Human beings have wondered about the purpose of their existence for a long time. The question occupies everyone’s mind at one point or another. I have given it thought as well. The closest I have ever come to anything resembling an answer is this:
We are here to understand.
In the scale of cosmic time, human existence (as we understand it right now) is small in terms of size as well as in terms of the amount of time that we have been around for. It is fair to say that nothing we have ever done in the course of our existence so far has made any difference to the universe.
We think of our lives as important and as having consequence, but few of us leave anything resembling a legacy behind. It is very likely that when humankind vanishes off the face of the Earth, the planet will not have suffered a great and irreparable loss. The universe would not even notice our departure. No stars would explode in sorrow and there would be no slowing down of the galactic spin.
We are no different from the rocks and dust that surround us. We emerge from inert matter and we disintegrate into inert matter. And for a brief duration of time therein, we are aware of things. We know things, and we know that we know things. This cognitive advantage is all we have. It is all that separates us from inert matter. It is what causes us to stare at our own hands in amazement and marvel at the sublime beauty of all the natural forces that brought us into being and made us what we are.
The human promise – if there is such a thing – lies not in any thing we can acquire, build, or dominate. All such achievements are bound to be as fleeting as we are. The human promise lies in the here and the now. It lies in our ability to process reality and come to conclusions about our world. In the long run, it will not survive. Its importance lies in its existence.
At the end of the day, understanding is the only thing that we can do. It is not the means to an end. And it is not an end. It is simply the only thing that matters.
As individuals and as members of the human species, the only point of our existence (it seems to me) is our ability to observe and understand. If we do this one thing, then, at the time of its end, this universe will have been more than just a universe. It will have been a universe that, for a fleeting moment, understood what it was despite largely being composed of inert matter. And that is something special.