Sunday, June 5, 2011

Gaining Proper Perspective

1. The universe is far older and unspeakably more enormous than the average person realizes. The universe was born 13.75 billion years ago, and Earth formed 4.54 billion years ago. The Milky Way is but one galaxy, among hundreds of billions of others, and the Sun is but one star in our galaxy; individual galaxies can contain hundreds of billions of—if not a trillion or more—stars, many of which are considerably more massive than our Sun is. Our solar system is an unimaginably tiny—completely insignificant—part of the Milky Way, which, itself, is just as infinitesimal, and insignificant, a part of the universe as a whole. Our planet is minor, and the star it orbits is ordinary.

2. The insignificance of our galaxy, our solar system and our planet in the scope of the larger universe is mirrored by the triviality of human beings in the context of Earth's ever-branching Tree of Life. As noted, Earth formed 4.54 billion years ago, with life's initial emergence on this planet having been pegged at approximately 3.8 billion years ago. However, mammals have only walked the planet for 220 million years; the genus Homo made its first appearance only 2.35 million years ago; and hominids bearing close resemblance to humans of today have only been around 200,000 years or so. This, of course, means that hominids bearing resemblance to modern humans have treaded the Earth for less than one-hundredth of one percent of Earth's natural history.

3. In light of facts one and two, we can say with sufficient certitude that humankind, as a whole, is completely and comprehensively insignificant in the context of the cosmos. Our galaxy is of no importance in the broader universe; our solar system is of no importance in our broader galaxy; Earth is but a minor planet in its larger solar system; and humankind—in the context of the broader Tree of Life that has been growing for 3.8 billion years—has just emerged on the scene this instant. Human beings happen to have evolved: Evolutionary forces were not “building toward” us; nor was our evolution a goal, pinnacle or conclusion; nor does our momentary perch atop the animal kingdom confer onto us unique specialness, value or intrinsic worth.

4. Given the comprehensive insignificance—of the Milky Way, of our solar system, of our planet and of humankind as part of the Tree of Life—discussed above, we can go one step further. If the Milky Way galaxy were to disappear tomorrow—sucked into a black hole the size of which no astronomer has yet imagined—the universe would look, well, pretty much exactly as it does now; the Milky Way's presence would not be missed. If the Sun experienced violent star death tomorrow, and its death throes obliterated the entirety of our solar system—including, of course, the Earth—the Milky Way would look more or less identical to the way it looks today; the destruction of our solar system would go unnoticed in our galaxy. And if human beings, in an inexplicable mass extinction, all dropped dead tomorrow, Earth, life and evolution would continue on in our absence. Earth is critical to us because it is our home; we, however, are far from critical to Earth.

5. Humanity is to the universe as a single grain of sand on a beach is to Earth; the entire species could go extinct in a nuclear blast tomorrow, and the universe would not take the slightest notice, or miss our kind. If humanity as a whole is of no cosmic significance, then it follows that no individual human possesses cosmic significance, either. And if no individual human possesses cosmic significance, then it certainly follows that no human action—whether it be deemed virtuous or wicked by those who would judge it—is ultimately significant, either. The Milky Way's formation was not a significant moment in the universe's development; the Sun's birth was not a moment of importance in the Milky Way's history; humankind is not a significant branch on the Darwinian Tree of Life. Importance we assign to ourselves and to our actions is subjective and comes from ourselves, not from objectively grounded cosmic significance that actually exists as a matter of fact.


Blogger Andrew said...

Would you be able to follow your world-view to it's logical conclusion if somebody murdered one of your parents? Or would you be upset and desire justice to be done? If the latter how does the concept of justice flush with your assertion that we are an insignificant race, on an insignificant planet, in an insignificant galaxy, etc...?

8:56 PM EDT  
Blogger The Jolly Nihilist said...

Although no human being -- me, you, either of my parents, either of your parents, the president, the guy down the block -- is objectively important or significant, which is to say important or significant on the cosmic scale, people are certainly subjectively important and significant to other individuals. My loved ones, although just as objectively insignificant as I am, are tremendously meaningful to me, subjectively.

If a loved one of mine was to be murdered, I would be grateful that, in the United States, murder is treated as a very serious criminal offense, for which strict legal punishments are prescribed. Although a person could kill another person, a million other people or the entire human race and that killer's actions would not have the slightest whisper of cosmic-level significance, the fact remains that, subjectively, to individuals, those victims would have been meaningful (again, on a subjective level). As a result, it would only be natural for somebody to channel his vengeful feelings toward seeing the perpetrator punished by our law-enforcement construct for violating the societal rules we've confected for ourselves.

9:33 PM EDT  
Blogger Andrew said...

That was a very eloquent non-answer. And yet it was quite enlightening all the same. Apparently the answer to my question "Would you be able to follow your world-view to it's logical conclusion" is no. Instead you have to pretend that you can somehow derive some relative significance from a cosmically insignificant reality. But your feelings about your parents (or mine about my own) are totally irrelevant if our existence in the universe is...well...irrelevant. Don't you see? This is the crux of the argument made by people like me (and much more skillfully by folks like Rhology). You could not actually live in a manner consistent with your own world-view. All you have in the hypothetical situation I presented is the subjective opinion of an insignificant bag of meat, water, and hair. You have to, at some point, assign a value to people, and ideas; but those values have no reference point and are therefore, devoid of any real meaning, significance, or force. You cannot live according to your own world-view and it is therefore, invalid. It doesn't matter how eloquently you dance around that fact. It's still true.
And yet, reality's author stands ready to forgive you of your self-worshiping denial of the undeniable. How good would that be? You could have your sins forgiven and as a bonus adopt a world-view to which you could actually hold consistently and still function.

11:39 PM EDT  
Blogger The Jolly Nihilist said...

There is no inconsistency in my answer and, thus, there is not much to do but to try to restate it more plainly.

My position is that the Milky Way is meaningless and insignificant in the universe. Our solar system is meaningless and insignificant in the Milky Way. Earth is a minor planet in our solar system. And, with respect to the Darwinian Tree of Life, humans are just another species that happened to evolve. On the objective, factual, cosmic scale, humankind is utterly insignificant and entirely devoid of meaning.

Denial of objective, factual value and significance does not in any way imply, require or necessitate denial of subjective value and significance. "This person -- as with the whole of humanity -- is objectively meaningless and without significance, but is nevertheless of value, subjectively, to me."

Am I an insignificant, existent-by-accident mass of meat, water and hair? Certainly. Is my closest loved one an insignificant, existent-by-accident mass of the same components? Indeed. Are my feelings for that person, and that person's mutual feelings for me, themselves meaningless and insignificant, objectively speaking? Surely. But, looking through my glasses -- experiencing my subjectivity -- a loved one is meaningful to me.

And I need not believe that importance and meaning is factual and rooted in cosmic truth to enjoy it, be warmed by it and acknowledge it.

2:30 AM EDT  
Blogger Andrew said...

The milky way is meaningless; but the little chemical reactions that are your feelings and opinions, which are an infinitesimal portion of it, are not. You can just assume that your subjective values are meaningful in a meaningless reality. I see. You really haven't given anything close to a cogent answer to my original question and I don't expect you to. Been real, Jolly.

11:39 PM EDT  
Blogger The Jolly Nihilist said...

Your latest comment, I think, is a case of either deliberate misreading or unfortunate misunderstanding.

You said: "The milky way is meaningless; but the little chemical reactions that are your feelings and opinions, which are an infinitesimal portion of it, are not."

It's a strange response when, in the comment to which you were ostensibly replying, I said this: "Are my feelings for that person, and that person's mutual feelings for me, themselves meaningless and insignificant, objectively speaking? Surely."

Then you said: "You can just assume that your subjective values are meaningful in a meaningless reality. I see."

That, again, fails to square with the boldfaced comment above, which explicitly states that these feelings, themselves, are meaningless and insignificant, objectively speaking.

You seem to be hung up on objectivity versus subjectivity, or, more specifically, you seem to believe -- fallaciously -- that denying the former requires denying the latter, as well.

11:36 AM EDT  
Blogger mehatch said...

Hey Jolly, excellent bullet-pointed summation, best I can tell i'm in total agreement. One thought on the moral question is, imo, morals are memes and/or strategies that are either evolved functions, or learned or invented ideas that are strategies for living personally and collectively, which for most of us most of the time have evolved parallel emotional foundations, rather than rules written on some magic tables floating in the sky somewhere. Some version of that explanation has done me well on occasion when having similar debates. Anywho, cheers!

4:43 PM EDT  
Blogger Lvka said...

This, of course, means that hominids bearing resemblance to modern humans have treaded the Earth for less than one-hundredth of one percent of Earth's natural history.

Or -as the Bible puts it- mankind was created on the eve of the sixth day of creation.

6:17 PM EDT  
Blogger Lvka said...

Aldous Huxley had this to say on the matter...

6:31 PM EDT  
Blogger The Jolly Nihilist said...

With respect to the sexual freedom portion of the quote from Huxley, I maintain—and this is a sentiment I, with gratitude, borrow from Sam Harris' Letter to a Christian Nation—that it is the height not only of conceit and self-absorption but also lunacy and absurdity to believe that, if a god were actually to exist somewhere out there—and we were to be that god's objects—that deity, he who created the cosmos, quasars and pulsars (not to mention all of existence), would be principally concerned with the intimate behavior while naked of one species of primate on one planet.

3:49 PM EDT  
Blogger Jamese said...

Hello again!

Some evidence you may wish to include in your arguments is that God is supposedly omnipotent, correct?

According to the best fiction book written in history, the bible, these events transpired.

God existed.
He created Lucifer.
He created earth and it's inhabitants.
Lucifer became jealous, and created sin.
Sin tainted man.
Man ate from tree.
God punished man.
WAIT! Why did God, knowing the past, present, and future, create Lucifer knowing what would occur due to this?

There's some logic that is within the bible, not even relating to science!!! That is simply Christian overlook and stupidity! Facts like these are what the atheist community needs to spread! Christians CANNOT deny their own scripture, without saying it is all incorrect. But they can argue science.

I hope this helps!

(James Eversole -

6:20 PM EST  

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