Why Nothing Matters If There’s Nothing But Matter

The longest selfie stick in the history of humanity was 4 billion miles away from home when it took a picture of us. The photo is now famously known as “the pale blue dot”, because it happened to catch our planet as a point of brightness floating in a ray of sunlight. Astronomer Carl Sagan had suggested that NASA take the picture with their Voyager I probe, and he eloquently described the result:

“Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilisation, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there-on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”

Certainly, the sight of our entire world as nothing more than a point of light gives us pause. Being confronted with our own size is somehow sobering, and Sagan is quick to interpret this feeling for us by telling us what our tiny-ness means for us as humans:

“Our posturing, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves….The significance of our lives and our fragile planet is then determined only by our own wisdom and courage. We are the custodians of life’s meaning….If we crave some cosmic purpose, then let us find ourselves a worthy goal.”

Sagan assures us that we are insignificant specks whose only hope of finding meaning is if we can create it for ourselves. He was not the first to say such things (Herbert Spencer, who coined the phrase “survival of the fittest”, had popularised the same idea a hundred years earlier), but he lent the idea his powerful voice. Sagan speaks so well, in fact, that even when he slaps humanity down to size he is able to do it in a way that makes finding our own meaning and significance sound noble and wise and courageous. Or so it seems – until you stop to think for a moment about his claims: if we really are what Sagan tells us we are, than what possible significance and worthy goals can be achieved by the inhabitants of a speck of dust in a soul-less empty accident of a universe? The very idea that there is such a thing as actual “significance” or anything that qualifies as truly “worthy” for the inhabitants of dust motes floating in cold, uncaring nothingness is nonsense. He could have been honest about this, at least. He could have told us plainly that nothing we do actually matters, and never will. After shooting our significance in the heart, he might have at least acknowledged the death with a decent burial instead of trying to do CPR and tell us there’s still hope. In doing so, he gives himself away: he can’t actually live with the results of his own thinking.

And neither can we. If Sagan is right, than there is ultimately no such thing as inherent value for humanity. He has decreed for us that the only value a human can have is the value we assign to ourselves. Of course, he highlights the positives; speaking of the glories of tiny humans banding together to find some purpose for themselves beyond inevitable dust-mote despair. But he might have been considerate enough to at least mention that his idea also has a darker side: If we can assign value to ourselves, we can also un-assign value to ourselves. We can pick and choose, determining that some humans are valuable, while others are disposable. And we can do so using any criteria we like. We can even do it democratically – if enough of us collectively agree that some humans are disposable, who can stop us? This is Sagan’s gift of convenience to pragmatic politicians: Are elderly humans costing the health system too much money? Encourage them to dispose of themselves through euthanasia. Are humans with genetic differences complicating the education and social welfare systems? Encourage parents to test and dispose of these “imperfect” people before they are born, through abortion.

The implications could go much further (and probably will), but it’s interesting to note that this system only works one way. As long as we are using it to justify the de-valuing of lives, it runs smoothly and rolls easily over any obstruction. The trouble only begins when we turn the machine around and try to use it to assign positive value to life. Suddenly, we find that the engine has fallen out and we are left to push the monstrosity alone. The obstinate sticking point for this political dream machine is that it insists on going only one way, and then insists on going all the way. It can only remove value, and the moment we start it up for use against the inconvenient humans around us, we find it hungry to gobble up our own value as well. The problem is that a simple look at ourselves in the universe through Sagan’s eyes makes it hard to justify how any portion of the population of a speck of dust can ever make claims of significance and value for itself. When we zoom out to Voyager 1’s perspective, there’s really not much difference between a grown up speck of dust or an unborn speck of dust, or between a fantastically famous speck and the speck that inhabits a forgotten room in a mental institution.

Thankfully, we are not entirely at the mercy of Sagan’s meaning-munching machine. It turns out that in creating it, he has stepped beyond his authority. He has told us that the universe is big, and we believed him, because compared to it we are small. But he has not stopped there: he has also told us that the bigness of the universe teaches us that our small lives are inherently meaningless. But does this follow? Does smallness really preclude meaning? We might as well say that because we are not as long as a river, we cannot claim to run. The fact that we are small compared to the cosmos is just that: a fact. The further proposal that we are meaningless is not a part of this fact. Significance and meaning can rest quite well on tiny things in the right conditions. Which is exactly what Christianity teaches.

Unlike Sagan, the Christian does not look at the vastness of the galaxies as proof that we are alone, but rather as proof that we are in the company of Someone very large indeed. King David saw the sky and knew that he was small, which drove him to ask:

“What is mankind that you are mindful of them? What are human beings that you care for them?”

What are we? We are small. But for David, our significance is not in our size or our ability to manufacture worthy goals (as if that were possible for dust motes). No, our significance is found in the fact that our massive Creator has been mindful of us, God Himself has cared for us. He has shown that He considers us significant.

And so we are.

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