Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Asking the Big Questions

Do we exist? This is a question that I’ve been curious about for some time. You probably already have some notion of what the question means, but what is the question really asking? Asking the question “do we exist” is not so different from asking “are we alive” if you think about it. Both ask an existential question regarding our identity­­­­.

Before answering the larger question of “Do we exist?” or “Are we alive?” we first need answer the smaller question “What does it mean to be alive or to exist?” Ferris Jabr, in an article on the Scientific American website, discusses why we categorize machines as dead, but animals and humans as living. Consider a cat or a dog. Cats and dogs are the result of millions of years of evolution, finally becoming what we know as cats and dogs. This process of constantly updating and evolving is similar to the way we make machines. First simpler machines are made, but over time we adapt machines to become stronger and more capable. In this way cats and dogs can be viewed as very complex machines. While arguing that a cat or a dog is a machine may seem quite ridiculous, the similarities are almost overwhelming between the two. How can you separate the two by defining the features of life and death? In fact, defining the unique features of life is an incomplete task. No all-encompassing list has yet been compiled that includes all entities we think of as “alive,” while also excluding everything we consider “dead.”

But what does this mean for us? If we can’t prove that we are alive, or rather can’t prove we are different from things that are dead, what does it mean for us to exist? Existence is really a complex idea. In some fashion to prove something exists you just have to show the object or being you are talking about isn’t made up. To prove something exists you prove it doesn’t not exist! Consider the example “if Gabe is having a birthday party he will bake a cake and put it on the table.” If we do not see any cake on the table does that mean Gabe did not bake a cake? It is impossible to prove that Gabe did not bake a cake for there are many ways for the cake to disappear after being put on the table. We have no way to prove the non-existence of Gabe’s cake.

The inability to prove the absence of something is a problem humanity struggles with constantly. Regarding existence we regularly ask this question on a universal scale, asking the question “Do aliens exist?” This is a binary question so the only possible answers are “yes” and “no.” However, the only way to receive a definitive answer is to find aliens. If we find aliens we know they exist, because we found them, but if they don’t exist we have no way to prove they aren’t out in space somewhere we haven’t looked yet. When asking if something exists or not you cannot expect the answer to either be “yes” or “no”…the answers you should be looking for are “yes” or “maybe.”


- Adin Adler