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In Praise of Insignificance

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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A couple of years ago, I attended my first Amaz!ing Meeting — an annual conference sponsored by the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF), founded by magician, escape artist, and scourge of fake psychics and pseudoscience around the globe James Randi. One conversation in particular stood out. A young man came up to me after a panel and said that, as an atheist, he always feels at a disadvantage when talking to someone who believes in an afterlife: “Our outlook is just so… bleak in comparison.”

I understand where he’s coming from: many people think that a world view that doesn’t involve an afterlife is a depressing option: why bother trying to be a decent, moral person, the reasoning goes, if there’s nothing to look forward to after death?

We were interrupted before I could fully respond to this young man — conferences are not an ideal format for these sorts of in-depth philosophical discussions  — but I do not think the lack of an afterlife constitutes a “bleak” outlook at all. What frightens people about their own mortality is the thought of not consciously being, and from that, perhaps, springs the human need to invent belief systems that reassure them that their death will not be the end. That, and an unwillingness to admit to ourselves just how insignificant we really are.

We are born narcissists, almost by definition, since we can only experience the world around us from our own perspective. In that sense, the world revolves around us, and no wonder the prospect of having our consciousness snuffed out unsettles us.

But empirically, it’s a different story. Before Copernicus, pretty much everyone in Western Europe believed that the Earth was the center of the solar system, with the sun and all the other planets orbiting it, and man, made in the image of God, ruling over the whole shebang.

There was a very good reason people balked when confronted with scientific evidence to the contrary. Accepting Copernicus meant removing man from his place at the top of the cosmological food chain. “The world had scarcely become known as round and complete in itself when it was asked to waive the tremendous privilege of being the center of the universe,” Johann Wolfgang von Goethe later wrote of the implications of a heliocentric universe to 17th century believers. “Never, perhaps, was a greater demand made on mankind.”

Until the modern era of space exploration, however, when the Hubble Space Telescope took this image of the Ultra Deep Field:

You learn to redefine vastness when you’re married to a cosmologist who thinks about these things for a living. Every speck in that image is an entire galaxy. Each one of those galaxies contains billions of stars, no doubt with countless undiscovered solar systems orbiting them. Somewhere in that vast expanse, floats our tiny blue planet. We are smaller now than ever.

Check out this famous image, taken by NASA’s Voyager mission as it passed beyond the edge of our solar system:

See that tiny speck of light, inside the blue circle? That’s Earth. In the dizzying expanse of the entire cosmos, we are so much smaller even than that.

If one embraces an atheist worldview, it necessarily requires embracing, even celebrating, one’s insignificance. It’s a tall order, I know, when one is accustomed to being the center of attention. The universe existed in all its vastness before I was born, and it will exist and continue to evolve after I am gone. But knowing that doesn’t make me feel bleak or hopeless. I find it strangely comforting.

Nor does it make me feel like nothing I do could possibly matter. Quite the opposite: everything we do matters a great deal. That’s the paradox. It makes our short time here on Earth incredibly precious, in which every moment should be savored. I tell my husband I love him every single day, because those days are finite. Fifty years will be gone in an instant from a cosmological perspective. Our choices, our actions, how we choose to behave toward our fellow travelers — random kindness to strangers — all of this becomes tremendously important when one embraces insignificance… because this life is all we have.

Photos: (top) Hubble Ultra Deep Field. (bottom) The Pale Blue Dot (Voyager mission). Source: NASA/ESA. Public Domain.

Note: This post originally appeared, in slightly different form, on my now-defunct Twisted Physics blog at Discovery News. Reposting upon request because it’s no longer available online (the archives were deleted), and because, well, it seems especially apt for Thanksgiving week. Remember to give thanks for your own insignificance and for every precious moment of your time here on Earth.

Jennifer Ouellette About the Author: Jennifer Ouellette is a science writer who loves to indulge her inner geek by finding quirky connections between physics, popular culture, and the world at large. Follow on Twitter @JenLucPiquant.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. Catalyst23 4:49 pm 11/22/2011

    Hi Jennifer, I have been enjoying your blog for a few months now. I noticed your JREF link no longer works. So I found the current site, which can be found at http://www.randi.org/site/

    Cheers!

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  2. 2. oldvic 11:52 am 11/23/2011

    My own outlook on this matter is, we are steps in the march towards ultimate knowledge, which may well never be attained but does increase with time. There’s a quiet pride and satisfaction in that.

    Help carry the torch as best you can for as long as your life is, and it will have been worthwhile.

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  3. 3. Jeandré 1:15 am 11/24/2011

    I don’t think every speck in that image is an entire galaxy – the diffraction spikes point to at least 2 Milky way stars.

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  4. 4. hungry doggy 5:12 pm 11/25/2011

    The article is not logically consistent. If there is no God and if there is no afterlife, then to be logically consistent, nothing you do has the slightest importance. If you don’t believe in God, your “random acts of kindness” are totally meaningless. The whole universe itself doesn’t have the slightest importance. How can anything you do have “tremendous importance” if the whole thing is just a random accident and if the whole thing has no importance. Zero times any number is still zero. If you are just going to disappear in death in end, then nothing you do matters. Divorced from any higher meaning, rather than “tremendous importance” your every act has tremendous triviality.

    Although science is a wonderful tool for discovering how physical reality works, it really sucks as a philosophy of life.

    If you insist on being an atheist, then at least have the moral courage to admit that nothing at all matters and that anything you do is totally without meaning.

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  5. 5. Wittsend 10:51 am 11/26/2011

    Hungry doggy: “Not logically consistent”? Have you forgotten the minor detail that we are multi-generational and have been for a few billion years? There is continuity (we are connected) with all those past generations, that struggled and strove to pass on their genes and their knowledge and their values to us. That is our meaning. And in the process, we will strive to make a better world for the next generations that follow us and improve our knowledge of our universe. As Carl Sagan said, “we are a way for the universe to understand itself”. What greater “meaning” could you possibly want? We are made of “star stuff”.

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  6. 6. Wittsend 12:08 pm 11/26/2011

    Part of the problem is thinking that “physical reality” and “philosophy of life” are in any way disconnected. But that disconnect makes it possible to have a philosophy that says the most important thing is your personal, eternal life outside that physical reality. Convenient for the religious powers that be, who can adjust morality as they deem convenient and keep you in line with that promise of your selfish forever-after. Classic carrot-and-stick.

    Better I think to realize that it’s just us. It’s always been us. We’ve always made the rules, as best we can. Perfection is what we strive for, but can never be attained, except in fairy tales. So instead we do the next best thing, which is to try to make thing better and better, based on what works. Not just for now, but with a vision to all those future generations. Religious elites have pretended that these rules came from “on high” and were eternal, but every one was spoken and/or written by people and were adjusted to suit the times and circumstances.

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  7. 7. MustIHaveAUserName 1:49 pm 11/26/2011

    That there is no after life is not a bleak prospect at all. It’s quite a liberating thought.
    There will be no more disappointments.

    I do not need to be an atheist to be aware that nothing I “do” has the slightest importance to anyone but myself. Meritocracy is a myth.

    If it’s cold outside, what I will “do” is dress acordingly. Such is my social and occupational significance that any thing I “do” will be of comparable significance to the decision to wear a scarf.

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  8. 8. quarkgluonsoup 3:12 pm 11/26/2011

    This blog posting would be easier to take seriously if it weren’t riddled with historical errors. For one, this author seems to think that it was only in the 16th century that people started to realize that the earth was round (presumably the author thinks this was due to Columbus) though this fact had been universally known since the 2nd century BC. Copernicus didn’t offer “scientific evidence” of heliocentrism. He was a philosopher, not a scientist, and his contribution was in resurrecting an ancient philosophical worldview that featured heliocentrism, and in making it mathematically coherent. Before the stellar abaration was discovered in the 18th century, the scientific evidence available pointed towards a hybrid of helio and geo centrism, the “tyrchonic system”. This is what most in the 16th and 17th century believed in, not the geocentrism of Ptolemy. The lack of an observed stellar parallax (only recently have telescopes been powerful enough to detect it) was a crippling piece of evidence against heliocentrism. Also, no one had a problem with the earth not being the center of the solar system for theological reasons, but scientific ones. Beneath the surface of the earth, they thought, was hell, and so if they thought the center of the solar system/universe was the most privileged place to be, then hell was that most privileged place. God was seen as beyond the heavens, and so he would be the furthest from the center of the solar system/universe, and the least privileged. This is theological nonsense, and is precisely why Europeans never thought it was preferable to be at the center of the universe, and had no problem (actually would have preferred) to throw out this worldview if the evidence pointed in that direction. This is a problem with people who know little about history and yet who try to write about it: they see the world of the past through modern eyes, and introduce modern biases into a culture that did not see things that way. You reconstruct a past that never existed.

    Maybe this blogger should have married an historian instead of a scientist.

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  9. 9. pete96778 5:07 pm 11/26/2011

    What do we have if we don’t have god(s)? The whole rest of the universe, of course, a very big and very interesting place. As far as “meaning” goes, as one poster pointed out, we have several billion years of evolution of which we hominids are the result and the benefactors. Our meaning comes out of our inheritance. In particular hominids have a strong social instinct along with great learning and abstraction capabilities so many people find meaning in making life better for their peers and descendants. We do not lack for substance in our lives!

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  10. 10. hilarie 7:58 pm 11/26/2011

    The theological critiques above are brainless. The historical critique is ridiculously academic — most blogs don’t have the luxury of 50,000 words and 10,000 footnotes.

    My criticism is more at the heart of the matter. I don’t think the obsession with afterlife has that much to do with what happens to *me* after *I* die.

    I just lost my closest friend, somebody who was with me almost every minute when I was not at work for the last 15 years. Somebody who gave me love, companionship, amusement continuously and without reserve. I am here just to say that yearning for belief in an afterlife is all about deeply, gut-wrenchingly wishing and needing to see her again. It has nothing to do with what happens to me after I die — other than the false promise that maybe I will meet her again then.

    Dismissing a desire for an afterlife as an effect of natural human narcissism is wrong. It is much more likely to be the product of natural human love and grief.

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  11. 11. dantevialetto 3:36 pm 11/27/2011

    Answer to hungry doggy
    If you think of God you must be linked of a religion.
    And you are thinking that time is going on for the eternity? Did you ever think that the afterlife will go on and on . . . and never reaching the eternity? So time must not be so infinite because one can’t reach its end, or its beginning. It is our small brain that can’t think that the time could be “round” like the earth and beginning just at its “end”. This is fantasy of course, but it is a way to not to think of a God and find in psychology a reason for moral behavior, because bad things done on purpose give a wrong reward which is poisoning and first or later one is paying the bill.
    Tolerance and respect one must use for other opinions, but not – at least for me – when such ideas are putting the world in danger. For instance, religions which follow the Bible are against contraceptives, and this is not helping the demographic problem.
    The human kind will be destroyed by religions, the dope of exaggerated greed to make a lot of money, and the stubborn pride of many countries like Iran, Hamas and Israel. All these opinions should be condemn, explaining why they are very dangerous.

    Enjoy the dawn, enjoy the sunset. If you are a sensitive person this is enough to enjoy life without thinking of a cruel God which make so many suffers.

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  12. 12. dantevialetto 10:05 pm 11/27/2011

    Worlds inside worlds inside worlds. Perhaps the universe is a particle in another world, and perhaps inside a particle there is a universe. But we are here in this world, and everyone of us has her or his personal physical and psychical world, every world turning around many other worlds. If the Earth was transparent, how big was Einstein seen through on the other side of the Earth? How big is a virus which are killing us? Is a virus insignificant?
    Nature (or God) is like a very beautiful woman, but very cruel. Animals are suffering like us, and even carnivorous are obliged to make suffering other animals. But animals can’t hope to save their souls. For me is more consoling to think that doesn’t exist such cruel God, even if a sunset, a dawn, a beautiful music or a marvelous panorama is making me to cry for emotion.

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  13. 13. Kaleberg 12:39 am 12/7/2011

    Maybe westerners value an afterlife, but many Buddhists seek to escape individual reincarnation and become one with the universe. Grokking the exact levels of significance I’ll leave to the theologians and numerical analysts. (The latter is truly a dark art.)

    The latest I’ve heard on Copernicus is that he proposed the heliocentric theory to preserve astrology. In a geocentric system, there is no way to estimate the relative distance of Mercury and Venus which punches a big hole in astrological forecasting since closer planets have greater influence. Estimating those relative distances is straightforward in a heliocentric system, so that’s what proper astrologers should use. (Check out the book reviews in the 4 Nov issue of Science. I don’t have the imagination to make this kind of thing up.)

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