Note on Cosmic Insignificance


Inspired by Michael Hausekeller’s piece “Guy Kahane on our Cosmic Significance

I tend to think that cosmic horror writers like Lovecraft and Ligotti articulate the idea of cosmic insignificance far better than professional philosophers. Why should the vast extent of space and time inspire horror?

Well, our lack of power implies an inability to make a difference – thus insignificance. But why should insignificance inspire dread or horror? Nothing I do will make any difference to what’s going on in the nearest star system, let alone the Andromeda galaxy. But so what? Maybe this dread depends on contingent features of our universe and epistemic constraints upon our ability to understand them.

The universe inspires these feeling of horror for Lovecraft’s antiquarian narrator in “The Call of Cthulhu” because of what lies under those “black seas of infinity”. Our power is as nothing compared to that of the Great Old Ones and – what’s more – their agenda and values (if they have any) are utterly alien to ours. The significance of the human is nothing compared to non-human powers. Human signifying signifies way less than theirs.

So it is second order insignificance that is the issue in Lovecraft.

Of course, there are no Great Old Ones so far as we can tell, but there might be immensely powerful aliens as ethically inhuman as Lovecraft’s. Perhaps their cosmic engineering projects are responsible for the 250 million light year Boötes void – a region of space spookily free of visible stars or galaxies. If there are, I suspect that the less we matter to them the better.

Even if there are not, the vast extent of time suggests that our current civilisation and technical praxis could result in posthumans whose moral nature owes little to ours beyond the facts of historical descent (See my Posthuman Life). If so our insignificance consists in our inability to humanise even the human world. Perhaps our efforts to do this magnify its noncompliance (say, by creating ever more complex, unpredictable and autonomous technologies). Thus our moral image of the world, the space of reasons, is a kind of illusion of collective agency – the real agency is something hidden and monstrous. Here we seem to border on the idea of pandemonism explored in Ligotti’s story Nethescurial and a different kind of second-order insignificance. It is not that our way of mattering does not matter when compared with the Great Old Ones, but that our significance does not touch on what really matters.

8 thoughts on “Note on Cosmic Insignificance

    Wierd fiction presents the universe as an irrational place, totally indifferent to human concerns. Is ‘the wierd’ a more general approach that can bextended beyond fiction to encompass the other arts, or even politics and science? Rana Mitter discusses the idea of the wierd with literary scholar Nick Freeman of the University of Loughborough, cultural theorist Caroline Edwards of Birkbeck, University of London, and astronomer Marek Kukula of the Royal Observatory at Greenwich.

      1. Will you be coming out with another book soon? (Perhaps expanding on the “biomorphic horror” idea)

      2. Thanks for your interest – Yes, this is being planned and assembled. Like most things writing is constrained by time and money. I’m hoping to free up my time a lot soon. So watch this space I guess.

      3. Excellent. I have some of my own ideas about “unbounded” posthumanism, and am writing an article on those.

        (e.g. I think along the lines of a long-term
        techno-biological experiment gone wrong, and creating something that isn’t human any longer).

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