"The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be. Our feeblest contemplations of the Cosmos stir us -- there is a tingling in the spine, a catch in the voice, a faint sensation of a distant memory, as if we were falling from a great height. We know we are approaching the greatest of mysteries." - Carl Sagan, Cosmos, 1980
Without perspective we wallow blindly through life, without empathy, understanding and the ability to apply knowledge. Perspective is not only about seeing the world from your own vantage point, it's about seeing the world from other vantage points to give clarity to your own experience. Perspective is personal, and also universal.
Humanity is in a constant state of flux. We are truly, right now, experiencing the "information age", and it's an amazing and exciting time to be alive. We are more connected to each other as a whole than at any time in human history, and that is quite an achievement. I know, without trying, what people are doing all over the world right now. I know there's been an earthquake on the other side on the world or when to expect a meteor shower over the Australian desert. I know what complete strangers are eating, seeing, doing, thinking. Anyone who's sufficiently connected can.
It's true that we are more "connected' as a society, however it's still very easy to feel disconnected in the current human experience. Society is more and more insular, and irrational fear seems to motivate a lot of decisions we make. Because we depend on others to tell us what is happening in the world, there is always a bias in the information we receive. It means we cannot blindly trust what we read, hear or see. To some extent this has always been true, but now there are so many information sources that it can be difficult to sort propaganda and half-truths from real information. It's good to be cynical, but to trust nothing is to know nothing.
We also suffer from an overexposure to information. The simple fact that I can know the up-to-date casualty count in the Afghanistan conflict and at the same time read about social unrest in Africa, or see real-time a tsunami headed for Vanuatu, it's easy to feel as though too much is going on, that the world is headed on a path to destruction. We've never in history had so much information. Once can get bogged down by it all and feel a sense of helplessness or hopelessness about the world's woes. One can feel small, insignificant, unheard in the cacophony of noise coming from the human race. And we sure are a noisy bunch!
So we feel the disconnect, we feel the isolation, and can sometimes be a little lost as to what life is about. What we need to understand is our place in all this, a sense of perspective, an understanding that can give meaning to our lives, a real place in the universe.
The human race has evolved over millions and billions of years to become what we are. Everything that is living on earth shares a common ancestry. Everything! We are human now because "they" were single-celled organisms way back then. We have evolved to be what we are because of billions of minute changes in the structures of living cells, and over billions of years. We are literally standing on the shoulders of giants, the giants being time and evolution, and every iteration of life from the beginning of all life on this planet. All plants and animals share this heritage. All of them, without one exclusion. By this, we are linked via DNA to all life. You share DNA with a snail, and I with the grass in my lawn! Look around you! See your relatives!
Where are we?
In 1990, the Voyager Space Probe returned an image from space looking back at the earth from a distance of around six billion kilometres. Six billion kilometres. This photo came to be known as The Pale Blue Dot
. In it we can see the Earth as a tiny speck in a vast array of stars and other material. And while it doesn't look like much, the implications of this image are staggering.
A personal hero of mine Carl Sagan was so moved by this image that he wrote one of the most beautiful pieces on perspective ever written:
"Look again at that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.
The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.
Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.
The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.
It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known." - Carl Sagan, The Pale Blue Dot, 1996
This tract puts our position in the universe so succinctly, I dare not comment on it as I would only do it an injustice. You are just a speck inside a speck inside a speck.
The big question
Do I really need to ask this? Have you not already read what i've written up to this point? No? OK then I'll give you my take on the answer to the oldest of questions. Why are we here?
Human history is built upon human history. We try to make sense of our universe by trying to find patterns from the world around us. The human brain is a pattern seeking machine, which excels at evaluating situations and sorting the information it receives into meaningful and useful data, that we can then refer back to help explain things further. The human brain wants to explain everything, and because of this, when an answer can't easily be found to a given situation, we make suppositions and create stories to at least categorise information. Historically humans have used stories and tales to explain what we didn't understand, and to pass information form one generation to the next.
Early attempts at scientific explanation seem like dreamings of the delusional given today's accepted understanding of the physical. Placing humanity at the centre of the universe, assuming the stars and sun rotate around us, that the earth is flat, anyone who believes this today would be called insane. But these explanations formed a beginning for scientific discovery, and we have those to thank for our current understanding.
Religion is one of the ways people used to try and make sense of their place in the universe, but as time has passed, the stories no longer ring true with people and become mere fairytales. As with the mythology of the Australian aborigines, the stories of the Bible and Koran seem farcical when compared by today's standards. And like with early science, the religious explanations of the wonders of the universe have no legs to stand on.
So, why are we here? answer in short is, we are here because we exist. The problem here is not the answer, it's the question that's wrong. If you want to believe that there's a deeper meaning to life, go outside, look up and think about how vast the universe is, how small you are in the scheme of things, how inconsequential the actions of humans are to the universe at large. And then look at this Pale Blue Dot we stand on, and think. This is all we have, and we all have it.
The question should not be Why am I here? but instead While I'm here, how can I make life better for us all?
In this time, we have feasible explanations for the physical that don't depend on untested stories or whimsical fancy. When you look at your existence in this universe, given that we share a common ancestry with all forms of plant and animal, that it has taken billions of years for us to evolve to this state, that all plants and animals share the same building blocks, that the earth, the sun and moon, the stars in the sky, the empty vastness between them and all beyond this, are built from the same raw materials, the perspective shifts from one of a personal nature to a more wholistic view of one's place.