Scientific discovery can make human affairs on this planet seem awfully trivial. The discovery of the Higgs boson particle, for example, has led to fresh claims about the possible origins of the universe – and also predictions about its ultimate fate.
According to theoretical physicist Joseph Lykken, "it may be that the universe we live in is inherently unstable and at some point billions of years from now it's all going to get wiped out".
But studying the cosmos need not cause despair. While pointing to the transience of humanity, it also illuminates the uniqueness – or downright flukiness – of our condition.
Something of this realisation appears to be experienced by astronauts when looking down on Earth. They frequently testify to experiencing a heightened state of wonder – a kind of epiphany, or unifying, spiritual insight. It's so common it has its own name – the "overview effect" – and last month psychologists from the University of Pennsylvania published their first paper from a major research project into the phenomenon.
But you don't have to go to space to stand in awe of the universe. Niamh Brennan, who is studying for a PhD at the Department of Religion and Theology at Trinity College Dublin, has written a book, The Human in the Universe, which explores the relationship between cosmological knowledge and our sense of meaning.
She draws inspiration from Catholic scientific thinkers Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and Thomas Berry, and speaks of the universe as a "she" rather than an "it" – as much to counter the assumption that Earth and all that lies beyond it are just inanimate objects to be exploited.
Although Brennan admits reflecting on the universe provides “no answers” to the riddle of life, “it has given me gratitude”. Choosing to put an optimistic gloss on our cosmological predicament, she says, “Perhaps this is what the human species is here to do: to complete and reflect back what the universe herself is building.”
Steven Weinberg said: “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.” You disagree?
“I suppose the question is: pointless for whom? Whose pointlessness? Not for me, in any case.
“The more I understand of the world and how it works, and the more I learn about the biological, chemical, physical processes of nature and the depths of time, the more wonderful it becomes to see the daffodils in bloom in the springtime, and the more meaning I see in the flowering of the rose bush in the summer.
“Knowledge, or comprehension, in as much as we can comprehend, both heightens and enhances my appreciation. So there’s that incentive to know things. But there’s also this: nothing comes to us in its entirety, in its totality, immediately. We learn about things over time.
“So what might seem pointless now, in time could be of great significance. So I don’t think we live with the criteria presently by which we could deem anything pointless in the abstract.”
Is it possible to gain an appreciation of the origins of the universe and still believe in a loving god?
“If you believe in a god, then it has to be a god large enough to incorporate a universe with all that a universe incorporates. But there are some things certainly that we can say by looking at the world around us. We can say that the creator is generous, abundant and creative . . . but likewise we can also say that there is hatred, resentment, etc, because we can also feel those in ourselves.
“If God is love, then he or she must also be everything else. That said, love does seem to be an enduring part of creation.”
Life as we know it will eventually perish. Should that make us despair?
“Despair can begin when we see life as beginning and ending with my own life, when we don’t see ourselves as part of something bigger. One of my favourite quotes from Teilhard de Chardin is: ‘The wave we feel passing was not formed in ourselves. It comes to us from very far – having started out at the same time as the light of the first stars. It reaches us after having created everything on the way.’ And this is the idea of life actually reaching us; life in the larger sense of meaning.
“The universe is currently estimated to be 13.8 billion years old, and now here we are, all these billions of years later, and it is our time to take part in the adventure. And of course we will die, as will everything, but the absolute beauty of this is that our life will contribute – in some form – to whatever will happen next.
“The universe didn’t stop after it created a galaxy. It went on and created a solar system, Earth and life. And I doubt it will stop with the creation of life either, but I can imagine that something new will emerge, something even more magnificent and more expressive.
“And here’s the thing, because I am alive now, I can play a part – however small – in bringing forth what the universe wants to create next. You don’t choose wonder in the same way that you don’t choose despair. You’re awakened to it and the way you are awakened to it is by paying attention to what is here now and the realisation that you are actually a part of it, a living, breathing, participant in this epic of life.
“Regardless of anything else, that alone to me is wonderful.”