EXTRAORDINARY COSMIC VIRTUE – THE  SCIENTIST SAINT

“I feel it is important to draw attention to the fact that the work which Jane Goodall has done…has been so important as to necessitate a complete review of scientific thought about how to define man himself.” – L.S.B. Leakey1.

 

 

 

 

In our exploration of the dimensions of cosmic virtue we next happen upon one of the greatest and most inspirational stories of modern science, the life and work of Jane Goodall. This remarkable woman developed a deep love for animals in her childhood, but due to financial and perhaps gender restraints in the middle part of the 20th century went to secretarial school rather than college. She worked first for Oxford University and then a documentary company before waiting tables one summer to save money for a trip to Kenya. There she boldly contacted the famous paleoanthropologist, Louis Leakey, who saw the potential in this novice scientist, offered her temporary employment, and assisted her in raising funds to study living primates first hand, a most unusual course for a woman of the 1960s.

Her signature work on chimpanzees done at the Gombe Stream Game Reserve in modern Tanzania was unprecedented. Living in the wild at incredible personal sacrifice and with painstaking patience, she was eventually accepted by a troop of chimpanzees where she learned previously unknown secrets about their behavior, especially their making of tools, a characteristic previously thought to define the human species. Over the next decade she wrote over a dozen books on chimps and other wild species while earning a PhD in Ethology at Cambridge University. Her funder, National Geographic, sought to focus on a somewhat different narrative – Jane herself – in their words: “a modern scientific zoologist” and “a charming young Englishwoman.”2 p 47

She found the focus on herself as the main story distasteful but accepted it as the necessary price to save the chimpanzees. In her words, “Surely it is up to us to do something to ensure that least some of these fantastic, almost human creatures continue to live undisturbed in their natural habitat.”3 51 We hear her transformation; simple scientific curiosity and love of animals becomes personal mission. For the rest of her long career, Jane used her fame and accomplishments to mentor the next generation of scientists and to promote conservation in the developing world especially in regard to chimps. In her, cosmic virtue and individual purpose merge into a meaningful life.

Next time we will review the last 39 blogs comprising the subject of cosmic virtue and its place in the meaningful life for all of us.

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1National Geographic, October 2017, ISSN 0027-9358, pages 30-51.

2Ibid., page 47.

3Ibid., page 51.

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EXTRAORDINARY COSMIC VIRTUE – THE HERO SCIENTIST (continued)

Following Galileo’s failure to persuade the Pope on the Copernican system, he promised submission to the Church, but persisted in his publication of the facts of his scientific observations on the heavens. With the publication of Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems in 1629 with its blatant contempt for theological arguments against his interpretations of the evidence, he became a victim of the Inquisition in 1633 and his books were banned from Catholic countries. While he eventually abjured in his beliefs out of fear for his life, he was confined to house arrest for the remainder of his life, during which time he restricted his research to the safer field of physics rather than astronomy until blindness, deafness, and eventually death intervened.

Galileo was called the ‘monarch of the universe’ by his friend Giovan Francesco Sagredo,3   and ‘the greatest mind of all time’ by Hugo Grotius.4 He seemed to express his significance and insignificance in the poignant words of his incarcerated frailty, “This universe that I have extended a thousand times…has shrunk to the narrow confines of my own body, Thus God likes it; so I too must like it.”5 His works continued to be published and discussed in Northern Europe but the treatment of Galileo meant science and philosophy were displaced to Protestant lands. Nonetheless, in the end, the Church withdrew his works from its Index of Prohibited Books in 1835 and virtually adopted his explanation of the need for Biblical simplification of the motions of heavenly bodies for its original primitive audience in the  papal encyclical Humani Generis in 1950.5 As the Durants tell us “The broken and defeated man had triumphed over the most powerful institution in history.”6

The significance of Galileo’s heroism cannot be overstated. He was a first-rate scientist who single-handedly initiated telescopic study of the cosmos, proved the Copernican model to be correct, and made contributions to physics in many areas, some of which displaced the entrenched 2000 year old Aristotelian understanding of reality and anticipated Newton’s laws of inertia and motion. In a larger sense he devised the scientific method of reliance on reproducible observations and experiments premised on the consistency of the natural world. He was one of the first to write in his native language (rather than Latin) in order to bring science to the layman. He risked and lost everything including his own liberty not only for scientific truth, but for freedom of speech. It would be 150 years before the United States would become first nation to adopt that freedom as an inviolable right.

In short, Galileo was nothing less than the heir of Socrates and one of the fathers of modern thought. He remains a model of cosmic virtue writ large for all time.

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1Drake, Stillman (translator), Galileo: Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems. University of California Press, Berkeley, 1967. Page xvii (foreword).

2Durant, Will and Ariel, The Age of Reason Begins. Simon & Schuster, New York, 1961. Page 607.

3Drake, Stillman, Discoveries and Opinions of Galileo. Douleday & Co., Inc., Garden City, NY, 1957. Page 67.

4 Durant, Will and Ariel, The Age of Reason Begins. Simon & Schuster, New York, 1961. Page 612.

5Drake, Stillman (translator), Galileo: Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems. University of California Press, Berkeley, 1967. Page xxiv.

6 Durant, Will and Ariel, The Age of Reason Begins. Simon & Schuster, New York, 1961. Page 612.

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EXTRAORDINARY COSMIC VIRTUE – THE HERO SCIENTIST

“The leitmotif which I recognize in Galileo’s work is the passionate fight against any kind of dogma based on authority. Only experience and careful reflection are accepted by him as criteria of truth.” – Albert Einstein1.

Returning now to cosmic virtue in its extraordinary form, we come upon the great hero scientist, Galileo Galilei (1564-1642). He grew up in Renaissance Italy which was still shaking off the intellectual inertia of the Middle Ages and still subjugated to Roman Catholic dogma itself inexplicably shackled to ancient Greek knowledge (especially Aristotle and Ptomely). Intended for medicine by his father, he switched to mathematics while at the University of Pisa writing his first essay on hydrostatic balance at age 22 and being made professor of mathematics there at age 25. At about this time he showed his contempt of unquestioned authority, challenging the teaching of Aristotle that the speed of falling objects varies according to their mass, by reportedly dropping two balls of different weights off the leaning tower of Pisa.

He moved to the university at Padua (Venice) in 1589 where he invented to a type of thermometer, the first astronomical telescope, and a geometric compass. With his telescope he documented the four large moons of Jupiter, the “ears” of Saturn, the roughness of the surface of the moon, sunspots, and the phases of Venus – thus challenging the Earth-centered cosmos and the unchanging perfection of the celestial realm. He visited Rome in 1615 where he was received favorably, but his attempts to persuade the Church to accept the ‘Copernican’ sun-centered solar system were rebuffed. He may have been warned then that asserting that the sun is unmovable would be considered heresy. But he refused to yield, then taking the critical step in all scientific discovery – declaring an observationally or experimentally confirmed theory is no longer an hypothesis, but a scientific truth.

In in a letter to the Grand Duchess of Tuscany published in 1615 his virtuous attitude regarding cosmic reality is fully revealed, “Nature is inexorable and immutable; she never transgresses the laws imposed upon her, or cares a whit whether her abstruse reasons and methods of operation are understandable to men. For that reason it appears that nothing physical which sense-experience sets before our eyes, or which necessary demonstrations prove to us, ought to be called into question (much less condemned) upon the testimony of Biblical passages which may have some different meaning beneath their words.”2

(continued next post)

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CURRENT READING – 1984 (continued)

Last time I introduced the novel 1984 by George Orwell (pen name of Eric Blair) and mused about his innovative words and concepts and made a few allusions to some contemporary analogies. Today I would like to dive deeper into some personal philosophical themes that arose.

The first is privacy and its linkage to freedom. Perhaps being a child of the twentieth century, I see privacy as a personal good (under Security).1 The ancient Greek philosophers saw the quest for fame as futile and ultimately meaningless; the corollary then is that a degree of anonymity is valuable, particularly in larger societies where public recognition may impede freedom in action. The Orwellian vision of zero privacy and the control it entails is a patent evil. It seems to me that similarly social media such as Facebook impose some loss of freedom in exchange for dubious meaning of fabricated celebrity.

The second is truth – seemingly as subjective as beauty when controlled by the Party in 1984, but Orwell in fact poses the question for all of us. Is truth found in documents, newsprint, and on-line media, or in personal experience and memory? We have discussed how cultural reality is the most elusive of all levels of reality2, and I believe Orwell is warning us to verify societal truths with multiple sources of information, one’s memory, and careful reflection. In Winston’s words, “Perhaps a lunatic was simply a minority of one,”3 “Sanity is not statistical,”4 and “The heresy of heresies was common sense.”5 The lesson is clear: independent thinking may be frowned upon, but we have a duty to ourselves to persist in it.

The third theme is suffering. Power for Orwell is the ability to make another person suffer. In the police state, even the higher-ups suffer for the collective power of the Party. Symbolically we must accept that suffering is the price of human existence, one of the fundamental principles of the universe. How we handle our particular suffering is the crux of the issue as so many great thinkers (e.g. Buddha, Jesus, Nietzsche, and Viktor Frankl) have taught us. Transcendence of suffering deprives circumstances of their power over us.

The last theme concerns the correct conduct of life. Within the framework of the police state, Winton’s girlfriend, Julia, creates a space for the life she wants. “Life as she saw it was quite simple. You wanted a good time; ‘they,’ meaning the Party, wanted to stop you having it; you broke the rules as best your could.”6 There can be not doubt – we must each choose our own life, whatever the obstacles; and happiness is ever a goal worth seeking. I would add meaning is also worth seeking whatever the hurdles.

In short, the four most important personal philosophical themes that arose in my mind on contemplating 1984 were privacy’s vital role in personal freedom, the nature of truth (especially societal reality), the meaning of suffering, and the conduct proper to an authentic life. I welcome readers to offer others or a critique of mine.

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2See on this site Cultural Reality on November 21 and 23, 2018 and Current Reading: Fake News on December 14, 2018.

3Orwell, George, 1984. New American Library, New York, 1977. Page 80.

4Ibid., page 217.

5Ibid., page 80.

6Ibid., page 131.

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CURRENT READING – 1984

“Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.” – George Orwell, 1984, Book One, Chapter III.

 

 

 

 

 

Before returning to virtue and the meaningful life, I thought I would write about my latest book finished, George Orwell’s 1984. I missed this book in high school when I was assigned Neville Shute’s excellent On The Beach while other students read 1984, Alas Babylon, or Brave New World. I finally picked up the Signet Classics version with an afterword by Erich Fromm at a local book fair last September. The final impetus to read the book was seeing the last program of Simon Schama’s A History of Britain called The Two Winstons. In that program he weaves the fabric of postmodern Britain by comparing and contrasting Winston Churchill with Eric Blair (pen name George Orwell) whose main character in 1984 is named Winston Smith.

Blair was born in British India in 1903, but schooled at Eton in England. He had mostly unpleasant experience as a policeman in British Burma and as a Loyalist in the Spanish Civil War. He was a socialist, but detested communism and especially Totalitarianism. He also detested dishonesty and cruelty, particularly by government, even when done for presumably good ends. He wrote eight novels although only one other, Animal Farm, is well known, He also wrote his autobiography and several political essays before dying of tuberculosis at the age of forty-six.

The novel can be summarized as one man’s journey and failure to remain free and sane in a future dystopian police state. The book is full of wonderful  made-up terms with poignant meanings, such as Newspeak, doublethink, thoughtcrime, unperson, and blackwhite. Blair invents the speakwrite (voice-recognition dictation), the memory hole (where accurate historical documents are incinerated) and the ubiquitous, dreaded, two way telescreens. Winston lives in a world of Victory Mansions (dilapidated old buildings) and Victory Gin (a horrible-tasting alcoholic beverage). Society is partitioned into 2% Inner Party, about 13% Outer Party (those most to be thought controlled), and 85% Proles (poor, uneducated, and insignificant workers). Party members participate in daily Two Minutes Hate and annual Hate Week. 

Everywhere are oversized pictures of the Stalin-like Big Brother who “is watching you.”  The government consists of four paradoxically-named branches: the Ministry of Truth (which disperses misinformation), the Ministry of Love (which brutally maintains order), the Ministry of Peace (which maintains perpetual war to keep the citizenry poor and distracted), and the Ministry of Plenty (which assures unending poverty and scarcity). Three oxymoronic slogans describe the Party’s philosophy; (1) War is Peace, (2) Freedom is Slavery, and (3) Ignorance is Strength.

Frequent readers of this site will know that in general I avoid social commentary and political philosophy, but one would be hard pressed to read 1984 and not notice some haunting analogies between Orwell’s dystopian world and our own. Instead of the Party we have the tyrannical majority (or is it the loud minority?). Instead of the ‘rectification’ of history, we have the press’s control of its chosen and changing narrative, public ostracism for contrary viewpoints, and disinformation in the form of internet ‘fake news’ and major party propaganda. Instead of telescreens we have pervasive social media, cell phone tracking, and cameras on every corner. I leave the reader to further critique our reality as seen through the lens of 1984.

(continued next post)

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CURRENT EXPERIENCE – HELPING THE HOMELESS (continued)

Last time I recounted my experience of traveling with a faith-based group to provide mostly nonfood necessities to homeless people in my home town. Today I would like to consider some philosophical issues which arose from my outing.

First is the impetus for the mission of my hosts – the words of Jesus to his apostles as how to show their love for him – “Feed my sheep.”  In their mission we see the actualization of the great teaching of Jesus and enduring legacy of Christianity, virtually unrecorded prior to his teachings  – the principle of charity – the selfless helping of strangers in need. It does not appear prominently in ancient India, with Buddha or Confucius, in Taoism, in ancient Egypt, Babylon, or Persia, in the Old Testament, nor even in Greek and Roman philosophy. Whatever the future of Christianity, this legacy is enshrined forever in civilization and elevates Jesus to the pinnacle of human thought and achievement.

Second, as much as I respect the concept of charity, my pragmatic side has misgivings regarding the specific service of bringing necessities to people living on the streets. Are we enabling such individuals to subsist in hopelessness and ennui? Shouldn’t our goal be to extricate the unfortunate from their lot and aid them in moving on with meaningful lives? My friend correctly points out we have no right to prod others on a course we approve, arguing the ethical course is to help them survive each day until they awaken to the choice of a different and better future. Still I can’t help feeling badly that I left someone’s beautiful, young daughter living on the streets the day after she was dropped off by an inconsiderate man. If I could go back I would try harder to extricate her from her circumstances, perhaps by connecting her to a drug treatment center if necessary.

Third is the larger question of homelessness itself – why in a wealthy society do some find themselves living in such pitiful circumstances? If the answer is mental illness and drug addition, the question then is whether it is ethical for a civilized people to allow others to sleep outside on the bare ground under tarps in the cold while looking the other way. I think the answer is no, thus societal duty must extend to the provision of food, clothing, safe shelter, and social services to the unfortunate. While I believe one logic tenet underpinning ethics is that no obligation exists where no solution exists, it is unclear the problems of the homeless are insoluble.

The last philosophical theme is whether some homeless persons are in fact modern Cynics. In an earlier blog I discussed the ancient Greek Cynics under the subject of suffering/asceticism. 1 The cynics renounced worldly desires believing in a simple life of just enough food, clothing, and possessions to survive. Since the gods want nothing; men most like the gods will want next to nothing. Virtue for them was self-sufficiency, freedom, detachment, and moral toughness and endurance. Poverty becomes the paradoxical avenue to peace and contentment. Happiness is found by strength of mind to want nothing and to lack nothing. For them philanthropy is serving as models of virtue for others and spiritual hope to the poor and oppressed. When I asked my hosts about our homeless, they guessed that not more than 10-15% choose homelessness as a simplified way of life, and most of these decline offers of help.

I conclude the practical philosopher  should be a person of action in the cause of the homeless in whatever way possible while devoting attention to the ethical dimensions in the quietude of contemplation.

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1See Suffering – Asceticism – Part IV – The Cynics on this site – April 24, 2020.

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CURRENT EXPERIENCE – HELPING THE HOMELESS

“But now how is it possible for a suffering which is not mine and does not touch me to become just as directly a motive as only my own normally does, and to move me to action?… although it is given to me merely as something external…I nevertheless feel it with him, feel it as my own…” – Arthur Schopenhauer, On the Basis of Morality.

I thought I would take a break on the long path of virtue and the meaningful life to stop and describe my reflections on a recent outing to help the homeless. Last week I joined a small group of faith-based philanthropists on their weekly Saturday morning ‘mission.’ We were 4 people (three men and one woman roughly ages 40 to 67) in three vehicles, visiting three aggregates of homeless individuals (‘tent cities’).

In my friend’s pickup truck were the precious, mostly nonfood supplies – he tells me there are many sources of food for these unfortunate people, but for little else. The supplies we provided included small propane tanks (about 6 hours heat, but also good for cooking and heating up coffee), bottled water, protein drinks, canned tuna, gloves, socks, toilet paper, wet wipes, soap, hygiene kits, batteries, and feminine products. We also had a limited supply of pillows, tents, blankets, shoes, and stoves several of which he brought at the request of specific individuals the week before. There were also hot meatless burritos he had made that morning starting at 5:30 AM, which were very much appreciated by our patrons. Perhaps 40-50 persons total accepted our wares – I would guess ages 20-70 with an average of about age 40 and about 70% male. Persons of color were surprisingly few – apparently they choose local shelters over the streets.

Before we left on our mission, there was a very brief sermon by a clergyman done remotely by speaker phone. His emphasis was not only on helping the unfortunate, but also on the reason – the command of Jesus to the apostles to “Feed my sheep!” He reminded us this is not mere community service as for example one does in a fraternity or social club, but fulfilling the wishes of the divine. Other than this there were no religious linkages. None of the party proselytized or even mentioned Jesus, God, or the bible on our rounds, nor were there any prayers. The supplies were given completely unconditionally – it was truly touching!

Also noteworthy was the unexpected discipline of the patrons who lined up in front of the table of goods and waited their turn, asked permission to take things they needed, and offered genuine gratitude. I am told that these camps have their own ethics; for instance, he who steals from another may find his tent and possessions burned to the ground. We saw at least one instance of a couple taking in a newly homeless young woman. And I must confess I was surprised that I never felt the least bit in danger. We learn that civilization survives even extreme poverty and homelessness.

I will take up a few philosophical matters related to my experience in the next blog. Join me then.

(continued next post)

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EXTRAORDINARY COSMIC VIRTUE – THE COSMIC SAGE (continued)

Dao is not only the universe of human concerns – particular entities we move into the foreground (positive space) – but also the background cosmos (negative space). Laozi expresses the mystery of the relationship of the emergent positive and the primordial negative. One is reminded of matter and antimatter or perhaps physical entities versus space, even dark matter and dark energy. Laozi sees beyond the veil of prescientific conceptions of the cosmos into the very structure of the universe. But he also sees the existentialist reality; dao is wu or non-being. “All things in the world come from being. And being comes from non-being.” (40)  And “Heaven and Earth are heartless, treating creatures like straw dogs.”

Each universal opposite is dependent on the other. Our assigning value of only one is arbitrary and distances us from the truth of reality. By attending to the background we are freed to “recover a spontaneous engagement with the entire matrix” thus recognizing ourselves as participants in the “vast array of processes” and our achievements as “consequences of the confluence of a vast causal network of which we are just one part.

The second half of the Daodejing is concerned with de, which is usually translated virtue but alternatively as integrity, purity, excellence, or innate human strength. We are told that following dao brings us freedom, serenity, and longevity. Laozi emphasizes the potency of inaction and non-intervention, and the power of wu-wei meaning effortlessness action and virtuosity. Wu-wei then is a paradoxical characteristic – a paring down of oneself to the level of nature rather than a building up of one’s skills. By living in unity with Nature, maintaining humility, shunning ambition, embracing material simplicity, we come to the tranquility of the sage.

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page 7 The Way of Lao Tzu)

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EXTRAORDINARY COSMIC VIRTUE – THE COSMIC SAGE

“Of all things that are, the most ancient is God, for he is uncreated.

The most beautiful is the universe, for it is God’s workmanship.

The greatest is space, for it holds all things.

The swiftest is mind, for it speeds everywhere.

The strongest is necessity, for it masters all.

The wisest, time, for it brings everything to light.” – Attributed to Thales by Diogenes Laertius.

In earlier sections we have considered extremes of virtue at different levels of reality, for example, the saint and the hero as extraordinary examples of virtue towards others and the great leader with his or her staunch moral compass as the paradigm of societal virtue. We also analyzed the role of the sage and I proposed as the standard, perhaps the most influential man in history, Confucius.

A second Chinese sage, Laozi (previously Lao Tze or Lao Tzu), represents for me the archetypical cosmic sage. His teachings embodied a protest against the times he lived in; particularly the poverty and starvation resulting from the poor decisions of contemporary rulers whose greed, wars, desire for power and wealth and glory brought destruction to society. Whereas Confucianism in general faults to the goodness in man and a humanistic view, Laozi emphasizes the harmony of nature and a cosmic perspective. Life for Laozi is best when it is simple and unregulated allowing things to perfect themselves naturally.

To summarize Laozi’s Daodejing (previously known as the Tao Te Ching) is arguably a disservice to the reader given on-line versions of this brief work are readily available, and it defies even a skilled writer’s effort to match the beauty of the original words (my skill being limited in any case). Nonetheless some comments are essential to understand the profound wisdom of Laozi for those who may forgo it. For those who have the time to read the text, I urge you to skip the rest of this blog and the one that follows and proceed immediately to it.

Daodeching literally means the book of dao and de – reasonably but arguably translated as ‘the way’ and ‘virtue’ respectively. But Laozi is very subtle, warning us that any definition of dao is suspect, even specious. To some experts it refers to reality, to others being, and to still others the universal order. Clearly, at a minimum, he uses the word to refer to the way of nature and the universe ruled by a self-enforcing law of uniformity and manifested in a binary realm of opposites. His approach is mystic and best understood through paradoxes. The  Nameless is the origin of Heaven and Earth; The Named is the Mother of All Things.”1

(continued next post)

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1Yutang, Lin, The Wisdom of Laotse. The Modern Library, New York, 1976. Page 41.

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COSMIC VIRTUE – PART XIV – THE COSMIC PERSPECTIVE (continued)

Last time I talked about the cosmic perspective as espoused by the Stoics and Confucius. Today we fast forward to contemporary cosmology.  Neil deGrasse Tyson starts his book, Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, with a chapter he titles The Greatest Story Ever Told in which he recounts the history of the 13.9 billion years of the universe in 17 pages (about 1500 words). We are incredibly fortunate to have such advanced knowledge of the cosmos to incorporate into an understanding of our own existence as we seek a meaningful life. The chapter ends: “What we do know, and what we can assert without further hesitation, is that the universe had a beginning. The universe continues to evolve. And yes, every one of our body’s atoms is traceable to the big bang and to the thermonuclear furnaces within high-mass stars that exploded five billion years ago. We are stardust brought to life, then empowered by the universe to figure itself out – and we have only just begun.”4 This seems to me to be a highly philosophical, even poetic, assessment of cosmic reality.

His concept of the cosmic perspective is the subject of the last chapter of the book.5 It starts with a quote by James Ferguson, an 18th century astronomer, “Of all the sciences cultivated by man, Astronomy is acknowledged to be, and undoubtedly is, the most sublime, the most interesting, and the most useful. For by knowledge derived from this science, not only the bulk of this Earth is discovered…but our very faculties are enlarged with the grandeur of the ideas it conveys, our minds exalted above [their] low contracted principles.”6 Tyson sees the cosmic view as mind altering and life changing. Seeing the Earth from space undermines the provincial sense most of us have that the world revolves around ourselves. If all people had an expanded view of our place in the cosmos, instead of destroying each other we would celebrate our differences and solve the problems of the world. We would recognize that we participate in “a great cosmic chain of being with a direct genetic link across species both living and extinct”7 and thus transforming our view of other living creatures.

The cosmic perspective instills a wisdom in us that identifies our place in the universe. The result is humility, spiritual redemption, increased creativity, appreciation of others, gratitude towards Earth, acknowledgement of the beauty of the cosmos and its governing laws, kinship with everything within the universe, and self-transcendence. He closes by recommending what I suspect is the greatest cosmic virtue of all – the regular and frequent contemplation of cosmic truths.

Cosmology and the cosmic perspective are for me the summit of human virtue, a return to the Hindu mystics’ extraordinary discovery, Atman is Brahman, meaning the inner self and the cosmos are one. Human excellence I believe will always lead to this final truth.

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4Tyson, Neil deGrass, Astrophysics for People in a Hurry. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2017. ISBN 978-0393-60939-4, page 33.

5Ibid., pages 193-208.

6Ibid., page 193.

7Ibid., page 199.

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