I really like Brian Cox’s TV series’ on science, (predominantly cosmology), because he demonstrates wondrous facts about the earth, solar system and universe. I have seen how his shows appeal to a wide variety of people and I think it’s great, in this miserable cynical mystical soap-opera ridden and reality-TV infested culture, that the general public are still fascinated by the physical existence around us.
It is virtually impossible to describe, and literally impossible to imagine, just how vast the universe is. Approximately 15 billion years since we can say “time” in the manner we understand it, started. Our minds and bodies have evolved to see a slight fraction of the EM spectrum, useful for hunting/gathering on ancient plains, and building things to our scale of observation and interaction. The universe below our perceptual range is almost incomprehensible, but the universe beyond it is perhaps more so. One only has to consider the space between stars, and the staggering and ridiculously huge flight times between them to grasp that, in a very real sense, as much as we might ever learn about the universe, this, this life, this planet, this continent, this house, this job, are all we will ever know.
There are two ways of looking at this. The most common one, and the one I used to hold, is to realise just how tiny human beings are in the cosmos; to look at the age of the universe, and how long it will continue before motion (and therefore time) cease to exist; at the tiny slice of the temporal pie we’ve had on earth; at the enormous power the sun radiates every second and how all the manmade energy ever produced in total, multiplied a million times, wouldn’t come close to the fireball we orbit.
None of this is untrue, but the conclusion, the general feeling that many people take from these facts is: how small am I? How insignificant is the human race? Nothing I do matters. I am nothing in the grand scheme of things. But this line of thinking is unwarranted, because the mind makes a faulty presumption, a presumption based on our cultural value judgements and mindset. A presumption that almost all intellectuals, scientists, idealists and politicians make. A presumption that is so glaringly false, but only once it’s realised. It is the presumption, or idea, that all values must be values in the eyes of some external grand mover, i.e. someone other than us. But since all of us are just individuals, and none of us (we are told) is the arbiter of value, the actual arbiter of value must be no one.
Another way of looking at it is: if the universe were only 50 years old, would that make you feel less insignificant? If the universe ended outside the orbit of Neptune, would that make you feel less tiny? If every planet in the solar system had humanoid life, would you feel differently about your place in the universe? If all the stars in the universe except our sun died overnight, would your feelings for those you love change?
It’s easy to come up with rhetorical spiel to ease a lonely mind. It’s harder to actually believe it. But you should believe it, because there is no “grand scheme of things”. There is no god who gives your life meaning; who sees a phenomenal universe and yet chooses to value your little life; there is something far more relevant in play: you, who in all the mindless universe of matter, energy, waves, dust, rocks, and empty space – who can do what (for all intents and purposes) no other thing could do a few hundred thousand years ago: think. Think, judge, choose, create, love. Only a being capable of valuing can value. The question is not: what value is your life to the universe? The question can only be: what, in this universe, is of value to your life? Ten trillion trillion stars in ten trillion trillion galaxies, or the man or woman you love? The majesty of Saturn’s rings, ethereal dark matter, stupendous space-time defying singularities, or your family, your career, your passions, your goals?
“All of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again” is an oft-quoted line in one science-fiction show. In cosmology it is very true: all of this has happened before, and all will happen again. Stars were created, exploded, and died, long before ours came into being. The death of stars begets new stars, and planets. And if stars are ten a penny, or a dime a dozen, we couldn’t print enough money for them all. This cycle has continued for billions of years, and it will continue for trillions more. “And in all of that, and perhaps more, only one of each of us.*”
If a nebula, or ringed-body, or sunrise, or sunset, or night-sky smattered with stars – purposeless conglomerations of matter and energy – are beautiful, how much more so the chosen free conscious acts of humanity? The invention of the wheel, the discovery of electricity, the constitution of the United States, art, poetry, trade, and the source of them all, love?
The next time you find yourself contemplating humanity’s, or your own worth in unnecessarily humble terms, consider: “insignificant” – to whom? “Small” – compared to whom? “Worthless” – to whom? “Nothing we do matters” – matters to whom?
Life is what makes values possible. And for all we know, we’re the only rational life in existence. This means, the only values in existence are mine and yours. So we cannot be “valueless” transient specs of dust in this universe – far from it. In a very real sense of the word; the only meaningful use of the word, we are the most valuable things in existence. So the stars will go on burning long after you’ve died. The difference is: stars will never know any differently.