Ever since I was a child and saw the so-called Earthrise photo for the first time I carry the overview feeling with me like a fruit that yearns further growth. During my studies at university, with shamans in Brazil – who have unique technologies to invoke the experience – and in my work as a writer and philosopher it has always been a central theme.
Because of one book many pieces of the puzzle fell together.
‘We have ceased to play a finite game and are now playing an infinite game. This changes everything,’ writes Frank White in The Overview Effect.
Using three philosophical approaches I will show you how the Overview Effect can indeed change everything.
First, the effect on the philosophical playing field which has been taking place since the seventies. In La Condition Postmoderne (1979) French Philosopher Jean-François Lyotard claimed that the modernist interpretation of the human condition was outdated. Sciences lack an all-embracing theory, history seems blind and without progress, religions are experiencing apocalyptic convulsions, societies believe less and less in a universal wisdom about harmonic ways of living together. After the death of the ‘grand narratives’ (Christianity, Enlightenment, Positivism, Marxism, Late Capitalism) everything seems to be permissible (anything goes).
In my interpretation, this diagnosis is a result of the death of God that Friedrich Nietzsche proclaimed a century earlier. ‘God is dead’ meant the death of the transcendentals: the goodness, the truth and the beauty. In fact, the postmodern condition is about a world in which it is no longer possible to say what is good, true and beautiful. A world in which hope progressively seems to disappear behind a horizon.
And then, out of the blue, appears the Overview Effect.
It is a fascinating irony that the so-called death of the grand narratives coincided with the first time that people viewed the lively setting of those narratives from space. There is eighteen years between Yuri Gagarin’s escape from gravity in 1961 and the publishing of The Postmodern Condition. Which is nothing on a cosmic time scale, but a big step for the self-image of man and philosophy in general.
The celestial experience of our planet being a single embryonic totality intuitively suggests that the grand narratives did not so much die because of their ambitions, but because they were simply not big enough.
The Overview Experience opens the path to the biggest story. Exactly at the moment when we declare the ending of goodness, truth and beauty, we experience this trinity in a way that places everything in a different light.
The enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant stated at the end of the eighteenth century that there are two things that repeatedly fill a human being with awe: the starry sky above us and the ethical law within us.
At the very moment that we as humanity were threatening to cut the cord between the cosmos and ethics, the Overview Effect made it more powerful than before.
The old grand narratives often went above people’s heads.
The grandest narrative speaks to everyone.
It is global and local, universal and personal.
The personal perspective brings me to my second conviction: the impression that the Grand Narratives also failled because somehow they were not small enough. In his breathtaking study How Forests Think antropologist Eduardo Kohn demonstrates that meaning (semiosis, signifing) is not only something of humans but of life in general.
The meaning of life is that life is meaning and communication. The story of mankind is rooted in countless ‘stories’ of plants, animals, oceans, skys, cordilleras and forests. The bird in the sky, the vanishing starfish and jungles, shamanistic visions and the lights of fishermen boats that André Kuipers could see out of the ISS tell their own stories. Many of these interrelated stories tell us that we are on a wrong track.
Many know the Fermi paradox by Enrico Fermi, who wondered why, when the universe is as full of life as astronomers claim, it is so quiet around us. Why have they not yet found us?
One answer is that civilisations destroy themselves when they reach a certain technological level.
Is the Overview Effect a medicine that comes just in time? Do the Earthrise photo, testimonies of astronauts and cosmonauts, and the democratisation of the Overview Effect through geostationary cameras, internet applications and cinematographic initiatives such as in the Columbus Earth Center in Kerkrade (Netherlands), stir up the environmental awareness sufficiently enough to ensure that mankind successfully passes through the bottleneck of a multi-catastrophe – a catastrophe that many believe is already in full swing?
Sometimes I imagine that we are surrounded by a cosmic audience of civilisations that have their own spectacular overview show: the view of a mankind (of us) that finally can experience the home-planet from the outside and draw from that experience the light and strength to overcome selfish impulses.
The biggest and smallest narrative at the most exciting time – a more powerful medicine to correct the course of our planet is hardly imaginable.
My third approach is about the way the old transcendentals (The good, the true and the beautifull) can be reborn out of an awareness of life in its microscopic and planetary dimensions.
‘We have little understanding of our true nature, of what it means to be human,’ wrote Edward O. Wilson in The Diversity of Life (1992). Ignorance of our origins and the fragility of our home planet is still a widespread problem. Elsewhere, Wilson states that we are caught up in what he calls the ‘Eromozoic’, the Age of Loneliness that is dawning on us due to the wave of extinction caused by one animal. Together with other scientists, he pleads for an Age of Recovery and a New Enlightenment.
The motto of the first Enlightenment was that we should dare use our intellect (Kant) and learn to maintain our garden (Voltaire). A New Enlightenment can unfold with the realisation that we have a miraculous medicine with the Overview Experience: an experience that can and will serve as a philosophical basis for fraternisation, for space exploration and for a new chapter in the art of living together.
Before us lies the philosophical adventure of discovering the Overview Experience as a basis for such a New Enlightenment. However, I think we should be carefull with overloading the experience with words and theories. The awareness that life as such is communication and that our rational languages were born out of the so-called irrational, should make us humble and respectfull to life in general.
I myself believe that ‘truth’ for example is connected to a game between concealedness and unconcealedness (aletheia).
Before us we have the odyssea of letting a sustainable practise be born out of the biggest story as emerging out of our relationship with myriads of other micro- and macromeanings.
If one day we succesfully communicate with other civilisations (somewhere in space) I hope it will be in this spirit, the spirit of an open and unfiltered experience.
A person often only sees what he or she already has in his or her mind. At the same time, the value of the overview effect is also in reaching a kind of Ouvrez la Tête (open your head) that can give a new, creative and, above all, human and positive twist to the negativity that increasingly seems to be touching upon our planet. This openness is the beginning of all creativity.
And if one day I were allowed to give it words, I would, maybe, start with a renaissance of the Platonic Trinity. For example, like this:
- Truth as the ways in which people, animals and plants relate to Earth, our solar system and the universe: the birth of an overview relationism as a zero point or axioma of science and human image. Just like returning to the atmosphere, the right approach is essential: how do we come from the right stuff to a right angle to strengthen and democratise this?
- Goodness as the birth of faithfulness to the earth out of the spirit of the overview experience. The question here is: how do we move from ethical touch to sustainable practise?
- Beauty as a deepening of what it can mean to be homo spaciens (White): how do we move from the experience to transformation?
From right stuff to right angle, from ethical touch to sustainable practise and from experience to transformation. These are merely three aspects of a terranautical turn that emerges when more and more people find themselves living in the overview condition.
The answer to the question asked by many people about what may come after the postmodern condition and the death of the grand narratives, has herewith been given.
The socio-political significance of this is immense. Politics originally revolves around the knowledge, skills and art of the social (justifying the claim that much of current politics is anti-social). The Overview Effect presents us with the challenge to think about and apply the coherence of knowledge, action and art terranautically: a terranautical turn that can be the anchor of overview politics.
In White’s book I several times read the suggestion of a political summit in space. If such a summit were to take place (and what stops us from considering it here?) then it may start with respect, silence and humility.
But also with the realisation that not all people are necessary prone to the effect. Rick Armstrong, Neil Armstrong’s son, told me, for example, that his father was ‘not affected’. Together we concluded that we must beware that the Overview Effect does not become some sort of new religion. At the same time, as far as I am concerned, this modesty and caution also belongs the goodness, truth and beauty of a life in the overview condition.
The Overview Condition opens countless perspectives.
My proposition is that it can in any case lead to a homecoming of philosophy.
Philosophy is: love for wisdom.
For centuries it was often not easy to feel and nourish that love.
But once you have experienced the overview effect, you will be in love for the rest of your life.
Govert Derix, November 2017
Originally written as a lecture for the Overview Symposium, Columbus Earth Center, Kerkrade, Netherlands, 3 November 2017.