"And fear not lest Existence closing your Account, and mine, should know the like no more; The Eternal Saki from the Bowl has pour’d Millions of bubbles like us, and will pour ".Omar Khayyam in the Rubaiyat
Until the time of Copernicus, it had been believed that the earth was the centre of the solar system. It was he, who removed earth from the centre of our solar system.
It was he, who first proved that our Earth was a minor satellite going around a medium-sized star called the sun and not the centre of the solar system. Then came Darwin, who demolished the primacy of man within his own planet, with his theory that man was just the branch in the family of anthropoid apes, and that only the laws of evolution had given him a pre-eminent place on earth.
Then, Freud demolished the primacy of man’s brain within himself. All these theories provided the basis of scientific materialism, which dethroned man from the exalted position in which he had placed himself (of course, Freud’s theories have since been discarded in the light of advances in neuroscience).
Having said that, one of the greatest ironies is that life as we know it has not come to our notice elsewhere either in our galaxy, or in the entire Universe.
This conclusion gains credibility because of the belief that any alien civilisation, if it exists, would broadcast its messages on the frequency of hydrogen, the most abundant element in the universe, and that if such a communication had been sent, it should have reached us and been detected by us.
Since this has not happened, it means that life, as we know it, does not exist at least in the vicinity of our own planet Earth.
It seems odd, to say the least, that in the vast immensities of astronomical space, in a minor planet, which itself is a satellite of a mediocre star, in a corner of an insignificant spiral galaxy, a series of extremely improbable events had led to the appearance of a phenomenon called life (from a self-replicating molecule).
It is even more odd that another set of strange biological laws gradually made that primitive life form to evolve, into other advanced life forms, and finally into a creature (homo sapiens) that is able to study itself and its environment, in enormous detail.
Then the question naturally arises whether there was a purpose in the appearance of this creature, and if so what is its destiny in the scheme of things. Why has such an advanced life form, as we flatter ourselves to be, been relegated to a remote corner of an insignificant galaxy in the vast and mysterious universe, which has as many stars as all the grains of sand on all the seashores of the world?
One of the dichotomies that has developed in respect of human achievement is the sharp division between the fruits of man's technological triumphs and his inability to enjoy such benefits because of his own physiological limitations.
This does not mean physiology has not kept pace with physics and chemistry. Physics has placed at man's disposal, increasingly sophisticated instruments of measurement, and inventions that have improved the quality of human life in every field from ranging from computers to aircraft.
Chemistry has created drugs, which have resulted in immense benefits in tackling diseases and chemicals which have hundreds of uses in industry.
On the other hand, physiology has not been that successful e.g pushing up the limit of human lifespan despite spectacular triumphs in combating infectious diseases and advances in surgery, preventive medicine, and nutrition.
Whether the result of wear and tear and exhaustion of resources or whether genetically programmed, all life has a finite span and each species has its own longevity. For human beings, this would appear to be approximately 100 to 110 years.
This means that even were it possible to prevent or cure every disease that carries people off, before the ravages of senescence do, virtually no one would live beyond a century or a bit more.
Though biomedical science has vastly increased mankind's average life expectancy, the maximum has not changed in verifiable recorded history. In developed countries only one in 10,000 people, lives beyond the age of 100.
Whenever it has been possible to examine critically the claims of supposed record- breakers, they have not been substantiated.
Anyway, at an advanced age, people cannot enjoy most of the good things of life. No man, who is 80 years old, can repeat the feats performed by him at 25.
No Bjorn Borg can recapture the glories of Wimbledon. No Brian Lara can now repeat his great scores in a test match. Our periodic need for food, water and sleep imposes limits on our activities, notwithstanding advances in travel and communication.
Spaceships may go to other planetary systems but barring those astronauts who travel in space ships which go to the nearest planet or satellite, no passenger will live long enough to reach distant planets.
If a few couples were to board such a ship, only the great grandchildren, of their great grand-children may be able to reach the destination!
Another aspect is our relative position with respect to animals. Our superior intelligence and imagination have enabled us to exploit the environment, making us monarchs of this planet.
But then our awareness of the inevitability of death casts a pall of gloom over our existence, despite our attempts to distract ourselves during the interval between the two bench marks — birth and death (animals have no such fear of death, except when the member of a weak species experiences a vague sense of doom, before becoming the victim of a predator).
We are the only species able to contemplate and plan a sexual experience, but that is no compensation for other shortcomings. We are the only species with awareness of birth, over which we have no choice, and death, which we fear constantly.
The solution suggested by Santayana that there is no cure for birth and death except to enjoy the interval, is easier said than done! In any case, it does not improve the situation.
We are not special. It is just that two mental faculties 'intelligence' and 'imagination' have given us an advantage over animals. A sudden unprotected exposure to hostile weather conditions, or a fluctuation in physiological constants or a serious injury can terminate human life.
Under such circumstances, we can be sure of only what we experience through our senses, particularly pain and pleasure, which appear so real that we are forced to banish all philosophical considerations such as the purpose of our existence or how and why the universe was created.
Shakespeare viewed the world as a stage and men and women as players who have their exits and entrances. Indeed, it does seem to be a play with only three acts, corresponding to the three stages, of a man’s life, the first being the years spent with one’s parents, the second when romantic love dominates the scene and the third, the period spent with one’s children before the dark curtain descends.
In the title of a movie called 'The best years of our lives’, produced several decades ago, each word by itself has no profound effect, but strung together the phrase creates a stirring image. However, you cannot define these years as they pass you by silently — the happy days of your childhood, the picnics, the journeys, the vacations, the visits to shops and movies, teenage romances, the period of love and marriage, the celebration of festivals, the first taste of parenthood, the triumphs and defeats of your children in the classroom or on the sports field and the interaction with their friends and teachers.
It is the vividness and reality of this experience that compels us to ask questions regarding the origin, purpose and destiny of man. While referring to science as the most successful and glorious enterprise that human beings have ever engaged in, Nobel Laureate Sir Peter Medawar expresses his view that science will never be able to answer those questions.
He rightly says that to reproach science for its inability to do so is no more sensible than to reproach a locomotive for not being able to perform tasks it was not designed to do.
For the very same reason, even though it can soften the blow, science cannot explain the existence of pain, anguish, misery and the humiliation of death, which separates loved ones. Hence it is not to science but to religion, poetry or philosophy that we have to turn for solace, if not for answers.
Birth decides the eventuality of death and thus the three act play can only be a tragedy that reduces all the triumphs and achievements of science and technology and the glories of our music, literature and art to nothingness.
Under such circumstances, ‘the best years of our lives’ instead of flooding our hearts with delight, drown them in pathos, making a mockery of nostalgia. For we shall never experience those joys again. Against this sad scenario, human life is reduced to an insignificant and irrelevant event in the cosmos with its aims and purposes destined to remain a mystery for ever.
There is no use in patting ourselves on our backs when, a new law is discovered, in Physics or Chemistry or a fine poem is written or excellent musical piece is composed as a rationale for our existence or indications of man’s ‘supremacy’.
No scientific achievement or artistic triumph can compensate for the presence of so much sorrow, agony, suffering, pain and evil on earth and the manner in which the cruel hand of death snatches away helpless children or innocent old people, making it extremely difficult to dismiss existence as a mere illusion.
What then is the purpose of creation and human existence?
Omar Khayyam observed that:
"Earth could not answer: nor the Seas that mourn
In flowing Purple of their Lord forlorn
Nor rolling Heaven which all the Signs reveal'd
And hidden by the sleeve of Night and Morn"
meaning that Earth, the seas, and heaven were unable to answer his questions about the purpose of creation and human existence.
Since even science cannot provide the answer to the above questions, and is not concerned with such issues, the balance of the equation lies in the limited opportunity that life provides, on the planet, to do good and eliminate pain, sorrow, and suffering.
There are positive acts intuitively considered good or kind by all human societies, best exemplified by caring for a child in need irrespective of whose it is, yours or your enemy's.
James Shirley had expressed a similar sentiment in the 17th century.
Cautioning mankind against gloating over vain pomp and glory, triumph and fame, he had pointed out:
"The garlands wither on your brow,
Then boast no more your mighty deeds!
Upon Death's purple altar now
See where the victor-victim bleeds.
Your heads must come
To the cold tomb:
Only the actions of the just
Smell sweet and blossom in their dust.
One is also reminded of Longfellow's immortal lines:
" Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime
And departing leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time "
Perhaps, Einstein who was not only a genius physicist but also a deep humanistic thinker and who faced one of the most brutal wars in which his people passed through Holocaust put it succinctly:
To inquire after the meaning or object of one's own existence or of creation generally has always seemed to me absurd from an objective point of view. … The ideals which have lighted me on my way and time after time given me new courage to face life cheerfully, have been Truth, Goodness, and Beauty.
It is quite interesting to see that a physicist who saw through the deepest mysteries of cold space and deep time as well as who saw in close quarters the heartless slaughter humanity can indulge itself, instead of losing himself to meaninglessness and frustration, independently phrased his life philosophy with three values which resonate with Indian expression: Satyam, Sivam, Sundaram – Truth, Goodness and Beauty!
That being so, only the actions of history’s handful, who have made doing good to fellow human beings their sole aim in life, provide a meaning to human existence, for no other explanation makes any sense.
Only in the ethical principles, enunciated and preached by a Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, or a Vivekananda, an Adi Sankara or a Ramana, does human life acquire a certain dignity and rise above the level of a farce.
The existence of man on this planet, however strange or precarious, finds a rational basis in and ultimately hinges on, such moral values.
As you are no doubt aware, Swarajya is a media product that is directly dependent on support from its readers in the form of subscriptions. We do not have the muscle and backing of a large media conglomerate nor are we playing for the large advertisement sweep-stake.
Our business model is you and your subscription. And in challenging times like these, we need your support now more than ever.
We deliver over 10 - 15 high quality articles with expert insights and views. From 7AM in the morning to 10PM late night we operate to ensure you, the reader, get to see what is just right.
Becoming a Patron or a subscriber for as little as Rs 1200/year is the best way you can support our efforts.