How utterly strange, tentative and untethered our lives are. There are other words to describe our situation—many, many of them—but I won’t try to come up with them here.
Physicist and novelist Alan Lightman looks at “Our Place in the Universe” in a recent article in Harper’s magazine and tries to describe how small we are in a universe whose size is unimaginable—and growing. “Simply put, the cosmos has gotten larger and larger. At each new level of distance and scale, we have had to contend with a different conception of the world that we live in.”
How large? The most distant galaxy we know about, says the author, is approximately 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 miles from Earth. The average distance between galaxies is about 2 million light years. (Some of us may remember learning that a light year is the distance light travels in 6 trillion miles.) Oh, sure!
Farthest ever view of the universe from the Hubble telescope, containing thousands of galaxies. 13.2 billion years ago. NASA.
All of these are unimaginable numbers. They keep growing as astronomers are able to peer deeper and deeper into space. “A question naturally arises,” writes Lightman. “Could the physical universe be unending in size? That is, as we build bigger and bigger telescopes sensitive to fainter and fainter light, will we continue to see objects farther and farther away—like the third emperor of the Ming Dynasty, Yongle, who surveyed his new palace in the Forbidden City and walked from room to room to room, never reaching the end?”
Even more breath-taking, keep in mind that that distant galaxy is not only “farther and farther away” in space, it’s farther away in time. We’re looking into the past. We’re seeing the edge of the known universe as it was almost 14 billion years ago.
As Lightman points out, we can’t really understand any of this. Oh, there are people who understand it intellectually, “but our emotional reality is still limited by what we can touch with our bodies in the time span of our lives.”
The author calls attention to another bunch of figures that derive from the estimates scientists have made about the possible presence of life in other parts of the universe. They show that the fraction of stuff in the visible universe that is alive is something like one millionth of one billionth of one percent. “If some cosmic intelligence created the universe, life would seem to have been only an afterthought.”
So much for the significant human!
In the course of his article, Lightman mentions the philosopher, George Berkeley who argued that the whole cosmos is a creation of our minds and that there is no reality outside our thoughts. As a physicist, says Lightman, he “can’t accept that belief.” Largely because of science, most of us would agree with him.
But science has also concluded that the typical table is not really solid, no matter how it feels when you thump it with your fist. It’s made up of whirling electrons and other molecular whatsits. Reality is not what it seems. Something is there but it’s not exactly what we experience. It’s at least partly a construction of our minds which, by the way, would seem to apply to our incredible intellectual construct of the cosmos too.
Lightman’s conclusions are awesome, disorienting, frightening — all of that and more. But they’re far from the last word. Our relationship to reality is, I think, much more complicated than we know. We may not be George Berkeley idealists, but I’m not sure that it’s any more accurate to adhere to the materialism of science.