A while ago, the Guardian set a group of writers the challenge of answering essay questions from famously difficult All Soul's College exams. Reading through the questions -there are loads of them and some look scary, others straightforward- it struck me that it might be a good idea to unleash the examination questions on the blogosphere, in the form of a meme. Why shoudn't anyone who wants to have a go, just for the hell of it? Simply visit the file of exam papers here, and choose a question. It says choose three, but give yourself a break: choose one. Give yourself an hour or so, and write your answer in the form of a blog-post.
Does it matter whether there is life elsewhere in the universe?
One of the most thought provoking ideas I have ever read about was that of the Von Neumann machine - a machine that is capable of replicating itself. One does not have to think long about such a theoretical machine before one imagines one, by virtue of artificial intelligence, capable of exceeding its original design limitations, of creating offspring we could never even dream of.
I don't know who first suggested it, but it is conceivable that we are ourselves Von Neumann machines, created to who knows what end, by a creator with a great deal more patience than ourselves. Drifting through space on lumps of rock in the form of microbal life we might encounter possible habitats in which to develop from time to time, there to evolve over millions of years into who knows what.
This is just one of many possible reasons why I might be capable of sitting here, typing this. What I like about it is that it makes no attempt to explain why I exist: it merely accepts that to do so may well be beyond my mental limitations. It may even be that the need "to explain why" is merely an anthropocentric quirk in human thinking. What I dislike about it is another anthropocentric quirk: the assumption that human life is important, that somehow we might be fulfilling our destiny, even though we have no idea what that destiny might be.
So: my grasp of the reasons behind my own existence is limited. If I'm honest, I'm not even in a position to say whether or not my own life here, on earth, "matters". Like everyone else, all I can do is, as Eliot maintained, "make the best of a bad job" and -to paraphrase most of the great religions and philosophies of life- do my best to love others as I hope they might love me. So, although I'm in no position to comment on the meaning or importance of life, I can at least say that the lives of individuals "matter" to those individuals and to other individuals who rely on them. In this limited sense, it does matter whether there is life elsewhere in the universe. One day they might need us, or we might need them.
5 years ago