“What really interests me is whether God had any choice in the creation of the world” – Albert Einstein
With telescopes, detectors, and particle accelerators, we’ve developed a rudimentary understanding of our universe. All the matter we see can be reduced to four fundamental forces involving at least 17 elementary particles. But these particles make up just 4% of all the energy in the universe; the other 96% remains a cosmic mystery. And while the physics can tell us the what, it fails to explain the why. Why do we exist? Why does anything exist at all? Is the universe just a simulation? A quantum fluctuation? One universe in an infinite multiverse? Whatever answers our scientific knowledge can provide are still nothing but speculations that seem to demean our existence as some meaningless accident or faulty experiment. At least the speculations of faith provide more comforting answers. But for many, a quantum fluctuation remains far more plausible than any interpretation of Genesis. Critical thinking and scientific observation are the best guides to the nature of reality, and wishful beliefs will get us nowhere. After all, the world’s dominant religions were founded on the obsolete assumption that man was the focus of creation, that Earth was the center of the Universe.
“We long for a Parent to care for us, to forgive us our errors, to save us from our childish mistakes. But knowledge is preferable to ignorance. Better by far to embrace the hard truth than a reassuring fable.” – Carl Sagan
The Hubble Ultra-Deep Field is an image of a region of space that is just one thirteen-millionth of the total area of the sky (smaller than a 1 mm by 1 mm square held 1 meter away). An estimated 10,000 galaxies are visible.
“The major religions contradict each other left and right. You can’t all be correct. And what if all of you are wrong? It’s a possibility, you know.” – Carl Sagan
In the last six centuries, we have discovered that we are anything but the center of the Universe. The Sun is one of 300 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy, and the Milky Way is one of at least two trillion galaxies that we can see. The observable universe has a diameter that spans about 91 billion light years (l.y.). If 91 billion l.y. were scaled to the distance from NYC to LA, then the distance to the nearest star (4.4 l.y.) would be about the thickness of a sheet of foil. And if 4.4 l.y. were scaled to the distance from NYC to LA, then Earth spans less than a millimeter. Beyond the observable universe, we don’t really know what exists.
The galaxies in our observable universe are clustered along filaments of dark matter (invisible sources of gravity), and these filaments are connected in a cosmic web. Scientists think that the universe is probably infinite, or at least 250 times larger than the observable universe.
The most prominent scientists also remind us of how small we are. Stephen Hawking has called humankind “just an advanced breed of monkeys on a minor planet of a very average star.” Carl Sagan describes each of us as “a tiny being, permitted to ride on the outermost skin of one of the smaller planets for a few dozen trips around the local star.” In a metaphor, biologist E. O. Wilson relates Earth to the universe as “the second segment of the left antenna of an aphid sitting on a flower petal in a garden in Teaneck, N.J., for a few hours this afternoon.”
“Only the most extraordinarily self-centered species
could imagine that all of this is going on for our sake.”
– Christopher Hitchens
“Although our situation is not necessarily central,
it is inevitably privileged to some extent.”
– Brandon Carter
Physicists and cosmologists agree that the universe is “fine-tuned” for life*. The laws of science, as we know them at present, contain many fundamental numbers, like the size of an electron’s charge or the constant of the gravitational force. And the conditions that allow for life can only occur when these seemingly arbitrary numbers lie within a very narrow range. If any of them were only slightly different, the universe would be unlikely to support the development of galaxies, stars, atoms, and life as we know it.
*For an argument against fine-tuning, I recommend “Anthropic Arrogance,” by David P. Barash, evolutionary biologist. https://aeon.co/essays/why-a-human-centred-universe-is-not-a-humane-one
“The whole history of science has been the gradual realization that events do not happen in an arbitrary manner, but that they reflect a certain underlying order, which may or may not be divinely inspired.” – Stephen Hawking
But many dismiss the significance of this fine-tuning with the weak anthropic principle: the universe must be as we observe it to be, because otherwise we wouldn’t be here to observe it. Assuming we exist in an infinite multiverse, only in a universe capable of supporting life will there be living beings capable of observing and reflecting upon any such fine tuning. In other words, our universe just happened to have the laws that support the existence of sapient life. We are just a coincidence, and our reality is nothing but an accident.
In a hypothetical multiverse, every universe is like a bubble popping in and out of existence. Each has its own set of physical laws, and ours happens to have the physical laws that allow for life as we know it.
Likewise, many academics have adopted a materialistic philosophy, which assumes that nature has no purpose. From the complexity of life to the brain’s awareness, everything can be explained by the aimless laws of science. At the subatomic scale, our entire existence can be reduced to a coincidental sequence of physical interactions—of particles bumping into particles. The past, the present, and the future have been determined since the beginning of time, and we are, in the grand scheme of things, completely irrelevant. There is no “design,” no deeper meaning to life, and certainly no higher purpose for us to realize. Like every other species, we will vanish in the blink of an eye.
“Some things occur just by chance. What if our most fundamental questions, our late-at-night-wonderings about why we are here, have no more satisfying answer than an exasperated shrug and a meekly muttered, ‘things just seem to have turned out that way’?” – Richard Dawkins
“The Standard Model describes most of the interactions between all of matter’s building blocks, as well as the forces that act on those particles. For decades, this theory has successfully predicted how matter behaves. However, there are a few nagging exceptions to the model’s explanatory success. The Standard Model doesn’t explain dark matter, a mysterious and invisible substance that exerts a gravitational pull, yet emits no light. And the model doesn’t account for gravity alongside the other fundamental forces that influence matter, according to the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN).” – Mindy Weisberger, LiveScience
Perhaps the materialist is right, and there is no why. Some of the brightest minds think that we’re just a blip on the radar, fated to extinction. But while nobody can prove that we matter, nobody can prove that we don’t matter. Not even the materialist can claim with absolute certainty that our existence is meaningless, that our intuition is completely mistaken. The anthropic principle is certainly plausible, but it hinges on a hypothetical multiverse that is currently unverifiable*. And while the reality of other universes might be interesting to ponder, there is a reality that we cannot ignore: the healthy mind is inclined to consider itself relevant, and its vitality is rooted in purpose.
“People are prone to resist scientific claims when they clash with intuitive beliefs.” – Atul Gawande
*The technical limits of science render some experiments undoable and their questions untestable. As a result, ideas like multiverse realities or string theories cannot be proven nor disproven, and many have begun to question their value. In an opinion piece for Nature (2014), cosmologist George Ellis and astrophysicist Joseph Silk write that “as we see it, theoretical physics risks becoming a no-man’s-land between mathematics, physics and philosophy that does not truly meet the the requirements of any.” An idea might be called a science by one but a pseudoscience by another. Likewise, consciousness is deemed an illusion by some and a fundamental property by others. As far as knowledge has come, our understanding of science remains compatible with numerous perspectives and leaves open many doors of philosophical inquiry. But I’ve found one to be especially promising—one that might prove useful for advancing discovery and inspiring harmony.
“It is tempting to think that scientific authority is natural and will soon reassert itself like a sturdy self-righting boat knocked over by a rogue wave.” – Robert P. Crease, “The rise and fall of scientific authority, and how to bring it back” (Nature 2019)
We all want to exist, but no one wants a meaningless existence. As small as we are, as insignificant as we may be, the majority of the world clings to a faith rooted in the notion that the universe was made for us, the human species. Even when reason says otherwise, the human mind claims that we are indeed the center of the universe. The image of God. The creator’s purpose for creating. So what if our sense of relevance isn’t entirely unfounded? What if our search for meaning isn’t all that vain?
“If a man is offered something which affords a reason for acting in accordance with his instincts, he will accept it even on the slenderest evidence.” – Bertrand Russell, Proposed Roads to Freedom
“If there is any optimism for mankind, any chance of unifying our species, then it remains in the possibility that our existence is, in fact, bound with a greater purpose. Because human nature, as hopeless as it seems, is our only hope.” When considering the fact that 85% of the world is religious—a figure that is expected to rise—it seems that our materialistic speculations will be of little benefit to our species. Because of human nature and its teleological inclinations, the most meaningful ideas inspire the greatest cooperation, and concepts that impart an existential objective will be the most useful for the preservation of humankind.
“Concepts that have proven useful in ordering things easily achieve such authority over us that we forget their earthly origins and accept them as unalterable givens. The path of scientific progress is often made impassable for a long time by such errors. Therefore it is by no means an idle game if we become practiced in analyzing long-held commonplace concepts and showing the circumstances on which their justification and usefulness depend.” – Albert Einstein
“If humanity is to survive, then we must mobilize the intellectual community to take its place as the head of the human system. We need an agreement among the thinkers who will ultimately guide the future of our species” (Scientists & Sociopaths). But such a unity seems unlikely given the many ideological differences among our academics. Of particular concern is the pervasiveness of our nihilistic assumptions: everything is chance, there is no meaning or purpose, and we may as well be nonexistent. These are dangerous notions because, as cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker notes, “pessimism can be a self-fulfilling prophecy.” If we cannot let go of extinction, then we may doom ourselves to extinction. If we fail to hope, then we will remain hopeless. Thus, we can no longer afford to demean life as some chance anomaly, or the mind as some blind illusion. We must consider the possibility that we exist for a reason, because intellectuals and imbeciles alike are bound to this principle of human nature: cooperation requires a unifying objective. Scientists and sociopaths, like everyone else, will not work together without a reason to. And since we cannot prove the absence of purpose, it would be wise for us to assume a purpose that agrees with both our logic and our intuition.
“We humans have seen the atoms which constitute all of nature and the forces that sculpted this work. And we, who embody the local eyes and ears and thoughts and feelings of the Cosmos, have begun to wonder about our origins. [We are] starstuff pondering the stars; organized assemblages of ten billion billion billion atoms considering the evolution of atoms; tracing the long journey by which, here at last, consciousness arose. We are a way for the Cosmos to know itself.” – Carl Sagan
Even if we exist in a multiverse, the weak anthropic principle does not preclude the possibility that our universe has become aware for a reason. Just because our existence is lucky does not mean it is necessarily trivial. And while the human species is coincidental, human nature may represent a universal tendency found in the evolution of all sentient beings. Maybe any self-awareness that arises will consider its own existence meaningful, and its intelligence will be bound with an emotional purpose. And perhaps our intuition tells us we matter because we do, in fact, matter. In the interest of our survival, this is certainly worth considering.
“There is in this Universe much of what seems to be design. Every time we come upon it, we breathe a sigh of relief. We are forever hoping to find, or at least safely deduce, a Designer. But instead, we repeatedly discover that natural processes… can extract order out of chaos, and deceive us into deducing purpose where there is none… The evidence, so far at least and laws of Nature aside, does not require a Designer. Maybe there is one hiding, maddeningly unwilling to be revealed.” – Carl Sagan