Philosophy and the Overview Effect: Part 2

Jun 15, 2018

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

While the astronauts quoted earlier tend to think about our uniqueness in the cosmos (as far as we are aware), and thus the need to guard life on this planet, Nietzsche instead goes the opposite route. He suggests instead that we are not unique, and, even if we are, that uniqueness does not matter in the sheer scale of the cosmos. What is it to the cosmos if, on this planet, there once existed something that “knew” but that died when the sun became too hot for life to exist on Earth?

“Our mistreatment of others, and of this planet, is due to our felt need to assert our uniqueness in both the cosmos and in society.”
Dr. H.A. Nethery IV

In the 21st century, this theme has been picked up on by cosmic horror author Thomas Ligotti, in his book on philosophy entitled The Conspiracy Against the Human Race. Here, Ligotti argues that human suffering is in part due to our lack of understanding our tiny place in the enormity of the cosmos. Ligotti writes:

“Anyone who is marked outside of the group is fair game for those who would assert their reality over all others. Yet, they too, are nobodies. If they were not, their persecutions would not be required: They could pass their lives with a sure mindfulness of their substance and value” (198).

That is, for Ligotti, we force other human beings to suffer because their suffering makes us feel like a “somebody” – we have made them less than us, and thus made them a “nobody.” Ligotti continues,

“But as any good Buddhist could tell you, human beings have no more substance and value than anything else on earth. The incapacity to repose alongside both the mountains and the mold of this planet is the fountainhead of the torments we wreak on one another. As long as we deny a person or group the claim to be right and as real as we are, so long may we hold this dreamlike claim for ourselves alone” (198).

Cover of Thomas Ligotti's book The Conspiracy Against the Human Race.
Cover of Thomas Ligotti's book The Conspiracy Against the Human Race.

Ultimately, we find with Ligotti a meshing of the pessimism of Nietzsche with a concern for justice. Our mistreatment of others, and of this planet, is due to our felt need to assert our uniqueness in both the cosmos and in society. It is only if this perspective is decentered – if we start to understand that we are all nobody – that we can stop the needless harming of each other and of this planet.

If we look at these philosophers and astronauts, we see a common question. Does human suffering stem from our need to feel special and unique in the cosmos? Does our human or earth-centered perspective stop us from understanding the harm that we are doing to the possibility of future life on this planet?

I end with Carl Sagan, from his book The Pale Blue Dot. In reference to an image of the Earth taken by Voyager from over four billion miles away, he wrote:

“Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves… There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known.”

I wonder now, daily, if these astronauts, philosophers, and astronomers are not correct.

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