One non-theistic school of philosophy which I can think of that discusses in great length life’s relation to the cosmos; the philosophy of nihilism. Succinctly, a nihilist position on the cosmos would be to say that ‘since the universe does not come with an instruction manual there is no inherent purpose for life to accomplish and reach an end goal. ‘A nihilist sees that value is assigned, meaning is assigned, purpose is assigned by a subject upon an object. That there are no morals or values independent of consciousness because morals and values are abstract categories; products of consciousness.
Just to clarify, I’m not an idealist which asserts that mind is primary and reality is fundamentally mental, but I do take the view that objects and ideas are attributed significance, values and evaluations by the minds of sentient living things and which these ideas are not inherent in the objects considered themselves.
I argue the view that modern nihilism (or my form of it at least) sets its scene on a cosmic scale that there is no grand plan for life, other than that attributed by life, in the context encompassing the entire universe, life is a passive event which comes into being and then out of being. Although, science is a method used for discovering truth, not aligned to any philosophy but itself, it looks like that over time the nihilist position accrued increasing supporting evidence with the findings of modern science which has made the philosophy harder to argue against and difficult to ignore by learned men both religious and secular.
Assigning nihilism a negative emotive trait like: depressing or suicidal is a common attack against the philosophy but this is not an argument but a dismissal. Nihilism doesn’t say you can’t enjoy and feel the bliss of living it only shines away the delusions that keep you intellectually chained.
Indeed Comicus has challenged the negativity imputed on nihilism. Read as he coalesces the vapours of Happy Nihilism!
This article draws heavily from the existential form of nihilism, what does that mean!? it means life and its existence does not come bundled with meaning or a preset goal. Think of it as the antagonist to ‘the meaning of life’ statement: the belief that life is by purpose aimed towards a goal. By the way there is a school of philosophy which ‘the meaning of life’ question is apart and it is called Teleology (Greek for end purpose)
I first talk about the cosmos, then life and humanity and finally a lengthy conclusion which is the most philosophical portion of the article. This is an article not a book so I’ll make this succinct for a loaded subject.
Meaning for this article will be used in the sense of encompassing three ideas: value, importance and purpose. Examples of meaning are what you value and how you interpret your purpose in life and that of life in general.
According to NASA’s Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) in 2012 the age of the universe is 13.7 billion years old. So since the Big Bang the universe unfolded itself guided by the ubiquitous laws of physics, the forces of nature eternally manipulating matter and energy, causing atoms to form molecules and chemical compounds becoming large enough to be visible and appear in ‘endless forms most beautiful’ or most ugly; depending on your perception, but all that based on the prior configuration of the cosmos as it unfolded out.
There are over 13 times more stars in the Milky way galaxy than there are humans, 100 billion stars and 7.4 billion humans on contemporary Earth (2017), each star is bigger and more powerful than the entire Earth. There are many stars that are older than the Earth (with our sun being an obvious example) and those that will certainly survive an individual human’s lifetime.
The stars initially formed from an interstellar gas cloud of dust and gas caused by the force of gravity that made them spiral in together (accretion) to form a protostar, at this early stage the protostar is still gaining more and more mass with the temperature rising as it grows especially at its core. Temperature reaches a threshold point that results in the hydrogen atoms colliding and fusing to become helium, this is thermonuclear fusion and with this activity within the star stability of the entire stellar body is attained and the prevention from collapsing under its own gravity. With thermonuclear activity achieved, a star has earned its rite of passage into adulthood and is classed as a main sequence star meaning that it is in the prime of its life of doing nothing else other than to keep thermonuclear fusion burning within it bathing its solar system in light and heat.
All the stars orbit the galactic core in our galaxy where a super massive black hole lies. So our galaxy the Milky way by consensus has around 100 billion stars, it is a garden variety galaxy, a spiral type, it is nothing special because it is one of billions of spiral galaxies that exist as a common feature out there in the universe. However, our Milky Way is dwarfed by its neighbour the Andromeda galaxy which contains 1 trillion stars, as you can tell spiral galaxies vary widely in the number or stars. The largest galaxy known in the universe is IC1101, which is an elliptical galaxy and this class tends to be larger than spiral galaxies. The spoken language does not do justice to the diminutive scale of these two spiral galaxies compared to IC1101 containing 100 trillion stars x100 times more than Andromeda. So there are many galaxies out there, vast star metropolises. Galaxies in a group together make a galactic village called galaxy clusters which are the largest gravitationally bound structures in the universe! Clusters have varying numbers of galaxies within them and a supercluster is composed of smaller galaxy clusters within it. Our own supercluster is called Laniakea, ‘immeasurable heaven’ in Hawaiian. The empty space between the galaxies is known as intergalactic space, the distance between the Milky Way and Andromeda galaxy, for example is 2.5 million light-years! Although this distance isn’t fixed because as the universe expands, so does intergalactic space between galaxies. The universe is composed of empty space, vast seas of the true absence of stuff with only trace amounts of chemical elements in between colossal distances of almost dark void with the only way for heat to be transferred is by electromagnetic wave radiation.
Planets orbit their respective stars, stars belonging to a galaxy orbit the galactic centre which contains a supermassive black hole, which by the way, any matter caught within its gravitational influence is annihilated just like a spider at the centre of its web waiting for its next morsel.
During all those billions of years that passed in the development of the universe I’m sure that the immeasurable number of events that happened would have stirred the interest of modern man. Saying that, with those billions of years that passed the idea of meaning did not exist until the concept was invented by us which was contingent on language evolving along with many other abstract categories enabled by it, more on that later.
Life and humanity
The universe is not fine tuned for life, in the sense that it deliberately created the conditions necessary for life, no! Life on Earth evolved and branched out into many different species because the conditions in favour of life on Earth was pre-existent. So this what is known as life, is fine tuned for the universe! The solar system unfolded according to the embedded laws of physics ingrained in the universe, then the resulting arrangement of the solar system after that primed the conditions for life on Earth.
While Earth is not too close nor too far away from the sun its distance was just right so that its circumstances supported liquid water; that distance is called the Goldilocks zone. It’s prompting to think what the course of the Earth’s natural history would be if the Earth was closer or further away from the sun. In addition, if the force of gravity was weaker, for example hydrogen in space would not be able to clump together to form a mass, temperature and pressure sufficient for stars to undergo thermonuclear fusion so no stars and consequently no galaxies!
However, life, it must be said, as a whole has come a long way, according to the earliest evidence life possibly began 3.8 billion years ago followed by the appearance of multicellular life which began 2.1 billion years ago. Life as a whole is durable but it is the manifold species that make up it which are frail because many species have become extinct through environmental changes, overhunting, disease etc. However every time despite all these obstacles to struggle through… life, uh, finds a way.
Prior to humanity, the first forms of life arose as unicellular beings and all that was done then was consumption and reproduction; you know the usual Darwinian practise! Which led some of the unicellular copies to change gradually across the generations in response to environmental factors. You can take the view and say these microbes fulfilled their end purpose in life or telos by acting all this out however, additionally, from the microbes’ ‘perspective’ on the other hand, the concept ‘fulfilled end purpose’ does not compute. Because microscopic unicellular organisms do not pass judgement on what is right or wrong nor do they ask ‘what purpose do I serve?’ the same with atoms and particles. Just look at domestic pets and other animals, I always get the impression that they do not know why they are alive and for what purpose but they simply be; they just carry on living.
With humanity, Let’s say that civilisation began at 4,000BC, that would mean for humanity’s 300,000 years as a species most of it was as hunter gatherers for 294,000 years stone age technology being seldom in innovation but stable.
[EDIT] The narrative has changed by the way, the old scientific narrative that the cradle of humanity was located in East Africa because of the fossils found in Ethiopia there which were reported to be the number of 200,000 years old for anatomically modern humans has been rewritten by discoveries in Morocco. The evidence has pushed back the existence of humanity an additional 100,000 years. Now standing for a grand total of at least 300,000 years.
The ancients knew not the natural mechanisms as to ‘why we are here we must exist for a reason’… yeah the reason is evolution, but we’ll get to that soon. So they invented reasons to justify their existence, one example, they believed to have a mission in life to appease a being far greater than they as they were part of a grand plan. This homespun example is quintessential of teleological thinking and it is common across the cultures.
It was once believed that Earth was the centre of the entire universe and everything orbited it, the Sun seemed to suggest that as it appeared to move in the sky. Then in January 1610, Galileo, using his improved telescope, observed celestial bodies that followed Jupiter across the sky there were moons orbiting Jupiter, these four moons are now known as the Galilean moons and it was this discovery that debunked the notion that all objects of the cosmos orbited Earth.
In around November 1859 after 20 years of gathering evidence Charles Darwin finally published his book ‘On the origin of species’ this work ignited debates across the academic, scientific and theological world and opened up a new avenue for materialistic philosophies to argue that life has its origin in nature and not from a supernatural agency. Darwin’s theories of evolution knocked humanity from its pedestal as a prized creature of the gods and later showed by fossil evidence and comparative anatomy that all life is related by common ancestors “we are all brothers in the eyes of the lord”.
Meaning was first entertained by the earliest philosophies of antiquity both theistic and non-theistic but mainly theistic.
Religion is nothing but teleology its purpose is to answer important philosophical questions that needed to be satisfied like meaning and purpose and so it answered that craving and gave its followers a sense of purpose for the ‘why are we here’ set of questions and so bearing the brunt of daily labours and suffering afflictions was worth it because by providing scripture there was a divine telos to it all. However gods are always in a form that is anthropomorphic and relatable with divine attributes, some are parodied reflections in which people have found within the physical world, their imaginations limited by reality, gaze up at the Egyptian gods they have human bodies with the heads of cats and dogs!
Ask me ‘do you believe in God?’ I would say ‘which god? ‘ There is a huge sky daddy pantheon out there spanning from cultures, that are now extinct, to the ones that exist now. Which one is right? they can’t all be right because they contradict each other in their fabled narratives. However, from the perspective of one’s own religion the other religions are just myths but of course our book is a magic book written by the author of the universe! Those other books are just fables!
I frequently ask this question to people when the subject of religion turns up:
Where was religion during the Mesozoic era? Buddhism, Hinduism, the three Abrahamic religions or the Greek Olympiad; where were they all?
This simple question, I find, ignites a dawning realisation. The listeners they subtly know that ole Homo Sapien was not knocking around 100s of millions of years ago and all these ideas are anthropogenic. If you negate humans you consequently negate all religions on this earth by default.
The Long Nihilistic Conclusion
For me this is how I view Teleology: Instead of a conclusion based on experimentation and observation it takes as its beginning a premade conclusion and then working backwards to find evidence and use logical reasoning that supports whatever the conclusion is.
For what reason should there be a reason for the existence of the universe? Especially in a human sense?
The craving for existential meaning is like a dehydrated man slouching through the vast barren desert towards a singular oasis with clear blue water that glistens in the sun only for the man to find out that it was a mirage; an illusion of the mind.
In recent memory, during my visit to a garden house I viewed the python enclosure, where gypsy the python was kept. This snake in its roughly 3x3m enclosure, that is the extent of its world and the only stimulation is food being feed to it on Sundays at 2pm. So for 6 days a week it does – nothing just resting or slithering about in the tiny enclosure. However, despite the lack of ‘meaningfulness’ the python’s life is no more meaningful than celebrities, Nobel prize winners, famous historical figures and world leaders. To the working of a vast cosmos, where nothing remains forever, all life no matter what activities it engages in, is nothing but matter and energy in motion just contributing further entropy to the universe.
To be serious, meaning and worth are not pre-existing factors in the world set up for you to go forth and find like hide and go seek, no, these are assigned by your mind. Why find a purpose in life when it doesn’t exist in the first place? To echo Jean-Paul Sartre you don’t find meaning in life you must create it, it is you who accepts that a particular path in life can give meaning. Yes, you have the power to give meaning to your life for meaning is a renewable resource which can be assigned and reassigned anytime. It gives you a sense of importance, a sense of ‘going somewhere’, a sense of happiness in which it promotes favourable states of mind. However your meaning in life is subjective and only special to you, same goes for everyone else and ultimately on a cosmic scale independent of your consciousness, from which this article argues, your ‘meaning’ is meaningless because the universe does not recognise it as any more meaningful than the birth of a star or that python locked up in a tiny enclosure. Since there is no objective meaning then it can only be subjective, a subjective view is an opinion and opinions are subject to change over time, therefore opinions are not consistent because they can change this is why I call meaning a renewable resource. You have the ability to change it in response to changed circumstances in life or you choose to change unconditionally. So in short, meaning is the epiphenomenon or emergent property that which springs out as an outgrowth from consciousness or mind. We cannot deny that and yet anthropogenic agency is an immeasurably tiny manifested feature of the entire universe!
Humankind? It’s nothing special just one of among a countless roster of species both existing and not existing in the present. The dinosaurs had their time (pretty long too) and at this present moment now is our turn to shine but like anything that shines that too will eventually dim and fade to a non-reality. Just because you fell out of a woman’s genitals does not mean that you have any intrinsic worth to the cosmos. Humanity may, possibly, like a sci-fi narrative in a space age future, colonize other planets, discover extra-terrestrial life in ‘endless forms most beautiful’ for our taxonomies and come across intelligent multi-cellular life to have dialogues with or war just like in Star Trek. I still maintain though that compared to the cosmic scale of things I don’t see how humanity is anything special no matter what activities or grand accomplishments it achieves, the universe gives it of no more importance than a mushroom growing from the side of a decaying tree. By all means live it up, harvest those experiences to their fullest potential and enjoy life just don’t live the lie that the universe exists for humanities’ benefit.
The structure and workings of the entire cosmos is not dependent on the survival/success of one particular branch of primate, humanity. If we look back millions of years ago and then look at the mass extinctions that have passed, the dinosaurs lived during the Mesozoic era always evolving, adapting and overcoming challenges from Earth’s environment. They were very successful animals flourishing at times and just plodding along in other times but always surviving and adapting in the wider Darwinian game. Suddenly, an asteroid crashed somewhere in the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico resulting in a major atmospheric and environmental change that spelt the extinction of the dinosaurs and so an unimaginably long 100s of millions of years of evolution, struggle and the branching out of many new species suddenly gone extinct. Ask yourselves what was it all for?
We can conclude that when the dinosaurs were wiped out, there was no cosmic funeral singing eulogies about the end of the dinosaurs, only that the entire universe just carried on acting out its laws and natural selection on Earth paved a new path for life – that of the mammals especially – which survived to evolve and branch out into new species which replaced the dinosaurs as the most prominent species on the planet. According to the natural history the Dinosaurs were the fifth mass extinction and all life that has ever lived on Earth, 90% plus of all species are now extinct. We only know of some of the species that existed thanks to the low entropy of teeth and bone (hail hydroxyapatite) some of them are now fossils deep in rock strata leaving clues to the broad extent of biodiversity on the planet.
At the cosmic level, the Sun just keeps on burning, (or undergoing thermonuclear fusion) and illuminating the solar system with visible light; teleology says that god made the Sun so it can light up the Earth, so that we can see and not trip over things. Now, when comparing the size of the Earth with the Sun, it is like comparing a grain of sand to a boulder. In 1996 at the Future By Design conference Jacque Fresco gave his succinct critique to this argument, he aptly said:
‘if God puts this tremendous unit up there to light this wee little thing he’s a bad engineer!’
If you’re an engineer you’d appreciate this critique just imagine all that light and heat being wasted on empty space and not being used for a productive purpose!
You need life in order to give consideration to notions of transcendental purpose and the meaning of life. Truth be told, most life have not shown any ability to comprehend ideas on teleology it is just us. Why is it that only we, the talking tailless apes give consideration to ‘meaning’ and purpose? What else can it be other than the neo-cortex part of the brain being responsible? The neo-cortex is most evolved in humans making up a greater volume of the overall organ compared to other animals. The neo-cortex has enabled the use of language and literature to develop philosophical inquiries so these desires for meaning/purpose or leaving a mark for posterity are just a feature of evolution.
The universe is a non-anthropomorphic entity or in other words non-human, it does not pass judgement about what is right or wrong nor give a reason or a set of reasons as to why we should suffer inconvenience. Although in a strange way the universe is our ultimate parent because without its laws the conditions for humanity to arise would be impossible, on the other hand, it is neither our caretaker as it has remained indifferent to the many successes and extinctions of past forms of life.
The take away point I am making in this article is that nihilism has far more implications than the rejection of objective meaning. Since life is removed from its high pedestal as something sacred, as the central focus in the universe. Nihilism offers a fresh perspective that of looking at life as just a feature of the universe along with the many other features of matter both organic and inorganic to which, I think, the consequence being to live in conformity with nature and its laws gives a more clear and clarified perspective on the all-reality of the universe.