(Note: After writing this I realized that it is less an examination of "The Last Question" than it is an expression of the thoughts and feelings the story inspired in me. But after all, isn't that what fiction is for?)
What is the ultimate fate of humanity? Annihilation. If our descendants are still around in five billion years and even if they somehow manage to escape our solar system when the sun expands to incinerate the Earth, they will eventually die, along with the rest of the universe. Some 100 trillion years from now star formation will cease. The universe will slowly die. Entropy will be irreversible. I doubt we would be recognizable as humans by that point but it wouldn't matter. Everything we had accomplished, all our scientific advances, all the great art and music, the books and poems, would all have been for naught. Even if the universe then collapses back upon itself and gives birth to a new big bang, a new universe, all matter will have been reverted to the molecular state. Nothing that existed before will exist any longer.
Isaac Asimov's "The Last Question" chronicles several generations of humans and their descendants pondering the question of how the entropy of the universe can be decreased. They address this question to various incarnations of supercomputers and the answer is always the same: "INSUFFICIENT DATA FOR MEANINGFUL ANSWER." I will not reveal the ending in case you haven't read it (you can read it here) but the asking of the question, not the ultimate answer, is what fascinates me most about this story.
Everything humankind has accomplished will eventually be destroyed. No matter what happens to the universe, every trace of us will ultimately vanish. What does this mean? How does one process this information?
I suppose most people just end up ignoring it. They may read about entropy, etc., may briefly realize what this means, then slip comfortably back into their lives. Perhaps this is the most logical response. After all, what can you do about it? Nothing. Why let if affect you?
But I do not believe this is the correct response. What we should do is realize that no matter what happens in the future, we have today. We have the people around us that we love and care about, we have the ability to make today better not just for ourselves but for others. When you look at life on the scale of the entire history of the universe, isn't it a bit mind-boggling that of all the possible outcomes, your life is one of them? Doesn't it give you pause to think that the chain of events that led to your existence goes back nearly fourteen billion years in an unbroken line?
As Carl Sagan said, "[s]ome part of our being knows this is where we came from. We long to return. And we can. Because the cosmos is also within us. We're made of star-stuff. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself."
What do we take away from this? How should we live our lives, knowing this? I've written before about wishing to leave a literary legacy. I've expressed the hope that my work is read a hundred years from now or more. It is an egotistical wish, to be sure. But I think about legacy in more ways than one. If there is some message I can impart to future readers, if one of them reads my work and goes away thinking about notions of right and wrong, thinking about what could be done to make our little corner of the universe more just, more peaceful, then my legacy will have been secured. But I need not write a single word to accomplish this. If I can have a positive influence on the lives of the people I know, if I can live by example and show them that a life of joy and contentment can be had without exploiting or hurting others--that, in fact, the joy is more pure than if I had gained it on the backs of others--I will have left a legacy. If they, in turn, try to live their lives according to the same ideals, they can leave a legacy when they are gone.
The future illuminates the present. What can happen tomorrow tells us very clearly and without hesitation what we must do today. If tomorrow we may die, then today we must live. If tomorrow a child will go hungry, then today we must arrange to feed her. If tomorrow a war may begin, then today we must ensure peace. These are not difficult things to grasp. We have the means to largely rid the world of misery. Why haven't we? Is it the nihilistic strain within humanity that says that ultimately it won't matter? No. It is the selfishness that says whatever I give to them, I cannot have for myself. Well, that ultimately won't matter either. But if you can bring a little joy, a little happiness to someone's life, if you can remove a little misery from the world, that does matter. That will have an effect here and now. And if enough of us do it, it can have an effect until the universe comes to an end.
Perhaps we shouldn't ask "how can entropy be decreased?" but rather "how can joy be increased?" And let it not be the last question, but the first. Humanity's joy is my joy, humanity's accomplishments are my accomplishments. What benefits the planet benefits me in a very nontrivial way. Maybe that is what I am after when I speak of legacy. I want a way for my life to have not been trivial. To do this, I write. But I also live my life as well and as ethically as I can. I suppose that even if I don't leave behind a literary legacy, this will have been enough. This will have made a difference and my life, in that unbroken chain leading from the beginning of the universe to its end, will have been a link worthy of that legacy.