How do we know if our existence is unlikely?

This recent Intelligence Squared podcast featuring two of the UK’s best science communicators, Professor Brian Cox and Professor Alice Roberts, offers a fascinating insight into our shared scientific knowledge about the origins of the universe and the origins of human evolution. More information about Intelligence Squared can be found here:

Consider the shared knowledge claims that science makes about the age and size of the universe. Arthur Stanley Eddington commented, ‘Not only is the universe stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine.’

Brian Cox explains how scientists have worked out that the universe is around 13.798 billion years old. Our galaxy, the Milky Way is one amongst the 350 billion galaxies that are in our observable universe which spans 90 billion light years across.

In order get the numbers in perspective, you might consider how long it would take you to count to one billion (1,000,000,000) and if you were counting continuously it would take you around 31.7 years. Imagine how long it would take someone to count to 350 billion? You’d need 350 people aged over 31 counting, to count to that number.

This podcast addresses many questions and knowledge questions:

  • What knowledge claims does science make about human origins and evolution?
  • What are the implications of scientific knowledge about the origins of the universe and human evolution?
  • How might our shared knowledge in science impact on how we think about our value as humans?
  • How do we know if human existence is inevitable, vanishingly unlikely or something else?
  • How might various academic disciplines including Physics and Biology help us understand our place in the universe?
  • How do we know if the universe has a meaning and purpose?

The podcast dialogue between Brian and Alice is highly engaging and thought provoking. Reflecting on the unlikeliness of our existence might have various implications – we might think of ourselves as insignificant ‘chemical scum’ or we might draw a different conclusion.

If you wanted to explore this further you might consider the role that different areas of knowledge might play in communicating scientific knowledge. For example how might the arts express the significance of scientific achievements such as the International Space Station? Astronaut Commander Chris Hadfield offers a revised version of David Bowie’s Space Oddity, recorded on board the International Space Station:

Further exploration on the topic of the purpose of the universe can be found at this excellent website:

  • Useful Links

Decoding Theory of Knowledge for the IB Diploma: Themes, Skills and Assessment, by Wendy Heydorn and Susan Jesudason

Twitter @theoryknowledge


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