Grant Walliser
Grant Walliser

Our very significance

I was tempted to answer Mike Trapido’s recent question, “Is there life after death?”, in the form of a comment on his blog when I realised that such a big question perhaps required a bigger answer and more effort, and hence it quickly became an entire article.

Firstly, and probably most importantly, I do not claim to have the answer to Mr Trapido’s question. Many of the world’s religions do claim to have that answer. They ask us to believe, to have faith that their version is correct. I, and many others, seriously question their claim simply because they can’t prove it. None of them can.

What I can propose in answer to the question, then, based largely on a scientific analysis of largely provable facts, is to explain why life after death is unlikely; not impossible, but unlikely. It is purely a techno-poetic musing on one of many possible alternatives that may describe what we are, why we are here and why we should be embracing our fellow man and other living creatures now and not waiting until we get our definitive answer to that biggest of big questions.

What if a human being were indeed not a miracle? What if we were simply a commonplace aberration, forged by organic chemistry as our Earth cooled? In the seething chemical soup coalescing around the gravitationally compressed spherical floating island called Earth, a little game was about to kick off. Started by a random, yet significant and ultimately inevitable, combination of complex organic molecules, certain combinations began to replicate themselves, innocently yet relentlessly, according to the physical laws of organic chemistry. The game had simple rules: roam your environment, find available complementary molecules and make a replica of yourself using them as construction material. A game, only a game.

Soon, so to speak, all the available free molecules ran out. The only way to get more was to steal them from other complex chemical replicators, ripping them apart in a rage, driven by the mechanical, unemotional need to replicate. No reason not to. Competition and the fight to survive had arbitrarily begun. Battle raged on the Earth but from space all was quiet and serene. Still just an idle, pointless game.

All the while, as the years ticked away in their millions, our cosmically insignificant rock cooled and spun and cooled and spun and cooled in a silent harmonious dance with pure incontrovertible astrophysics, nothing more. On its surface, the replication game intensified with strange and evolutionary twists of ultimately inevitable random organic genius. Miracles. Lucid and obvious miracles.

Replicators changed form and shape and environment. The binary gift of the solar kiss and its parting became constant and mesmerising, enslaving the life that received it. Advantageous mutations survived; pointless ones did not. Some survived in the brutal harshness of the dark abyss while some floated on the gaseous fumes of the flimsy, silky layer draped precariously but evenly over our geodic rock, settling on the exposed surfaces of its warm crust. All the while the throng of life jostled and pushed and killed and killed and killed for every tiny free position on the chessboard, forming great partnerships and implementing a trillion strategies to win. What an amazing yet meaningless, pointless and silly little game.

And so it was for millions of metronomic, solar heated years and more; and so it still is. For we are but self-appointed kings in a long line of complex players in a simple game started by pure randomness at the birth of our planet. We are programmed by our genes to replicate; virtual slaves to their simple instruction. Those who refuse vanish. Only players keep on playing. We are also so much more; so we say; so we perceive; but principally and empirically we are thus. Perfect, beautiful, simple, inevitable, refined, amoral clarity.

So why is it then that we deem our existence to be of paramount importance to both our planet and our universe? Why do we feel somehow chosen, special? Why do we look with disdain upon our fellow players? Every creature alive today has successful ancestors; reproducing ancestors dating back virtually to the dawn of time itself.

Why can we not marvel at and respect the complexity or simplicity of their myriad achievements while fending off those that would topple us from our hard-won podium, as we must do to survive?

Who can say where we are on the board or the ladder anyway? We may be one step ahead of the dolphin and two behind the cat and 10 behind the virus in the silly little game we all started together so long ago. That may change soon. It may never change. Points, position, points, reset.

The atomic material of this world is recycled, always and forever recycled. What was human becomes insect, insect becomes reptile, reptile becomes plant becomes human … We are one fabric, a closed system of recycled building blocks of matter in a fantastic array of colour and vibrant animation mixed with timeless transformation. That we know; more we do not.

Surely we should be able to reflect on the game without the vanity of an entitled species. We should be able to see that fundamentally, a human life in the greater scheme is not sacred at all; yet it is … just to us. Only us. A life is a message flashed on to the screen for a tiny fraction of a second and all of its trials and triumphs ultimately echo silently in a universe so immense. The demise of our entire species, planet or even our galaxy would have no real meaning. Meaning to what or to whom?

So what is of significance? What is our significance? We must have significance … mustn’t we?

What we deem sacred and significant is perhaps the conscious quality of shared and empathetic experience, a perceivable connection in an otherwise inert and meaningless state. It is nothing more significant than the simple way it makes us feel in the here and now, but that is everything and it is a powerful thread upon which to cling in a harsh and unforgiving torrential, turbulent void of great nothingness. A gathering around a fire on a freezing night. Warmth.

Around this feeling we have slowly and painfully built highly complex, inward-focused structure and reason and have strived to enhance our experience in the game, and we will continue to do so — anything to forget the vastness of the known truth and the immensity of the greater unknown beyond that. We have built a cushion of comfort and distraction that many of us can nestle into daily while spinning quietly in the frightening, explosively unthinkable freedom of our vacuum.

So should we perhaps deconstruct what little true structure we have discovered to help us better make sense of it all and promote ourselves to superior universal rank to numb the pain of insignificance? Should we pull back from the edge of potential flight and return to the dark caves from whence we crawled, one painstaking inch per generation? It is safe there, familiar. We do not have to face the known truth in there but can pretend that all is simple; all is well. We are being looked after and in the end there is justice for all.

I don’t think so.

This comfort in the silence that we have discovered between humans, and between humans and the other species on Earth, between players and antagonists in our game, could be the very spark of our new moral engine, the factory of our ideals in the future. Our very exposure to the vastness and dealing with the implications may be the only thing that can draw us closer and make us band together in a sympathy of awareness; a greater empathy that no other means has yet achieved.

The meaningless principle that humans are somehow sacred and are masters — chosen ones of this mysterious known universe, derived from a myopic introspective study, mired by unrestrained insecurity — holds no weight. Surely it is simply delusion based on futile, baseless assumption and the fear of being ultimately alone; always the fear?