Neil DeGrasse Tyson on 60 Minutes. little dot, Tyson tells us, is Earth, as photographed from Saturn by the Cassini spacecraft. But an earlier photograph was even more world-shattering, that taken of “earthrise” on the Moon by astronaut William Anders.

1920px-NASA-Apollo8-Dec24-EarthriseThis image, says Tyson, gave birth to the cosmic perspective in the collective imagination. He traces the origins of the ecological movement to the emotional and metaphysical impact of this photo. “We thought we were exploring the Moon, but we ended up discovering the Earth.”

Tyson continues to elevate our mood to the contemplation of the power of All, the Universe, by quoting Galileo: “The Sun, with all those planets revolving around it and dependent on it, can still ripen a bunch of grapes as if it had nothing else in the universe to do.” He becomes Space-time’s poet-seer when he says “the end of space is the beginning of time.”

It is only towards the very end of the interview that I start to feel resistance to what Tyson has to say about cosmology, i.e., the scientific and philosophical pursuit of the order of the universe. He describes human beings as “voyeurs” who merely “eavesdrop” on the cosmos. I don’t think his conception of consciousness is at all adequate. Human consciousness is never merely “looking on” at a universe “going on” without it. It is rather that consciousness is part of the goings on of the universe; consciousness is what we do, it is not an unchanging substance or a passive witness. We are participants, not onlookers. We don’t observe from outside like aliens, we are at home here, we can feel and know the universe from within the universe, because we are the universe feeling and knowing. I imagine Tyson would agree with me so far as it goes. But I think the old conception of a scientist or astrophysicst as someone who stands back and observes, trying to erase all influence their own activity might have on the activity they are experimenting upon, is no longer tenable. We need a better way of conceiving what scientists are doing when they produce knowledge of the cosmos. This knowledge cannot be other than the cosmos. It must be integral to it.


7 Comments Add yours

  1. Larry says:

    I agree that we are participants, not mere onlookers.

  2. I was a young teenager totally fascinated by the appolo program and this kind of images of the earth seen from the moon did capture my imagination. Until recently I thought that this image and the image of the conquest of space that was conveyed by popular tv series and movies such as 2001 odissey were very positives. I recently began to suspect a dark side to these images. It let us think for a while that our destiny was not earth bounded. That we could trash this place and then goes somewhere else. It was in a sense a copernician revolution, this time not only in the imagination but on tv. And like the first copernitian revolution it diminished the importance of our planet and made us marvel at our technology , at our power on our destiny. It did all that just at the time where we were on the verge of a nuclear destruction and we were scaling up at an incredible exponential rate our destruction of our environment. so instead of looking inward into our mess we look outward and went we look at the earth from the moon, it still look so clean. Now we are heading towards a perfect storm in the crashing economic prospects of the average humans, with ecological crisis, depleting resources and population growth and concentration of power and money. Space explorations, space fictions are not going to be powerfull enough to blind us from our very serious situation.

  3. Alex says:

    Yes, every atom comprising the molecules in our body is traceable to the manufacturing of elements in stars that explode at the end of their lives, enriching the cosmos with that which comprises us. I thereby concur with the notion that we are the universe in that we are feeling and knowing. However, consciousness and examining its contents through introspection does not give you the ability to glean the workings of the cosmos. Conscious space is required to decode the universe into testable/measurable components and this takes scientific methods/tools apart from the senses given to us by nature. For example, the electromagnetic spectrum ranges from gamma rays (shortest wavelength, highest energy) to radio waves (longest wavelength, lowest energy) where humans are only able to perceive the visible region of this wide array of light particles. Objective truths are tied to conscious experience, I am not doubting that. Anything you notice is consciousness. Dreaming is consciousness not constrained by the laws of nature. If your premise lies 1) the universe is not an illusion 2) consciousness is not a illusion, then I don’t see any reason in disputing the way astrophysicists speak about their work. I am fascinated by the philosophical discussion of consciousness and I disagree with Francis Crick’s remark about us being nothing more than a packet of neurons. Yet, to invoke the implications of consciousness in the understanding of the universe seems to be a mere esoteric conversation. Could it open the doors to a better understanding? Maybe. That’s why I subscribe to the notion of cross-pollination across academic fields.

    1. I agree that introspection, as traditionally defined, grants us very little in the way of genuine knowledge of the wider universe. But it may very well be that “consciousness” is only poorly described as a container with various “contents” that can be examined through introspection. What if consciousness is not a representational sort of thing, but an enactive and participatory event? Consciousness doesn’t represent the world (whether mythically or scientifically), it builds and destroys worlds. I argue that consciousness is not a world-container, a sacred inner sanctum within which a magic picture show of “physical reality” is projected. Nor does consciousness look out upon the world as a spectator, observing its goings on from afar, a pure spirit peering through telescopes and microscopes at an inert, de-animated, disenchanted nature. Consciousness *is* a world-constructor, it is integral with and intrinsic to the going on and the on going of the universe. The universe is doing consciousness just like it is doing gravity and light.

      Gravity (matter) and light (energy) are cosmic forms of past and future experience. Their developmental interplay over the course of 13.8 billion years is space-time’s way of waking itself up, of dynamically generating from within itself a personality capable of feeling and knowing. The feeling of the Sun’s warmth on our skin is the Sun feeling its warmth on our skin. Sunlight on the Moon at night is the Sun seeing itself twice reflected in our eyes. Consciousness materializes as it forms habits like skin and eyes, suns and moons, and it spiritualizes as it transforms these habits through ever-on-going evolutionary creativity: stars explode; skin becomes feathers and animals take flight; other animals invent radio telescopes to listen to the reverb of the cosmic creation moment. The polarity between habit and novelty, matter and energy, gravity and light, etc., generates life. Life (or what the Greeks called “Psyche”) precariously surfs the wave constantly curling, rising at it falls, between these poles. Consciousness is the cresting of this wave. Whitehead calls it concrescence. Everything is doing it. It’s not just in our brains. It’s ecological, cosmological, in extent.

      Publicity of speech is what we should always demand of ourselves, but yes, unfortunately at this point of course the place of consciousness in the cosmos remains an esoteric conversation. If our theory of consciousness isn’t explicitly alchemical, we haven’t even begun to take seriously the nature of the problem. We are no longer talking about an objective nature out there that can be mathematically described and publicly measured. Space-time-matter-energy is either an eternal mathematical idea contemplated in the minds of a few thousand highly trained physicists (something like String Theory?) or it is the real ongoing adventure of an evolving consciousness, known and felt to us not through introspection, but through participatory ecstasy. I try to describe space-time this way in this essay on A.N. Whitehead’s cosmology:

  4. I’m reminded of a few lines written by William James: “Every smallest state of consciousness, concretely taken, overflows its own definition. Only concepts are self-identical; only ‘reason’ deals with closed equations; nature is but a name for excess; every point in her opens out and runs into the more; and the only question, with reference to any point we may be considering, is how far into the rest of nature we may have to go in order to get entirely beyond its overflow. In the pulse of inner life immediately present now in each of us is a little past, a little future, a little awareness of our own body, of each other’s persons, of the sublimities we are trying to talk about, of earth’s geography and the direction of history, of truth and error, of good and bad, and of who knows how much more? Feeling, however dimly and subconsciously, all these things, your pulse of inner life is continuous with them, belongs to them and they to it. You can’t identify it with either one of them rather than with the others, for if you let it develop into no matter which of those directions, what it develops into will look back on it and say, ‘That was the original germ of me.'” (from “The Pluralistic Universe”).

  5. Alex says:

    the connections you make are truly intriguing and I will act on my urge to look into more of your work. I like to argue to depressed or otherwise “unhappy” people as such: the fact that the universe is illuminated where you are at this moment is a miracle. No less of a miracle is that your thoughts have a qualitative character. I don’t think we’ll ever define consciousness in a reducible way such as information processing of the brain. The simple act I take to type on your blog and the underlying cellular processes, themselves unconscious, have actually led to the very act of me stringing together my words and executing the act. There is no separate self that operates in the labyrinth of our brains pulling all the levers and gears that dictates what occurs. However, there has to be some sort of internal neuronal signature that we’re reading that makes us feel like we have control—there is a feeling of agency in this vessel we refer to as the human body. Otherwise, everything would be confusing and involuntary. To get to what I believe to be the core of your claim, which I must admit, is difficult to fully wrap one’s mind around. The remark you make, “the universe is doing consciousness just like it is doing gravity and light” is a bit spooky. I would need more elaboration into what you actually mean by that. I remain open to your further interpretation. Yet, I will try my best to expand on that thought. To be brief on the relevant cosmic phenomena you mention, all of which we have discovered in the form of matter, quantum particles, measureable forces (such as gravity, for which, we can measure but not define as “matter” because we don’t know what it actually is) constitutes 4% of what is driving the universe. Everything else, that we measure and have experimental data for, that works in accordance to the laws of physics in computer simulations, makes up the other 96%. The placeholder term for the rapid expansion, acceleration of the universe is “dark” energy/matter. Astrophysicists are staring in the face of ignorance with this and it remains the longest standing unsolved problem in astrophysics. We’ll see if the string theorists are on the right track though… Once the Large Hadron Collider is done with it’s resting phase and fired back up, particle physicists will be trying to recreate a black hole which string theorists say the LHC will have enough energy for if done in a 10-dimensional scenario which they claim to be the reality we live in. I believe further scientific data will give us more meaning and understanding of our place in the universe, or it will galvanize us into asking questions that haven’t even been thought of yet, further deepening the mystery. My favorite theory is the multi-verse. At one point, we thought Earth was special until we found out that Earth is a planet and that there are billions of these in our galaxy. Surely, the Sun is unique! No, it’s just one of hundreds of billions. Well then, our galaxy must be unique. Not quite, hundreds of billions of those also. So how about the Universe? We have philosophical precedent to say that nature isn’t limited to making things in ones. Everything we previously thought was unique or by itself, we found more of.

    1. Tom Bayley says:

      Nice conversation 🙂

      “The remark you make… is a bit spooky.” Look at it the other way, do we really feel we’re something *outside* of it, or that any detail of our moment-to-moment experience is *not* governed by the same prescription that keeps earth spinning round sun, and body on the ground?

      Some people think others are deluded. Maybe so. But where does that delusion spring from, if not from the crystalline depths of physical law? Surely to see any part of it as random is also a delusion?

      It seems to me the impossible combination of randomness + determinism is a toxic ground for philosophical and social ideas. Noone should encourage us to feel small and separate in the universe, so ‘not at home’. How can we come to the conclusion the whole thing is dumb and passive when it’s given birth to us?

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