The argument is well-known: It is difficult to believe in the cosmic significance of human life in a universe as vast as ours. If the universe is created by G-d with human beings in mind, why is there so much of it? How, in light of the billions of galaxies, can we tell ourselves human action matters in the big picture? This question deserves an answer, but first we must question the question, religiously, scientifically, and philosophically, to find out what we’re really asking.
Neil deGrasse Tyson asks this question in the name of science, I assume as part of the quest to banish the ignorance of the masses. And when scientists ask the question, they do it as if it’s new, as if the vastness of the universe were a modern proposition.
In truth, ancient sources such as the Talmud (based on Job 25:3) refer to infinite angels, denizens of spiritual realms beyond reckoning, in comparison to which the entire human race is like a drop in the ocean. Now, these endless ranks of spiritual beings are said to often care about and in many ways to exist for the purposes of humanity. Therefore, the difference between the universe as conceived by modern astronomy and the spiritual realms described by the Talmud is not in quantity but rather in quality. Infinite angels created by a G-d who cares about individual human beings is one thing. A vast multiverse totally indifferent to our presence is quite another.
(Besides the Talmud’s sheer statement of fact, there are moral lesson to be learned from endless realms of G-d’s dominion. As the religious sources imply, man’s smallness is a trait religion has tried to impart, not avoid. What makes a human being important in the eyes of G-d is not their size, beauty, or perfection, but their lowliness and potential for failure. Free choice, the ability to rebel against His will, is unique to humanity. We are special because we have the capacity not to serve. And if the sinner is the lowest of all possible creatures, why shouldn’t there be more gnats than sinners, and more galaxies than our own?
So the real thrust of the question here, to a religious Jew, anyway, is not why should the universe be so big, but why should G-d care about man? Or, to put it slightly differently, why would G-d need vast galaxies to demonstrate man’s insignifcance when gnats and angels would do?)
We shall return to the universe’s indifference in a moment, but first we must question not just how innovative the question is but the apparent scientific grounds of the question itself. Although a huge universe does not represent an innovation to the religious mind, are we even so sure the physical universe is so huge? Contemporary science is notoriously bound up with observers and frames of reference. In 1983, Mostafa A. Abdelkader formulated a totally unfalsifiable mathematical model of the universe in which we all live on the inside of a hollow earth and Pluto is the size of a bacterium. It is still irritating philosophers of science. I do not think his paper accurately models reality, but it is difficult to prove that it does not. Perhaps the way the question of the universe’s size is posed, with so much self-assuredness, is really just a relic of the centuries when science considered itself something like G-d’s truth.
Even if we are (1) primarily concerned with the universe’s indifference and (2) certain that it is vast, we must then turn to the thicket of philosophical assumptions underlying the question.
Do we assume, for example, that all creations are equally important in G-d’s eyes, or might distant galaxies be byproducts of some process, with G-d’s true concern touching only our local blue-green marble? Even if we insist that G-d is truly omnipotent in the sense that He has no byproducts and everything He creates is with direct intent, how do we know that there is a reason underlying everything He does? Certainly, there may be some divine purpose behind the untold galaxies, but can we even confidently explain why G-d wishes to create a certain hydrogen atom here on earth? And if not, how can we ultimately hope to plumb the divine intention behind more complex creations? Perhaps it is only possible to understand what He Himself reveals as his reasons, and beyond that we have little hope. What man can claim on the basis of worldly inference and deduction why the Creator made light and the atmosphere such that the sky is blue?
But fine. Assuming we are asking why G-d would create a universe we assert is vast and recognize as indifferent when what He truly cares about is the moral decisions of human beings, and assuming He made it this way intentionally, and that we are meant to comprehend it—nu, why is the universe so big?
To make man humble? The men most obsessed with huge hunks of dead matter utterly beyond our reach hardly seem to have a diminished sense of superiority. And besides, we always knew about the angels. How many are your works, and even more so in transcendence and variation, more than just another rock or ice or fire.
To give man choice? True, a universe containing only the earth may make men feel the presence of G-d, since we may to obviously be the center of it and so have no choice but to serve Him.
This reason is, in a way, question begging, since whether the large and indifferent universe causes a sense of distance from G-d is what’s at issue here. A good explanation for distant galaxies may cause us to feel close to G-d. In fact, paradoxically, even the free-choice explanation of the universe’s size can have this effect, since G-d went through so much “effort” only to make us feel distant from Him, an expression of great love and devotion! Besides, even without a large and indifferent universe, there are other ways G-d conceals Himself from us, through the world’s materiality, corporeality, etc.
No, the only way the vast indifferent universe makes sense is as an end unto itself. It is not here to facilitate a human need per se but rather to fulfill a G-dly need, so to speak. In other words, the huge reaches of space are not a means to a human end but are themselves a desirable end before G-d.
As we are taught, G-d desires a dwelling place in the lower worlds, to be fully present in a place that completely denies His presence. In other words, He wishes to conceal Himself in a place that has the capactiy to eventually reveal Him. He does not want this because it grants human beings free choce but, on the contrary, grants us free choce in order to facilitate this unity between the unG-dly and the divine.
In such a universe, there should be an infinite number of things that make no sense.
The ancient universe, before we learned of its true size, could reveal some aspects of G-d, but not the Creator Himself. A universe of immense magnitude full of inaninmate matter is the type of universe that conceals Him but can actually truly reveal Him.
In the beginning, the universe conceals Him, as all brute matter does. It conceals Him the way marble conceals the sculptor. “Just marble here,” the block of marble says. Matter speaks only about matter.
But matter, you may be objecting, is tamed by form, by spirit. A block of marble may not tell us about a sculptor, but a statue certainly does. The statue is given a form in which arist invests their power. The marble, through its shape, now points toward something beyond itself; the matter is given both content (in itself) and context (in the human world). Raw matter may not tell us anything about the nature of the Creator, but all matter in our universe is formed—color, shape, mass, and various other properties mean that G-d hides in the universe only unitl we plumb the depths of his palate, his molds, his storehouses. A single “dead” pebble, grasped by its form in the human mind, can and does reveal four fundemental physical forces as well as an uncreated Creator, and much else besides.
This is where we were around five hundred years ago, when we thought the physical universe was much smaller, and G-d decided something must change. He set aside his Michelangelo persona and became a modern artist.
You can interperet this change in two ways. Either His presence was too obvious and He wished to hide further, allowing the generations to descend from ancient heights. Or just maybe He thought He was too hidden, the One G-d mistaken for an artist of relatively human caliber. (No one mistakes creation ex nihilo or the divine infinite for human. The error, of course, was mistaken what we could know of forms, qualities, and souls as commensurate with Him. And so—) Either way, the time of matter had come.
Either way, He sent us telescopes.
We were shown that the universe is vast and full of stuff, more stuff than we can begin to imagine, not angels full of purpose and obsessed with humanity but rocks and ice and emptiness, and endless unfathomable indifference. We have learned that the Creator is not pocket-sized, nor can He even fit comfortaply in a museum or between a pair of ears. He has broken free and rampaging through the city. He knows trillions of dead planets, holds them in motion, maintains them in existence, all without our perception, without our consent, without our boxes.
There is no soul or story that can lend all of this context or make it mean something. There is no way to look at it as a sculpture. The sheer unending incomprehensible particularity of its members breaks our categories and even our imaginations. We poke and prod at the universe with numbers indicating units of time and space, and the universe does not even shift in its sleep.
“Reveal me in this,” G-d says, “and it is Me you reveal. Not the structures of your own mind. Not the limitations of your understanding. In this endless empty formless thing, I will be what I will be.”
Why is the universe so big?
Nothing smaller is meaningless enough to convey its Creator.