Saturday, June 15, 2013

Are we cosmically insignificant?



Many people are concerned about our size and status in the universe. The universe is mind-bogglingly big, old, empty, and largely inhospitable to life; we are small, short-lived and confined to a remote and humdrum corner of it. This difference in scale is often thought to have some philosophical implications. In particular, it is thought to rob us of significance, meaning and value. But is this right?

I’ve looked at this question before, most recently when revisiting Tom Nagel’s classic article on the absurd. Agreeing with Nagel, I suggested that issues of scale have little impact on meaning, significance and value. If certain things possess intrinsic value, then their value is not diminished or eliminated by the largeness of the universe. I still think this is pretty much on the money, but a recent article by Guy Kahane on this very topic caught my eye the other day (h/t to exapologist) and gave me some pause for thought.

Kahane doesn’t actually challenge the position defended by Nagel (and myself), but he does offer a novel and interesting analysis of cosmic significance. I want to examine it here. In the process, I hope to clarify and simplify some his arguments, which should be a useful exercise for anyone with an interest in this topic.

(Rant: I usually wouldn’t say this, but I have to confess that Kahane’s article was one of the least enjoyable papers that I have read in some time. I’d be curious if anyone else shared this reaction. It could be that my expectations for a paper on this topic just didn’t match up with his preferred style of discussion, but part of me thinks he just didn’t write it that well and I’d like to know if I'm out of line in thinking this.)

Anyway, I’ll break the discussion down into four parts. First, I’ll tackle some conceptual and definitional issues, in particular the nature of cosmic significance and its relation to value theory. Second, I’ll present an argument that suggests that we (humanity) are cosmically insignificant. Third, I will argue, along with Kahane, that this relies on an implausible measure of significance (and hopefully I’ll be a lot clearer about the different measures than Kahane). Fourth, I’ll show how the inclusion of a more plausible measure of significance leads to an alternative argument, one suggesting that we might actually be immensely significant.

To give a capsule summary of Kahane’s main thesis (as interpreted by me): humanity as a whole may be immensely cosmically significant, but individual humans may not. So if you are looking for something to assuage your existential doubts, this isn’t the best place to start. But if you want to clarify your thinking about significance, this could be exactly what you need.


1. What is Cosmic Significance/Insignificance?
Since it’s nice to attach labels to things — if only for ease of reference — I’m going to attach one to the central issue in this discussion. I’m going to call it the “Cosmic Insignificance Worry” (CIW). The CIW is that, in the cosmic sense, human lives count for little. This is usually cashed out in terms of our physical smallness, finiteness, and geographical location. Humans, we are told, are tiny specks in an vast cosmic ocean. This is disquieting.

There are many evocative and poignant illustrations of the CIW. One of my favourites comes from a Calvin & Hobbes comic strip. In the first panel, Calvin and Hobbes are outside at night, looking up at the stars. Calvin passes some comment about how the universe seems to go on forever and ever. In the next panel, Hobbes replies that it makes you wonder why man thinks he is such a big deal. We switch then to the final panel, this time set indoors, with Calvin saying “That’s why we stay inside with our appliances”. It’s silly, but it effectively captures the point. There is something so existentially discomfiting about the cosmic perspective that it leads us to retreat to our small, cosy, human perspective. (This theme crops up repeatedly in Calvin and Hobbes by the way).



But what is the CIW actually about? What exactly is threatened by the cosmic perspective? Kahane identifies a few flawed answers to that question. I’ll just mention one version for illustrative purposes: the metaethical-CIW. According to this, the problem with our smallness is that it removes the foundation for objective moral value. But it’s difficult to see how this could be true. If there is objective value, then it doesn’t seem like the smallness or largeness of the universe would have any effect on it. It’s either there, or it’s not. The size of the environment in which it resides (or on which it supervenes) would seem to be irrelevant.

I think that’s exactly right, but it raises the question: what is the correct (or most plausible) version of the CIW? Kahane thinks the correct version speaks not to meta-ethical issues, but rather to issues of focus and importance. While scale may not eliminate or reduce value, it may affect which kinds of value are most worthy of attention. Indeed, this seems to be precisely the effect of scale on other things. A tiny pebble in the middle of the road, is not really worth paying attention to, but a large boulder might be.

This could be the basis of an argument for cosmic insignificance.


2. The Argument for Cosmic Insignificance
It seems generally true to say that scale has an impact on attention-worthiness. Kahane has a nice analogy for this. Imagine you are a historian writing books that take different perspectives. In the first instance, you are writing a history of your family. From that perspective, the medal that your father won in his school sports competition might be quite significant, certainly something to include in the book you’re writing.

But now suppose you are writing a history of your local area. Is your father’s medal worth including then? Possibly, but it would depend on how much of an impact your father had on local events, or whether he grew up to be a local sports star or something like that. If he was, then it might be worth including; otherwise it wouldn’t be. It’s too trivial a detail from that perspective. Now jump to the national perspective. Is your father’s medal worth including in the nation’s history? Probably not, but again it would depend on other factors. Events like this are typically not relevant from the national perspective. They just don’t register on that scale.

We can repeat the shift in perspective a few more times if we like, but the point is clear. As we shift scales — from the familial, to the local, to the national, to the global and, eventually, to the universal — events that once seemed significant begin to lose this quality. This is because significance is always judged relative to a particular context. Your father’s medal-winning has significance relative to your family’s history, but not relative to the national history. As context broadens, significance seems to diminish.

There seems to an argument here:


  • (1) As the context broadens, objects, events and states of affairs become less and less significant.
  • (2) The cosmic context is vast (perhaps infinite).
  • (3) Human lives are tiny relative to this context.
  • (4) Therefore, human lives are immensely insignificant (from the cosmic perspective).


This argument is seductive, but deeply flawed. The flaws emanate from the motivating principle (premise 1). This principle is terribly imprecise. Implicitly, it suggests that there is some way to measure the significance of particular objects, events and states of affairs, but it’s pretty vague about the actual standard of measurement it is putting forward. If we want to make any sense of the argument, we need to get a lot more explicit about how we are measuring significance.


3. How do we measure significance?
Significance must be a measure of the value or interest of an object, event or state of affairs, relative to some other property or properties. The crucial variables here are what is being compared to what. We need to pin those variables down to make reliable, consistent and justifiable judgments about significance. In certain cases, the variables will be easy to characterise; in others, much less so.

In the case of writing a history from some particular perspective, the variables are usually pretty clear. If you are writing you history of your own family, then the significance of an event is its merit or interest relative to the overall story of your family. If your father’s medal-winning seriously affected the future course of your family’s life (say: he met your mother at a medal-winning party), then its obviously highly significant and worth including. If it doesn’t have this connection to other events, it might still merit inclusion, but it depends on the competition. What other events are out there that might also merit inclusion?

So what are the relevant properties in the case of the CIW? Clearly, when asking questions about cosmic significance we are asking about our intrinsic value (i.e. the objective value of human beings) relative to some property of the universe. But which property (or properties)? For the argument outlined above to work, we must assume that the other property is the size or temporal duration of the universe (let’s just focus on size for now since temporal duration raises similar issues). That suggests the following measure for the significance of some object, event or state of affairs (SignificanceE):

Measure One: SignificanceE = Value/ Size of the Universe

This is a pretty odd way to measure the cosmic significance of an event. If intrinsic value is the first key variable, why should we think that this gets diluted by the size of the universe? Such a view reduces to the absurd. Imagine a simple block universe about the size of a football field. In the centre (or in the corner — it doesn’t matter) a small child is being tortured needlessly. There is nothing else in the universe. Clearly, this event is of great moral significance in this universe*. Now imagine a block universe the size of bedroom. Again, the universe contains nothing apart from a small child being tortured. Does the event suddenly increase in moral significance because the size of the universe has diminished? Surely not, but that’s what the above measure is saying.

The problem is that when you’re measuring significance you really have to compare like with like. So, when you are wondering whether an event is cosmically significant, you have to compare the value of that event to the value of everything else in the universe, not to overall size of the universe. Call the first variable ValueE and the second variable ValueU (where U means “every event in the universe”). That gives us:

Measure Two: SignificanceE = ValueE / ValueU

This makes a lot more sense, and avoids the absurd implications of the first measure. Take the simple block universe (about the size of a football field) and compare two versions of it. In the first, one small child is being tortured (call this event E), but nothing else of moral concern is happening. In this universe, the significance of the child’s torture is 1. This means the torture is of immense or total moral significance. Now consider a second version. In this one, ten thousand small children are being tortured. In this universe, the significance of the child’s torture (E) is greatly diminished (1/10,000). This makes sense. There are so many other events of moral concern taking place that E loses some of its significance. E competes for attention with other valuable events.


4. The Argument for Cosmic Significance
If we take another shot at formulating an argument for cosmic insignificance, only this time we explicitly use Measure Two rather than implicitly using Measure One, we end up with a very different argument. Indeed, we could even use Measure Two to make an argument claiming that humans are of immense cosmic significance. How would this work? Well, one thing that is disturbing about the universe as we currently know it, is how utterly devoid of life it seems to be. If we take it that conscious, intelligent and rational agents are the only bearers of intrinsic value, and that the universe is empty of such beings outside of the planet earth, we get the following argument:


  • (5) The cosmic significance of E (where E stands for any event, object or state of affairs) is equal to ValueE divided by ValueU.
  • (6) Humans possess intrinsic value.
  • (7) Nothing else in the universe possesses intrinsic value.
  • (8) Therefore, the value of humans (ValueE) is equivalent to the value of everything in the universe (ValueU).
  • (9) Therefore, the cosmic significance of humans is equal to 1 (which is the maximum amount of significance anything can have).


Premise (7) is obviously controversial. I can only imagine a nihilist denying premise (6), and they have nothing to worry about from a cosmic perspective anyway (“If nothing matters, then it doesn’t matter that nothing matters”). Likewise premise (5) has been defended in the preceding discussion about measures of significance.

So what can we say about premise (7)? Two things seem apposite here.

First, it could of course be true that there are other conscious, intelligent, rational beings out there in the universe. This is an empirical matter that has yet to be settled (concerns about the great silence or the great filter notwithstanding). If it turns out that we are alone in the universe, then the argument would seem to hold. If we are not — if the universe is in fact teeming with conscious, intelligent and rational lifeforms — then our significance diminishes. By how much? Who knows.

Second, it could be that there other things in the universe that bear intrinsic value, besides conscious, intelligent and rational beings. For example, perhaps all sentient life, or all living things (regardless of sentience) bear intrinsic value. In that case, the significance of humans would definitely diminish to some extent (since we know that there are other sentient or living beings here on Earth). But would it diminish greatly? There is some reason to think it wouldn’t, for even if these things have value, it’s likely that conscious, intelligent and rational beings possess much greater value. So humans would still be pretty significant. Much the same reasoning works if non-living material things possess intrinsic value (like, say, black holes and comets), though one must also note that it seems unlikely that these things have intrinsic value. At best, they are likely to have instrumental or extrinsic value.

A final point needs to be discussed as well. The argument speaks to the cosmic significance of humans as a collective. In other words, it measures the significance of every human being relative to the universe, not of individuals relative to the universe. This is important, because if we apply the same measure of significance to individual human beings, the situation remains disquieting. The significance of the individual human is massively diluted by the presence of billions of other human beings, with the same intrinsic properties. But then there’s nothing particularly “cosmic” about that problem: it would arise even if the universe just contained the Earth and the sun.


5. Conclusion
So where does that leave us? Hopefully, with a little more wisdom than when we started out. We now have a better handle on the notion of significance and the CIW. As we have seen, it is indeed implausible to think that the size and age of the universe have an impact on our significance. If significance is, first and foremost, a measure of our intrinsic value, then it’s very difficult to see why it would decrease in proportion to the size or age of the universe.

What is far more likely is that our significance decreases in proportion to all other intrinsically valuable things in the universe. This may or may not be disturbing. It depends on what else is out there possessing intrinsic value. If humans are the only possessors of intrinsic value, then they are immensely significant, even from the cosmic perspective. If there are other possessors of intrinsic value, our significance diminishes.


* This reveals an interesting property of significance. It is symmetrical with respect to negative or positive value. A highly negative event can have just as much significance as a highly positive one.

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