What Science Says about Our Place in Nature

John Shook

Modern science has been around for about four centuries, gradually revealing to us how insignificant our place in nature truly is. Each epochal discovery in fields from astronomy to biology has been a great shock to our cozy little worldview. However, the scientific facts also indicate that we are very special in the universe. Science is confusing us. Are we insignificant or are we special? Is there some creative way to merge these two perspectives? Philosophy and religion both confront this same question. Until we gain a secure sense of our true place in nature, we aren’t sure what to do about it.

The universe is much bigger and older than we had imagined, and our location in it has turned out to be nowhere special. Humans are but one species among millions that have lived on Earth; our evolution was neither predestined nor inevitable. Our minds are just our brains trying to figure out the world and each other. Self-consciousness is mostly shaped and decided by subconscious brain processes. From the perspective of science, we are much less important and much less in control than we suppose.

Let’s illustrate how science has put us in our place by mentioning a few specific discoveries in astronomy and cosmology. Our star, the sun, has no special place in the Milky Way galaxy, which is just an average galaxy going nowhere in particular. There is no “center” to the universe. The universe is 13.7 billion years old, and as far as we can tell, it is a sphere with a diameter of about 93 billion light-years and a total volume of about 3×1080 cubic meters. Scattered across this sphere are at least 100 billion galaxies and around 100 billion trillion stars. These are conservative estimates! We should be reminded that we are only talking about the visible universe. We can’t see all of the universe that was created in the Big Bang because most of it exploded off in directions that forbid light from ever reaching our cosmic neighborhood.

Naturally, we pay a lot of attention to planets, stars, and galaxies because they are visible. But the chunky and shiny things only make up about 5 percent of the total mass in the universe. Seventy-two percent is some mysterious stuff called “dark energy,” and another 23 percent is cold dark matter. Scientists don’t know what these things really are, but they control the expansion and fate of the universe. That fate is dark and cold. Because the universe’s rate of expansion is accelerating, in a few hundred billion years the last stars will fizzle out, the universe will get ever colder, and only scattered radiation, elementary particles, and black holes will be left.

Let’s step back and survey the big picture. We are definitely not special from this overall perspective. We slowly emerged on a planet that could just as easily kill us off. Or we could kill it—but we’d better not. There might be a handful of planets similar to Earth within, say, a thousand light-years, but we have no prospect of getting there anytime soon. Maybe there’s already life on the best planets anyway. Intelligent life that can lift its eyes to the stars will see the same thing that we do: most of the universe is empty. Life precariously clings to scattered planets separated by unimaginable distances. The universe won’t be habitable for too long, in any case.

In the year 1600, Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake by the Catholic Church for heresy. Bruno thought that Earth revolved around the sun, that the stars were just suns like our own that had their own planets, and that the universe was boundless and infinite like God. Four hundred years ago, the typical Christian pictured God enthroned over his unique creation: a small heavenly sphere with Earth at its center. Theologians agreed: the design must fit the designer or else religion is threatened. Unless people feel special within that design, they can’t tell that God cares, and they can’t care about anything else.

Religion has long felt threatened by science’s knowledge of nature. Fortunately, religion adapts. Well, most of religion eventually adapts to science. Some people reject scientific discoveries because they fear that science’s version of nature contradicts their notion of God. Given enough time, however, religions evolve even if they don’t carry everyone along. What survives without change is the idea that the design must fit the designer. Theologians of all denominations are now busily trying to figure out how science can still support the existence of God. Science’s current view of nature has made theology far more difficult, maybe impossible. It is simply far too easy for anyone to imagine a more ideal universe for life. And a theology requiring that an angelic God torture life with a tough universe only raises other vexing problems.

Most theologians today have scaled back their ambitions. The universe doesn’t look much like an ideal design, but it could still look like some sort of design. We live in a “good enough” universe for us. But do we still need the God hypothesis? Here is where science can actually make us seem quite special again, without any God involved. Let’s assume that life like ours at minimum requires stars, rocky planets, and enough time. There are a small number of natural facts that are required for a universe that permits such life. If the force of gravity, the cosmological constant, or the strong nuclear force (for example) were only a little different, this universe would not sustain our life. We happened to naturally emerge in a universe that can, just barely, sustain life against huge obstacles and tremendous odds. Even this universe will probably kill us off in the long run!

The theologian, of course, doesn’t like the sound of this chancy luckiness. We have to be specially wanted by a creator: we just have to be! If we are as special as religions make us feel, then theology regains superiority over scientific naturalism. What can naturalism say about our specialness? Naturalism, in a certain sense, regards humanity as extraordinarily special since we seem to be rare. Yet in another sense, naturalism cannot regard humanity as particularly special. We evolved to fit our little corner of the universe; our universe did not evolve to create us.

From naturalism’s perspective, there is nothing so special about us to indicate that any creator God outside the universe cares about us. However, there is something special about us that indicates that anything intelligent within the universe should care about us. And we should care about other life, too. Life should care about other life, and life should care about everything about the universe that helps to create and sustain life. This basic caring is reasonably based on the scientific facts about nature. We are not silly for caring; indeed, it is the most reasonable thing that we do.

Just because life is unimportant, purposeless, and meaningless from the grand cosmic perspective does not mean that life is nothing special from life’s perspective. When it comes to the question of what shall we care about and how shall we live our lives, our own perspective is the only one that matters. Science and naturalism supplies a factual basis for the human condition: we are learning about our universe and how we emerged within it. Knowledge of the human condition can directly imply a moral dimension of caring. It is too often claimed that science has nothing to do with morality. Science doesn’t directly establish moral facts, it is true. But only a little extra philosophy explains why it is entirely natural and right that life should care for other life. Life has nothing else to care for. Everything that is worth caring about is within this universe.

There is caring and value and morality here first
and foremost, or it is nowhere. Adding a supernatural creator does nothing to increase what is already here. If we already know we are special, we don’t need an external God to confirm this. Religion announces that we are special, as if we didn’t already suspect this and naturalism didn’t agree. We don’t need a theology of a supernatural creator to make us feel special or to make us appreciate the value of life. Naturalism is enough—more than enough. Naturalism has a profound moral dimension. It can make us appreciate how rare and precious we are in the universe, along with the life here on our planet and the rest of the life that may be out there. We’d better start taking better care of each other. To the end, we’re all we’ve got.

John Shook

John Shook is an associate editor of FREE INQUIRY and director of education and senior research fellow at the Center for Inquiry. He has authored and edited more than a dozen books, is coeditor of three philosophy journals, and travels for lectures and debates across the United States and around the world.

Modern science has been around for about four centuries, gradually revealing to us how insignificant our place in nature truly is. Each epochal discovery in fields from astronomy to biology has been a great shock to our cozy little worldview. However, the scientific facts also indicate that we are very special in the universe. Science …

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