Meaning. How do we, humans, find meaning in our lives? Or, more importantly, why do humans strive to find a light at the end of the tunnel, some greater purpose to our daily experiences? Some turn to religion as a form of spirituality, some begin to explore the world around them through science to somehow understand their place in it all. The religion aspect of it is self-explanatory. Question: “Why am I special?” Answer: “Because God made you so.” Obviously oversimplified, but not entirely false. The question that seems more intriguing is how does science help us find and express our identities and purpose in life?
With scientific progress and the expansion of knowledge and understanding of the world around us, humans have become significantly more insignificant. The belief that the world is at the center of the solar system, and by extension the universe, has been shattered. Compared to the planet as we used to know it, we were once “average-seized” beings, for lack of a better term, in the little world we had barely begun to understand. We were able to conquer mountains and cross the seas, to explore our surroundings. Since then we have come to know realms we cannot fully comprehend, let alone conquer. As stated by Mann in “How to Picture the Size of the Universe”, one of Hubble’s images of a tiny patch of sky reveals almost 10,000 galaxies, and that’s just a “small sample of what’s out there”.
If the story of mankind had a commentator, he would likely say: “Guess what humans who think you are so special just because you are capable of abstract through and of creating technology? You are very, very tiny in the grand scheme of things”. But somehow, this evident triviality of our existence amongst all the stars and dark matter and dark energy and whatnot of the universe does not phase the human race. On the contrary, people such as Conti from Andersen’s “How Big Data is Changing Astronomy”, see Hubble as “unbelievable” and the images it produces as “iconic” and even “precious”. We somehow come to find significance in our trifling existence, essentially basking in our own pettiness.
The 17th century saw a leap in biology with the discovery of microorganisms, thanks to Antonie Van Leeuwenhoek and his DIY microscopes. All of a sudden we were not only extremely small by comparison, but extremely large as well. There were things that were too small for us to see with our naked eye. They had been there all along, and we did not even realize it! Organisms that did not care about how we led our lives, which were not concerned with whether our socks matched or if we were morally sound individuals. Surely, even the creatures living on and inside of us don’t give us much though. They just go on with their lives, dividing and multiplying, while we struggle to somehow make sense of it all. And in the end, biologically, we achieve the same result. We both reproduce, pass on our genetic material to future generations, thus leaving our mark, and depart from this world. Or rejoin the endless cycle of matter and energy, if you prefer.
Things so minuscule that we cannot even see them, things so extremely humongous that we cannot truly comprehend our exact place amongst it all”¦ How do we even begin to determine who we are and what part we play, when we cannot possibly know if we are going about our search for purpose the right way, or if we are even asking the right questions?
As said by Mann, “While we are not the center of the universe, we are at the center of this observable portion of the universe”. This is where the issue of relativism comes in, and as Simon Blackburn so nicely put it in Being Good: An Introduction to Ethics, “Relativism taken to its limit becomes subjectivism: not the view that each culture or society has its own truth, but that each individual has his or her own truth. And who is to say which is right?” Many disciplines (psychology, religious teachings, and science to name a few) have theories that state that each individual perceives from their own frame of reference, that everything is relative. If all of our experiences differ, and we are looking for the Truth, whether it is through forms of spirituality, religion, and/or science, how do we know what the Truth is? Is our search futile? Is it meaningless? You can always bring in the good old “the journey is more important than the destination” analogy, but the thing is, that only works where we are searching for something that may be unattainable, but still exists in theory. What if it doesn’t exist at all? Truth cannot be relative! That defeats the purpose of it being the Truth. If space and time, and by extension everything that the universe is, is relative, then the only things that hold are the laws of physics. However, those also seem to become “relative” when theoretical physicists get a hold of them.
Some say that there is more to life than plain “living”, so they turn to religion. Yet some say there is more to it than religion, it’s just not enough for them and they can’t bare to settle, so they turn to gathering every single little detail and piece of evidence about this universe they can in a desperate and uncontainable thirst for knowledge. So we come up with methods of finding out more and more. We build giant telescopes to generate giant images made up of ginormous amounts of pixels. It has come to the point where, according to Andersen’s “How Big Data is Changing Astronomy”, modern technology can collect a hundred more times of data than several years ago. We get so much data that we do not even get to analyze most of it.
So what is the point? We take the vast ocean that is the universe and try to study it piece by piece, in an effort to understand it. We can try to comprehend the individual slices of the whole, but we will likely never fully know how the universe “works” (unless you are a Time Lord). Do we lose sight of the big picture when attempting to break everything down with science? Do we “murder to dissect”? How valid is our human attempt to grasp what is unperceivable in essence? I just don’t know. But who does?