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Oysters and People

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One of the most common themes in contemporary philosophy is that of the relationship between humans and the rest of the universe. This relationship is of great significance to the question of the meaning of life, for if the nature of this relationship were to be exactly discovered, it is assumed that meaning would logically follow. David Hume proposes the simplest imaginable answer: “[T]he life of a man is of no greater importance to the universe than that of an oyster”. It is this writer’s intention to evaluate the truth of this statement.

First of all, the term ‘of importance to the universe’ must be defined. The universe, as a whole, either has a goal or a plan associated with it (because such a plan is assigned by a deity), or it does not (either because no deity exists, or because a deity does exist but has no such plan). If the first is true, “of importance to the universe”, must mean “having an effect of the function or the final outcome of the universe”. On the other hand, if the universe does have a plan associated with it, the term must mean “facilitating or hindering the carrying out of the universe’s plan”. We will take the two definitions separately.

If there is no plan associated with the universe, one must come to the conclusion that Hume is quite correct. It is hard to imagine the six billion humans currently in existence on the planet making much of a difference to the nearly infinite collection of matter and energy that comprises the physical universe, much less one single person. Using myself as an example, I can imagine no action that I could possibly take that would ever be of any cosmic significance at all. I could, perhaps, write a sensational work of fiction or compose a particularly moving piece of music, but that would be nothing to the non-human workings of the Earth. I could start a nuclear war and put an end to life on this planet, but that would be nothing to Luna, our moon. Even if I could, by some as of yet unknown principle of physics, cause the sun to collapse upon itself and destroy the entire solar system, that would not have the slightest effect on the Crab Nebula or Aldebaran. If the universe is unplanned, then Hume is correct, and it is impossible for a human being to be of any significance to it.

But if the universe has a goal? Lois Hope Walker (whom I suspect is also Louis Pojman), in his essay on the meaning which religion gives to life makes reference to a cosmic battle in which, ultimately, humans will defeat evil and ensure that good prevails, all with the help and guidance of God. For Walker, we are of infinitely greater significance than mere oysters, we are soldiers in the divine struggle of good against evil. Unfortunately, this view too falls apart under the vastness of the universe. Astronomy tells us that if God exists, he is the caretaker of a nearly infinite piece of property with some rather quarrelsome inhabitants packed into an infinitesimal corner of it. If such a landlord has a plan for his property, it is difficult to imagine the hairless apes of the Spiral Arm holding its success or failure in the balance, no matter how smart we seem to think we are.

Hume, it seems, has us at every turn. If the universe is planned, it is inconceivable that any of us hold success or failure in the balance, and if the universe is unplanned, we cannot hope to significantly disrupt its workings. But so what? Are any of us really so egotistical and insecure as to have our happiness completely tied up in our cosmic significance? We are not Walker’s moral soldiers, we are Camus’ Sisyphuses, pushing our boulders up our mountains until they finally fall for the last time. It does Sisyphus no good to imagine that he is building castles, for he will simply frustrate himself. He must accept that he will accomplish nothing, and then set himself to enjoying his struggle towards the heights. Like Socrates, who found his meaning in the impossible task proving his oracle wrong and Russell, who dedicated himself to love, knowledge and pity, or Epicurus, who found his meaning in life’s most modest pleasures, we must relinquish delusions of cosmic significance and set ourselves to our own Sisyphian burdens.


  1. cuppajoe_9's Avatar
    As promised: a real entry. This is the take-home portion of my philosophy final exam, for which I received a much-coveted A.
  2. Psycheinaboat's Avatar
    Great post! Glad to see you back.