Friday, August 5, 2011

Existentialism 101

For 99% of the history of the human race, we were composed of and confined to small, insular tribes that were deeply, intrinsically suspicious of each other. .We were also trying to make sense of the apocalyptic events that nature kept throwing at us, apparently out of random fits of cosmic pique. And during these millennia our gray matter was developing at an incredible pace.

One of the more clever stunts our forefathers's forebrains conceived was the ability to imagine the future, as well as the ability to project ourselves into it. As far as we know, we're the only animal that lives in four dimensions instead of just three. True, many higher mammals and primates remember the past and anticipate the future; but as far as we can tell, only humans can imagine themselves as part of future scenarios. And this created, as so many, many things in life do, an apparently-irresolvable paradox. It was always there to bedevil us, whenever we got a moment's respite from the dire wolf lurking just outside the cave door, or the rockslides, the floods, fires, etc. It was the ultimate existential conundrum: Why are we born into a savage world, where everything is bigger, stronger, faster, and considerably more dentally enhanced than we are? And then, just as we start to maybe feel like we're possibly getting a grasp on the situation, we die -- either by becoming a hot lunch or, if we're "lucky", slowly, by decrepitude and disease.

A way had to be found to deal with this dilemma. And a way was found -- a rather clever one, it must be admitted, which not only mitigated existential meaninglessness by postulating an afterlife, but also rolled in the grim scenarios of nature that previously had had no explanation.

It seemed simple enough: the truly great ideas always are. All the inexplicable and frightening things of life were wrapped up, neat and shiny, into one conceptual truism that had the unmistakable stamp of authenticity on it: Simplicity. Anything this easy, this elegant, had to be right.

And the Great Truth was this: Anything beyond our ability to understand was "The will of the Gods."

"The will of the Gods", (known later as "The will of God", proving that even deities aren't immune to corporate downsizing), wasn't an enormous hit from the git-go, especially among those who either knowingly or unknowingly transgressed the ever-growing thicket of laws, customs and rituals. These hapless ones were usually tortured in some spectacularly unpleasant manner and finished up by being burned at the stake, stoned to death, drawn and quartered or numerous other ways, all of 'em quite nasty. Nevertheless, the notion of an invisible, all-powerful and all-seeing sky-parent, stern and reproving at best, psychotically genocidal at worst, was strangely compelling. For one thing, the whole thing made tribal conquests more possible by giving the faithful the gumption to go the extra yard for God's sake. In fact, the new rationale worked so well that eventually it became i genetically coded into certain people by natural selection. These new priests, sacerdotes and other "keepers of the flame" were hardwired to fiercely believe in one of the most elaborately-constructed fairy tales of all time; to believe and to protect. For many centuries the guardians of the mysteries were by and large a positive force on society, if only because they gave people a reason to not fear death -- at least, not unless it was delivered by the bloody hands of the Brotherhood.

But it isn't positive any more.

We've surpassed ourselves. As far as the processing power of our neo-cortices goes, we're like David McCallum in that "Sixth Finger" episode of The Outer Limits; from the neck up we're sporting these big ol' veiny craniums, but from the neck down we're still Alley Oop. Deep, deep down we're still savages walking the veldt, but with one vital difference. It's one thing to lob sticks and stones across the water hole and maybe concuss A. afarensis and a couple of his cousins -- it's quite another to toss ICBMs and drone missiles over the horizon to annihilate entire nations.

And yet it isn't. In fact it's easier to push a button and decimate a continent than it is to beat another man to death with an ass's jawbone. The only real difference is that the guy with the jawbone has to get up close and personal, has to feel the other man die. Other than that, on a very deep level, it's the same thing, as long as God is on your side. And that, of course, is the big problem with God that no one seems to get: An omnipresent, omniscient and omnipotent being is on everyone's side.

I hope the basic gist is coming through here, because it's as simple as extinction: we can't afford belief in God any more. The stakes are way too high. A child playing doctor with a toy stethoscope may be charming; that same child with a vial of real smallpox is terrifying. The Middle East wasn't exactly humanity's brain trust way back when; Yahweh would've done better to have burned His bush in China, where they at least understood the idea of abstract mathematics as a way to learn a bit more than just how many sheep the other guy had.

These are the stakes:

In 1950, the physicist Enrico Fermi once ruined everyone's lunch by asking one of the most troublesome rhetorical questions in astrophysics:  "Where is everybody?"

The Fermi Paradox, as it came to be known, is simply stated: it cites the apparent contradiction between the high probability of extraterrestrial civilizations' existence and the lack of contact with such civilizations. The question has only gotten more salient and puzzling with the discovery, in the last decade, of a huge bevy of exoplanets. With an abundance of earth-like worlds in our galaxy alone, the chances are overwhelming that life must have developed on a significant portion of them. If even one other civilization made it as far as we did, they could have seeded the entire galaxy in less than a million years. A million years sounds like a long time, but it's really not. The Milky Way is over thirteen billion years old; almost as old as the universe itself. A million years -- a million centuries -- is nothing.

Once SETI began listening, back in the early Sixties, we had every expectation of hearing the radio waves from Out There buzzing, humming, stridulating, vocalizing and otherwise communicating. We expected to hear juicy galactic gossip. Instead we heard -- nothing. The lonesome interstellar equivalent of crickets chirping.

So where is everybody?

There are a few hypotheses -- my favorite is the Prime Directive, AKA the Zoo Hypothesis, which should be fairly self-explanatory. But there's also a more sinister one, which I think of as the Gauntlet: each civilization, sooner or later, inevitably reaches a crisis point in which they either run out of energy and food and return to barbarism (if they're lucky; if they're not, it's straight to extinction), or they make it past the crisis and enter a technological utopia.

Judging from the signal-to-noise ratio out there, it seems that utopia is rarely achieved. But hey -- no worries; I'm sure there's a Special Place reserved for societies asinine enough to exterminate themselves in the name of imaginary deities.

I'm just not sure that it's Heaven.

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