Monthly Archives: July 2017

Nick Hughes: “Do We Matter in the Cosmos?”


The Hubble Ultra-Deep Field image shows some of the most remote galaxies visible with present technology, each consisting of billions of stars (the image’s area of sky is very small – equivalent in size to one-tenth of a full moon)[1]

Nick Hughes is a postdoctoral research fellow at University College Dublin. His recent piece in Aeon Magazine, “Do we matter in the cosmos?” begins by placing humanity  in our true temporal and spatial perspective:

Travelling at the speed of light—671 million miles per hour—it would take us 100,000 years to cross the Milky Way. But we still wouldn’t have gone very far. By recent estimates, the Milky Way is just one of 2 trillion galaxies in the observable Universe, and the region of space that they occupy spans at least 90 billion light-years. If you imagine Earth shrunk down to the size of a single grain of sand, and you imagine the size of that grain of sand relative to the entirety of the Sahara Desert, you are still nowhere near to comprehending how infinitesimally small a position we occupy in space …

And that’s just the spatial dimension. The observable Universe has existed for around 13.8 billion years. If we shrink that span of time down to a single year, with the Big Bang occurring at midnight on 1 January, the first Homo sapiens made an appearance at 22:24 on 31 December. It’s now 23:59:59, as it has been for the past 438 years, and at the rate we’re going it’s entirely possible that we’ll be gone before midnight strikes again. The Universe, on the other hand, might well continue existing forever …

In response to the inconceivable immensity of space and time, Hughes asks: 1) if we are so insignificant compared to the vastness of space and time, do we matter at all? and 2) if our lives are inconsequential, is despair and nihilism the proper response?

William’s Response

To answer such questions, Hughes looks to the moral philosopher Bernard Williams:

… significance from the cosmic point of view is the same thing as having objective value. Something has objective value when it is not only valuable to some person or other, but valuable independently of whether anyone judges it to be so … valuable … from a universal perspective. By contrast, something can be subjectively valuable even if it is not objectively valuable … Williams takes it to be a consequence of a naturalistic, atheistic worldview that nothing has objective value. In his posthumous essay ‘The Human Prejudice’ (2006), he argues that the only kind of value that exists is the subjective kind …

Since, according to Williams, to be significant from the cosmic point of view is to be objectively valuable, and there is no such thing as objective value, it follows that there is no such thing as cosmic significance. The very idea, he argues, is ‘a relic of a world not yet thoroughly disenchanted’. In other words, of a world that still believes in the existence of God. Once we recognise that there is no such thing, he says, there is ‘no other point of view except ours in which our activities can have or lack a significance’. The question of what is significant from the point of view of the cosmos is incoherent: one might as well ask what is significant from the point of view of a pile of rocks.

Kahane’s Response

If Williams is right, then we are cosmically insignificance by definition. But, as Oxford’s Guy Kahane argues in ‘Our Cosmic Insignificance’ (2013), “if the naturalistic worldview does indeed rule out the possibility of anything having objective value, then it would still do so if the Universe were the size of a matchbox, or came into existence only moments ago.” Thus whether anything has objective value is independent of the size or age of the universe. (Thomas Nagel argued similarly in “The Absurd,” 1971.)

Kahane thinks that those who dismiss the significance of our lives fail to recognize that significance “is the product of two things: how valuable (or disvaluable) it is, but also how worthy it is of attention.” And how worthy of attention your life is decreases as the background against which it is measured enlarges. So your life is relatively important from the point of view of your family, but less so as you consider it from the point of view of your city, country, planet and eventually the universe—from which we are surely physically and temporally insignificant.

But “significance is also a function of value” and “if the primary source of value is intelligent life, it follows that our cosmic significance depends on how much intelligent life there is out there.” If the Universe is teeming with intelligent life “then we are indeed cosmically insignificant. If, however, we are the sole exemplars of intelligent life, then we are of immense cosmic significance …”

My Response to Kahane

I’m not moved by Kahane’s argument that our cosmic significance depends on whether other intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe. There is a sense in which the species becomes more significant if we are the only intelligent beings in the universe—no other life exists with which to share significance—but that doesn’t ameliorate my worries about my life and the universe being significant. In fact, I would prefer there is intelligent life elsewhere so that, were life on earth to die, intelligent life would remain somewhere. Moreover, you could reverse Kahane’s argument and say that intelligent life becomes more significant when it is diffused throughout the universe, for then it would be more capable of affecting that universe.  

However, I agree with Kahane that the size and age of the universe are irrelevant to the question of objective value. I also agree that we aren’t significant in the sense of being worthy of attention merely given the fact of the immensity of time and space. So I do think the crux of the issue of whether we are significant has to do with values.

Hughes’ Response

Hughes begins by noting “that something can be significant while being neither valuable nor disvaluable.” For example, meteorologists “say that the formation of the body of air was significant in the chain of events that led to the storm turning into a hurricane.” But there is no value judgment here about the body of air or the hurricane unless they affect sentient life. Instead, the body of air was significant in a causal sense. It “was significant because it played an important role in the tropical storm developing into a hurricane.”

Hughes argues that “it is a sense of causal, rather than value, insignificance that is central to the sense that we are cosmically insignificant.” And that’s because “causally speaking, we really are insignificant from the point of view of the whole Universe.” However, if our causal powers were infinitely larger—if we could control galaxies or warp spacetime—then we wouldn’t feel as cosmically insignificant. Perhaps “the causal-powers explanation might also explain …some of the appeals of theism … through allegiance to a supremely powerful being [believers] are able to share in its power.”

Still, Hughes doesn’t think our lack of causal power should lead to nihilism and despair. For one thing, casual power, even if we had more of it, is merely an instrumental good. Yet what really satisfies are things that are “intrinsically valuable to us,” even if they aren’t objectively valuable. As he concludes:

the ends that matter to us, the things that we care about most—our relationships, our projects and goals, our shared experiences, social justice, the pursuit of knowledge, the creation and appreciation of art, music and literature, and the future and fate of ours and other species—do not depend to any considerable extent on our having control over a vast but largely irrelevant Universe. We might be distinctly lacking in power from the cosmic perspective, and so, in a sense, insignificant. But having such power and such significance wouldn’t make much of a difference anyway. To lament its lack and respond with despair and nihilism is merely a form of narcissism. Most of what matters to us is right here on Earth.

My Response to Hughes

Hughes is right that we don’t need to be able to control the universe to experience intrinsic goods or subjective values. Still, without some power over myself and my environment, I can’t experience any goods. So, if our species became more powerful as well as more intellectually and morally excellent, then we would be well on our way to creating a more meaningful reality. Still, I agree with Hughes that our lack of causal power, by itself, doesn’t necessarily lead to nihilism.

However, I don’t think causal insignificance is the main reason for a nihilistic view of life’s meaning. True, life might be more meaningful if we were more powerful, but I think the more pressing concern is that objective values might not exist, and subjective values might not matter.

So, do we matter in the cosmos? From sub specie aeternitatis, nothing matters. From our point of view we somewhat matter to ourselves and those close to us, but in the end, when the universe has grown cold and dark when entropy has run its course, even our subjective values will vanish. In the end, I fear that Williams has it about right.

Still, I care about things nonetheless. I act as if my life matters. And the likelihood that my life probably doesn’t matter either objectively or subjectively doesn’t seem to change that. In the end, it seems that the fact that nothing matters doesn’t seem to matter much either.

Vegetarianism and Nutrition

There is compelling evidence that vegetarian and vegans diets are healthier than those that include animal meat or animal products. (Find a brief overview of the literature here.) Furthermore, compelling evidence suggest that vegetarian or mostly vegetarian diets promote longevity. (And the evidence that eating processed meats is bad for you is overwhelming.)

The main types of  vegetarian diets are:

Ovo-Lacto Vegetarainism- No meat but incluces eggs and dairy products;
Ovo Vegetarainism – No meat or dairy products but includes eggs;
Lacto Vegetarainism – No meat or eggs but includes dairy products;
Veganism – No meat or any animal products.

The main nutrional worries about plant-based diets are that they lack: 1) protein; 2) vitamin B-12; 3) omega-3 fatty acids; 4) calcuim; 5) iron; and/or 6) vitamin D and D2. For ovo, lacto, or ovo-lacto vegetarians, the response to these worries is straightforward; for vegans getting all your nutrients is somewhat problematic. Before I proceed, a disclaimer. I am not a physician, nutritionist, dietician, or any other kind of health professional. So don’t take what follows to be medical advice.

With the disclaimer in place, here are a few options for providing these nutrients:

Protein – Proteins are composed of amino acids. For lacto-ovo vegetarians, eggs and dairy products provide all the essential amino acids.

For vegans sources of protein include: pumpkin seeds, peanut butter, hemp seed, almonds, pistachio nuts, flaxseed, tofu, oats, soybeans, and walnuts. Other sources of all eight types of essential amino acids: lupin beans,[59] chia seed,[60] amaranth,[61] buckwheat,[62] spirulina,[64] and quinoa.[66] (You can find a great quinoa recipe at Jen reviews.)

Vitamin B-12 – Eggs and dairy products provide B-12 for lacto-ovo vegetarians.

Vegans can obtain B-12 from fortified foods and dietary supplements.[75][76][77][78][79] Vitamin B12 can also be obtained from fortified yeast extract products.[80]

Omega-3 fatty acids – Plant-based sources of Omega-3 fatty acids include: soy, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, canola oil, kiwifruit, hempseed, algae, chia seed, flaxseed, echium seed and leafy vegetables like lettuce, spinach, cabbage and purslane. Olives and olive oil are sources of unsaturated fatty acids. Supplements which the human body uses to synthesize the long-chain n-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA are also available. (EPA and DHA can be obtained directly in high amounts from oily fish or fish oils for pescotarians. Note too that meat eaters generally don’t get enough omega-3 fatty acids.) 

Calcium – Eggs and dairy products provide calcium for lacto-ovo vegetarians. 

Vegans can get calcium from broccoli, bok choy, kale, calcium-set tofu, turnip greens, mustard greens, soybeans, tempeh, almonds, okra, dried figs, and tahini.[86][88] In addition there are supplements and calcium fortified foods. (For more see the Vegetarian Nutrition Calcium Fact Sheet from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.)[86]

Iron – Vegetarian foods rich in iron include black beans, cashews, hempseed, kidney beans, broccoli, lentils, oatmeal, raisins, spinach, cabbage, lettuce, black-eyed peas, soybeans, many breakfast cereals, sunflower seeds, chickpeas, tomato juice, tempeh, molasses, thyme, and whole-wheat bread.[70] Vegan diets are often higher in iron than vegetarian diets because dairy products are low in iron.[55] 

Vitamin D and D-2 – The human body generates vitamin D with sufficient and sensible exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light in sunlight.[90][91] In addition, cow’s milk, soy milk and cereal grains may be fortified to provide a source of Vitamin D.[92]

For vegans, alfalfa and most mushrooms (fungus) contain vitamin D. In addition, there are vitamin D supplements.

Note – To reiterate, animal product based diets are associated with all sorts of health problems and lack many essentail nutrients. Furthermore, there are both moral and environmental reasons recommending vegetarianism in addition to its health benefits.  Non-human animal suffering underlies the moral reasons, and the catastrophic environmental impact of meat eating grounds the environmental argument.

FInally, at the Oldways Finding Common Ground conference in Boston, MA on November 17-18, 2015, a group of leading nutrition and food systems experts reached consensus on the following points of common ground about healthy eating, as outlined below (or download PDF here):

The overall body of evidence examined by the 2015 DGAC identifies that a healthy dietary pattern is higher in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, low- or non-fat dairy, seafood, legumes, and nuts; moderate in alcohol (among adults); lower in red and processed meats; and low in sugar-sweetened foods and drinks and refined grains. Additional strong evidence shows that it is not necessary to eliminate food groups or conform to a single dietary pattern to achieve healthy dietary patterns. Rather, individuals can combine foods in a variety of flexible ways to achieve healthy dietary patterns, and these strategies should be tailored to meet the individual’s health needs, dietary preferences and cultural traditions. Current research also strongly demonstrates that regular physical activity promotes health and reduces chronic disease risk. (Source: 2015 DGAC summary wording)

Happiness and the Meaning of Life

Happiness and meaning while connected, don’t seem to be the same thing. We can imagine a paradigmatic meaningful life that is unhappy and vice versa. For example, one might seek truth, do good things, or produce beauty—paradigms of meaningful lives—and still be unhappy. Or one might have health, wealth, friends, and knowledge—things associated with happy lives—and yet live a meaningless life, say because individual or universal death undermine meaning. We could be happy but think our lives ultimately meaningless.

Nonetheless, it would seem that happiness and meaning are closely connected. Subjectively meaningful lives are generally happy ones, and happiness typically follows as a by-product of a meaningful life. In other words, meaning is an element of a happy life, and happiness an element of a meaningful life. So there is a reciprocal relationship between the two. Still, I’d say that the meaningful life is more fundamental than the happy life. What I mean is that, similar to the way a good or happy life is more than just a pleasurable one, a meaningful life is more than just a happy one.

As for happiness, many people mistakenly think that happiness is a fleeting feeling pursued for its own sake, when instead it’s often a by-product of meaningful activities like helping others, seeking knowledge, creating beauty, becoming wise, or working for justice. Nonetheless, happiness may be determined more by our happiness set point, the average level of happiness set by our neurobiology and basic temperament, rather than by achievement or level of engagement.

Of course, we can’t be sure that an individual life or the whole universe is objectively meaningful, but we can still derive subjective meaning by engaging in the worthwhile activities. And such meaningful lives are generally satisfying and happy. As the philosopher James Rachels put it:

When we step outside our personal perspective and consider humanity from an impersonal standpoint, we still find that human beings are the kinds of creatures who can enjoy life best by devoting themselves to such things as family and friends, work, music, mountain climbing, and all the rest. It would be foolish, then, for creatures like us to live in any other way.[i] 
[i] James Rachels, Problems from Philosophy, 3rd ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2012), 174-75.

The Meaning of Life, in 3 Minutes

My friend Lawrence Rifkin MD, who has thought deeply about the meaning of life, recently posted this beautiful, inspiring, and philosophically sophisticated video. I have outlined its basics ideas below, but this is meant merely as a guide, and in no way substitutes for the emotional power of the video itself, which I highly recommend.

1. From the Universal or Objective perspective, the meaning or purpose of life is just to stay alive, reproduce, and keep life going.  Without this, there is no life.

2. From the Social or Interpersonal perspective, meaning emerges from engagement with positive or worthwhile relationships, goals, and actions. Love of family, people, ideals, knowledge, creativity, helping others or life itself drives or inspires such engagement. Without this, there is no progress.

3. From the Subjective or Personal perspective, the lack of pain and suffering and the experience of bliss, pleasure, inner peace, awareness, beauty, and happiness give life meaning. Without this, there is no peace and joy.

Putting this all together, Rifkin is saying that there must be life as a prerequisite for anything, but from the point of view of the universe, there isn’t much more purpose than survival. Since this doesn’t totally satisfy conscious beings, unless mere survival totally consumes them, deeper meaning must emerge from personal and interpersonal perspectives which, when driven by love, produce good things like creativity, productivity, knowledge, inner peace, and ultimately joy. This also entails that suffering, loneliness, hunger, stress, have been minimized.

In the end, Rifkin finds meaning in what I would call a hybrid subjective-objective meaning position. Meaning is found subjective engagement with objectively worthwhile things such as relationships, creative labor, inner peace, and joy, etc. This echoes the position espoused by the philosopher Susan Wolf, which I have summarized here and here.

The Value of a College Education

My last post responded to some queries from student about the value of a college education. Chris Crawford added some additional insights on the topic in the comments section. I thought they earned a guest post. He adds 4 additional benefits of college to the ones I mentioned.

1. Social
Young people are intensely social; you learn from your peers as well as your professors. The great benefit of prestigious colleges is not that they have better teachers, but that they have better students. Plop yourself down amongst a lot of geniuses and you’ll find yourself working harder and learning more. Plop down amongst a group of dummies and you’ll get A’s without learning much.

2. Learning

Autodidacts learn what they think they need to learn. This works only if you already have a pretty good idea of the range of human knowledge. But how do you get that range of knowledge to start with? How do you learn to study concepts that you don’t even know exist? College shocks you with ideas that never dawned on you. I remember arguing with my professor once and he hit me with an idea that had never occurred to me. I was so stunned that I stuttered, “I have to go think about this.” and walked away. I learned an immense amount in that one moment.

I’ve had lots of ideas crammed down my throat in college that later became fundamental to my understanding. The concept of vector fields, divergence, and curl really confused me at first, but once I grasped them, they opened up new vistas for me.

3. The Hard Parts

When walking up a hill on a slant, we tend to drift downward; it’s difficult to keep heading upward. In the same way, when we study a subject, we tend toward the easy stuff. But all too often, you need to tackle the ugly stuff (often mathematical) in order to properly grasp the concepts. There are a zillion people who follow pop science and can talk all day about black holes, the Big Bang, galaxies, and stars. But their knowledge of this stuff is shallow. If you don’t understand the four equations of stellar structure, you can’t understand how a star works, why it can go nova, or how it can collapse into a black hole. If you don’t understand special relativity, including all those equations for time dilation, spatial compression, etc, you just can’t understand how a black hole works. In the world of physics and astronomy, the math IS the material.

4. Certification

Sorry, you don’t get to take a test to prove yourself. A college degree is a certificate that gets you in the door. It doesn’t get you a job, it gets you an interview. No employer has the time to be fair; they must sort through dozens of applicants quickly to zero in on the handful that they can afford to interview. Sure, it’s not fair, but in the dog-eat-dog world of business, you cannot afford to be exact; you have to settle for “good enough”. And throughout life, that degree will continue to give people a quick-and-dirty assessment of your intelligence.

I quit college with a Master of Science in Physics. My advisor urged me to stay on and get a doctorate, but I had realized that the academic world was not for me. I was far too curious to commit myself to the narrow existence of an academic who is the world’s leading authority on color centers in barium crystals. I wanted to learn everything, and, equipped with the solid education I had already gotten, I went on to learn much about computers (which I can now program in many languages), history, psychology, evolution, Erasmus of Rotterdam, economics (ugh!), climate change, and linguistics. Surprisingly, I haven’t followed physics or astronomy; I’ve already gotten a solid grasp of those. My personal library consists of two or three thousand books, all of which I have read at least once. Yes, I sometimes go back to an old book and re-read it; what you get out of a book depends on how much you know when you read it. If you want to see the range of my studies, go check out my website at It has a surprising range of topics.

No, I never got the PhD, and I don’t regret it. I have learned so much more; at some point, breadth of education yields a greater intellectual benefit than depth of education.

But it has taken me over forty years to learn all this great stuff.