Life, the Universe and Everything


Many people stumble across this website whilst searching ‘what is life’, looking for inspiration on the meaning of their own life. Attributing meaning and even purpose to life is big business (unfortunately). But it is also an ancient pursuit and so universal among cultures of the world, that it would be reasonable to say that wanting to understand one’s existence and find a meaning in it, is only natural. In other words, being human includes wanting to know why we are here at all.



Earth

The question people seem to be asking is: what is the point of my existence in the context of all life and even the whole universe? Of course there can only be a point to any of this if there is an overall principle to life and the universe that contains it. People probably want there to be one because the human mind includes the ability and desire to plan ahead, for which we need to see and understand the ‘bigger picture’. This certainly is sustaining when things get tough for us.

Most religions, including the earliest proto-religions incorporate an account of the origin of the universe, of life and humanity and typically describe a metaphysical agency (at least one god) bringing it all into being as an act of will. This certainly does imply an overall plan in which we are a part. It may seem to us now that such creation myths were an attempt made by pre-scientific people to explain natural phenomena. But emphasising that pseudo-science purpose is probably a mistake. Religion’s primary role is and always has been to make sense of the human experience, both personal and social. Origin myths are most useful as background to provide wholeness in understanding an essentially anthropocentric experience, rather than to provide an accurate account of physical reality. So when religions say the central and fundamental principle of creation is love and atheistic scientists respond that “love is only a phenomenon of animals having a central nervous system and therefore cannot be fundamental to the universe”, both are rather missing each other’s point.

So far, the strictly scientific account of ‘life, the universe and everything’ seems cold, alienating and ultimately irrelevant to us, because it is not the answer to how do I, as a human, fit into the ‘overall plan’. If there is no plan, if the universe just carries on guided by nothing more than the bleak laws of physics and if life is no more than a relentless struggle to outcompete by reproduction, then there is no point. According to this extreme of materialism, life has no meaning, your life and mine have no significance and will end without any ultimate effect. Indeed, the closest thing to a universal principle is that all things decay, dissipate and degenerate into frozen darkness: the “heat death” of the universe that inevitably follows from the second law of thermodynamics. Bleak indeed.

But something has happened in science. Over the last nearly hundred years, a quiet revolution has been taking place. Quiet because it has gone largely unnoticed by the general public, social and religious commentators and even most scientists. It is important because it changes the paradigm of all science and with it our view and attitude regarding reality, nature and our place in it. Without exaggeration, it is revolutionary. This change is the reintroduction (from ancient times) of synthesis (seeking the big picture) after it was rejected and discredited two hundred years ago in favour of the very successful approach of analytic disassembly (scientific reductionism). In particular, the new systems theory and complexity theory, guided by information theory, have enabled, for the first time, an account of existence as a whole to emerge from science.

Here are some basic points that illustrate the effect this new science has on our perception of the ‘meaning of life’.

First, all things exist and ‘are what they are’ because they embody information and the information forms them. This is not information about things, it is information deeply and inextricably a part of them. Information is what differentiates things into individual entities, gives them their form and character and constitutes their interactions. Along with material (matter and energy) and medium (space and time), information is a foundational element of existence.

COBE
COBE Background Radiation, NASA
This image shows the first known information in the universe. It is a heat map, colour coding the tiny variation in temperature of the background radiation of the universe. At an average of just 3 degrees Kelvin, it is understood to be the echo of the big bang that started our universe in the largest explosion of all time and all place. The ripples you see are the first sign of structure in the universe: its first embodied information at a larger scale than that of sub-atomicparticles. This gave rise to concentrations of matter that became galactic clusters and led to stars, planets and here, to life.


Throughout the history of the universe, ‘embodied information’ has been increasing, first as whole-universe structure formed, creating stars, galaxies and their clusters, then atoms heavier than hydrogen and hence chemicals and their interactions that formed molecules, planets, geological processes, weather and, on a small scale, complex structures emerged. Some of these would go on to form proto-life. They were probably sets of autocatalytic chemical reactions, but they interacted and eventually true life was created, proliferated, differentiated and thrived. All this was the consequence of, and gave rise to, an ever increasing embodiment of information in the universe. Eventually (at least) one of the life-forms became self-aware and creative and crucially, developed a way to communicate information from one individual to the next. Culture, technology, language and communication followed - and we asked who are we and why are we here? With the perspective of information, we can look at the night sky and not feel small and insignificant, but instead realise that we are by far the brightest stars to shine in the information universe. We are the leading edge of its development up to now -- as far as we know.

Second, this increasing information throughout the history of the universe is a boot-strap process: information makes more information, starting very simple and becoming ever more complex and powerful. The emergence of information, which has always been organising and creative, is the unfolding of the true nature of the universe. It is only superficially cold and dead. Deep within its fabric, it is marvellously complex, active and, yes, alive. If not exactly a purpose, there is a direction and meaning in this unfolding of creation, of which we are a very important part. The universe is gradually discovering itself as it becomes a sentient system and we are presently the mediators of that self-awareness.

When we die, our bodies return to the great bio-geo-chemical cycles of the earth, but the information we embody is lost. This does not, though, mean that all is lost - far from it. By taking part in the ‘boot-strap’ creation of information throughout our lives, we indelibly affect the course of the universe’s development: everything we do, everything we eat and drink, buy and throw away, everything we make and destroy, every influence we have on others around us, these all change the universe for ever.

Third, the emergence of complexity and with it, embodying information, organisation and mutual significance of the parts, has all arisen from an exquisite balance between opposing forces (heat dissipation against gravity; the attraction and repulsion that organises atoms into molecules; molecules into living systems; organisms into ecosystems and societies). This is the way complexity has grown from simple origins and it is an essential feature of the universe of which we are a part. The human experience is also one of balance between psychological forces (the social bonding of love and the inner urge to compete) and that is probably no accident. When we ask “why is my life like this”, the answer is that it must be for us to fulfil our role as part of the unfolding sentience of the universe itself. This would not work if we had no sense of ourselves as whole autonomous individuals with free will and the physical powers to exercise it. That sense is not an illusion: analysis of the control structure of organisms shows the development of increasingly free and wilful autonomy through evolutionary development - again we seem to be the current high-point in this maturation of will. But it comes with a cost: like climbers standing on a narrow pinnacle surrounded by long drops all around, we have the “fear of freedom” as social philosopher Erich Fromm put it. Little wonder many of us reach out for the reassuring hand of God.

Now, if any of that stimulates and comforts you, I hope you will find time to read the science behind it. That is what the rest of this website is about.