ARE WE INSIGNIFICANT?
Speaking as a nihilist and a non-believer, my search for meaning is never focused at imaginary beings but in a universal understanding of existence. In this, a challenge I often face — which my other existential friends share with me as well — is the feeling of insignificance living in an infinite universe. Knowing this, sometimes, despite all the good work that we try to do, life can feel worthless or even meaningless. This is something I think about, a lot — more than I should. Though usually it leads to existential depression, lately I have been trying to reason to a better argument. After all, we are responsible for creating our meaning. So, here is what I came up with. Let me know if it makes sense (or if you can actually buy it).
The feeling of insignificance living in an infinite fabric of spacetime is of two types: one that stems out of occupying insignificant amount of space and the other out of occupying insignificant amount of time.
MY INSIGNIFICANT SPACE
I am a speck of dust compared to the size of the galaxy in which our planet is housed. I am not even thinking of the universe at this point. The milky way alone is capable of diminishing me to nothing — a mere speck. The amount of attention you give to the tiny invisible air particle floating by you is what we mean to the galaxy. This, of course, when speaking only of the size: the space we occupy. For example, watch the video embedded below to experience the scale of the universe, or you can try it yourself here.
One day, thinking about this infinite range of the universe and the feeling of awe it inspires (tied with insignificance), one thought led to another and I started thinking of all the calculus I loved doing in high school. I thought of how sometimes the solutions to the equations depend on our assumptions of the value variables approach but never truly reach. It does not matter what their actual value is; what matters is its potential value. A simple example of this could be, if you are trying to solve:
where y → ∞ (read: y approaching infinity),
then irrespective of the actual value of x,
x/y → 0.
Because y is so massive, it is almost approaching the value of infinity, (even though nothing that can be counted can be truly infinite). So, x/y, because of y’s massive value, will always be insignificant, as if it is approaching zero. And even if x is, say, 10,000. Compared to y, its value is insignificant.
Now, let us say, w is also a large number; a number much larger than x.
Still, w is nothing compared to y.
Despite being much larger than x, w is also insignificant in relation to y.
If we are this x, and our massive galaxy Milky Way is w, compared to which we are specks of dust, in comparison to the universe y, we are both insignificant.
Our feeling of insignificance only comes from our comparison to others, especially things that are truly beyond our space of existence. Just like we are massive to the tardigrade existing around us, and they are insignificant to our lived experiences.
In other words, we are not insignificant just because we exist in an infinitely large universe. We are significant because we coexist in this space with others like us — those like us who understand these crazy ideas and the scale of the universe we are a part of, and are smart enough to comprehend its meaning (yet stupid enough to battle over insignificant lands to feel bigger). We can always argue that things matter, but they don’t really have any objective significance. Really, we negotiate the significance of things socially. Sometimes we invest too deeply into things, and that is ok. But we also need to remember that as long as life, humanity, and the world we understand is cared for with love and nurtured, everything else is secondary.
This brings me to the next type of insignificance: of time.
MY INSIGNIFICANT TIME
Like our space, the time we live is also insignificant compared to the life of the universe. No wonder, people want to believe the earth is only a few thousand years old. Existential dread is real folks! Try challenging people’s foundational beliefs and things fall apart!
Like space, the significance of time is harder for people to rationalize. For instance, take a look at this video from Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, where he explains the scale of time. At least watch the first one minute.
If all the time in the history of the universe is a calendar year, all we have done as humanity put together is barely a few seconds long. That is how insignificant we have been. (Try telling that to some people who cannot stop talking about their achievements. Hello, academia!)
In this grand scale of time, though we are yet again like fireflies — a flash and gone — our collected and shared narrative has only begun. Time may have passed 13 billion years, but it has not ended. There are billions to come. Then, here is where I pause again. Obviously, we have no guarantee whether we would survive that long. Or what humanity would look like. Can we survive as our fragile bodies? Is AI the next step in our evolution? Is technology going to save us as human beings? What about other beings? If it is going to save us, shouldn’t we all be concerned about who gets to build technologies such as AIs and space shuttles? Shouldn’t we be more concerned about who is representing us in STEM fields? As much as I try to distance myself from STEM and dig into arts and humanities for my personal interests, I still have immense value for STEM. But not the way it is right now — ruled by men, mostly white men, or men who perform whiteness (don’t get me started).
We need technology and development, especially in AI and space, to be a central point of our discussions on humanity, along with saving the planet we inhabit and not cut its life short by millions of years because of our careless arrogance and/or problematic beliefs in religious texts that are not going to save us.
We need to make climate change the battle of our lifetimes WHILE working on permanent solutions for finding and expanding to other habitable planets. The latter, obviously, is going to be a long race. It would involve a lot of research, money, time, advanced technologies, human volunteering, but most importantly critical perspectives. We cannot let “Space Colonization” end up like what we did to earth and its inhabitants. We would need to find humane solutions to expansion, need prime directives and all that some dismiss in the name of sci-fi (although there are plenty who take it seriously — thank you Star Trek! TNG 4EVA!).
To catch my breath, I think the discussion on space exploration needs more attention, not less. Perhaps not as much money right now, but soon. (Let Elon Musk spend his, I guess). We do not know how much time it will take us. We cannot be in a position of losing a planet and still be figuring out how we can save lives. But I also understand that we still haven’t solved the fundamental problems on Earth itself. My worry is, as long as we would have douchebags for politicians, we will never be able to go over it. We need transdisciplinary leaders and educators who understand and value arts as much as physics, humanities as much as philosophy, economics as much as biology. Not big business though. They suck! (Freaking look at the mess around us and tell me they are not to blame. Don’t tell me it’s more nuanced. They just suck!)