Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Our Place in the Cosmos


Neil deGrasse Tyson does an excellent job of educating the public about scientific topics.  Unfortunately, he is rather less skilled at articulating a coherent moral philosophy, as demonstrated in his preface to my astronomy textbook The Cosmic Perspective.  The astrophysicist writes,
When I pore over the date that establish the mysterious presence of dark matter and dark energy throughout the universe, sometimes I forget that every day-every twenty-four-hour rotation of Earth-people are killing and being killed.  In the name of someone's ideology.
When I track the orbits of asteroids, comets, and planets, each one a pirouetting dance in a cosmic ballet choreographed by the forces of gravity, sometimes I forget that too many people act in wanton disregard fot the delicate interplay of Earth's atmosphere, oceans, and land, with consequences that our children and our children's children will witness and pay for with their health and well-being.

And sometimes I forget that powerful people rarely do all they can to help those who cannot hep themselves.

I occasionally forget these things because, however big the world is-in our hearts, our minds, and our outsize atlases-the universe is even bigger.  A depressing though to some, but a liberating thought to me.
Consider an adult who tends to the traumas of a child: a broken toy, a scraped knee, a schoolyard bully.  Adults know that kids have no clue what constitutes a genuine problem, because inexperience greatly limits their childhood perspective.
As grown-ups, dare we admit to ourselves that we, too, have a collective immaturity of view?  Dare we admit that our thoughts and behaviors spring from a believe that world revolves around us?  Part the curtains of society's racial, ethnic, national, and cultural conflicts, and you find the human ego turning the knows and pulling the levers.
Now imagine a world in which everyone, but especially people with power and influence, holds an expanded view of our place in the cosmos.  With that perspective, our problems would shrink-or never arise at all-and we could celebrate our earthly differences while shunning the behavior of our predecessors who slaughtered each other because of them 
Sometimes the smartest people say the dumbest things.  Tyson's "cosmic perspective" does not serve to make human dignity more valuable than ideology, it instead makes both things equally worthless.  In his vision of the universe, human beings are insignificant specks of cosmic dust.  The ideological reasons for one group of specks to murder another group of specks is meaningless in such a universe, but so are the specks themselves. 

Tyson condemns the idea that humans have some sort of elevated place in the universe, and in his attempt to support his claim, instead proves that humans are in fact centrally important.  He writes about astronomical observations that reveal the majesty of the universe.  Tyson seems to think that the scale and complexity of the cosmos that he sees through a telescope make humans insignificant, but he fails to consider that he can observe nebulas, but nebulas cannot observe him.  We can look at the universe and think about it, but the universe can neither see nor think.  A human person is more important than a black hole for the same reason he is more important than a rock.  We humans are rational animals, and are therefore the most significant things on this physical plane.  Any one of those selfish, closed minded, ideologues that Tyson criticizes is of greater value than the physical cosmos that he studies.  Galileo, who died a faithful Catholic, would probably tell Neil deGrasse Tyson that as it turns out, the universe really does revolve around us.

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