Home is where I want to be, but I guess I’m already there

Posted by on October 31, 2009 in Thoughts | 18 comments

“The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be. Our feeblest contemplations of the Cosmos stir us — there is a tingling in the spine, a catch in the voice, a faint sensation of a distant memory, as if we were falling from a great height. We know we are approaching the greatest of mysteries.” - Carl Sagan, Cosmos, 1980

Without perspective we wallow blindly through life, without empathy, understanding and the ability to apply knowledge. Perspective is not only about seeing the world from your own vantage point, it’s about seeing the world from other vantage points to give clarity to your own experience. Perspective is personal, and also universal.

Humanity is in a constant state of flux. We are truly, right now, experiencing the “information age”, and it’s an amazing and exciting time to be alive. We are more connected to each other as a whole than at any time in human history, and that is quite an achievement. I know, without trying, what people are doing all over the world right now. I know there’s been an earthquake on the other side on the world or when to expect a meteor shower over the Australian desert. I know what complete strangers are eating, seeing, doing, thinking. Anyone who’s sufficiently connected can.

It’s true that we are more ‘connected’ as a society, however it’s still very easy to feel disconnected in the current human experience. Society is more and more insular, and irrational fear seems to motivate a lot of decisions we make. Because we depend on others to tell us what is happening in the world, there is always a bias in the information we receive. It means we cannot blindly trust what we read, hear or see. To some extent this has always been true, but now there are so many information sources that it can be difficult to sort propaganda and half-truths from real information. It’s good to be cynical, but to trust nothing is to know nothing.

We also suffer from an overexposure to information. The simple fact that I can know the up-to-date casualty count in the Afghanistan conflict and at the same time read about social unrest in Africa, or see real-time a tsunami headed for Vanuatu, it’s easy to feel as though too much is going on, that the world is headed on a path to destruction. We’ve never in history had so much information. Once can get bogged down by it all and feel a sense of helplessness or hopelessness about the world’s woes. One can feel small, insignificant, unheard in the cacophony of noise coming from the human race. And we sure are a noisy bunch!

So we feel the disconnect, we feel the isolation, and can sometimes be a little lost as to what life is about. What we need to understand is our place in all this, a sense of perspective, an understanding that can give meaning to our lives, a real place in the universe.

Being Human

The human race has evolved over millions and billions of years to become what we are. Everything that is living on earth shares a common ancestry. Everything! We are human now because “they” were single-celled organisms way back then. We have evolved to be what we are because of billions of minute changes in the structures of living cells, and over billions of years. We are literally standing on the shoulders of giants, the giants being time and evolution, and every iteration of life from the beginning of all life on this planet. All plants and animals share this heritage. All of them, without one exclusion. By this, we are linked via DNA to all life. You share DNA with a snail, and I with the grass in my lawn! Look around you! See your relatives!

Where are we?

The Pale Blue Dot - Image via NASA

The Pale Blue Dot - Image via NASA

In 1990, the Voyager Space Probe returned an image from space looking back at the earth from a distance of around six billion kilometres. Six billion kilometres. This photo came to be known as The Pale Blue Dot. In it we can see the Earth as a tiny speck in a vast array of stars and other material.  And while it doesn’t look like much, the implications of this image are staggering.

A personal hero of mine Carl Sagan was so moved by this image that he wrote one of the most beautiful pieces on perspective ever written:

“Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.” - Carl Sagan, The Pale Blue Dot, 1996

This tract puts our position in the universe so succinctly, I dare not comment on it as I would only do it an injustice. You are just a speck inside a speck inside a speck.

The big question

Do I really need to ask this? Have you not already read what i’ve written up to this point? No? OK then I’ll give you my take on the answer to the oldest of questions. Why are we here?

Human history is built upon human history. We try to make sense of our universe by trying to find patterns from the world around us. The human brain is a pattern seeking machine, which excels at evaluating situations and sorting the information it receives into meaningful and useful data, that we can then refer back to help explain things further. The human brain wants to explain everything, and because of this, when an answer can’t easily be found to a given situation, we make suppositions and create stories to at least categorise information. Historically humans have used stories and tales to explain what we didn’t understand, and to pass information form one generation to the next.

Early attempts at scientific explanation seem like dreamings of the delusional given today’s accepted understanding of the physical. Placing humanity at the centre of the universe, assuming the stars and sun rotate around us, that the earth is flat, anyone who believes this today would be called insane. But these explanations formed a beginning for scientific discovery, and we have those to thank for our current understanding.

Religion is one of the ways people used to try and make sense of their place in the universe, but as time has passed, the stories no longer ring true with people and become mere fairytales. As with the mythology of the Australian aborigines, the stories of the Bible and Koran seem farcical when compared by today’s standards. And like with early science, the religious explanations of the wonders of the universe have no legs to stand on.

So, why are we here? answer in short is, we are here because we exist. The problem here is not the answer, it’s the question that’s wrong. If you want to believe that there’s a deeper meaning to life, go outside, look up and think about how vast the universe is, how small you are in the scheme of things, how inconsequential the actions of humans are to the universe at large. And then look at this Pale Blue Dot we stand on, and think. This is all we have, and we all have it.

The question should not be Why am I here? but instead While I’m here, how can I make life better for us all?

In this time, we have feasible explanations for the physical that don’t depend on untested stories or whimsical fancy. When you look at your existence in this universe, given that we share a common ancestry with all forms of plant and animal, that it has taken billions of years for us to evolve to this state, that all plants and animals share the same building blocks, that the earth, the sun and moon, the stars in the sky, the empty vastness between them and all beyond this, are built from the same raw materials, the perspective shifts from one of a personal nature to a more wholistic view of one’s place.

I hope this helps you see my perspective on things.

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18 Comments

  1. A very beautiful and humbling perspective, Martin. I loved it. I wish it were a viewpoint I was able to tap into more often instead of getting so caught up in the ultimately trivial stress and minutiae of everyday life. Maybe someday I’ll learn :)

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    • Thanks for stopping by Courtney, always nice to have you around. Yes this perspective is never easy to keep, the signal to noise ratio in society is weighted heavily to the noise side, and to know what to pay attention to and when can be a daunting task. Thanks again and glad you liked it!

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  2. Damn Marty. I consider myself a very good writer but I have to say, this post was written very eloquently. One of my favorite writers is John Steinbeck because his descriptive prose elicits such whimsy and nostalgia that you almost feel as though you are one of the characters in his novel. Theists do not realize we do not need a god to feel special in this universe. You have written a very masterful piece about why we can be atheists and still feel to have a purpose in life. I thank you. Very well done.

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    • Thanks so much for your reply. The praise is undeserved really, I just write how I talk. :) I just hope I can keep up to the standard I have set for myself!
      Thanks again, and glad you enjoyed!

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  3. Very well written and enlightening, Marty. It’s such an immense subject with so many tangents that it’s a brave soul who endevours to encapsulate it -our place in the cosmos- You handled it admirably.

    In everything there are millions more, from macro to micro, sun to electron. Everything is a part of everything else. That is the nature of interconnected existence and it’s purpose is pure being. For me, human purpose is what we make of it. There is no literal, actual ,predestined ,meaning of life. It is soley up to us – and any other intelligent life forms out there – to build a world…a universe of justice, happiness and fulfillment for each one of us. One way to begin this is to face truth and disgard archaic, primitive superstitions that emotionally bind and blind us. The past is to be observed, sometimes revered, and always learned from, not lived in the present. Again, kudos to you, mate. – Wayne

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    • Thanks Wayne for taking the time to comment! Yes this subject IS immense, and i actually had to reign back to make sure I didn’t go off topic or ramble too much. That was the real struggle! Thanks again for the kind, albeit undeserved praise.

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  4. great read! i absolutely love the blurred line between science and philosophy.

    unfortunately, and i’ve definitely been sucked in to this, western society tells us that the answer to happiness and meaning is something that is always just out of our reach and at some point in the future. i’ll be happy _when_ i have that great job. i’ll be happy _when_ i’m married to a supermodel or i have that high paying job. but the reality is that its never enough. and the happiness associated with superficial things are short lived.

    so whats the meaning of life? i’m beginning to think that the question is really, what puts meaning into life? then increasing these meaningful moments.

    calming the mind, connecting back with nature, being loved by giving as much love as you can. taking a moment to look around and realising the beauty around us.

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    • I like the way you think! Thanks for the kind comments, but they are undeserved. There really is nothing on this post that hasn’t been said by others, and more eloquently. Glad you liked it!

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  5. The opening of our minds to include the vastness of the universe, is not something we do without intent. Some nights I look at the moon. Trying to see it in three dimensions, rather than two. It is more than a picture on the wall. On those night where it is half lit, it is easier to see the shadowed side because of the reflection of light from Earth. It is at these moments of focus that the image of a globe, hanging in space becomes more real, more apparent. It is in a word, an awakening.

    To see the planet Earth as an isolated, tiny, lonely ball in space, should be enough to make us understand we are in this together. But we don’t. It is the greatest shortcoming of humanity.

    I’m not sure there are many that sense the reality that encompasses us, but certainly you do. Thanx for the thoughts

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    • Thanks @RikRay, it seems my intention has been realised! Thanks for contributing! And glad you enjoyed it!

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  6. Martin,
    Well, I think that this post is far too eloquent and timely to be left to the backwaters of the Google search spiders, and your twitter peeps. You should send this to someone who has a bigger publication stream…like a letter to the editor of the NYTimes, or their media page or something. Here’s why:
    As you note, the world is changing right now, right before our eyes…and it is happening so frictionlessly that we are not even really aware that it is happening…it is as if we have crested a hill on some planetary roller coaster, and we have begun picking up speed that we don’t even notice until we look out the window and realize that we can now see the lives and happenings of our friends and acquaintances, hour by hour, and the happenings of the entire earth, right now, whipping by at an increasing pace and detail. Soon we will be able to see, effortlessly, the happenings of anything, anywhere, second by second…and we will have to filter this information to only the things we personally care about…there will be no other way to stay sane in the torrent of information. And what will we filter? What will we allow in, and what will we keep out? i.e. What will matter?
    We need to remember what this is all about. Paradoxically, with the now infinitely available spectrum of information, it will be trivially easy for each of us to filter ourselves into small, personally designed bubbles of life that exclude lots of the bigger things. We are entering, right now, a realm of existence that was Science Fiction just 20 years ago. “Snowcrash”, “Feed”, “The Traveler” all tried to guess at where we are headed..
    I think it will only be the very big and the very small that will hold our collective attention. Things most micro and personal to our lives, and things most Macro to us. We are, as Sagan says, just lives being lived on a shared blue ship sailing through Space. We can only care about our lives, and our ship. Se are going to need to understand that, I think.
    Cheers,
    Justaguy11

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  7. Well written. I agree that people in general (myself included) tend to think about how everything will effect them. I think religion magnifies this behavior by having people constantly worry about what is going to happen to them after they die and what can they do to influence it. I think it is a nice reminder and mental break to view the world from the blue dot perspective. Even though some people constantly think about themselves and how to please God in their head, the world (and the universe) is a lot bigger than that.

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  8. That was a splendid and inspiring addition to Sagan’s wonderful idea that we are just a mote of dust in a vast universe.

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  9. Marty,
    I really loved this piece. You have an excellent way with words.

    –Jack

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  10. Wow… Beautifully written Martin, very good. To be honest, sometimes I wish I could write my opinions as well as you and a couple of other blogs I’ve read. But without doubt, this piece , which expresses how you feel, is how I feel and look at the world.

    Very nice.

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  11. Humbling and amazing!

    One of the best, if not THE BEST, blog posts I have ever read.

    Excellent, Marty.

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  12. You’ve written a stunningly good piece Martin. Superlatives all round. Thanks for putting me onto your blog.
    First rate.

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  13. Hey quite wonderful site!! I’ll bookmark your web site and undertake the feeds also…

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