Cosmic perspectives on human survival
A few days ago I wrote a post in which I quoted some of Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh’s thoughts on psychologically healthy ways of coming to terms with the human race’s potential extinction, at its own hands, in the near future:
“Without collective awakening the catastrophe will come. Civilisations have been destroyed many times and this civilisation is no different. It can be destroyed. We can think of time in terms of millions of years and life will resume little by little. The cosmos operates for us very urgently, but geological time is different.
If you meditate on that, you will not go crazy. You accept that this civilisation could be abolished and life will begin later on after a few thousand years because that is something that has happened in the history of this planet. When you have peace in yourself and accept, then you are calm enough to do something, but if you are carried by despair there is no hope.
It’s like the person who is struck with cancer or Aids and they learn they have been given one year or six months to live. They suffer very much and fight. But if they come to accept that they will die and they prepare to live every day peacefully and they enjoy every moment, the situation may change and the illness may go away. That has happened to many people.”
To get even more “perspective”, I find it pleasing to extend these considerations beyond planet Earth, to the Cosmos as a whole. When I find everyday concerns have taken on too much imminence and importance, I like to stare at pictures like this:
These images are truly amazing – the above is a Hubble Deep Field image and each one of the blobs (of which there are about a thousand) is a galaxy, today containing probably at least 100 billion stars on average. The picture itself is made from an exposure on a tiny patch of sky, which as Wikipedia puts it “covers an area 2.5 arc-minutes across, two parts in a million of the whole sky, which is equivalent in angular size to a 65 mm tennis ball at a distance of 100 metres”.
Thus half a million times as many stars again as the trillions shown above blanket the sky-scape of our observable universe. That’s a whole lot of potential worlds out there, a whole lot of potential intelligent civilisations like ours. Of course, that doesn’t guarantee that such civilisations actually exist. But as astronomer Carl Sagan liked to say, that would seem like an awful waste of space!
This makes me at least feel better about the prospect of us destroying ourselves. The Cosmos is very beautiful and very interesting. I don’t like the idea of there being nobody out there to notice this, remark upon it and delve deeper into its mysteries. But if we do destroy ourselves, probably other civilizations are there to take up the mantle of intelligent life, perhaps succeeding where we failed.
Incidentally, Sagan himself felt deeply concerned about our destructive potential, as quotations like this one show:
“As the ancient myth makers knew we’re children equally of the earth and the sky. In our tenure on this planet we’ve accumulated dangerous evolutionary baggage, propensities for aggression and ritual, submission to leaders, hostility to outsiders, all of which puts our survival in some doubt. But we’ve also acquired compassion for others, love for our children, a desire to learn from history and experience and a great soaring passionate intelligence, the clear tools for our continued survival and prosperity. Which aspects of our nature will prevail is uncertain, particularly when our visions and prospects are bound to one small part of the small planet Earth.
But up there in the Cosmos an inescapable perspective awaits. National boundaries are not evident when we view the Earth from space. Fanatical ethnic or religious or national identifications are a little difficult to support when we see our Earth as a fragile blue crescent fading to become an inconspicuous point of light against the bastion and the citadel of the stars. There are not yet obvious signs of extraterrestrial intelligence and this makes us wonder whether civilisations like ours rush inevitably headlong into self-destruction.”
The above passage also shows that he wrote beautifully; I would recommend any of his books as supreme evocations of the sense of secular awe most scientists feel in coming to understand the workings of the Cosmos.
Sagan also said “We are a way for the cosmos to know itself” – a lovely phrasing of a laudable and a-religious purpose for our species. I hope we can continue to realise this purpose; meanwhile I’ll try to play my own infinitesimal part in halting a cultural juggernaut I see coasting full steam ahead in a suicidal direction. But if we as a species collectively fail to stop it, I won’t feel so bad for the Cosmos.