Sunday, 5 December 2010

Looking for something to write about?

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.

Here goes:


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.

12 comments:

Gwilym Williams said...

Dominic,
I, or my egomachine, will take a look and consider the question/s. You might be interested in The Red Haired Man post (a poem about gingerphobia) on my blog if only because Jim Murdoch has attached a really hilarious clip to his comment.

Argent said...

Now this looks interesting - I shall give it a go.

Totalfeckineejit said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Totalfeckineejit said...

Who will mark them? I'm offering €3 for an A* !

tony said...

I Agree, & this is why It's Important never to trust anyone who claims to have 'The Answer' be that person a Priest;a Politician or whatever........
Another thought. I would hate to meet the creator of 'Todmorden'.That would be scary indeed!

Argent said...

Dominic, I enjoyed reading your answer and I think I have to go along with Eliot, too. In the absense of any proveable creator or guiding principle, it's about the best we can do I reclon.

I've written an essay too here.

George said...

An interesting post, Dominic. The pertinent question for me is not whether there is life elsewhere in the universe, but whether there is life in the small world in which I live and breathe and have my being. The challenge is to make sure that, regardless of the circumstances, I can always answer that question in the affirmative.

Titus said...

I think you got in.

Later in the month, there may be time...

Don't Feed The Pixies said...

i had a go if you fancy a look :) Good post

The Weaver of Grass said...

Hmm. All I can say is that I remember the moment of your conception well if that puts your mind at rest as to where you might have originated - but then I suppose I could also have been a product of that machine.

The only other thing I have to say is that it is "i before e except after c"!

From your mother.

PS Is it coincidence that the word verification is colad?

Dominic Rivron said...

Thanks for these comments, everyone.

Don't Feed The Pixies said...

another one for you here:

http://transcendanxiety.blogspot.com/