A PLAIN GUIDE TO
Yet another perspective is given by considering the significance of
life in the vastness of the universe. As far as we know (noting that we
may not be able to either perceive or recognise higher types of life)
humans and so-called "lower" forms of life on the planet Earth are the
only life in the universe. It seems, however, that statistically speaking
the existence of other sentient beings in the universe is almost certain,
given the incalculably huge number of galaxies and solar systems which
have recently been observed.
This is not to say, however, that all such life will exist
simultaneously (from a hypothetical observer's point of view, one
external to the universe). We exist "now" and other sentient life exists
"now" in another part of the universe. But, as Einstein demonstrated, any
information about the others will only reach us when they are far in our
"past" because that information can't travel faster than the speed of
light, and they may be separated from us by billions of light years. In
other words, each instance of life may be isolated from all other
instances in a vast space/time continuum.
Even if life is common in the universe, it must by its very nature be
insignificant in the bigger scheme of universal events unless (as many
say) whatever meaning life acquires is derived from an "encounter" between
God and humanity. In this scheme of things, life is to be seen as a
"gift", rather than as the outcome (designed or not, as the case may be)
of a series of events in the universe which eventually - and then only
after a vast stretch of time, some 13 000 000 000 years - gave rise to the
negatively-entropic systems we call "life".
I think that the pessimistic view rests on an inconsistency which may
not always be immediately apparent. That inconsistency is the inference
that something which ends has no value while it exists. Why should life
mean nothing just because it will one day end? The connection is not
obvious. In addition, the pessimist position depends on the possibility of
verifying that death is the end of life. We know we live, and we know what
life is like. But we can't, by definition, know that death ends life. We
can't therefore compare life with no-life except in terms of the physical.
Similarly, if life is but a tiny spark in the vast reaches of the
space/time continuum, why should it therefore have little meaning or
value? To say that is like saying that a very rare diamond is worth less
because it's rare. Precisely the opposite may be the case. Further, to be
precise, we don't know if the universe will end nor, if it does, when this
will happen. How relevant - except in a theoretical sense - is such a
distant future to anyone?
The arguments around the value of life are many and complex. As I
review them, however, I conclude that they all resolve into a single
If life has value, is that value intrinsic or is it extrinsic?
Life is intrinsically valuable
This is the response of traditional Christianity and other theist
religions. God's creation is valuable because a good God created
So God made them all, and he was pleased with all he saw (Genesis
Intrinsic value isn't something which can be argued. It is
self-evident. So, for example, if one accepts that God reveals truth to us
by various means, it's presumably possible to accept that life has meaning
and value because we have access to that as a revealed truth.
I take this to be the position, for example, of those who think that
Jesus was in some sense God. If that is the case, when Jesus says that
love of self and neighbour is the most important of all values, he
establishes the intrinsic meaning and value of humanity. If intrinsic
value is established, it should be noted, choice of value becomes
redundant. Such value is absolute for all people at all times.
Life is extrinsically valuable
I should more properly state this as Life is extrinsically valued
because it implies that value is established by an evaluator - be the
evaluator an individual or a group.
Extrinsic value is assessed in terms of the past, the present and the
future. When I go on a Sunday picnic, I might ask myself on Monday, "Was
the picnic worth the trouble?" I might be at party and ask myself, "Am I
enjoying this?" Or I might look forward to a holiday in France as against
a holiday in South Africa and ask, "Which one will I enjoy most?"
From this point of view, I can fully understand that a cat will not
value a haystack except for the mice in it, while a cow will value the
haystack as a tasty snack and the mice as something to be discarded. A man
might value a woman and a woman a man - for obvious reasons. But that
doesn't preclude a man valuing a man and a woman a woman for similar
To sum up, it is possible to state that life is valuable because some
authority, who for some reason can't be refuted, has established the
value. This is usually the position of those who claim access to
revelation direct from God.
Or it can be argued from first principles that life has intrinsic
value, or not as the case may be. I haven't yet come across a truly
convincing version of either argument.
It can be argued that life's value "is in the eye of the beholder" -
the so-called relative or post-modern position. This isn't all that
popular a position, if only because it implies that value is a matter of
choice, both individual and social.
There remains, however, what I suppose might be called a hybrid
position. It might go something like this:
- Value is indeed a matter of individual and social choice.
- But that doesn't mean that there is no such thing as a correct or
"best" choice about the value of life.
- The universe comprises myriads of sub-systems. That's how it works.
No sub-system stands alone in the total system. All are entirely
interdependent - although not every system is essential to the existence
of the universe as an all-embracing system.
- The nature of systems is that they always tend towards greater
complexity (degrees of self-organisation). Humanity is the most complex
sub-system we know of (and, perhaps, can know of). If in humanity the
universe has, as it were, produced the most complex system in a total
system which tends towards complexity, then the negatively entropic
system must have more value than entropic, less complex, systems.
This appears reasonable at first sight. But I should point out that its
efficacy depends on two subsidiary choices:
- That greater complexity is more valuable than less complexity; and
- that the universe itself has value.
Neither I nor you can "prove" either that God exists or doesn't exist.
If that's possible, nobody I know of has yet done it. In other words the
intrinsic value of the universe can be posited only if one chooses a
hypothetically existent God, since such a primary being would (according
to human lights anyway) hardly lack a reason for creating the universe.
This choice establishes intrinsic value for everything.
Similarly, it's possible to give the universe (as the master-system) an
extrinsic value. All one has to do is to choose to value the universe for
what it is, or some particular aspect of the universe (such as sentience,
or complexity, or the capacity to reflect on itself in and through
humanity) for what it is.
In short, it seems impossible to say that "Life has value" in the same
way that one can say, "The earth's atmosphere contains oxygen." But one
can say, "I value life above everything else"; or one can say, "I value
life because God created it." These two latter positions are not, it seems
to me, much different since they both rest ultimately upon an individual's
choice. In the final analysis, therefore, the value of life is extrinsic.
Paul Edwards puts it this way: The conclusion that life either is or
isn't valuable can't be refuted because
... the question whether a universe with human life is better than
one without it does not have any clear meaning unless it is interpreted
as a request for a statement of personal preference .
 Asimov's New Guide to Science, Isaac Asimov,
 See Erwin Lazslo: Introduction to Systems Philosophy, 1972 and
The Systems View of the World, 1972; General System Theory,
Ludwig von Bertalanffy, 1968
 Quoted by Paul Edwards in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy,
Volume 4, 1967
 Life, Meaning and Value of in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy