Whether you are on your way to work on a rainy morning, lying awake at night unable to sleep, or just gazing up at the stars, you might sometimes find yourself contemplating the meaning of life. It is one of humanity’s biggest questions, and there is no simple answer, but WIRED has spoken to a philosopher and a physicist to try and get closer to one…
Philosophy has always tried to address some of humanity’s most complex questions. “Defining the meaning of life in philosophy is difficult,” Emily Thomas, deputy director of philosophy at Durham University, told WIRED. “You could be asking for the purpose of life – for example, God created us to worship him, or procreate. Or the value of life – for example, life is valuable because it makes us happy, or brings beauty, or moral good.”
“For what it’s worth, I don’t think life has a purpose, but I do think it has value.”
The meaning of life also brings up the question of whether or not life exists elsewhere in the Universe. “I’d be astonished if it didn’t,” Thomas told WIRED. “It seems very unlikely that we are the only happy accident.”
Thanks to modern censuses of planets in our galactic neighbourhood, like Nasa’s Kepler mission, we know that planets are common and that small, Earth-sized planets are not the exception, but the rule.
The consensus of astrobiologists and exoplanetary scientists today is that life in the Milky Way, and other galaxies, is common. But most of that life is likely the simplest life possible – microbes.
The Universe is so huge that, statistically, life elsewhere is almost certain. The sheer number of stars in our Milky Way made it seem inconceivable we were the only place with intelligent life.
Thinking about it in this way, life on Earth can seem pretty irrelevant.
Contemplating the sheer scale of the Universe and the tininess of our world, it is easy to dismiss humanity as insignificant in the ‘Big Picture’. We seem like just a tiny brush stroke or a random pixel in that picture.
But Jaymie Matthews, professor of astronomy and astrophysics at the University of British Colombia, explained why this is not the case.
“When I was a student starting out in astronomy, the recipe of the Universe was simple,” Matthews told WIRED. “Everything was made of the particles that make us, and our planet, and our Sun, and all the suns and gas and dust in interstellar space. We were part of the main ingredient of the dish.”
Now, however, the discovery of dark matter and dark energy has thrown this completely off. Today, the recipe of the Universe is about 75 per cent dark energy, 21 per cent dark matter, and 4 per cent normal matter – the stuff we are made of. On top of this, the actual elements that make Earth and life on Earth represent only a tiny fraction of a per cent of the composition of the Universe.
“We’ve gone from being the main ingredient in the recipe – the cheese in the fondue – to a pinch of spice,” Matthews told WIRED. “That’s not a loss of stature in the cosmic kitchen, but a promotion.”
Think about this the next time you wonder whether life has any meaning.
Matthews says: “Every time you look up at the stars, and wonder what they are and how they got there, you give the Universe meaning, and add to your own meaning.”