We may be small on the grand scale of the universe, but from the standpoint of significance, I think in terms of “Here’s this planet that is placed at a specific distance from the sun that allows us to live as we do and created this environment that is a perfect place for us to survive. And it says to me that there is a reason why we are here, not that there is an insignificance to it.”
—Shuttle and ISS Astronaut Nicole Stott,
The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution
This statement by former astronaut Nicole Stott points directly at the Cosma Hypothesis and the fundamental concerns of space philosophy. It begins to answer the question, “What is the human purpose in the universe?”
What is a hypothesis? Simply put, a hypothesis is an explanation of an observed phenomenon. Once it has been formulated, one looks for evidence of its validity.
The Cosma Hypothesis includes several components:
- Some astronauts experience a new relationship with the universe, an understanding that humans are part of an enormous whole system;
- As a part of the universe, humans are alive, self-aware, and intelligent;
- To that extent, the universe is alive, self-aware, and intelligent;
- Human evolution affects universal evolution by creating more life, awareness, and intelligence within the universe; and
- This may explain why we are here and the purpose of human space exploration.
Some of these components require evidence as support, while other parts are more like theorems, i.e., self-evident statements of fact. For example, the notion that astronauts experience a new relationship with the universe is a statement that can be verified by examining the experiences of the astronauts themselves. All of the interviews I have conducted with them so far represent a database that is helpful in verifying the hypothesis. The database needs to be expanded, but it is a start.
Regarding the first component of the hypothesis, then, the key point is this: while it is now common knowledge that astronauts experience the Earth in a new way when they go into orbit or travel to the moon (the Overview Effect), they also see the universe from a totally unique perspective.
This is especially true for the Apollo astronauts and all those who have left their spacecraft for extravehicular activities (EVAs) and I will have more to say about this later in this essay.
This new relationship with the universe is as important as the astronauts’ shift in perception of our home planet.
This brings us to the second component of the hypothesis, which is a simple statement of fact: humans are part of the universe, and we are alive, self-aware, and intelligent. This means that the universe is, to some extent, also alive, self-aware, and intelligent.
The third component follows directly from the second, because it means that humanity has the ability to support universal evolution by spreading our own unique qualities throughout the cosmos.
The fourth component relates to our purpose as a species and requires some detailed explanation.
“Space” and “Purpose”
Astronauts not only see the Earth “from space” but they also see the Earth “in space,” a point that my colleague at the Overview Institute, David Beaver, is fond of making.
When we say an astronaut “sees the Earth in space,” we really mean that “he or she sees the Earth against the backdrop of the universe.” This is an extraordinary statement.
The feeling evoked by this experience is captured nicely by Akihiko Hoshide, a Japanese astronaut who spent time on the International Space Station. He talked with me about his reactions as he stared into infinity.
I was actually looking at the pitch black space one day, and I wondered, “How far does it go?” I was trying to find the “bottom” of that darkness, and all of a sudden, you kind of feel this…sensation of getting sucked into that never-ending, bottomless darkness. (1)
If the idea of an Earth without borders or boundaries is an understanding of reality that is hard to grasp until you see it for yourself, consider how much more extraordinary it is to look at infinity, which is also borderless and without boundaries, and is something we can hardly imagine intellectually!
In particular, the astronaut on an EVA, or on the way to the moon, sees the Earth as a planet suspended in an infinite universe. This realization affects different observers in different ways. For example, Ed Gibson commented on the extent to which it made him feel somewhat insignificant. He began to see his life and concerns as “diminutive” as compared with other things in the universe. (2)
Others, like Nicole Stott, found that seeing the Earth framed by the depths of the universe made them feel more significant, not less. (3)
Apollo astronaut Eugene Cernan asserted that he saw “purpose” in the universe when he viewed the Earth hanging in space as he stood on the moon:
You wonder, [what would happen] if only everyone could relate
to the beauty and the purposefulness of it, the reality of the
infinity of time and space, how our star moves through time and space with such logic and purpose. It wouldn’t bring a utopia to this planet for people to understand it all, but it might make a difference. (4)
Cernan’s statement matters because the Cosma Hypothesis is largely about purpose. If astronauts perceive a purpose in the universe, that may indicate something important for the theory. (Of course, their understanding of what is meant by “purpose” may be different from the way in which I am using the term.)
This definition offers another potentially fruitful area of future exploration. By purpose, I mean that everything in the universe performs a function that supports the whole system. So our quest with the Cosma Hypothesis is to find the ecological function human beings serve in the universe.
In thinking about the cosmos (or Cosma), which is so large and difficult to comprehend, it might be helpful to begin by thinking first about the Earth, which is more understandable to our minds. We have become hyper-interested in ecology since the Apollo missions sent us those startling images of the Earth as seen from the moon, or from the spacecraft traveling to and from our satellite. My goal is to evoke a similar response to perceptions of the universe.
Regarding the Earth, we find that several processes are taking place on this planet.
- First, we begin with the obvious fact that life exists on Earth and it exists in great abundance. We believe it exists elsewhere in the universe, but we have not yet confirmed that this is the case.
- Second, we see evolution on the Earth, which is the progression of organisms from simpler forms to more complex forms (we do not have to embrace Darwinian evolution to accept this fact).
- Third, we perceive an interconnection and interrelationship of all things on the planet. Trees take in carbon dioxide and release oxygen, which humans and other animals need, while we take in oxygen and release carbon dioxide, which the trees need. Bees pollinate flowers, and use the nectar of the flowers to make honey. Every species gives something to the ecology of the Earth and every species takes something as well. Those that give more than they take tend to survive and thrive.
In a sense, the Cosma Hypothesis suggests that evolution is not a “survival of the fittest,” but a “survival of the most generous.”
Purpose, in relation to the Earth and ecology, means that an entity is giving something to the larger environment and taking something from that environment, while also playing a role as a part within the whole. That is precisely what I mean by purpose in referring to the relationship of humanity to the universe.
The issue to be addressed is what that purpose might be, and how it could be verified as part of the Cosma Hypothesis. A second question is whether the astronauts’ experiences could in some way constitute a portion of that verification.
What, then, are human beings giving to and taking from the larger environment that we know as the universe, or Cosma?
This may seem like a ridiculous question, given the portion of the universe that we occupy on our small planet at the edge of the Milky Way galaxy. How could human beings, or even all of life on Earth, have any impact, or even any relationship, with the totality of the universe?
The answer lies in our brains and in our minds.
The universe is, fundamentally, an information processing system. Every part of it is involved in processing information, and as the information processing capability grows, it becomes more self-aware. What do I mean by that?
Let’s refer to a dictionary definition, which reads as follows:
Conscious knowledge of one’s own character, feelings, motives, and desires. (5)
Building on Overview theory, I would suggest that for an entity to have an awareness of itself, it must have an “overview” of itself. In other words, it must be able to see itself within its environment. We know that the astronauts have provided that perspective for humanity by going into orbit and/or to the moon. More than that, humanity has provided that perspective for “Gaia,” or the Earth, and all living things on it.
We have explored the solar system extensively, visiting every major and minor planet (such as Ceres and Pluto) with robot probes, and these ventures have provided “overviews” of other planets as well. For example, several spacecraft have orbited Mars, sending back photos and videos not unlike what we have seen from the International Space Station of Earth.
In The Overview Effect, I referred to “overview systems” and suggested that humans had now created an overview system of our home planet. If it is correct that creating an overview system is synonymous with increased self-awareness, then it follows that humanity plays a vital role within the universe by doing just that.
Every overview system is aware of itself and of its environment, which constitutes the “other.” The more overview systems that exist in the universe, the more awareness the universe will have.
Humans may not yet be able to travel to distant stars or galaxies physically, but we can do so mentally, using telescopes that have grown increasingly powerful. With the advent of space-based instruments, we can see farther into the universe than ever before. In this way, we have increased our knowledge of the universe enormously in recent decades.
In this way, Cosma becomes more knowledgeable about herself as well. As any entity becomes more aware, it is also able to control its own development. As Cosma becomes more aware, she is able to shape her own evolution.
We imagine ourselves as colonizing “space,” (a term we should avoid, in any case) but another way of looking at it is that “space” is colonizing us. This is reminiscent of the book Sapiens, in which the author turns the tables conceptually, noting that a major transformation in human life has been the domestication of wheat. However, he argues that wheat actually domesticated humans, transforming us from hunter-gatherers into farmers and city-dwellers. (6)
In an analogous fashion, Cosma has beckoned to humanity since the beginning of time, drawing us outward to explore and to understand. We think we are doing so for ourselves, but are we actually doing it for the universe as well? To paraphrase the words of my friend and colleague, Rick Tumlinson, “Are we here to go there?” (7)
(1) White, The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution, American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA), Reston, VA, 2014, p. 296.
(2) Ibid, p. 198.
(3) Ibid, p. 300.
(4) Ibid, p. 180.
(5) Oxford Living Dictionaries, https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/us/self-awareness
(6) Y. Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, HarperCollins Publishers, New York, NY, 2011.
(7) Tumlinson, “Why Am I Here?” 2211.World website.
Author’s Note: I realize that some readers may have difficulty with my anthropomorphic language in describing the universe, and I have no problem with substituting “the universe” or “cosmos” for “Cosma.” I also know that other philosophers and cosmologists have considered many of these same issues in their work, and their ideas will be acknowledged more fully in my book.
Excerpted from Frank White’s forthcoming book, The Cosma Hypothesis: Implications of the Overview Effect