Philosophy and the Overview Effect: Part 1

Jun 4, 2018

by Dr. H.A. Nethery IV
Assistant Professor of Philosophy

The following essay was inspired by a course I taught in the Fall of 2016, entitled Philosophy and the Weird.

There is a phenomenon experienced by astronauts upon seeing Earth from space for the first time. The “overview effect,” as coined by Frank White in his book of the same name, is perhaps best described by Apollo 14 astronaut, Edgar Mitchell:

“Our thin atmosphere is all that stands between us and the lethal radiation of the sun, and, if we were to realize this, our ethical commitments would shift radically.”
Dr. H.A. Nethery IV

“You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it. From out there on the moon, international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, ‘Look at that...’”

Edgar Mitchell is not alone. A number of astronauts report the same phenomenon – seeing the Earth from space radically transformed the way they think about human beings, our planet, and our place in the cosmos. Take Bill Anders, astronaut on Apollo 8:

“It was the only color we could see in the universe. ... We're living on a tiny little dust mote in left field on a rather insignificant galaxy. And basically this is it for humans. It strikes me that it's a shame that we're squabbling over oil and borders.”

Or, astronaut Winston Scott:

“...From up there, it looks finite and it looks fragile and it really looks like just a tiny little place on which we live in a vast expanse of space. It gave me the feeling of really wanting us all to take care of the Earth. I got more of a sense of Earth as home, a place where we live. And of course you want to take care of your home. You want it clean. You want it safe."

Or, John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth:

“You come back impressed, once you've been up there, with how thin our little atmosphere is that supports all life here on Earth. So if we foul it up, there's no coming back from something like that.”

Each of these astronauts, in their own way, describes a radical reorientation of the way they thought about ethical problems. Seeing the Earth from space, from outside the Earth itself, showed them that life on our planet is fragile. Our thin atmosphere is all that stands between us and the lethal radiation of the sun, and, if we were to realize this, our ethical commitments would shift radically. Rather than focusing on the “petty political squabbles” as Edgar Mitchell puts it, we would instead focus on safeguarding the life on this planet, this rock hurtling through space at about 515,000 mph, as it orbits a star among hundreds of billions of other stars, in a galaxy among hundreds of billions of other galaxies in the observable universe.

German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844 - 1900).
German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844 - 1900).

This ethical shift from an anthropocentric to a cosmological perspective is not unique to space travel in the 20th century. The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, building upon the work of his predecessor Arthur Schopenhauer, and the latter’s Buddhist influences, argued for a similar point, though in a much different way. In his 1873 essay “Truth and Lies in a Non-Moral Sense,” Nietzsche takes on the idea that we as human beings are unique in the cosmos because we have language, and thus can have knowledge. While his arguments are too complex to get into here, it is worth looking briefly at the opening paragraph of this essay:

“Once upon a time, in some out of the way corner of that universe which is dispersed into numberless twinkling solar systems, there was a star upon which clever beasts invented knowing. That was the most arrogant and mendacious minute of ‘world history,’ but nevertheless, it was only a minute. After nature had drawn a few breaths, the star cooled and congealed, and the clever beasts had to die. One might invent such a fable, and yet he still would not have adequately illustrated how miserable, how shadowy and transient, how aimless and arbitrary the human intellect looks within nature. There were eternities during which it did not exist.”

Learn more about philosophy and the overview effect in the second part of this blog series.