Frequently, when I’m having a conversation with someone who is either an unbeliever or just having doubts, they will make an objection to religious belief that goes something like this: “Once you understand how unimaginably large the universe is, it makes you realize how insignificant we are. We humans think we’re so important, but really, we’re nothing in the big picture. If there was a god who cared about human beings, then he wouldn’t make them such an incomprehensibly small speck in a universe that is almost completely cold, dark, and lifeless.” The size of the universe used to intimidate me as well, so I can sympathize with this mentality. However, further reflection and study on this idea has settled my mind so I’d like to share my thoughts here.

First objection: You say the universe is so big – compared to what? This may sound silly, but the universe (or if there is a multiverse, then the multiverse) includes everything in physical reality, so there’s literally nothing else to compare it with! Size is a relational property; nothing can be described as being large or small without using something else as a reference. Have you seen other, smaller universes to know that ours is particularly large? Often the response to this objection is, “Well, it’s really big compared to us.” Oh, so we’re the standard of size and mass that everything else should be compared with! In this case, the objector is guilty of the same human-centrism that he accuses religious people of. Also, the argument has the weakness of being based on a matter of degree. How small would the universe have to be for human beings to be significant? One-half of the size it is now? One-thousandth? One trillionth? Human beings have known for literally thousands of years that they are very small compared to the great expanse of nature around them, and this was hardly an obstacle to their believing in gods. What difference does it make to know that there are billions of galaxies out there if you already knew that you were a measly 160 pounds of flesh within an entire solar system, or even just planet Earth? The size of the Pacific Ocean alone is enough to make me feel like a grain of sand in comparison.

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars which you have established; what is man that you should be mindful of him, and the son of man that you should care for him? (Psalm 8:3-4).

Second objection: The argument makes the assumption that value or importance is somehow determined by size or mass. This I find particularly strange, because in everyday life this standard is virtually never used. Is 16 million pounds of scrap metal in a junk yard somehow better than a 16 million dollar fighter jet? Is a sequoia tree (the largest species of tree on the planet) more important than a cow? Is a golden retriever worth more than a 7 year old girl? Is a mountain more valuable than the native villagers who live at its base? Is a 40 ton boulder more significant than a human embryo? Clearly, the difference between all of these examples is one of kind and not simply degree. In other words, the difference between them is qualitative, not quantitative. When you try to compare things that are qualitatively different, there is no use in trying to multiply one to make it comparable to the other – it doesn’t work. This is especially clear in the examples comparing inanimate (nonliving) matter to animate (living) matter, and those comparing unconscious living things (trees) to conscious living things (human beings). Here, the dedicated materialist will object that there really isn’t any qualitative difference between, say, the boulder and the human embryo – both are only the products of the laws of nature working on matter, even if one happens to result in an evolutionary process that produces beings who are capable of a “phenomenon” where they “seem” to be conscious. I say seem because it is very common (and actually, consistent) for materialist philosophers today to deny human consciousness and thought, since they are ordinarily defined as immaterial realities, and therefore, impossible within the materialist worldview. Rather than questioning his or her own consciousness or ability to think, the person hearing claims like this should question the sanity of the person making them! However, philosophy of mind is admittedly a deep and highly complex issue that I plan on spending more time on in a later post. Suffice it to say for now that, even among prominent unbelieving philosophers, the understanding of the human mind is a highly debated and controversial subject. Take this statement from the established agnostic philosopher Thomas Nagel for example:

My guess is that [the] cosmic authority problem is not a rare condition and that it is responsible for much of the scientism and reductionism of our time. One of the tendencies it supports is the ludicrous overuse of evolutionary biology to explain everything about human life, including everything about the human mind. (Nagel 130-131).

Third objection: How does the creation of a (relatively) huge universe count as evidence against the God of classical theism, who is understood to be infinitely powerful? The Psalmist joyfully wrote that “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament (sky, expanse) proclaims his handiwork” (Ps19:1). I wonder, if the entire universe somehow consisted of only our planet and sun, would the same person not object that “an all-powerful God wouldn’t create a universe so small?” It seems as though God has already been ruled guilty from the outset of the trial in the objector’s mind, and so now everything must count as evidence against him. The fact that the same feature of reality counts for God to the believer and against Him to the unbeliever may simply be evidence that the objections come from the disposition or desires of the objector, rather than from any actual contradiction within either the concept of God or Creation. The creation of a single atom from literally nothing is as demanding of infinite power as the creation of an entire universe, since in both cases there is, metaphysically speaking, an infinite chasm to cross – the chasm between being and non-being. The idea that the universe’s largeness, emptiness, and lifelessness is evidence that humans have no value also presupposes that God is limited in His resources, an idea that no believer would agree with. In addition, the theory of evolution requires millions and millions of years in order for the planet to give rise to life and for that life to evolve. Therefore, given the laws of nature that exist, the size of universe can really be considered a necessity if life forms were intended by the Creator, since the size of the universe is a result of the amount of time it has been expanding since the Big Bang.

Fourth and final objection: Of all the trillions upon trillions of stars, planets, and other cosmic bodies in the universe, none of them is looking back at us, wondering what we are. Why does it matter if a planet is millions of times more massive than I am if it is not aware of the fact? Also, if humans have immortal souls, as proposed by most major religions, than we will continue to exist after the entire universe reaches “heat death,” the complete reduction of all ordered systems to a state of disordered equilibrium, as per the law of entropy. True meaning or significance can only exist in something eternal. Why? If something existed for a time, and then ceased to exist, and eventually all of its effects ceased to exist, then we would say that thing has literally no meaning. Actually, we wouldn’t say anything about it, because we would have no way of knowing that it had no meaning. The same could be said about the universe itself:

If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning: just as, if there were no light in the universe and therefore no creatures with eyes, we should never know it was dark. Dark would be without meaning. -C.S. Lewis

Say there was a book written by a man who lived in a small village. One day this book was destroyed in a fire, and the man who wrote it later died, and then eventually all of his friends, family, and fellow villagers who knew about him and his book died, and every single piece of evidence that the book ever even existed was destroyed. It would then be impossible to say that what had been contained in that book had “meaning.” No quark, atom, molecule, rock, planet, tree, or even animal can ever be the subject in a sentence, can ever say the word, “I.” This reality of the self, which has been the most puzzling fact since the dawn of human thought, is what makes us worth more than an entire universe of inanimate matter. I give thanks to God my Creator for giving me my very self, which is not reducible to matter, and therefore worth more than all the matter in the cosmos combined, even if there is more of it than I can wrap my mind around.

 

The opinions expressed by the DPS blog authors and those providing comments are theirs alone; they are not necessarily the expressions or beliefs of either the Dead Philosophers Society or Holy Apostles College & Seminary.