Sunday, 20 November 2016

Guy Kahane on our Cosmic Significance

In a paper entitled “Our Cosmic Insignificance”, published in Nous 48.4 (2014): 745-772, Guy Kahane attempts to clarify what cosmic significance (and its opposite, cosmic insignificance) actually is and whether we really are as “cosmically insignificant” as the immense vastness of the universe has often been taken to suggest. Kahane argues that we often misunderstand the nature of cosmic significance and insignificance and that, due to this misunderstanding, we mistakenly believe ourselves to be cosmically insignificant, while in fact we are anything but (assuming we are right about the facts on which we base the belief in our alleged insignificance): “it turns out that we might be of immense cosmic significance, even universally central, in the only sense that matters.” (746-7) In view of this conclusion, the paper would have been more aptly titled “Our Alleged Cosmic Insignificance” or simply “Our Cosmic Significance”.

It is not uncommon for us to feel cosmically insignificant. Kahane cites many philosophers and writers who provide evidence of this. If you feel too important and take yourself and your affairs too seriously, just think how gigantic the universe is both in space and time and how miniscule we are in comparison. The contemplation of all those billions of years during which we do not exist and all those vast spaces that we are unable to fathom, let alone traverse, should be more than sufficient to crush all our illusions of grandeur. It makes us realize that in the grand scheme of things our lives do not really matter. From the point of view of the universe, we are nothing.

As Kahane correctly points out, this concern about our cosmic insignificance seems to be different from metaethical concerns about the non-existence of objective values. Even if we do have such metaethical concerns and believe that because nothing matters objectively we don’t matter either and (perhaps erroneously) that this makes our existence pointless, surely this has got nothing to do with the size or age of the universe. If we lived in a tiny and very short-lived universe, then values would not be any more objective than they are now. So it seems that if we are worried about our cosmic insignificance, we are not worried about there not being anything that really matters, but about our own relative insignificance. In other words, we do not seem to doubt that things can have value. We simply have lost our confidence that we have much value, all things considered. Some things do matter. We just happen to be not one of them. Yet once again it is not clear why we should think we have less value in a big universe than we would have in a small one. “If something possesses intrinsic value, value in virtue of its intrinsic properties, then how could the size of the universe, or indeed anything about the surrounding universe, affect its value in any way?” (748) Size is irrelevant for (intrinsic) value. What I am and what I do either matters or does not matter, but whether or not it does is independent of the size of the universe. Kahane cites Bertrand Russell to emphasize this point: “there is no reason to worship mere size”, Russell said, “Sir Isaac Newton was very much smaller than a hippopotamus”.

That size does not matter in itself is of course correct. However, it seems to me that Kahane is perhaps missing the point here. Newton may be much smarter than a hippopotamus and much more eminent, but if the two had a fight, the hippopotamus would probably win it and there wouldn’t be much left of Newton. And while we may conceivably win a fight against a hippopotamus, we have no chance at all to win a fight against the universe, precisely because it is so much bigger. My point is that perhaps our concerns are not so much about size as such as they are about power. While what is bigger is not necessarily more powerful than what is smaller, size is usually a good indicator of power, and if the size of a thing is so immense that there is not really a common measure between it and us, then it would be foolish to think we might stand a chance to overpower it in a confrontation. In other words, we don’t feel insignificant because the universe is big and we are small, but because we correctly infer from its immensity that we are utterly powerless to influence the course of (cosmic) events. Whatever we do, things will stay pretty much the same, and in the end, once we are all gone (and gone we will be), things will be exactly as they would have been if we had never existed at all.

While our ‘intrinsic value’ may not be affected by the size of the universe, our power (the effect we may hope to have on the overall course of things) certainly is. And ‘intrinsic value’ is a very abstract notion, by which I mean that it does not have much, if any content. It is pragmatically empty. ‘Power’ on the other hand is concrete, steeped in the real world. Power and its absence are very real for us; intrinsic value, on the other hand, not so much. The more we are able to effect, the more powerful we are. The less we are able to effect, the more powerless we are. In order to think that we can ‘change the world’, as many of us aspire to do, we need to pretend that “the world” is pretty much exhausted by the here and now, confined to Planet Earth and a few hundred years (if we are very ambitious). If we then, in a lucid moment, realize that the world is actually much bigger than that and that, consequently, the effects of our actions are so infinitesimally small that they are as good as non-existent, we are perfectly justified to feel utterly insignificant.

That Kahane does not consider the possibility that the cosmic insignificance concern is about (lack of) power rather than size is a bit odd, especially since he continues his argument by distinguishing between (intrinsic) value and significance, defining the latter in terms of a thing’s ability “to make a difference”, which is pretty much what I understand by ‘power’. Value, for Kahane, is a necessary, but not a sufficient condition of significance. Only something that has some value can be significant, but not everything that has value is. In order to be significant, the valuable thing also needs to “make a difference”, and if it does make a difference (and only then), it “merits our attention and concern”. (749)

Kahane uses the example of pain to illustrate the difference between value and significance. Pain is bad. Its badness is its intrinsic (though in this case negative) value.[1] However, not each instance of pain is significant. In order to be significant, i.e. to matter in the emphatic sense of meriting our attention and concern, it needs to stick out, either by being much more intense or enduring than most other instances or pain, or by being a relatively rare occurrence. What is important here is that intrinsic value is thought to be independent of changes in the environment, while significance is not. My pain is bad no matter how many people are in pain and how bad their pain is. My pain does not get any better if your pain increases. However, if that happens, then my pain becomes less significant. It is no longer such a big deal if we adopt an objective (or cosmic) point of view, because it is just one instance of pain among others, and there are others that are worse. Similarly, if my existence is intrinsically valuable, then it is valuable no matter what happens around me, and no matter how big or small the universe is. Yet the significance of my existence may increase or decrease, depending on certain changing features of my environment. If that is correct, then our significance may possibly also be affected by the size of the universe. And indeed it is. Just not the way we thought it was. Far from making our lives insignificant, the sheer vastness of the universe actually increases our significance. This is because although the universe may be vast, there is not much of value in it: “When we are impressed by our tiny size, by the vastness of the space that envelops us, and conclude that we must be very unimportant, this may be because we forget to consider just how empty this immensity is. An observer might take a very long time to find us in this immensity, but besides us, he might find in it little or nothing to care about.” (753)

We cannot know whether there are other beings like us anywhere in the universe, but so far we haven’t found any evidence of that. If there is nobody else out there, that would make us very special indeed. The emptier the world is, the more significant our comparative fullness (the fact that our lives have value) becomes. We are then, from the point of view of the cosmos, the only thing that matters in the world. “The argument is embarrassingly simple. We possess value, and, if we are alone, nothing else in the universe does. Therefore we are the only thing that has value, and, trivially, possess most value. We’re therefore of immense cosmic significance.”

But why do we matter in the first place? What exactly is it that is supposed to give us intrinsic value? According to Kahane, we “possess value in virtue of our capacity to think and love”. (754) The assumption that human lives possess some intrinsic value is justified, he argues, because virtually everyone agrees that we do. At least we will all agree that it is bad when people (and perhaps also animals) suffer, which implies that it matters what happens to them. If their lives had no value, their suffering should not concern us. But according to Kahane our significance goes beyond that of sentient life. We are also intelligent, and this intelligence and what it allows us to do gives us a unique, distinctive, superior kind of value (757). Why? Because (almost) everyone says so. And even if that were not so, we can very much affect what happens to other life on earth and even the planet as a whole, which, if all value is terrestrial, puts us in a very important position indeed. Given our (probably) unique constitution, we are anything but insignificant. We do make a huge difference.

The problem I have with this argument is not so much that it is simply taken for granted that humans lives are intrinsically valuable (on the rather shaky grounds that most humans would agree with that), but that I’m having trouble understanding what ‘making a difference’ means in this context. Those who have bemoaned our cosmic insignificance have understood it in the sense of a lack of causal power, for instance Nicholas Rescher or Susan Wolf, who are both quoted by Kahane. Rescher states that “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 with the universe’s vast reaches of space and time makes any substantial difference in the long run.” Wolf, similarly, stresses our inability to “make a big and lasting splash”. Evidently, the feeling of cosmic insignificance is, as I pointed out earlier, not about size, but about (the relative lack of) power. But Kahane refuses to acknowledge that. He accepts that we may very well disappear very soon without a trace, without having made “any grand, lasting causal impact on the cosmic scale” (760), but insists that we are still making “a vast difference” and that it would be “a momentous loss” if we disappeared from the cosmos. Unfortunately, however, it is not clear at all (at least not to me) in what way we are ‘making a difference’. What difference exactly does our existence make? And for whom and what does it make a difference? And who would suffer the loss if we were no longer around? The universe? Would the universe care? If it could care, then our disappearance would presumably not be such a great loss (because, as I understand the claim, it is a great loss precisely because we are the only ones who can care). And if it would not, how can our disappearance be a loss for it? For Kahane, our significance is ultimately a function of our supposed intrinsic value. We ‘make a difference’ not because we achieve anything lasting, but because we are ‘valuable’ while nothing else is. In other words, we are supposed to make a difference despite the fact that we are not really making any difference at all.

I am not a hostile critic. I am sympathetic to what Kahane is trying to do. I want to believe that what we do and not do matters, that it is significant in some way (and I kind of do believe it). But Kahane’s argument has failed to convince me that we have no grounds to feel cosmically insignificant. We try to reassure ourselves that we are something special and something wonderful, and perhaps we are, but we also want to believe that there is a (cosmic) point to our existence, and perhaps there isn’t. To insist so much on our cosmic significance smacks of narcissism, of megalomania. Kahane realizes that, but insists that it is not that at all. Having such significance is, after all, “not a cause for elation, but a burden” (764). It gives us a whole lot of responsibility, lends a “cosmic urgency” to our existence and survival. Understanding our cosmic significance should prompt us take our existence seriously.

Fair enough. However, I still don’t see why it matters whether we exist or not. Why is it important that beings exist who can think and love if, ultimately, nothing comes off it? Even if we are markedly different from the rest of the universe (as the only creators of values), why is this a difference that makes a difference?

[1] That this value is intrinsic I take to mean that it is bad for there to be pain rather than merely bad for the one who suffers it, but perhaps Kahane has a different view on that.

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