Does the Size of the Cosmos Render Man Insignificant?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

That is the popular view among materialists (those who deny the existence of anything but the material world).  They beg us look at the sheer immensity of the universe and then look at the tininess of the human race in contrast.  The idea that man is special, that man holds a privileged seat in the cosmos is simply ridiculous, they claim.

The arch-materialist Carl Sagan (as quoted from The End of Christianity: Finding a Good God in an Evil World by William Dembski) had these thoughts on the matter:

Because of the reflection of sunlight . . . the earth seems to be sitting in a beam of light, as if there were some special significance to this small world.  But it’s just an accident of geometry and optics. . . . Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light.  Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark.

Does the size of the universe relative to man render him insignificant?  Maybe if you’re a materialist, but not if you’re a Christian.  Scripture declares that God has created man in his image, that man indeed has a special seat of honor in the universe.  Theologically, Christians recognize that the materialist argument fails.  Scientifically, works like The Privileged Planet: How Our Place in the Cosmos Is Designed for Discovery demonstrate that the earth is unique in its ability to support advanced life and to enable scientific discovery.

As Dembski points out, G. K. Chesterton wrote one of the most memorable responses to the materialist claim of man’s insignificance in his classic work Orthodoxy.  Here is Chesterton speaking of the materialist Herbert Spencer:

He popularized this contemptible notion that the size of the solar system ought to over-awe the spiritual dogma of man. Why should a man surrender his dignity to the solar system any more than to a whale? If mere size proves that man is not the image of God, then a whale may be the image of God. . . . It is quite futile to argue that man is small compared to the cosmos; for man was always small compared to the nearest tree.

What the size of the universe tells us is how awesome God is, not how insignificant man is, for man has always been spatially smaller than what surrounds him (e.g., whales and trees).  As Psalm 19 says, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.  Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge.”

  • Boz

    “Scientifically, works like The Privileged Planet demonstrate that the earth is unique in its ability to support advanced life and to enable scientific discovery.”

    This demonstration can only be done by checking every planet in the universe.

  • Bill Pratt

    Boz,
    “This demonstration can only be done by checking every planet in the universe.”

    Only if the conclusion is argued to be certain, which it is not. It is an inductive argument which means the conclusion is probable, not certain. Based on what we know about the conditions necessary for advanced life and scientific discovery, the earth is unique among all the other astronomical bodies we have observed thus far. It is certainly possible we will find another body which renders the earth less unique in this regard, but that hasn’t happened yet, to my knowledge.

  • Boz

    I understood the post to be claiming that there was certainty(or near-certainty) that the earth is unique in its ability to support advanced life. Thanks for clarifying that this is not the case.

    I agree that based on what we know about the conditions necessary for advanced life, the earth is unique among all the other astronomical bodies we have observed thus far.

    Humans have only checked 100(?) planets and moons out of an estimate of (1 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000) 1 million billion billion bodies in the observable universe, so it’s probably too early to extrapolate.

  • Bill Pratt

    Boz,
    But we keep finding more and more conditions that are necessary for advanced life. The list of requirements is growing at a rapid rate, and so the chances of finding another planet which can support advanced life are becoming smaller and smaller. The trend is definitely not good for those who think there is advanced life out there to be found.

  • “Sometimes people stumble over this vastness in relation to the apparent insignificance of man. It does seem to make us infinitesimally small. But the meaning of this magnitude is not mainly about us. It’s about God… The reason for ‘wasting’ so much space on a universe to house a speck of humanity is to make a point about our maker, not us.” –John Piper, Seeing and Savoring Jesus Christ

  • MisteryX_891

    i love it!

  • Andrew Ryan

    I’ve not heard an atheist claim that individual humans are intrinsically insignificant. To argue that we hold no significance for the rest of the universe is a different thing. We’re not insignificant to each other, and no-one argues that we are.

  • I’ve not heard an atheist claim that individual humans are intrinsically insignificant. To argue that we hold no significance for the rest of the universe is a different thing. We’re not insignificant to each other, and no-one argues that we are.

    Part of the reason for that is that there is disagreement upon what is meant by “insignificant.” Some people simply aren’t happy with the idea that we bring significance to our own lives and each other — they say that “if there’s no god then life is pointless because we exist for a finite time, and so we should just go do whatever we want for no reason.”

    To these people I venture to ask, “have you ever watched a movie?” They invariably ask me, “yes, of course, how is that relevant?” To which I respond, “why did you bother wasting your time? A movie won’t last forever, it will eventually end and we’ll have to go back to our regular lives, so why should we care about it or want to watch it?”

    The idea being that just because something is small or cosmically insignificant does not make it impossible for someone to choose to place value in it.

  • DonS.

    I think anti-Christian critics should really invest the time to read such books as Rare Earth or Privileged Planet to fully grasp not only how rare are the components that give Earth life but even more rare intelligent life.

    As time goes by and our planet-detecting abilities increase I suspect the findings will only reinforce how special you and I truly are.

  • Hudson

    http://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/story/2011/02/02/science-space-kepler-planets.html

    I suspect the opposite. Care to make a wager DonS?

    Life is no more or less significant then any other form of matter. Rarity of matter is solely based on its ability to form; many planets are not in the “habitable” zone suitable to harbor life. Just as some planets are unsuitable to develop other non-living forms of matter. At the end of the day… either our brains are far too small to fully grasp the universe and its marvels OR There is a god capable of creating the marvels of the universe but is only capable of creating intellectually imperfect life. If Man was created in gods image and man is imperfect both physically(mortal life) and mentally(good vs evil) then god is also imperfect. Therefore by judging gods failure on the creation of man one can simply come to the conclusion there is no way he could create the complexity and vastness of the universe without tremendous feats of failure. Failures such as these are unknown to us as a species thus-far so…god does not exist.

  • DonS.

    To each his delusion, Hudson, with yours taking center stage.

  • Hudson

    Religion is the worst thing to ever happen to mankind; Its caused uncountable cases of war, racism, bigotry, murder and genocide.Religion is used by governments through propaganda in news to get the moral backing of its citizens to dominate other countries riches (Christian vs Muslim). This is just one way religion manipulates the modern world.

    Imagine all the wonderful things religions have achieved over the course of time…missionaries, house building, helping the poor, etc.

    Now imagine the horrendous things that have happened over the course of history due to religions…genocide, war, famine, racism, murder, child abuse, lies, control of the masses.

    Now ask yourself…Is it worth it?
    Is the human race really benefiting from this way of life created by a bunch of farmers in the middle east thousands of years ago? So quick is the west to look down upon the middle east and its religious domination over its people yet, the Bible itself is no better then the Qur’an. Ive read both the bible and the Qur’an; unlike most self proclaimed christian/muslims. These books have no place in our world today, knowledge and information is readily available at mankind’s fingertips now, there’s no excuse or need for this dying ideology.

  • Hudson

    Really? I am delusional? HAH! Your the one believing the holy book based on middle eastern farmers thousands of years ago with stories of the impossible with absolutely no proof.

    Pray to jesus-maybe he will give you another 1 liner to prove just how pathetic your argument is.

  • Hudson

    Religion is man made.
    If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent Him.

    -Voltaire

  • “the earth is unique in its ability to support advanced life”

    HA! What a joke. There are potentially BILLIONS of life-sustaining planets in the milky way alone. We’ve already discovered a half-dozen of them within our tiny search range in the last couple of years.

    There are BILLIONS of galaxies. That means trillions of potential life sustaining planets. Not thousands. Not millions. not Billions – TRILLIONS!!!

    We’re here accidentally. We’re here by pure chance because a dinosaur-killing asteroid allowed mammals to rise up. Dinosaurs DOMINATED this planet for millions of years, millions of years BEFORE us. If you think your “special”, you suffer from a delusional anthropocentric view brought about by your Abrahamic religious ridiculousness.

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