Atheist Meaning in a Small, Brief Life, Or, On Not Being a Size Queen

If there’s no God and no universal consciousness, and human existence is an infinitesimally brief, infinitesimally tiny eyeblink in the vastness of space and time… then what the heck is the point?

After I put up yesterday’s post (How Perfect Is the Universe, Anyway?), I realized that I left it on a bit of a downer. Something I don’t normally like to do. I wrote this whole piece about how it makes no sense to see the universe as having been designed so that human life could come into existence, since the possible lifespan of the human race is pathetically short compared to the ultimate lifespan of the universe… and I pretty much left it there. “Tough cheese, pals,” I basically said. “Suck it up.”

Sorry about that.

Today, I want to take that view of the universe, and try to respond to it with some actual humanist philosophy.

Now, the hardassed, “Reality doesn’t care if it hurts your feelings” response is… well, that reality doesn’t care if it hurts your feelings. The fact that you find reality upsetting doesn’t make it any less real. “I don’t want to live in a world without God” is not an argument for God’s existence. Tough cheese, pals. Suck it up.

But is there a more compassionate answer? A more joyful answer? An answer that doesn’t amount to “Life sucks, then you die”?

Can there be meaning and joy in a universe where human life is essentially an unusual chemical process on one hunk of rock orbiting one of a hundred billion stars in one of a hundred billion galaxies… a chemical process that’s only been going on for about 200,000 of the Universe’s nearly 14 billion years, and that’s pretty much guaranteed to end in another billion years, if not sooner, while the Universe continues to expand forever into an enormous expanse of mostly nothingness?

I think there is.

But it means letting go of a big chunk of ego.

I think this can be one of the hardest things about letting go of religion. It certainly was for me. I hated the idea that my soul wasn’t going to live forever; that there was no God or World-Soul animating the Universe for all eternity who nonetheless cared about my little contribution to it. I found it profoundly upsetting. (Yeah, so I have a bit of an ego. I like to think of myself as important. What’s your point?)

Earth in hand
When you let go of religion, your life can still have meaning. You just have to let go of it having meaning on an immense, universal scale. You have to let go of the arrogant belief that the very source and guiding hand of the Universe cares about what you do. You have to scale down the sense of where your life is lived: down from the cosmic, eternal scale, and onto a human, finite scale.

But it’s not like the human scale is any less real for being relatively small and relatively brief.

Quarks in proton
Here’s a way of looking at it that I find comforting. Let’s pretend, for a moment, that quarks and other sub-atomic particles have consciousness. And think of the quarks in the atoms of, say, your hand. To them, through their quarky little eyes, you would be as big as the galaxy is to you; heck, even as big as the Universe itself, if I’m doing my math right. And the atheist quarks might be having all sorts of identity crises because they’ve realized that the Person doesn’t have any personal knowledge about them, and doesn’t care about them, and that their existence is on an unbelievably minuscule scale compared to that of the Personverse.

But it’s not like the subatomic scale isn’t real, and isn’t important.

In fact, when you let go of the idea of a creator or a world-soul, the whole question of which scale of things is the most important suddenly becomes moot. Because when you let go of the idea of a creator or a world-soul, you then have to ask yourself, “Important to whom?”

Being an atheist means that you don’t have to be a size queen. There’s no reason the cosmic scale of galaxies and universes is objectively more important than the human scale… any more than the human scale is objectively more important than the subatomic scale. We are, in the immortal words of Mickey Mantle, children of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars, yada yada yada.

We’re just no more than the trees and the stars, either.

Crowd 2
In an atheist world view, the only thing that cares about us is other people. Other flawed, crazy, messy people, living on the same human scale that we are. (Well, plus some cats and dogs and stuff… but you know what I mean.) There’s no immense, eternal, perfect being watching our every move, feeling elated at our triumphs and devastated by our failures. Just a bunch of other screwed-up bags of water and flesh, with their own problems.

And this can be a hard pill to swallow. It can be hard to ask yourself, as Douglas Adams put it in the first Hitchhiker’s book, “Does it really, cosmically speaking, matter if I don’t get up and go to work?”… and have the answer be a pretty resounding, “No.”

But it also relieves us of a certain amount of responsibility. I mean, I have a hard enough time feeling hyper- responsible just on a human scale. I have a hard enough time with the burden of responsibility for the effect I have on poverty and racism and corporate imperialism and global warming. It’s kind of a relief to not have to worry about whether I’m letting down the World-Soul as well.

Rivers and tides
And I think it’s a mistake to think that longevity is the truest measure of importance or value. A five-minute dance in the park can be more valuable than an ugly abandoned building that never gets torn down; a half-second of transcendent joy and connection with a lover can be more important than a boring job that you slogged through for ten years. The movie “Rivers and Tides” was a profound influence on me for that reason: it reminded me that fleeting moments are every bit as valuable as stone monuments. In fact, fleeting moments are really all we have. We should make the best of them.

And finally, if you want to be all egoistic about it…

As far as we know, we’re the only beings in the Universe with consciousness. (Well, again, us and maybe dogs and cats and stuff.) And that doesn’t just mean that we get to create meaning for ourselves. It means that we get to decide which scale is the important one. In fact, if we are the only beings in the Universe with consciousness, our scale is the most important one, pretty much by definition… since “importance” is a concept that only makes sense if you have consciousness. The scale of living things is arguably the scale that matters most… since livings things are the only things to whom anything can matter.

Contrary to the canards that get tossed around about atheists by people who’ve never bothered to talk to one, atheism doesn’t mean that life has no meaning. It simply means that we get to create our own meaning. The meaning of our lives isn’t handed to us by someone else: we get to choose the meaning of our lives, based on the wiring of our brains and the values of our culture and the experiences that we and we alone have had.

And the same is true for the importance of our lives. Being an atheist doesn’t mean that life isn’t important. It means that we get to create our own sense of importance. The human scale is where we live. It’s what we have. And if we decide that that’s the most important scale for us, there’s nobody out there to tell us otherwise.

How Perfect Is the Universe, Anyway?

Before I start: A quick apology for the unscheduled blog break over Thanksgiving. I kept thinking I’d have time to blog over the holiday, and it kept not happening. My bad.

So how perfect is the universe, anyway?

There’s an argument I’ve been seeing a lot lately in support of religious belief. It’s sort of a cosmic version of the argument from design (the idea that biological life is too complex and too perfectly balanced to have just come into being on its own). Now, when it comes to the development of biological life, anyone who understands the theory of evolution knows that the argument from design is a non-starter. But the cosmic version of it has been making the rounds, even among people who completely accept evolution… and it’s what I want to hammer at today.

The cosmic version goes like this: The universe itself — indeed, the basic laws and forces of physics — is all perfectly set up to allow life to come into being. Too perfectly. The force of gravity, the forces that hold atoms together, all that good stuff… if any of it had been even just a tiny bit different, the universe would look radically different, and would be completely inhospitable to any life, much less human life. It would have all flown to pieces in an instant, or collapsed back in on itself, or something. But the way it turned out was perfectly suited for life on Earth to come into being.

Therefore, the universe had to have been designed.

I’ve talked about this before. I’ve pointed out how human- centric this argument is; how it assumes that, because we are here, therefore we were required to be here. I’ve pointed out that the fact that you, personally, against astronomical odds, were born, doesn’t mean that you were required to be born, or that we need to come up with an entire philosphy or theology to explain your birth… and the same is true for our species. I’ve pointed out that if you roll ten dice and they come up 4636221434, that particular pattern is wildly improbable
 but the fact that it’s wildly improbable doesn’t mean it was designed to happen. If it hadn’t happened — your birth, the existence of life, the roll of 4636221434 on ten dice — then something else would have happened instead. Something equally improbable.

But today, I want to make a different point.

How perfect is the universe, really?

Big bang
Let’s take a quick look at the past. The post- Big- Bang universe is about 14 billion years old. The Earth has only been around for about 4.5 billion of those years. Life on Earth has only been around for about 3.7 billion of them. And human life has only been around for a ridiculously puny 200,000.

And now let’s take a quick look at the future. The surface temperature of our Sun is rising. In about one billion years, the surface of the Earth will be too hot for liquid water to exist, thus putting a big ol’ kibosh on this whole Life on Earth project. And if our current understanding of astronomy is correct, the universe itself is just going to keep expanding and expanding forever, until everything in it is dissipated into atoms drifting in space.

In other words:

The post- Big- Bang Universe is about 14 billion years old. The slice of that time that includes life is only 3.7 billion years — less than a third of its total existence. And the slice of that time that includes human life is only 200,000 years — one 7,000th of its total existence so far.

And even if human beings defy all evolutionary odds and survive for the entire existence of life on Earth… well, life on Earth won’t be around past another billion years. And even if the insanely improbable happens, and humankind somehow figures out interstellar travel and planetary colonization and thus survives past the Sun’s big Red Giant kaflooey… well, planets themselves aren’t going to be around forever, what with the universe’s eternal expansion and all. Things fall apart; the center cannot hold, as the great W.C. Fields once said. If current astronomy is correct, the life-span of the universe is going to be far, far longer than the life-span of humanity.

How, exactly, is that perfect?

I don’t know about you, but I find this something of a buzz-kill. And it sure as heck doesn’t look like a universe perfectly designed to make human life possible. A nice, calm, steady-state universe, where everything just hangs around in more or less its current form forever, would have been a lot more human-friendly. It sure would have looked a lot more like a universe designed for life and humanity than this one does.

The great Douglas Adams (of “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” fame) made a point that’s very pertinent to this idea. In his posthumous book, The Salmon of Doubt, he said, “Imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, ‘This is an interesting world I find myself in — an interesting hole I find myself in — fits me rather neatly, doesn’t it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!’”

He was talking about the evolution of life on Earth, and the hubris of assuming that, because we fit so neatly into our environment, therefore both we and our environment must have been specially designed. But his argument applies equally well to the cosmic version of the argument from design, every bit as much as the biological version.

The hole for the puddle of life on Earth has a maximum life span of about 5 billion years before it dries up. The hole for the puddle of human life on Earth has a maximum life span of about one billion years. In the life span of the universe so far, that’s pretty minor… and in the life span of the universe from here to eternity, it’s a tiny blip on the radar. It is the height of arrogant, human- centric hubris to assume that the entire vastness of the Universe — including planets and stars and galaxies that we can’t see and will probably never see — was deliberately designed by a loving creator so that the chemical process of life could, for a relatively brief span of time, come into being, and then flicker out again.

UPDATE: I realized after I posted this piece that I ended it on kind of a downer note. I have therefore written a follow-up, Atheist Meaning in a Small, Brief Life, Or, On Not Being a Size Queen, that explores some possible ways to find positive meaning and value and importance in this particular world view.