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  1. Insignificantly Unique: Bethel Bates: odykoxonotop.tk: Books
  2. Do we matter in the cosmos?
  3. Links to stuff on this blog
  4. Meaning of "insignificantly" in the English dictionary

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 observable Universe has existed for around 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 on 31 December.

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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. For Sagan, the Pale Blue Dot underscores our responsibility to treat one another with kindness and compassion. But reflection on the vastness of the Universe and our physical and temporal smallness within it often takes on an altogether darker hue. This thought can be a spur to nihilism.

If we are so insignificant, if our existence is so trivial, how could anything we do or are — our successes and failures, our anxiety and sadness and joy, all our busy ambition and toil and endeavour, all that makes up the material of our lives — how could any of that possibly matter? The sense that we are somehow insignificant seems to be widely felt. The American author John Updike expressed it in when he wrote of modern science that:.

Understandably reluctant, he is eventually won over by a song that sharply details just how comically inconsequential he is in the cosmic frame. T he pessimistic view, then, is that, because we occupy such a small and brief place in the cosmos, we and the things we do are insignificant and inconsequential. But is that right? Are we insignificant and inconsequential?

And if we are, should we respond with despair and nihilism? These questions are paradigmatically philosophical, but they have received little attention from contemporary philosophers.

To the extent that they address the question of whether we are cosmically insignificant at all, they have typically dismissed it as confused. The English moral philosopher Bernard Williams is representative of the dismissers. As he understands it, having significance from the cosmic point of view is the same thing as having objective value.

Something has objective value when it is not only valuable to some person or other, but valuable independently of whether anyone judges it to be so — valuable, Williams might say, from a universal perspective. By contrast, something can be subjectively valuable even if it is not objectively valuable. Provided that someone finds a thing valuable, then it has subjective value to them , though not necessarily to the rest of us. Williams takes it to be a consequence of a naturalistic, atheistic worldview that nothing has objective value.

Insignificantly Unique: Bethel Bates: odykoxonotop.tk: Books

Maybe you do too. But even so, Williams would say, it is valuable only insofar as we judge it to be. Its value is not an independent fact lying out there, beyond the reach of our opinions, waiting to be uncovered.

Since, according to Williams, to be significant from the cosmic point of view is to be objectively valuable, and there is no such thing as objective value, it follows that there is no such thing as cosmic significance. In other words, of a world that still believes in the existence of God. The question of what is significant from the point of view of the cosmos is incoherent: one might as well ask what is significant from the point of view of a pile of rocks. Is the whole worry about cosmic insignificance nothing more than a muddle then?

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Guy Kahane at the University of Oxford is one of the few contemporary philosophers to have written about these issues in detail. He disagrees.

Do we matter in the cosmos?

If, on the other hand, there is such a thing as objective value, then it would exist no less in an infinitely large, old and silent universe. Kahane thinks this is obvious. But if so, is it really plausible that we are making such an elementary error? Or is it more likely that there is something else driving our sense of cosmic insignificance?

If we are the sole exemplars of intelligent life, then we are of immense cosmic significance. Kahane thinks that there is a better way of thinking about the matter. But more importantly, the dismissers have misunderstood what it means for something to be significant or insignificant. Kahane argues that the significance of something is the product of two things: how valuable or disvaluable it is, but also how worthy it is of attention. The cosmic point of view encompasses literally everything in the Universe: the entirety of space and time, from edge to edge, and beginning to end.

From that point of view, we are nothing more than a microscopic blip, physically and temporally speaking at least.


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And this, Kahane argues, is what gives rise to our sense of insignificance. If not, we conclude, then we must be insignificant. But, Kahane argues, this is all too quick. If, for some reason, human life stands out as a source of value compared with everything else, then even from the cosmic point of view we might be significant. Since, Kahane argues, the primary source of value is intelligent life, it follows that our cosmic significance depends on how much intelligent life there is out there.

If the Universe is teeming with it, if we are just one diamond among millions or billions of others, many of which are just as large and bright, or more so, then we are indeed cosmically insignificant.

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If, however, we are the sole exemplars of intelligent life, then we are of immense cosmic significance: we are a single diamond shining forth, surrounded by nothingness, like an incandescent beacon of light in the Stygian night. If it is abundant, then we are insignificant and matter little. But if we alone exemplify it, then we are of immense significance even from the supremely broad perspective of the entire Universe. I s that right? I think that, like Williams and the dismissers, Kahane has misdiagnosed the issue. It is a striking fact that none of the passages quoted earlier expressing the idea that we are cosmically insignificant makes any reference to the possibility that we are only one among many communities of intelligent life spread throughout the Universe.

Yet it is nowhere.

Meaning of "insignificantly" in the English dictionary

Not in the passages quoted, nor, as far as I know, anywhere else. Instead, what we find are evocative descriptions of the minute location we occupy in space and the disheartening brevity of our temporal span. Worse still, when considering the possibilities that Kahane describes for our significance, it is easy to remain unmoved. Speaking for myself, insofar as reflection on our tiny place in the Universe leads me to the feeling that we are unimportant and that nothing we do matters, that feeling remains unwavering whether or not I imagine a universe full of life, or a vast barren wasteland.

In fact, if anything, things get worse when I contemplate the second possibility. I suspect I am not alone in feeling this way. A better diagnosis might be that when we reflect on our place in the Universe we find ourselves wanting on an altogether different scale of significance. To see what I have in mind, notice that something can be significant while being neither valuable nor disvaluable.

Suppose that a group of meteorologists is trying to establish whether a rapidly developing tropical storm will turn into a hurricane before it hits land. There is, it transpires, a large body of moist warm air 50 miles offshore, into which the storm will shortly collide. Moist warm air tends to intensify tropical storms. As a result, upon learning of its presence, the meteorologists conclude that the storm will indeed turn into a hurricane. When explaining events to the public, it would be perfectly natural for the meteorologists to say that the formation of the body of air was significant in the chain of events that led to the storm turning into a hurricane.

But there need not be any suggestion of value or disvalue here. The body of air, and, we may suppose, the hurricane itself, had no positive or negative value whatsoever. Only that which affects intelligent life has value or disvalue — or at least, only that which affects sentient life, if we want to include other species — and the land where the hurricane hit was wholly unpopulated; no human or animal concerns were affected. In what sense was it significant then? Essays on building, editing, and deleting content.

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