Wednesday 23 March 2011

The universe is so vast, let's all just kill ourselves

Over at Telegraph Blogs Brendan O'Neill has got himself into a tizzy about how important he may or may not be in the grand scheme of things. Not that he says such in so many words, but his misapprehension of one of TV's current popular science hits betrays his discomfiture with reality:
I think I have solved one of the great mysteries of the universe: the question of why mop-topped stargazer Professor Brian Cox is so popular. It isn’t because of his looks, or his soft Mancunian voice, or his pop past in Blair-boosting band D:Ream. No, it’s because his wide-eyed cosmology is based on a view of mankind as insignificant, as a mere speck of dust in the post-Big Bang scheme of things, and that chimes brilliantly with today’s rather downbeat view of humanity. The floppy-fringed professor massages the fashionable prejudice that humanity isn’t all that special; no, we’re just a cosmological accident, which will exist only fleetingly before being wiped out by the explosion of our Sun or some other cataclysmic event.
Sorry Brendan but that's just how it is. Get used to it.

The point is, Brendan, that we are special — just not in the way you think we are. The universe was not designed with us in mind (actually it wasn't designed at all, as far as we can tell — but that's probably another blogpost or two ... or a thousand). Nevertheless we are here, and that is one awesome fact.

And what have you got against Carl Sagan?
Like Sagan, Cox and his rationalistic acolytes in the media are attracted to the cosmos primarily because they believe its vastness reveals our smallness, that its 14 billion-year history puts our pathetic 250,000 years of inventing fire and skyscrapers and iPads into perspective. They see in the never-ending chasm of space, not worlds we should aspire to know and possibly conquer and colonise, but a big black challenge to the idea of human historic purpose.
There you go again: purpose. Imputing teleology is for those who can't cope with the way things actually are. As for conquering, that's a bit presumptuous isn't it? Maybe that's the human historic purpose you're talking about — humanity's cosmic crusade: to seek out new life and new civilizations; to boldly go where no crusader has gone before, and subjugate the alien masses.
Copernicus’s challenge to the idea that the Earth was the centre of the universe was frequently cited by Sagan and his fans as a challenge to the idea that human beings are the centre of the universe – but it was no such thing. Rather, Copernicus wanted to increase human authority over the unknowns of the universe, not teach mankind a lesson about our “insignificance in the great loneliness of space”. In contrast, today’s cod-Copernicans in the Cox lobby are drawn to the cosmos because its weirdness and bigness feeds their drab, down-to-earth belief that there isn’t much point to life.
You've got it upside-down and backwards. As for "their drab, down-to-earth belief that there isn’t much point to life" — I'll let you into a little secret: life is what you make it. The point of life is life itself.