By Dr. Ian Clarke
As human beings we all have self-awareness – the awareness that we exist as an individual being, driving us to ask such questions as: Where did I come from? How did I get here? What is my purpose in life? Other animals may also have self-awareness to a greater or lesser extent, though it is unlikely that a chicken will be asking questions about the meaning of life as it scratches for corn. The domestic dog, which has been bred to be ‘man’s best friend’, may or may not have self awareness, though my son’s Alsatian dog, Scout, seems to believe that his master Sean is a God, and shows his devotion by leaving offerings of half eaten rats on his lawn every morning.
Although we don’t really know much about the self-awareness of other animals, as human beings we ask big questions about where we come from, and how this world came into being. In ancient times people worshiped the Sun, or various Gods that represented the forces of nature, such as Thor, the God of Thunder. Then from this pantheon of Gods, we developed monotheism, the worship of one God – whether the Jewish God, the Christian God or the Muslim God. Understanding where we came from, or the meaning of life, lay first within the sphere of mythology, then philosophy and religion, now we look to physics and mathematics. Religion still plays a fundamental role in helping us to make sense of life, and science is not necessarily in conflict with religion. But in the middle ages they saw it differently and people were burned at the stake,as heretics and witches if their scientific beliefs differed from the accepted orthodox religious beliefs of the time.
Today science has been accepted as a valid way to understand the world and within the last 150 years many modern scientific beliefs have impacted our world view, such as the world being round and revolving around the sun. Before that, we thought that the world was flat and stationary and everything else revolved around us (some people still believe that the world revolves around them!). In the twentieth century Einstein put forwards the theory of relativity and subsequently we have had an ‘explosion’ (pardon the pun) of theories in quantum physics. I do not pretend to understand all this stuff, and much of it is exactly what it says – theory, because one cannot see the particles, pathways and waves that it is talking about. I have no idea what a quart is, but I know it is hypothesized and makes sense to quantum physicists. Most of the classical laws of nature break down when one starts to look at matter in terms of protons, neutrons, photons and quarks, and measurements of events, which took place at far grea
ter than the speed of light. In fact one cannot even carry out measurements since the act of measuring changes the measurement itself.
Many of the theories of the origin of life cannot be proved, but the postulations are consistent with observations of the galaxy, and with certain measurements and experiments which have been carried out with more powerful telescopes and means of detecting and measuring minute differences in temperature and cosmic radiation. So theories postulate that thirteen and a half billion years ago the galaxy came into existence through an event, which has come to be known as the ‘big bang’. Before that, time was another dimension of matter and energy and all matter was condensed into an incredibly hot and dense small ball, which then exploded more rapidly than the speed of light and threw out the universe as we know it. Our solar system was one small particle of this explosion and the conditions were such that over the past 13 billion years our planet has been able to create the conditions for complex life. Homo Sapiens has been on this planet only a tiny fraction of that time, but during that tiny amount of time we have developed so rapidly and become so dominant over other species, that we are in danger of destroying the very planet we live on, so we may well be the author of our own destruction.
There are those who cannot accept such a theory of how we came into being, and feel it makes more sense to believe the creation story from the bible – that the world as we know it came into being in six days. However, both theories only explain the how, and not the why, or what is our purpose. For me, it is much more important to have a sense of direction and purpose in life as an individual, than it is to understand the detail of how we came to be here.