If the universe is so mind-wreakingly vast, what possible significance could we have in it?
The religious have an easy time answering that: we matter because God/the gods care about us. Great. We can move on with our lives.
But if you don’t believe in a God or some divine order that looks at us with adoring eyes or has assigned a cosmic mission to humanity, then what are we doing here? What could we possibly ever do to justify our being here? In short: do we matter?
There’s a recurring solution to this problem I’ve heard particularly in trans-humanist circles (or wherever sci-fi lovers abound): humanity will eventually, by virtue of scientific advancement, colonize the stars and spread throughout the universe. Then, supposedly, we’ll matter. Because how could we not?
But what if size had nothing to do with value? What if becoming the dominant life form in the universe made us no more valuable than when we were a primitive race of great apes crawling on the surface of a cosmic dust speck?
What if a human intergalactic empire—while more significant—was just as inherently valuable as that summer crush you just had?
That’s part of what professor of philosopher Guy Kahane implies. And I’m wont to agree.
Hippo or Newton?
In his paper “Our Cosmic Insignificance,” published by the journal of philosophy Noûs in 2013, Kahane makes the argument that size, despite popular belief, does not matter.
Valuing something based on its size is absurd, argues Kahane. He quotes Bertrand Russell who wrote: “there is no reason to worship mere size… Sir Isaac Newton was very much smaller than a hippopotamus…”
Hippo or Newton? While both are know for their similarly nasty temperaments, I still value Newton more.
Now to understand where value actually comes from, I want to make a distinction here between two words: significance and value.
Significance I’ll define as having an effect on the world around it.
Value I’ll define as having meaning regardless of its effect on the world around it.
These two qualities are linked, but they’re not the same thing.
Meaning, and therefore value, can only exist in relation to a sentient being that understands meaning. So value needs some sort of sentient valuator (a human for example) in order to exist.
Significance however is independent of observers. (If a tree falls in the forest with no one around to hear it, it’s still significant … it’s just meaningless.)
Nothing is valuable on its own. Gold is just a metal. Diamonds are just a form of carbon. Neither of them are particularly rare in the universe, but human culture has built massive mining systems to extract them from the bowls of the earth.
Why? Because if you can afford gold on your wrists and diamonds on your crown, it means something. It has social value. And because it has such immense value for us it’s been immensely significant effect in shaping human society. But their significance in shaping the planets, stars, and features of the rest of the universe? Some. Not much.
Black Holes Don’t Give a Damn
So Hippo losses to Newton. But you might argue that was a rigged match. So what about a galaxy vs Sir Isaac Newton? Or for graphic effect: a black hole vs Isaac Newton?
The instinct is to say a galaxy or a black hole by virtue of their size, longevity and (arguably) complexity would beat out Newton easily.
But consider: how much value does the Messier 81 galaxy have to you? Or Messier 82? The HLX-1 black hole? Now consider, how about Newton’s laws by which helped propel physics, industrialization, and so create many of the tools, cars, planes we use today?
Suddenly Newton’s odds aren’t looking too bad.
Compared to us gaseous giants, black holes, and galaxies are immense, long-lived, powerful, and therefore significant to all the matter around them. But they are not valuable on their own.
Only things that can valuate (that can recognize value) are sources of value.
The sun is highly significant to all the planets which orbit it, but has value only on Earth where there exist many valuators highly interested in its continued existence. (Namely: us.)
We are awed by size.
We are also awed by age.
And while larger, older things tend to have more significant effects on the world around them, linking scale and longevity with value is a fallacy of intuition.
If we can agree that something large and old should not be pumped up in value, then by the same logic something small and short-lived should not be devalued.
Even a subatomic particle, however small, can have enormous human value. Especially if that particle happens to be the first neutron in the fission cascade of the atomic bomb dropping over Nagasaki.
Things typically only have value in regard to how they relate and effect us.
What We Actually Worry About
What we get angsty about isn’t our lack of value, but our lack of significance.
Returning to Kahane, he points out that “a tragic incident that deserves many pages in the Didcot Gazette may merit only a footnote in the History of Oxfordshire, and not a single word of the Annals of England… But then, how much of what makes up the Annals of England would make it to the Final History of the World?”
We are currently not particularly significant on a cosmic scale. And if we’re honest, we may never be. But we have immense value. To whom? To the only ones for whom value makes any sense: to us.
If the question is: are we worthwhile to anyone but ourselves? Will we be remembered? Does the universe really not care about us?
The answers seem to be: No we’re not. No we won’t be. And no it doesn’t.
These things matter to us because we are social creatures wrapped-up in social structures where it’s important to be significant, to win renown, to have lasting impact and effect on our communities and our species.
There’s nothing wrong about this. This is simply how our species has survived and continues surviving.
Wanting to matter on a cosmic scale comes from an egotistic self-aggrandizement. An instinct for territorial power struggle based on size, power, longevity that we misdirect at the universe.
The scale of the universe disheartens us because it crushes our misguided sense of significance, and by association we think it also crushes our value.
But Kahane makes a startling counter to this perspective:
“…it may still turn out that we are the most important thing in the cosmos.”
Why? Because we are sources of all value that we know of. And (if there is no other sentient, valuating life forms in the universe) then we may actually be the most valuable things in the universe.
While we may be totally insignificant to the course of the universe, we are yet supremely valuable in it.
Meaning is Meaningless Without Us
We don’t need to be significant—to alter the course of the universe—to be valuable in it.
All we need to do is find another valuator that values us.
This is why people sing the praises of love, family, and friendship—to have meaning in the eyes of other valuators. This is why we champion the importance of self-esteem (to be meaningful and valuable in our own eyes).
But we find value not just in people, value can be found in art, music, symbols, ideas, places and objects.
Imagine the Louvre: value abounds around every corner, on every wall.
Now imagine the Louvre were to catch fire and burn down tomorrow. The rest of the universe wouldn’t flinch.
Value does not come from things like the Mona Lisa. Value comes form us and is reflected back at us from objects like the Mona Lisa.
We are the sources of value. Our brains are golden nuggets that throw the light of value on an otherwise valueless world. To think we have no value because we are small and brief is an illusion. On the contrary, we are the only source of value we can be sure of.
In the words of the psychologist William James:
“The world’s materials lend their surface passively to all [our meaning-making] gifts alike, as the stage-setting receives indifferently whatever alternating colored lights may be shed upon it from the optical apparatus in the gallery. Meanwhile the practically real world for each one of us, the effective world of the individual, is the compound world, the physical facts and emotional values in indistinguishable combination.”
Yes, the universe is barren of meaning. And yet everywhere we go: meaning blooms.