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The supposed "insignificance" of your existence....

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I've been watching a lot of documentaries about the universe, and in a lot of them I find an annoying reoccurring theme. The vastness of the universe is explained, and then the narrator/scientist says something like: "It really makes you feel insignificant when faced with the size of the universe" or "Our Earth is an insignificant little speck in the vast ocean of the universe".

Also, in many debates about atheism vs. theism, there is an abundance of unprincipled "atheists" who oppose theism not because there is no evidence supporting theism, but because it puts human beings and the earth at the center of everything. Comments like "it is really arrogant to think that the earth is at the center of everything" are very common. As if some implied arrogance is the reason for not thinking the sun revolves around the earth, and not the fact that in reality, it isn't.

The more cloud-headed wonderers of the world, simply state, "ahhh.....how small it makes me feel", and the hidden nihilists state "It really makes my existence and my daily life so irrelevant when thinking about the vastness of space....."

Now, obviously I and the Earth are really small in size when compared with the size of the Universe, but why does it 99% of the time, produce some sort of feeling of insignificance in people? I have the theory that this outlook is directly related to the vicious error in philosophy that is so rampant today, altruism.

As if significance somehow relates to what is signifigant to the universe, and as if the universe, or everything that exists, is somehow the ultimate everyone should value. That the more vast the universe is in size, and the more galaxies we see in the Hubble DeepField images, the more insignifigant our own existence somehow becomes? That my life becomes less and less signifigant, the more galaxies astronomers become aware of?

It's the denial of the fact that it is your own life that to you, makes the word "signifigance" relevant in the first place. There is probably a logical fallacy that accurately describes this line of thinking, but if stated "my life is insignificant to me", i could see it as a stolen concept.

There is no grand reason for this thread, and I just wanted to vent about this subject somewhere where i know people will understand me. But to give some "significance" to this thread, i could ask you, is my theory of linking this with altruism correct?

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Moreso than altruism, I think it's that there is a mentality that ego is a dirty, evil thing. People think it is a GOOD thing to feel humbled. What I have observed is merely a rampant lacking of self-esteem and feelings of worthlessness in people - and they project that out into their relationship with the universe.

Ultimately it's kind of silly. I could contemplate an ant compared to Mt. Everest too. But there still wouldn't be much point. It's just mental masturbation.

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There is probably a logical fallacy that accurately describes this line of thinking, but if stated "my life is insignificant to me", i could see it as a stolen concept.

That's a great thought and interesting to discuss (at least for me :)).

I would say that this fallacy is one of intrinsicism. A misunderstanding of the nature of value, and brings the concept of value into play. Here "significance" is used to denote the idea of value, but in a very fuzzy sort of way.

So essentially the thought is that "because the world is huge, I am of no value in it." The characteristic of size being taken as some fixed (i.e. intrinsic) indicator of "worth".

Religionists use the same idea but in a different fashion. The size of existence is used as an implicit "hat tip" to God's greatness. In other words, because the word was devised, it's sheer size and complexity testifies to the greatness of the devisor, and subsequently our little value relative to it. This is still intrinsicism however, just with a supernatural component.

The proper way to consider it is to realize that value doesn't apply to innanimate matter. The size of the universe is irrelevant as far as worth is concerned. The idea of value only has meaning with respect to a volitional being who must choose to survive by his nature. In that sense, then, I am the most important thing in the world, and it is not arrogance to say so.

I always loved Ayn Rand's quote with regards to death, which also implicitly shows the difference in thinking about this framework. "It's not me that will die, it's the world that will end."

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I'd ask such people (especially the atheists) to hand over their insignificant, anthropocentric cars and life savings to me.

I have the theory that this outlook is directly related to the vicious error in philosophy that is so rampant today, altruism.

I think that from their desire for a" higher meaning/purpose", they believe there is such a thing, and then find themselves small in comparison. As for the source of this desire, one could easily dump the blame on religion.

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It seems perfectly logical to me - someone who grew up in a small village might get engrossed in village politics and care passionately about local issues as if they are the most important thing in the world, while being insular and apathetic towards global politics/history But if in his middle-age he moves to New York, he may start becoming more aware of the bigger picture and realise that it doesnt really matter in the grand scheme of things whether some village in the middle of nowhere has a law preventing people from putting up satellite dishes. While local issues are definitely important, and while the feminists were right that the personal is the political, I think there's a risk of being parochial if you dont also try to follow wider trends and attempt to understand how these local issues reflect the general direction humanity is moving in.

Discovering the vastness of the universe is the same thing on a larger scale. Becoming aware that theres probably thousands of civilisations out there at least as advanced as our own, who have never heard about our planet, has the effect of depriving Earth politics of its cosmic importance. It doesnt mean that we're 'insignificanct', it just means that our planet probably doesnt matter too much to the history of the universe in the same sense that some village in Morocco doesnt matter too much to the general story of humanity. Obviously the people living in that village are going to be engrossed in local issues which outsiders would think of as petty, and theres nothing wrong with this. But without being some kind of bizzaro space-Hegel, I think its fair to say that the things they care about are fairly irrelevant compared to human history as a whole, in the same way the things we view as important are probably irrelevant to the general story of the universe.

There's a distinction between insiders and outsiders here. If you are inside some particular culture at some point in history, then its issues are going to be important to you (as they should). But to an outsider, these issues will only be important if they have some wider significance. The life of a person in ancient Athens probably had more world-historic importance than the life of a person in some African village 1000 years ago since Greek culture played more part in the shaping of history. And similarly, the importance-to-an-outsider of the life of an earthling depends on the role that our planet ends up having in the universe.

Douglas Adams Hitch-hiker's Guide touches on similar issues. I dont think its nihilisitc to point out that the complete destruction of planet earth would probably be irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. Being aware of your place in history doesnt imply that you dont passionately care about your life and culture, even if you know it probably isnt significant in a broader context

Edited by eriatarka
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I've been watching a lot of documentaries about the universe, and in a lot of them I find an annoying reoccurring theme. The vastness of the universe is explained, and then the narrator/scientist says something like: "It really makes you feel insignificant when faced with the size of the universe" or "Our Earth is an insignificant little speck in the vast ocean of the universe".

Actually, it makes me feel exactly opposite to that. I think: How great is man that he can understand all of this!

I mean, don't you think it is wonderfully incredible that we can take the light from some very distant source, like a galaxy 8 billion light years away, run it through a spectrum analyzer, and find out it is made of the same stuff as right here on Earth? or that we understand the mechanics of a super nova? or that we have figured out that just about everything that exists, as in the basic elements, were created in far away stars that exploded? or that existence is very consistent, so that what we know here on Earth is applicable to anywhere else -- even billions of light years away?

See, I think such people feel small because they do not have a man-centered view of existence. That is, they don't understand just how much man understands the universe -- the whole thing!

In fact, I am so tuned in to this attitude that when I am down and out, watching a science show -- and especially a show on cosmology -- really helps to bring me back to the proper perspective. In a way, it's almost like art to me. In art, one can experience the hero of the story and become revived, but often a science show does that for me because I realize that scientists are very heroically rational.

In other words, understanding existence and the universe makes me feel big, very big, because my mind can encompass all of that!

I feel the same way about philosophy and history, but by keeping in mind the total context of what it took for us to even become aware of those distant galaxies -- in terms of philosophy, science, and technology -- cannot possibly make me feel small.

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If you ever run into this attitude and for some reason you just want to blow the guy off, rather than try to explain things to him, just tell him to speak for himself.

In all seriousness, it makes perfect sense to speak of the "size" (which could be either physical extent or mass) of everything put together. (Unless, of course you are assuming it's infinite!) It may, after all, someday be possible for us to travel that distance (though at this point it looks like it would take a very interesting discovery or six in physics first).

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