It is a mistake to conclude from here that our planet and we, as a species, matter much less than we thought
You have probably heard a talk in which a well-meaning speaker showed the audience photos of distant galaxies. The universe is vast, and the number of stars and planets in it is overwhelming to the human mind. Earth is minuscule in comparison with lofty celestial bodies, and our closest star—the Sun—is not that impressive, either. Nor do we occupy a special place in space: We are not in the center of things, and the rest of the universe does not revolve around us. Our location is, in fact, utterly unremarkable. What follows from all of this for our self-conception?
When pictures of galaxies are shown to an audience, the aim is typically to suggest that we, humans, do not matter much. Our predecessors imagined humanity to be the pinnacle of creation, placed at the center of it all by a god who cares about us, but that idea was due to hubris.
I suspect it was mainly weak powers of observation that led people in the past to suppose that our planet is stationary and that other celestial bodies revolve around it, but we can bracket this issue here. It is also unclear that the god hypothesis can be plausibly seen as an expression of undue pride, since, depending on the details, it requires accepting that while wemay be flawed, a perfect being exists and is a fit object of worship. A god hypothesis may, thus, be more humbling than that of a godless universe. But that is not what I wish to talk about, either. What interests me here is what conclusion we ought to draw in light of learning more about our place in the cosmos, not why predecessors who knew less than we currently do made different conjectures.
The first point to note is that the question of human mattering in the cosmos is a peculiar one. Typically, matterings are relative and involve a comparison. When we say that something matters less than we thought, we mean to imply that other things matter more. If you say material possessions matter less than someone thinks, you imply that something else—perhaps friendship, love or creative realization—is more important. If you assert that the social or professional status of a romantic partner are not important, you allege that other qualities—interestingness, maybe, or reliability, or lack of neuroticism—are more valuable. But in the universe as a whole, nothing competes with human concerns and interests except the interests of other species on Earth. So what does it mean to say that given the vastness of space, we matter less than we thought?
It is possible, and perhaps likely, that we prioritize ourselves too much in relation to non-human animals, but support from pictures of galaxies is completely unnecessary to make that claim. Other species on Earth, after all, inhabit the same small and allegedly insignificant planet.
It is sometimes suggested that we matter less than we imagined, because the universe is, as it turns out, indifferent to our fate. Regrettably, it will shed not a tear when eventually, we disappear, along with the planet we call “home.”
It is true that our inevitable demise will be met with no cosmic mourning, but it is not clear what follows from that, either. The universe does not favor any other planet over ours. It cannot. Indeed, since the universe has no capacity for caring, talk of “indifference” on its part is at best metaphorical: strictly speaking, it neither cares nor remains indifferent. And if it could care but favored, for some strange reason, a much bigger planet with no life on it, that would show a deficiency in its priorities rather than in ours.
Perhaps, though, speaking about the perspective of the universe is a metaphor too. Maybe, the actual claim is that we do not matter as much as we thought, objectively speaking. If the universe favored a bigger but uninhabitable planet, then that may be objectively misguided also, but the universe does no such thing. We, on the other hand, are misguided, from an impartial point of view. We fancy being more important than we really are.
Any individual person may think they matter more than they truly do, to their own family, or co-workers, or humanity. And as a species, we may have an exaggerated view of our rights and importance in relation to non-human animals. But it is difficult to see how the whole planet with all the life on it may matter less than we thought. In fact, it is not clear what the assertion means. Conscious life is the source of all mattering. So far as we know, there is no conscious life anywhere else, so no other place in the spacetime continuum, wherever it may be located, is of any significance. Numerous gigantic cosmic explosions are taking place at any given moment, and new stars—many much bigger than the Sun—get born, but none of that makes a difference to anyone (except, possibly, to people). It is a bit as though the universe is a series of special effects for a movie without a plot and without a target audience, going on for billions of years. The most remarkable known fact about it is neither its size nor the number of stars and planets in it but the fact we are here, along with the other animals.
I happen to have a Hubble Deep image au lieu of an art display on the wall in my living room. I enjoy the aesthetic appeal—achieved as it may be by the artificial addition of colors—but I also like to consider the larger perspective. There is something therapeutic about being reminded that all mattering has an expiration date. The broader view can serve as an antidote not so much to hubris as to neuroses."
None of this is to deny that pictures of galaxies put things in perspective. In fact, I happen to have a Hubble Deep image au lieu of an art display on the wall in my living room. I enjoy the aesthetic appeal—achieved as it may be by the artificial addition of colors—but I also like to consider the larger perspective. There is something therapeutic about being reminded that all mattering has an expiration date. The broader view can serve as an antidote not so much to hubris as to neuroses. While regrettably, paintings, plays and symphonies will vanish into oblivion, all pain will cease as well. We can neither do nor suffer anything infinitely bad. Anyone stoned to death in the Middle Ages would have been dead centuries ago, stoning or not. They would have been just as dead and just as forgotten as they are now, however their stories may have alternatively ended.
That will be true of all of us eventually, truer, in fact, since the oblivion without a trace into which the annihilation of Earth will plunge us all will be much deeper than that into which a deceased human being vanishes while there are still other humans.
It is true, then, that our planet will disappear at some point, and that everything that matters to us will cease to matter. But it is a mistake to conclude from here that our planet and we, as a species, matter much less than we thought. Since conscious life is the source of all mattering, unless there are intelligent aliens somewhere, or else we learn, in the meantime, how to terraform other planets, no other place in the universe matters now or ever will—not to the universe, not objectively speaking, and not in any other way. And if we move to another planet, that planet will be important only because of us. Once our planet with all the life on it disappears, gigantic cosmic explosions will continue, but that will make no difference to anyone. Nothing whatsoever will matter, possibly for eternity.
Iskra Fileva is an associate professor of philosophy at CU Boulder and associate director of the Center for Values and Social Policy. An earlier version of this essay appeared in Psychology Today.