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Department: Opening Salvo
Article originally appeared in
According to the usual story of the Middle Ages, people at that time thought the earth was flat. They did not actually think that, but they did believe that the sun went around the earth and that the earth stood still. And then Copernicus and Galileo came along and enlightened everyone. Man was dethroned from the center of the universe. And then even our solar system was discovered to be a mere mediocrity in an average galaxy, only one galaxy among trillions more. A photograph taken by Voyager One on February 14, 1990, from 3.8 million miles away, showed the earth as, in the words of Carl Sagan, a "pale blue dot" within the darkness of deep space. We inhabit "a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam."
Many have used modern scientific discoveries to suggest that Man is insignificant. We not only live on a speck of dust, but our history is a mere blip in 14 billion years of history after the Big Bang. In terms of both time and space, then, we are blips and, therefore, apparently insignificant.
But making such a judgment is not science. To speak of significance or insignificance at all is to make a philosophical or metaphysical assertion about meaning. Scientists making such statements are enlisting numbers in an effort to advance a moral or philosophical point of view. But numbers are merely that: raw numbers. Merely tools to measure, count, and describe, they can point to nothing beyond quantity. They do not establish quality—or meaning.
But some scientists ignore these limitations of empirical science and become "labcoat philosophers." Biologist Richard Dawkins concluded in River Out of Eden that "the universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference." Dawkins also knows that the universe has precisely the properties needed for human life—life that is full of purpose, including his own purpose in writing books about purposelessness. One can only talk about "what it all means" by using philosophy.
Similarly, Nobel laureate astronomer Steven Weinberg muses on the drama of modern enlightenment in Facing Up:
Nothing in the last five hundred years has had so great an effect on the human spirit as the discoveries of modern science. Just think of the effect of the discoveries of Copernicus, Galileo, and Hubble in astronomy, and Darwin, Wallace, and Mendel in biology. We find that the earth on which we live is a speck of matter revolving around a commonplace star, one of billions in a galaxy of stars, which itself is only one of trillions of galaxies. Even more chilling, we ourselves are the end result of a vast sequence of breedings and eatings, the same process that has also produced the clam and the cactus.
He implies that the relative size of the Earth indicates meaning. But the meaning or meaninglessness he asserts does not come from science. It comes from Dr. Weinberg's mind. Does anyone live as if the earth were merely a tiny, insignificant speck? Would Weinberg like to spend the rest of his life circling the globe to show us how tiny it is? He would find himself exhausted. Is even his home "only" a speck in a massive universe called Texas? I'd wager he values that speck and purposefully put thought into its location and furnishings.
Weinberg insists that all these facts are "chilling." Chilling to whom? Surely Dr. Weinberg does not sit "chilled" at his desk or stand at his lectern quaking with intellectual chills. Did he receive his Nobel Prize with chilled emotions and brave words about how meaningless it is?
Such scientists, if they were honest, might even admit to having a touch of faith, hope, and love in their lives. Don't let any of them tell you differently, using big numbers. You are not a speck; you are significant—each and every one. •
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