Peter McKnight: Do we still matter?

Opinion: Images from the James Webb Space Telescope have forced us to wrestle with the enormity of the universe — and what it means to us.

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“Science tells us that we are inconsequential specks of dust scratching blindly at a pale blue dot orbiting a small star in an inconceivably large universe. Some say size doesn’t matter, but we we all know it really is. How can anything we do matter?” — Steve Stewart-Williams

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The most startling image from the James Webb Space Telescope is a moving image: you zoom in on what appears to be a speck of light, and countless galaxies containing countless stars appear, all engaged in a delicate dance.

It’s like looking at a drop of water under a microscope, where a whole unknown universe suddenly appears. And this provokes a deep emotional reaction to the vastness of the universe: certainly it is beautiful, but it is also terrifying. It makes us feel small, insignificant, even worthless, at least on a cosmic level.

Or as space writer Shannon Stirone tweeted: “I can’t figure out the structure of these. I feel destroyed. The telescope destroyed me. Indeed, having apprehended this image, how could anything still matter?

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Of course, if nothing matters, then it doesn’t matter either, so there’s no need to worry about that. But the fact is, we do care. And our reaction to the enormity of the universe is disconcerting since size really shouldn’t matter that much. If you lose your diamond ring, for example, you’re not saying it doesn’t matter just because the stone is the size of a pebble.

But again, your diamond ring only matters to you – and maybe your insurer. It doesn’t matter to others, after all, and it certainly doesn’t matter to the universe that you carry a stone born deep within the bowels of our pale blue dot.

For anything to really matter, it seems like it would have to matter beyond you and beyond me and beyond this world. And that’s why James Webb’s images are so disconcerting: Nothing we do can make a difference in a universe we’ll never know and which will never know us.

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We can, to console ourselves, fall back on religion, on the conviction that we count for a divinity, for an engine that sets the universe in motion. It’s one way out, but it’s not the only one.

Oxford philosopher Guy Kahane offers us an alternative. The universe revealed by the James Webb Telescope looks extraordinarily lush, but it’s not. Astronomers tell us it’s called “space” for a reason: it’s almost empty of matter. And, we can add with near certainty: it is even more void of value.

Sure, stars, galaxies, and supernovae may be pretty, but they possess little intrinsic value — little that matters. In this empty universe, Kahane argues, “we might be the only gleam of value in the dark…the only thing that possesses intrinsic value in the whole cosmos.”

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But, he warns, that only applies if we are alone in the universe. If other sentient beings existed, “we would lose much of our uniqueness…our accomplishments, our failures, and our eventual extinction would no longer matter as much.”

Yet sensitive cultures don’t derive their value solely from their rarity, as your diamond ring might. Otherwise, there would be no point in studying extinct ancient cultures or revitalizing those at risk. We do this because of their intrinsic value, because it matters not only to them, but to everyone else.

Likewise, the existence of other non-human sentient cultures would not necessarily make us less valuing — on the contrary, it might emphasize both our universality and our uniqueness, and thus affirm our value. Far from diminishing us, it could enlarge us, just as the study of foreign cultures does.

Of course, we will never be big enough to impact the universe revealed by the James Webb Telescope. But that doesn’t mean that what we do doesn’t matter, much less that we don’t matter. Even briefly, our existence offers a little light in the dark, a touch of color in the black infinity of space.

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