Our Significant Insignificance: The Universe and Us

What is man, that thou art mindful of him? - Psalm 8:4

Every once in a while an article comes along that reminds us of our insignificance in the grand scope of the Universe and that at the same time prompts us to think of the significance of our very existence in that Universe.  Thanks to our friends at Hot Air we are linked to one.

Nick Hughes, an Irish Research Council postdoctoral research fellow at University College Dublin, has written a compelling piece at Aeon that explores our minuteness in the vastness of the Cosmos:

Humanity occupies a very small place in an unfathomably vast Universe....at the speed of light...it would take us 100,000 years to cross the Milky Way....[but] the Milky Way is just one of 2 trillion galaxies in the observable Universe....[and] our time on this mote of dust will amount to nothing more than....[fleeting moments of] temporal smallness within it .

And, after further exposition, Mr. Hughes goes on to ask if:

... we occupy such a small and brief place in the cosmos, [and if] we and the things we do are insignificant and inconsequential....[then] doesn’t it follow that we are utterly insignificant and inconsequential?

Mr. Hughes thinks not:

This thought can be a spur to nihilism. [That is], [i]f we are so insignificant, if our existence is so trivial, how could anything we do or are – our successes and failures, our anxiety and sadness and joy, all our busy ambition and toil and endeavor, all that makes up the material of our lives – how could any of that possibly matter?

Mr. Hughes then presents the positions of a number of writers who do think, for various reasons, that none of that does objectively matter because “we are cosmically insignificant,” and then he writes at length about Mr. Guy Kahane at the University of Oxford who disagrees with the notion of some that our “cosmic insignificance [is] nothing more than a muddle”:

Kahane thinks that there is a better way of thinking about the matter. He disputes...[the] claim that nothing has objective value: intelligent life, he argues, has it in spades (and little else comes close). But more importantly, the dismissers have misunderstood what it means for something to be significant or insignificant.... Kahane argues [that]....[w]e mustn’t forget that significance is also a function of value. If, for some reason, human life stands out as a source of value compared with everything else, then even from the cosmic point of view we might be significant....

Since...the primary source of value is intelligent life, it follows that our cosmic significance depends on how much intelligent life there is out there. If the Universe is teeming with it...then we are indeed cosmically insignificant. If, however, we are the sole exemplars of intelligent life, then we are of immense cosmic significance....[and since] intelligent life is the primary source of value, and since only that which has value is significant, whether or not we matter depends on the quantity of intelligent life in the Universe. If it is abundant, then we are insignificant and matter little. But if we alone exemplify it, then we are of immense significance even from the supremely broad perspective of the entire Universe.

But Mr. Hughes thinks that, notwithstanding the above:

Kahane has misdiagnosed the issue....[W]e find ourselves wanting on an altogether different scale of significance....the primary source of our concern regarding our cosmic insignificance is, it seems, that we occupy a very small place in the Universe. Given this, it presumably makes sense to think that, were we not so small, we would correspondingly not feel so insignificant....

For Mr. Hughes then:

...the things that we care about most – our relationships, our projects and goals, our shared experiences, social justice, the pursuit of knowledge, the creation and appreciation of art, music and literature, and the future and fate of ours and other species – do not depend to any considerable extent on our having control over a vast but largely irrelevant Universe. We might be distinctly lacking in power from the cosmic perspective, and so, in a sense, insignificant. But having such power and such significance wouldn’t make much of a difference anyway. To lament its lack and respond with despair and nihilism is merely a form of narcissism. Most of what matters to us is right here on Earth.

Mr. Hughes touches only briefly and peripherally on faith and religion, and he does not touch at all on the origins and nature of the Universe, but the piece has caused me to reflect again on those issues and on humanity's near-universal quest for meaning and significance in what is, still, a largely  incomprehensible Universe.

Yes, most of what matters to us is right here on Earth, but what we think about what matters to us right here on Earth depends, in very large part, on where we stand on faith and religion.  And where we stand on faith and religion depends, in very large part, on what we think about  the origins and nature of the Universe.

Most followers of faiths believe in creation myths and theological tenets that are dozens of centuries old, and most of the beliefs associated with the various faiths are incompatible with and, in large part, mutually exclusive of one another.  Furthermore, many tenets fail to hold up under the scrutiny of modern science, but the religious impulse is strong, and we all believe in something that gives significance to our existence.

It was once thought that traveling far enough in one direction would result in a fall off of a flat Earth, and now we know that it would result in a return to the starting point.  Similarly, we now peer through telescopes seeking images and/or knowledge of the origins of the Universe, but future astronomers might well end up seeing their own backsides.

Our understanding of the origins and nature of the Universe is a growth industry, as is our place and the place of faith and religion on Earth in these times.

I am most grateful to Mr. Hughes for the prod given me by his piece, and I encourage the reading of the whole article..

Readers who wish to pursue these issues further will find Amir Aczel's thoughts on the compatibility of science with God of interest and may listen to an intriguing interview with him on the subject here.

In his works, among many other things, Mr. Aczel takes issue with such New Atheists as physicist Lawrence Krauss and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, but Krauss and Dawkins, nevertheless, have compellingly written of, I think, multitudes of Universes continually emerging out of a nothingness and that then again disappear into that nothingness, or something! -- as Allah and Ed might put it.

John Batchelor interviews Krauss here, and it is well worth a listen for those who wish to learn a bit about where the thinkings of some physicists are heading these days.

P.S.  In the minds of many, Atheism is a religion, and New Atheism is its Westboro Baptist branch -- I'd compare it to other radically extreme religious groups, but I am far too civil to do so.

The author is retired, his profile may be found on LinkedIn, and he usually responds to emails sent to bilschan@hotmail.com.

What is man, that thou art mindful of him? - Psalm 8:4

Every once in a while an article comes along that reminds us of our insignificance in the grand scope of the Universe and that at the same time prompts us to think of the significance of our very existence in that Universe.  Thanks to our friends at Hot Air we are linked to one.

Nick Hughes, an Irish Research Council postdoctoral research fellow at University College Dublin, has written a compelling piece at Aeon that explores our minuteness in the vastness of the Cosmos:

Humanity occupies a very small place in an unfathomably vast Universe....at the speed of light...it would take us 100,000 years to cross the Milky Way....[but] the Milky Way is just one of 2 trillion galaxies in the observable Universe....[and] our time on this mote of dust will amount to nothing more than....[fleeting moments of] temporal smallness within it .

And, after further exposition, Mr. Hughes goes on to ask if:

... we occupy such a small and brief place in the cosmos, [and if] we and the things we do are insignificant and inconsequential....[then] doesn’t it follow that we are utterly insignificant and inconsequential?

Mr. Hughes thinks not:

This thought can be a spur to nihilism. [That is], [i]f we are so insignificant, if our existence is so trivial, how could anything we do or are – our successes and failures, our anxiety and sadness and joy, all our busy ambition and toil and endeavor, all that makes up the material of our lives – how could any of that possibly matter?

Mr. Hughes then presents the positions of a number of writers who do think, for various reasons, that none of that does objectively matter because “we are cosmically insignificant,” and then he writes at length about Mr. Guy Kahane at the University of Oxford who disagrees with the notion of some that our “cosmic insignificance [is] nothing more than a muddle”:

Kahane thinks that there is a better way of thinking about the matter. He disputes...[the] claim that nothing has objective value: intelligent life, he argues, has it in spades (and little else comes close). But more importantly, the dismissers have misunderstood what it means for something to be significant or insignificant.... Kahane argues [that]....[w]e mustn’t forget that significance is also a function of value. If, for some reason, human life stands out as a source of value compared with everything else, then even from the cosmic point of view we might be significant....

Since...the primary source of value is intelligent life, it follows that our cosmic significance depends on how much intelligent life there is out there. If the Universe is teeming with it...then we are indeed cosmically insignificant. If, however, we are the sole exemplars of intelligent life, then we are of immense cosmic significance....[and since] intelligent life is the primary source of value, and since only that which has value is significant, whether or not we matter depends on the quantity of intelligent life in the Universe. If it is abundant, then we are insignificant and matter little. But if we alone exemplify it, then we are of immense significance even from the supremely broad perspective of the entire Universe.

But Mr. Hughes thinks that, notwithstanding the above:

Kahane has misdiagnosed the issue....[W]e find ourselves wanting on an altogether different scale of significance....the primary source of our concern regarding our cosmic insignificance is, it seems, that we occupy a very small place in the Universe. Given this, it presumably makes sense to think that, were we not so small, we would correspondingly not feel so insignificant....

For Mr. Hughes then:

...the things that we care about most – our relationships, our projects and goals, our shared experiences, social justice, the pursuit of knowledge, the creation and appreciation of art, music and literature, and the future and fate of ours and other species – do not depend to any considerable extent on our having control over a vast but largely irrelevant Universe. We might be distinctly lacking in power from the cosmic perspective, and so, in a sense, insignificant. But having such power and such significance wouldn’t make much of a difference anyway. To lament its lack and respond with despair and nihilism is merely a form of narcissism. Most of what matters to us is right here on Earth.

Mr. Hughes touches only briefly and peripherally on faith and religion, and he does not touch at all on the origins and nature of the Universe, but the piece has caused me to reflect again on those issues and on humanity's near-universal quest for meaning and significance in what is, still, a largely  incomprehensible Universe.

Yes, most of what matters to us is right here on Earth, but what we think about what matters to us right here on Earth depends, in very large part, on where we stand on faith and religion.  And where we stand on faith and religion depends, in very large part, on what we think about  the origins and nature of the Universe.

Most followers of faiths believe in creation myths and theological tenets that are dozens of centuries old, and most of the beliefs associated with the various faiths are incompatible with and, in large part, mutually exclusive of one another.  Furthermore, many tenets fail to hold up under the scrutiny of modern science, but the religious impulse is strong, and we all believe in something that gives significance to our existence.

It was once thought that traveling far enough in one direction would result in a fall off of a flat Earth, and now we know that it would result in a return to the starting point.  Similarly, we now peer through telescopes seeking images and/or knowledge of the origins of the Universe, but future astronomers might well end up seeing their own backsides.

Our understanding of the origins and nature of the Universe is a growth industry, as is our place and the place of faith and religion on Earth in these times.

I am most grateful to Mr. Hughes for the prod given me by his piece, and I encourage the reading of the whole article..

Readers who wish to pursue these issues further will find Amir Aczel's thoughts on the compatibility of science with God of interest and may listen to an intriguing interview with him on the subject here.

In his works, among many other things, Mr. Aczel takes issue with such New Atheists as physicist Lawrence Krauss and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, but Krauss and Dawkins, nevertheless, have compellingly written of, I think, multitudes of Universes continually emerging out of a nothingness and that then again disappear into that nothingness, or something! -- as Allah and Ed might put it.

John Batchelor interviews Krauss here, and it is well worth a listen for those who wish to learn a bit about where the thinkings of some physicists are heading these days.

P.S.  In the minds of many, Atheism is a religion, and New Atheism is its Westboro Baptist branch -- I'd compare it to other radically extreme religious groups, but I am far too civil to do so.

The author is retired, his profile may be found on LinkedIn, and he usually responds to emails sent to bilschan@hotmail.com.

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