Do we matter in the cosmos?

The cosmic point of view encompasses literally everything in the Universe: the entirety of space and time, from edge to edge, and beginning to end. From that point of view, we are nothing more than a microscopic blip, physically and temporally speaking at least. And this, Kahane argues, is what gives rise to our sense of insignificance. Since the cosmic point of view encompasses so much, and the significance of things tends to diminish as the frame of reference expands, it is natural to think that we couldn’t possibly stand out as worthy of special attention within it; there is simply too much to compete with. If not, we conclude, then we must be insignificant.

But, Kahane argues, this is all too quick. We mustn’t forget that significance is also a function of value. If, for some reason, human life stands out as a source of value compared with everything else, then even from the cosmic point of view we might be significant. A single diamond sitting on display in a huge empty warehouse might be small by comparison with its surroundings, but that doesn’t mean that it’s insignificant or that it merits no attention. Since, Kahane argues, 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 it, if we are just one diamond among millions or billions of others, many of which are just as large and bright, or more so, then we are indeed cosmically insignificant. If, however, we are the sole exemplars of intelligent life, then we are of immense cosmic significance: we are a single diamond shining forth, surrounded by nothingness, like an incandescent beacon of light in the Stygian night. The rub, of course, is that we currently cannot tell: we don’t know what, or rather who, we share the cosmos with.

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