The other night, on a whim, I watched Cosmos on Netflix. I remember watching it as a kid, on my parents’ Sony Trinitron, back in 1980. I figured it would be hokey, dated and laughable.
I was wrong. It’s a moving, provoking experience. Everyone on the planet ought to give it a try.
I think what’s so striking about this show is how it captured that stunned sense of wonder we experience when, on a dark night, with a quiet mind, we look to the stars. And then we’re struck: everything we are, just a spec of dust, floating in a universal expanse on an unfathomable scale of distance and time. Mostly we experience our lives in such an immediate, moment-to-moment way that when the scope of the universe hits us, we’re completely undone. It’s a kind of shock. All those galaxies, filled with all those stars, like droplets in the blur of a cloud. And that’s us on one of those drops, our entire history – protozoa to pyramids to iPhones – just a single note in an enormous symphony.
And that’s the macro cosmos. What about the micro cosmos, the uncountable cells just in our own bodies, each cell as vast, relatively, as the space between galaxies? The mind blanks at the glare. If the macro and micro cosmos are that vast, random and uncertain, where does that leave us? So there’s the best explanation for religion that I can think of – it grounds us with perspective, gives a base to organize the immensity into a safer, sensible place. It’s more pleasant to pretend that we live in a human-centered cosmos with a kindly wizard directing events in a just manner.
For an organized-religion skeptic like me, it’s hard not to see this as classic denial, an eyes-closed way to give order to the randomness. We prefer certainty; uncertainty is a scary way to go through life. But at what cost? Certainly tricking ourselves that the universe is meaningful and our souls are immortal does make getting up in the morning a lot easier. But taken to other places, denial could be one of the biggest dangers to our existence, because it keeps us from acknowledging all the real and growing threats to our fragile blue bubble. I’m thinking about congressmen from certain reddish states who claim the world is really only 9,000 years old, or that evolution is a scam, or that global warming is the biggest lie since Joseph Goebells. Mass denial always looks flimsy when it happened “back then” – witch trials, the Inquisition, flat-earthers – but the denial we live with today is a lot more potent: Nuclear warheads on hair-trigger alert, rising seas, melting ice caps.
I get where denial comes from. Most of human history – as brief as it has been – has existed under a kind of warfare; war with each other and war with the environment, a daily exercise in survival against what was “out there” which might and often did kill you. Until yesterday, just about, we’ve been living through unrelenting battle fatigue. Add to that, we’re probably the only species on earth to have an awareness of our own mortality. We are sentient, we are finite, and we know it. What an unlucky draw of the evolutionary cards. Denial seems like a welcomed biological pain killer.
The problem is that it’s outlived its usefulness – most of us in the industrialized world don’t have to worry about our day-to-day physical survival. I’m not talking about denial in the Freudian, emotionally protective way. I mean a kind of macro, social denial that’s keeping us from tackling big problems, because it’s easier to pretend they don’t exist. But when you see that little pebble of ours floating in so much immensity, you can’t help but feel alarmed. I think this is what astronauts talk about when they come back from space, and why many have become passionate environmentalists.
Joseph Conrad got it right in the Heart of Darkness; mix power with denial and all kinds of horrors follow. What started out as a beneficial defense mechanism now threatens our willingness to address serious, man-made challenges. We are capable of creating the circumstance that can lead to our own annihilation. We know better, but we do it anyway. Has any other species in earth’s history acted in such a dysfunctional manner, wherein their own actions led to self-annihilation? I’m sure there have been times where a species’ natural behavior caused a change in their environment leading to extinction. This is certainly the cause for many extinctions, give or take a meteor or two.
The difference, until now, was that such situations were localized; never before has a species been able to negatively impact the biosphere on a global level. And it’s a remarkable bit of chance that we’re here at all. Maybe, as Carl Sagan says, there are billions of bubbles of life like our earth; maybe life is as ubiquitous as the planets around the stars. Who’s to say. I only know about this one, and it’s a jewel.
We have great tools at our disposal to positively impact many of our modern dangers – human tools built through uniquely human capabilities of ingenuity, creativity, curiosity, organization, empathy, adaptability, and reason. We know how to fix our problems. We’re fixing some now.
So I’m hopeful – although it remains to be seen – that we can collectively look at reality straight on and not blink. Although I don’t know for sure, I imagine that this was one of the goals for Cosmos, a way to show the astonishing odds that we’re here at all, and the urgency needed to protect our home. Otherwise we are destined to be just another failed experiment, a dead-end branch of DNA that flourished beautifully but briefly in the immeasurable void.