Once upon a time, some 13.799 billion years ago, a state which we call the singularity sparked the void. It’s a state in which the laws of physics as we know them don’t work; a state that supposedly birthed the Universe. With it, we got space and time, energy and matter, all dancing and kissing as everything began to expand. Every atom, every star, every galaxy, every planet shot out of that one, lonely point of infinity.
These creations of ordinary matter, which include the speck of dust we call Earth, however, only make up 0.3 percent of the Universe. Around 68 percent of it is occupied by dark energy, an unknown entity responsible for the expansion of space. A further 27 percent is made up of dark matter, another mostly unknown entity. The remaining 5 percent is what we know and study, including that humble 0.3 percent of the total.
Even then, within this tiny fraction, the Milky Way has to contend with some 200 billion galaxies, the Sun with a septillion stars (a one with 24 zeroes), and our miniature home with somewhere in the range of another septillion planets. In the broader cosmological drama, not only is Earth not the main actor, but the idea that it has any meaningful role to play at all is absorbed and then dwarfed by sheer quantification.
And yet, here we are — in this particular moment, occupying two different coordinates of space. Right now, I am somewhere, doing something, and you are somewhere else, reading this. In some past, I have written this for you: a conscious observer, who I do not know, who I will never meet. You have felt things and you have thought things in your life, just as I have felt things and I have thought things in my life. As the present unfolds, your rich, complex history is colliding with my own to generate an entirely new history, one of consequence, one previously non-existent.
With the magic of technology, in spite of our relative smallness, there is a different kind of largeness in the connection making this interaction possible; a juxtaposition highlighted by the great astronomer Carl Sagan when he asked us to briefly pause for a moment to look at the following image.
“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.”
It’s as beautiful and as true of a summation as we can hope for. But as its charm wears off, what do we do about the tension? How do we reconcile these seeming contradictions: that we are large in our collection of experiences but small in the Universe; that on the surface everything matters but in the sky, very little of it does; that the stories we tell ourselves seem true and meaningful in the moment but once we step away from them, they fall apart? What — if anything — is there for us hold onto?
If we zoom onto Earth for a moment, taking a 100,000-foot view, watching what is going, say, as a hypothetical Martian would, one conclusion would be easy to come to: Humans are different from other animals on the planet. We are all a product of evolution, yes. We still have similar instincts, sure. But at the level of consciousness, there is something that distinguishes us — something that allows us to challenge evolution itself.
The physicist David Deutsch argues that it’s because we are what he calls the great explainers. We can create knowledge outside of our physical body — like math, philosophy, literature — and then collectively build on it to learn about reality in a way that allows us to master more and more of the problems that arise in our ecology. That’s, for example, why we have been able to use science to make so much progress in the last 400 years, going from building simple telescopes to landing people on the Moon.
There is, however, an even more fundamental cause: Humans are a more complex, more networked species with more interconnections than the rest of the participants in the animal kingdom. Our unique conscious experience has gifted us with languages that allow us to create culture — a social reality that lives, breathes, evolves unlike anything else in nature. Our individual brains are nodes in an enormous network of brains that synergize to create something larger than their constituents, indeed allowing us to create knowledge as Deutsch suggests, but also so much more.
Modern society has a bias towards the material, the world of matter. If we can’t see it, we find it hard to treat as real. As such, immaterial things emerging from complexity, like culture, are seen as less meaningful than matter. If you can’t touch it, then it must not be real, right? Except, that’s not how it works. Culture may not be tangible, but it influences matter in a way that is. Our brains are programmed by culture, technology is a physical embodiment of culture, violence is reduced by culture.
In the 20th-century, the study of phenomenology began to catch traction with a simple idea: The starting point of our philosophical inquiry should be our direct conscious experience. Before we can describe matter, we have to first contend with the fact that there is something right here — something strange going on if we just stop and look; a world constructed in front of us that simply is, before we can even get to analyzing it. Why has evolution allowed us to see different colours? Why can we think, be aware, when a simple stimulus-response feedback loop might have done the job?
Whatever the answer to these questions is, the point is that the social reality — produced at the intersection of an infinite set of conscious experiences — is just as real as the physical reality. And it’s not just a subjective phenomenon, either, which only applies to what you make up in your own mind. It’s a whole different plane of existence that has emerged — just like stars and galaxies and planets emerged, just like life itself emerged — and it’s continuously evolving and, slowly, dominating the world of matter.
Contained within this life-force, we find everything that makes our speck of dust just a little brighter: kindness and morality, love and community, hope and innovation, curiosity and science, beauty and art. The value of all these things is so obvious that only a blind, mistaken mind would dare to use reason to try to intellectualize their meaning away. From a phenomenological point of view, these things are simply there, and they affect your conscious experience very lucidly, and they don’t care what you think about them.
Humans have had a complex, contradictory history. On one end, given our impact on the ecology and on other sentient beings, it’s hard to overlook that we are perhaps the most destructive force that has ever walked this planet. We kill, we conquer, and then we kill again. And yet, there is more: In spite of the missteps, humans are also the only known creatures in the Universe that have been able to use culture to show the potential for a reality without violence. At least within our own sphere of existence, progress has leaned towards a gentler, more loving way of being.
Homo Sapiens have roamed the planet for about 200,000 years. A typical mammalian species lives for around 2 million years. Still, somehow, in that short period, we have been able to wipe out diseases, split the atom, and escape Earth’s atmosphere. Best of all? If the rate of cultural change continues at the present pace, then there is more and more to come in shorter and shorter time-frames, as long as we endure. We are still a young species. If we open up our imagination even just a little bit, it’s not hard to see how the possibilities are potentially endless.
We may not yet be anything more than a fraction of a ripple in the infinite sea of space-time, but all evidence points to the fact that perhaps we could be. We may not be special based on our spatial position in the cosmos, but the emergence of our social reality and the potential it offers means that everything that we do matters, in both big and small ways.
Our collective cultural consciousness is a great web tangled into the very fabric of reality. Each of us is connected to it. Each of our actions shape some part of it. Each of our thoughts produce a current that alters its aim. Once it came into being those thousands of years ago, there was nothing that we could do to stop it from evolving. And evolve it will, whether we like it or not, whether we choose to consciously participate in its formation or not.
The purpose of life is right in front of us: It’s to create a reality we want to inhabit — to reach towards the better end of our conscious experience. At each moment, in every second of life, we are given a choice about how we want to conduct ourselves in this world, and though it might not always seem like it, each of these choices are of consequence. They each interact with culture to give it a new form; a form that we are responsible for creating by either doing what is right or doing what is wrong in that specific moment.
A grandfather telling stories to a young boy may just nudge that boy to one day write his own stories, ones that help ease the burden on all our minds. An especially caring teacher may infect a little girl with an engineering passion that later gives her the vitality to make the breakthrough that permanently changes our relationship to outer space. And of course, both that boy and that girl may just inspire millions of other people, who may inspire many millions more, in a long, unbroken chain of interactions until perhaps, one day, the ideas of war and hate and poverty will be foreign to us — or at least take a different form, one that is, again, a little kinder, a little gentler.
After 13.799 billion years of darkness, light finally emerged. This light may be so infinitely small as to not be of consequence, and we may not be the only carriers of it in the Universe, and it may not even mean what we think it means — all of these could be true. But ultimately, we don’t know. All we know is that it’s here, and the only way to find out is by spreading its brightness.