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The Search for Meaning


Ruben David Azevedo tells us why, in a limitless universe, we’re not insignificant.

Many people assume, in the face of a virtually infinite universe, that we are insignificant beings. This assumption arises from our comparative extreme smallness. After all, our planet is nothing but a ‘blue dot’ in a vast solar system, a grain of dust lost in a second-rate suburb of a vast galaxy, which in turn dwells among another three hundred billion galaxies or more in the known universe alone. We’re negligible and peripheral – they say – and the universe is completely blind and indifferent towards us.

Butterfly Nebula
Nasa Hubble Space Telescope: Butterfly Nebula NGC6302. Photo credits: NASA, ESA and J. Kastner (RIT)

I think this common assumption of our insignificance might be challenged in eight arguments:

First: Relative size alone cannot be a measure for the absolute significance of a thing. Comparisons don’t tell us anything about one’s value in absolute terms, or a whale would be more significant than a human being merely because of its size. The same with certain dinosaurs, space rocks, planets, even galaxies. Complexity may tell us something about significance, but not size alone.

Second: Our alleged insignificance is not some law or definitive statement given by a universal judge with a privileged insight into the very marrow of universe – that is, into its absolute nature. Therefore, our alleged insignificance cannot be an absolute, objective or universal value. And how could we ourselves, being nothing and knowing nothing, issue such an objective universal truth – thus contradicting our own petty nature and infinitely tiny intellect?

Third: Consciousness is the ability of a being, and indeed of nature, to know itself from the inside. We humans are well endowed with this ability. Other animals have it too – though to a lesser degree than us, for we have metacognition, which means that we can know that we know, or think that we think. In other words we can be conscious of consciousness. In fact, we are consciousnesses, for consciousness makes us individuals, or, as Immanuel Kant put it, ‘unities of apperception’ – in short, subjects. Subjectivity is not a negligible illusion, but an objective reality in its own right. Any one of us can immediately perceive and experience it as such from a personal point of view. So, unless we consider the panpsychic possibility that any given body, even one of immense size such as a galaxy or a cluster of galaxies, is a conscious individual endowed with its own subjectivity (just like one of us humans), how can such things be more significant or valuable that any conscious being? For without its own consciousness, what is a galaxy but a thousands-light-years-wide set of billions of scattered stars and dust bonded by gravity? On the other hand, a human consciousness knows that it is, and also that being is.

Fourth: The molecules of life are, as far as we know, the most complex chemistry that exists. Proteins, lipids, and nucleic acids (DNA and RNA), even carbohydrates, are the result of the fourteen-billion-year evolution of the universe. It may be that other even more complex molecules exist somewhere, but our experience on Earth tells us that chemical complexity at this level implies life, and life has led to consciousness. Perhaps this situation is no different elsewhere in the universe. How then can such complexity be considered inferior or less significant in relation to any other body structurally less complex, even though unfathomably bigger? How can human beings be insignificant and negligible, if we are at such a level of biochemical development that it includes consciousness?

Fifth: If, as considered above, life molecules are the acme of chemical complexity, a question arises about the apparent close relation between the physical complexification of matter and the emergence of life. For, if everywhere in the universe, whenever matter achieves a specific high degree of complex organisation, life may emerge, even conscious life, doesn´t this suggest that conscious life is the goal of the evolution of universe? (The process is this: physics to chemistry, chemistry to biology, biology to consciousness.) If so, that means consciousness is the highest, most significant, and most precious expression of being, the universe’s most consummate development. And you stand at this summit.

Sixth: Our universe, as has often been noted, is mind-bogglingly big. Yet its vast distances may be just one expression of its nature rather than the reality at its core. In the phenomenon called quantum entanglement, groups of particles, such as two photons or two electrons can be ‘entangled’ in such a way that if we spin one the other will instantly follow, no matter how distant they are from each other (in theory they can be billions of light years apart), added to the fact that nothing is being exchanged between them, seems to me to suggest that these vastly-physically-separated entities are in fact one, or at least that they’re pervaded by the same absolute reality, beyond space and time as we perceive it. (Let us not forget time and space are created, or at least come into existence, and so are therefore an expression of some prior aspatial and atemporal reality.) If we begin to consider the nature of reality beyond the fabric of spacetime, we are pointed to the intuition that reality as a whole is one : the idea that a certain unity envelops all and is rooted in all, and therefore that the true nature of reality is an absolute intimacy, in contrast to mediation of any kind (which is pretty much like consciousness, by the way). If this is true, then physical extension – and thus distance or size – is not an absolute measure for the significance of beings. Much more important in that assessment is the deepness and intimacy of being, manifest most fully as consciousness: a consciousness such as yours.

Seventh: The Anthropic Principle. The strong version of the anthropic principle states that the fundamental physical constants and parameters of our universe seem to have values specifically fine-tuned for the emergence of life. If the values of those constants had been even slightly different, it is claimed, then the universe would have been very different, to the extent that no life like ours could have possibly emerged. Some interpret this as evidence for the existence of a divine Creator. However, one theory based in quantum physics (see for example The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinov, 2012), suggests that the existence of the physical universe can only be determined by consciousness, in the sort of way that the conscious measurement of a subatomic particle causes its ‘collapse’ into a specific ‘story’, from among a cloud of multiple possibilities existing simultaneously in its unobserved wavefunction. If so, then in fact consciousness ‘chooses’ a specific universe with its specific set of laws fine-tuned for its own arising. In any case, the Anthropic Principle challenges the assumption of our insignificance in the face of an infinite universe indifferent to our existence, for it puts consciousness at the very center of the cosmic plot.

Eighth: In the sense above, perhaps we are at the very center of things. However, to say that we’re not physically at the center of universe (or anything alike) is not a good argument in favor of our insignificance, for, like size, centrality and peripherality are only relative. According to current cosmological theories, the geometry of spacetime is such that the universe has no absolute center. It is more like a balloon being inflated, with each point on the balloon’s skin moving away from every other point. To ask where is the center of the balloon’s skin makes no sense. But even if it’s true that a physical center of the universe doesn’t exist, we may nevertheless postulate an absolute metaphysical center. If at its very root, beyond spacetime, reality is one and absolute, we must conclude that its absolute center is everywhere, and everything is in it. True centrality is not a question of relative position, then, but of ontological affiliation with the absolute reality which is in everything and in which everything is.

In sum, humans are neither insignificant nor negligible in this mind-blowing universe. No living being is. Our smallness and apparent peripherality are far from being measures of our significance. Instead, it may well be the case that we represent the apex of cosmic evolution, for we have this absolutely evident and at the same time mysterious ability called consciousness to know both ourselves and the universe.

© Ruben David Azevedo 2024

Ruben David Azevedo is a Portuguese philosophy and social sciences teacher.

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