Up@dawn 2.0

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

On Life, the Universe, and Everything

On Life, the Universe, and Everything
by Gus Simpson, H2

What is the meaning of life? 42, yes obviously. But, there’s more to it. Right?

That’s a strange question. “What is the meaning of life?” It’s human nature to feel that life must have some meaning to it. That we are all here for a reason. Life is just so wonderful. It’s beautiful and mysterious. There has to be something to it.
For a very large majority of people living on Earth, that meaning is a deity of some kind. There are roughly 4,200 religions practiced in our world, the practitioners of each believing that their specific answer to that question is correct and all others are wrong.
I find this to be incredibly fallacious. Humans seem to have immense trouble admitting they don’t know something. Or, maybe, having faith in the supernatural is a coping mechanism for the overwhelming unknown of the Universe.
That’s fair. But if you truly care about the answer to the question, “What is the meaning of life?”, then you must be willing to consider viewpoints alternative to your own.

Personally, I don’t place faith in any kind of deity. I don’t align with any religions. That’s not to say that I believe that people who practice religion are wrong. How am I supposed to know if they are wrong or not? I have the same facts and science about the Universe that they do. I am no more qualified to answer the question of Life, the Universe, and Everything than anybody else is.
That being said, I do think it is arbitrary to debate about which religion is right, or why there is no God or why there is. It is a very top-down discussion. That is, debating religions is looking at a quandary from the top, seeing it for what it is, and trying to apply a solution to it. As you work your way down through the problem, you encounter snags. The solution you came up with doesn’t fit around the whole problem. These snags are normally dealt with via ad hoc explanations that only cover one portion of the problem and not the whole thing.
I feel like religion is like this. The founders and practitioners of religions see the question posed and answer it by, “God.” When their theories are debunked by hard science, the response is usually something similar to, “God works in mysterious ways.”
I find this to be incredibly inefficient to answering our question. The argument for the existence of God, or any kind of supernature, is like saying that there is a 7 legged rainbow giraffe named Kevin that created the Universe, but he is conveniently invisible. Sure, it’s a legitimate possibility. But there is no empirical evidence for it.
In my view, when seeking the answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything, it is important to focus on what we know to be true and what we have sufficient evidence for believing to be true.
There is a stigma that science and philosophy are mutually exclusive to one another. But that’s just not true. In my opinion, philosophy is the art of thought. Philosophy is asking questions, and science is answering them.
If you imagine the entire spectrum of understanding in the Universe as a Venn diagram, the left side being philosophical quandaries (questions and thoughts we can ask and have, but not necessarily test) and the right side being the empirical reality of science where facts are facts and the Universe is knowable, the answer to our question will lie somewhere in the overlap.

In order to really answer the question, we have to shed off our aspirations for the Universe. Instead of looking at the question from the top-down, that is from how it appears to us, we must look at it from the bottom-up. From what we know about how the Universe began.
In a drastic oversimplification of things, we know that all the matter and energy in our Universe exploded outward from a single point. The only matter that inhabited space at that time were the three lightest elements: hydrogen, helium, and lithium. As these elements gathered into clouds of gas, their gravities pulled on each other, eventually becoming so dense that nuclear fusion occurred and became the first stars.
In the biggest stars, the cores were so dense that heavier elements formed. This included Oxygen, Nitrogen, Calcium, Phosphorus, and Carbon. These may be familiar to you, because they are vastly abundant on our planet. They are in our earth, trees, rocks, and us.
Upon supernova, these heavier elements would scatter the cosmos. After billions of years of this, stars would form with leftover heavy matter circling them. Like our sun. When it formed, those heavier elements were pulled together by gravity and created the planets we can see in the sky today. It also created the one we live on.
Life began in the oceans as single celled, microorganisms that reproduced by duplicating. Tiny clumps of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen that responded to electrical impulses. These simple organizations of matter eventually became more complex organizations. It left the oceans and, over billions of years, evolved a species of mammals that could connect electrical impulses in their brains with symbols and sounds. A species that could communicate thoughts and share knowledge. A species that could speculate the origins of their existence without any prior knowledge or understanding of how they were able to do it.
That species is us, by the way.

Here’s a new thought experiment. A while back, I saw an article on reddit about how scientists are figuring out how to isolate the individual molecules of water from sewage and pull them apart to reuse as drinking water. A lot of the comments expressed opposition to this. It’s gross to drink water from sewage!
But think about it. The nasty stuff in sewage tends to be microscopic. Parasites. Bacteria. Viruses. Waste. But those nasty things, despite how small they are, are composed of millions and millions of molecules.
This, I feel, is the direction we should be heading in to answer our question. Think for a moment about a molecule of water. One atom of hydrogen, and two atoms of oxygen. That’s it! There is nothing tainted about pure H2O, because it’s only those two elements! So drinking extracted H2O from sewage would be perfectly okay, because those individual molecules are just that. Individual molecules.

So what does that have to do with the meaning of life? Well, everything we see and interact with on a constant, unending basis, is just various configurations of atoms. Just over 100 of them, actually. That’s it. All it takes to organize everything in the known and observable Universe can be done so in just over 100 elements.
This includes everything you love, everyone you love and hate, every dog, cat, squirrel, Donald Trump and, of course, you. We are all just atoms. Given cogniscience by electrical impulses in our brain complex enough to attribute words to describe them with.
You are made of the same stuff as the tree you sit under and the stars you look up at. At a fundamental level, from a bottom-up perspective, you are made up of the same stuff as the grass and bugs you walk on without any consideration for it.
Atoms are just matter. Matter that doesn’t think. Doesn’t feel pain. It just exists. And that’s all we are all made up of, so does that mean we are just as meaningless?
In my view, because of the inherent nihilism of the Universe, you and I have no more intrinsic value than the potable H2O extracted from sewage. We are all just accidental organizations of the same atoms.
So is that it? There is no meaning to Life, the Universe, and Everything because everything is meaningless?
Yes, but allow me to offer a new perspective on things. Let’s go back to that tree. You are with your significant other under that tree. The love of your life. And you are looking up at the stars knowing that the beauty of the cosmos is poetically identical to you two, and everyone, and everything.
I purport that there is no meaning intrinsic to anything. The atoms that make up everything we experience are equally meaningless. The books we worship and churches we hallow, the people we love and the children we have. The Universe doesn’t care. It will fly an asteroid into you and ruin everything.
But one of the most wonderful qualities of this cosmic accident we call life is that we can attribute meaning to things. That we can look at certain organizations of the same matter and say, “Yes, that’s the shape I want to spend my entire life with.”
We can look up at the cosmos and know that we are part of something amazing and love one another a bit more.
When humans inevitably go extinct, assuming another species doesn’t evolve the ability to think like we can, the Universe will go on. And with it might be the only love it had to offer itself.
Our planet will be destroyed by the Sun’s inevitable supernova, and the gas and debris left over may eventually become a new sun, new planets, and new life. And they may have in them some of the same matter that’s in you right now.

For some people, this nihilistic view of everything is depressing. We like to feel special. It would have been nice for us to have meaning.

But I find it empowering. We have a unique ability to give things meaning they otherwise wouldn’t have had. So love one another, and look up. If you want to give all this meaning, you had better get started.


  1. Really great post! I personally don't know exactly what I believe about the origins of the universe and life, but I would like to think that there is a god. I have been reading the book "More Than a Carpenter" by Josh and Sean McDowell, and it brings up some good points about the universe's design. Obviously this is a Christian book, so I try to take everything with a grain of salt. They talk about how gravity "must be fine-tuned to one part in 10^40 (that's one part in 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000)," and how Stephen Hawking once said that "if the rate of expansion one second after the Big Bang had been smaller by even one part in a hundred thousand million million, the universe would have recollapsed before it even reached its present size." Some may look at this information and see only a scientific explanation for the universe, but I think it's fair to consider that their may be some sort of all-intelligent designer behind it. Again, I'm not totally sure what I believe, but I love discussing different view-points!!

    1. The fine-tuning argument implies a fine-tuner. But in an infinite cosmos, or a multiverse, fine-tuning is not required to create our form of life or any other. What's required is lots and lots of time, and lots and lots of cosmic experiments, to create lots and lots of alternative possible worlds. Ours would then be one of those, and we who love our lives must consider ourselves winners of the cosmic lottery.

    2. "Philosophy is asking questions, and science is answering them." - Well... Science answers lots of questions formerly asked by philosophy, before science as we know it existed. Lately, though, many scientists (like Goldstein's favorite whipping boy Krauss) disdain philosophy and its questions. THe way I'd put it is: philosophy asks philosophical questions, and individuals (sometimes) answer them; science asks naturalistic questions of nature, and nature sometimes yields its secrets.

      "one of the most wonderful qualities of this cosmic accident we call life is that we can attribute meaning to things. That we can look at certain organizations of the same matter and say, “Yes, that’s the shape I want to spend my entire life with.”
      "We can look up at the cosmos and know that we are part of something amazing and love one another a bit more." - beautiful!

    3. One of the themes of my essay is that I do not purport to know what I don't, and I do not know the origins of the Universe. The argument you mentioned is certainly valid, but allow me to offer a counter argument.
      Should our Universe have so probably collapsed as Dr. Hawking said, would we be around to feel unlucky? No of course not. Yes, the fact the exact right conditions were in place to give way to our existence is certainly extraordinary. But I rationalize that kind of crazy luck thusly: The odds of winning the Powerball lotter are 1 in 292 million. Basically everyone who plays loses. But one person will not. And yes it may seem that it's impossible you will win, but if the person who thought that way (as he/she very likely did), then he would feel like God blessed him/her. But the fact is that someone would win and he/she did.
      So while there is an impossibly slim probability that we would be here, it isn't zero. We won the existential lottery. Had we not won, we wouldn't be around to be aware of it. So it seems more divine than I believe it actually is.

      Thanks for the response!

  2. This was a really interesting read and I found it very very hopeful for the future. I fear the idea that our life means nothing as we are something so small, so minute in the scheme of things, and this essay gave me a very inspiring outlook compared to the normal side of things.

  3. It was beautiful to read and know that some people have such an inspiring outlook in their life with all the negativity that exists in the world!

  4. Since you began with a reference to The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, let me discuss the question. In the five part trilogy by Douglas Adams, the great computer Deep Thought has found the answer to life, the universe, and everything to be 42, however, another larger computer was created in the form of Earth in order to discover the question to the answer. do you think "what is the meaning of life?" is even a valid question? I think that there is some other question out there that is the real key to understanding existence.