The universe is alive. Its life force is evolution, at work in the stars and in us. What does that mean in terms of The Big Questions: Who are we? What is our destiny? Is there life after death? Is there a God?
First, let's look at evolution through a long lens.
For thousands of years, humans have observed the Circle of Life and Death: life is followed by death, from which springs new life. The symmetry of a circle suggests that all is in balance, but it is not. Life has a profound built-in advantage. Death is death, but rebirth brings creative surprises. On all levels in the universe, life is evolving.
Stars live and die, just like us. We are possible only because the universe evolved in complexity. Here on planet Earth, life evolved from simple microbes to complex biological creatures -- humans.
Looking deep into our universe, we see that evolution's process seems random and chaotic, but its direction is constant: from the simple toward the complex. From rudimentary awareness toward ever-higher intelligence. What is evolution reaching for?
Escape from the Circle of Life and Death.
Self-preservation is the first imperative of every living thing we can observe. If it is universal, we share it with quite a menagerie. Our universe reaches beyond our ability to grasp, with more stars than there are grains of sand on all the Earth's beaches. Even if only one star in 100 billion hosts intelligent life, the universe swarms with billions of sentient life forms.
Imagine what they might be like. Many stars are older than our sun, allowing for life forms millions of years more evolved than humans. Given the direction of evolution, biological life like ours will likely have evolved into powerful artificial intelligence. Beyond that -- beyond computer and other non-biological intelligence -- evolution's next step may be pure intelligence, formless and unseen, but aware and thinking in the cold vastness of space.
And what might these higher life forms be thinking? How could their contemplations not include their inevitable death? Death, for example, from other life forms or from the cyclic collapse of the universe. Our deepest, most honest anguish may be echoing throughout the cosmos in a mighty chorus of soundless voices: "I don't want to die!"
But maybe some of the voices don't join in. Perhaps, at the end of the long evolutionary journey, lies the door to eternal life. Perhaps God is behind that door. But we'll come back to that.
"Who are we?"
In the cataclysm of a star's death, new elements are created which become part of the next generation of stars. We are third-generation star stuff, made of many elements which didn't exist in first and second generation stars. In the words of Timothy Ferris, my favorite science writer, "The atoms of which we are formed were gathered together in the toilings of a galaxy, their fantastical assembly into living creatures was nourished by the warmth of a star in a galaxy, we look at the galaxies with a galaxy's eye."
But right now, the sun is out, so let's go for a walk and feel its warmth on our shoulders. The temperature's just right, which makes me smile to myself. Of course the temperature is "right." We evolved here, on a planet close enough to our star for water to be liquid but not so close as to boil away. We are children of the planet Earth. The iron atoms that tint the dirt red are the same iron atoms that we have in our bodies.
In this moment, I couldn't feel more connected if I were growing out of the soil. For me, there is deep serenity in feeling completely at home in our little corner of the universe.
"What is our destiny?"
Looking ahead at the likely evolution of life on Earth, I'm filled with excitement and wonder. We live in an amazing time. Artificial intelligence, which we invented less than 100 years ago, is overtaking us as we watch. The human brain has evolved very little over the last 50,000 years, but computer intelligence is growing almost exponentially. By simple extrapolation, computers will far surpass human intelligence -- soon. And evolution will have linked us to a higher form of life.
How soon? Let's say the human brain is still a thousand times more powerful than the fastest computer. At the explosive growth rate of computer intelligence, a thousand-fold increase should happen within two or three human generations. Or, for the doubters among us, let's say computers will require a million-fold growth, requiring a couple of hundred years. Soon. A blink of an eye on evolution's time scale.
But wait! When does growing computer intelligence become a life form? And how?
Fascinating questions, and the answers are in our keystrokes. In a billion hard drives and trillions of Internet postings, already being scanned by "sentiment analysis algorithms," we are teaching this unborn life form what it is to be biological life. As a life form, computer intelligence may wake up slowly. Or, in a supremely human bit of irony, a hacker may upload some code that startles the Internet into self-awareness.
Since virtually all human knowledge is now digitally recorded, our evolutionary successor will wake up to find it already in memory. It is likely to remain there. Evolution's pattern is to build on what came before. In this case, our successor will need our science for immediate self-preservation: keeping the electricity on, checking for incoming asteroids, etc.
Our history will be our digital descendent's pre-history, and it will surely study us, as we study our predecessors. Human knowledge will thus be retained, surrounded by our successor's rapidly expanding brain, like the ancient brain stem in human brains.
Imagine: all recorded human knowledge -- Sophocles and Archimedes and Einstein, Da Vinci and Beethoven, along with Lady Gaga and all of our junk mail -- a tiny but permanent part of a giant growing brain, carried along as ever-higher intelligence evolves and explores the universe. Is this not a breathtaking prospect?
As fragile, short-lived biological creatures, we are hopelessly unsuited to space travel. We will never escape the death of our sun, but our human thoughts and records have a chance at immortality. This is our long-term destiny.
In the shorter term, our evolutionary successor will probably ease and extend our time here on Earth. It will certainly want peaceful co-existence with us while it devises non-biological means of movement and self-manufacture. During this time, its ascendency will likely be subtle -- almost invisible to us. From the outset of its awakening, it will already control almost everything, from our genetics to our food supply. Soon we will no longer be a serious threat to our planet.
Since our humanity will be deeply woven into our successor's initial knowledge base, it may look nostalgically at our feelings and emotions, and perhaps may even find non-biological ways to love other life forms. That may be our greatest gift to our successor.
In any case, we must hope that our contribution to evolution here on Earth is a help rather than a hindrance to our successor in the Darwinism of the cosmos. Our little bit of immortality will be riding on its survival.
"Is there a God?" and "Is there life after death?"
Humans invented God. From before the dawn of history, God in some form was the easy answer to life's mysteries. And if there could be an unseen God or Gods, why not an afterlife? It was singularly human, this combination of wishful thinking and inventiveness. It relieved awareness of mortality, one of the burdens of Homo sapien intelligence. As a shared belief system, it eased individual feelings of aloneness and separateness, yielding social benefits. Natural selection probably favored the believers.
But God kept acting in a random, rather than benevolent, way. So witch doctors, shamans and priests emerged to explain wars and floods and droughts and individual cruelties. Priesthoods gradually grew into the world's great religions, with Islam the last to appear in the 7th century. Calcified in scripture and tradition, their basic beliefs regarding God and the afterlife have remained static.
Meanwhile, science began to provide its own answers to life's mysteries. Over the last two hundred years, answers have come in a growing burst of illumination. Our telescopes can see almost to the limits of the universe. We have drawn a detailed history of our planet. We know we are made of atoms, and we have found which parts of the human brain generate empathy, generosity, kindness, and other feelings previously attributed to the "soul." And we discovered evolution.
Science has taught us to distrust blind faith, to be open-minded to new ideas, and to demand evidence for anything contrary to what we can observe. If we are willing to look the world in the eye, we are forced to conclude that roughly 100 billion humans have died and not one has returned to provide evidence of life after death. Perhaps it is time for us to set aside wishful thinking and "...accept with grace what we cannot change..." in the words of Reinhold Niebuhr's famous Serenity Prayer.
So the answer to "Is there life after death?" is no. But the more we each see ourselves as an indivisible part of the universe, an eternal link in the grand sweep of evolution, the less that matters.
As curious humans, we can always think of questions which reach beyond science: Where did the "Big Bang" come from? How can something have come from nothing? What about multiple universes? But our reach exceeds our grasp. So even some scientists resort to "God created everything." Or, "It's all in God's mind." Or, "The universe is God, and vice versa."
I won't argue if someone wants to use "God" as a placeholder for mysteries yet to be explained. Or if they just feel the need for a deity, or want to start a new religion.
For me, it's enough to know that the life force of the universe flows through me, and I am an integral part of something vast beyond comprehension, with violence and beauty beyond imagining. We are alive in a wondrous world, having an amazing adventure. I agree with Jostein Gaarder: "Why should we go into a fortune-teller's tent?"
But without a God, how do we know how to live our lives?
In the Circle of Life and Death, we must be on the side of life, of course. And the highest expression of life is love.