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The Universe and Us - in the grand scheme of things, how important are we?

Posted: Thu, February 07, 2013 | By: Extropia DaSilva

According to the picture painted by many cosmologists, we are not very important at all. This conclusion is based on the apparent fact that human life is but a transient pattern in an otherwise lifeless universe. If you compress the entire 14 billion year history of the universe into a single year, human life does not make an appearance until the final second. And, by looking toward the future and making inferences based on nuclear physics, we can see that stars are not going to be pumping out life-giving energy forever. 

In fact, for most of future time it seems the universe is going to be cold, dark, and incapable of supporting our kind of life. So by looking backwards into the past and forwards into the future, it seems that we have but a brief moment  before the indifferent universe enters a state incompatible with our existence.

These findings prompted Steven Weinberg to write this famously gloomy passage:

“…This universe has evolved from an unspeakably unfamiliar early condition, and faces a future extinction of endless cold or intolerable heat. The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless”.

I cannot help but think there is something wrong with this dismissal of the importance of human beings. Or, rather, I should say, the dismissal of the importance of inquisitive general intelligence. I mean, how do we know what the universe was like in the far distant past and what it may be like in the far future? We think we know because we have minds and powers of communication sophisticated enough to enable scientific discovery, and we have the ability to fashion matter and energy into marvelously complex instruments such as the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe and the Large Hadron Collider. 

Large Hadron Collider
Large Hadron Collider

There is a co-evolution between these two capabilities, since the more refined our understanding of workings of the universe becomes, the more sophisticated instruments we can build; and the more sophisticated instruments we have, the more we can refine our understanding of the universe.

It is pretty amazing to think that our grandest theories often come from seemingly mundane evidence. How do we know what stars are made of? From dark lines appearing in spectrographs. Every element in the periodic table absorbs light at a particular frequency, and it is this absorption that gives rise to the dark lines in spectrographs. So, by examining where these dark lines appear and working out what frequency was absorbed, we can know for sure what element must be present. And that is how we know for sure what stars and nebulae are made of. The Big Bang theory was also derived from seemingly mundane evidence, in this case a uniform ‘hiss’ picked up by radio telescopes which, it turned out, had to be evidence of heat left over from time when the entire universe was compacted into a singularity.

Running the story of what we think we know about the history of the universe from the Big Bang to the present day leads to an astonishing conclusion: That the matter and energy formed itself into patterns capable of conscious thought and an inquisitive nature that drove those patterns to search for meaning in the cosmos. 

The Big Bang created hydrogen and seeded the fabric of space with tiny fluctuations that would serve to coalesce clumps of matter into galaxies. As the clumps of matter compressed the heat and pressure became sufficient for nuclear fusion. The life cycle of stars seeded the universe with the necessary elements for building planetary systems and on at least one planet chemistry and later on biology saw the emergence and evolution of self-replicating organisms that eventually gave rise to an intelligent technologically-sophisticated species that inferred the past and future of the universe by constructing scientific theories based on subtle clues.

As all this is ‘only a theory’ it is more accurate to say that this story of how the universe began and how it will evolve is just that: A story. This is a past and future that exists only in the collective imagination of human beings. We compare the story with increasingly refined observations of nature and where discrepancies occur we make adjustments or even abandon one story for different one. Perhaps the story we now tell ourselves corresponds very well with the actual past of the universe? But the point remains that this is a reconstruction that only exists in our collective imagination. Without consciousness, without imagination, what sense would it be to say the universe even exists? 

Whether or not you believe there was a grand plan built into the universe from the beginning and we figure in that grand plan, the fact is that the universe did enable the emergence of life sophisticated enough to search for meaning and, as a result, make scientific discoveries and invent technological capabilities that could reconstruct a past that, perhaps, no conscious observer witnessed. It is important to remember that the universe is not just a backdrop, the stage upon which we act out our lives. The physicist Steven Wheeler once summed up general relativity by saying ‘matter tells space how to curve and space tells matter how to move’. In other words, the relationship between space and matter is far more dynamic. We are not just in the universe, we are of the universe. We are a part of Itself trying to understand its past and future.

I think it is fair to say that we have no compelling evidence suggesting anything other than the human race has the capability of understanding so much about the universe. Stars are not aware that their outpouring of energy is due to nuclear fusion, galaxies cannot comprehend that tiny details in the WMAP image correspond to slight ripples in an almost completely smooth fireball, density variations that were expanded due to inflation to become gravity sinks that pulled matter into structures we call galaxies. No other animal understands it is a product of natural selection. Maybe somewhere out there in the vastness of space there exists other forms of intelligent life that have (or could) discover as much about the universe. But, were it to be devoid  of any form of intelligent, conscious being I personally find it hard to imagine that the grandeur and beauty of the cosmos could be said to exist in any meaningful sense at all. Rather than say ‘we are but temporary specks in an otherwise indifferent universe’ I would rather believe ‘there was a time when the universe was at least dimly aware of its own majesty, for we were aware’. Such a belief is just as consistent with the accepted model of cosmology, astrophysics and the evolution.

Not all theoretical physicists dismiss human intelligence as irrelevant to the past and future of the universe. David Duestch pointed out that we can be very sure of the life cycle of a star…unless there is a planet orbiting it that contains a technologically-advanced species. In that case, we cannot be sure that this species will not direct its evolution toward some super-advanced intelligent force capable of altering the evolution of the home star. Maybe in the far future our solar system will have been converted into a Dyson sphere or a Matrisoshka Brain?

Alan Guth, the scientist responsible for the inflationary model of cosmology, explained in an interview with, explained how his theory leads to an even more astonishing possibility than the one in which life might affect the evolution of stars:

“One of the most amazing features of the inflationary-universe model is that it allows the universe to evolve from something that’s initially incredibly small. Something on the order of twenty pounds of matter is all it seems to take to start off a universe…it becomes very tempting to ask whether, in principle, it’s possible to create a universe in the laboratory- or a universe in your backyard- by man-made processes”.

Well, no it is not because to do so requires handling stupendous energies equivalent  to the output of an entire galaxy focused on an area of space the size of a grain of sand. There will never exist on Earth any kind of machine capable of that, but maybe a Kardashev Type III civilization whose ‘backyard’ encompasses entire galaxies could engineer the capability to create artificial universes? Perhaps that is the answer to the question ‘what happened before the Big Bang’? There was a super-advanced race that built themselves an unimaginably powerful machine, and the energy it unleashed created a black hole inside which a patch of inflationary space formed which, after a small fraction of a second, completely pinched off and became a totally isolated new universe- our universe.

Admittedly this does not serve as a satisfactory explanation as to why anything exists at all. What, after all, accounts for the existence of this almighty civilization and the universe they inhabited? But it does suggest that the role of intelligent life in the universe may be of more relevance than Weinberg’s gloomy passage would have us believe. Maybe it is our destiny to help the universe become a Mother?

this essay was first published at the blog, - HERE


There is a funny thing about “The Grand Scheme of Things”.  That is that only beings very much like us, beings able to conceive of a much vaster arena than their local environment and daily lives, can possibly come up with and consider such a notion.

Just because space-time is vast doesn’t make the tiny so very recently evolved creatures that are intelligent enough to conceive of and in some ways order that vastness at all insignificant.  And this is true regardless of whether humanity becomes some star-molding godlike beings or gives rise to such.

By Samantha Atkins on Feb 11, 2013 at 8:37pm

Yes, it seems like we owe it to the universe to pioneer more of it and try to keep ourselves alive so we can retain continuous insight and experience with more things. Otherwise it seems like what are still the empty parts of space are like, say, cars set out for sale on a car lot that are never bought or seen. What then is the value in the cars if they are to sit there until they rot into the dust, not even having anybody lay eyes on them? To stay alive, to create indefinite life extension, it seems, gets around this generations long game of telephone where the information isnt continuous and has to constantly be reinterpreted by new generations.

By Eric Schulke on Feb 16, 2013 at 4:45pm

We don’t owe anything to the universe whatsoever. We owe only ourselves, and I mean that down to the individual level, to make our life as good and meaningful and rich to ourselves as we can.  That’s it.  We get in deep trouble when we try to compare ourselves to something utterly external or try to look for our meaning “out there” instead of “in here”.

By Samantha Atkins on Apr 25, 2013 at 2:27pm

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