“Explosion of Awareness”
Stanley Kubrick had it right—2001: A Space Odyssey showed the need for a 21st century space philosophy, an entirely new cosmic worldview for the universe unveiled by science and technology. It’s a vast universe of trillions of galaxies and giant stretches of emptiness, all sprawling across 100 billion light years of space. 2001 ranks as the greatest space film and one of the most philosophically profound films of all time, precisely because it embraces such a universe and envisions our place in it. In 2001, Kubrick depicts a past and future in which humans have evolved from apes to astronauts via science and technology, along with an assist from a mysterious black monolith—all primed to propel an enlightened species into a massive and majestic universe in which we are not alone.
That’s the message of hope in 2001, with the Star-Child appearing against the blackness of the cosmos, our planet in its gaze as the film ends. In the final scene, the Star-Child gazes at Earth floating in the cosmic void — symbolic of the “explosion of awareness” needed to launch humans into space with a new philosophy for the 21st century.
Seeing Earth from space has profoundly affected numerous astronauts, who experience deep feelings of awe, self-transcendence, and a primal connection to the universe, while sensing that humanity has gone awry on the planet below them. Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell poetically described the experience as an “explosion of awareness.” This “explosion of awareness” is felt in the “cosmic sublime”—the only direct human experience to unite our braininess and insignificance by connecting us and our species to a larger narrative directly related to the immensity of existence. This “explosion of awareness” provides an exciting and existential basis for a 21st century philosophy—for the future of the human species in space and on Earth.
A space philosophy tells us not only where we’re going, but 1) what will we be doing, 2 what does it mean, and 3) what can we hope for. It gives us the chance to be the enlightened species we claim to be.
Why the Need for a New Space Philosophy?
Here’s why: we’re still pretending to be the center of the universe, the center of all value, meaning, and purpose. Why else do we believe we have the cosmic right to strip-mine the moon or terraform Mars in the image of Earth? Our cosmic narcissism suggests we’ll send into space many of the worst features of humanity: greed, pollution, strip-mining, weaponization and militarization, and the usual narcissistic antics of our 24/7 media spectacle on Earth. We’re set for war, mayhem, and planetary destruction in space. An epic fail. An alternative vision is needed. In the words of Ann Druyan: “What is coming of age but realizing that you are not the center of the universe?”
So far, a space philosophy worthy of 2001 and the Hubble Space Telescope is nowhere in sight, which is why Stephen Hawking says “philosophy is dead” and the Ancient Aliens TV series is creating a new space religion to explain our origins and destiny. Ancient Aliens has hijacked the 2001 narrative by filling the void in the search for human meaning in the universe. But, we’ve found no aliens, just like we’ve found no gods and no universal meaning for human existence. Zero, nada, zip. Oh sure, we’ve created stuff to fill the voids — gods, aliens, war, tribalism, nationalism, family, politics, consumption, celebrities, superheroes, sports teams, selfies, social media, all of which reflect and reinforce our need to feel special, central, and participants in a larger and meaningful narrative. Terraforming Mars, strip-mining moon, and militarizing space are part of the same efforts to fill the void. (For the record, I wish highly advanced and enlightened extraterrestrials would arrive today and jolt us out of our cosmic narcissism.)
If there is any cosmic justification for our existence — perhaps as self-aware stardust, as one way the universe knows itself in a tiny part of one galaxy — then we should start acting like wise, knowledgeable, and enlightened beings we claim to be. Simply put, contemporary secular philosophy has yet to produce a widely-embraced cultural cosmology that accounts for the human species in a vast and ancient universe, a universe in which we are very brainy, but utterly insignificant and not the center of anything—just smart specks on a tiny planet in a remote part of one galaxy. That’s the philosophical and existential abyss in 2001, which is why the film riffs off Nietzsche’s famed book, Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1891).
That’s why the ultimate challenge of the 21st century space age is to develop a universal philosophy that spans the abyss by connecting the human species to the cosmos from which it emerged — to reconcile our cosmic irrelevance with a shared destiny of hope, peace, meaning, and discovery. Perhaps then we can begin transcending our current ideologies and creating a vision for a space-faring civilization that is sane and humane, ecological and technological, optimistic and inspiring, meaningful and beautiful, respectful of other planets and life forms, and grounded in the art and science of the cosmos as best we know it.
“A Rope Over An Abyss”: Nietzsche and Hubble
In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche explores the death of God, the eternal recurrence (the endless recycling of world events), and the possible rise of the Ubermensch (the “Overman” or “Superman”). Nietzsche speculated that since humans are the superior species that evolved from apes, there might be an equally greater species that would evolve from humans — what he termed the Ubermensch or Superman:
“What is the ape to man? A laughing-stock, a thing of shame. And just the same shall man be to the Superman: a laughing-stock, a thing of shame.”
Nietzsche suggested the next stage of human evolution could occur if we accepted our place on Earth — in the material world — rather than looking to otherworldly Gods for meaning and purpose. Far from naive about the wonders of modernity, Nietzsche knew that the death of God presented a huge philosophical challenge for the human species:
“man is a rope stretched between the animal and the Superman — a rope over an abyss.”
In the 1920s, Edwin Hubble expanded Nietzsche’s abyss with the twofold discovery of other galaxies outside the Milky Way and the expanding universe in which the galaxies are moving away from each other. Since then, the Hubble Space Telescope and other telescopes have revealed a mind-blowing universe of two trillion galaxies and three sextillion stars along with untold numbers of moons, planets, supernovas, and black holes, all organized around supervoids and gigantic galaxy clusters that stretch for billions of light years. The energy of this universe is destined to last for trillions upon trillions of years.
Nothing symbolizes Nietzsche’s abyss better than the Hubble Deep Field images, where the Hubble telescope peers into empty spaces in the night sky and finds thousands of galaxies located billions of light years away from Earth. The universe of Hubble and the Hubble telescope—that’s the abyss upon we have yet to develop the philosophical and existential rope. So far, we are nowhere near fulfilling the vision of 2001: A Space Odyssey, precisely because we don’t have a 21st century space philosophy, a cultural cosmology to complement the science and the mind-bending technological discoveries.
The Paradox of Our Greatest Achievement
We are an amazing and paradoxical species. We are advanced simians that emerged from Africa’s savannas and evolved into humans, apes who became astronauts, spear throwers who became space farers. We have the genius to extend our consciousness across 100 billion light years of a universe dotted with webs of galaxies located amid vast voids of space and dark energy. The Hubble telescope shows we’re the center of nothing, yet we pretend that we’re the center of everything—the center of all value, meaning, and purpose.
Consider this: Do we really, honestly believe that hydrogen atoms evolved for billions of years so that a single species on a tiny planet in a remote part of the cosmos could pretend it was the center of the universe, when in fact that species was the center of nothing and nothingness? Yet, we act as if we’re the center of all worth seeing, doing, and knowing — or so we think — when it comes to our own consciousness and the 24/7 electronic media spectacle extending from that consciousness. Of course, this pretense to cosmic centrality is a delusion. It’s as if Galileo and Hubble never existed. It’s what I call the “pre-Copernicanism” of post-Apollo culture.
No doubt our discovery of the vast cosmos and our non-centrality ranks as our greatest triumph and poses our most important philosophical challenge. We face the paradox of having discovered a sublime universe, and yet we are insignificant and our existence might be meaningless. In this magnificent achievement and mind-blowing universe are the greatest opportunities for human enlightenment. As illustrated in Table 3, the future is wide-open for art, science, human discovery, and a new space philosophy.
Since the Apollo program, space and the universe as sources of philosophical insight about human living on Earth have been largely abandoned in popular discourse. Sure, there are the Star Trek and Star Wars movie franchises and films like Interstellar, which warns of ecological doom in the human future. But outside the realm of planetary ecology, outer space is largely viewed as:
1) a place where telescopes reveal cool images with no relevance to human life or meaning on Earth;
2) a place where Elon Musk and a bunch of rich guys can send their toys for fanboys living out sci-fi fantasies while terraforming and strip-mining planets.
It’s as if the vast universe and a philosophy for living on Earth are billions of light-years apart. As a species, we are still coming to terms with the meaning of Apollo’s views of Earth from space — a tiny planet in a vast and ancient cosmos.
Kubrick and Lyotard: “Momentary Microbes” and “Spasmodic Smiles”
The paradox of our greatest achievement — discovering a vast universe in which we are insignificant — posed challenges for Stanley Kubrick and the philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard. That challenge is nihilism and the apparent universal meaninglessness and irrelevance of human existence in the vast universe. About the humanity’s existence, Kubrick said:
“If man merely sat back and thought about his impending termination, and his terrifying insignificance and aloneness in the cosmos, he would surely go mad, or succumb to a numbing sense of futility. Why, he might ask himself, should he bother to write a great symphony, or strive to make a living, or even to love another, when he is no more than a momentary microbe on a dust mote whirling through the unimaginable immensity of space?”
Since our sun is destined to die out in 4.5 billion years and expand to consume Earth and all human thought and artifacts left on our planet, Lyotard observes:
“This arrangement is transitory — lasting a few billion years more or less. Lunar years. Not a long time on a cosmic scale. The sun, our earth and your thought will have been no more than a spasmodic state of energy, an instant of established order, a smile on the surface of matter in a remote corner of the cosmos.”
Lyotard knew these conditions ultimately annihilate and render absurd the passions that consume society, with its wars, borders, politics, economics, and belief that the “smile on the surface of matter” actually matters to the cosmos. In the eyes of Kubrick and Lyotard, the cosmos permits us to exist but does not care if we exist. Because of this existential condition amid the majesty and vastness, Lyotard believed the sublime is “the sole serious question to face humanity today” and “everything else seems insignificant.”
And it is against this vision of nihilism that Kubrick directed 2001, with its hopeful vision of human origins and destiny, going from simians to space-farers. Kubrick countered nihilism with the sublime, a vision of awe and wonder, culminating in the “explosion of awareness”—symbolized by Dave’s cosmic journey through the Star-Gate and beyond and back to Earth.
The Cosmic Sublime: “Explosion of Awareness”
Astronaut Edgar Mitchell is spot on when he described the sublime as triggering an “explosion of awareness.” Having experienced the sublime numerous times when looking through the telescopes at the McDonald Observatory in Texas, I can attest to the poetic and philosophical power of Mitchell’s phrase. Seeing galaxies such as Andromeda and Whirlpool directly through the telescopes is at once awe-inspiring, humbling, and empowering. And the feeling one gets is indeed an “explosion of awareness.” You realize you are a small part of something massive and majestic—you are the infinitesimal amid the infinite. But rather than feel merely tiny and hopeless, you transcend your insignificance to feel empowered.
If you’ve gazed at the Milky Way in dark sky areas far from the city lights, you have likely experienced the cosmic sublime—the awe and wonder of the vastness. In fact, you might have experienced a bit of fear or horror because of the sense of your mortality beneath the starlight eternity. It’s the same with the Hubble telescope images—awe, wonder, and perhaps a tinge of terror. Your experience is the cosmic sublime—and it is the singular aesthetic experience that connects us (the infinitesimal) to the universe (the infinite). It’s the “explosion of awareness” shared as members of the human species, the only species on our planet to have this aesthetic experience of the vast universe we have discovered.
Borrowing from Kant, Lyotard, and other thinkers, here is what I mean by the cosmic sublime: We encounter the cosmic sublime when there’s a tension between our perceptions and our reason, when our senses are overwhelmed, yet our minds can still order the percepts into knowable, pleasurable, and terrifying concepts. The features of the vast universe — immense scales of space and time; dynamic systems of stars, galaxies, supernovas, and black holes; limitless arrangements of energy and matter; sprawling voids and seeming emptinesses; immeasurable realms of cosmic destruction and renewal — confront and stimulate our imaginations in awe-inspiring experiences. In such we grasp the affirmation of human rationality and annihilation of our centrality, our exaltation before the cosmos in tandem with the extinction of our species’ dominant narratives, and the sense of human freedom in conjunction with our void in meaning. In our infinitesimalness, we can feel connected to the universe or crushed by its infiniteness.
The sublime moment is poignant with emotional, cognitive, and aesthetic overload—the “explosion of awareness.” We realize we are no physical match for nature and the cosmos, yet we’re confident of our ability to tackle the intellectual challenge of exploring them via science and technology. Because the sublime affirms humanity’s right to exist at the same time that it draws attention to the inevitability of our own extinction, it evokes paradoxical emotions in us that coexist, side by side, such as pleasure and pain, attraction and repulsion, and power and fear. The sublime is not a mystical or religious experience; it’s a profoundly existential aesthetic experience.
Art historian Elizabeth Kessler explains the phenomenon of the cosmic sublime perfectly in her book Picturing the Cosmos, describing how the images from the Hubble Space Telescope:
“invoke the sublime and . . . encourage the viewer to experience the cosmos visually and rationally, to see the universe as simultaneously beyond humanity’s grasp and within reach of our systems of knowledge.”
The Social-Psychological Effects of Awe
Rather than denying or ignoring our insignificance in the vast universe, perhaps we should be finding ways to experience the sublime more often. Recent psychological studies suggest that experiencing awe can inspire people to situate themselves in larger narratives and engage in what some researchers call “pro-social behavior.” By experiencing things that are vast or infinite, humans develop a sense of what researchers term the “small self” (the infinitesimal). Awe and vastness also make people feel more connected to a universal narrative for their species. As explained by the authors of one study:
“Awe involves positively valenced feelings of wonder and amazement. Awe arises via appraisals of stimuli that are vast, that transcend current frames of reference, and require new schema to accommodate what is being perceived. Although many stimuli can inspire awe, from beautiful buildings to elegant equations, the prototypical awe experience, at least in Western cultures, involves encounters with natural phenomena that are immense in size, scope, or complexity, e.g. the night sky, the ocean. However elicited, experiences of awe are unified by a core theme: perceptions of vastness that dramatically expand the observer’s usual frame of reference in some dimension or domain. . . . Taken together, these studies suggest that awe directs attention to entities vaster than the self and more collective dimensions of personal identity, and reduces the significance the individual attaches to personal concerns and goals.” (endnote 1)
In their article entitled “The Overview Effect: Awe and Self-Transcendent Experience in Space Flight,” Yaden et al. (2016) state:
The overview effect, as the experience is called, refers to a profound reaction to viewing the Earth from outside its atmosphere. A number of astronauts have attributed deep feelings of awe and even self-transcendence to this experience. (endnote 2)
The authors explain there are several features that contribute to the astronauts’ experience of awe: (a) the experience of cosmic vastness, (b) the totality of seeing Earth as a complete system, and (c) the juxtaposition of Earth’s features against the black voids of space. In other words, the overview effect and the experience of awe combine vastness, totality, and the voids of space, resulting in a transcendent experience that connects astronauts to much larger narratives of cosmic unity.
These astronauts and cosmonauts come to the realization that human narratives on Earth are deeply flawed. Altered perceptions of Earth’s existential value are among the most important psychological effects of space flight, which “seems to be one of the few endeavors that can be a true source of collective inspiration.” In conclusion, Yaden et al. (2016) state:
“Awe and self-transcendence are among the deepest and most powerful aspects of the human experience: it should come as no surprise that they emerge as we gaze upon our home planet and our whole world comes into view.”
These “awe studies” support my explication of the cosmic sublime, particularly the simultaneous experience of the infinite (immensity, totality) and infinitesimal (“small self”), the exaltation before the cosmos, and the extinction of our narratives (the need for new schema and a new frame of reference). It is the sublime moment that inspires humans to “transcend current frames of reference” and have “altered perceptions of Earth’s existential value.” The sublime can be a unifying experience that connects humans to the cosmos and larger narratives for our species. That’s why the sublime is key to developing a cosmic and space narrative for the human species.
The Rope, the Monolith, and the Sublime
The sublime experience is the way we experience the infinite and infinitesimal, the way we transcend awesomeness and nothingness. The sublime is the “explosion of awareness” — the first moment we toss the rope over the abyss. That’s the symbolic significance of the monolith. What follows are some starting points for a 21st century space philosophy, accompanied by two tables from my new book, Specter of the Monolith (2017).
A SHARED DESTINY. Collectively, the sublime experience connects the infinite and infinitesimal in us — as individuals and a species — and suggests a shared destiny for a diverse humanity on our tiny planet. Borders, nations, and tribal warfare become absurd in the sublime and in any sane space philosophy. In my view, it is the sublime that unites and connects a diverse humanity to it evolutionary-cosmic origins as members of a single species.
UNIVERSAL RIGHTS AND ENLIGHTENMENT. In the sublime experience, our reason and freedom are stimulated, which provides an existential basis for pursuing secular enlightenment (via art, science, and philosophy) and universal human rights on Earth and all other celestial bodies. This also means we recognize the same rights for the extraterrestrial life forms and civilizations we encounter.
SPACE ECOLOGY AND PROTECTING PLANETS/MOONS. Our insignificance should generate humility before the grandeur of the universe, thus inspiring us to protect the ecosystems on Earth and beyond, especially reverence for those planets and celestial bodies we visit. That we can travel to Mars or the moon in the future does not mean we have the cosmic right to plunder and pollute them. We should study them, admire them, and protect their beauty.
UNITED IN OUR GREATNESS AND INSIGNIFICANCE. Informed by scientific knowledge, the sublime enables us to directly experience and deduce a universal narrative for our species, a narrative directly experienced as we transcend our individual experience — we’re the infinitesimal connected with the infinite. It’s a narrative that unites our greatness as thinkers and our insignificance as humans in the immense universe we have discovered. Of course, this is only a sketch of the sublime, the mere starting point for a 21st century space philosophy.
Outline for a New Space Philosophy
The table on the left outlines a new narrative for space exploration, one that embraces scientific discovery, philosophical inquiry, ecological protection for the places we visit, the aesthetics of beauty and the sublime, and global cooperation among nations, peoples, and corporations. Let’s call this the Science Philosophy Ecology Aesthetic Cooperative (SPEAC) model for space exploration. We should develop this narrative and let it speak for our species in the universe!
What’s needed is a philosophical launch directly into the cosmic sublime — smack dab, dead on, right into celestial nothingness and everything massive, beautiful, and terrifying in the universe. Let’s touch the monolith, toss the bone, zoom through the Star-Gate, probe deeper into the dark skies, and turn our neurons on to a new narrative and philosophy for our species. If we don’t do the philosophical launch, we’ll never reach the space odyssey of 2001 because we’ll still be battling on the Planet of the Apes.
“Explosion of Awareness”
After our philosophical launch, our “explosion of awareness” might extend into all fields of human endeavor and into our understanding of our role in the universe. We might evolve into our own Ubermensch, a much more intellectually advanced human species with a new space philosophy for the universe we have discovered. Or maybe not. We may end up enlightened, exterminated, or existentially meaningless, but we will have experienced the awe and wonder of the cosmos on scales that previous humans and all other Earthly animals could have never known. Regardless of our eventual failure or success in the cosmos, using the “explosion of awareness” to launch us into the universe would be a cosmic gesture for which our species can be proud.
1) Paul K. Piff, Matthew Feinberg, Pia Dietze, Daniel M. Stancato, and Dacher Keltner, “Awe, the Small Self, and Prosocial Behavior,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 108, no. 6 (June 2015), 883–99.
2) David B. Yaden, Jonathan Iwry, Johannes C. Eichstaedt, George E. Vallant, Kelley J. Stack, Yukun Zhao, and Andrew Newberg, “The Overview Effect: Awe and Self-Transcendent Experience in Space Flight,” Psychology of Consciousness: Theory, Research, and Practice, vol. 3, no. 1 (March 2016), 1–11.
We still have time to change the space future for our species.
Barry Vacker is author of the new book, Specter of the Monolith (2017), which offers a new and entirely original space philosophy for the human species, including a space ecology alternative to terraforming and strip-mining. The book also explores the multiple meanings of Apollo and films like 2001 and Interstellar. The book is available in Apple’s iBooks, Barnes & Noble (here), and Amazon (here).