There was a really interesting show on the TV last night, which I fell asleep watching (no reflection on how interesting the show was; more an indication of the late hour and my level of fatigue – fortunately I was able to watch it again on iPlayer).
The show was about the Drake Equation. Hand up all the artists that know who Frank Drake is or what his equation means. No? It’s about the likelihood that there is other intelligent life in the universe. According to Drake’s equation, the universe is probably absolutely teeming with life. That’s all well and good, but so far there is no evidence to back up what the equation says. As Enrico Fermi pointed out, if the universe is teeming with life, where is everybody?
Whether or not we are actually all alone in the cosmos, on this lonely rock in an unfashionable outpost of an undistinguished galaxy, we are alone in practice. Nobody has contacted us and we’ve not found life anywhere else, yet. There may well be a lot of life out there, but there is so much more space without life at all. It is estimated by Drake himself that perhaps one in ten million stars could support life. That’s a lot of stars that don’t and can’t. No wonder the search for extra terrestrial life is taking a while.
In extraordinarily recent times, especially compared to geological or cosmological time scales, we have identified more than 450 exoplanets (perhaps as many as 1000). Exoplanets are planets orbiting other suns. Some of these are in the so called “Goldilocks Zone” – just right for supporting life. The Keppler probe has, just in the past year, reported candidate exoplanets that could support life.
Here is a picture of the middle of the Milky Way, showing a mixture of stars and distant galaxies.
As you can see, we’ve barely begun the search, in reality.
If you read the links above, you’d know that the Fermi Paradox is explained away by a number of plausible arguments. For all practical purposes, as I mentioned, other life is likely to be so far away, compared to our current technology for space travel, that we are, in effect, alone, simply because there isn’t a known way to reach each other. The further away the life we might discover may be, the longer ago it was alive. It may be dead and gone by the time we manage to communicate with it. In any case, there are many explanations for nobody from outer space being here, all of which might be true and all of which tell us that, to all intents and purposes, we are practically alone. We are all there is.
Consider how unique it is, given these practical constraints, that there is life at all, let alone the diversity of life that exists on this planet. Even more unlikely is the idea that this life should have evolved an intelligence that permits us to wonder, to think, to enquire and to create. This blog is coming to your eyeballs due to a massive amount of thinking done by other people. We’ve got the actual system of writing, a language, minds to perceive, comprehend, and with imaginations that permit us to think about writing anything in the first place, a communications technology, a computing and display technology and the electricity to make it all work. All of those pieces of technology were hard won and only very recently. Five hundred years ago, I wouldn’t have had a prayer of communicating with people across the globe in this way. I’d have struggled as little as fifty years ago. But most remarkable of all is that a bag of organic chemicals should have evolved into a sentient creature that can read and write. There are so many bags of chemicals in the average kitchen that haven’t (e.g. flour, sugar and oats).
Given how utterly, staggeringly, unlikely and miraculous our very existence is and how extraordinary and astounding our intelligence, our sentience, our empathy, our mobility and our agency to shape the world around us in creative (and destructive) ways, why, then, are we so judgemental on each other and on ourselves? When our abilities are so vanishingly rare, in the immediate vicinity in this galaxy, why do we dare criticise each other and ourselves?
What are the odds of getting a bunch of simple organic chemicals to find a way to paint, as Van Gogh painted? Will there ever be another organism that does exactly what Van Gogh did? Of course not! As common as life is supposed to be in the universe, the uniqueness of every living creature is undeniable. For all the life abundant on earth and in the universe, there can never be another Van Gogh. Yet he was fated to a pretty terrible life of loneliness, sadness, suffering, pain and neglect. Is that any way to treat such a remarkable bag of organic chemicals?
When you realise how alone we are, in practice and how supremely amazing our existence and abilities are, then add to that the sheer irreproducibility of each and every creative mind, it makes you think long and hard about how wanton, criminal and wasteful warfare is. It makes you cringe at all forms of oppression, poverty, hunger, illiteracy, preventable disease, enforced control, slavery, torture, abuse, ruthless profiteering to the detriment of other life forms, feudalism, neo-feudalism, totalitarianism, fascism, dictatorship, murder and violence, doesn’t it? How dare anybody presume to treat such miraculous and potent creatures in such a way! These creatures are so very, very rare, compared to the tiny region of the cosmos we might one day practically reach. Today, the only sentient creatures we can contact, in the entire universe, are right here on Earth. We are all there is.
And yet so many are so disrespectful of this amazing fact. Turn on the sports channels on TV. There are sports commentators that vocally, instantaneously, roundly and publicly damn athletes, who come second or third in some arbitrary contest, as “failures”, who have made dreadful mistakes. Listening to these commentators in their flagellating stream of reproach (none of whom could come close to doing what these athletes do, incidentally), you’d imagine they are demanding the athletes do the decent thing and fall upon their swords, so that they poison not their sight any longer. Oddly enough, we accept this as completely normal and reasonable. No it isn’t. To speak this way about such astounding creatures is to boorishly ignore millions of years of evolution, to discount entirely the multitude of incredible abilities that each possesses and to fly in the face of what we know to be our real cosmological situation. We are all there is.
As normal as we imagine criticism and judgement of others to be, I am yet to hear a meta-commentator, who comments on how the sports commentary is going, pointing out every mispronunciation, factual inaccuracy, grammatical error, speech impediment and misnaming with brutal, excoriating, acidic invective. We don’t hear meta-commentators, because that game is an infinite recursion. We’d never hear the end of commentaries on commentaries. Arguably, we have the blogosphere to do that!
There seems to be an unending queue of people waiting and willing to become art, music and literary critics. Where do these people come from? Can’t they find anything better to do with the astonishing capabilities with which they are endowed? If they imagine the artists they attempt to break, through their witty, withering put downs, should do better, then why don’t they show us?
This judgemental behaviour is so widely imitated. I wonder why. Is it just a lack of evolution on display or a shocking lack of awareness of our true place in the universe? In case the message isn’t crystal clear by now, in all practicality we are all there is and there is no place else to go. The so called “elite” in our society tend not to notice their own essential wonderfulness, or that of everybody around them. They’re strangely blind to it. Instead, in their insecurity, they devote tremendous energy, time and resources toward putting messages out in the society at large that tell us they are somehow, inexplicably, better than the rest of us, because they have more than the rest of us have, whether that’s obtained by hook or by crook. They get quite vicious about ensuring only they have the finest things. It’s in their philosophy of living that in order for them to win, the rest of us have to lose.
As a consequence of this endless assertion of inferiority by those that wish to shore up their own feelings of superiority (and those must be pretty shakily held feelings, given how hard they work at it), we come to believe in this twisted mind set as normal, even aspirational. We’re taught to hold putting the other man down in some perpetual, bloody, bitter competition as the highest ideal, even though the only beneficiaries of this way of thinking are those that want to profit from our contrived hunger to have the finest of everything. We merely enrich the wealthiest, who already believe they are the finest and, in their minds, rightfully deserve the finest. But it’s all a bluff.
People that feel like they positively, absolutely have to have the best, the most, the finest of everything, only advertise the fact that they don’t, in truth, believe themselves to be the finest of anything. It belies a lack of faith in the quality of who you are, what you can do and how remarkable your mere existence is. Instead, in a frantic effort to fill that void, these people assert their “finery“ through extravagant expressions of what they think they possess and what they command. What they fail to acknowledge is that they only have these things because the rest of us permit it. We only obey their commands because the rest of us are playing along. Take a look at any person in the” one percent”, and you can detect this trait. Their desperation to be so ruthlessly selfish is borne of a failure to recognise their own remarkability. Perhaps it’s all they’ve ever been told. This illogical desire to dominate, own, take and control everything is far from normal, in a cosmos such as ours, in which we are such rare beings.
The secret that artists all know is that being able to create is actually the finest thing, not owning artworks, gadgets, money, or prestige. Those that cannot create (or more correctly, those that choose not to create) think they are taking a short cut. They think that by buying the finest, then that tells the world something about how rich, powerful, worthy, chosen, clever, refined, cultured and superior they are, compared to the rest of us. Sadly, it only underlines their inability to create anything of their own.
Artists that pander to this illness are a bit sad, in my opinion, because they are tacitly endorsing and perpetuating the absurd idea that people with the need to do so can demonstrate their superiority by buying the finest creations artists can provide. It’s, in my view, a cynical abuse of the deluded. Kind artists would think twice about inflating such fragile egos in such a callous way. Unfortunately, we all know artists that will happily take their money and tell them stories about how exclusive the art they’ve just bought is and hence, how wonderful the buyer is. They were already wonderful. They didn’t need to own a piece of fine art to prove it.
Fashion, fads, “shopaholism”, rampant consumption, snobbery, keeping up with the Joneses and keeping up appearances are all facets of a vacuous attempt to try to assert one’s own superiority (or at least to rebuff perceived feelings of inferiority). It’s almost always a response to feelings of inadequacy. Ironically, people that feel inadequate are spectacularly wrong, in a cosmic sense. They have survived the casual indifference of the hostile environment of space (we are all star stuff), flourished, survived, can think, can feel, can sense, can empathise and can adapt. Being an intelligent, sentient, aware, creative, innovative, imaginative being is something to feel entirely adequate about, surely. If you think you’re inadequate, you haven’t been paying attention.
Learning to create, through art, teaches us is that everyone is, in fact, the finest. Those that create can equally well appreciate everyone else that creates. There are a lot of creative opportunities to go around. In fact, the more we create, the better it is for everyone. Artists also learn that everybody has the potential to create. We can all learn to unlock our creative potentials. There is no such thing as an uncreative human being. The cosmos doesn’t have such things in it.
So we are, each one of us, remarkable and for all practical purposes, alone in the universe, at least for now. Creative abilities are so rare and unlikely, in this lonely universe, yet so many artists go unappreciated, unnoticed, unrecognised and eventually fall silent, having given up in despair, because nobody remembered to care about what they do or who they are. They put their creative works out there, in the universe, for all to see. Last I heard, this wasn’t happening on Mars or Venus. How can it be that these artists are so roundly ignored, if not denigrated, derided and humiliated, for doing nothing more offensive than demonstrating their unique and amazing abilities as the unlikeliest bags of organic chemicals there could be, anywhere close to our planetary home? Is that any way to treat a creature so rare and astonishing in the cosmos?
Arthur C. Clarke said “Sometimes I think we’re alone, sometimes not. Either way, the implications are staggering”.
Our lives and our creations are miraculous and the very fact of our presence in the cosmos means we should cherish and edify each other, not abuse, belittle, harm, damage, oppress, hurt and kill.
Am I alone in thinking this?
(This blog post was a small attempt to try to fill a Carl Sagan-shaped hole that was left in the universe, when he died).