“From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it’s different. Consider again that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it, everyone you love, everyone you know, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there-on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”
Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space
On February 14, 1990, when Voyager 1 left our planetary neighborhood for the solar system, NASA engineers, including Carl Sagan, instructed it to turn around for one last look at Earth — from 6.4 billion kilometers away. This image of the Pale Blue Dot, taken by NASA, depicts how the Earth looks from this distance. The Earth, suspended in a sunbeam, is merely 0.12 pixel in size.
The Overview Effect
Carl Sagan’s subsequent reflection and narration of the Pale Blue Dot is one of the most profound observations of the 20th century. What the NASA engineers experienced during that moment that Voyager 1 took an image of Earth is now commonly known as the ‘Overview Effect’.
The overview effect represents a cognitive shift in awareness experienced by astronauts when they view the Earth from space. From space, it’s easy to see how small the Earth is relative to the vastness of the universe. Our planet is often described as a speck of dust, a pale blue dot, a tiny smudge that hangs in the void against the blackness and vastness of the grand cosmos.
Spirituality & Awe
When viewing the Earth from this distance, you feel an intense sense of awe; you can’t help but be in awe of the fragility and unity of life on our globe. From 6.4 billion kilometers away, all Voyager 1 could capture is a Pale Blue Dot upon which many things that we deem important on Earth lose their significance — our differences, our anxieties and worries, our fears, our successes, and our failures. At a time when levels of anxiety and mental health concerns are at an all-time high, having this perspective can have an enormous impact on humanity.
Astronauts have described it as a profoundly sobering, humbling, spiritual experience. From space, national boundaries vanish, the conflicts that divide people become less important, and the need to create a planetary society with the united will to protect this Pale Blue Dot becomes both obvious and imperative.
The overview effect seems to be consistent with the view of mystical traditions and eastern philosophers that we are inseparable parts of the cosmos in which we are embedded. Eastern mysticism encourages the individual to transcend the notion of self which, like other concepts we use in our rational descriptions of reality, is illusory.
The Cosmic Advantage In Our Lives
Currently, though we’re taking some huge steps toward colonizing space, it’s very likely that few of us will actually have the opportunity to physically experience the overview effect during our lifetimes.
Luckily, what we do have is access to scores of information, narratives, images and works of art that allow us to understand it and implement it — through the eyes of astronauts, scientists, and wonder-junkies.
Moreover, advances in life-altering exponential technologies like Immersive Virtual Reality may help us replicate the overview effect and bring it to the masses: after all, technology has the ability to democratize, demonetize and dematerialize profound experiences.
This will allow us, ordinary folks, to adopt a cosmic perspective even if we aren’t NASA astronauts, simply because we’re exposed to the overview effect.
Take a moment to think about it.
In the grand scheme of things, we are nothing but a tiny, negligible fraction of the universe. Everything that we feel, everything that we do, every action that we take, every success that we celebrate and every failure that we encounter happens on a tiny, unnoticeable speck of the universe. Our galaxy is one of 50 or 100 billion other galaxies in the universe.
Recognizing this fact can have a profound impact on how we live our lives: it may impact the decisions we make in our daily lives, but also the ones we make on a grander, societal scale in terms of policy and outcomes that affect millions of people.
Somehow, despite the vastness that we are a mere fraction of, we experience things in a profound and similar manner. Our ability to share fundamentally human experiences and to be sentient beings, all living, loving & breathing on this tiny speck of dust should be what brings us together.
A Critical Moment
We live in a critical moment in history.
We’re in the midst of a global pandemic that has left many people unemployed and ill, wondering about their basic needs and health. At this point in time, compassion and empathy are more important than ever. The values that underlie socialist and classically liberal societies stand tall: we need to bail each other out, and we need our governments to bail us out. We clearly need some version of a Universal Basic Income if we want to sustain the lives of millions of people around the world.
Moreover, we’re in the midst of an ideological crisis, a mental health crisis, an economic crisis, and an ecological crisis. Our innate tribalism has caused those among the biggest and most powerful democracies to divide and spew hatred. Our cognitive biases prevent us from being able to have intellectual, honest, and productive conversation, which is really the only way for a society to move forward and propel change.
Amidst this, it’s important to remember that today, we have the tools, technology, and resources to connect and tackle some of the greatest problems humanity faces. In the past two decades alone, we have seen exponential growth that surpasses all of the cumulative innovation and growth of centuries prior.
What we need now — desperately — is a conscious awakening. We need to slow down and recognize that our treatment of the planet is abhorrent, that capitalistic societies where inequality is abound are simply unsustainable, that the health care system is profusely broken and requires a more wholesome understanding of the individual, and that, so long as we allow masculine, aggressive and yang-like values to dominate and drive the policies we create, humanity will be in an utter imbalance. As Fritjof Capra suggests in his landmark book, The Turning Point, what society desperately needs is to balance things out: to add more consideration, more cooperation, more wisdom, and more feminity.
On an individual level, we need to slow down: right now, we’re all on the hedonistic treadmill. We need to stop allowing our egos to determine our decisions, reactions and relationships with others. Because of how our reward structures in society are set up, from the very beginning in the schooling system, we become too goal-obsessed, too stressed, too money-obsessed, and too focussed on things that neither improve society nor the quality of our daily life.
What we need instead are people who are able to transcend the feeling of “self” and instead lead lives that are richer in quality: those who recognize the inevitable “oneness” of the nature of life and are willing to extend their empathy to others. As I wrote in a previous article, neuroscience has shown that a phenomenon known as the “helper’s high” can greatly improve our quality of life: this is the dopamine release we get from helping others.
On The Systems View of Life
The only way for us to break down and unlearn the structure of society that has conditioned us to live life in the detrimental way we do currently is to shift from taking a global perspective to instead adopting a cosmic perspective. As Capra writes, we also need to separate ourselves from the Cartesian and mechanistic views of life and instead adopt a more holistic, systems view of life in which we understand how integrated everything in the universe is, including us humans and our environment. Life is, after all, a giant interplay of interactions between its different components.
The cosmic perspective can help us realize how embedded we are in the cosmos and how connected we are to all living things on this planet. More importantly, it can help us recognize how insignificant, childish, and irrelevant our ideological differences are. Specifically, it can help bring a greater sense of empathy to those who are inclined to discriminate and even kill because of it.
On the individual level, when we recognize that we are integrated into the wholeness of our cosmos, we may spend less time drowning in our own self-concern, self-doubt, and self-pity. After all, the ego is responsible for driving much of our current individual-focused behavior.
For the individual, adopting a cosmic perspective may also encourage bolder risk-taking and courageousness. It may help you set lofty goals that you attempt to achieve: when you can see the big picture, failing doesn’t seem as daunting.
Imagine a world in which more people feel a sense of oneness with others, with the environment, and with the cosmos at large. How much greater would the quality of our moment to moment experience be? How many more people would be more present in their daily lives and interactions with others? How many more people would dedicate their time to improving the lives of others, or of the environment, rather than consistently thinking of themselves?
Most importantly, how many more politicians would let go of their hatred, discrimination and attachment to power that drives the policies society is structured upon?
I urge you to imagine it — even if only for a second.