On Philosophy

April 4, 2007

Cosmic Significance

Filed under: General Philosophy — Peter @ 12:00 am

The meaning of life isn’t much of puzzle. The meaningful life is one that is lead in pursuit of the things that are important to the pursuer. Such a life will have a purpose, and thus will be meaningful, or at least will seem meaningful to the person living it, which is all that matters. But not everyone is happy with this answer; some people seem to want their lives to have some kind of cosmic significance, and will only accept an answer to “what is the meaning of life?” that reveals what this cosmic significance is.

If you are one of those people I have some bad news for you: your life has no cosmic significance. The cosmos is really really big, both spatially and temporally. And not only are you infinitesimal in size in comparison to it, but the cosmos as a whole is relatively indifferent to what happens to you (the macroscopic features of the cosmos, planets, stars, galaxies, ect, are not affected by your existence). In fact even our entire solar system is so small in comparison to it that it too can be said to have no cosmic importance whatsoever, and, since we are relatively small and unimportant even in comparison to it, it seems unlikely that we are more important than it to the cosmos.

Of course this doesn’t make our individual lives unimportant, it just blocks our lives from being supremely important. And while that may be humbling to some I am sure that they can manage to get over it if they want to. After all, there are plenty of other things that can make a life meaningful. But not everyone does get over it, and that interests me. Why do people feel so strongly that their lives must have some cosmic significance, to the point that they will reject any answer that doesn’t give them that significance?

One possibility is that people are simply insecure, that realizing the universe is so large and so indifferent to them makes them feel unimportant. Or it is possible that the sheer scale of the universe makes people feel afraid. Although both these emotions probably contribute somewhat to the desire to be cosmically significant I hesitate to place too much emphasis on them. People simply don’t ponder the size of the universe that often, and so it is hard to believe that such considerations factor into the their thoughts about the meaning of life. And I also hesitate to seriously endorse this alternative because it simply seems uncharitable.

Another possibility is that people are simply too egocentric, possibly unconsciously, to accept any answer that doesn’t give then, or at least the human race as a whole, a relatively central role in the universe. And admittedly in our experience wherever we go we find ourselves there, possibly motivating an unconscious view of the universe as defined by its relationships to us. And so perhaps a universe that doesn’t give them a central role is inconceivable to some, or perhaps it just seems to unlikely, too removed from the way they experience the universe. Certainly this is more believable than the previous possibility, but again I hesitate to completely endorse it, because it seems underestimate those who seek some kind of cosmic significance. Surely at least some of them are motivated by things other than their insecurities and their egos.

A third possibility is that their lives simply aren’t meaningful on day-to-day terms and thus they must hold onto the hope that their lives have some kind of cosmic significance, because otherwise their lives will have no meaning at all. But what kind of life can have no meaning on day-to-day terms? There are two possibilities. The first is to lead a life in which you are prevented from pursuing the things that matter to you. Which can happen for a number of reasons. You may be prevented from pursing them by law, or by a lack of resources, or by social pressures that convince you to do something else. The other is to lead a life in which you don’t really care about anything, or don’t know what you care about. In either case such a life is not lived in pursuit of goals that seem important to the person pursuing them, and thus life may seem meaningless. Such a person might find comfort in telling themselves that their life has a cosmic significance even though it isn’t meaningful in day-to-day terms. And thus such a person would cling so tightly to the idea that their life had a cosmic significance that they would reject out of hand any proposal that would deny it.

I am going to assume that the third possibility is the reason why some people seem to need for their lives to have cosmic significance. Not only is it the most charitable, but there is something that can be done about it, namely to choose to lead a meaningful life now. Of course that is not necessarily the easiest change to make, but it is possible. If your life doesn’t have meaning now because you can’t pursue the things that are important to you then you must find ways to free yourself from those restraints; which often means to simply ignore social convention. And if your life doesn’t have meaning because nothing is important to you (or perhaps it is completely impossible for you to pursue the things that are) then you simply need to experiment, to try different things, until something does seem important to you.

And when life is meaningful as it is whether it has any cosmic significance no longer seems important.

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