In the overall scheme of the Universe what am I? Why should we think any of us are significant, much less important?
The raw numbers are quite mind-boggling and the implications undeniably disturbing.
- Each of us is but one person out of circa 7.7 billion human beings residing on earth in April 2019 [i]. This number is confidently expected to grow to 10 billion by 2050. (Projections as of 2019.) Given those numbers, can we each, individually, be significant in some fundamental way? If we are, how and on what basis?
- Our species, Homo Sapiens, is reckoned to be only one out of circa 1.74 million known species on earth [ii] and undoubtedly many more are unknown. (Projection as of 2019.) Is the human species more significant than any other? If we are more significant, in what way, what makes our species especially significant above all others? In this context, what does “significant” even mean?
- Our species does not inhabit the earth in total, for the most part, we inhabit a very thin crust on the surface of the earth. From the surface to around 500 metres above the surface in tall buildings. We mostly don’t even inhabit all the earth’s surface, just the dry land which is only 30% of the total and not even all of this. Sure, we venture above this in aircraft, below this in mines and in boats onto the surface of the seas. But for most us, most of the time we only inhabit a very thin “veneer” on the land surface of the planet. On the scale of the earth, we occupy a microscopically small part of it.
- Earth is but one planet orbiting around a star, which itself is but one of 100 to 400 billion stars [iii] in our galaxy, the Milky Way. Just how fundamentally significant can even the whole earth be?
- The Milky Way is in turn but one galaxy of circa 2 trillion galaxies in the observable universe [iv]. Again, just how significant is even our whole galaxy let alone earth, our species or an individual person?
- It is estimated (see previous reference) there are more stars in the universe than “all the grains of sand on planet Earth”.
- The observable universe is thought to be around 8.8 x 1026 metres (880,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 metres) diameter. Whereas we are all mostly less than 2 metres high. We are physically, utterly and completely insignificant in the scale of the universe. Physically we must, at best, be considered an infinitesimally small cosmic rounding error. Or perhaps there is more to it?
- We may consider, as an individual we have little, or no, impact on the earth, but as a species, we have a great significance. But, even as a species we must conclude our impact on the whole universe is, again, so small it is best characterised as zero. If we conclude our species is of zero physical significance on a cosmic scale, then what is our individual significance?
- We might console ourselves with the belief we are significant to our immediate circle of family and friends and at least known to our wider family and circle of acquaintances. But these numbers are small, negligible, in proportion to the number of human beings on the planet.
Perhaps religion may help us to confront these concerns:
- Maybe when thinking about your significance, you think of your God or your absence of a God. Does your God, or any God, exist and, if so, in what form and what is our relationship to God? Do we need a God to explain what we are? Are the religious stories myths and fables or are they factually true or perhaps factually untrue but subtly rooted in profound truths?
- If we are so insignificant on a cosmic scale why does God, the supposed creator of the whole universe, favour us, with his/her/its attention and minute interest? Why just our single human species on a small planet in a vast galaxy which itself is a non-descript galaxy amongst so many others? Also, why you in particular? Is this credible and if so why? Can you justify your religion, if you have one, as credible?
- We might ponder these things when we reflect on the super-abundance of nature, how it came to be and our place in it. Is it all the product of a God through divine creation, or do physics and evolution make a better, more compelling, account? If physics and evolution are better accounts, then what am I and where do I fit into this grand scientific scheme of things?
- When we look at our pets, do we wonder if there is a real and substantial difference between them and us; are we fundamentally different, fundamentally more important? Or are the similarities greater than the differences? Are we, as a species, distinct from all other animals or does our species occupy a position on a spectrum of all the animals and plants on earth?
It is when pondering musings such as these we consider the most fundamental question of all: what am I?
(Excerpt from the Chapter 1 of Modelling Mind)