What is the purpose of life? More specifically, what is the purpose of our human lives? There are few real satisfying answers to this question. Some say its religion; many parents say it’s their children and others argue that there is no meaning at all. As someone who rejects the idea of a divine creator and someone who has no aspirations to become a father, I tend to fall into the nihilistic camp during such arguments. But then the question follows, if life has no meaning then why do we choose to live? Since things in the universe have the tendency to take the path of least resistance, you could argue that we live because existence is the path of least resistance. It would take an application of energy and effort from our part to end our own life and you would experience many negative sensations in the process of doing so. But this notion fails to consider the fact that existence takes effort as well, and in the case of the elaborate lives of us humans, we often expend considerably more energy and have many negative experiences by choosing to exist in our society than by choosing not to exist at all.
So, if existence is pain, the why do we continue in this wretched world? This is a question that most of us have asked ourselves in one form or another. As creatures of biology, we have built within us a mechanism of self-preservation. That could be a plausible explanation, but it would not provide the full picture. We are not slaves to biology as we often disregard many of our instincts that were once essential to our survival. We exercise and spend energy when we don’t have to, we limit our caloric intake despite our gluttonous nature and sometimes many of us even choose to take our own lives against the commands of our own brain. There is clear evidence that us homo sapiens have more than enough mental capacity to look past our primal impulses and make our own decisions.
If it isn’t self-preservation that trudges us forward, then what is it that we really seek in life? Pleasure is the key word that separates us from lemmings jumping off bridges. We endure the suffering of a long and arduous life just so we can enjoy some pleasure occasionally throughout it. In my opinion, pleasure and happiness are real the goals of life.
If the goal is happiness, then how can we maximize it? But before we answer that question, we must ask ourselves first about what makes us happy. The simplest possible answer is matter. Matter makes up the food we enjoy, it creates the amusement parks, the animals, and the natural wonders that provide us with experiences of pleasure and matter is what constitutes that bodies and minds of our loved ones whose company we treasure. In order to increase happiness, we need access to more matter. Earth is big, but it is limited. It does not have the materials to fulfill the desires of all human beings. We live in an economy fueled by scarcity, but we do not necessarily have to. There is virtually unlimited matter in the universe and all we have to do is go and get it. This is what makes up the base of argument for why humanity should become an interstellar species. Being able travel to other star systems would mean access to more planets. These planets could allow space for shelter, metal for computers and wonderous natural creations for us to marvel at. This would create more positive experiences and exposure to multiple such planets would increase overall happiness exponentially.
By this argument, interstellar travel should be part of the natural progression of our civilization to increase its overall happiness but that may not be true in all cases. Instead of focusing on gaining more matter, we could work towards developing technology that increases the efficiency of matter in terms of happiness gained per unit of matter. But unless given some radical breakthrough in the field of physics, the speed of light will always be a constant and the amount of energy that can be extracted out of an atom will be limited. This would inevitably lead us back to the interstellar pathway for our civilization. But a development that could legitimately be a threat to the dreams of an interstellar human species would be: if instead of changing the world around us to sate our unlimited desires, humanity decided to change itself. Imagine a world, where in an effort to escape the physical dangers of reality and to ensure its immortality, humans decided to upload their minds to computers in a fashion similar to how we store files on a hard drive today. How would are goals change in such a case? I had previously said that self-preservation may possibly contribute to the purpose of life but that it was just a biological instinct and it was easily avoidable for a species as developed as us humans. But another product of biology that we cannot yet overcome is our hunger for happiness and pleasure that I believe is our current major contender as for the goal of our existence. In a digital format, we may no longer have these Darwinian limitations and may choose a new goal that has nothing relating to the colonization of the universe or we may even finally come to the realization that non-existence is the most logical path and that of least resistance.
This scenario however is not guaranteed and may even be impossible due to some hidden characteristic of the universe. Let us look at the real world and see if galactic domination is likely. Given the current trajectory of our civilization, we are already set to maximize for happiness. But is that enough to reach our interstellar goal? Most living things are set for maximizing ‘their happiness’ but none have ever been nearly as successful as our species. We like to think that one of the key characteristics that separates us from other animals is our ability to think in the long term. While most creatures seek instant gratification, we strategically plan out the use of our resources to give us a bigger reward, even if it is at a later date. But our patience is limited, and we are not currently willing to make investments in an opportunity as long term as interstellar travel. We are used to thinking selfishly in that we mostly give our personal resources to things that will affect us directly in our own lifetimes. Only governments and very large organizations are both capable and willing to fund projects that span multiple generations. But an interstellar project is not something that can be accomplished in a few decades. It is likely that a real undertaking to send human expeditions to other solar systems would take multiple centuries if not multiple millennia to reap any benefits. Something like this would be unprecedented and no entity would ever take it on single handedly.
This is not to say that humanity will never journey to the stars. In the future, a situation might arise in which we are heavily incentivized to reach another astronomical body outside out of our system. It is difficult to predict what such an event would look like as it could be anything from the detection of a valued resource on a distant planet to the discovery of a threat from an extraterrestrial source. Whatever the case, it is conceivable that a multi nation conglomerate could form in such a political state to take on the challenge. However, we do not have wait for some apocalyptic scenario to arise in order for our governments to take action. A small of example of what a developed interstellar program could look like can already be seen with the global movement to reduce the effects of climate change. Of course, the problem we would be tackling would be many magnitudes greater than that of climate change and it would require the participants to put forth a much greater amount of effort over a longer period of time, but it could be possible if we raised enough popular support for our project. We would need to continue doing discussions like these as well as perform accredited scientific studies on the benefits and costs of an interstellar programs to fully win the heart of the public. Only when we can prove, without any real doubt, that funding such programs would be a net benefit to society and that the goal would be achievable, can we hope to ever accomplish the goal we seek.