Why Are We Here? By Adam Smyth
Empire magazine’s latest interview with director Ridley Scott about his new film ‘Prometheus’ forces us to return to perhaps the biggest question of our entire existence: Why are we here?
Before I write any feature no matter how varied it is I like to jot down the basic journalistic principles (who, what, when where, how and why) at the top of the page. This is so that I don’t become distracted by tangential thoughts that are fighting to be recognised in my article. With this Goliath question though, it’s hard not to deviate from off-shooting insights and reflections that bring real value to the table.
A sensible approach would be to address why this question, the greatest in our being, will more than likely be brought up in popular culture over the next few coming months. The reason, as pedestrian as it sounds, is because a film is going to come out. That sounds humble yes, but consider this- take one of the most respected and intelligent directors in living memory to bring real vision in an artistic way as to how we were brought to be and you now have something with mass appeal.
Sir Ridley Scott is set to release ‘Prometheus’ on June 8 this summer. Hard nosed critics may point out that this is to gain the coveted spot as the summer blockbuster. Perhaps this is true or false but it isn’t the issue at stake. Before going into the heavier existentialism to be explored, a quick background update will help those who are by now scratching their heads vigorously.
A large clue as to the theme of the film lies in its name, Prometheus. If you haven’t brushed up on your Greek mythology recently, the tale goes something like this: Prometheus, a titan, stole fire from the gods and gave it to mankind, kickstarting and accelerating our evolution. For this move though, he was punished by Zeus and forced to spend an eternity chained down to a rock where an eagle would peck out his liver every night until Hercules eventually freed him. Prometheus’ act obviously defied the gods as he was doing something forbidden. The plot of Ridley Scott’s new film loosely, is that a group of scientists find the same symbol in all of our ancient civilizations on Earth that uniformly point to an origin in space. They head into space on a craft entitled Prometheus to discover our origins, the analogy with the Greek myth being that they are defying some superior being, race or energy by doing this and are basically trespassing. As far as fan speculation goes, the general consensus is that wherever they end up, they aren’t made to feel welcome by another life form.
Some who view the film may take it as simply another science fiction film which has a purpose to entertain us. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that view at all. Other viewers may find that it instigates once again the age old question of why are we here. I am not for one minute about to ridiculously say that this film has some clues about our purpose. Instead I am speculating that perhaps this film may raise that age old question to be considered in a mainstream and popular way. For instance, instead of a learned scholar or academic sharing their insights or theories on the meaning of life, film can be a powerful tool for influencing a lot of people. Consider the point that most scholars will have a much smaller peer group and audience compared to a successful film director. Since we are visually driven beings, the medium of film appears very attractive to us and so, a complex idea can be spread to a mass audience quickly. If the film generated enough interest, possibly those who claim to be an authority on the meaning of life may suddenly find a wider audience than they had previously.
The human thirst for knowledge about our purpose is as old as time itself it seems. When we, at an infantile age, became conscious of the fact that we do not live forever, immediately our reaction was to be depressed and saddened. We asked ourselves, what is the point of living if we know one day we will die? As most of us though do not live with a survivalist mentality, (that basically says nothing in life matters because I may drop dead in the next instant) we become hardened to the idea that yes, one day we will die. The purpose of life then as far as we can see is that we have to work with a sort of mortality-timescale to achieve the necessary things that will make us either successful or happy or ideally, both. Inside this time scale we negotiate the prospect of careers, starting a family, satisfying our egos, creating or innovating something etc. Some feel that the purpose of life is to simply continue our species and reproduce just like every other living thing on our planet. This may possibly be the case but we are still plagued by the question of our purpose, besides doing this.
When we keep coming back to this question, inevitably we will come across both scientific and religious views. The religious take on it is that we have been put on this world for a purpose. If we take Christianity for instance, in the chapter Genesis we see one interpretation of how we evolved, learnt the concept of good and evil and why we are here- basically to love our God. With many religions there is the idea of another life or ‘afterlife’ and that what we do in our current world may dictate where we may go after. The trouble with this idea for many people is that there is no proof that an afterlife exists because once you are dead you are of course unresponsive to probing questions. For many of us though the point of keeping a faith gives meaning to life. Faith after all is believing in something without proof so with that, they are uncertain of where they may go after death but they believe that there is at least somewhere.
The scientific theory of evolution on the other hand, made popular by Charles Darwin is that we have evolved over millions of years. From molecules to simple animals and plants, to then all the different animal types and species, the process has been an extremely progressive one. To illustrate the point further, the point we are at now is basically, where do we go from here? By looking at how far we have evolved already and extrapolating what might be in the future, many scientists are considering the possibility of there being other forms of life in our universe.
If this was said maybe a hundred years ago, the concept might have been laughed at. To make it seem plausible a couple of factors must be kept in mind. Firstly, from the group of planets we are most familiar with, Earth is the only planet that is able to sustain life, partly because of its position being just the optimum distance from the sun. Now to think of the possibility of life in the rest of the universe. There is still disagreement to this day about whether there is or is not an edge to the universe, generally speaking though, we’re all agreed it’s a huge place. To use one popular analogy, If we consider that our galaxy is like a grain of sand and the universe is a long beach, then the sheer vastness of the universe can lead us to think that there is a strong probability for another planet being the optimum distance away from a life source (like our sun), hence the idea of another life form being created and existing. So what implications does this have for us?
One slightly comical possibility is that if there is another life form existing then perhaps they might be none the wiser as to why we collectively are all here. Another is that they may well be more intelligent and advanced than us and its anyone’s guess as to what their attitude to us could be. If there is another life form out there suddenly we will be faced with the possibility that Earth as a platform that sustains life is not the only one in existence. Were this the case then speculation of what another life form would be like would exist until some form of communication. With this, the largest question of all could be put to them and perhaps they might have answers. Alternatively, as mentioned before, they might be just as clueless as us and trying to scrape a living just as we are. Perhaps all this talk is bordering on the realms of science fiction but it is worthy of thought.
In a recent Q and A session with fans asking him about the forthcoming film, Sir Ridley Scott touched a little bit on his view about where we are at now in terms of understanding our place in the Universe. His view is that when incredibly intelligent mathematicians and scientists come up against the proverbial brick wall that doesn’t allow them to progress an idea because it is considered impossible, then they have to start being creative or almost artistic with their ideas. For example, to ask ‘what if?’ style questions may mean trying to think just for arguments’ sake about how a situation may be different if the idea of a God was in the picture. Or indeed how an idea not out of place in a science fiction film might allow them to progress an theory. As bizarre as this seems, consider Albert Einstein who invented the theory of relativity, yet was puzzled himself by it as it didn’t allow any space for God. What is an interesting point to consider when talking about these grand ideas is that we only seem to be limited by our scientific and technological progress as well as how we socially interact with each other.
Now to put a bit of the ‘what if?’ mindset to good use. It is now over one hundred years since the Wright brothers innovated the first piloted aircraft flight in 1903. Who would then have thought that we would be capable of sending men into space outside our atmosphere? Our progress however seems to have come at a cost, namely that we are destroying the world we live in, using up all our resources through competition with each other. If there is nothing sustainable left and resources keep getting plundered surely we are writing our own epitaph. That thought now begs us to ask whether we will find any meaning to life before we destroy the world that keeps us alive? Many would consider our chances bleak, as any combined global effort to halt what we are doing (basically destroying our platform for life) is unprecedented in history. Now before we all head to the bar to drink ourselves into oblivion to escape all this hideousness, we should think about a couple of things in our own human history.
Firstly, not through sheer chance has man evolved to become the apex predator in our world. It is because we are more intelligent than other animals and because we have the gift of foresight, that ability to see oncoming danger and react to it accordingly. Our instinctive nature to survive means that we react and adapt to changing circumstances. If we think about the Second World War as an example, the group known as the ‘allies’ put aside their differences temporarily in order to make their combined force stronger than their ‘axis’ enemies. Eventually they succeeded in overcoming them. Surely then, in order for all of us to stay on this planet we will have to start working together to sustain its resources instead of competing to attain them before someone else does. If we keep competing, war appears likely as food shortages will become more prominent. If we ‘taught the world to sing together’, as corny as it sounds, the possibilities of what could be achieved are anyone’s guess, but are nonetheless a positive guess. Only if we keep alive our platform that sustains us can we continue to search for a meaning of life.
An extract from Empire’s magazine reveals Sir Ridley Scott’s own thoughts on us thinking about where we came from:
Empire: The search for our makers, the dawn of mankind, the nature of God . . . these are big themes.
Scott: They’re old questions, which have been asked many times and presented in various forms in quite imaginative fashion. In the ’60s there was a guy called Erich von Daniken who did a very popular book called Chariots of the Gods?, and he proposed previsitation, which we all pooh-poohed. But the more we get into it, the more science accepts the fact that we’re not alone in this universe, and there’s every feasible chance that there are more of us, not exactly as we are, but creatures that are organically living in other parts of this particular galaxy. (Stephen) Hawking said that he thinks that are and that he hopes they don’t visit. Because if they do, they’re way ahead of us.
Empire: Do you believe in previsitation?
Scott: I think its entirely logical. The idea that we’ve been here three billion years and nothing happened until 75,000 years ago is absolute nonsense. If something happened here two billion years ago, if there was a civilization at least equal to ours, there would be nothing left after two billion years. It would be carbon. We talk about Atlantis and cities under the water that have long gone, long submerged, but they’re in the relatively recent past. I’m talking about one-and-a-half billion years ago- was this planet really empty? I don’t think so.
It is clear that there isn’t yet any definitive reason we can point to that answers the question of ‘why are we here?’ Perhaps we will never know. What is certain though is that we will continue to think and theorise on the matter as long as we exist. Either through a religious way or more survivalist context our thoughts on the matter can only be continued as long as we are are kept alive by our planet or inversely, as long as we keep our planet alive. Perhaps the social world we have constructed for ourselves is not insignificant in relation to all this. Instead it may be necessary for us to keep interested in our day to day activities to avoid going insane from not having any answer to the meaning of life question. With films like Prometheus coming out to address the issue, albeit in a science fiction medium, the question remains but at least it is brought into the mainstream more. As this is one of the first films that is brave enough to ask, perhaps it will instigate others to follow in its footsteps. With heightened awareness of such a huge topic, conversations are sure to follow thick and fast. To sum up, a quote from Civil rights activist Kwame Ture seems apt: “It is the job of the conscious to make the unconscious conscious of their unconscious behaviour”.