The Vastness of the Universe and Man’s Seeming Insignificance

 

Today’s guest post is brought to you by Chris Van Allsburg (no, not the children’s book author). Chris teaches apologetics and ethics, holds an MDiv, and is an MA in philosophy student. He teaches his children at home in the classical tradition, imbibing in Latin, Greek, Logic, and the good of C.S. Lewis. He loves Tolkien, sitting by the fire, and dreaming about being a master guitarist some day. 


 

My brother used to sing Randy Newman’s 1977 hit “Short People Got No Reason to Live,” all the while eyeing me with a carnivorous grin. My brother was tall, and I was short. I didn’t much care for the teasing, but I knew deep down inside that Newman’s tune was deeply flawed on a philosophical level. Ok, maybe, kind-sorta, not really. But there’s gotta be something wrong with saying that, right?!?

These days, in the scientific era, where gigantic telescopes and satellites reach into the abyss of the unknown—the Final Frontier where Captain Kirk bids us come along on a journey of no end, humans stand in awe and wonder at the immensity of the cosmos. Except for people who live in cities. They don’t really look at the stars and ponder the meaning of life. Bullocks for them.

Well anyway. Every so often, scientists claim to have found new galaxies, new planets, new star systems, and the universe gets bigger and bigger and bigger, thus making the significance of human beings (or, ‘man’) smaller and smaller and smaller. The late atheist astronomer Carl Sagan referred to the planet earth as a “Pale Blue Dot,” and many people today, more than your categorical village atheist, have no doubt as to man’s insignificance in the cosmos.  Surely we are so infinitesimally small that we cannot matter, and surely we mustn’t be so arrogant as to think we are the only intelligent life-forms in the universe (and maybe there’s a ‘multi-verse’—who knows?); we cannot have any claim as to being special in any way. Surely not.

But this line of thinking conflates man into one, merging monolith with the rest of the cosmos. We should ask therefore what kind of creature man is. Well, man is a contingent being, and many astronomers, cosmologists, and a broad section of the populace think man is really nothing special in lieu of the vast reaches of outer space.  

However, philosopher Jacques Maritain, in his St. Thomas and the Problem of Evil, suggests that the created order is a hierarchy of contingent beings. The key to understanding the significance of man is seen in that while the stars, planets, moons, galaxies, and so on are quantified in terms of being bigger than man, man is a higher being in terms of his quality (traits, properties, characteristics). As made in the image of God, man is certainly more significant: man is sentient, has consciousness, is self-directed, and self-aware.  

Do the stars do such things? Do the planets make plans, write poetry, sing songs, put flowers in vases of crystal?

Even dogs don’t play poker (though I’ve seen those posters in the basements of baby-boomers). Anyway, common sense and sense-perception tell us that man is indeed special, and is a higher order of being. In fact, man is the highest order of being comprehended by sense-perception (of course, there’s angels, but … you get the idea).

The modern notion, therefore, of standing in awe of the vastness of the universe and concluding that planet Earth and the people on it are insignificant is improperly construed in terms of quantification of material being, as opposed to how it should be construed: in terms of the qualification of being.

A hierarchy of being sees differences in quality and ranks those beings accordingly. Attributing quality to beings in the universe therefore places man at the apex of sensible beings (things detected by the senses) and makes irrelevant the quantitative insignificance of man understood as having little value simply due to the vastness of space.  

In short, simply because man is small, it doesn’t follow that he is insignificant. Man, as a thinking being, having rationality, will, emotions, etc. surely places him on top of the mountain of contingent beings, no matter how many of those beings there are (stars, moons, etc.) and no matter how big they are either.  

And, if you’re a short person, you do have a reason to live. So tell that to Randy Newman—you’re on the apex of the hierarchy of contingent beings!

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