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.

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

  1. Frankly, it does not bother me in the least if we are alone in the universe. Personally, I’m an introvert so being alone is preferable to me. The Sartre quote “Hell is people,” appeals generally. “Hell” could apply to extraterrestrials as well. Humans are generally untrustworthy in my experience, though there are exceptions. I see flaws in myself and all other humans that are rooted in our biology and evolution is far too slow a process to keep pace with (to quote a song) “the aimless blade of science (that) slashed the pearly gates.” My basic message – it’s okay if we are alone in the vastness of the universe and (to quote another song lyric) “the vast indifference of heaven.” We dream too much and we hope for things that have no basis in fact or in reality. We are deluded but we must be because our individual demise is always before us…killing meaning.

  2. thanks for the comments and it doesn’t bother me if we are alone either. I was simply refuting the claim that we are more significant if we are alone.

  3. “…in the end, when the universe has grown cold and dark, when entropy has run its course, even our subjective values will vanish.”

    Even if this is true, does that fundamentally negate our current existing value and significance? Is life really like a game in which ONLY the final score matters in the end?

  4. “Still I care about things nonetheless. I act as if my actions matter.”

    To me, this is the essence of the good kind of faith: in the face of an unanswerable question, living as if the positive answer were true. We cannot know at present whether human life either as a species or as an individual has meaning lasting beyond death. Indeed, we may never know. However, I believe, I have faith in living as if human life does have lasting meaning, and that we should not be nihilists. This is my faith (at its deepest level).

  5. I agree with your concluding sentiment. While each individual may be insignificant from the point of view of the whole universe, that really isn’t the individual’s point of view. Each individual has a much more limited point of view from himself or herself, where actions really matter. Furthermore, despite being insignificant from the point of view of the universe, each individual is still a completely unique part of the evolution of the universe in space and time. Uniqueness ought to count for something! Since I exist and I am unique, I might as well make the best of my existence.

  6. I had a strange reaction to the piece, rather like my reaction to a previous essay. In this case it was something like “It makes no sense to look for meaning elsewhere. Meaning comes from inside us.” We can’t find meaning in the stars and galaxies, and the presence or absence of those stars and galaxies is irrelevant to our own meaning. In other words, we make our own meaning.

    There are, of course, many finer points worthy of consideration, but there is one point about this of which I am absolutely, rock-solidly certain: that this notion has been written about by at least half the philosophers since Socrates. What’ll you bet that we could find a version of it in Chinese literature?

  7. I wrote about this in detail in my book but basically while I agree with the idea that there’s is subjective meaning but almost certainly not objective meaning, I suppose I wish there was a little more meaning than just what I can give life.

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