Because I studied philosophy as a college undergraduate, and spent the majority of my time learning with professors who were all too eager to explain their reasoning for why God cannot exist, I remain fascinated by any study that examines the role of human beings in a scientific universe, and what that might tell us about deeper things that exist above or beneath the surface of our sensory experience. Last week, I read an article in Harper’s Magazine by Alan Lightman entitled “Our Place in the Universe,” which explores the question of how understanding the content of the universe reveals fascinating truths about humanity’s place within the universe, and what that might tell us about whatever divine beings might exist in the world.
In March 2009, NASA launched a spacecraft called Kepler that sought to find planets in the universe that were habitable for other forms of life. The Kepler returned with the following findings:
- “The totality of living matter on Earth–human and animals, plants, bacteria, and pond scum–makes up 0.00000001 percent of the mass of the planet. Combining this figure with the results from the Kepler mission, and assuming that all potentially life-sustaining planets do indeed have life, we can estimate that the fraction of stuff in the visible universe that exists in living form is something like 0.000000000000001 percent, or one millionth of one billionth of 1 percent.”
According to NASA, living beings, and thus, by extension, human beings, are an insignificant speck in the scheme of the entire universe. As a result, our place in the universe juxtaposed with the capabilities of humanity to shape and explore that universe led Lightman to make the following observation:
- “If some cosmic intelligence created the universe, life would seem to have been only an afterthought. And if emerges, by random processes, vasts amounts of lifeless material are needed for each particle of life. Such numbers cannot help but bear upon the question of our significance in the universe.”
Interestingly, I think that Lightman’s observation is very Jewish, for our tradition reminds us that, in spite of the immense power humanity can exert over the natural world, we should never assume that humanity’s place in the world is more significant than any other living being, or any other created thing. The following text is recorded in the Toseftah:
- “Humanity was created last… Why was he created last? So that he not become haughty. He is told: A gnat preceded you in the act of creation” (Toseftah, Sanhedrin 8:7-9).
When we think about the vast expanse of creation, we are obligated to see ourselves as one small piece of a much larger whole, and never assume that our human capabilities give us carte blanche to destroy and alter the natural world. Whether we believe that our world comes from God or not, we must recognize our place within this wide universe, and have the humility to treat it with respect and provide proper stewardship.