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What Cosmology Can Teach Us About Morality

Morality is a complicated subject because it depends so much on human traditions and human understanding of how we live and how we interact with each other.  Cosmology, as the term is used by anthropologists, represents the big picture of the world and how we humans fit into it. We scientists use the word, “cosmology” to refer essentially, exclusively to the science of the whole universe, its origin, evolution, structure and composition.  But in the larger sense, cosmology is the big picture that we humans all live in.  

Now one of the problems of morality has been that a crucial part of traditional moralogy is an “us versus them” attitude.  That there’s the "in crowd" and then there’s the outsiders.  And the rules that apply to us are very different than the rules that apply to them and to our interactions with them.  So, for example, in the Bible, in the Ten Commandments, the “Thou shalt not kill,” obviously doesn’t apply to the enemies of the Hebrews who were killed with abandon and, in fact, God commands that they all be annihilated under certain circumstances. So that’s because that, “Thou shalt not kill,” really only applies to us, in this case the Hebrews.  

Now, the problem is, that as the world has become more and more integrated and when things that happen in one place don’t stay in that place, but affect the whole world, this us/them mentality has to break down.  We have to start to see “us” as being all humanity, and in fact, maybe all life on Earth or Earth itself.  And, cosmology can help us do that because cosmology makes it clear that Earth is a gem of the cosmos; it’s an extraordinary planet.  We’ve now discovered more than a thousand planetary systems.  There isn’t any that resembles our own.

And in many respects, our planetary system is truly extraordinary.  And Earth is, in some ways, the most extraordinary planet of them all.  It’s been in what we call the habitable zone around the sun for its entire lifetime and will continue to be in the habitable zone for a long time.  And it’s the only planet that has been.  

And if we can simply preserve the good features that we’ve inherited on Earth, Earth can become, can remain, the Eden of the universe, at least, the known universe.  And it’s very important that humans understand that we are more closely related than almost any species is. We humans seem to have come through at least one bottleneck where there were a very small number of humans, something like 50,000 years ago, and we’re all descended from that small number of humans.  

Genetically, we humans are more closely related to each other than almost any other species is related.  And we all face many problems, which are essentially the same across the world.  So to the extent that modern cosmology, the understanding of our origin and evolution, can give us this understanding that we’re all in this together, we can break down that crucial column of traditional morality of the “us versus them” and see it all as “us.”  And I think that that could be one of the most important achievements of humankind, especially over this critical transition at the end of our exponential inflation on our home planet.

In Their Own Words is recorded in Big Think's studio.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

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