Professor Brian Cox on Meaning in a Human Universe

The ever-entertaining scientist who graces BBC documentaries and Radio 4’s The Infinite Monkey Cage, Brian Cox is everywhere lately. (If you’d like a sample of his work, check out his series Wonders of the Universe, which available on Hulu.)

His new BBC series, Human Universe (5 episodes total), recently finished broadcasting on the BBC and is tied-in with a new book by the same title. From what I’ve seen of the series, Brian Cox (in his trademark way) is painting a vast landscape in telling the human story, which he regularly connects to the ever-changing universe.

Human Universe by Brian Cox & Andrew Cohen William Collins, 2014 288 pages (hardcover) Available: Amazon

Human Universe
by Brian Cox & Andrew Cohen
William Collins, 2014
288 pages (hardcover)
Available: Amazon

If you’re familiar with The Infinite Monkey Cage, then you know that Cox is a thorough-going rationalist who opposes all pseudoscience and alternative medicine, and while cordial to his religious guests, he finds no scientific reason to appeal to the supernatural for answers.

Meaning is found in the here and now for Cox. What I always find interesting in this is that if I were to ask my devoutly Christian students at the university what they thought of his perspective, they would be very disappointed. Words like “empty” or “depressing” would be used. But what is always evident to me is that the universe is far from ever feeling empty to Professor Cox. In fact, this fuels his excitement over science and life.

To demonstrate that, check out the quotes from his new book below and then watch the short videos from the series. (I especially love the Galileo experiment he does in Cleveland.) While we are an “isolated island of meaning,” as he puts it, he clearly finds joy in that reality.

There is only one corner of the universe where we know for sure that the laws of nature have conspired to produce a species capable of transcending the physical bounds of a single life and developing a library of knowledge beyond the capacity of a million individual brains which contains a precise description of our location in space and time. We know our place, and that makes us valuable and, at least in our local cosmic neighborhood, unique. We don’t know how far we would have to travel to find another such island of understanding, but it is surely a long long way. This makes the human race worth celebrating, our library worth nurturing, and our existence worth protecting.

This does not mean, according to Cox, that we need to think of our story as being part of a grander, meta-meaning that fills the universe.

“…my view is that we humans represent an isolated island of meaning in a meaningless universe, and I should immediately clarify what I mean by meaningless. I see no reason for the existence of the universe in a teleological sense; there is surely no final cause or purpose. Rather, I think that meaning is the emergent property; it appeared on Earth when the brains of our ancestors became large enough to allow for primitive culture——probably 3 and 4 million years ago with the emergence of Australopithecus in the Rift Valley. There are surely other intelligent beings in the billions of galaxies beyond the Milky Way, and if the modern theory of eternal inflation is correct, then there is an infinite number of inhabited worlds in the multiverse beyond the horizon. I am much less certain that there are large numbers of civilizations sharing our galaxy, however, which is why I use the term ‘isolated’. If we are currently alone in the Milky Way, then the vast distances between the galaxies probably mean that we will never get to discuss our situations with anyone else….”

I haven’t had a chance to watch the entire series and I’m hoping it will find its way to America shortly. (Segments are available on YouTube.) But for now, check the videos out below.

 The Galileo Experiment

Series Trailer

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