Part 6: Why?
I mean that. Why? Why all this? Why anything at all? Why does the universe exist, and why is it the way it is? Why do heavy objects attract each other? Why are atoms made of protons, neutrons and electrons? Why are the laws of physics as they are instead of being even slightly different? If you think about the question of consciousness, it is very much related to the big question of Why. "What is consciousness?", or "Why consciousness?", are sub-questions of the big Why. Why this universe?
I think the question is not as grandiose as it seems, and the answer is fairly simple. It's all about conditional probability. I hear the following (or a similar) story on the news almost every day. Say, they are interviewing a lady in the hospital. She is in a body cast, with limbs supported by ropes, and can barely speak. "Can you tell us what happened?" asks the reporter. "I was crossing the street," she says, "looking at my watch, and I was hit by a car." She adds, "Thankfully, the car turned out to be an ambulance, and they brought me straight here." The reporter turns to the paramedic, "It is great that you were right there!" "Yes," he replies, "she is very lucky to be alive right now."
Sure it's a cheesy story, but there is one word in it that always puzzles me - lucky. Why is she lucky to be alive? I wouldn't feel lucky at all being in her position. That word has always sounded strange until it occurred to me - conditional probability! Yes, given that she was hit by a car, she is very lucky that the car turned out to be an ambulance. Of all the people who have been hit by cars, she is surely lucky. However, given that she was crossing the street, she is quite unfortunate to have been hit by a car in the first place. Given that it is raining, it's not surprising that people are carrying umbrelas. However, given that you are in southern California, seeing a person with an umbrela is quite a rarity.
So what does this have to do with Why? Conditional probability immediately answers the question Why are we, humans, here? It's trivial. We exist, and given that we exist, it is not surprising that we would be asking this question. Why are we on Earth instead of the 4th planet of Alpha Centauri? Well, given that we exist, we've got to exist somewhere. Were we on Alpha Centauri, we would be asking the same question there. Why does the universe exist? Well, if it didn't, we would not be asking this question. Given that we are asking the question, we surely exist, and so does the universe. Why is it so beautiful and magnificent, with such specific laws? Why does the colour green look the way it does? Well, given that the universe exists, it might as well exist the way it exists now. Once again, were it any different, we would be asking the same questions. Perhaps, there are uncountably many universes, all different, all with strange conscious creatures wondering why their universe is the way it is.
What I am saying is that, for the most part, there is nothing special about our universe in the way it is. Out of all the Why questions a child may ask after looking at the world around her, only very few are even remotely interesting. It is not interesting why green is green. Questions that are worth asking are those not explained by conditional probability. For instance, why is there more matter than antimatter in the visible universe? That is something we would not expect to see, even given that the universe exists and is the way it is. The question of why there is life on Earth and not Mars, Venus or some other planet in our galaxy is not interesting. Given that humans are in the Solar system, Earth is the only planet with a surface temperature that can support liquid water and, hence, mild climates. As for the planets outside our Solar system, who knows? Occam's razor says there should be intelligent life all over the place. Too bad the speed of light is so darn small. Until we find a way to travel to other stars, we should not assume that there is no life there. For now, there is nothing special about Earth, as far as we can tell.
The reason I have brought this up is that I am not convinced by people who claim that consciousness, and life itself, must be a sign of a higher power. "Look at the world;" they say, "is it not too wonderous and magnificent to have appeared by chance?" There is no chance! It is not like there was a choice of a billion possible worlds, most of which were ugly, and someone or something chose this particular world. Perhaps there was, but that is immaterial and unprovable at this point in time. The fact is - we are here, alive and intelligent. And given that we are here, alive and intelligent enough to ask this question, the existence of humans, life and intelligence is no coincidence at all - it is inevitable. I would be infinitely surprised if I were here and there were no life on Earth. Then I would wonder about how lucky I was to be on this particular planet, alive and (somewhat) intelligent. Otherwise, given any conscious being able to ask the question, "Why am I here?", the answer is obvious - because you are asking that question, here.