; and then, we are not once more, this time perhaps forever. The simplicity of not being, being, and not being again is terrible, in one way. It implies that life exists for one reason, and one reason only: to simply, blindly, idiotically, perpetuate itself—and nothing more. It is true that most humans have attempted to transcend this reality. They have created for themselves, as we have seen, a tremendous variety of Ultimate Goals which they believe will expunge the absurdity, inherent in biological existence, from our story. But if there really is nothing beyond death, and if there really is no one who cares about us even when all humans have turned their back on us, then this devastating absurdity will be all that we have left.
Now, take the individual’s desire to be known and the desire to be a real part of eternity, and apply it to the whole human species and all that we have done and experienced on this planet. If the Universe itself is indifferent to us, if there is either no God or a God who is oblivious to us, then the whole story of us will not have mattered to anyone or anything in the larger sense at all—and to most of us, this just cannot be. It violates our deepest sense of a Universe that makes sense. For most of us, the feeling can be summarized in this way: our existence cannot be meaningless.
So we imagine that our actions have impacts beyond our ludicrously tiny world. In maintaining these illusions, we magnify and inflate our own significance, making ourselves once again the center of universal attention, at least in our own minds. We often imbue our conflicts with a sense of eternal importance, believing that their outcome is being monitored by the whole of creation. Especially in our religious conflicts, we humans very often tend to see enormous issues of spiritual importance involved, ones which gain the attention of “God Himself”, and presumably cause “God Himself” to hang with rapt attention on the outcome of the dispute. The history of the struggle between the Anglican and Roman Catholic Churches in the British Isles is a perfect example of this particular brand of inflated human self-importance. Since the 1530s, when the English King Henry VIII split the English Church away from the Vatican’s control, there has been a conflict of varying emotional intensity between the two. In its early years it flared into violence, and contributed to many decades of political upheaval in England. Even today, almost 500 years later, there is still a gulf between Anglican and Catholic believers, and the adherents of the two faiths still argue about fine points of theology, believing these points to be of such significance that they require the most careful consideration, lest the divine, unseen Maker of the World take offense. So, on a small area of the Earth’s surface, a small number of humans are locked in a dispute which they believe to have “transcendent” significance. In other words, a very small part of the Atom is involved in a battle which its participants believe to be engaging the attention of the Universe’s creator itself. Can human arrogance reach more malignant depths than that?
The same tiresome dynamic divides Sunni and Shi’a followers of Islam. Their doctrinal differences, often deeply connected to political conflict, are such that violent hatred frequently erupts between members of the opposing branches. People are actually willing to commit murder and all manner of other crimes because of a dispute that began more than 1,300 years ago. It is the belief that this dispute somehow matters to Allah, that its outcome engages his attention, that has driven the conflict (along with the meaner human tendencies toward score-settling, revenge, and the acquisition of power). If the damage it inflicts to human comity wasn’t so tragic, and if it had not left such a long history of hatreds, this dispute would be almost laughable in its absurdity.
And so it is with all human religious disputes. Human religious contests are never, of course, entirely about faith—our motivations are too confused, often too venal, and too mysterious to ourselves for that to be the case—but they have their roots in the idea that humans are on intimate terms with the cosmos and its purported Maker. In their inconceivable sense of self-importance, which they so often mistake for humility, countless humans have imagined that the essential Being of the Universe cares—yes, actually cares—about their words, their gestures, their incense burning, their prayers, their oils, their sacred waters, their dietary rules, their statues, their icons, their songs, their kneeling, their headwear, their symbols, and their buildings, and would be offended (!) if any of these expressions were not of the right kind. Humans, in my view, need to understand that all the religious devotions they have ever been involved in, in all likelihood, have been for the benefit of themselves—not for some incomprehensibly huge, eternal, inscrutable, all-encompassing intelligence that supposedly concerns itself with the tiniest details of their lives. Why would a god-like entity need the praise and attend to the entreaties of ones such as we? If such a being actually exists and resides in a world beyond time and space, how could it be impressed or unimpressed by any human expression of fealty and devotion to it? In a way, when we believe in a God that follows our disputes carefully and listens to our worship, we are reducing that God down to human-like dimensions, ones that we can understand. We make our God tiny, just like ourselves, so that we can be noticed by it.
As we have seen, mass die-offs have occurred several times in the Earth’s history. Our intelligence and our capacity for invention have at least made us aware of the possibility of extinction, and have equipped us with the means—perhaps—to temporarily or even permanently forestall such an event. Yet, paradoxically, the two-edged sword of human intelligence and our limited consciousness, so filled with incomprehensible aspects and misperceptions and so vulnerable to our many emotional vagaries, has given us ways to annihilate ourselves that are unprecedented in the story of the biosphere.
We might believe that the self-destruction of the human species would be of importance to someone, somewhere beyond our world. The death of billions of sentient, conscious humans would count for something in the larger Universe, most of us feel. But would it? In all probability, no one beyond the Earth would notice. Think of what the Earth looks like at the edge of our own solar system, a solar system in which we are the only “intelligent” life. Would we be any more than a pinprick of light? Even if the whole of the planet were to mysteriously explode, would such a scene of destruction be recorded by any alien civilization? Even if there were astronomers living on some planet orbiting Proxima Centauri, the nearest star after our own Sun, they would still be almost 25 trillion miles, or over 40 trillion kilometers distant, 13,000 times farther from us than we are from the minor planet Pluto. They would be fortunate to detect us at all. And so far, we have found no habitable planets around Proxima Centauri, so the odds of our destruction being noticed grow increasingly poor as we move farther out into the Universe. (Sirius, another “close” star is 26,000 times more distant from us than is the orbit of Pluto.) If we destroy the only planet in the known Universe on which we can live, it will not affect the continuation of physical reality in the slightest. The Universe would move on as if we had never been here, and judging by our utter lack of impact on it, we might just as well never have been.
And if we look to some higher entity to rescue us from our own foolishness and recklessness, we might be looking in vain. The monotheistic faiths posit an endpoint when God will bring the world to a close and judge both the dead and the living (or, in a broader sense, bring ultimate justice to the world). But these conceptions, developed between the Eighth Century BCE and the Seventh Century CE, rested on conceptions of a God who was on intimate terms with a world that was the center of Creation itself, indeed, the whole point of Creation. Such a conception can no longer stand. The Christian, Muslim, and Jewish conceptions of God rested, as we have seen, on the paternalistic cultural notions of those in the Middle East who founded the monotheistic faiths. The eschatologies of these faiths are rooted in the concept of the all-powerful male ruler, a father figure, bringing order and justice to a chaotic and sinful world. But what if these conceptions are wrong? Logically, since they are not identical, at least two of the three must be wrong. (And if we consider the views of all the world’s religions about the end of the world, all but one must be wrong, and it is possible that all of them are wrong.) It may yet be that God will manifest Himself/Itself on the physical plane of reality and bring the human race’s story to an end. It cannot be ruled out. There is nothing logically impossible in such a notion. But what if it never happens? Because it is also possible, as I said above, that there is no God, or else there is an indifferent God (or perhaps a God who is still becoming, or a God who will not choose to personally bring the world to an end).
Humans often feel a sense of injustice upon assessing their own lives. This isn't (or wasn't) the way it was supposed to be, they might think. But there is the distinct possibility that from the Universe’s standpoint life wasn't “supposed” to be anything. Maybe anything that was suffered, enjoyed, or just merely experienced in a neutral way was just how it was, the products of human volition, human cultural and genetic inheritances, human mistakes, natural phenomena, and random chance—and that was all. The individual human life—and I include in this assessment my own and those of everybody I love—just isn't that significant a thing in the whole scheme of the Universe. The Universe was not set up for the personal benefit of any sentient being on any world anywhere in it, nor is the Universe out to “get” anyone. The success or failure of an individual life is, in all likelihood, a matter of supreme indifference to it. No one, anywhere, has any right to expect anything of it. No one, anywhere, needs to give it credit for the individual’s achievements. No one, anywhere, can blame it for any personal failures.
Humans often say, when confronted with the grim realities of this planet, “This isn’t the way the world is supposed to be”, as if the Universe had some pre-ordained plan in mind. And they sometimes speak about the Universe “being out of balance”, or needing to be “restored to its rightful state”. Yes, there have been countless tragedies. Yes, there has been a terrible amount of obscene suffering. Yes, injustice has been rife. But, as cruel as this will sound, the Universe couldn’t possibly care less about any of this, nor will it act to rectify any of it. It is incapable of doing either. Rectifying the evils of the world is solely the job of the human species. Our success or failure in doing this will not be noted. In trying to improve this world, we will have to contend with the caprices of nature, the capriciousness of luck, and our own human shortcomings. To the extent that we succeed, we will not be congratulated. To the extent that we fail, we will not be mourned.
There are three major arguments that can be made for our significance in the vastness of the Universe:
• We are the only species anywhere to have evolved consciousness. This is possible. But even if this were the case, would our tiny little island of intelligence have any impact whatsoever on an entity as vast as our home galaxy, let alone the Universe as a whole? We might be only a brief candle, the flickering out of which, as I have noted above, would be noticed by absolutely no one.
Naturally, you may tend to reject this argument out of hand, pointing to the extraordinary nature of the human brain and the products of the culture its features, and those of the rest of the human body, made possible. And we are unique, you may argue. We are, in all likelihood, absolutely unique in form and expression, the only beings of our kind in all of the Universe, even among the other advanced intelligences which may have evolved. There is nothing in any evolutionary system anywhere that is like us, you could contend (ignoring for the moment the multiple worlds hypothesis). You may indeed be right. In fact, nothing like us probably has evolved anywhere else. Our cultures are in all probability not like those of any other intelligent beings which may exist elsewhere. And yet, I would ask, how likely is it that our uniqueness will ever be known to anyone outside of our world?
You might also argue that, discovered or not, known or not, our intelligence is still a wondrous phenomenon, a beacon however tiny its light might be, a possession both exalted and exalting. Here again I must object. It seems to me that our intelligence is far more limited than we believe it to be. It is the product of a body constructed out of the simplest and most convenient materials available. It has fooled us into thinking that it is equipped to probe the deepest mysteries of existence, when in fact its principal reason for being was to facilitate reproductive success—nothing more.
Of course, we might someday reach out into small parts of the Universe and colonize them. But our “empire” would be tiny at best. There is also the possibility that humans will someday send self-replicating devices into space, but the utility of doing so would be diminished by the fact that such devices would face the insuperable barrier of distance as they tried to communicate with us.
• The Universe is as it is for our benefit. This is the so-called anthropic argument. The “strong” version of it argues that the Universe was created specifically to bring about the existence of intelligent life forms—like us—and that such an evolution was inevitable. Taken to its logical extent, it means that the physical constants of nature were “designed” to bring about something like the human species. The absurdity of this belief echoes the absurdities of an earlier age’s geocentrism. To believe that a universe, as big in relation to us as the Earth is to a fraction of a single atom, exists chiefly to facilitate our existence borders on delusion. Would anyone argue that the Earth was created for the benefit of a single atom within it?
The “weak” version of this argument claims that the physical principles that govern the Universe exist to facilitate at least some form of intelligent life somewhere, at some time. But this argument transforms coincidence and randomness into necessity and design, and it still leaves a host of issues unaddressed, such as the possibility of multiple or parallel Universes containing different physical forces and constants. Humans are a byproduct of fortuitous conditions in an extremely localized environment, and little else can reasonably be said.
To be perfectly blunt, let us consider the total mass of the Universe. Now let us consider that part of the Universe’s mass composed of intelligent life forms. Even assuming that every star in the Universe has a community of intelligent beings orbiting it—an assumption that no one makes—the total mass of intelligent life forms would probably constitute less than one one-millionth of one per cent of the Universe’s mass. In my view, life is a byproduct of the Universe, and consciousness is a byproduct of life.
• We are the favored offspring of God or a divine intelligence or universal spirit. You might, ultimately, rest your argument on the poetry of the Bible or some other revered text—“Not a sparrow falls” without His knowledge of it. But this seems to me to be a sentiment humans use to comfort themselves. As I have noted, most of us want to be important in some way in the scheme of things. But what is comforting and what is real are two different things. To believe now that a universal God sees us as the pinnacle of its creation is either an amazingly hopeful view of our place in reality, or an amazingly hubristic one.
Therefore it is quite reasonable, I think, to argue that the human experience means nothing in the context of the Universe—nothing at all. We thought our earthly drama was of universal significance because we used to think we were the Universe and the children of a father-like creator spirit (in societies that imagined godlike figures to exist) or else imbued with the spirit of the world itself. I have arrived at the point in my life where it is impossible for me to believe that if there were indeed a Universal Intelligence of some sort that existed, that it would even notice our presence. It would be exactly as if a being the size of the Universe were expected to notice a group of microbes clinging to a dust speck. The proposition collapses under the weight of its own absurdity, and can only be defended by postulating the existence of a being with such utterly amazing capabilities that it would be capable of attending to everything at all times, forever. There is, of course, the possibility that a godlike being is evolving, is coming into being gradually over the course of the Universe’s existence, and will some day possess the attributes humans have always given to it. But until such a being manifests itself unmistakably, it must remain only a hypothesis.
Because of our extremely limited understanding, it seems to me that we cannot lean on belief in this Universal Intelligence, or God, with true intellectual certainty (however deeply God’s presence might be felt emotionally). Some might find this conclusion to be cause for despair. They might say that without the certainty of God, how can life have any meaning? Implicit in such a question is another: if we cannot rely on God, does this mean that all we have—and all we are ever likely to have—is each other? Given the history of our species, many might see such as prospect as yet another cause for despair.
As we have noted elsewhere, the transition of the Sun into its red giant phase will make the Earth completely uninhabitable. If intelligent life descended from humans has survived and continued to evolve in the hundreds of millions of years before that happens, it will obviously have to emigrate from the Earth to survive. But nothing much would change if the human race or its successor species were to transport itself to, let us say, Europa, one of the moons of Jupiter, which would have habitable temperatures during the Sun’s red giant period. The scene of our isolation would simply move a mere 400 million miles from its original point. The same would be true whether our species, or its evolutionary descendants, occupied a habitable planet orbiting another star. Our descendants could end up as simply the unknown wanderers, fleeing from world to world in a desperate attempt to perpetuate themselves for no other real reason than sheer survival. These wanderers may discover all knowledge and have all imaginable powers, but their magnificent achievements are unlikely to have any monument after the Universe begins its descent into total entropy.
Is that all that will stand at the end of the human experience? The never-to-be-known story of an orphan species, one that once ridiculously shouted its importance to a stone-deaf Universe, and never realized that, in all probability, no one was listening?