It is sometimes said that we humans occupy a middle ground in the scale of the universe. Peer inwards - at proportions many millions of times smaller than our everyday experiences - you will come across subatomic particles that make up the matter from which we are comprised. They themselves reduce to smaller things.
Gaze outwards and at scales many orders of magnitude greater and there are the galaxies swirling, black holes colliding and at the apex, even these immense structures strung out in wisps of matter that define the largest dimensions.
So here we are, diminutive little creatures sitting in the middle of this sweep of minuteness to majesty. We are made of the weakest stuff in the universe: febrile organic material. We are so complex that the slightest perturbation in the environment sends the machine awry; we feel sick when our temperature deviates just a couple of degrees from around 37°C. The rest of the universe is happy doing its thing from near absolute zero to many millions of degrees.
In this reality, there is both humility and grandeur. Humility, because we stand aghast at the sheer scales that lie on either side of us and our tenuous existence on the surface of a small spheroid in orbit around a not-too-remarkable star that is but one of trillions in the universe.
Grandeur, because these unusual little creatures have managed to fathom these vast panoramas. We have built microscopes and telescopes and all manner of other apparatus, this odd phenomenon of consciousness. The all-powerful subatomic particles on which the foundations of the universe rest and the titanic superstructure of the cosmos which shapes the patterns of all the matter yet discovered have yet to write a single poem.
Vladimir Nabokov, that ennobled butterfly-catching émigré from Marxist terror, observed: “How small the cosmos (a kangaroo’s pouch would hold it), how paltry and puny in comparison to human consciousness, to a single individual recollection, and its expression in words!”
This brings me crashing down to Earth and our current woes.
There are many ways to examine this war. One could talk about the defence of a sovereign nation; one could have arguments about liberty, democracy and the rule of law. All those things are immensely important and I have expressed some of my own views on these matters in this newspaper.
But where does the individual sit?
Here, I want to take a simple scientific view of the matter.
I think there are two ways to think about this. One could take a nihilistic view of the war. That is the perspective embedded within the humility that I spoke about earlier. The universe cares not a jot for our goings-on. After all, we’ve been around for less than half a million years, yet the dinosaurs, who clocked up a staggering 150-million-year mastery of the Earth, were wiped out in a single day by an asteroid not much larger than the diameter of Kyiv.
No matter what your religious proclivities, it’s safe to say that the leftover rubble in our Solar System does not concern itself with us - nor does it seem that anyone out there is doing much to keep us out of harm’s way. One might say the same thing about all the other flavours of violence that the natural world can throw at us.
With these facts in mind, one could take an absolutely cold view of wars and ask whether they matter at all. In the grander scope of the course of universal history and the possibility of extinction in an instant, does the coming and going of nation-states and despots really matter?
But if you lean, as I do, towards a more awed view of the emergence of intelligence on this planet, the nihilistic view has an extraordinary barrenness about it. The simple fact of the matter is that we have come into being and here we are, experiencing joy, love, humour, bemusement, and often fascination at this strange predicament that we are: a self-reflective entity that has appeared from wisps of gas.
However temporary we might be (we have no idea) or what the significance of our intelligence might be, if any (we also have no idea), we are unusual. Some people like to describe humans as atoms becoming aware of themselves; the universe understanding itself. While these descriptions are poetic, I’m not sure they reveal much about any intrinsic specialness in humanity, at least from the point of view of the universe.
We don’t know if there are other entities out there experiencing the same as us, but we do know that the universe isn’t awash with chattering aliens. That observation alone is sufficient to emphasise that there is a certain loneliness in our experiences and an unusual aspect to what we are.
It’s easy for these facts to drive us back onto the nihilistic path, but with a bit of imagination we can see another way. That alternative road is to revel in the weirdness of our actuality and to enjoy the brief moment of consciousness that we are. If we take this path, it probably implies we should all do our best to maximise the peacefulness we create around us.
By pursuing peace and happiness, I’m not suggesting hedonism either. We are not isolated entities whose enjoyment can be sought without consequence. A sense of duty towards other human beings, decency in our behaviour, honesty to others, kindness, and thoughtfulness; all these virtues, and more, are ways to instantiate into society the vital collective respect that allows us all to take part in this adventure in the best way possible.
So, although all these attributes may seem distinctly human and rather ephemeral to galaxies and black holes, they are immensely relevant for ensuring that our fleeting conscious brains have a pleasant time existing.
Beyond our personal behaviour, I happen to believe that at larger scales, democratic means of discussing what we all want, justice systems that treat human beings with respect and dignity, and societies in which we can all express our ideas without being brutalised, emerge from this view. Again, as with individuals, we should try as best we can to find ways to make our tenure in the cosmos bearable for as many of our fellow creatures, whatever our ultimate purposes. Some social systems self-evidently do this better than others.
There is a tendency to see these rather intellectual, some might say, detached views of humanity as irrelevant to the lives of people and their daily concerns, particularly in Ukraine at the current time. As the late Václav Havel, Czech President and former dissident, memorably put it to the Czechoslovak Union of Writers in 1965, three years before the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia, it is easy to allow grand visions to swallow up and make trivial the local; in his case the example of a poorly maintained stone window ledge that collapsed, killed a woman, and caused an outcry that was dismissed by a writer at the time as a distraction from society’s greater socialist accomplishments.
In contrast, sometimes a more universal perspective on our situation can intensify the importance of the local by bringing into sharp relief the personal significance of things that shape our day-to-day trials. The further you telescope out your view of humanity, the more the little things that make our lives worthwhile become meaningful, not less significant; the diminutive oasis of the personal on Earth against the impersonal and violent universe becomes more accentuated.
The mind-numbing vastness of the universe is precisely the reason why we should care about the woman under the window ledge and the fate of every personality, because that is what we have. These interactions constitute the mortal relevance of a mind to itself and others.
To my mind, Václav Havel was one of the most eloquent at explaining that ideology should never trivialize the moment-to-moment experience of a single person. Nor does our grasp of the cosmic big picture lighten the substance and gravity in the situation of individuals, particularly those caught up in this war.
Charles Cockell is Professor of Astrobiology at the University of Edinburgh.
The views expressed in this opinion article are the author’s and not necessarily those of Kyiv Post.
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