Do we matter in the universe?
Answering honestly opens up a whole range of possibilities
I love knowledge. I love fantasy too, but knowledge trumps fantasy. Every. Single. Time. Thus the question: are we humans important in the universe drives a lot of inquiry from me. Why? I was raised to believe that we are important in the universe, but I have since come to understand that is very likely a fantasy.
That fantasy may be entertaining in the place and time where I am right now, but historically, a very dangerous fantasy that caused a lot of murders. Is it permissible to murder because you want other people to pretend that your fantasy is knowledge? Of course not.
We are but specks, and the better the tools we make become, the more obvious this knowledge is to any and all given the chance to study it. We are specks or less on a universal scale. In fact, I doubt there is a human alive today (or ever) who can truly fathom the scale of reality.
Humanity occupies a very small place in an unfathomably vast Universe. Traveling at the speed of light – 671 million miles per hour – it would take us 100,000 years to cross the Milky Way. But we still wouldn’t have gone very far. By recent estimates, the Milky Way is just one of 2 trillion galaxies in the observable Universe, and the region of space that they occupy spans at least 90 billion light-years. If you imagine Earth shrunk down to the size of a single grain of sand, and you imagine the size of that grain of sand relative to the entirety of the Sahara Desert, you are still nowhere near to comprehending how infinitesimally small a position we occupy in space. The American astronomer Carl Sagan put the point vividly in 1994 when discussing the famous ‘Pale Blue Dot’ photograph taken by Voyager 1. Our planet, he said, is nothing more than ‘a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam’.
And that’s just the spatial dimension. The observable Universe has existed for around 13.8 billion years. If we shrink that span of time down to a single year, with the Big Bang occurring at midnight on 1 January, the first Homo sapiens made an appearance at 22:24 on 31 December. It’s now 23:59:59, as it has been for the past 438 years, and at the rate we’re going it’s entirely possible that we’ll be gone before midnight strikes again. The Universe, on the other hand, might well continue existing forever, for all we know. Sagan could have added, then, that our time on this mote of dust will amount to nothing more than a blip. In the grand scheme of things we are very, very small.
On some unconscious level, I would argue that our brains know we are insignificant. That is why our species makes up stories to explain away our true nature. We need meaning and story exactly because we’re irrelevant.
When our species first discovered that we lived on a sphere suspended in space, we fantasized that we were the center of reality and everything revolved around us. In the 17th century, Copernicus and Galileo proposed that knowledge indicated otherwise. The universe did not rotate around our host sphere. Our host sphere rotated around the sun, they posited. Only to be persecuted by the fantasists in power at the time.The Catholic Church in that time held absolute sway and punished those who, in their purported arrogance, decided that there might be different answers to life’s most important questions: why are we here, and why does it matter?
In the early 1980s, astronomer Carl Sagan hosted and narrated a 13-part television series called "Cosmos" that aired on PBS. On the show, Sagan thoroughly explained many science-related topics, including Earth's history, evolution, the origin of life and the solar system.
"We are a way for the universe to know itself. Some part of our being knows this is where we came from. We long to return. And we can, because the cosmos is also within us. We're made of star stuff," Sagan famously stated in one episode.
His statement sums up the fact that the carbon, nitrogen and oxygen atoms in our bodies, as well as atoms of all other heavy elements, were created in previous generations of stars over 4.5 billion years ago. Because humans and every other animal as well as most of the matter on Earth contain these elements, we are literally made of star stuff, said Chris Impey, professor of astronomy at the University of Arizona.
If you have not yet seen Cosmos, it aged well. Go watch it.Or watch it again. The question of whether we matter in the universe and, if so, why we matter has not yet been answered with any degree of knowledge-based authority. The pretenders keep pretending, and the fantasizers keep fantasizing, and we, the ones who value knowledge no matter where it leads, have a duty to work against the fantasizers and the pretenders because their utterances are impeding human progress in the name of what was once imagined long ago. That causes pointless suffering by retarding the development of knowledge. Knowledge that has the potential to solve problems that have plagued humanity since we built the first city.
We are made of star stuff. That means we must understand what’s out there among all those stars. Let’s stop pretending otherwise. We can go backward into theocratic fascism, but I would prefer we move forward into a future where humans value facts more than old fantasies. We have the means to see. Let’s not allow endemic blindness.
Evolving Together is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.