Touching The Limits Of Knowledge

Cosmology and our View of the World


Our Presence Matters Lead: Natali Magnatta & Evan Jordan


Summary by Chris Ives

Our Presence Matters
How We Are Connected to Our Surroundings

It seemed only appropriate to finish off a semester filled with questions about the many facets of the universe, the human mind, reality, and philosophy with a discussion of how our presence matters. What is our place in this vast and mysterious universe? Are we the center of our universe? Do we affect the rest of the universe? These questions and many more arose throughout the discourse, which helped the class to organize the contents of the semester into a meaningful discussion of ‘what do we do now?’

Natali and Evan started off by talking about the ways in which humanity used to be connected to the earth. Although it seems hard to think about in today’s society, there were times when people lived off the land, and were truly connected to the earth as a means for their livelihood. Today there are still some cultures, which retain these close bonds; however, they tend to be few and far between. Today, not being able to get your food at a grocery store or drive to a mall for new clothes seems strange, but over a relatively short period of time, humanity has made remarkable developments to provide convenience over direct connectivity.

Natali and Evan then presented a powerpoint slide giving examples of such developments. Science jumps to mind with basic early developments such as, the wheel, buildings, agriculture, and energy extraction. Without these basic advances in techno-science we would not be able to live the way we do. Language must also be accounted for, as it has developed throughout human existence as a means to communicate and comprehend that that is around us. Language is more than merely spoken words; it is a complex network of symbols, sound, and structure. Also, a sometimes forgotten development is that of philosophy. Thought has developed greatly over time as well. Both religious and non-religious thinking has played a huge role in the way we understand our world as well as an influence on the way we further our understanding by asking questions. While these many developments have created a world that is more conducive to human life, they have also produced problems.

Environmental degradation, extinction of species, climate destabilization, lack of sustainability, wars, and false philosophies are just a few of the problems that have risen out of otherwise seemingly remarkable achievements of humanity. Natali and Evan presented a graph of the increase in population over the last thousand years (found on a number of webpages in various different forms; see Fig. 2 in this link), as a way to show how development has been prosperous for human growth, yet is simultaneously the cause for our problems.

With this information it is clear that our world is not perfect and that we need a change, but before we can deal with the solution, we must determine where our problem lies. Natali and Evan suggested that we have become less aware of our connection with each other, with the Earth and with the universe as a whole. It is also a matter of responsibility. We feel no responsibility for our actions because we don’t understand how presence matters anymore. At this point Davida pointed out that our connection with technology has grown stronger, however, she noted that those connections could be viewed as both good and bad. Natali responded by asking about the quality of these connections.

Is it bad that kids sit in front of the computer and TV for hours a day? Another comment was made that although the world is supposedly safer, we are getting more afraid. Davida responded to this by saying that the risk seems higher; we are expected to protect what we have; we have put more value on things than in the past. These comments were very relevant showing how and why people are losing connections with nature and the environment in favor of technology that can keep them safe in their homes. Marcy then made a comment that she believed that this phenomenon of detachment is more common to the United States because the people here tend to view everything outside us as resources for us.

Joe C. commented that ancient people were at the will of the environment they lived in, whereas today we are able to adapt and now we can control our living environment, so that things are more beneficial for us. Professor Möbius then noted that with this control we have we also destroy things. It seemed to him that this is very obvious in current issues of Global Warming. It almost seems like a ‘big experiment,’ and although we have made such advances in technology, we have not caught up to it in our understanding of it and its effects. Mike followed up by adding that we have surpassed our needs and now technology’s main focus is comfort. The discussion then moved to matters of where to live if Global Warming destroys the earth. People of the class wonder: What is better? Should we choose preservation of humanity or compassion for all living things? Again we wonder how we are connected to the things around us and how we affect everything as we live our consumerist lifestyles.

The discussion continued with Willie commenting about the idea of an ‘eco-footprint’ where you can see how many Earths it would take if everyone on Earth was to live like you. The possibility of knowing your eco-footprint allows you to understand your connection to the earth and its inhabitants from a great new perspective. Natali commented that the reason eco-footprints are so high is because of our standard of living. We must change our way we live if we are to change our connection with the world to a more positive one for everyone and everything. Evan suggested that we ought to spread more knowledge about how to do so and why it is necessary.
Willie responded with a ‘devil’s advocate’ approach and asked who would change? People are comfortable in the way we live and won’t want to give up their cell phones and SUVs. Someone then added that it is a consumer driven marketplace, and if the consumer makes certain choices, we can really shape our world. This comment led to a new side topic, questioning if Wal-Mart is beneficial or detrimental to staying connected.

Chris commented that Wal-Mart hurts our connection to the world because it hurts small businesses and is unethical in its choice of suppliers and the way it treats its employees. Professor deVries commented that it is about individual rationality versus collective rationality. Wal-Mart is cheaper and so people will shop there, it is more convenient. Professor Möbius then commented that Wal-Mart and big malls are far away from small towns and so people have to drive long distances to them instead of shopping at local more expensive business. This comment shifted the discussion back to connectivity with the earth overall.

Natali asked; why don’t we connect with the earth and ride more bikes or walk, instead of being closed up in cars and listening to iPods all day? Professor deVries added that few cities are walk-able and so it is impractical to walk or ride bikes wherever you go.
At this point Natali and Evan introduced a slide about what needs to change. We must gain control of human impacts on the earth and develop a sustainable relationship with our planet. We need to integrate a new cosmic reality into our thinking about our world (Earth as a planet is integrated into the cosmos, but our thinking is not). Also we need to understand that the thought that humans are of no importance to the universe is only reinforcing our collective irresponsibility. However, the problem is most people don’t know how to think any other way.

Now that we know what needs to change, Natali and Evan proposed that we need to change it by implementing a change in philosophy as well as a change in perception. As for a change in philosophy, they felt we needed a more meaningful view of ourselves; we needed a philosophy where we are the center of our universe. It is not that we are of central importance to ourselves, but rather we are at the center of the principles that uphold the universe (272, View from the Center). Claiming centrality does not imply that the universe was created for our eventual arrival or that it evolved with us in mind (275, View from the Center). Humans experience our own consciousness as the center of our reality. This tantalizes us with the prospect of finding meaning and purpose deep enough to inspire us and transform our culture (279, View from the Center). Marcy commented that our consciousness works against us. We have conquered nature as part of our development in both mental and physical realms and as a result we are less connected.

Joe C commented that religions have traditionally viewed themselves as the center of their universe. Professor Davis followed by asking if ‘we’ are significant. Professor deVries asked professor Davis; significant to whom? Professor Davis answered by admitting that that was his point; if we are the only beings, then we create significance, and thus we decide what is significant and what isn’t. Until we find life elsewhere, we are of central significance.

As for a change in perception, Natali and Evan present a slide about finding new ways to comprehend existence. They find that we think and understand through the use of language. Metaphorical connections are how the human brain understands abstract concepts. Much of what we consider to be reality can only be perceived through them. The expansiveness of our metaphors determines the expansiveness of our reality. We need our metaphors to take on a new scale. Cosmic metaphors as opposed to standard metaphors will cause a mental reframing of reality itself. As an example of cosmic metaphors, Natali and Evan explain the Gravity and Wealth example.

In astronomy, the matter-rich regions acquire more matter and get denser whereas the matter-poor regions decrease in matter density. Gravity generally concentrates matter just enough, yet not in excess so that everything falls into black holes. Similarly, if everything were completely evenly distributed, there would be little progress. This idea can be translated to humanity as “the rich get richer and the poor poorer,” or the Scrooge metaphor. Gravity has helped form important regions in our universe. Angular momentum (motion) is the counter balance to gravity. There are two types of motion, circular (the predictable) and random. To public education circular motion can be seen as analogous to giving scholarships to the worthy. It is the responsibility of a society with higher values than money to cultivate and uphold these economic forces that can counterbalance this natural tendency toward over concentration of wealth. For example, the US economic state statistics show that we have the highest income average but greatest income inequality. In the year 2000, four hundred taxpayers held 1% of the income while one fifth of the populations in rich nations use 86% of the resources, where as 1/5 of the poorest use 1.3%.

On the matters of scale, Natali and Evan now presented a slide on such. They showed us that things are of particular size, and the size of each thing in the universe determines how it works. People can only comprehend about 150 personal relationships, in our neocortex. However, nowadays we live in large civilizations, yet many people still think about global politics or economics with rules and understandings that are more appropriate to smaller-sized economies. A whole is not just the compilation of individuals; it has its own dynamic. It is easy to understand that groups of people do not behave like individuals, and larger groups like countries behave differently from smaller groups like clubs. This can be easily understood since people collectively, as large groups, are almost never kind or generous because the whole doesn’t have the same needs as individuals.

With all this information in mind, and with all that we learned throughout the semester, what is the solution to our problems? How might we live in a way that allows us to grow and still live sustainably with our neighbors, with our Earth, and with our universe? How can we come to understand a scale that is far larger than we are used to? The way to deal with global problems is not to impose global solutions, but to cultivate the common ground of a large-scale goal and encourage small-scale, decentralized solutions, appropriate to different situations, created by different kinds of people inspired by that goal (265 View from the Center). The problem of applying a way of thinking appropriate to a certain scale to another sized scale is that it is impossible to apply. Some people confuse the idea and “think locally, but act globally” by starting rivalries, and imposing narrow religion, etc. Instead we must think of the biggest picture; think globally and yet act locally. We must realize that at this point in the history of the universe, we have tremendous power to shape our future and everyone else’s.

We need to stop fearing the coming changes as material sacrifices; and view them as opportunities not to acquire more, but to become more. Human life can continue to be enhanced after this current period of inflationary growth and development as long as we can find a rate of growth slow enough so that our creativity and technology stays in check with the effects of our resource use. We have the power to control our world; all we need to do is remember and understand how it is that we are all connected.

Think cosmically, act globally.