Limited Causal Efficacy: The Impact Worry

  • 1 My life affects only an infinitesimally small portion of the vast cosmos for such a short time.
  • 2 Things that affect only an infinitesimally small portion of the vast cosmos for such a short time are insignificant.
  • 3 Therefore, my life is insignificant.

The impact worry, while not unconnected from both of the previous (time and size) worries, frames the concern about human significance in the universe differently. Accordingly, our duration and size might be relevant to determining human significance, but only insofar as they make our impacts on the universe negligible at best. Thus voiced, what we do upon the grand scale of cosmic history is even less than the ripple created by throwing a pebble into the Pacific Ocean.

With impact in view, it is hard to imagine how we or anything we do, even collectively as a human species, makes much more than a negligible impact on the universe. We are like specks of dust in a large room. All the stuff that we take to have gravitas—birthdays, weddings, vocations, cures for diseases, wars, nations rising and falling—is cosmically inconsequential, just a largely ineffectual blip against the cosmic backdrop. In terms of the history of the cosmos, the human drama and our own personal dramas play out on a vast, uncaring stage.

Chemical scum: the reductionism worry

We might also worry about our significance if, as some forms of naturalism claim, everything, including persons and all of their properties, are nothing more than complex arrangements of physical stuff (see infographic immediately below). Are we, as the late astrophysicist Stephen Hawking said, “just a chemical scum”? If all the things that we take to be preconditions for meaning—consciousness, value, purpose, love, and so on—are themselves just matter in motion, how can any of it be significant? On this view, we are no more valuable than other configurations of atoms. We are simply different, more complex arrangements. Consider the following statement by Francis Crick, the co-discoverer of the structure of DNA:

The Astonishing Hypothesis is that “You,” your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. As Lewis Carroll’s Alice may have phrased it: “You’re nothing but a pack of neurons.” This hypothesis is so alien to the ideas of most people alive today that it can be truly called astonishing.

(Crick, 1995, p. 3)

For many, this picture of human life is worrisome for the prospects of meaning (see Chapter 3 for more on this).

There may be reasons to be suspicious about all three of these preceding significance worries (to that shortly), but there are also reasons to take them seriously. Here is one reason. Think about how significance waxes and wanes depending on shifting contexts, frameworks, or perspectives. For example, consider the splinter you got as a young child. This is, no doubt, an important matter for a four-year-old. It is painful, especially when your parent has to remove it to prevent an infection. The splinter’s significance in your life, however, wanes as it is put in wider contexts. Looking back at age 50, it is not nearly as significant as it was when it happened. A noteworthy event that makes it into some town’s local lore likely will not make it into regional or state records, let alone national, international, historic, or cosmic annals. Things that are significant from some local vantage point can quickly become insignificant from a wider one. From the cosmic perspective, human life seems like this. Philosopher Nicholas Rescher captures the idea:

In nature’s vast cosmic scheme of things, we humans are to all appearances cast in the role of an insignificant member of an insignificant species. On the astronomical scale, we are no more than obscure inhabitants of an obscure planet. Nothing we are or do in our tiny sphere of action within the universe’s vast reaches of space and time makes any substantial difference in the long run. The glories that were Greece and the grandeur that was Rome have pretty much melted away with the snows of yesteryear. Perhaps the proverb exaggerates in claiming that “it will all be the same 100 years hence.” But eventually, the last trace of our feeble human efforts will certainly vanish under the all-consuming ravages of time.

  • (Rescher, 1990, p. 153)
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