Good work finds the way between pride and despair. It graces with health. It heals with grace. It preserves the given so that it remains a gift. By it, we lose loneliness: we clasp the hands of those who go before us, and the hands of those who come after us; and the larger circle of lovers whose hands are joined in a dance, and the larger circle of all creatures, passing in and out of life, who move also in a dance, to a music so subtle and vast that no ear hears it except in fragments
— From “Healing,” by Wendell Berry
Philadelphia, PA. Scattered across the Internet are so many animated videos portraying the size of Planet Earth relative to other celestial bodies that never having seen one is something of an accomplishment. A representative example: the viewer is presented with an image of Earth; Earth is dwarfed by Saturn; Saturn is dwarfed by the Sun; the Sun is dwarfed by the Milky Way, and so on. Such videos have a way of making us feel small, and sometimes this sense of smallness morphs into a sense of insignificance. In the light of all that physicists have discovered about the vastness of spacetime, shadows cast by humans can start to seem rather puny.
The universe as we know it started as a hot, dense cluster of undifferentiated matter. Astronomers tell us that it burst into life with the Big Bang around 13,770,000,000 years ago. Since then it’s expanded and evolved into its present form: hundreds of billions of galaxies, each containing hundreds of billions of stars, one of which (a relatively small one) emitted light a few million years ago that made its way to Planet Earth, where it was photosynthesized by the organisms that became the fossil fuels that are at least partially responsible for powering the screen you’re staring at right now. If all that makes your head spin as fast as our solar system is spinning around the center of our galaxy, you’re not alone. This train of thought has been making people feel puny for quite some time now, and Michael J. Sauter, writing for Front Porch Republic, has had enough:
Boy oh boy, if I had a dollar for every time in the past few months somebody mentioned the size of the universe and its effect of making humans small while completely ignoring the obverse insight that there are things so small in the universe that, by comparison, we humans are positively huge, I’d have at least two more dollars in my pocket than I currently have.
Sauter calls it the fetishization of bigness, and he argues that it makes us less imaginative, less romantic, less empathetic, and more violent. It undermines our ability to recognize human dignity. Hence his determination to push back against it, which he does by pointing out that size is relative, and, in fact, we humans are closer in size to the entire universe than we are to the smallest things in it. So, sure, compare us only to THE ENTIRE UNIVERSE — of course we seem puny. But compare us to the tiniest particle of which the universe is comprised — suddenly we seem massive.
Sauter argues that focusing only on our relative smallness is a juvenile tendency that, in addition to the ill-effects already mentioned, also erodes sanity. A mind both mature and sane is able, as he puts it, to see “that it can be both ways,” to see “oneself and the world as both big and small.” And fair enough — it seems healthy to be able to see things from both perspectives. It certainly doesn’t seem healthy to frame human existence as does Stephen Hawking:
The human race is just a chemical scum on a moderate-sized planet, orbiting around a very average star in the outer suburb of one among a hundred billion galaxies. We are so insignificant that I can’t believe the whole universe exists for our benefit.
That said, when Hawking juxtaposes smallness with insignificance, he’s cutting straight to the heart of the matter. Only insofar as feeling small makes us feel insignificant does a sense of smallness undermine imagination, romance, empathy, dignity. Sauter seems to take as inevitable that a sense of smallness will morph into a sense of insignificance. Believing in the importance of imagination, romance, empathy, and dignity, he seeks to protect them by arguing that, in addition to being small, humans are also big, so we shouldn’t succumb to the feeling of smallness.
I wonder, then, what Sauter would make of this poem, written by Abby Bland, called “The Odds Against a Starry Cosmos”:
Refer to Q, the degree of non-uniformity in the cocktail of elements in the big bang. A ratio smaller than 0.0001 and the universe would have been rendered too smooth, stillborn without atoms and elements, trapped in sterile homogeneity. If Q had been a fraction larger than 0.0001, the violence and turbulence would have rendered unrecognizable lumps of matter that could never fragment into stars. The fundamental mystery: the precision of the early universe. 0.0001 led to you, my love, here with your green sweater, unraveling slightly at the waist, mitten hands holding your mug as we watch the snow fall, flakes disappearing into the cluster of mallows caught in the swirl of dark chocolate.
Abby Bland stares 13,770,000,000 years of cosmic evolution in the face, positions herself before the big bang, conceives of possible paths not taken, and traces the history of the universe all the way back to her love, sitting right there, right now. This poem was not written by someone lacking in empathy, imagination, or romance. It also was not written by someone who finds it necessary to escape the feeling of smallness. It was written, then, by someone who feels both small and significant.
Those who fetishize bigness often point out how brief a human life — or even all of human history — is compared with the life of the cosmos. Sauter responds by pointing out that human history looks “really, really long by comparison” to “the trillionths of a second it took the Higgs Boson to flash out of existence.” In so doing, he succeeds at making us feel a little less small. But it’s not the smallness that bothers us — not really. It’s the insignificance. And I, for one, don’t feel much more significant when I picture myself standing next to a Higgs Boson. Big, yes, but not significant.
I do feel significant when I imagine myself wearing a “green sweater, unraveling slightly at the waist,” hearing my partner say that “0.0001 led to you, my love.” Abby Bland’s poem grasps what slips through the fingers of Sauter’s analysis: that smallness need not morph into insignificance. To those who flaunt the universe’s 13,770,000,000 years in her face, Bland responds: Yes, and what precious few we get to enjoy, and would you look over there, at my love, isn’t he precious? Stephen Hawking calls the human race a chemical scum and Sauter calls him a “vulgar adolescent bigness fetishizer.” In contrast, Bland responds: Yes, a chemical scum that can feel and think, and would you look at that chemical scum over there, that’s my love, isn’t he precious? Such particularizing love bestows a sense of significance that transcends considerations of relative size.
Reading Bland’s poem, I felt as though she’d accomplished something I had never been able to, and maybe never would have been able to, had she not done the legwork for me. I first came across Sauter’s arguments years ago, and ever since, I’ve been carrying around, but never quite articulating, the feeling that Bland expresses so gracefully with the phrase “0.0001 led to you, my love.”
Yes, we are puny. Our emergence was improbable and could well have never occurred. Our continued existence is uncertain. The universe appears indifferent. I can see why these realities often evoke despair. But I see just as clear a path from them to gratitude as to despair. The cosmos is vast, and I’m only a tiny portion of it, but I’m a portion lucky enough to receive the gift of consciousness, a portion luckier still to be able to love and feel loved, a portion that knows it may lose these gifts at any moment, and therefore a portion very much not indifferent to flourishing as best it can. Trillions of planets orbiting billions of stars, and only one small place on the third planet from our sun — Earth — is my home. An infinite sea of chemical scum, and only a few small clusters that I can call family or friend. 13,770,000,000 years removed from a hot, dense, undifferentiated mass, and I have at most 80 left to thrive with those I love.
When confronted with the vastness of spacetime, Bland does not go looking to the Higgs Boson for reassurance. When called chemical scum, she does not go name-calling in return. People with cosmic self-respect have the courage of their smallness. They have the moral nerve to say: I am small and so are those I love, and look at us dance to “a music so subtle and vast,” can you hear the fragments, too?
For Sauter, that music is a divine orchestra, conducted by God, Sovereign of the cosmos, Creator of Heaven and Earth. For his vulgar adolescent bigness fetishizers, that music is a figment of the human imagination, a delusion—a useful one, perhaps, but a delusion, nonetheless. And it’s this divide that drives the difference in their emphasis on our relative size. As Sauter puts it,
In the words of Cross-Wearing Mike, a Physics and Math student at the college where I work. . . “we are actually closer, rounding wise, to the size of the universe than to a Planck length. It does seem odd that we favor the large.” . . . This contrasts with the prevailing fashion, and I suspect it might have been Cross-Wearing Mike’s cross that protected him from the vulgar adolescent bigness fetish that infests the universities.
But it seems—to me—inevitable that many of us, living in the third decade of the twenty-first century, are going to fall short of faith in God the Sovereign. And yet, in the absence of a conductor, it does not necessarily follow that the orchestra ceases to play. Charles S. Peirce, in his essay “Evolutionary Love,” writes:
Everybody can see that the statement of St. John [“God is love”] is the formula of an evolutionary philosophy, which teaches that growth comes only from love, from I will not say self-sacrifice, but from the ardent impulse to fulfill another’s highest impulse. Suppose, for example, that I have an idea that interests me. It is my creation. It is my creature; for as shown in last July’s Monist [“Man’s Glassy Essence”], it is a little person. I love it; and I will sink myself in perfecting it. It is not by dealing out cold justice to the circle of my ideas that I can make them grow, but by cherishing and tending them as I would the flowers in my garden. The philosophy we draw from John’s gospel is that this is the way mind develops; and as for the cosmos, only so far as it yet is mind, and so has life, is it capable of further evolution. Love, recognizing germs of loveliness in the hateful, gradually warms it into life, and makes it lovely. That is the sort of evolution which every careful student of my essay “The Law of Mind” must see that synechism calls for.
In Peirce’s cosmology, God is love, and love, while operative within the cosmos, is not sovereign over it. In Peirce’s version of the cosmic history through which Abby Bland traces a line from the big bang to all the way to her love, there is no transcendent deity reigning supreme, imposing order from without. The order of the cosmos is emergent, and love is the process through which new forms—including life on Earth, and the human race, and you—have emerged. In this vision, then, human beings exist in the image of God, which is to say, the image of love, but we were not made that way by Him. There is no maker, but there’s still a logic to the making, and it is the logic of love. The universe is indifferent, but love is not. We exist in the image of love, and like it or not, our happiness hinges upon our ability to conform to it.
Peirce is a fallibilist, and so would maintain that, just as no ear can hear the music of the spheres except in fragments, so no mind can grasp the logic of love except in fragments. And as it happens, Peirce—the celebrated logician—compares the experience of inference-making to that of music-listening:
Hypothesis substitutes, for a complicated tangle of predicates attached to one subject, a single conception. Now, there is a peculiar sensation belonging to the act of thinking that each of these predicates inheres in the subject. In hypothetic inference this complicated feeling so produced is replaced by a single feeling of greater intensity, that belonging to the act of thinking the hypothetic conclusion. Now, when our nervous system is excited in a complicated way, there being a relation between the elements of the excitation, the result is a single harmonious disturbance which I call an emotion. Thus, the various sounds made by the instruments of an orchestra strike upon the ear, and the result is a peculiar musical emotion, quite distinct from the sounds themselves. This emotion is essentially the same thing as an hypothetic inference, and every hypothetic inference involves the formation of such an emotion.
So, perhaps, save for the existence of a conductor, the logic of love is not all that different from the music of the spheres. Perhaps they’re actually the same, and the only questions are where the music came from, and why it continues to play, and whether we will be able to hear it after our time on Earth comes to an end. People with cosmic self-respect can reconcile themselves with the possibility that there is no conductor, and that after death comes only silence. And they can muster the strength to keep listening for the fragments, to keep imperfectly piecing together the rhythm of the music, and to keep dancing along as best they can with those they love.
Some would insist that we must choose between “cross around your neck” and “chemical scum.” But “cross around your neck” is, whether we like it or not, a bridge too far for many who’ve come of age in post-modernity, and “chemical scum” is no basis for a good life. Fortunately, Abby Bland and C.S. Peirce have given us hints in the direction of a viable alternative, one which helps us feel both small and significant.