1. I am alive, a member of a species we call humanity, and living on a planet we call Earth.
2. This planet is in a system orbiting around a star we call the Sun, and part of a galaxy or system of stars we call the Milky Way. According to human science, there are some hundred billion galaxies in the totality of heavenly bodies we call the Universe, although this is presumably largely an approximation.
3. Until recently the theory of the Big Bang had become the orthodox explanation for the creation of the Universe. But this always seemed a rather “beginning-middle-and end” human-styled story, and now this is being questioned by others of multiple universes or multiverses, and of an “eternal universe”.
4. While an “eternal universe” is possibly more comforting to our minds, we have no way of comprehending “eternal”, either in temporal or spatial terms: merely trying to imagine it gives us a headache. In the end, though, be it Big Bang, Multiverse or Eternal Universe, or (most likely) Other, it will probably have precious little bearing upon our own individual existence(s).
5. One thing we do know is that all of us will die, and all too soon as well.
6. What death will mean for each of us, however, is impossible to know before it happens, and very possibly not after it either.
7. We do know that once dead, our bodies will eventually break down into the atoms of which they were composed, said to have originated from the deaths of stars we call supernovas.
8. While we know we will die and our bodies break down, what we do not know is what will happen to our consciousness upon death. Most human religions or faiths are predicated on some version of “life after death”, an immortal part or “soul” living on, this holding out the prospect of “resurrection” of some kind, usually of the individual, and presumably with their own consciousness and memories intact.
9. Religions generally centre upon an all powerful Creator, who made our world and all things in it, and the Universe itself, who would oversee our destiny beyond the grave, in eternal life. Given an eternity of time as we humans (fail to) comprehend it, this state of being is usually reduced to our clean-scrubbed and robed selves strolling peacefully down well-lit avenues, with much benign mist and the playing of harps.
10. That we have no human means of imagining eternity, much less comprehending what we would actually do with it if it became ours to live, could potentially be a barrier to an acceptance of religious belief, though for many people this does not appear to be the case, their apparent solution being not to think about it. In that regard, religious believers would appear to go to their graves very much like non-believers, and those who hold that in the end we are all compost anyway.
11. Those who do not subscribe to religious views may believe that Creator-centred religions are little more than a fond hope of deliverance by the theistic equivalent of our children’s Santa Claus, and hold that upon death there is nothing, and that our consciousness, memories and personality are all extinguished with our bodily life.
12. If there is nothing after death, which we could imagine as a darkness (or possibly light) going on “forever”, then it would seem to many people that their lives are futile, a few decades of eating and defecating, having sex, fretting over sex, fretting over love and love not had, worrying about money, moving the furniture around the living room and stacking and unstacking the dishwasher, bounded on either side by a nothingness beyond comprehension.
13. The 8th Century English monk, the Venerable Bede, put this eloquently as our mere moment of life being akin to a sparrow flitting from the night into a lit hall and then straight out another window on the far side, back out into the night. Thus this life can be seen as a painfully brief moment of illumination, stark and dazzling. But, if there is an illumination, then of what, and about what?
14. The existentialism of Sartre and Beckett confronts human existence as being pointless, and all our often hard wrought choices, individual, moral and ethical, being essentially meaningless too. But what then motivates us, and particularly those drawn to such views, to get up each day, and go on with their life, trying to be a “good person”, when their existence will end all too soon and “mean” nothing anyway?
15. We may seek, and find, meaning in love, in our children, in family, or in creative pursuits such as art, writing, music. Some may find it in playing sport or barracking for a sports team, or even writing plays about the meaninglessness of life.
16. Whatever the case, all must find meaning in some form somewhere, somehow, or else the dark matter of pointlessness will weigh down on us, and depression, nihilistic disengagement, even suicide may be the result.
17. But what is that meaning? If we are dead in a few decades and our having existed at all almost certainly entirely forgotten within a generation or two, what is the point, indeed? Even the celebrated are forgotten, unless they are as renowned as Shakespeare and Beethoven. But what is 500 years, even, in the time of the Earth, and much less the stars, than the merest blink, less than a single wingbeat of the sparrow of the Venerable Bede? And does the memory of their name and work mean anything to them now, returned as they are to dust, to atoms?
18. In his classic novel of 1930, Last and First Men, English philosopher and author Olaf Stapledon fictionally surveyed the coming two billion years of human history. In it, humans evolve through 18 different species, of which we are the sadly all-too-primitive First. There is no god nor gods behind the creation of the universe in this account, and the highest aspirations for us as humans are not worship nor ritual, but ever remain the creative arts, literature, music and art, and what he calls “Racial Awakening” the telepathic psychic communion of all living humans (the Internet might perhaps be seen as a very primitive precursor of this). As well as finding meaning through creativity, in personal terms we may find it in love and sex, family and friendship, and charitable acts of altruism. This, it could be noted, is similar to the ending of Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, in which it is suggested that the meaning is: "Try and be nice to people, avoid eating fat, read a good book every now and then, get some walking in, and try and live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations."
19. At the conclusion of Last And First Men – humanity it seems is doomed when the Sun becomes a Red Giant, and the solar system faces incineration – the ultimate human species, the Eighteenth, possesses the ability to live forever, and is effectively immortal. But, after a long lifespan, typically of some hundreds of thousands of years, nearly all choose to die. Presumably, then, the beautiful and hideous wilds of eternity are still too much even for humans of such evolutionary advancement. And, at the very end, with the solar system and the entire human race doomed, we close the two billion year human story with the simple statement: “It is good to have been Man.”
20. In my beginning is my end - Drive your cart and plough over the bones of the dead – I am here, Or there, or elsewhere. In my beginning.