The Implications Of Moral Insignificance

In her piece “In Praise of Insignificance” in Scientific American, Jennifer Ouellette says,

If one embraces an atheist worldview, it necessarily requires embracing, even celebrating, one’s insignificance. It’s a tall order, I know, when one is accustomed to being the center of attention. The universe existed in all its vastness before I was born, and it will exist and continue to evolve after I am gone. But knowing that doesn’t make me feel bleak or hopeless. I find it strangely comforting.

A cockroach is insignificant even to the extent that squashing it, i.e. depriving it of its life in an expedient and, for the roach anyway, awful manner, cannot be considered wrong. It can even be said to be good or necessary for the “greater good.” What, after all, is the life of one small bug when compared with the wellbeing of even one human being?

But then if that human being has admitted herself to be insignificant, to have willingly placed herself on the same moral and ontological plane as a filthy bug, why is her good to be placed above the roach’s? Don’t just pass this sentence by with a quick nod. Insignificant is a strong word, none stronger. Taken at its definition—which is what we are doing here, to see where it leads us—means meaningless, valueless, of no use, disposable.

Now it might appear to imply that if all accepted that they were insignificant, all would be allowed; that is, any behavior would be acceptable. But this is false; indeed, the opposite is true. No behavior would be allowed or acceptable.

When we examine questions of morality we quite naturally think about what our behavior would do or mean to somebody else; that is, we imagine ourselves acting in some way and then in some person or persons reacting. If we decided that “we are insignificant” then it appears that if I wanted to (say) hit you upside the head with a baseball bat, then that would be fine because your life is insignificant. (Richard Dawkins, for instance, famously admits that rape isn’t “wrong” in this sense.)

That is true in a weak sense, but we stepped over the hard part. The problem is that I have already admitted that I am insignificant too, which entails that I have no justification for my initial act. My pleasure is nothing, even the physical exercise gained in hefting the wood is meaningless. If I realize this, then I cannot justify to myself why I should act. Not just in swinging the bat, but for walking, talking, eating, any activity at all that isn’t automatic (eating is not automatic; it implies you have judged that to feed yourself is good, which admits significance). If I am to be logically consistent, then I must remain entirely impotent and always motionless.

You’ll notice that in these arguments, I sling around the word I, as if I have deduced that I exist, and the same for you. But if I exist, if I am aware of me and that there is a me, then this automatically implies significance (I at least know there is the rational creature me). It remains to be seen what are the limits and implications of this significance, of course, but that there is some significance, that there is an absence of insignificance, necessarily follows.

So it cannot be that we are insignificant nor can we imagine ourselves insignificant (we can say it, but we’re always either lying or deluded), though it is easy, as history has repeatedly proven, to think the other guy insignificant. Ouellette does not really believe she is insignificant, despite her claims. She informs us that she tells her husband daily that she loves him, a very nice thing. But it is only nice if she admits to being significant, which we have seen she must do. Of course, we haven’t proven that because are are significant saying “I love you” to somebody (and meaning it) is nice, though all of us believe it (and it can be proven).

Ouellette’s first argument is right, though: “If one embraces an atheist worldview, it necessarily requires embracing, even celebrating, one’s insignificance.” I mean her argument is right if you strike out the “celebrating” bit, for to celebrate and to enjoy a celebration presupposes significance. A real world running on atheist lines would contain no celebrations, indeed nothing but non-moving bodies, frozen in realization that nothing—as in no thing—they did matters or is justified.

33 Comments

  1. Couldn’t agree. I think you’ve taken her quoted remarks and stretched ‘insignificance’ to breaking point.

    I don’t believe in a God of any sort. I think we’re here because we’re here and have no ‘purpose’, divine or otherwise and, when we’re dead, we’re dead.

    The significance depends on scale, I guess the closest analogy I can come up with is, approximating to zero in maths. For some things this is a good idea, for other not. Compared to the universe we’re insignificant, compared to other people on the bus, not so.

    I’d like to think that I’m as engaged with life as anyone else, and that I try to (for the want of a better phrase) do the right thing, *and*, I read your blog 🙂

    Anyway, that’s my take on it.

  2. @Mr. Crook:
    Then we should not pay Ms. Ouellette the courtesy of taking her argument seriously?

    Ah, the adolescent obsession that “size” matters. But Mr. Crook is probably correct that Ms. Ouellette gave no thought whatsoever to the meaning of the term “in-sign-ificant.” After all, she was only writing in Scientific American, not in a philosophy magazine or other rigorous venue and we need not pay her the courtesy of taking her argument seriously. It is – what is the word I want? – insignificant?

    Evidently, her musings qualified as Science. Otherwise why publish them in such a venue?

    Though one still wonders about Mr. Crook’s feeling of “insignificant.” There are three hundred million Americans, something like what seven billion other humans not on the bus. Does he regard himself as insignificant “compared to other people not on the bus”? If size or quantity is all that matters, at what size or quantity is the cut-off point between his existence being meaningful or meaningless. If Ms. Ouellette were a few million light years in height would she then become significant?

    OTOH, if we look at an artist’s workshop we see all sorts of clutter and waste. If it takes millions of seeds to make a dandelion, or millions of sperm to make a man, why should there not be a universe left over to make a world?

  3. we can certainly be completely insignificant in terms of the Universe as a whole, or even the Milky Way galaxy for that matter (as Ouellette seems to mean), and yet have significance within the narrow confines or context of our own measly human lives. Why is that so hard to understand….
    The smashed cockroach too may have had a significant life at some level (probably no way for us to know), just not at the level of myopic human significance.

  4. Ms. Ouellette and previous commentors are taking significance/insignificance as a continuous spectrum of relative comparison. You take it as a binary condition. What is the logic in the former case for deciding if Ouellette’s argument is valid?

  5. Mathematical philosophy has been able to integrate many things with infinitesimals.

    I feel our insignificance is integrated in a similar way to meaning something.

    Ms. Ouellette didn’t say we are insignificant, rather she makes us aware of our insignificance – we are not zero, but when measured in the scales of space and time we are much diminished.

    The religious short circuit to significance, through being in the image of a God and hence special, is convenient, and for many meaningful. But for others it fails muster, and then what are we to do?

    The almighty’s inordinate foundness for beetles is a quandry when looked at on a timescale of Eons – cockroaches have possessed the earth far longer than we have and whether we will inherit the Earth prior to it being consumed in the transformation of the sun into a red giant is still unclear.

    Ah well, we are little beings, but our thoughts can encompass much … even in idle speculation on an internet blog – its all a matter of perspective isn’t it Prof Briggs!

  6. @Ye Olde Statistician

    Significance or insignificance are merely measures of effect, both in scale and extent.

    Going back to your bus analogy, if I was on the bus and died of a heart attack then I’d say that for the people on the bus I was significant, for the rest of the US, insignificant. If, on the other hand, I detonated my explosive vest, I’d (probably?) be more significant. In either case, for my close friends and relatives, both would be significant. In all cases, the Sun would continue unperturbed.

    All of a sudden I find myself thinking of trees falling unseen in forest….

  7. Dr. Briggs:

    Ouellette merely describes an atheist foundation for humility.

    Theists provide this same foundation for humility by asserting that humans are insignificant when compared to almighty God (or, in the case of polytheists, the pantheon.)

    Neither case for humility informs the relative importance of one human to another.

    Each time you use the word “insignificant”, we ask “Compared to what?”; in your essay, you switched contexts three times: human-to-universe, human-to-cockroach, and human-to-human.

    You (and Ouellette) also conflate measurable size with value. She apparently derives value in the face of an indifferent yet observably vast universe; you seem to require some additional factor, which from your tone, I take to be God (or perhaps, gods).

    From your excerpt, Ouellette does not assert that a human is insignificant when compared to another human, as you would have her do.

    A good exercise. Much appreciated.

    V/R.

  8. A consequentialist would say that what a thing signifies depends on its consequences rather than on what it is. Hence, a man on a bus is significant if he blows himself up with a Palestinian sports vest, but is insignificant if he simply sits there and goes about his business, stepping off the bus when his stop is reached. But the significance of a thing is what it signifies, not what it does, and that takes us into the realm of signs. Keep in mind that when Ms. Ouellette regards the universe and feels insignificant (as Pascal did long before she came along), it is her regarding of the universe that creates this relationship and not the universe regarding her. And that is significant.

    Ms. Ouellette’s original point was that humans are insignificant because the universe it like really big, dude. That is, her “feelings” of insignificance may only be a touch of agoraphobia. Sure, she is small compared to the galaxy; but she is small compared to her own house. And the galaxy is small compared to the Local Group; and even galactic clusters are small. So in the end, size itself is insignificant.

    OTOH, to an order of magnitude, humans are about 10^0 meters tall. Planck scale is 10^-35 m. while the universe is 10^25 m. So humans fall rather closer to the big end than to the small end when we use scientific notation.

    But if magnitude is significance, and a really great disparity in magnitude means a great difference in significance, then a small disparity in magnitude means a small difference in significance. So men in general are slightly more significant than women; and your thigh is more significant than your brain.

    But is Mt. Rushmore really more significant than Michaelangelo’s David because it is larger? And if not, then why should it matter that the galaxy is larger than a cockroach? In the end, all Ms. Ouellette was doing was bowing her head, striking her breast, and murmuring, “Lord, I am not worthy.” Atheism, it seems, after a couple centuries of humanist triumphalism, has caught up to Christianity’s assessment of humanity as being low and humble.

  9. Professor Briggs,

    You look to be prepared to jump into the philsophy of existentialism, but I think you first have to reason through the main points of the theory before you rip it to the ground.

    So….the premises.
    There is no God.
    There is no inherent meanining to the world.
    There is not a absolute right or wrong.
    You are free
    Freedom creates angst.

    A person can escape this angst if they live authentically. They must know themselves and create a personal morality. This may put them into conflict with others. If one is living authentically they should accept this. They must take compete responsibilty, and have have no regrets over the consequences of their actions.

    I know that Briggs disagrees with just about every premise, but feel free to start shredding.

  10. @Ye Olde Statistician

    Ouch, that last paragraph was a bit harsh.

    I’d be surprised if people hadn’t felt small in the face of nature/planet/universe since the first hominid became self aware. Shortly after I’m also pretty sure they’d have invented their first god to explain why they were so small and apparently insignificant in the face of the world around them.

    So, gods were made by men, and as well as providing explanation, they could provide some reassurance to the downtrodden masses that, eventually, the god who knows and sees everything will ensure that the bastard that stole your sheep/land/wife would get theirs in some sort of afterlife even if they were beyond retribution in this life.

    I don’t think Ms Ouellette considers herself unworthy, it’s just that she’s had a glimpse of the Total Perspective Vortex, and isn’t Zaphod Beeblebrox. But then, who is?

  11. “So, gods were made by men, and as well as providing explanation, they could provide some reassurance to the downtrodden masses that, eventually, the god who knows and sees everything will ensure that the bastard that stole your sheep/land/wife would get theirs in some sort of afterlife even if they were beyond retribution in this life.”

    @Steve Crook:
    How strange that Judaism then would say that those ‘bastards’ (and everyone else) would have all debts forgiven every seven years. Christianity would have forgiven their crimes and could have even welcomed them as brothers, contrary to human nature. Seems they failed to be a stereotypical religions. What a shame. Humanism’s black-and-white approach to the origin of religion fails again.

    On the point, I’ve heard arguments similar to Ms Ouellete’s basically suggesting that this life is like a “trip to an amusement park” in that we typically don’t consider such a trip to be ‘insignificant’ or ‘meaningless’ despite the fact we know it will end. The problem is, if a trip to an amusement park would end with our deaths (and the deaths of everyone else shortly thereafter), I would think we may have to start having some serious discussions over whether or not we could enjoy the trip or if our time might be better spent elsewhere.

  12. Eric,

    You may have correctly surmised Ouellette’s hidden intention of demonstrating humility, but she failed by clearly implying that “insignificant” was in terms of moral worth. My only intent was to show that we cannot be insignificant morally or in worthiness.

    Physical size comparisons are of no interest. If they were, then I would be more significant than you because I’m bigger than you (6’2″, 200 lbs, which I’m guessing is bigger). Oulette’s human-to-universe fails to be interesting in the same way. Our worthiness is not measured by our physical mass, nor by how large the universe is.

    I take it you agree with this, or (implicitly) with the idea that every human being is accorded the same dignity, moral worth, and so forth. Yet if so, this cannot be because it follows from strict Ouellette’s premise.

    And do you see how hard it is to write of this in a way which truly indicates insignificance? For instance, you used the phrase, “indifferent yet observably vast universe.” Indifferent here implies sentience coupled with boredom or disinterest. There has to be an intelligence behind an indifference.

  13. Ouellette’s first argument is right, though: “If one embraces an atheist worldview, it necessarily requires embracing, even celebrating, one’s insignificance.” I mean her argument is right if you strike out the “celebrating” bit, for to celebrate and to enjoy a celebration presupposes significance.

    What is right is that you still do not understand atheism. You are trying to read Atheism through Theistic eyes. You may do so, but in so doing, you will fail to understand the whole point of atheism. If, however, the intellectual bubble you are creating around yourself is comforting, I can see the allure in these self-deluding exercises.

    More to the point, you did not understand Dawkins’ point at all. Yes, it is true that for me, in the absolute sense, rape is meaningless. Not because rape is meaningless for an atheist, but because absolutism is meaningless for an atheist. This is the point you don’t get.

    I, because I can only speak for myself, do not view my life as “significant” to the whole universe. Had you paid any attention to the universe around you instead of shouting to the webs how ridiculous this opinion is (perhaps as a rite to guarantee your significance?), you’d see this is evidently true. Angela Merkel couldn’t care less about your existence, you can shout against the existence of Obama that he won’t even know of you, and I’d venture that 99.999% of the universe won’t even be affected in a measurable way for your existence.

    You also know that this doesn’t matter. You have people you love aside you, and they love you back. The immediate world around you does notice your existence and you can have a pretty good time doing the best you can for them, etc.

    And that’s the difference between having an “Objective” “Absolute” viewpoint about your existence, and the correct Subjective, humble, personal, incomplete, all-too-human life of your own.

    Enjoy your life. It’s the only you got as far as we know.

  14. Luis,

    I get it. Dawkins cannot say, with absoluteness or with certainty, that rape is wrong. He may claim he personally finds it (say) distasteful, but only by pointing to himself. He can’t say its wrong for his cellmate to climb into his bunk in the middle of the night, for that gentleman has his own moral rules. Unless you agree there is at least one absolute moral truth.

    Interesting to bring up Angela Merkel, who almost surely does not know me (though I have many readers in Germany), so that she cannot care about me or judge me of significance. But I know of her, therefore I must just her of significance, and this must be so even if I didn’t know her name but only her general description. Further, I can give the general principle that all human beings are significant.

    You have also passed, in the Merkel and Obama examples, from the judgment of significance to the of necessity of (moral) (in)action. Curious, no?

    And you have also said to “Enjoy” life. Why? Another absolute moral truth?

  15. Bravo, Doctor. You have lured out the cockroaches again.

    Significantly, morality is absolute to the rational mind.

    “Man has been called a rational being, but rationality is a matter of choice–and the alternative his nature offers him is rational being or suicidal animal. Man has to be man–by choice; he has to hold his life as a value–by choice; he has to learn to sustain it–by choice; he has to discover the values it requires and practice his virtues–by choice. A code of values accepted by choice is a code of morality.” – John Galt

    If dear Ms. Ouellette truly believed in her insignificance as a moral choice, she would not be compelled to eat, drink, look both ways before crossing the street, and generally and specifically sustain her own life. The photo shows her drinking, and one may assume she does all those other necessary life-sustaining actions, or she would be room temperature and not writing pithy treatises for Scientific (ha ha) American.

    Your (dear roaches) own rational efforts to sustain your own lives is your moral choice, and by making it you choose to be significant, at least to yourself, regardless of the size of the Universe or the surety of your own eventual demise. You can pretend to be insignificant, but your actions say otherwise. I refuse to pity you. Sorry.

  16. Jaime,

    I’ve been trying to get my computer to read that so it would understand why its hating me is just plain wrong. So far, no luck. Maybe it’s the spiteful OS instead and not the machine?

  17. Uncle Mike why must a rational choice have a moral position? If we were purely rational beings beings then we would only chose actions as per those actions reaching some overriding goal. Are you confusing this overriding goal with morality? Or are you saying some god set this goal and this is our significance – when we actually bad does god cry? Is that why it rains so much in Seattle?

  18. I observe myself as being significant. I could make up a hypothesis why this is so, but the hypothesis doesn’t change the observation.

    I observe myself to think of some other people as being significant. Parents, siblings, friends, neighbours, collegues, etc. I could make up a hypothesis why this is so, but that hypothesis doesn’t change the observations either.

    I also see most other humans thinking of themselves as being significant and thinking other people are significant. So, as far as I am concerned, they are parts of the universe that think of other parts of the universe as significant. A tiny part, but then, people do not get around much in the universe.

  19. He may claim he personally finds it (say) distasteful, but only by pointing to himself

    Wrong again. This conversation with you is as frustrating as getting a communist to understand Hayek. To a communist, if someone up there in the government isn’t calling the shots about everything, all hell is loose and the robber baron bogeyman will get us all. For you, if someone up there isn’t demanding that we consider rape to be absolutely wrong, all hell is loose because it’s everyone for themselves.

    In this world we live in however, morality is an agreement between individuals and nothing more. In your example, our imaginary Dawkins would find rape abhorrent and would try to convince his cell mate of the same thing. If he was successful, a “moral agreement” would have been made. If not, he would (probably) be raped, and there’s nothing this “Absolute” can do about it. This is what happens in this so-called “life” that exists beyond your “absolutist” fantasies: abhorrent things *do* happen. People gather and make agreements between themselves on what is to be considered acceptable or not, if they are to live together in some kind of community.

    Other examples abound. For instance, slavery was once deemed quite moral. Some people disagreed. They didn’t have the power to change things, and so it continued to be “morally right” to have slaves, etc., irrespectively of what your “metaphysical” moral absolute considered to be right or not. On another case, slavery and rape was even demanded by god himself against the people of other “sinful” cities. For another instance, I hereby predict that within a century people will look down on us abhorrent creatures for inflicting so much torture into animals only because their flesh is so delicious. I don’t see you so preoccupied with this “absolutely” abhorrent practice nowadays. But if these are absolutes, shouldn’t you? If your brain starts to answer this with “Yes, but…” that’s all the evidence you need that you may profess absolutism, but in truth, your are just as a relativist as any perverted atheist. Welcome to reality.

    About Merkel, your point about her “significance” is missing the point. Yes, she is more significant than you are (sorry) for many people, but this is a relativistic comparison, is it not? Against the absolute, she is also a nothing. Then you say that “all humans are significant”. Well how altruistic of you, almost as well said as a communist would have said. Is a random Indian guy as significant as your neighbour? And to whom? Doesn’t it depend to whom we ask this question? Isn’t this a necessarily relativistic issue?

    Lastly, I don’t understand your point about moral inaction. I never implied anything remotely like that. Try to read what I am saying, not what your prejudices tell you. Morality does not stop existing just because it is not an absolute. I still abhor rape and will influence people around me to carry on this taboo. However, I also find it astonishingly arrogant to even try to speak for an absolute. I cannot do such a thing. No one can. Not even you. I’d think that a guy preaching liberty would “get” this basic point about freedom, but instead we get the hilarious argument that you can “just know it by your gut”. Should we put your gut in some kind of pedestal and worship it? And no, “enjoy life” is not an absolute truth, just a friendly advice. I thought it obvious by now (bah, who am I kidding?).

  20. Significantly, morality is absolute to the rational mind.

    If this is an absolute truth, then the conclusion must be that humans are not rational.

    Trolololol

  21. “The universe existed in all its vastness before I was born, and it will exist and continue to evolve after I am gone.”

    “The universe” “it” “continue and evolve”

    Jennifer Ouellette doesn’t sound like an atheist.

  22. Prof Briggs:

    Dawkins cannot say, with absoluteness or with certainty, that rape is wrong. He may claim he personally finds it (say) distasteful, but only by pointing to himself.

    Surely Prof Dawkins would say: Given the principle that sexual relations between people require the consent of both therefore rape is wrong. He won’t point only to himself in saying that – he will say this principle is maintained as a social good by many (most(?)) people and he agrees with it as being foundational aspect of a society he supports. I don’t think atheists are against conditional logic leading to strong conclusions.

    No doubt you’ll ask straight away where does Prof Dawkins gain that principle – you can claim it is a God given absolute (apart from the difficulty it isn’t – we have all read the old testament haven’t we – Deuteronomy 20:10-17), but equally Prof Dawkins could say it developed from people observing that such principles reduce conflict and are conducive to the social good.

  23. I’m with them who note the subtle difficulty of using the word “sig-nificant” in this context. That is “significant” which is a sign of something. We get the same problem when people go in search of “the meaning of life” since that has meaning only that which is symbolic of, or intimates toward, something else. If you seek the value of a thing in either of a) what it symbolizes, or b) the fact that it is symbolic you immediately divest the thing of any value intrinsic to the thing itself for itself. Thus Man will be said to be of value because he was “made in the image of God” and is therefore symbolic of God or intimates the being of God. But this begs the question: what is the significance of God? Conflating the meaning of “significance” with the meaning of “value” is part of the problem. Relying on the relation of signification to go in pursuit of value is to go on a wild goose chase. It leads to an infinite regress which does not converge on anything, unless and until you end it by proposing something that is of value in and for itself. But once you allow that something can be of value in and for itself you are back to square one which is to ask: what more is needed than that each of us admit that each of us is of value in and for him or herself. The thing is: a universe in which Jennifer Ouellette exists is absolutely different from an universe in which she does not exist, a not insignificant difference at that.

  24. A real world running on atheist lines would contain no celebrations, indeed nothing but non-moving bodies, frozen in realization that nothing—as in no thing—they did matters or is justified.

    Is this your wish? Does this imply that you need God’s approval whenever you make a decision or do something? God’s existence is insignificant in an atheist’s world. However, this doesn’t imply that an atheist’s world contains no celebration, which is a strange notion to me. It’s strange to me because of my upbringing and my prejudice.

    “Prejudice is very human,” says Data.

    Luis, Mr. Briggs is enjoying his life by writing this post. ^_^

  25. Dang… I’m late to the party.

    Eric: You say “do the right thing” in the same breath as asserting there is no reason for being. If there is no reason, and no significane, then nothing can be right or wrong. In the face of oblivion all things equal 0.

    The lovely Ms. Oulette attempts to side step oblivion by attaching her own consciousness to the ongoing continuation of the universe. My oh my. Relatively, the universe ceases to exist for her if she truly is atheist. In other words, for her the universe ends when she dies. From where does her comfort come? Her rational is commonly paradoxical “atheist” reasoning.

    Luis: wha???? Ethics is an agreement between individuals. Morality is an agreement with yourself that you never consciously made but are stuck with anyway.

  26. Luis: wha???? Ethics is an agreement between individuals. Morality is an agreement with yourself that you never consciously made but are stuck with anyway.

    An agreement pressuposes two entities at least. So I cannot parse your sentence, sorry. Care to rephrase?

  27. Well, after coming late to the party and reading all this stellar dialectic I’m ready to concede the atheists are insignificant.

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