We are tiny specks of life in a vast, indifferent cosmos – but to say that decreases the value of our existence is to measure ourselves against the wrong thing



Life



17 November 2021

Wenmei Zhou/Getty Images

WE CAN attempt to answer the question of why we exist in a literal sense: by tracing our human story back through the whorls and rifts of evolution, through the contested origins of life on Earth and the collapsing cloud of dust and gas that became our home planet 4.5 billion years ago, back to the birth of our universe some 13.8 billion years ago – and perhaps further still (see “Why is there something rather than nothing?”).

Yet none of this story of happenstance helps us in finding the kind of meaning we crave: meaning in significance. “Now we know that the cosmos contains at least a million billion galaxies, each containing hundreds of billions of stars, most of which have planets around them. In one of these zillions of planets, as probably in many others, chemistry became complex and evolved in all sorts of critters, one of which, not particularly good in surviving, is humankind,” says physicist Carlo Rovelli at Aix-Marseille University in France. “It is clear that any ambition of this humankind to be particularly significant in the grand scheme of things looks silly.”

That realisation was certainly a big deal when it first brought gods and mythologies we created crashing down, says Victor Strecher, who studies the importance of purpose for our well-being at the University of Michigan. That started in earnest in the 1700s, as scientific inquiry began to upend our assumptions about our central place in the universe. Simultaneously, the industrial revolution first saw people leaving long-established rural communities and venturing out into a wider world in large numbers.

The mistake, says …

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