Scientific Cosmology, The Meaning of Life, and Apollo TV

Sam Sanford
July 25, 2010
SOFA Gallery, Austin, Texas

Science as a way of explaining, predicting, and controlling the physical world has been extraordinarily successful. The materialist program of science has convincingly argued that everything that happens has a direct physical cause, and the explanatory power of older religious and magical belief systems has diminished. Those older belief systems put humanity at the center of the cosmos and involved the individual in grand stories of cosmic significance that gave importance and meaning to the individual’s life. Science shows that human history is but the briefest of flickers on a tiny piece of dust adrift in an unimaginably vast ocean of emptiness - the scientific story of the cosmos offers no easy answers to human questions about the meaning of life, and no clear-cut morality. As a world, we are currently undergoing a transition from a religious and magical understanding of the world and our place in it to a new scientific one, and this transition has created a meaning gap - the old gods are dead, and we have no idea who we are, why we are here, or what we should do.

Religious fundamentalism; belief in ETs, conspiracy theories, and 2012 consciousness-shift mythologies; also the new outspoken righteous atheism of scholars like Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett - all can be seen as strategies for negotiating this transitional period and addressing the meaning gap. The Apollo moon landings are a perfect symbol of science’s incredible explanatory and predictive power as well as of its failure so far to address the human need for meaning.

This failure to create human meaning is only seeming - it is the view from the perspective of the old systems of meaning that are crumbling; to the scientifically initiated, there is a new kind of meaning emerging derived from the fundamental unity of all things and the perfect harmony and simplicity of the physical laws of nature - what Richard Dawkins has called “Einsteinian religion.” But this new meaningfulness has mostly not yet trickled down into mass consciousness, and so many people remain in the meaning gap. Perhaps the most valuable achievement of the Apollo program in this regard was the broadcast of the image of the full disk of the Earth as seen from halfway to the moon. And its greatest failure was not giving the astronauts a chance to talk about their feelings and the human aspects of their experience while they had the attention of everyone on Earth.

Marion Zimmer Bradley’s series of novels beginning with The Mists of Avalon has been one of the major inspirations for my work for the last few years. These books are a fugue on the theme that our beliefs create the world we live in, and poignantly illustrate the passing away of the pagan, druidic world as its sustaining beliefs are displaced by the Christianity of the Roman conquerors. Morality is reversed as the native gods and rites are demonized, and the desperation of those for whom this life is only a brief trial before an eternal life in Heaven or Hell drives them to deeds that are incomprehensible to those for whom this life on Earth is the center of meaning. In the books, the shifting of consensus reality is symbolized by the gradual passing out of the world of the Isle of Avalon where the priestesses of the old ways dwell. The uninitiated seeking the island will land instead on another island populated by Christian monks, which occupies the same physical space as the Isle of Avalon but in another world. Avalon is gradually receding from this world until eventually none will be able to pass from one world into another. This literary conceit illustrates the experientially real and permanent nature of major shifts in consensus interpretations of reality. We can’t go back to the prescientific understanding of the world, and we can’t really imagine what that world seemed like, what it was like to be in that world. When we look up at the night sky, we can’t help but see a vast black empty space populated by incredibly distant balls of rock or nuclear fire. When we look at the moon, we can’t help but see a grey lifeless rock. We can’t see what ancient observers lacking our scientific knowledge saw. And like it or not, the scientific explanation of the world is inevitably becoming consensus reality - and the world of divine causation is vanishing into the mist.

Science has an advantage over competing systems of thought because it actually works in an undeniable way - its propositions can be demonstrated to be true by using them to predict and control the physical world. If prayer worked, if a priest could bring down manna or lightening bolts from heaven any time on command, we would all be believers. Those who defend divine causation today can’t really deny the authority of science; they are utterly dependent on the technologies that prove the truth of scientific explanations. They don’t use prayer to call their friends; they use cell phones. The demonstrable value of scientific explanations is the reason some people feel so threatened by science - it can’t just be ignored or dismissed as absurd.

So why do people still cling to prescientific stories about the world and their place in it? Everyone wants to be a part of something bigger than himself, a story in which he plays a role, which helps him make moral decisions and gives meaning to his life. If we could choose the reality we inhabit, perhaps we would choose one in which we have meaningful personal relationships with divine beings who guide our lives and the course of human history toward some grand conclusion - it would be nice. I can’t really imagine what it is like to believe something like this, having never been a believer, but it is not hard to see how losing such a comforting reality would be quite painful. Science doesn’t offer any compensation for this loss - it reduces all events to the interaction of subatomic particles, and all life is just an arbitrary result of the random interactions of these particles over the eons. There is no plan, no end, and no human reason to anything. A believer might well prefer not to have his illusions shattered by scientific knowledge.

Belief in ETs, conspiracy theories, and 2012 mythologies can be seen as a result of the desire for grand stories to give meaning to human lives in the context of the emerging scientific worldview. Arthur C. Clarke pointed out that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” so advanced alien civilizations are one of the only possible locations of the magical in a scientific cosmos. These powerful beings would be quite similar to the old gods in their ability to control the course of human history, and in most versions of the story they are just as concerned with our behavior as the gods were. Many people make this connection explicit, positing that all the religions in history were actually created by extra-terrestrial visitors. The ancient past is another safe place to allow the imagination to run wild, as it is inaccessible to much scientific investigation, and so it is no surprise that these stories often connect alien visitors with hidden secrets of antiquity.

In conspiracy theory thought, the grand story is that of the Illuminati and their attempts throughout history to consolidate their power and enslave humanity. These stories are irresistible in their ability to connect every event and circumstance to the larger narrative and infuse the world with esoteric significance. And of course they are somewhat immune to scientific debunking since any investigator who falsifies the story can be said to be a conspirator trying to hide the truth.

The burgeoning 2012 consciousness-shift movement epitomizes the search for cosmic significance in human lives within the scientific cosmos by attempting to use scientific-sounding arguments about the movements of celestial bodies and the interpretations of ancient calendars to position the current moment in human history at the crux of a cosmic transition at the galactic level. These stories also involve the nature of the mind, one of the last refuges for magical thinking because no single materialist explanation of it has yet become widely accepted or understood. (A very good one is put forward by Daniel Dennett in Consciousness Explained.)

The recent popularity of atheist manifestoes such as Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion, Daniel Dennett’s Breaking The Spell, and Cristopher Hitchens’s God Is Not Great indicates that there is some anxiety, fear and anger on the scientific side of the meaning gap as well - fear that rationalism may never prevail without aggessive action, and a frustrated desire for the whole world to just get on with it already and face the new reality.

The Apollo missions represented a bold new incursion of the scientific understanding of the world into a previously mysterious and unknown realm. Although a great deal of scientific knowledge about space and celestial bodies had been accumulated, no one had ever been there; no experiential knowledge existed, and space was still enough of a mystery in popular consciousness for Khrushchev to expect his cosmonaut Gagarin to see God in orbit, and for the Pope to expect his followers to believe that Gagarin had indeed seen God there, according to a story told by Edgar Mitchell in his book The Way of The Explorer. True or not, this story speaks to the sense of mystery and possibility with which space was still invested before people actually went there. This was a time in which UFO sightings were quite common, and ideas of canals, pyramids, and faces on Mars had not yet been thoroughly discredited. I imagine that the millions of people watching the moon landing hoped for something grand to happen, for some mystery to be revealed to give new significance to humanity’s existence and its place in the cosmos. The American TV ratings for the Apollo broadcasts tell a story of great anticipation followed by a sense of disappointment and a rapid loss of interest. Nothing was found on the moon, nothing happened, and in fact the first televised moonwalk was incredibly boring to watch after a few minutes - the camera was stationary, the frame largely filled with the spacecraft, the picture was very low-quality, and the astronauts didn’t do anything remotely interesting. Viewers’ rapid loss of interest in Apollo TV is partly due to the raw facts - there were no aliens, no cities, no gods or spectacular revelations. But there was a grand revelation to be shared, and Apollo TV spectacularly failed to transmit it. This grand revelation is simply the human experience of being on the moon, and of seeing Earth as a small ball in the sky. Imagine if the first astronauts on the moon had taken the camera in hand and showed people on Earth a full panorama of the moon, while extemporizing about their thoughts and feelings. This would have made much more compelling TV, and could have facilitated transmission of the new cosmic perspective the astronauts gained from their experience.

This is not to say that this new perspective is not making its way into mass consciousness; it undeniably is. “Thinking globally,” considering the interests of humanity as a whole, has become widespread, and this is attributable to the human experience of leaving the Earth behind and seeing it from space. The images of the full disk of the Earth seen from the spacecraft on its way home, and of the earthrise over the moon, were Apollo’s greatest successes in transmitting the human meaning of space exploration to people on Earth. If Apollo TV had been organized on entertainment principles rather than scientific ones, if more of the human experience had been transmitted, it could have been a great opportunity for people to see that there is sustenance for the human spirit within the rationalist worldview. This missed opportunity is perhaps emblematic of the failure of the scientific enterprise to speak to the hearts of the uninitiated, and to address human emotional or spiritual needs. If rationalism hopes to do away with religious thought, it will have to find a way to speak to the masses in more human terms.

What would a scientific spirituality look like? Scientists find comfort and meaning in the success of the reductionist program - the idea that all the complexity of the universe can be explained in terms of simple interactions of tiny particles according to fixed laws. The universe is fundamentally unified, harmonious and beautiful, and the meaning of human life is to see and understand this beauty in its intricate complexity. Perhaps this fruit of scientific insight will eventually spread through the population to fill the meaning gap and the world of gods and destiny will vanish forever into the mist.