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.