“Explosion of Awareness”—Kubrick, Nietzsche, Hubble, and the Starting Point for a 21st Century Space Philosophy

Barry Vacker
Nov 25, 2017 · 17 min read
2001 and the black monolith against two Images of young planetary nebulae (NGC 6302 and NGC 7027) captured by the Hubble Space Telescope; images courtesy of NASA. Graphic created by Barry Vacker.

“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.

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?”

“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:

The Hubble telescope and the discovery of the vast universe is truly an epic human achievement. This image is one of the many “Ultra Deep Field” images from the Hubble Space Telescope. Each speck of light is a galaxy with billions of stars. Image courtesy of NASA.

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.

We need a space philosophy that embraces this cosmology. From Chapter 4 of my new book, Specter of the Monolith (2017).
Quote from Stanley Kubrick interview in Playboy magazine, 1968. Background image: Hubble Deep Field image, courtesy NASA, image in the public domain. Graphic created by Barry Vacker.

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:

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.

From Chapter 1 of Specter of the Monolith.

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:

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).

From Chapter 4 of my new book, Specter of the Monolith.

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!

From Chapter 4 of my new book, Specter of the Monolith.

“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.

Endnotes

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.

Explosion of Awareness

Illustrated essays presenting a new space philosophy for…

Explosion of Awareness

Illustrated essays presenting a new space philosophy for the 21st Century. Inspired by 2001: A Space Odyssey with excerpts from Barry Vacker's epic book "Specter of the Monolith." Though the essays date from 2017, the "Explosion of Awareness" page was started in July, 2018.

Barry Vacker

Written by

Theorist of big spaces and big ideas. Writer and mixed-media artist. Existentialist w/o the angst. PhD: Univ of Texas at Austin.

Explosion of Awareness

Illustrated essays presenting a new space philosophy for the 21st Century. Inspired by 2001: A Space Odyssey with excerpts from Barry Vacker's epic book "Specter of the Monolith." Though the essays date from 2017, the "Explosion of Awareness" page was started in July, 2018.