The Purpose Part II — On Meaning and The Rarity of Life

As luck would have it I died three days later. “You again, so soon? That’s unexpected. Did you remember to bring a story for me?” I was perplexed. “Why are you surprised? You are God, don’t you know everything? Surely you must have known when we last talked that I would be with you shortly.” “I’m afraid not.” God replied. “It’s that free will thing again. Once that gift was given I lost my ability to see the future of all men. I don’t regret it for a second. Knowing the future isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. There is no surprise that way. Life without surprise is a lot like vanilla ice cream. It’s still good but it’s awfully plain”. I chuckled softly to myself. It seemed that God was as capable of a bad metaphor as I was. For some reason this brought me great comfort. The residual fear I had been feeling at standing dead in the presence of my creator evaporated in an instant. “I don’t have a story per se, but I do have something I’d like to say to you. It’s probably more accurate to say I have some things I’d like to ask you about?”
At that, God heaved a great sigh and the skies darkened just a bit. “I was promised a story. Not just any story but a story with meaning. This is the way it always goes with you men. You want to know everything yet you hesitate to share anything. Oh well, go on young Stephen, ask away.” I was greatly troubled that I had disappointed God so deeply but I sensed he had expected nothing less. “Please forgive me God. I will attempt to phrase my inquiries in the form of a story. That way you will still get to hear the tale you were promised and I might finally get some answers to my many questions.” God seemed greatly pleased by this response. “It sounds to me that you are proposing to tell me a parable. I have a son who is quite renowned for his parable telling skills. Many of his were even published and I understand the book has become quite popular.”
Now I was laughing. “Quite popular. That’s a good one God.” Between chuckles I was able to go on. “You are too modest father. I guess I should have expected nothing less from the almighty one.” He seemed genuinely perplexed but I shrugged and continued. “I want to know why the universe has anything living instead of nothing at all. It seems to me that a universe with nothing alive could function perfectly well. The laws of physics, conservation of energy, the principle of cause and effect, and so on could be followed in the absence of any minds or any living matter at all. The universe does not need to comment on itself if you follow my meaning. In fact up until the moment of my death many physicists endorsed the so called “multiverse” hypothesis which posits that the vast majority of universes are completely lifeless.”
God’s brow furrowed, his nose wrinkled slightly, and he took a slow deep breath. He appeared to be deep in contemplation for some moments before he replied. “Even though your question was not posed in the form of a parable as you promised I will still give you an answer. But first let me ask you a question Stephen. You mentioned the word ‘meaning’ at one point in your ramblings and I asked you previously to tell me a story with meaning. What does it mean to say that something, anything is beautiful? Many of the greatest minds of my creations have noted that all propositions of value and meaning, beauty is only one example of such a value concept, require an observer. Another way to put that is to say that a mind is needed to comment on the universe. A universe without comment is a universe without meaning. Without a mind to observe it a thing is only a thing. It exists but it has no value, no meaning. It is only conscious matter, the rarest of all forms of matter, that can take stock and record and announce the cosmic panorama of existence. Many of those same great minds I mentioned before understood that such an argument could be considered to be circular. Of all the logical fallacies, circularity of argument is one of the most fundamental, misunderstood, and most often abused. Perhaps meaning itself is only relevant in the mind of an observer. If I had not created minds then meaning itself would not exist. However, the fact of the matter is that I did create minds. These minds have thoughts. With your minds you men and women have created values, a world full of meaning, of science and art, and societies. Even if physicists are correct in their suppositions about the nature of the universe and there are indeed a near infinite number of self consistent universes with no living material, you should not neglect the fact of your own existence.”
God paused for a moment seeming to collect his thoughts then continued. “It may surprise you to know Stephen that I am only God in this universe. If the multiverse theory is correct and there are a near infinite number of universes there may be a near infinite number of beings like myself in each of them. Or there may not. Perhaps the fact that those universes have no living matter is a consequence of them having no God. Or they may have no living matter because the gods of those universes have chosen to refrain from creating it. Contrary to popular opinion I am not all knowing at least when it comes to knowledge of matters that may or may not exist outside this universe of mine.” I was truly stunned at this revelation. The shock must have registered on my face because God put his arm on my shoulder gently and whispered in my ear “Be at peace my son. This is the way of things. Even I cannot change that fact.” Immediately I was at peace. “You actually took it quite well. When I have shared that knowledge with many great scientists who have died and come before me their reactions were not as restrained as yours to put it mildly.”
God was just getting started. I could tell he had more to say. My parable would have to wait. “Let me continue for just a moment longer Stephen. I want to share something with you. Perhaps it will give you some comfort as you stand here dead with me and ponder the meaning of it all.” Now I was genuinely excited. God, the creator of everything, the all knowing all powerful one was going to share something truly grand and wonderful with me. I never considered myself an especially good person. In fact in most ways I was quite average. I had never done anything truly evil and yet I could not say I had been an especially good man either. What had I done to deserve such treatment from God himself. Again God sensed my thoughts. “Nothing Stephen. You have done nothing to deserve this. Yet this you shall be given. Do not let your heart swell with pride. I have shared many things with many people. Many have deserved to hear what I have spoken and many have not. However each man, woman, and child who has listened closely to what I have revealed to them has learned something. They learned something they needed to know to help them as they transition from their earthly existence to the world beyond. Many have failed to listen. Others have listened but failed to understand. Lastly some have listened and understood but could not accept the truth of my words. They could not accept what those words meant.”
God paused and a look of great sadness flitted across his face. I wept at that sadness. In a moment the look was gone. “Don’t cry Stephen. I have not shed a tear for man since the day they put my son to death. I don’t intend to start now.” At that God beamed a great smile and laughed softly. “Now I shall proceed. Listen closely and you will learn all you need to know. For centuries you humans, my creation, have speculated on the possible existence and prevalence of life elsewhere in the universe. Even as you died Stephen for the first time in history, you have begun to answer that profound question. You have sent a great telescope named Kepler into orbit around the earth. Its primary mission objective is to determine the abundance of terrestrial and larger planets in or near the habitable zone of a wide variety of stars. At this point, the results of the Kepler mission can be extrapolated to suggest that something like 10 percent of all stars have a habitable planet in orbit. The Milky Way galaxy, home of your planet earth, contains close to 100 billion stars thus the number of planets that may harbor life in some form is enormous. With so many other galaxies out there, it is highly probable that there are many, many other solar systems with life. From this perspective, life in the cosmos is common. Of course I know the exact numbers and suffice to say your scientists are roughly correct. Life is common in the universe. It has evolved to be so. Yes I lit the flame in the beginning but from then on my hands have had no influence on what would become of my creation. There are other intelligent beings in the universe Stephen. Some are roughly like man, others are very, very different. All share one common trait. They possess consciousness. Only a being with consciousness can have intelligence.” I was stunned. So it was true. We are not alone in the universe. Moreover intelligent life was common. I had always suspected it to be so but to have that fact confirmed by God himself was amazing to say the least.
“Is that what you had to share with me? What I needed to know?” I asked somewhat sheepishly. “Only part.” God replied. “I have told you that there is indeed intelligent life in the universe besides mankind. I have also said that such beings are common. However this is only partly true. There is another grander perspective. From this point of view intelligent life in the universe is exceedingly, astonishingly rare. It considers all forms of matter, inanimate and animate, intelligent and not. The fraction of all living matter in the universe when looked at this way is fantastically small. In fact Stephen I will tell you that the fraction of the universe that exists in living form is only roughly one-billionth of one-billionth. Here’s a way to visualize such a tiny fraction. If the Gobi Desert on earth represents all of the matter flung across the cosmos, living matter is a single grain of sand on that desert1. How should we think about this extreme rarity of life? What do you think Stephen? and what about you Miss Withington what do you think?” “Miss Withington? I don’t understand that last part God”. “Sorry Stephen, that was not meant for you, ignore it.” With that God became silent and closed his eyes for some time. I stood still thinking deeply on what God had shared with me. After some time gods eyes fluttered open. He spoke again. “You still owe me that parable Stephen.” he said. “And you promised me it would have meaning. I will hold you to that.”

1Is Life Special Just Because It’s Rare? Vitalism in the age of modern science, Alan Lightman, Nautilus Magazine, Oct. 15, 2015

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Research scientist (Ph.D. micro/mol biology), Thought middle manager, Everyday junglist, Selecta (Ret.), Boulderer, Cat lover, Fish hater

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