There is meaning in our universe after all!19 Mar 2018
In 1990, 13 years after leaving the Earth on a journey to interstellar space, the Voyager 1 space probe looked backwards, capturing a glimpse of the planet from which it had come. Reflecting on the image, Carl Sagan delivered the following piece:
We succeeded in taking that picture, and, if you look at it, you see a dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives. The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilizations, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every hopeful child, every mother and father, every inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species, lived there on a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam…Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity – in all this vastness – there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. It is up to us.
That paragraph makes me shiver. It should give you pause, too, for to meditate on the fragility of humanity is to understand that all the love, the beauty, the happiness and the sorrow, everything that gives meaning to the lives of ourselves and our civilizations, arose accidentally and might be swept aside just as randomly. This is not new information, of course. I think a lot of people are secretly terrified of the apparent meaninglessness of everything. Hell, it’s the driving point behind Rick and Morty. It seems that the more we learn about the universe, the more meaningless everything feels.
good great amazingly fucking fantastic news: In the midst of this empty void, we exist, and we matter. For 14 billion years, fermions and bosons rearranged themselves into meaningless patterns, moving in a rhythmless dance with no one there to watch it. Until one day, those fermions and bosons rearranged themselves yet again, and this time, they formed us – not entities separate from the Universe, but rather pieces of the Universe capable of recognizing themselves and their surroundings. Suddenly, literal existence itself began to have meaning. Sunsets transformed from just a scattering of photons through the atmosphere into beautiful works of art as humans began to observe them. Replication processes, previously performed through the mindless transcription of RNA, turned into love, an emotion powerful enough to inspire, like, every artist in the world. As civilization began to take shape on Earth, so too did meaning begin to take shape in the Universe.
Big deal. There’s got to be other intelligence…right?
The common response to the above is that while intelligent life might not have existed on Earth until we evolved, it surely existed, and continues to exist, elsewhere. The universe is giant – how hubristic would we have to be to believe that humans are the only intelligent beings? Surely there must be hundreds, thousands, millions of intelligent alien civilizations out there, somewhere. They’re simply too far away to communicate with us, or we’re too stupid to understand how to communicate with them – while SETI searches the skies for radio waves, everyone else is talking past us with their alpha wave matter transmitters, or whatever.
There are a few problems with this response. The first is that it hand waves away what should be a rigorous probability calculation. The universe is big, but that doesn’t mean small probability events will necessarily occur. For instance, let’s think about the chances of two people randomly shuffling a deck of cards into the same order. Without thinking too hard, it seems like this would have definitely occurred – there are only so many orders the cards can be in, and there have been A LOT of card games played over the years. When we start applying numbers, however, this assumption is revealed as naive. There are 52 factorial, or about 10^68, ways to arrange the cards, which means that the chance of any one combination occurring is 10^-68. Let’s be super generous – what if the cards were shuffled every second since the big bang? 14 billion years is about 10^17 seconds – multiply these two numbers together to approximate the chance of getting two different arrangements, which is about 10^-41, or 1 in 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000. If the odds of intelligent life arising twice were similar to those of card shuffling, we see that it would be exceedingly unlikely that there is actually other life out there. Clearly, “the universe is big” doesn’t cut it.
The second problem is that this argument fails to account for anthropic bias, the notion that the very conditions that allowed for intelligent life to evolve bias us as we reason about this problem. We can’t tell if the prior probability of life evolving on a planet is 10^-3 or to 10^-60 – we’re already here, so these situations feel the same to us. To go back to the card example, this is like not knowing how many cards are in the deck – we can’t tell the odds of getting a certain order in the first place.
Finally, I suspect there is a bit of misguided social humility thrown in. Humans spent so long believing they were literally the center of existence, that now, all the cool kids think humans and the Earth are necessarily just like the rest of the universe – it’s unfashionable to think anything else. Wrap all this together and you get some pretty powerful forces driving people to bad epistemology.
I’m not saying there are no other intelligent lifeforms out there. Rather, I’m pointing out that it’s pretty bad reasoning to comfortably assume that they do exist. Instead, we must come to terms with the alternative: There might be no other life – and no other consciousness – at all. If we screw this up, that might be it. The end of all meaning, forever. Don’t believe me? Many famous scientists and philosophers – such as Enrico Fermi, Nick Bostrom, and Max Tegmark – have done in depth research on the potential isolation of humanity and the resulting moral implications.
What is one to do with this realization? To start, we should acknowledge that humanity has the potential to take this accidental meaning that randomly came into existence and spread it throughout the cosmos. If humanity is a boat, the universe is our open ocean – we are free to explore and travel throughout it. In the absence of the existence of others, this might be our deepest moral imperative. There remain many obstacles for our boat to conquer. We need to watch out for the dangers – existential risks such as nuclear weapons, superintelligence, and climate change – that could sink our ship and all the precious hope we carry with us. We need to figure out a way to sail the ship, since our current political structures basically mean there’s no one at the helm. And we need to figure out how to do all this without losing the progress we’ve made thus far. If you’re searching for meaningful problems to work on, there is no shortage. As we do this, however, we can’t forget why we’re doing it in the first place – the love, the laughter, the friendships, and everything else that makes life worth living in the first place.