Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Overview Effect

There has been an enormous amount of speculation over the years among space enthusiasts about the scientific, technological and economic dimensions of space exploration, but relatively little about the spiritual and religious dimensions.  This strikes me as a bit like trying to understand the historic spread of Western civilization around the world while ignoring the role of Christian missionaries – it misses the key to the whole enterprise!  However, the folks who put a bible aboard the Apollo 14 capsule with Edgar Mitchell 40 years ago haven't lost the plot, and neither should we!

As ridiculous as the idea of putting a microfilm bible on the Moon might sound, I must admit I like it.  I am anything but a Christian, but I love this story because it supports the main thesis of this blog: that cosmic exploration is a spiritual and religious enterprise at least as much as a material one.  If settling the High Frontier requires the missionary zeal of Christians (or any other religious group) to make it a reality, then so be it.  In space there are no natives to be exterminated, marginalized or forcefully converted, and there is plenty of room for every religion and creed, so there's no danger of any repetition of unpleasant history.

Nor am I particularly concerned about space colonies becoming fundamentalist outposts, because I don't think Christianity or any other terrestrial religion can survive prolonged contact with the Cosmos.  As many astronauts have already discovered, being in space alters your worldview profoundly – a phenomenon which has been called the overview effect.  The most famous example of this is the bible-toting astronaut Ed Mitchell himself, who has become something of a New Age icon since his cosmic religious awakening during his return from the Apollo 14 lunar mission.  Here is how Mitchell described his moment of Cosmist revelation in a recent interview:
“While we were coming home, the spacecraft was rotating to maintain thermal balance, and that allowed the Earth, the moon, the sun, and the stars to come into my view in a 360-degree panorama every two minutes, which is a pretty powerful sight. Now remember that in space, because you’re above the atmosphere, you can see 10 times as many stars as you can from the ground, and so the stars you see are brilliantly bright.And suddenly it settled in, a visceral moment of knowing that the molecules in my body, the molecules in the spacecraft, and the molecules in my partners had been prototyped and manufactured in an ancient generation of stars. It was not an intellectual realization, but a deep knowing that was accompanied by a feeling of ecstasy and oneness that I had never experienced in that way before.

In that instant, I knew for certain that what I was seeing was no accident. That it did not occur randomly and without order. That life did not, by accident, arise from the primordial earthly sea. It was as though my awareness reached out to touch the furthest star and I was aware of being an integral part of the entire universe, for one brief instant. Any questions that my curious mind might have had about our progress, about our destiny, about the nature of the universe, suddenly melted away as I experienced that oneness. I could reach out and touch the furthest parts and experience the vast reaches of the universe. It was clear that those tiny pinpoints of light in such brilliant profusion were a unity. They were linked together as part of the whole as they framed and formed a backdrop for this view of planet Earth. I knew we are not alone in this universe, that Earth was one of millions, perhaps billions, of planets like our own with intelligent life, all playing a role in the great creative plan for the evolution of life.

This experience continued for three days while coming home, and whenever I looked out the window and wasn’t distracted by my duties this experience of ecstasy and interconnectedness returned. I’ve continue to experience it on certain occasions and sometimes in meditation, and so it’s stayed with me ever since.” –Edgar Mitchell, quoted in Cosmic Conversations: Dialogues On The Nature Of The Universe And The Search For Reality, by Stephan Martin

So here you have a Christian from a small town in Texas sounding like a cosmic visionary to rival Olaf Stapledon and Arthur Clarke after one brief trip to the Moon.  God, the Conscious Universe or the Cosmic Void only knows what kinds of revelations await astronauts who spend years in deep space!

Now, it’s true that Ed Mitchell has other ideas that sound like pure crackpottery, such as his statement that he is  "90 percent sure that many of the thousands of unidentified flying objects, or UFOs, recorded since the 1940s, belong to visitors from other planets".  But I see nothing in the larger quote above that is particularly irrational – it is perfectly consistent with statements made by other proto-Cosmists like Einstein, Clarke and Sagan, and with my own perceptions.  And Mitchell is far from alone; the overview effect has had a similar impact on the worldviews of other astronauts such as NASA adviser Rusty Schweickart and Fox News space analyst Thomas Jones, neither of whom is likely to be accused of being a New Age nut.

As space tourism begins to enter the realm of non-fiction and plans for private space hotels and commercial lunar missions are drawn up, it strikes me that the main selling point of space travel will be the incredible spiritual benefits if offers.  I can easily imagine, in the not very distant future, orbiting hotels with prayer/meditation centers, churches, temples, mosques and Cosmist observatories on the Moon, and Cosmist-Christian/Buddhist/Hindu/Muslim missionaries establishing colonies on Mars and outposts in the asteroid belt.  There will be material riches and glories to be had in all these places, to be sure, but I suspect the greatest wealth will be the new spiritual horizons these pilgrims open for all mankind.

I'll leave you with this beautiful video produced by the folks at  There are more stunning images and stirring words on their web site, which I highly recommend!

Sunday, February 6, 2011

A First Cosmist Observation

Here are a few beautiful videos for your ambient audiovisual enjoyment.  This is how I imagine a Cosmist observation (religious service) would feel.  Let your computer be your spaceship and your temple play these videos on fullscreen and take a spiritual journey into the awe-inspiring realms of the Cosmos.  Imagine a poetic speaker like Carl Sagan sermonizing about the Cosmos with videos like these playing in the background.  Imagine that you live in a cosmic civilization, spread out among many worlds, and these are places you can actually visit.  Imagine videos like these broadcast throughout the solar system in a communal Cosmist celebration of our wondrous universe.  This is how I envision the music and the television and the religion of a Cosmic Culture which exists in the minds of artists and visionaries today, and can be reality tomorrow…

Thursday, February 3, 2011

God, the Universe and Everything Else

I just wanted to share this phenomenal BBC program from 1988 called “God, the Universe and Everything Else,” featuring a conversation with Carl Sagan, Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Hawking.  Here are three of the giants of Cosmist thinking discussing everything from the Big Bang to fractals, black holes, time travel, extraterrestrials, space exploration, God and human creativity. This is a must-watch!

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Confessions of a Cosmist Fanatic

It’s so amazing to step back and look at our species and our planet from a Cosmist perspective; once you have been awakened to this way of looking at the world there is no going back to the myopic, microcosmic worldviews of old.  When you get the cosmic religion, all terrestrial problems are put in proper perspective and it becomes as clear as the skies from space that the only way forward for Earth-based life is radially outward, into the vast Cosmos.

The little things stop bothering you when you convert to Cosmism; you exist in a perpetual state of awe at the immensity of the universe, curiosity to learn more about it, and impatience at our species’ reluctance to reach out to that larger world and walk among it as cosmic beings.  It becomes impossible to understand how any modern human, possessing knowledge of the incredible vastness and wonders of our universe, could ever turn away from that and look to the ground of this little mote of dust and aspire no further.

We are the most fortunate human beings in history, because we’ve had our horizons expanded like no others by our stunning scientific discoveries.  How does the discovery of 1200 exoplanets and galaxies at the edge of the universe not fill you with awe and ecstasy and a desire to reach for the stars?  Why would anyone ever again be satisfied with the pre-Copernican, Earth- and human-centric mythologies of Iron Age tribes?  This, to me, is the real mind-boggling mystery of our time: that we know so much about the universe yet we aspire to so little; that we can see galaxies 13 billion light years distant but have traveled no further than our moon; that we build weapons of mass destruction instead of colonies on Mars.  What madness!

But beyond inspiring this kind of righteous ranting, how does Cosmism affect one’s life?  I can’t speak for anyone else, but since my self-conversion to Cosmism a month ago, here are some of the things I have done:

  1. Created this blog

  2. Began writing The Book of Cosmism in an attempt to found a new religion

  3. Began watching a series of YouTube lectures on General Relativity and several other excellent astrophysics videos

  4. Began self-study of astronomy by reading online course notes, technical papers and numerous excellent astronomy and space blogs

  5. Created the web site Cosmos University, which is a vision I have for an online school that can inspire people of all ages to learn more about the Cosmos and to imagine our unlimited future in space

  6. Began nightly stargazing and shopping for a telescope

  7. Began promoting the Cosmist perspective on current events at various blogs of interest

  8. Began exploring graduate programs such as Astronomy & Astrophysics at my local university and Space Studies at the University of North Dakota

  9. Read or am reading several cosmically themed books, including Cosmos and Contact by Carl Sagan, Star Maker by Olaf Stapledon, 2001: A Space Odyssey and numerous short stories by Arthur C. Clarke

  10. Developed a generally positive attitude toward my own life and toward humanity in general.  I greet every day with a smile and hope they keep coming because the longer I live the more I get to learn about the Cosmos!

You might accuse me of being an obsessive person with a lot of time on my hands, which is certainly true.  If you saw me in person, you’d probably think I looked normal enough, but if you gazed into my eyes you might see stars and galaxies spinning in a void and you would know that my mind was not entirely present on this planet.  I might appear to be in a slight trance, or in a state of rapture or to be receiving messages from somewhere else.  I suppose people have said similar things about holy men and mystics throughout history, but my mysticism is not mystical – it is the hard scientific truth!

I can’t point to another human being who has lived on this planet as the definitive example of how Cosmism can change your life – the “Cosmist Jesus”, if you like – but I will offer four role models that I think every convert to the cosmic religion would do well to emulate: Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, Olaf Stapledon, Arthur C. Clarke and Carl Sagan.  Tsiolkovsky, because he was one of the founders of Russian Cosmism and a visionary rocket scientist far ahead of his time; Stapledon, because he was perhaps the first writer to think on a truly cosmic scale about humanity's future and because he inspired a whole generation of science fiction writers to do likewise; Clarke and Sagan for their beautiful cosmic visions and because they did more to promote cosmic-religious consciousness than just about anyone else. If you like, you can think of these four as Cosmist prophets or saints.  There are far too many other notable proto-Cosmists to list, but a few who come to mind are Albert Einstein, Robert Goddard, Fritz Zwicky, Wernher von Braun, Robert Forward, Stephen Hawking, Marshall Savage, Robert Zubrin and Neil deGrasse Tyson.  Read their writings and study their work and maybe you will get a sense of the great things a Cosmist outlook on life can achieve.

I know many scientifically minded people are turned off by the somewhat fanatical and religious mindset I am describing here.  That’s certainly understandable, given the horrible things that have been done in a spirit of religious zealotry.  But I have a strong sense that the great project of “cosmization” will require a level of conviction that goes beyond the strictly rational and utilitarian – that the space program is our great pyramids and our cathedrals, which requires a long-term commitment that perhaps only religious devotion can provide.  And if I am a fanatic, I am in good company; the same cosmic faith that burns in my mind must have burned in the minds of the great space pioneers like Goddard, Tsiolkovsky and von Braun to motivate them in the face of repeated failures and ridicule.

I am convinced beyond all reason that humanity must develop Cosmist consciousness if we are to survive and thrive for much longer, and this is not a conviction to make one timid or cautious.  I am reminded of a rather apocalyptic quote by Arthur Clarke:

“There is no way back into the past; the choice, as Wells once said, is the universe—or nothing. Though men and civilizations may yearn for rest, for the dream of the lotus-eaters, that is a desire that merges imperceptibly into death. The challenge of the great spaces between the worlds is a stupendous one; but if we fail to meet it, the story of our race will be drawing to its close.  Humanity will have turned its back upon the still untrodden heights and will be descending again the long slope that stretches, across a thousand million years of time, down to the shores of the primeval sea.
This sums up my thoughts perfectly, and since I greatly prefer the universe to nothing and don’t particularly want to see the story of our race draw to its close, I hope my fanaticism can be at least somewhat excused.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...