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What is the meaning of Life? Many cringe and recoil at the mere mention of such an inquiry. Some of us ponder this question aloud during the naivety of youth, but as we grow older, this, like many other subjects become private and scarcely mentioned. Not because the question in itself is offensive, but we know all too well where this seemingly futile train of thought leads. Befuddlement, doubt, in lieu of some religious footing or adequate distraction, this can be the birthplace of nihilistic thought. It can seem as though there just isn’t any rhyme or reason to anything, merely a perpetual struggle of chaotic forces, seemingly meaningless events leading to meaningless outcomes and so on and so forth, for a meaningless eternity. So how could anything possibly matter, even in the slightest?
The innumerable species that have been wiped out entirely from our planet, many of which unknown to us, did they “mean” anything? The (approximately) 110 billion homo sapiens almost identical to us that have lived and died already, did they “mean” anything? The difficult part about the question “what is the meaning of life?” is that we don’t truly understand what life is. Yes, we know its characteristics, its commonalities (on this planet) but what do we really know about the nature of all life on this world? It simply wants to survive, it wants to procreate, a constant struggle of the individual to leave a common legacy behind. The simultaneously ugly and beautiful struggle, the failures, the successes, what is it all leading toward?
Is the struggle of life some complex form of entropy, disorder, working towards equilibrium? Is the fabled concept of the “supreme being” the embodiment of an achieved “equilibrium” of life? The final balance of all living chaos?
In 1961, Dr. Frank Drake came up with a theoretical equation to estimate the probability of communicative extraterrestrial civilizations within our Milky Way Galaxy. The equation is as follows:
N = R∗ · fp · ne · fl · fi · fc · L
N = Number of probable civilizations in the Milky Way Galaxy.
R∗ = Average rate of star formation in the Milky Way Galaxy.
fp = Fraction of formed stars that are orbited by planet(s).
ne = Average number of planets capable of supporting life (as we understand it) per star, that is orbited by planet(s).
fl = Fraction of planets that could support life (as we understand it) that actually do develop life at some stage.
fi = Fraction of planets that develop life that lead to the evolution/existence of intelligent life capable of creating primitive civilization.
fc = Fraction of developed civilizations that become technologically advanced enough to release detectable signs of their existence into space (signal broadcast, etc).
L = Length of time such detectable signals, signs are capable of being received to interpret the civilizations existence (past or present).
In the very least likely scenario, when applying doubtful estimations, N can equal a value much less than 1. Suggesting that outside of earth, there is no intelligent life accompanying us in our galaxy. In some of the most optimistic of estimations however, the estimated number of intelligent extraterrestrial civilizations in the Milky Way Galaxy can be in the vicinity of: 27, 000, 000 (assuming there are approximately 300 billion stars).
Despite these estimations using values based heavily on assumption, having a difference of below zero and over 27 million there is one crucial flaw to the concept of the equation. It relies almost entirely on the belief that all life as we understand it, arises from abiogenesis. The process by which life arises from inorganic/non-living matter.
Even if we were to look back, to the generally scientifically accepted age, 3.6 billion years ago when the last (known) universal common ancestor (LUCA) “spawned into existence”, a single-celled organism that seemingly appeared from a primordial cocktail. We don’t definitively know that LUCA came about from abiogenesis. We also don’t actually know (at this time) if abiogenesis has any real basis in reality. One of the reasons some doubt abiogenesis is that no one has ever successfully replicated the process to create life from matter. Some suggesting that the origin of life was an accident that took millions of years to occur, under very specific conditions. If abiogenesis isn’t the answer to our origin, then (outside of religious claims) we really don’t know how life began or even what it truly is. If it didn’t begin on this world, then where might life have come from in the beginning and why/how was it brought here in the first place?
Life wants to go on, thus far, it has succeeded. Life adapts, life learns from its mistakes. Life prioritizes procreation above all else, constantly looking to a future beyond the horizon. Life begets life. There are all sorts of theories why life “impregnates” a planet, a solar system, a galaxy or universe at large. Perhaps to be the designated custodians of time and space, for what purpose or from what origin is anyone’s guess.
As much as it may pain some to hear it, we often fail to realize how incredibly small we are in the grand scheme of things. You and I, everyone we’ve ever known, we all make up a minute fraction of a single tooth on a very, very small cogwheel. This cog, in turn spins another cog, and so on and so forth, to form a “machine” that we on the tooth of our cog may always struggle to comprehend. But the mere fact that we cannot perceive or even understand the nature of a system, doesn’t mean the system does not exist, serves a purpose or even has a will of its own.
Are we capable of understanding the will of a universe? We don’t even know the shape of the universe we find ourselves within. We also don’t quite understand what is beyond our universe, if anything at all. Will our universe always expand freely? Will a time come when the sentient “living” beings are required to overcome very real threats that could destabilize the entirety of space and time as we perceive it? The once seemingly primitive and dormant forms of life becoming antibodies (so to speak) and protectors of the “universe” the reality/dimension that holds the soul potential to give existence to everything we can comprehend. The desperate struggle of existence only on a much grander scale?
It’s possible the answers lie beyond the physical reality entirely. But the problem isn’t a lack of meaning, but rather the infinite possibilities as to what and why things are the way they are that leave us wondering. The belief that there is no meaning and everything that ever has or will happen is merely the work of chance alone, is quite a simple and somewhat lazy explanation. Because chance alone suggests that life as we know it is inevitable and inescapable, it is only a matter of time. A matter of rolling the dice under the right conditions. It implies that the existence of “life” is part of the “natural order” of the universe. Which means the meaning of life is integral to the meaning of the universe itself. Which brings us to the question that is connected to “what is the meaning of life?” and “what is the meaning of the universe?”, which is “what is the meaning of consciousness?”
This reality/dimension, in all it’s conceivable (and inconceivable) totality, what would there be in lieu of its existence? Virtually all of our answers involve something already existing to cause something else. The Big Bang requires the existence of mass and energy. Even in religion, God (or gods) create the universe, humanity etc, but where did God(s) come from? How did “something” come from “nothingness”? Even if you start with a blank canvas, where did the blank canvas come from? What was there before God(s)? Where did the first particle of matter come from?
This, much more complex, all-encompassing question is no doubt intrinsically linked with the meaning of the universe. However, just like the limits of our physical universe and how we cannot perceive what is beyond it, this knowledge, as far as I can tell, goes beyond the limits of our consciousness. But perhaps, one day, that will change.
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