Clarifying the State of Affairs
Although geocentric cosmology has been abandoned for centuries, its philosophical analogue pitifully persists even today in the solipsistic and speciocentric thinking exhibited by persons of varied theological (and atheological) persuasions. The delusive notion of which I write can be understood as two intertwined components: (a) The cosmos is purposeful and (b) our meager species is of central importance to this purpose. Steven Weinberg, an American physicist and Nobel laureate, once observed, “In the same way that each of us has had to learn in growing up to resist the temptation of wishful thinking about ordinary things like lotteries, so our species has had to learn in growing up that we are not playing a starring role in any sort of grand cosmic drama.” The present composition is submitted as a corrective to human ego with respect to matters cosmic.
The first, and most important, realization to which a thinking person must come is that the cosmos—by all evidentiary indications—is purposeless and dispassionate…striving toward no goal, operating with no aim, hoping for no particular result. Some commentators have called the cosmos an immoral place or, in my own case, an unjust one; to do so is mistaken. “Good” and “evil”…“just” and “unjust”…“moral” and “immoral” are judgments that cannot be made in the absence of purpose; to declare the universe an evil place is equally ludicrous as judging one’s car to be wicked or one’s computer to be morally wretched. The cosmos’ utter indifference precludes all such characterizations.
Even if the universe does have a purpose—and there is not a single credible reason to believe that is the case—there are no grounds to suppose that humans are part of it. The universe, whose estimated age is 13.73 billion years (plus or minus 120 million years), long preceded Homo sapiens sapiens (estimated age: perhaps 100,000 years), a species that is a newcomer even on Earth, which itself is a tiny, long-forgotten-about speck of stardust. Indeed, Earth is just one of, conservatively, a billion billion planets strewn about the cosmos. The folly of thinking Earth to be cosmically important is exceeded only by imagining one’s own species to be so.
Let us make a few things clear. If a global pandemic were to strike tomorrow, and the entire human race were rendered extinct in 30 days, “indifference” would vastly overstate the cosmos’ concern with such a development. Bertrand Russell, a thinker who courageously rejected the temptations of human ego, remarked in “A Free Man's Worship” (1903) that it is very nearly certain “That man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labors of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of man's achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins….” The upshot, of course, is that, although our day-to-day travails seem to be of great importance, none of our deeds, nor anything that happens to us, is of any enduring cosmic significance. One day our solar system shall end, and it shall be as if none of us ever existed.
Must, then, we be consigned to a life of despair? I think not. Recognizing our place in the grand scheme—a place of supreme insignificance—does little to diminish the pleasures one may experience. The triviality of our existence, as a species and as individuals, does not make, for example, family vacations any less pleasurable. It does not make a joke any less funny. It does not make a swimming pool any less refreshing, nor does it lessen the succulence of a juicy steak.
Yes, we are subject to an uncaring, unfeeling universe. Yes, we are utterly impotent when faced with inevitable death. Yes, all our achievements and pleasures are fleeting, much like our existence as a sentient life form. However, our species would be in a sorry state, indeed, if mere recognition of this basic truth were to doom us to a life of despair.
The neophyte to issues scientific and philosophical should not let the abstruseness toward which these conversations tend leave him at a loss. There is but one life we have been afforded. I urge readers to live it to the maximum, wringing pleasure from wherever it can be wrung.
One never knows when the chaos out of which the cosmos formed might again reign supreme.