Spoiler Warning: This post discusses plot details including early-story spoilers of Redshirts by John Scalzi.
One of the themes in John Scalzi’s Redshirts is the notion that we humans might serve a purpose higher than ourselves. This may be the case for the society we occupy, the world we explore and the universe around us we’ve observed. Yet, while we terrestrial hominids sometimes crave this higher calling, Scalzi observes some possibilities of what that function actually is may not necessarily be what is best for humanity, or for all that we wright.
And this may be the case, even if that purpose is a divine one, or comes from the likes of a god.
Life! The Universe! Everything!
So what is our purpose in life?
Naturalistic perspectives argue that our purpose is neither more nor less than to survive long enough to reproduce. Mammals have the added responsibility of caring for our young long enough that they can reach maturity.* Still, this notion that we’re glorified bacteria tends to feel cold and harsh, especially with the added caveat that so long as we live beyond our ability to serve these functions, we are needlessly consuming resources, and are overstaying our welcome.
So, really, no one wants to hear that crap.
And thus religious narratives like to suggest an alternative: there is a higher plan made by higher beings (higher than us mere mortals), and they have a very special, very important purpose for human beings. Often, they have a specific purpose for each of us, at least each member of that faith which believes in them.
We don’t know what the divine plan is, according to these narratives of faith. God is mysterious. We don’t get to know because it’s classified. And we probably couldn’t understand the plan if It was explained it to us. But we are to rest assured our universe is one giant processing plant. It’s doing something super important, whether producing holiness or refining perfection from chaos or computing wisdom. Whether or not we are too tiny, or short-lived to witness or even understand the end product of this device, we are, without question or doubt, a super-mega-important contributor to its functioning. I should also mention how important we are. Each of us. You too.
And to be fair to our theist philosophers, we humans certainly crave that significance. As I said above, the notion that we are merely intermediary-stage evolved microbes dancing our microbe dance feels callous and repugnant, especially now that our population of billions is starting to feel crowded and excessive. And redundant.
Better Than Life
Except it’s fun.
Sign on the dotted line and we’ll make your world better than reality: Better. Funner. Prettier. Bigger explosions. Tastier food. Hotter sex. Hotter partners. Nicer partners. Also you get to be a crack ninja. Who rides a shark. And fights dinosaur crime.
But none of it is real.
The Experience Machine offers the best, fullest life you can live, but it’s all a simulation, and when you die, you die. And nothing you did matters to anyone else ever.
Who’d want that?
The thought experiment of the Experience Machine observes that when confronted with the stark reality of it, we immediately prefer a miserable existence of real significance over an artificially-induced but pleasurable life of no significance. We want our life to mean something, and this is why the mere-microbes-suspended-in-film-on-a-speck notion feels abhorrent.
Of course, in real life, the promise of significance is waning fast. There’s billions of people and only a handful of them can be bridge builders and world conquerors and rockstars and movie directors. And then, even all our buildings and art and political intrigue and grand symphonies go entirely unnoticed by the rest of an incomprehensibly immense, unfathomably old uncaring universe. When all my work in Terraria has about the same significance as all of Frank Lloyd Wright’s work in real life then maybe the experience machine deal isn’t so bad after all.
Perhaps this is why we love fiction so much in all the ways it’s delivered to us, from radio to television to cinema to video games, each iteration a step closer to our experience machine. This pleasure device, this Holodeck, this shared dream. Still, those of us who’d hook ourselves up do so based on some perspective that big significance is hard to achieve in this overcrowded, overcompetitive world, and it’s more about luck than character. Still, given the opportunity to build real bridges, to fight real wars and to raise real dynasties, our simulated enemies and simulated constructions seem shallow and empty.
So, we want more than purpose, but significant purpose. We’d want to be a big fish in a small pond. No wonder a universe of inconceivable enormity is so demoralizing.
Anthropologists suggest that the higher purpose we seek is one of community. It’s not enough to our inner social beast to self sustain, rut, parent and die off. We observe others in need and want to help. We watch harm and suffering among our own and contemplate how to provide relief. We see our own hunting grounds running thin of quarry, yet across the ravine game flourishes, and we engineer a bridge across. We are driven to produce more than we need so we have some to share. From want, we strive to invent, to create technologies that allow us more comfort, so that we contend less with the cruel misery of nature.
It’s this drive that compels us to religious faith and fanaticism, thus, is really our drive to make things better for everyone. Jesus is not just our copilot, but our sense of society.
And really, it’s probably better this way, in contrast to the many functions we might serve for a higher landlord, bettering our civilization will actually pay back dividends (or at least pay them forward). Following the mission statement of a nonhuman authority — even one that willfully created us — can get us into a heap of trouble.
A Dream World Built To Keep Us Under Control In Order To Change a Human Being Into This
So, let’s say we do have a higher purpose than ourselves. It’s not enough to raise our progeny and better our community. We do these things anyway. We may even reach out into space. But, say that ultimately these are to build a large enough population threshold for a higher purpose. What is it?
Nothing bad, according to our churches and religious scholars. Beyond that insistent reassurance, their answers get a tad obtuse.
Middle ages monks imagined that we were God’s high-fidelity music system. Those human souls that prove worthy surround God, praise Him and sing Holy, Holy, Holy over and over (and over and over and…) again. (It’s His favorite song. Really.) When you’re a cloistered monk, singing time might be the highlight of your day.
Far more likely is the suggestion by H. P. Lovecraft that we’re livestock. Either we’re work animals or food animals or our bodies are to be milked of precious bodily fluids (e.g. milk, insulin, venom, etc.)
Starting At The Mountains of Madness explorers first encounter the Elder Things later regarded as the Elder Gods or Outer Gods. According to a narrative across several stories, humans were engineered as slave labor by these Elder Things to also serve as food as necessary, such as when certain figures rise from a near eternal slumber when the stars align perfectly. Cults and secret societies who worship these Elder Things believe the elites would live to be eaten on the apocalypse, before the Things scoured and remade the universe.
Usually, the notion that humans are delicious deity-chow is reserved for forays into existential horror, and we can take some assurance that we’re not a particularly nutrition-efficient livestock any more than we are efficient sources of bio-thermal energy. (To be fair, cows, sheep, pork and chicken are not particularly nutritious either. They’re just tasty.) Still, of all the possibilities regarding our higher purpose, humans as food and labor are the most consistent with our Be fruitful and multiply mandates.
Scalzi presents an interesting alternative in Redshirts, where the people of an advanced civilization are the actors or puppets for a dramatic performance for an audience in an entirely different civilization in an entirely different time and space. In his version, when the performers get caught up in the Narrative (in this case, an irresistible, driving force) they are compelled to say and do things according to the script even when it is contrary to their own character or prior knowledge. And commonly the narrative will run these individuals to their own dramatic demise.
A similar (though less-narrative-driven) variant is suggested in the Southpark episode Cancelled, where the Earth is a setting for an immense live reality-show for a non-terrestrial civilization. All of life on Earth play themselves while being secretly recorded. The producers of the show occasionally will provoke natural or political events in order to increase the level of drama.
Possibly the most benign suggestion of higher purpose comes from Douglas Adams in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in which the Earth is (spoiler: was) a giant super-computer tasked with determining the question of life, the universe and everything, to which the answer was previously determined to be forty-two. All life that inhabits the surface are part of the computation engine, though it’s not made clear if the answer is computed by instigating and observing our evolutionary and social development, or is a hidden subprocess to which each of us devotes part of our processing power, much like BOINC projects such as SETI@home.
Insects Called the Human Race / Lost In Time, Lost In Space
Whether we yoke livestock animals for labor, we enslave our fellow humans, or even employ our fellow neighbors with compensation, the trend in human endeavors has been to treat our subserviants poorly. It may simply be that we don’t regard the stir of revolt as much of a threat, or that it’s more pragmatic to quell unrest as it happens with violent response, rather than providing ongoing additional expense to keep our staff content in their lot. What we don’t do (with rare exceptions) is show empathy or sympathy. It is for this reason that we turn to organized states (and if they won’t cooperate, labor unions and mob syndicates) to mandate proper treatment of workers. (Sufficient pay, reasonable hours, safe working conditions, etc.) If our employers were angels to their employees, they would not need to be so governed.
Similarly, our evolutionary drive shows little interest in our comfort or enjoyment of life, only that we fulfill our objectives to survive long enough to reproduce and raise our kids.
That said, there really is no cause to imagine that our higher-order overlords, whether divine beings or intelligent aliens or Hollywood scriptwriters or supercomputer kernels are going to take interest in our well being or happiness.
This is not to say that non-malevolent superintendents don’t exist. Pet owners commonly treat their animals well, and are mindful of their wants and needs. Parents garner much joy from the happiness of their kids, and can (given the resources to do so) show a great amount of patience, compassion and generosity to their progeny. Likewise, kings and bosses have shown, from time to time, genuine interest in good governance and concern for the well-being of their people. History tells us, though, that these are exceptions to the rule, and the more that the people force accountability and transparency on their administrators the more likely they can anticipate governors that take actual interest in their needs.
But this is where our drive to better our society shines: There is no point to stirring our sense of tragedy and injustice except to drive us to action to address the cause. When the people dying are our people, when the children injured are our children, we are propelled to get preventative, to force our magistrates to sign charters of guaranteed rights, to build safer roads and cars, to instill responders for disaster preparedness, to find vaccines for polio and smallpox and HIV.
The comfort of higher purpose is the comfort of childhood, that there’s something more than what we’re doing right now, that there’s a place to advance to from here, that we mean something to someone outside of ourselves. But even if this is true now, ultimately it will cease to be. Ultimately, we’ll be at the top tier. Ultimately, we will get to where there’s no-one higher to ask, and there’s nowhere higher to go. And really, there’s little to suggest we aren’t there already right now.
And then there’s that pesky matter of living to be someone else’s steak dinner.
Really, we don’t need divine purpose, we have a lot of work to do right here.
* Humans are unique in that they hang around to help care for grandkids. Other animals, even hominids, don’t go through menopause (geriatric females still get fertile and can still breed) and they don’t yearn for grandkids to spoil, rather continue to favor their own immediate progeny over descendants of descendants. Human beings, in the meantime, not only see our own offspring to adulthood, but will help raise their kids. Some humans specifically plan for lateral growth of the family tree hence a common stereotypical family quarrel when adult children are not ready to — or not capable of — having kids of their own.