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Carl Sagan on the anthropic conceit

July 26, 2010

The universe is mostly empty space.  In school we saw models of the Earth and the Moon close together, but that is a convenience so the model would be both able to fit in the classroom and still be large enough to see.  In fact, the moon orbits our world at a distance of some thirty-five Earth diameters, and our sun is more than thirteen thousand Earth diameters away.  And then we get into some really big distances.

A beam of light, if it had emotions like ours, would go insane from loneliness before it reached the nearest star.  For practical purposes it might as well be infinity, but the scale of distance has hardly come into view. 

Evolution did more than define the morphology and chemistry of our beings; it also adapted our senses and sensibilities to the scales and durations that most affect our immediate survival and ability to reproduce.  We are thus equipped with poor tools to grasp our place in the universe, and must invent new tools, mathematical ones.  Once these are applied, though, our sense of importance, of meaning and purpose, finds itself alone in boundless darkness.  If we “back up” enough to get any hint of the full universe, we can no longer see ourselves in it.

This is not necessarily bad news.  At some point we can stop wishing the universe would give us meaning and, on a scale appropriate to the reality of our existence, give meaning to the universe.  It is true that we are small, and that the universe is incomprehensibly remote.  It is true that our existence is, as compared to the passage of billions of years, incomprehensibly brief.  But our ability to think about it, however briefly, is something to celebrate.  We are here!  We can act kindly toward others, and we can protect and value the beautiful planet we leave to our children.  Even if we are the only ones who ever know about it, that legacy is better than any phantom. 

h/t PZ, who is off strike, thank goodness.

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  1. Ray
    July 26, 2010 at 05:22 | #1

    Here’s a fascinating attempt at gaining some practical insight into the size just of our solar system. As you say, no matter how well we “understand” the numbers involved, and how often we talk about light years (light years – just stop and think about that simple phrase!), our minds are simply unable to visualise what these distances truly are.

    [Ha! The key word for posting this comment was ‘consider’]

  2. September 19, 2010 at 16:16 | #2

    Ray, that is really awesome!  And it does throw that whole argument about whether Pluto is a planet into perspective as well.  Though I wish they had named it a “planetoid” instead of a “dwarf planet”.  Kudos to the people of Aroostook County, Maine.

    Sorry for the length to reply – my spam software had your comment held in limbo for some reason.

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