Jonathan Hall

You're a Little More Than Useless

Jonathan Hall
You're a Little More Than Useless


The universe is huge. I mean, really huge. You already knew that. But just to put it into perspective, here are some quick fascinating facts:

  • Based on data received from the Hubble space telescope there are an estimated 100 billion galaxies, each with approximately 100 thousand millions stars. 
  • Although incredibly hard to accurately measure, the observable universe is approximately 98 billion light years in diameter (and expanding).
  • The sun makes up 99.86% of the mass of the solar system. It's so big that you could squeeze 1.3 million Earths inside of it. To put that into perspective, our sun is only a fraction of the size of the largest known supergiant, VY Canis Majoris which is 2100 times the size of the sun.
  • Ordinary, observable matter (like stars and planets) makes up a measly 5% of the universe. The other 95% universe is made up of invisible dark energy (68%) and dark matter (27%). That means there's 95% of the universe that we don't know about yet [1].
  • One temporal fascinating fact, is the universe is approximately 13.8 billion years old. The average human in America lives to about 78 years of age. 

Faced with these particular facts, it is very easy to conclude that our significance in the totality of the universe is severely microscopic. And in the grand scheme of the cosmic drama, our role is terrifyingly insignificant. Even the recipe of our biological bodies calls for nothing more than the ingredients bought in the super market of the natural universe. Our biological existence is reducible to the constituent components of material matter found throughout the cosmos, thus rendering our small piece of real estate in space as nothing unique.

But we feel totally irreducible to fundamental substrate of our biological existence. There is this strong, intuitive sense that we are more than just a collection of atoms subjected to laws of physics. The differentiating factor between us --sentient beings -- and a piece of floating space junk is consciousness. 

But not all sentient beings share the same intuitive awareness. For example, George, the neighborhood cat that lays in the middle of our street, is a conscious sentient being. But he doesn't care about the absurdity of all existence. He doesn't care that he could be just a few breaths away from actualizing the symmetry of not living - living - not living. He doesn't care that on a cosmic timetable, his whole life is an infinitesimal drop in the ocean of time that has passed and has yet to come. And even when a Fed-Ex truck nearly crushes his skull, he casually walks away to lick himself under a tree. The intuitive feeling of meaning is a human matter.

The relationship of being locally significant and cosmically insignificant, is bonded by the glue of felt tension. Even with the absurdity of existence and facing the abyss of total insignificance, the practicality of significance still runs the show. If taken in it's most pure form, insignificance can render someone completely useless. Why do anything at all? But that's not the way we operate. All of our collective actions perpetuate the momentum of living life, even against the backdrop of ultimate meaninglessness. Take for instance:

We are constructed of residual star dust, but the rent is due on the first and it's the fifth of the month.

We live on a razor's edge of complete annihilation but your daughter wants a bedtime snack right after brushing her teeth.

The universe is heading to state of no thermodynamic free energy, resulting in a heat death, but your job is cutting your position and moving it offshore.

The Milky Way is on a cataclysmic course to crash into Andromeda, but you just received the news that the cancer has returned and this time, the degree of uncertainty is greater. 

The only reason we can make sense of anything is because of the degree of consciousness we have - a consciousness that itself is an emergent property of natural processes. And yet, the same consciousness that causes us to feel the torment of meaninglessness is the same tool we use to make our fate our own. We are able to take our trials and tribulations and turn them into a positive force for good. We can pay for the coffee of the person behind us in the Starbucks drive-through, which can set off a chain of selfless gestures that will reach a countless amount of other people. We can enjoy the sun on our face, experience the happiness of an evening out with friends and love the sound of our children's laughter. 

In the strictest sense, we are living in complete cosmic devastation. It may very well be the case that when it's over, it's really over; the Titanic is going down. But the inevitability of the situation doesn't have to lead to despair. As Viktor Frankl puts it: D = S - M (despair is suffering without meaning) [2]. When we carve out our own meaning in a universe that is completely devoid of purpose and intent, we breathe significance into our existence. We become a little more than useless.


[1] Business Insider (direct quote)
[2} Mans Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl