The underpinnings of the New Age "us small" worldview

by phil on Saturday Feb 27, 2010 7:43 PM

Sometimes, when you get to a certain number of back-and-forths in a debate, you discover that there are core, abstract principles that determine where people plot on the big issues, like the religious-secular spectrum or the conservative-liberal spectrum. For example, I like this TED talk by Jonathan Haidt that reduces the moral roots of liberals and conservatives to one's receptiveness to new experiences (guess which one is more receptive?). Another reduction, I believe, is identifying where you place humans in the grand scheme of things.

For example, read Carl Sagan's "Pale Blue Dot" commencement address, and you'll find an "us small" worldview:

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.

In a moment of exasperation, you will often find people (usually smart people), cite our infinitesimal nature as proof why something does or doesn't matter.

But I'd like to challenge the "us small" worldview. I understand the New Age anti-hubristic appeal of believing ourselves one small thread in a larger universal fabric, but there is no reason why an "us big" worldview is false. Words like grand, large, towering, and puny are all human constructs. Nature has a concept of size, yes, but gives it no significance. A tree is just as interesting to it as a human being, and vice-versa. It's just as likely that you are God and everything is just theater for your eyes.

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