Meaning of Life in the Universe

Meaning of Life in the Universe[1]

What is the meaning of life? It is perhaps the oldest philosophical question; At the end of a hysterical movie, the Monty Python gang told us it’s, “Try and be nice to people, avoid eating fat, read a good book now and then, get some walking in, and try to live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations.”

Of course, a lot goes into anyone’s personal answer to the question. But in a universe where we know that at least 100 billion or so stars occupy the Milky Way Galaxy alone, then we might say the visible universe contains something like 10,000 billion billion (1022) stars. We know that many of the stars near us host planetary systems. Could we be the only place in the cosmos with life? It doesn’t seem likely. What would an alien sentience consider the meaning of life?

Thus far, Earth is the only place we have evidence for life. Maybe microbes inhabit Europa, Enceladus, Titan, Triton, or even Mars. Perhaps SETI will detect a signal from a civilization elsewhere in the galaxy in the coming years. And yet with all our yearning to find life elsewhere, the cosmic distance scale is unbelievably huge: Contact, if and when it happens, is likely to be a remote exchange rather than shaking hands with aliens when they set down in Central Park.

Still, the question of life, its cosmic prevalence, and its meaning tug at us. From the universe’s point of view, life doesn’t have to have any meaning. The atoms in our bodies, arranged neatly by RNA and DNA, simply reflect their origins in the bellies of massive stars. There is no reason such order couldn’t have arisen in millions of places across the galaxy.

And yet to be a thinking creature, made form stuff in the universe and able to look back out at the stars and reflect on our origins, is the greatest gift of all. Do we–or any species—really need any more meaning than that?

[1] David J. Eicher, Astronomy (44, 10, October, 2016, p. ).