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The Oatmeal makes a significant mistake about insignificance

I’m a fan of Matthew Inman’s comics and his hilarious website The Oatmeal.

And I enjoyed almost all of his recent long cartoon titled “How to suck at your religion.”

It’s funny. It’s also thoughtful, provocatively irreverent and wise. Until near the end, where it stumbles badly.

Here’s the bit that goes wobbly:

Does your religion inspire you to help people? Does it make you happier? Does it help you cope with the fact that you are a bag of meat sitting on a rock in outer space and that someday you will die and you are completely powerless, helpless, and insignificant in the wake of this beautiful cosmic shitstorm we call existence? Does it help with that? Yes? Excellent! Carry on …

The problem is that third question — the long one, which makes three assertions. The first two are fine. The last one is partly fine, but contains one word which is really, really, really not at all fine.

That word is “insignificant.” And that’s just utterly wrong.

You are not “completely insignificant.” You are, in fact, precisely the opposite of that.

Now you may suspect that I’m objecting to this because I’m a Christian and thus subscribe to a sectarian belief-system that holds that you — each of you — is immeasurably valuable and immensely significant. And I certainly am a Christian and this certainly is, in fact, something that we Christians believe. It is a Christian belief — a thing that Christians believe.

But it is not only a Christian belief. It’s something my sect happens to believe, but not because it’s a sectarian idea. Everybody else believes this too.

Everybody. Not for sectarian reasons, but because it’s true. People are significant. People matter. All of them. All of us. You are significant. You matter.

That’s not just a sectarian belief I learned from Christianity. It’s also something I learned from Carl Sagan. And from Neil DeGrasse Tyson.

YouTube Preview Image

The most astounding fact is the knowledge that the atoms that comprise life on Earth the atoms that make up the human body are traceable to the crucibles that cooked light elements into heavy elements in their core under extreme temperatures and pressures. These stars, the high mass ones among them went unstable in their later years they collapsed and then exploded scattering their enriched guts across the galaxy guts made of carbon, nitrogen, oxygen and all the fundamental ingredients of life itself. These ingredients become part of gas cloud that condense, collapse, form the next generation of solar systems stars with orbiting planets, and those planets now have the ingredients for life itself. So that when I look up at the night sky and I know that yes, we are part of this universe, we are in this universe, but perhaps more important than both of those facts is that the Universe is in us. When I reflect on that fact, I look up – many people feel small because they’re small and the Universe is big – but I feel big, because my atoms came from those stars. There’s a level of connectivity. That’s really what you want in life, you want to feel connected, you want to feel relevant you want to feel like a participant in the goings on of activities and events around you That’s precisely what we are, just by being alive.

You are completely significant. Don’t let anyone tell you different.

(But don’t let it go to your head, either. Everybody else you’ll ever meet is completely significant too.)

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  • GDwarf

    I’m not sure that makes us “Significant”. Amazing, unique, and priceless? Yes, definitely. But that’s not really the same thing.

  • LoneWolf343

     What the devil is the word “significant” supposed to mean, then?

  • GDwarf

     

    What the devil is the word “significant” supposed to mean, then?

    To me, anyways, something like more important than most, or all, other things.

  • Caravelle

    I think it’s a valid meaning, but not the only one, and I don’t think it’s the interesting one to use when talking about cosmic significance.

    It’s a bit like “you’re unique, like everybody else”. It’s a humorous way of illustrating the paradox of that concept, but I still think it’s a true statement. Maybe it’s a matter of perspective – when you say everything is significant, you’re saying that everything has a perspective according to which it’s the most fascinating thing in the world.
    And given things like “significant” or “fascinating” or even “unique” (because it depends on which traits we consider relevant) all depend on perspective, it isn’t a paradoxical or meaningless statement at all.

  • http://twitter.com/shay_guy Shay Guy

    You’re different from everyone else, but you’re not more different than everyone else.

  • LoneWolf343

    Then, were does importance come from, and how is it determined?

  • Cradicus

    If I had like an amazing, unique, and priceless thimble – like maybe it was diamond encrusted and belonged to Queen Victoria during her wild teenage years – I would also describe that thimble as “significant.” If people get those descriptors (and the people I love do, as I hope do you and the people you love) then I guess they’re significant too :D

  • Gotchaye

    I also don’t really like the Tyson line.  It’s neat and all that we’re made of stuff that used to be part of bigger stuff, but so’s my chair, and so’s a cloud of gas floating deep in space.  I’d like to think that I’m more significant than my chair.  Tyson’s “connectedness” doesn’t require life; it only requires being.  Now, consciousness of that connectedness is something distinctive, but I’m not sure that’s a promising direction to go with this.

    But I’d still say that persons* are significant, and more significant than most stars and maybe some galaxies and in some ways more significant than the Sun (or other stars and galaxies that are necessary for sustaining persons).  Because persons think and feel.  If I had to choose between one person dying five years before they otherwise might and a star that no person has ever seen and without any planets at all hospitable to life going nova five million years before it otherwise might, I’d choose to keep the person alive every time.  The star doesn’t care.  There’s no intrinsic problem if the star’s stuff splits apart and goes off to become part of other things, unless of course some person has formed an attachment to the star as it is.  Even the person with the least ability to influence the outside world has a richer inner life than virtually all of the rest of the stuff in the whole universe (barring pantheism).  Consciousness is plausibly the rarest thing there is, and it would probably go away if we took all the stuff making up a person and scattered it to the winds.  It’s persons that make significance, and that’s pretty significant if anything is.

    *I’m using this to mean humans as well as some animals and possible aliens.

  • http://blog.trenchcoatsoft.com Ross

    Personally, I always find when Tyson tries to explain something as awesome, he ends up making it sound way less awesome. Like someone out of a church youth group who is trying to tell you how instead of having sex and listening to rock music, you could be doing *way cooler* stuff like quiet contemplation, self-denial, and watching paint dry. Only he does it with science. Which makes me dislike him.

  • Gotchaye

    I thought I was alone in broadly agreeing with but not being a big fan of Tyson.

  • Christine

     He did a pretty great job of explaining why the original Enterprise was the most awesome spaceship at this year’s ComicCon, though. =)

  • LMM22

    I also don’t really like the Tyson line.  It’s neat and all that we’re made of stuff that used to be part of bigger stuff, but so’s my chair, and so’s a cloud of gas floating deep in space….  Tyson’s “connectedness” doesn’t require life; it only requires being.  Now, consciousness of that connectedness is something distinctive, but I’m not sure that’s a promising direction to go with this.

    Sagan (I believe) had the quote that “we are the way for the universe to know itself.” Beahan, one of the members of Reasonable Doubts, expands on this theme. That’s what Tyson is getting at (and, I suspect, probably says at one point during the recorded conversation).

    The issue, for me, is that what religion offers — some promise of individual significance on a cosmic scale — just isn’t available from the hard sciences. Ever. (*) Those mathematical equations that define the way everything we know behaves, those chemical reactions that made you — none of them *care*. None of them *can* care. When the sun goes out (or, if we’re lucky, at the heat death of the universe), you may have had a hundred thousand descendants, but what you do won’t have altered anything. Short of a thousand advances only seen in science fiction, the farthest galaxies we can see will never care about you.

    It gets worse, of course. All those peasant villages that were killed off entirely by the Black Plague, all those tribes wiped out by smallpox epidemics — any self-contained civilization or tribe or cluster of people that dies out completely — those individuals don’t ‘matter’ to the future of humanity. What they’ve done collectively — altering the landscape, perhaps, a few artifacts they’ve left behind, maybe a few places they’ve traded with at some point — might have altered places that survive, but their descendants are gone, as are their myths and traditions and knowledge. Anything any one individual has done is gone.

    Saying people are more important than chairs is an acceptable moral judgement, (**) but it’s one that isn’t guaranteed by any sort of universal law or scientific premise. Science doesn’t offer fuzzy assurances. The comforts it offers are ultimately cold. Take what you can get.

    (*) “Soft” — i.e. social — sciences *do* offer some promise of significance, but that’s only because they begin with the premise that human beings are worth studying. Move away from that and the assertion falls apart.
    (**) Albeit one that none of us actually holds to. Your friends are more important than chairs to you. The people you know are more important than chairs. But if *everyone* were more important than chairs to you, no one would *have* chairs, because we’d be expending every resource we have on preventing catastrophes and providing every person on the planet with excellent medical care and preventing accidental deaths.

  • Caravelle

    But if *everyone* were more important than chairs to you, no one would *have* chairs, because we’d be expending every resource we have on preventing catastrophes and providing every person on the planet with excellent medical care and preventing accidental deaths.

    I find it problematic to assume that this is true. It could be, but it isn’t obvious. It depends on how much effort it takes to keep 7 billion people healthy and alive, vs how much effort 7 billion people can exert. I’m not convinced at all that the former is greater than the latter, and if it isn’t then there’s a surplus of effort available to humanity, and that could be used to make chairs.
    (of course there’s the additional wrinkle that it’s not just about effort, it’s also about resources, and while effort scales up with population resources don’t – or not linearly at least).

  • LMM22

    It depends on how much effort it takes to keep 7 billion people healthy and alive, vs how much effort 7 billion people can exert. I’m not convinced at all that the former is greater than the latter, and if it isn’t then there’s a surplus of effort available to humanity, and that could be used to make chairs.

    Ok, that was a bit of an exaggeration, but my point still stands: if *all* people were more important to the speaker than any particular chair, they would have no chairs, because they would have no money to buy chairs.

    Another point is that we’re not *just* talking about the resources and effort needed to keep seven billion people alive: we’re talking about the resources and effort to keep their *descendants* alive indefinitely. In short, we’re not just keeping people healthy — we’d be actively preventing global warming and environmental destruction, we’d be actively researching new antibiotics to replace those that bacteria are becoming resistant to, we’d be actively preventing outbreaks of new diseases and constructing infrastructure to protect against even the most remote dangers. Chairs and other objects require some amount of triage (“okay, everyone in the world is fed — we can start building comfortable chairs now” — “no, wait, we still can’t cure *all* forms of cancer! and we still haven’t banked up our defenses against asteroid impacts or supervolcanoes!”), which, by definition, is impossible if we’re making that sort of collective judgement.

    This is, of course, an extremist position, but it’s one that’s *mandatory* if one wishes to believe that “people are more important than chairs” is not just a moral law (as even virtually all religions believe) but one that’s physically guaranteed by science.

  • Chunky Style

    Oatmeal guy is also playing the “false equivalence” card, between conservatives who vote according to how Jesus-y a candidate is and liberals who vote according to how not-Jesus-y a candidate is.  I have yet to meet the liberal for whom the number of shout-outs to Jesus is of overarching importance.

    Even his stock list of liberal causes
    (gay rights / the environment / hybrid cars)
    is being held as comparably trivial  to that of   conservatives (Jesus / abortion / monster trucks).

    This will not be the first morning I have shaken my fist in the air and shouted: “Oatmeal, you suck!”

  • Tonio

    While I was put off by the false equivalence as well, I think that’e explained by the cynicism and misanthropy that runs through Inman’s work, not to excuse it but to offer some context. 

  • Anonymo

    I’ve never met someone in my life who felt they were insignificant and needed a boost by being told how important they were.  I’ve met dozens, yea, hundreds of people who thought that they were more significant than they were, and needed to be taken down a peg.

    I needed to be taken down a few pegs one time; thankfully, I got took down them pegs, realized my unimportance, and am now a bit better.

  • Lori

    Who the heck do you know? Seriously, you have never met a single person with self-esteem issues or who was just going through a period of insecurity about their value? Everyone you’ve ever met has been an egotistical jerk? How in the world did you manage that?

    Or maybe I should as, how the heck are you evaluating what people need and deciding that what they need is taken down a peg?

  • Anonymo

    The symptoms are pretty simple.  They rely on others to solve their problems for them, they consider their personal issues to be of wide or self-evident importance, and they consider themselves to be more competent or intelligent than the people around them.  Jerkiness is not essential; some of them are very considerate people.  Egotism and altruism don’t necessarily repel one another; in fact, they often collide, in the form of noblesse oblige.

    Why, what situation do you think calls for people to be taken down a peg?

    How did I manage that?  I lived in the kind of places where they live; hell, I used to be one of them.

  • Baby_Raptor

    Hi, my name is Candi.

    I grew up being told that I was meaningless because I’m female. Only male children mattered; at best I was a good bridal price and the hope of cute grandbabies. My grandparents wouldn’t even get me healthcare. It was a “waste” on a female. 

    Combine that with society’s image of non-anorexic women as useless and ugly, and a couple assholic boyfriends, and yeah. “Insignificant” is one word I would use on days when my low self-esteem is kicking my ass. 

    Is my case extreme? Yeah. Not everyone is raised by cult-like Christians. But I’m far from the only person out there who has trouble loving and respecting themselves. 

  • Anonymo

    The method to fixing this is deceptively simple.  First, you must pick some people who are worth loving and respecting, as a general rule.  Then, you must distill down what of their qualities /make them/ worth loving and respecting.  Once you have determined this, you must strive at all pace to acquire those qualities for yourself.  Once you have done so, you will be the person you want to be, and you will be independent the opinions of others.

    Of course, most people trip up around stage 2, because they ascribe qualities like ‘professional success,’ ‘wealth,’ ‘power over others,’ and the like to this scheme.  These are not qualities worth respecting, they are qualities worth coveting, which is a completely different thing, because coveting is inherently unhealthy.

    And the really crazy thing, is that those qualities that make one worth loving and respectful usually do not lead to being loved or respected.  Personal morality, wisdom, and clarity of thought and vision do not lead to worldly prosperity or camaraderie, but that’s the price we pay, and it gets easier once we realize what a good bargain it is.

  • Caravelle

     Um, no, the reason most people trip up around stage 2 is that people evaluate other people differently from how they evaluate themselves. It’s a property of human psychology. It can take the form of “I’m unlucky, you’re morally deficient”, but it can also take the form of “wow that person has so many positive character traits I must try to emulate”, forgetting that we all project an image, and that person might not be as perfect “under the hood” as you see them as. (and thus it can lead you to think perfection is attainable when even the example you’re thinking of hasn’t attained it)

  • Anonymo

    Why the ‘um?’  Were you straining to think of it, or were you straining sarcastically because you think it’s self-evident?

  • Caravelle

    I don’t think it’s self-evident at all, but I agree the “um” was probably on the sarcastic side. I say “probably” because I’m tired and I don’t exactly remember the mental context I made that comment in. I think I might have been reacting to the tone of your comment, that said things with an air of authority that contradicted the little information I knew on the subject, so I interpreted it as opinions being presented as fact, which I tend to resent.
    I sincerely don’t want to offend you with this by the way, which I realize is a pointless thing to say (especially when I started out with sarcasm, but then again I think presenting opinions as fact in this context is problematic, which I would have felt justified a dismissive response), but I’m a bit too tired to respond like a normal person so I’m trying to put all my cards on the table instead.

    So my question would be, what do you base the advice you gave Baby_Raptor on ?

  • Anonymo

    I base my advice because, in my (admittedly meager) experience, there is no problem, ever, in any situation that exists, has, existed, or ever will exist, that cannot be solved by following this formula:

    1)  Identify the problem.
    2) Determine why it is a problem.
    3) Determine what a problem-free or ideal state would be.
    4) Determine what differences there are between the present state and the problem-free or ideal state.
    5) Itemize those differences as intermediate stages.
    6) Figure out how to attain those intermediate stages.
    7) Tally up the cost in attaining those intermediary changes.
    8) Cost-benefit analysis on achieving the problem-free or ideal state, based on the cost of those intermediary stages.
    9) Determine whether the effort and cost of those steps justifies the end result.
    10a) If yes, get to work.
    10b) If no, learn to appreciate where you are now.

    In short – figure out what you want, figure out what you need to get what you want, figure out how you get it, decide if it’s worth it, and get it.  No reason to make things more complicated than they are.

    This is not my opinion, this is my deep-seated orthodox theological conviction.  Whether that’s just code for ‘strongly-held opinion’ is not for me to say.

    Or, as it’s been said, strength to change what can, serenity to change what can’t, wisdom to discern, etc.

  • Caravelle

    That’s all very nice and meta, but the post I was replying to wasn’t about problem-solving in general, it was recommending a specific strategy to solve a specific problem, and making specific statements about why some people fail at implementing that strategy.

    What were those specific recommendations and analyses based on ?
    And while we’re at it, now that we’ve got the “um” issue out of the way, what would you say of the alternate hypothesis I suggested for why some people fail at implementing your strategy ?

  • Anonymo

    Those specific strategies were based on the general principles of inductive reasoning, or to say, ‘it usually works for most situations, so I predict that it will work in this situation on the basis that this situation is essentially congruent with other situations where this has worked.’  In my own in-depth experience with myself, and precisely 3 people I have known in-depth in my life with whom I have had these discussions, the basic ‘goal-focus’ solution seems to work; for lack of evidence to the contrary, it seems acceptable to me that this method, while not guaranteed to be the best possible solution, will resolve itself successfully.

    If people grade others on different standards than they grade themselves, well, it seems to me that being able to project a sense of internal wellness correlates with internal wellness – that is to say, there are some people who /project/ wellness that do not /have it,/ but there are no people who /have/ it but don’t /project/ it.  Correlation may not indicate causation, and one could make the statement that ‘internal unwellness that misrepresents itself is inferior to internal unwellness that represents itself accurately,’ but that’s beyond the scope of this discussion.

    So, in retrospect, I do think you bring up a valid concern, but I don’t think it necessarily detracts from my overall statement – it’s simply another factor to take into consideration.  to say that some fail because of the reason I mentioned does not preclude that some fail because the reason you mentioned, or vice-versa.

    ‘Anonymo’ is a silly antonym; I’ll start referring to myself as ‘Hexep’ after this.  We are one and the same person.

  • Hexep

    In fact, it’s not even an antonym, it’s a pseudonym.  No excuses from me for that one, yeesh…

  • AnonymousSam

    Mine is an antonym though. Or maybe just an oxymoron? :D

  • http://lliira.dreamwidth.org/ Lliira

    What if someone needs something they cannot get? Are you going to tell someone who can’t find a job that they should appreciate being jobless, someone with cancer that they should appreciate it, someone with severe depression to just snap out of it? A woman in an abusive marriage to just up and leave when if she left she’d be homeless, and her husband has said he’ll murder her if she leaves? 

    I don’t understand how you can believe life is that simple.

  • Hexep

    Then what do you do, when you need something you can’t get?  Your choices are a) get it or b) make do without it.  If getting it is off the table, then you’re only left with making do.

    What do you tell people to do if they can’t find a job, have cancer, or are stuck with abusive relationships?

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    Wow, you must have only ever come across easy problems.

  • Hexep

    It depends on your point of reference, I guess.  All of our problems are easy compared to, say, the plight of the the Brazilian favelas, or copper miners in the Congo DR, or life on a rice paddy in Myanmar.

    I feel that you are objecting to something that I’m saying, but I don’t understand what it is.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    You assume a lot about what “our” problems might be. How do you know none of us are working in those conditions, or love someone who is? You’re assuming something about everyone reading this blog. How do you know that we all have the point of reference of the comfortable middle class in free societies?

  • Hexep

    Bluntly, because people with the point of reference of comfortable middle class (or even uncomfortable lower class) in free societies have access to computers, and are either native English speakers or have studied it well-enough as a second or third language (indicating access to language training schools) that this thread is essentially free of punctuation, grammar and spelling mistakes.

    Yes, I went back and counted.  I found three.  One was mine.

    If you’re a native English speaker, then you’re overwhelmingly likely to be from the United States, the UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, or South Africa.  With the exception of South Africa, all of these countries have a high human development index, putting them out of reach of things like favelas, rice paddies, and blood diamonds.  These countries have rich people and they have poor people, but only South Africa has any number of people living at under $2/day/PPP, very few of them speak English or have access to computers.

    However, there are lots of people who study English as a second language.  In fact, English is – to my knowledge – the only language in the world that more people have as a second language than a first.  But reading and writing cannot be taught through casual osmosis – they must either be learned in a school, from a teacher, or they must be learned through very dedicated personal study.  Both of these things require a level of education and financial security that place people out of the reach of killing famines and paramilitary death-squads.

    To address my specific three examples:

    1) Of the three options I presented, the Brazilian favela is the one most likely to have internet access, what with the brilliant work that President Lula da Silva did with Bolsa Escola, but I am told that the most common second language in Brazil is Spanish, not English – meaning that most English speakers would have had to study it on their own initiative, meaning they had some degree of private wealth and leisure time.

    2) Most copper mining in the Congo DR is done in Katanga province, which is, in fairness, one of the more developed regions of the country.  However, leaving aside the question of the language barrier – which I already covered in point number 1 – Congolese copper mining doesn’t pay very well, and Gecamines, the state-owned mining company, has been dealing with labor agitation, work-to-rule, and strike action for some time now.  This suggests that its employees are not making enough money as they feel they should, which means that they are probably on a tight budget, which means that they probably aren’t on the internet.  In any case, most of the mines are too far from Lubumbashi to make day trips into town to visit a netbar.  You can see them all on Google Earth; the Wikipedia page for ‘copper mining in the Democratic Republic of Congo’ has a list of all their lats & longs.

    3) I was in Myanmar as recently as February ’11, and I couldn’t access Patheos from there.  So that’s out.  Only 0.3% of Burmese have access to the internet anyway, according to the Global Post, and most of them live in Yangon – and thus, being city-dwellers, are certainly not rice farmers.  In any case, most Burmese bloggers would be Thudhamma Buddhists – as most Burmese are of any description – meaning they’d probably feel great sympathy with my points, as we are comrades.

    And that, O reader mine, is how I know.  Inductive and deductive reasoning, Sherlock Holmes-style.

    I don’t know what you’ll do with this information, but you’re free to the taking of it.

  • Turcano

     

    In fact, English is – to my knowledge – the only language in the world that more people have as a second language than a first.

    French too; nearly 2/3 of French speakers have it as a second language, mostly in Africa.

  • http://lliira.dreamwidth.org/ Lliira

    No, all our problems are not “easy compared to” the people you list. They may possibly be less extreme (though many of them are not), but that does not make them any easier.

    As for what I do when someone tells me about a problem they have: I listen. People are not math problems, and I am not here to solve them. Which is good, because life cannot be solved like math problems can. If someone asks my advice, and I can think of advice, I will give it based on their particular circumstances.

  • http://www.facebook.com/chrisalgoo Chris Algoo

    The opposite condition manifests as low self esteem and depression. It sucks!

  • Wingedwyrm

    The thing about “Signifigant” is that it only has relative value.  Meaning, you, me, my chair, God-if-zie-exists, all only have signifigants to.

    Am I signifigant to the sun?  Nope.  Am I signifigant to the people I care about?  To varying degrees, yes.  Am I signifigant to my chair?  Not in the sense that it cares about what I do* but in the sense that I effect its status.

    *If my chair does have the capacity to care about anything, I’ve been doing a grave disservice by using it as a storage place for my butt.

  • Lori

    *If my chair does have the capacity to care about anything, I’ve been
    doing a grave disservice by using it as a storage place for my butt. 

    Not if it enjoys or is fulfilled by being a storage place for your butt. If the chair could care about things it still wouldn’t necessarily evaluate them the way that you do.

    Man, it is time for me to go to bed. I’m finally wound down enough after work and clearly I’m about to cross the line into punchy.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    Thanks, Fred.

  • http://lliira.dreamwidth.org/ Lliira

    The Oatmeal gets it all wrong again. News at 11. At least this time he wasn’t treating sex workers as literal objects to whom you are allowed to do literally anything.

  • http://lliira.dreamwidth.org/ Lliira

    The Oatmeal gets it all wrong again. News at 11. At least this time he wasn’t treating sex workers as literal objects to whom you are allowed to do literally anything.

  • Gilbert Deer

    When was this? Sounds awful.

  • Beroli

     

    When was this? Sounds awful.

    http://theoatmeal.com/comics/hooker
    Warning: As awful as advertised.

  • Caravelle

     You don’t say. What in the seven hells was that person thinking o_O

  • Chunky Style

    You know, that hooker cartoon could actually be repurposed into something constructive, by a cartoonist who isn’t all “haw haw, hookers ain’t even human”.  You could, for example, just change the hookers to desperate people in Republican minimum-wage-less America, and you’ve got a thing.

  • http://www.facebook.com/matthew.steele.315 Matthew Steele

    I consider significance from the Bible. And also from, like you said, the words of Tyson. And one of my favorite quotes, from the great philosopher Dr. Manhattan, by way of Alan Moore.


    Thermodynamic miracles… events with odds against so astronomical they’re effectively impossible, like oxygen spontaneously becoming gold. I long to observe such a thing. And yet, in each human coupling, a thousand million sperm vie for a single egg. Multiply those odds by countless generations, against the odds of your ancestors being alive; meeting; siring this precise son; that exact daughter… Until your mother loves a man she has every reason to hate, and of that union, of the thousand million children competing for fertilization, it was you, only you, that emerged. To distill so specific a form from that chaos of improbability, like turning air to gold… that is the crowning unlikelihood. The thermodynamic miracle.”
    Yes. Anybody in the world. .. But the world is so full of people, so crowded with these miracles that they become commonplace and we forget… I forget. We gaze continually at the world and it grows dull in our perceptions. Yet seen from the another’s vantage point, as if new, it may still take our breath away. Come… dry your eyes, for you are life, rarer than a quark and unpredictable beyond the dreams of Heisenberg. Come, dry your eyes. And let’s go home.”(Taken from Wikiquote.)It’s also, on an unrelated quote, why I tend to find Alternate Universe fiction a little unconvincing unless there’s some other, greater force in the universes that explains WHY the same person is there.

  • Anton_Mates

    Course, the problem there is that a specific human being is no more improbable or thermodynamically miraculous than a specific rock, quarks are some of the commonest objects in the universe, and people are more or less exactly as unpredictable as Heisenberg imagined.

  • Grogs

    I agree that this covers “unique”, but I don’t get significant out of it. It’s like when the anti-choice crowd asks, “What if your mother had decided to have an abortion?” If that had happened, I would have never existed, so there would be no “me” for it to bother.* Possibly she would have had another kid, or maybe not. In any case, I suspect that if I hadn’t been born exactly as I am, the world would be worse for a small group of people, and better for another small group of people. The absolute and relative sizes of the two groups surely vary quite a bit from person to person, but I think it’s in those groups that we find our significance. On the scale of stars, galaxies, or the whole universe, I’m pretty sure that my significance, or even that of the entire human race, is vanishingly small.

     * If I really feel like screwing with them, I’ll tell them that I’d probably be in Heaven now because of the whole “age of accountability” thing (according to the LB theology at least), but now that I’ve been born, I’m a hell-bound atheist sinner. When your theology says that the only purpose of this life is to earn a ticket to Heaven, it doesn’t make sense to let *any* babies be born and risk hellfire.

  • LMM22

    “To distill so specific a form from that chaos of improbability, like turning air to gold… that is the crowning unlikelihood. The thermodynamic miracle.”

    Argh. As a chemist, that quote pains me to no end. Don’t speak of thermodynamic miracles unless you know exactly what you’re saying.

  • Morilore

    I don’t think that Neil deGrasse Tyson is saying that human beings are connected to stars, and that makes us cooler than we would otherwise be because stars are bigger than us.  I think the sentiment behind that word “connected” is to cast aside that whole disconnected, user-interface approach to the world, and see the “human” and the “physical” are the same thing.  Astrophysics and charity, covalent chemistry and folk music, quantum tunneling and family, are all sisters and brothers living in the same house. It’s easy to get alienated and see the world as just some kind of mechanical user interface, and see everything around you as just background noise, but it’s more than that.

  • Tybult

    This is one of the reasons Family Guy tends to tick me off. Every so often I’ll see, lurking under the surface, a sort of “we’re all trash” ethos that makes my teeth grind.

  • http://www.facebook.com/chrisalgoo Chris Algoo

    Maybe the premise isn’t that everything is more significant than everything else (on a relative scale) – for one thing, that’s logically impossible. I think it’s more of an absolute scale.

    Say a rock is worth 10 points
    and a Kenny G album is worth 1000
    and a person is with 100,000,000.

    Even if we’re all the same, we’re still all worth a hundred thousand points. Which is important to remember sometimes, either to inform our treatment of others, or our treatment of ourselves.

  • Turcano

    I really think the issue is the fact that significance is relative.  I may be significant on the scale of my family, my neighborhood, my country, and maybe even the planet, but I’m not significant on the scale of the entire universe.  Nothing I do or can do will affect life on the other side of the universe (if it exists) in any way whatsoever.  And I’m fine with that, even though I am religious.  But a lot of people aren’t.  Hence the “insignificant” remark.

  • Jay

      I may be significant on the scale of my family, my neighborhood, my
    country, and maybe even the planet, but I’m not significant on the scale
    of the entire universe.

    Really?  I’m not even significant to my town, let alone the planet.  I think it was Napoleon who said that graveyards are full of indispensable men.  When we die, for the most part the world goes on without us.

    I think on the snowflake and consider the difference between “unique” and “important”.

  • Turcano

     Perhaps this is where definitions become important.  When I’m talking about significance in this sense, I mean the ability to affect change on a given scale, and that the larger the scale becomes, the smaller a person’s significance becomes.  My significance on the global scale may be extraordinarily tiny, but it still exists.

  • arcseconds

     I’m not sure how much I’m a fan of measuring a person’s worth by how statistically rare they are.

    That kind of suggests that if there’s another arcseconds out there exactly like me, which there could well be given certain assumptions about the cosmos (if our universe is an enormous finite state machine and there are lots of them, for example) , then I don’t have the worth I think I have because I’m not as rare as i think I am.

    And, if there’s one, there may well be infinite, so it turns out I’m worthless after all.

  • Turcano

    You really want your mind blown?  There are believed to be 10^80 particles in the known universe.  If the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics holds, a universe is created from this one every time one or more of those particles changes.  This means that there are 10^80!* new universes are created from this one every Planck time, which is 10^-43 seconds.  As another Planck time passes, each of those universes creates another 10^80! universes, and so on.

    *For those unfamiliar with factorials, 5! = 5 x 4 x 3 x 2 x 1 = 120.

  • http://stealingcommas.blogspot.com/ chris the cynic

    But wouldn’t a certain segment of changes bring previously distinct universes back into alignment with one another causing them to collapse into a single universe and thus shaving a tiny amount off that number?

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    Well, you could argue that the many-worlds intepretation ends up with a wide variety of universes that mostly look the same, with only a comparative few that diverge wildly due to some critical decision or event occurring differently.

  • Turcano

    I guess that depends on whether a universe is considered unique just at this moment in time or throughout its history, and most of the opinions from quantum physicists lean towards the latter.

  • http://stealingcommas.blogspot.com/ chris the cynic

    I know that it’s already been brought up, but a lot of people suffer from depression, and feeling insignificant can be a big part of that.

    Fred’s post could easily fit alongside the posts Ana Mardoll has been making about depression (I think the first one is here.)  They don’t have their own tag, they’re included amoug the health posts.

    Some people need to be reminded that they are significant.  If you have never been one of those people, good for you, if you say you’ve never met one I find that hard to believe but I’ll take your word.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_FRDTPMBW7IBKWIU3763AI6FYOM Steve

    I suppose one might consider us significant from our own point of view, but of course, that would seem to be true of everything–or at least all life.
    If you look at relative importance as a measure of significance, the sun is pretty much at the top of the list for our existence, as it makes possible everything with any bearing on us.  There’s not much else without which all of that would come to an end.
    In comparison to that, we as individuals–or as a whole, really, aren’t much of a blip on the scale of significance.

  • Wednesday

    @7aa2bc9643f2b2b7886f77927c3a25e8:disqus

    And some people trip up at stage three because some things are harder for some people than others. I really admire people who are able to read facial expressions well and then adjust their conversation to help people who are ill-at-ease.

    Me, I cannot continually look at people’s faces during conversation. I can force myself to fake eyecontact for a while (looking at noses, ears, foreheads, etc), but the effort burns me out so completely that I regress in other, more important skills. If I worked on nothing else, and didn’t have other major stressors in my life, I probably could overcome this eventually. But that would mean putting other, more important things on hold for years.

    So instead I accept that it’s not worth it to try to be one of those people who reads expressions well, and I work on other things that are more accessible.

  • Tonio

    <blockquote.You are completely significant. Don’t let anyone tell you different.

    Is Fred saying that we’re objectively significant?. We have nothing that indicates that the universe is anything but indifferent to our existence.  But I would agree that we’re significant because we say so. Does what I’m describing amount to relative significance? It may not matter to the universe if you’re significant in the life of a child, but it matters to you, to that child, and to anyone else whose lives are touched by that action.

    I suspect that creationism and the theology behind it really amount to a human-centered universe, where we’re allegedly the whole reason anything exists. Maybe creationism has been pushed so much this last century because that principle has been undermined by not just natural selection but also astronomy. It may be no accident that the Scopes trial was only a year after Hubble’s discovery of other galaxies.

    I can force myself to fake eyecontact for a while (looking at noses, ears, foreheads, etc), but the effort burns me out so completely that I regress in other, more important skills. 

    I practice the same thing.  I’m very uncomfortable with eye contact. I’m not exactly sure why, but it always feels like I’m in trouble, or like I’m being scrutinized and will be punished if I make an error. 

  • Damanoid

    It’s a terribly unsettling thing to learn that other people might be as significant as you.

    Contrariwise: everything we know is made of stars; but only we can know we are made of stars.

  • Worthless Beast

    I was looking at this thread and the comic last night.  I also think the Oatmeal gets the “Would you die for your religion” part wrong, too, as do many, many people.  Sure, some people die stupidly for stupid things, and cult suicides happen, but no one seems to bat an eyelash if one dies for “secular” beliefs like Freedom, or Justice.  An American martyr for civil rights is likely to be praised (years after the fact, by people who aren’t of the kind who killed him), while someone standing up for their religious freedom in Iran gets sneered at by modern Americans who hear of the story for “dying for something as dumb as religion” rather than “pretending to toe the line like I would” – which honestly leads me to believe that not only are there are a lot of cowards in the world, but people who don’t seem to register that maybe someone like that *is* dying for all the closeted atheists in his country, too because it’s really more about the right to be who you are and freedom in those kind of cases. 
     
    As for significance… well, being made of stardust is poetic and all, but it doesn’t really help me when I’m battling the depressive side of my disorder.  You see, the human idea of “worth” is relative.  It’s cool that that I’m a statistical miracle and that I can look up at a night sky and think “I’m a part of that,” and that I have a connection to all of life – but you know what? I eat other living things.  Hitler was a human, too.  I may be in one way “significant” yet can still remain “insignificant” in that – am I really doing my “best” humanity-wise?  I like to hold on to what I think of as the “Mr. Rodgers Myth”  (you are unique, you are special just by being you), but, ultimately and always, I realize how candy-coated it is. 
     
    Weirdly, a thing that has helped me is… really morbid.  I currently live next to a cemetery.  Walks in it remind me that, whether or not there is an actual afterlife of any sort (I’m hoping that if there’s not one that my brain, in its dying throes will give me at least the illusion of a positive one so I don’t know the difference)… well, you know, even if there is an objective Heaven, here is the only chance we really have to be ourselves, *here.* Yet, there really is no such thing as “winning at life” because we all wind up at the same finish line.  I know it’s probably weird to be comforted by this, but I am comforted by the thought that all the people who are “better” than me or at least think they are – all of the “winners” in life are going to wind up just like this *points to self* loser: tombstones.   Do kindness, run your race with grace, but at the end, know that you share space with the beaten and the broken, the genius and the idiot alike.

  • http://guy-who-reads.blogspot.com/ Mike Timonin


    everything we know is made of stars; but only we can know we are made of stars.
     
    Some people have argued that this is what makes us* (as a species, if not individuals**) significant. We are the part of the Universe that can look at the Universe and know that we are looking at the Universe. And since we are part of that, we are the Universe looking at itself, and knowing that we are looking at ourselves. And vice versa. ***

    * and any other sentient folks out there, because, why not? 
    ** someone else has suggested that what makes us significant as individuals is that never in history or in the future has/will there been/be anyone who thinks, acts, looks like us as an individual. It’s a limited uniqueness, but it’s there.
    *** If you are a process theist, you can be a little more grandiose and say “we are God’s/the gods/the Universe’s hands, feet, eyes, voice, etc.” Or,
    “Only God says jump
    So I set the time
    ‘Cause if he ever saw her
    It was through these eyes of mine!
    And if he ever suffered it was me who did his crying”

  • http://www.nicolejleboeuf.com/index.php Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little

    “Only God says jump
    So I set the time
    ‘Cause if he ever saw her
    It was through these eyes of mine!
    And if he ever suffered it was me who did his crying”

    All the hearts and flowers for the Concrete Blonde quote. I always loved that verse, even if it made me cry. Always seemed like a good emotional rebuttal to the idea of “this tragedy was actually God’s will.”

  • http://guy-who-reads.blogspot.com/ Mike Timonin


    All the hearts and flowers for the Concrete Blonde quote. I always loved that verse, even if it made me cry. 

    I love that song.

  • http://twitter.com/gndwyn Urthman

    This is just confusion about grammar.  If someone said “Am I recognized?” we’d realize the question only makes sense if you clarify “Recognized by whom?”

    “Am I significant?” is exactly the same sort of question.  It’s a nonsense question unless you clarify, “Significant to whom?” 

    Fred claims, “You are completely significant. Don’t let anyone tell you different.”  but this statement is nonsense unless he answers “Significant to whom?”

  • http://dpolicar.livejournal.com/ Dave

     I can tell you that I am loved, and not tell you who loves me, and still have conveyed information.

    I can have faith that I am loved, without having any idea at all who loves me. (Of course, I might be wrong; maybe nobody loves me. I can have the faith nevertheless. It’s not meaningless in this case, merely false.)

    Similarly, I can be reassured by the thought that I am significant, even if I don’t know or even think about who or what I am significant to, or what I signify to it/them. Again, in this case I might be _wrong_, but I’m not speaking nonsense.

  • LMM22

    I can tell you that I am loved, and not tell you who loves me, and still have conveyed information…Similarly, I can be reassured by the thought that I am significant, even if I don’t know or even think about who or what I am significant to, or what I signify to it/them. The issue here is that ‘significant’ and ‘loved’ are both transitive verbs, but they call for very different objects. The object of “love” is a specific item. “Significant” demands a scale.

  • http://dpolicar.livejournal.com/ Dave

     

    “Significant” demands a scale.

    I’m not sure it does, actually.

    When I am most depressed, the belief that I am significant to certain people — that I matter to them, that my presence in their lives makes a difference to their lives, that they care whether or not I exist — is one of the things that keeps me going.

    And I certainly seem to treat my presumed significance to them much the same way the presumption of love… sure, I could press for details in both cases (“do you really love me? how much? how do you know?” etc.) but I generally don’t; I am satisfied merely to know that I am in this relationship to another person. (Or, if I’m dis-satisfied, I’m aware that getting more precise answers to those questions won’t really help.)

    Of course, maybe that’s an aberration of mine, and everyone else treats significance as you describe here, as subcategorizing differently from love. I can really only speak to my own experience here.

  • LMM22

    When I am most depressed, the belief that I am significant to certain people — that I matter to them, that my presence in their lives makes a difference to their lives, that they care whether or not I exist — is one of the things that keeps me going.

    Ok, significance as a *concept* may not demand a scale. But the statement “I am significant” — which you were comparing to “I am loved” — definitely does.

  • http://dpolicar.livejournal.com/ Dave

    Again, there are occasions when I understand “I am significant” to mean that I signify something to someone… that is, when I understand it to imply the existence of a relationship.

    But, again, my usage certainly isn’t definitive, and perhaps I’m simply using the statement incorrectly.

  • Guest

    Well it’s his blog so I assumed he meant significant to him.

  • http://www.nicolejleboeuf.com/index.php Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little

    But it is not only a Christian belief. It’s something my
    sect happens to believe, but not because it’s a sectarian idea.
    Everybody else believes this too.

    Everybody. Not for sectarian reasons, but because it’s true. People are significant. People matter. All of them. All of us. You are significant. You matter.

    That’s not just a sectarian belief I learned from Christianity. It’s also
    something I learned from Carl Sagan. And from Neil DeGrasse Tyson.

    And from any number of Doctor Who episodes where the Doctor gives a beautiful speech about “one little human being — that’s the most important thing in the universe.”

    Some fans find that theme a bit cheesy and twee, but I think it’s absolutely essential. It’s what the show is about. And sometimes it’s just good to hear it said.

  • Jay

    I am, at least, statistically significant, in that measurements justify 95% or greater confidence that I exist.

  • AnonymousSam

    Wait, wait, wait… Christianity tells us that we’re not insignificant? This, the religion which gave us such song lyrics as “how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me“? The religion which gave us such prose as Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, which expounded on how vile humans are and how right God would be to smash us into the dirt, and how we’d deserve every second of agonizing torment in Hell? The one which gave us the concept of how every human on Earth, forever and ever, is almost irredeemably stained by the things their hypothetical ancestors did at the beginning of time?

    Did I step into a different paradigm again?

  • http://dpolicar.livejournal.com/ Dave

     

    Did I step into a different paradigm again?

    Yeah, pretty much. Fred devotes a fair amount of time and energy to modeling a fairly different understanding of Christianity than what Edwards wrote about.

  • AnonymousSam

    I know he believes in a Christianity which focuses on the virtues of humanity and not upon condemning it, but I’ve never heard the phrase “Christianity is responsible for my heightened state of self-esteem!” nor anything resembling it.

    If Fred was in charge of Christianity, I’d probably still be Christian.

  • http://lliira.dreamwidth.org/ Lliira

    In its very early years, Christianity was responsible for any sense of self-worth at all among a lot of women in it. Jesus and his followers said women were not just sex toys and breeding things — they said women were every bit as worthwhile as men, and had the same kind of souls. 

    Unfortunately, Christianity took a sharp and nasty turn when it was welded to patriarchal power. But even so, many women in the millennia since have found in it the one place in their culture that said they were not just sex toys and breeding things.

  • AnonymousSam

    This must have been before the many parts equating women to property were added to the Bible. All the “a woman must be silent,” “I do not permit a woman to have authority over men,” “take of the women what you will to sire sons” parts.

  • http://lliira.dreamwidth.org/ Lliira

    Most people couldn’t read. Plus, Jesus said everything was new, so much of what we now call the Old Testament could be discarded. “There is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus,” Jesus appearing to women, Jesus valuing a female prostitute over males in authority, Jesus sitting down and talking theology with women, Jesus touching and healing women, etc.

    But yes, much of it was before Paul, and especially before the codification of what we now call the Bible. A bunch of powerful men sat down and decided what would be called sacred and what would be called heresy, and they would kill anyone who said otherwise. And they did then proceed to kill anyone who said otherwise for over a thousand years.

    Even so, even after the codification of the Bible by a bunch of powerful men, even after they could read, many women often turned to the Bible for solace and inspiration. The entire Bible all together makes no sense at all — everyone picks and chooses. They chose those parts of the Bible that said, “you are human and God loves you, and God particularly cares for the powerless like you,” and not the other parts.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    The way the Bible is often applied by modern religious conservatives =/= the way it was necessarily applied at the time it was written.

    Plus, you’re comparing contemporary standards on equality to a very different culture a very long time ago. Saying that a woman must be silent in church now is a huge departure from the standard in the rest of my society. But in a culture where it was previously forbidden for women to participate in religious ceremonies at all…the emphasis is different.

  • Tonio

    Would it be fair to characterize Edwards’ stance as the theological version of battered person syndrome?

  • Brad

    Has anyone here seen (or heard of) the musical, It’s A Bird, It’s A Plane, It’s Superman? One of the songs (by the team that did Bye Bye Birdie) addresses this very point. It’s called “We Don’t Matter At All.” The first part is sung by a scientist trying to impress Lois Lane:

    Oh sure.
    Every hundred years or so
    We come up with a Ghandi
    Or a Michelangelo.
    Hooray!
    Ain’t that dandy, we say!
    Then we muck things up in the same distorted way!

    So here you are
    An ernest girl reporter
    And you think you’re something special 
    In this vast eternal sea!
    Baby
    You and I
    We’re just about as special as a walnut or a fly!
    We don’t matter at all!
    We don’t matter at all!
    We don’t really matter at all.

    And Lois replies:

    Wrong approach!
    To me I’m much more special
    Than a walnut or a roach!
    Oh, we matter, we do!
    What’s the matter with you?
    People really matter, after all!

  • Tonio

    I’ve never seen it and I’m a huge fan of Superman. I had the impression that the production was as campy as the Batman TV show that debuted that same year. From your description, the scientist appears to be a well-worn straw man.

    Do you think Inman might be invoking a similar straw man about atheism in an ironic or provocative way? He’s the same cartoonist responsible for Hamster Atonement.

  • Dedfg

    No, we’re all pretty much completely insignificant.


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