I find that reading Carl Sagan’s prose often inspires me to, as he would put it, think cosmically. Such thinking is universal in scale. It requires a mind bathed in the ideals of progress (a recent concept) and the possibility of progressive self-understanding. Human thought has been stuck in a terrestrial rut for too long, thinking in terms of earthly territory, aggression, and xenophobic alienation. To think cosmically involves a new set of classificatory parameters when thinking humanity. Instead of understanding herself in terms of tribal significations, the cosmic mind understands that she is, fundamentally, a human being, a cousin to all other organisms, kin to a primordial ancestor, born in the cradle of Earth. This is not a New Age proclamation; organic relatedness is a scientific fact. The implications of this thought strike me as fundamentally constitutive for a new human understanding, one seen implicitly in the organic religions of East and Martin Heidegger’s concept of being-in-the-world.
Under such an understanding, typical of Buddhism, particularly Zen, the organism cannot be intelligently thought apart from its orientation within a natural ecological niche. The fundamental metaphysical lesson of Eastern philosophy (and Heidegger) then is that one cannot properly think the flower independently of the ground in which it finds support. In the same way that soil is necessary for flowers, the environment is necessary for an organism. This lesson reverberates throughout our entire conceptual landscape: back and front, top and bottom, yin and yang, self and other, I and world. Similarly, if we are to think the essence of humanity, and of organic being in general, we must realize that having-a-home is constitutive for our average mode of existence.
Historically, the human home has been constrained by limitations of geography and territory. Our home-of-homes has almost always been where we dwell; where we eat, sleep, and socialize. But as civilization developed, self-identity expanded with the rise of nation-states and the politics of identity. The size of our “tribe” grew enormously in response to a self-consciousness of ethnicity, linguistic heritage, and political/religious identity. Our home became synonymous with cultural boundaries, most notably language, habit, and superficial appearance (skin, clothing, hair style, etc.).We became not just sons of our fathers, but of the Fatherland, and ultimately, of deities. But as Sagan points out,
The old appeals to racial sexual religious chauvinism and to rabid nationalist fervor are beginning not to work. A new consciousness is developing which sees the earth as a single organism and recognizes that an organism at war with itself is doomed. We are one planet. One of the great revelations of the age of space exploration is the image of the earth finite and lonely, somehow vulnerable, bearing the entire human species through the oceans of space and time.
It gives me great hope that the destruction of all irrational boundaries between ourselves and everything else is the next logical step in the progressive expansion of human self-understanding. To see ourselves as not just countrymen, but as Earthmen, as humans, ultimately, children of the stars, of Earth. And as Sagan was oft to say, “If we do not destroy ourselves, we will one day venture to the stars.” Any self-respecting human should be deeply humbled and deeply intrigued by such an image. The exploratory drive etched into our brains cannot help but stir at such a thought. Deeply embedded into the DNA of every average human being is an insatiable curiosity, an exploratory fever driven by our species’ long history of never staying in one place for too long. We see this exploratory curiosity naturally in young children:
Exploration is constitutive of human being. Moreover, humans explore territories unreachable by our cousin organisms. We can, for example, explore the boundaries of language, playing with meaning and metaphor, creating new words and concepts, saying and thinking what has never been said or thought in the history of the universe. We explore the horizons of our selves, minds, and memories, investigate the corridors of history, the mind-numbing expanse of stars and galaxies, introspect the space within and perceive the world without. We explore reality with science, with poetry, filmography, bodies and brains. In this way, humans are both extraordinarily similar and dissimilar with other animals. Accordingly, it really doesn’t surprise me that Creationism was widespread before evolutionary theory offered an alternative, naturalistic explanation of where the Earth and ourselves came from. Everyone is born ignorant of our cosmic history and the failure of education leads naturally to the supposition of divinity. When we peer inside our selves, the bottomless complexity is staggering to the point of inducing hasty philosophical conclusions. But though we are not divine, we do hold the future in our hands. It is a fragile little thing, but our most prized possession.To end this post with a quotation,
I detest all systems that depreciate human nature. If it be a delusion that there is something in the constitution of man that is venerable and worthy of its author, let me live and die in that delusion, rather than have my eyes opened to see my species in a humiliating and disgusting light. Every good man feels his indignation rise against those who disparage his kindred or his country; why should it not rise against those who disparage his kind? – Thomas Reid, quoted in Sagan, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors