philosophy science

is anything significant?

This question (‘Is anything significant?’) can be fleshed out a bit…

We could ask, “Is everything equally in-significant?”, or we could ask, “Is everything equally highly-significant?”

What makes something (an event or object [which can quite rightly be said to be ‘events’ in themselves]) significant, and another thing not so?

We often think for example, that solar eclipses are significant (especially the nearly-perfect eclipse we see when our moon –almost exactly– blocks out our sun). We are amazed at the significance that the apparent size in the sky of the sun and moon are –almost exactly– the same. The sun is 400 times bigger than the moon, but is 400 times further away. Significant, huh? (Thank-you to Damian for a great chat about this, and to Luc Viatour for the image of the eclipse)

But why do we attach significance to a (near) perfect solar eclipse of our sun by our moon, and not –for example– the blocking out of any other far, distant ‘sun’ (star)? Why do we not find it significant when our moon blocks out hundreds (thousands? more?) of distant ‘suns’ (stars)?

The logic of ‘insignificance’ (that’s a nice phrase) goes something like this: It is as improbable for (a) our moon to block-out our sun/star in the nearly-perfect way it happens to, as it is improbable for (b) our moon to block out any other object in the universe in the (whatever) way it happens to. In other words, why are we amazed at our moon blocking out our sun, and not any of the countless stars that it blocks out from time to time? To go hypothetical, why would we (probably) not be amazed if our moon was slightly further away from us, and only ever partially blocked out the sun?

There is another significance-scenario which I find interesting… that of poker hands in playing cards. You can look up the range of probabilities for various hands (from a ‘no pair’ hand through to a royal [10 through Ace] flush. Royal flushes are very rare – a 649,739-in-1 chance; while a ‘one pair’ hand is much more common – a 1.37-in-1 chance.

Again, the logic of ‘insignificance’ says: it is just as unlikely to draw a particularly specified royal flush (say, 10-thru-Ace, all in spades) as it is to draw any other particularly specified selection of cards (say, 2 diamonds, 4 spades, 6 spades, Jack hearts, and Ace clubs). Make sense? If you were looking and waiting for either of these ‘hands’, you would wait a long time…

So then… Is anything significant? What’s going on here? Why do we find certain things significant and others not???

There is a concept that I think will help us immensely…


I’ll use the card-hand analogy to explain.

There is a profound difference between what we (rightly in my view) call a ‘random’ selection of cards (i.e. 2 diamonds, 4 spades, 6 spades, Jack hearts, and Ace clubs), and (for example) a royal flush (10-thru-Ace, all in spades). The difference is in the way the cards are related to one another. In a royal flush, the cards have a higher level of relation to each other. The 10, Jack, Queen, King and Ace are sequentially related – as opposed to non-sequential relation. 10, Jack, Queen, King and Ace are more closely related than, say, 2, 3, 7, 8 and 10. Also, in the case of a royal flush, the five cards are all ‘related’ due to their ‘sharing’ of the suit of (for example) spades. A hand of all spades is more ‘suited-ly’ related than, say, two clubs, two diamonds and on spades. Now, the ‘random’ hand consists of cards which have no (or less) relationship to one another. There is not the same sequential relationship, nor shared suit. It is, a relationally less-significant hand than various other ones.

In our eclipse example, there are several ‘relational’ aspects, though (since the categories of ‘suit’ and ‘number’ are non existent here) differently discerned. There is a relationship between the locations of the three necessary objects; that of the sun, of the moon and of the observer. The three also share the ‘moment’, or timing, of the eclipse. They all three exist outside of the eclipse, but the eclipse brings them together in momentary relationship. Also, the sun and moon both ‘share’ the same apparent size in the sky. And various observers ‘share’ the viewing experience (not to mention the wonder and awe at the sight).

So there you have it. I’m sure I’m not the first to suggest such things, but still, I think the idea of ‘relationality’ does indeed help us understand why some things are significant and others are not. This, perhaps, can apply to all kinds of things. A father and son are ‘significantly related’ in ways that any other two pairings of people are not; they share the male gender, some genes and probably some character traits as well.

I’m sure there are things I’ve missed here, and I’d love some feedback and/or critique. Comments welcome.

11 replies on “is anything significant?”

Perhaps we are pattern-seeking animals because for much of our evolutionary past it’s been important to notice patterns. Whether they be facial patterns, tiger stripes or other, more geometric arrangements, our ancestors that were able to recognise these patterns had enough of a survival edge to live to become ancestors.

This might explain why we see faces on corn chips, laugh at puns and possibly even enjoy music.

Cheers Damian,
Sheesh… is there anything at all that ‘our evolutionary past’ might not explain? ;)
My thoughts here were not so much to do with an evolutionary history, but rather the question of ‘is an eclipse (or royal flush) an event with significance?’ Are we foolish to say ‘wow’ at such things?, etc.

Yeah, what I’m suggesting is that any significance we attribute to it might only be in our own minds. We know from the follies of many other people (Mary on a tortilla or the alignment of pyramids) that our ‘significance detectors’ can sometimes lead us down the wrong path.

I think it’s natural to ‘wow’ at events and patterns in nature that appear to have significance. If I see a rock formation that looks like a head I’ll probably get my photo taken beside it. But we just need to be aware that we have a tendency to ascribe meaning to events and patterns that actually have none and to be extra careful to wear our BS detectors.

The phenomenon of pareidolia is a perfect example of our significance detectors gone awry.

Thanks Damian,
I agree about the need to be realistic, and yes, the pareidolia example is a good one.
You say:

…we have a tendency to ascribe meaning to events and patterns that actually have none…

Wouldn’t you got further, though? Wouldn’t you say there is no “real” meaning in any events?
As I said in our (enjoyable) discussion, I’m not suggesting that we need to construct elaborate systems of belief based on such phenomena as eclipses, but I still think it’s perfectly acceptable to say –quite simply– ‘Wow, that’s significant.’

Inspirational article. It proves you can make something out of anything :-).

It seems mankind attaches rarity to significance. The more something is rare the more significant it is.

I’d say there is significance to someone but not inherent significance.

To a person sitting on Mars an earth viewed eclipse is largely uninteresting. Also as it happens, some of the other moons in the solar system (I forget which) perform partial or complete eclipses every day from the point of view of the planet they orbit. The bigger the picture, the less significance events take on.

As for cards, a Royal flush is significant in poker but not so exciting in Snap. Also to a person who lost, that random hand of no useful cards in a game of poker may well be as significant as a Royal Flush. Finally in Omaha Hi-Lo… well I could go on ;)

This all suggests to me the significance is attributed, not inherent, and that the perceiver attributes that significance. I think it is fair to say that ultimately nothing is really significant.


Wouldn’t you got further, though? Wouldn’t you say there is no “real” meaning in any events?

If someone sent me death threats and then their car was in my driveway I’d certainly attach significance and meaning to the link. And I’d probably act on my feelings of significance.

If I’m on the beach and I find a piece of driftwood with the words “Help us, we’re marooned” inscribed on it I’d also see it as meaningful. And I’d start investigating but I’d allow for the possibility of a hoax.

Crop circles? That’s where I start to ask a few probing questions because it seems more likely that a human would make them than aliens.

There are lots of everyday events that I ascribe meaning to that are fairly mundane (like if my wife goes silent on me or if my computer’s fan starts grinding).

I don’t know why you’d ask whether I’d ever say any events have ‘real’ meaning. Perhaps you have a different definition of ‘meaning’ in mind? I would define ‘meaning’ as something that affects me – i.e. directly or indirectly, my values or the things I hold dear – in some way. That’s an off-the-top-of-my-head definition subject to change with more thought. What’s your definition?

Oh, and while I think of it, I will statistically guaran-damn-tee it that somewhere in the universe is an alignment of stars that, when viewed from a specific location, will spell out “JESUS”. I will also guarantee it that there is also a place where you can view “HONDA” or “TOILET”.

We can see around 8000 stars from earth with the naked eye (no more than around 3000 at any one time). There are estimated to be between 200 billion and 400 billion stars in our own galaxy and there are probably more than 100 billion galaxies out there.

Good stuff guys…
The overtly philosophical nature of the subject is becoming clear, isn’t it?

Two distinctions arise from your brief comment; that between ‘something’ and ‘anything’, and that between ‘rare’ and normal. A good question is: how do we know that ‘normal’ things are the ‘norm’ for existence?

So then, ‘attributed significance’ is real, but not ‘really’ real…?

All of your examples (death threats, driftwood messages, crop circles) have some kind of significance… Even a ‘fake’ death threat, a ‘prank’ driftwood message, and ‘stunt’ crop-circles can have meaning; in this case, they all ‘mean’ that there are people with too much time and probably not enough respect for others… :)
As for the definition of ‘meaning’, that is huge, and while I’m not wanting to dodge the question, I’m aware that the “meaning of meaning” is understood differently by different kinds of philosophers. Nihilism denies any meaning to any events or things, and from there, you have heaps of ways of understanding ‘how’ meaning exists, etc.
Grammatically, ‘meaning’ has to do with the associations given a word. I would want to say (using the grammatical case as an example for events) that words really do carry meaning, with the qualifier that they don’t do this in a strict, flat, static, unchanging or ‘objective’ way, but rather in a (you guessed it) relational way. In the same sense, events really do carry meaning – ‘real’ meaning. Though the meaning can be different for different times/places, this doesn’t make the meaning(s) itself ‘wrong’ or ‘un-real’. I love this stuff… :) Oops… I guess ‘love’ is just a subjective thing, a mere grouping of letters with common senses attached to it… can anyone ‘love’ anything? is ‘love’ even real??? :)

Attributed significance is real in the sense that the attributer really associates it with the event. However I don’t see how the event itself can have any significance independent of an attributer.

None of the examples you gave are universally significant but rather rely on a specific observer understanding a specific context and then attributing the significance.

As for meaning versus significance, I don’t think these words are synonymous. The way you described it it seems that everything has a meaning in the sense they are related in some way, so the moon in a non eclipse is equally meaningful to the moon in an eclipse. However the significance of this meaning would surely depend on the observer? (This use of “meaning” doesn’t quite sit right so maybe I am misinterpretting you :))

As for love, perhaps that is a specific example of attributed significance by an attributer to someone or something?

Thanks Ian,
A simple (and therefore potentially misleading) reply would be that:
In a universe with many observers/attributers, we do, of course, observe and attribute meaning to things; and even though this is a subjective process, it doesn’t make the meaning/significance any less ‘real’. The rain-fall is both inconvienient for the man in nice clothing without an umbrella, and at the same time, convenient for the trees…
That’s a simple example…

Comments are closed.