On The Purpose of Life
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Let’s start by clarifying what I mean by “The Purpose of Life”. What I’m to referring here is the chemical process we call Life; a unique process that any intelligent beings would observe while studying our planet. This is Life with a capital ‘L’, and while it includes you and every other living being on the planet, this isn’t about making value judgments regarding what you are doing with your personal life. It’s about observing what Life seems to be accomplishing from the point of view of the Universe.
You can feel free to align your personal purpose with the one I am outline here for Life, but you’re already taking part in the overall purpose whether you like it or not. So, if we’re clear on this, I’ll stop capitalizing Life as I get the sense that it’ll get annoying. Just use context clues and, when in doubt, assume it’s not about you.
With that said, let’s get into it.
Sean Carroll’s Big Picture
I’ve tried many times to articulate a purpose for life, without much success. Outlining all the terms and principles properly in context is daunting and I’d prefer to skip it altogether. But due diligence must be done, if for no other reason than to make sure my idea hasn’t already been popularized and/or rendered moot by some prior academic.
As I consumed philosophy books and podcasts, I didn’t come across anyone that seemed to hit upon the point I was trying to make, and I found that most philosophical frameworks were difficult to build on. They either involved talking about purpose from a personal perspective, or else delved deep into Reality and Being while seeking to prove or disprove the involvement of God.
But then I came across Dr. Sean Carroll’s book, The Big Picture, and I found exactly what I was looking for.
In this book, Carroll lays out all the foundation that I had hoped to, much better than I ever could, and outlines a perfect framework to build within, Poetic Naturalism. However, as I read more, I became sure that he had already reached the same conclusions I had, or else had already dismissed them in some fundamental way.
Yet, when I had finished, and looked up some of his related works, I realized that Carroll had not reached the same conclusions regarding the purpose of life; nor did he seem to discredit any of my fundamentals, as he had with some other popular hypothesis. In fact, it seemed that his train of thought had cleared out many of the obstacles in my way and left me within walking distance of the salient point I was trying to make.
Of course, relying so heavily on this book means requiring about 430 pages of reading for anyone else to get caught up, or else writing many of my own pages just restating the necessary sections. As luck would have it, I found this had already been done on Youtube, in a far better format than I could ever produce.
MinutePhysics to the Rescue
Henry Reich, from the wonderful MinutePhysics channel, has already covered most of the key points I need from the book in a 5-part video series made in collaboration with Sean Carroll, and they’re only a combined length of 21 minutes!
Even if you have already read The Big Picture, I would still highly recommend the videos as some concepts are restated differently and the MinutePhysics presentations are always a joy to watch. I’ve embedded the videos I need here and will try to reference them along with the book where I can.
Big Picture Philosophy
The MinutePhysics videos don’t cover Carroll’s philosophical framework, so let’s quickly restate the tenets of poetic naturalism as defined in The Big Picture:
Naturalism comes down to three things:
- There is only one world, the natural world.
- The world evolves according to unbroken patterns, the laws of nature.
- The only reliable way of learning about the world is by observing it.
Essentially, naturalism is the idea that the world revealed to us by scientific investigation is the one true world. The poetic aspect comes to the fore when we start talking about that world. It can also be summarized in three points:
- There are many ways of talking about the world.
- All good ways of talking must be consistent with one another and with the world.
- Our purposes in the moment determine the best way of talking.
This is relatively straightforward and much of the book discusses how the emergence of different levels of observable phenomenon can be described using stories that match our understanding of how the world works scientifically, and are useful within a particular domain.
The Russell and Carroll Stories of Purpose
Returning to the purpose of life, it seems that many stories could be valid, so long as they adhere to these tenets. The only point in the book where Carroll directly references a “purpose of life” appears at the beginning of chapter 32, “The Origin and Purpose of Life”, where he recalls a chance encounter with Dr. Michael Russell, an astrobiologist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
While both were en-route from northern California to a conference in Montana they ended up being seated next to each other on the same plane. Russell happened to notice that Carroll was studying statistical physics in relation to the origins of life and he commented on his familiarity with the work. When Carroll asked his opinion on life’s purpose as it related to the work:
“That’s easy”, he replied with a nod. “The purpose of life is to hydrogenate carbon dioxide.”
At this point, I expected Carroll to put forth another story of purpose that would be apply in a higher level domain. Instead he moved on to cover many other related topics, but never quite returned to a higher level story.
However, he does cover this in more detail in the final video of the MinutePhysics series where he reaches a different conclusion to Russell’s.
“In a very real sense, the purpose of life is to continue the mission of the stars.”
This mission, as outlined in the video, is to provide a path for energy to increase entropy, proceeding from useful concentrated energy toward useless diffused energy.
This is where I hijack the Sean Carroll thought-train and divert it to my own track.
The Gooseus Story of Purpose
As much I enjoy doing my part to hydrogenate the carbon dioxide of Earth, it certainly doesn’t get me out of bed in the morning. And while providing a path for the inevitable increase of entropy is relatively simple to grasp, it’s also relatively pointless. Both are certainly true, but they seem to be missing something meaningful about what makes life different from every other chemical process.
My story is also relatively simple, and really I’m just taking Carroll’s story, adding a line, and then filling in some space, quite literally. The line was actually already drawn by Carroll in his book, and also by Reich in the third video in his series.
In the book, Carroll discusses the evolution of complexity and entropy within closed systems (ch. 28, p. 225). Over time, the entropy of a closed system always increases, while the complexity of the system will increase and then decrease in a parabola.
Carroll builds his purpose off the entropy line and I build mine from the complexity curve. It’s easier to see where I’m coming from in the MinutePhysics video, where Reich adds drawings and more labels to the same graph.
We exist in the middle of the time axis, at a nondescript point of “medium entropy” on the entropy line, but at the vertex of the complexity parabola. What is left unstated here is the fact that life is by far the most complex process in the known Universe. It defines what will be the highest point on that curve.
Defining the high point on the complexity curve also means that life determines where on the time axis the curve will turn back toward simplicity. This happens when the complexity of life declines, and while unconscious life does not have the ability to consider that eventuality, conscious life most certainly does.
This is self-evident since I am doing it right now, with you. And here we come to my story for the purpose of life:
The purpose of Life is to maximize the area under the complexity curve within its enclosing system.
Life’s Complexity Curve
If we could actually graph the complexity of the system we call Earth, it would not look like the smooth parabola seen above. Considering that complexity is defined as the amount of information needed to describe a system, perhaps the best model would be a graph of biodiversity over time.
Once again, I’ll defer to Youtube for a beautiful and concise overview, this time provided by Emily Elert of the MinuteEarth channel.
In the video, she describes the difficulty of generating biodiversity data from the fossil record, but given what paleontologists and geologists have learned over the decades, they have built a relatively accurate graph covering 542 million years of living history. One such graph can be found on the Wikipedia page for Extinction Events, but a more accessible version was published on the Bits of Science website:
A Wikipedia page on the timeline of the far future plots out many possible extinction events before the sun’s luminosity eventually increases to the point where it will disrupt the carbon-silicate cycle and put an end to C3 photosynthesis, wiping out ~99% of all plant species. This mass extinction is expected in ~600 million years.
So we can assume the graph of future biodiversity will follow a similar path of rises and falls, but even if life continues to trend upward in complexity for another 600 million years, it would need to adapt drastically to recover from the C3 photosynthesis failure, or else find itself on the final downward slope toward simplicity.
Considering the biodiversity graph extends back 542 million years, this puts us roughly in the middle of the best case timeline for the complexity of life on Earth.
Speaking of us, let’s consider how conscious life affects the complexity curve.
Complexity from Consciousness
Again, if we take that complexity is defined by the amount of information required to describe the state of a system, it seems that consciousness would require a significantly larger amount of information to describe the near infinite possible mental states compared to a non-conscious organism. These near-infinite possible mental states is what gives rise to the immensely complex behaviors of conscious beings and the particular abilities we ascribe to them, such as creativity and rationality.
And this is just considering a single mind, when further considering how multiple minds can interact to create the myriad forms of social groups, languages, cultures, civilizations and technologies; the complexity curve for a living system that gives rise to consciousness becomes immediately skewed upward.
Consciousness changes everything with regard to the potential complexity in a system and it also creates a massive opportunity for the living system it is part of. Assuming it can leverage its capabilities effectively and align itself with the purpose of life.
This is where my story of purpose becomes meaningful for conscious beings, such as ourselves.
The Purpose of Conscious Life
Remember, the purpose of life is to maximize the area under the curve, not to seek a maximum for the curve itself.
Complexity comes at a cost and the enclosing system is finite, so if conscious life purely seeks a maximum, then it will almost certainly trigger a mass extinction by way of resource depletion, possibly destroying themselves in the process, and making their contribution to the complexity curve a sharp spike. Hardly meaningful to the overall area under the curve.
Many people believe this is happening right now, in what is being called the Holocene Extinction. If conscious life removes large amounts of biodiversity in order to generate resources toward maximizing peak complexity, at the expense of maximizing the area under the curve, then they are not aligned with the true purpose of life.
Human beings have a consciousness that can recognize and study patterns, they can understand complexity and measure its effect on systems. Lately, many great minds have studied the nature of complexity and written extensively on the problems faced when it grows too large, too fast:
Joseph A. Tainter’s book, The Collapse of Complex Societies, covers this topic from an archaeological point of view, extensively studying past civilizations and detailing how their increased complexity generated diminishing marginal returns with regards to energy economics, eventually leading to their collapse. This is also covered in his related paper, Complexity, Problem Solving, and Sustainable Societies.
James P. Crutchfield’s paper The Hidden Fragilities of Complex Systems - Consequences of Change, Changing Consequences discusses how “Short-term survival and an exuberant plunge into building our future are generating a new kind of unintended consequence—hidden fragility.“.
Nassim Nicolas Taleb covers the topics of fragility and complexity extensively in his works, The Black Swan and Antifragile. His ideas on risk, robustness, and anti-fragility are an invaluable look at how humans build complex systems that ignore the risks of long term failure, in pursuit of short term gain.
Increasing complexity is aligned with the purpose, but doing so without regard for the effects on the overall system, or without considering the risks of increased fragility, ultimately dooms the effort.
There are many ways we can increase complexity while reducing fragility and maintaining biodiversity, but since I’m approaching 2500 words, I’ll save that for another time and instead focus on one thing that we can do to change the equation entirely.
Expanding the Enclosing System
So once again, with some different emphasis:
The purpose of Life is to maximize the area under the complexity curve within its enclosing system.
The hypothetical complexity graph, covering 542 million years ago to 600 million years from now, is the best case scenario for the closed system we call Earth. But thanks to the evolution of conscious life, the invention of science, and the abundant resources available on Earth, life has the opportunity to expand this system.
On February 6th, 2018, the Falcon Heavy rocket was successfully launched by SpaceX. Elon Musk’s ambition is to bring humans to Mars within the next couple decades and to eventually terraform the planet and allow it to sustain Earth-life.
This is an example of leveraging our capabilities in alignment with the purpose of life. If successful, there will be two enclosing systems and so a major disaster on Earth would not necessarily mean the end of humans, or life in general. When the sun’s increasing luminosity moves the “Goldilocks Zone” beyond Earth’s orbit, it will also move to include Mars. This could add hundreds of millions of years to our timeline which massively increases the potential area under the complexity curve.
With further advances in space technology and a dedication to long-term thinking, we could even reach the point where the entire solar system is considered the enclosing system. This would add billions of years to the timeline; you see where I’m going here.
In fact, we actually don’t even need to get to the point of terraforming Mars in order to have a direct and lasting impact on the area under the curve. We can expand the system with some bigger picture thinking, like the type being done by Dr. Michael Mautner of the the Panspermia Society.
Mautner outlines a plan for sending swarms of extremely small capsules, filled with robust microbes, toward stellar clouds where new planets are currently forming. The hope being that some may find purchase on these new worlds and jump start new living systems from our genetic family. The technology involved is extremely basic compared to planet terraforming and could even be the key to growing new worlds for us to find later, should we ever master large scale interstellar travel.
There are many stories we can tell about the nature of life and its purpose. These stories need to be compatible with each other and they need to match our scientific understanding of how the world actually works. The best stories are the ones that meet these requirements and are most applicable to the questions under consideration.
When considering the relationship between life’s purpose and entropy, and the relationship between entropy and complexity, a story that relates life’s purpose directly to complexity appears compatible. When we further consider the relationship between conscious life and complexity, this story seems quite applicable.
Entropy increases whether life succeeds or fails, we can’t help but aid in that purpose. Maximizing the area under the complexity curve requires us to continue to learn how the complex systems of the Universe evolve, including the ones inside ourselves and the ones we create to support our problem-solving efforts.
By building our complex systems in alignment with this purpose, human beings can push the inevitable downward slide toward simplicity far into the future, maximizing the area under the curve and creating a Universe teeming with beautifully, diverse life.