Sunday, September 6, 2009

The Gaia Hypothesis, Meaning of Life, and Pascal's Wager

Let's muse for a bit, and have a thought experiment. Let's imagine that our cells are conscious in some form. Suppose also that they can perceived their existence and that they are intelligent enough to find patterns in their immediate environment. Perhaps we can assume at this point that our cells have basic control over its functions, i.e. it performs tasks such as cell-cell communication, excretion, and mitosis knowingly.

So far so good. We can imagine our white blood cells living a courageous life battling enemy intruders, our skin cells staring lazily outwards as nutrients are delivered to them, and our muscle cells so often torn so we could make them stronger. There are also nerve cells happily(?) transmitting signals to the brain like children playing the telephone game, and the cells lining our stomach screaming (or equivalent) as its burnt to death by the acidity. Their lives are as diverse as our lives!

For the fun of it, let's make them even more similar to us. Let's make them wonder about their purpose in life. We know one of their purposes very well: to help us survive, so that we can live and achieve our purpose, whatever that is. But our world and our existence is so different from the world the cells live in. How could our cells possibly understand that? How could they even guess that there's a world much bigger than it knows?

Let's try one method. Let's imagine that these cells are capable of having thought experiments, and that they know of the existence of atoms and molecules. Let's suppose that on one fine moment, one of the cells is having this thought experiment: "What if atoms are actually conscious, and can perceive their immediate environment? What if atoms can find patterns in their environment and have a basic understanding of it? What if they can question the meaning of existence and their purpose?" You get the gist of it.

How would the cells react, faced with the possibility that they, too, might be an insignificant part of something larger? How would they feel about knowing that the world doesn't revolve around them?

It's what western science had been pointing at, isn't it? The world does not revolve around us humans. Astronomy destroyed the idea that the sun revolves around the earth. The theory of evolution is making us question whether our domination of the world by chance, and whether it will even last. Are we really the black swan? Or is our search for meaning a hopeless quest, a quest that is now taken by only the most naive?

Perhaps, but let's muse some more. The cell might noticed that it's quite different from atoms: notably, atoms outlive cells. This means that at different stages of the atom's existence, it must have had different purposes, and it was a part of many different things. The cell, on the other hand, eventually faces death. But wait... could it be possible that something that is a part of the cell can "outlive" the cell, and have another purpose? Could it be that the cell is more complicated than what we think it is? If so, does the cell have another purpose? Who creates that purpose?

That brings us back to square one, with little insight to the real question: what's the purpose of our lives? Are we just an insignificant part of something bigger? Must we be the creator of meaning?

Well, of course you didn't expect me to give you real answers. I'm a human, after all (female, young, idealistic - you know the drill). Though there's this much my feeble mind can grasp - and there is going to be a "Pascal's Wager" involved:

Suppose you live your life as if there is a purpose, and finds out (or not) that there is none. What would you feel? Probably dejected. Maybe really depressed. But in the end there's no real harm done, you got the best out of it given what you know, and nothing matters anyways. Just have to get over it. Now, what if you lived your life as if there is no purpose, and find out after death that there is one? Now there's real loss - potentially infinite loss, something that we can't begin to fathom. Would you risk it?

Of course, there are way better reasons to explore the notion of a "purpose" than a Pascal's Wager. I'm sure that there are more solid ways to reason about things than random thought experiments. For now, though, this is all I've got.

End of Entry