In 1995, astronomers pointed the Hubble space telescope at a seemingly empty patch of sky near the Big Dipper. They watched that patch of nothing for 10 days, and in that tiny speck of space astronomers discovered 3,000 galaxies, each containing billions of stars. That number was a low estimate. When scientists repeated this process with longer exposures and more sensitive equipment, they saw upwards of 10,000 galaxies in that dark speck of the sky.
So, the Earth is not the center of the universe. Neither is our sun, our galaxy, our galactic cluster, nor our super-cluster. There might be no center. And if there is, we are certainly not at it.
Confronted with the mind-melting scale of the universe—which may only be one universe of countless—a series of nefarious questions may arise: what possible influence or importance can we have in a universe this massive? If our entire species and planet were to be wiped away, would it matter?
In virtually all human genesis stories, humanity has played a significant, if not absolutely central role in the cosmic drama. We are never the creators of the universe, but we always held a special relationship to whatever forces—God or gods—that created and sustain it. In the Western world, the dominant schema for this relationship was known as The Great Chain of Being. Originating from ideas put forth by Plato and Aristotle, refined by Neoplatonism, and becoming central to the Catholic Church in the middle ages, The Great Chain of Being placed humanity near the top of a hierarchy that stretched to God and the angels above and included animals, plants, and greater and lesser minerals below.
The Aristotelean cosmic model that had been in place for millennia had put humanity at center-stage of the cosmic drama. Now our stage, and we ourselves, were no longer at the spatial center of existence. And this had strong psychological ramifications. The more we’ve discovered about the universe, the harder it’s become to imagine we occupy some privileged place in its plan. Or even to believe there’s a plan at all.
The Copernican revolution was one of the first in a long series of scientific discoveries that would knock humanity from its central place in the universal drama to a marginal creature crawling on an infinitesimal speck in an unimportant corner of the cosmic theater.
Darwin’s theory of evolution shunted humans from the elect stewards of the animal world to a simple twig on a vast tree of life. Advances in medicine and the study of the human body have suggested we need not rely on the idea of a soul to explain our thoughts, feelings, and sense of self. The brain does all of that.
Scientific advances have initiated a series of earthquakes that have shaken humanity’s confidence—or perhaps our conceit—in our own sense of importance. What began with a simple switch—putting the sun at center of things instead of the Earth—has gone on to rattle our entire sense of purpose and force us to confront the thought that maybe—after millennia of assuming otherwise—our existence essentially means nothing.
Reckoning with this tidal shift in knowledge has preoccupied philosophers such as Friedrich Nietzsche, Albert Camus, Martin Heidegger, and others. Learning to live in a vast universe in which we seem to have no special role has been one of the preeminent philosophical and spiritual challenges confronting humanity in the modern age. But there are certain religious traditions which, rather than jerry-rigging new narratives that put us back at the center of the cosmos, instead offer ways to accept and live on with the reality of nothingness.
This series is adapted from the podcast episode I produced for the Ministry of Ideas. Listen to it here.