Our Cosmic Insignificance
The universe that surrounds us is vast, and we are so very small. When we reflect on the vastness of the universe, our humdrum cosmic location, and the inevitable future demise of humanity, our lives can seem utterly insignificant. Many philosophers assume that such worries about our significance reflect a banal metaethical confusion. They dismiss the very idea of cosmic significance. This, I argue, is a mistake. Worries about cosmic insignificance do not express metaethical worries about objectivity or nihilism, and we can make good sense of the idea of cosmic significance and its absence. It is also possible to explain why the vastness of the universe can make us feel insignificant. This impression does turn out to be mistaken, but not for the reasons typically assumed. In fact, we might be of immense cosmic significance—though we cannot, at this point, tell whether this is the case.
As we complacently go about our little Earthly affairs, we barely notice the black backdrop of the night sky. Even when we do, we usually see the starry skies as no more than a pleasant twinkling decoration. In one sense, what we see is not very different than what Neolithic or Medieval people saw when they looked up. But we inhabit a different universe.
We can repeat the figures scientists tell us, though, mercifully, we do not entirely comprehend them. Scientists tell us, for example, that the universe is more than 13 billion years old, and that the diameter of the part of the universe that we are able to observe is at least 93 billion light years, though for all we know the universe might be infinite in volume. Our own planet circles a star that is located around two thirds of the way out of the centre of the modest Milky Way galaxy, which contains 100–400 billion stars. This isn’t very much: according to the latest calculations, the observable universe contains around 300 sextillion stars. These figures are, well, astronomical, but they are also misleading. On the whole, our universe is almost entirely empty, an unending cold intergalactic night.
We float in this immense cosmos, Carl Sagan writes, “like a mote of dust in the morning sky.” Stephen Hawking delivers the news more bluntly. We are, he says, “just a chemical scum on a moderate-sized planet, orbiting round a very average star in the outer suburb of one among a hundred billion galaxies.”
The universe is immense, and we are so very tiny. When we contemplate the vastness of the universe we inhabit, our humdrum location, and our inevitable future doom when the sun implodes, or later on, in the heat death of the universe, human life can seem utterly insignificant.
This sense of cosmic insignificance is not uncommon. Pascal famously wrote,
When I consider the short duration of my life, swallowed up in an eternity before and after, the little space I fill engulfed in the infinite immensity of spaces whereof I know nothing, and which know nothing of me, I am terrified. The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me . . .
Many take our insignificance to be an obvious, undeniable truth. But are we really cosmically insignificant? Why should we be insignificant, just because the universe is so vast? Over forty years ago, Thomas Nagel remarked that, “[r]eflection on our minuteness and brevity appears to be intimately connected with the sense that life is meaningless; but it is not clear what the connection is.” This connection remains unclear. And the same could be said about the supposed significance of our humdrum location, or the inevitable future extinction of human life.
These questions about our significance do not receive much philosophical attention. Many contemporary philosophers, if they even notice such questions, consider them an embarrassment to be avoided, the product of a simple metaethical muddle. The very idea of cosmic significance is ridiculed.
We shall see that this gets it all wrong. The experience of cosmic insignificance has little to do with metaethics. We can make good enough sense of the idea of cosmic significance and its absence. And we can see why our minuteness compared to the vastness of the universe can make people feel insignificant. This impression does turn out to be mistaken, but not for the reasons typically assumed. In fact, it turns out that we might be of immense cosmic significance, even universally central, in the only sense that matters. But as I will later explain, whether or not we are cosmically significant is still an open question. There is also, however, an important sense on which we clearly are insignificant. But again, this is so for different reasons than those usually assumed.
The full article by Guy Kahane can be found and downloaded here. Though, for my purposes I'd like to contemplate only the abstract and introductory paragraphs, as not to complicate my thoughts with a metaethical argument on value and human (in)significance. I'm concerned more so with metaphysics, and, in the case of this project, ontology and rather Gauguinian questions: Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?
Humans have the extraordinary habit of constructing meaning from all kinds of signs and symbols, to piece together stories—stories of origin, of afters, of imagined futures, dystopias, mirror societies, skewed realities, of virtual parallel nows. What is it that we're after? A deeper understanding or sensation of significance? Is it that our underlying metaethical feeling of insignificance drives us to create… significance? I do not know, nor can I even begin to try to explain the phenomenon of storytelling, of meaning making. Perhaps it is one of those things that can be categorized as "human nature". And, I, like so many others, am caught in perpetuating the tradition.
Something out of nothing. I wonder about origins, origin stories, where we came from, how we came into being and what exactly our relationship is to the utter vastness surrounding us. The question of cosmic insignificance has never really weighed on me heavily, and I can think on only a few times when I've felt genuinely punched in the gut by the enormity of the cosmos. Yet, I can't help but link the unstoppable human desire to make meaning out of nothing and the collective tradition of storytelling to prove significance of some larger, grander connection to that great expanse: the universe. In all kinds of myths, fables, religious books, etc., humans have tied themselves to the stars. Why is this?
In the spirit of humanity, and in not knowing, I am embarking on telling the story of a society of meteorite researchers, and their attempts to explain our cosmic connection, our beginning, and our desire to seek answers to the grand, mysterious, and unknowable. I'll be sharing parts of my research on the Micrometeorite Research Center here, on the site, sporadically as well as posts similar to this one.
More of Gauguin's works, his bio, exclusive articles, and up-to-date Gauguin exhibition listings can be found on Artsy.