Orbiting the "Cosmos": Or, Why Is Neil deGrasse Tyson So Happy?

How happy scientists are! Why didn't we become scientists, Percival? They confront problems which can be solved. We don't know what we confront. Does it have a name?

- Walker Percy, Lancelot

The epic Tree-of-Life-like trailer for Fox's 2014 series Cosmos, embedded above, was unveiled earlier this summer at Comic-Con. Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson will be filling the shoes of Carl Sagan as our Virgil, touring the illustrious heights and the dark depths of ultimate reality, from the largest of galaxies to the smallest of microbes.

Given the illustration at around the 2:30 mark of clerics hoisting a golden crucifix and watching impassively as some free-thinker is burned at the stake (followed by Tyson chilling on a disco-dance-floor of space-time), one does wonder whether religion may turn out to be the beast in the icy ninth circle of anachronistic knowledge, beating its bat wings in futility. Even without an atheist at the helm as executive producer, one would hardly bat an eye, much less a wing.

To be fair right out the gate, Tyson does not count himself among the "new atheists." In fact, he complained to Big Think about atheists claiming him as their own, when he considers himself to be an agnostic. And unlike the snippy and polemical Richard Dawkins, Tyson seems to be respectful, mild-mannered, and well-liked. In short, he seems like a very happy man.

Physician-turned-novelist Walker Percy once asked of Carl Sagan - who assembled a golden record to communicate the diversity of earthly experience to extraterrestrial intelligence - "why is Carl Sagan so lonely?" Which is to say, why do scientists have such a soft spot for trying to communicate with animals and with aliens? But Percy, being a Columbia-trained scientist himself, knew another odd truth about scientists: that they are often infectiously happy people. And just why is Neil deGrasse Tyson so happy?

After all, it's hardly a happy thing - as Camus and other philosophers knew - to think and assert that the universe (which includes life, which includes human life, which includes your life and my life), in all probability, has no purpose:

But here we find a bedtime-story voice of a kindly grandpa; lazy-river acoustic strumming and snapping; a sense of neatness, order, and tranquility outmatched only by whiteboard-commercials about the new iPhone; and all of it topped with subtle notes of schmaltzy self-help. "What's my purpose? I don't know. And you know what? That's okay." (Applause; a few tears.)

Of course, it's not unreasonable to think that a mortal and free creature acknowledging the absurdity and futility of existence should sound a little less like Oprah and a bit more like Henri the existential cat:

Or at least, a young Woody Allen:


To color news of the purposelessness of the universe with an Oprah-Chopra sense of satisfaction is no small feat. But Percy knew that being a happy scientist, or being in the happy scientist's ambit, can make all the difference.

As a young man, Percy contracted tuberculosis while performing an autopsy, and spent several years recovering at a sanatorium in upstate New York with little else to do but read. Soon, he found himself having reckon his tidy scientific world-view with the works of existentialism: with Dostoevsky, Sartre, Marcel, Kierkegaard. He saw a great challenge in a thinker like Maritain who, as a young student in a climate of scientific rigor, vowed with his lady (in a very French manner) to commit suicide within a year if they were unable to conquer the obvious meaninglessness of modern life. What Maritain craved, and what Percy had to confront, was some satisfying explanation of why people, including scientists, are the way they are - indeed, why they are at all.

None of this, of course, meant abandoning or denigrating science or its achievements. Percy remained devoted to that "valid method of investigating and theorizing which comprises science proper" all his life, and one of his intellectual heroes was the logician and scientist Charles S. Peirce. But like Maritain, Percy was increasingly concerned not only with science, but with scientists themselves, and what made them (himself included) tick.

What Percy saw is that in "post-religious technological society," the self tends to conceive of itself in two ways: immanent or transcendent. Most of us are the first. We are cultural organisms, sliding somewhere between anonymous consumption (e.g., the masses in your local Target on a Saturday afternoon) and autonomous activism ("consciousness-raising, consumer advocacy, political activism liberal or conservative, saving whales," etc. - e.g., the type of people you see on CNN). "The self is problematic to itself," Percy writes, "but it solves its predicament of placement vis-à-vis the world either by a passive consumership or by a discriminating transaction with the world and with informed interactions with other selves."

The second group, of which scientists are a part, is not immanent, but transcendent:

The scientist is the prince and sovereign of the age. His transcendence of the world is genuine. That is to say, he stands in a posture of objectivity over against the world, a world which he sees as a series of specimens or exemplars, and interactions, energy exchanges, secondary causes...

The problematical self, like the young Einstein who couldn't stand the dreariness of everyday life, discovers science and transcends the world. In orbit, he enters an elect community of other scientists, however small, to whom he can address sentences about the world.

Like us, scientists find themselves (in infancy, childhood, and adolescence) in a difficult and disappointing world, filled with all kinds of difficult and disappointing relationships and events. But unlike the average person, they learn to transcend the world through an orbit of detachment and objectification, where they can become happy happy happy.

The scientific layman can participate in this transcendence by listening to lectures, reading blogs, etc.; but the frisson of excitement very few wouldn't get from pouring a highball and hearing Tyson talk about black holes is followed by a crashing sense of limitation. For the immanent self, the case is even less glamorous:

The layman can in some cases participate in the transcendent community of science, but often at a price...their impoverishment is to be located in both an inflation of theory and a devaluation of the world theorized about...

Yet they, the lay scientists, those who perceive themselves in the community of scientists and at some remove from the ordinary world, may be better off than those who live immanent lives, beneficiaries of science and technology, but with only a glimmering of the scientists, the glimmering that there are scientists and that "they" know about every sector of the world, including one's very self. "They" not only know about the Cosmos, they know about me, my aches and pains, my brain functions, even my neuroses. A remarkable feature of the secondhand knowledge of scientific transcendence is the attribution of omniscience to "them." "They" know.

In every case - the scientist, the lay scientist, and the immanent beneficiary of science - the unique self is what is routinely pushed out of the picture. Yours, mine, and Neil deGrasse Tyson's incalculable and irregardable self becomes a ghost haunting a great machine or else a naught, a no-thing.

When scientists turn to man qua man - to what makes us human - there tends to be a change in tone, into what can only be called dogmatic anxiety. Looking at man as a special center of the universe, like leading physicist Joel Primack, gets you frowned upon. Looking at man as moral, intentional, and immaterially conscious, like leading philosopher Thomas Nagel, gets you crucified. Because both of these moves break what Percy called the first "holy commandment" of secular thought:

In your investigations and theories, thou shalt not find anything unique about the human animal even if the evidence points to such uniqueness. Example: Despite heroic attempts to teach sign language to other animals, the evidence is that even the cleverest chimpanzee has never spontaneously named a single object or uttered a single sentence. Yet dogma requires that, despite traditional belief in the soul or the mind, and the work of more recent workers like Peirce and Langer in man's unique symbolizing capacity, Homo sapiens sapiens be declared to be not qualitatively different from other animals.

Thus, we find great efforts in scientific journals and articles to see the animal in the human and the human in the animal; either works, so long as any qualitative distinction between them is blurred, and the great mountain of art, culture, religion, poetry, language, morality, law, music, and science itself that is the human project is reduced and objectified.

Tyson himself muses:

Maybe everything that we are that is not the chimp is not as smart compared to the chimp as we tell ourselves it is. Maybe the difference between constructing and launching a Hubble telescope and a chimp combining two finger motions as sign language - maybe that difference is not all that great. We tell ourselves it is...maybe it's almost nothing. How would we decide that? Imagine another life form that's one percent different from us in the direction that we are different from the chimp! What are we to they? We would be drooling, blithering idiots in their presence, that's what we would be!

Tyson calls this thought "fascinatingly disturbing." However disturbing it may be, the important move is the assumption of an unbroken chain of complexity between animals, humans, and alien intelligence. That makes a person feel a lot less lonely, which makes Tyson - and all of us - happy.

But the truth is that we're alienated, because we are unique selves, the strangest thing in the cosmos, stranger than novas, quasars, pulsars, and black holes. That is very disturbing, problematic, and unhappy - and no amount of scientific study could ever show it to be untrue. If anything, scientific study confirms it all the more. What other species spends its time trying to show you how unspectacular it is?

The truth is that we're lost in the cosmos.

No wonder, then, that 6.5 million people "fucking love science" on Facebook. The wild enthusiasm is hardly in keeping with the cool detachment of the scientific method; but where man's science intersects with man himself, a less methodical current forms. Namely: "I sure as hell hope science will make me as happy as it makes Neil deGrasse Tyson, because nothing else seems to be working." For while Tyson and his ilk may be happy happy happy, those tasked with living ordinary lives, not so much.

Cosmos will, I suspect, have precious little to do with what is "human, all too human." Better to be at the cutting edge of discovery or otherwise at its beck and call, to orbit ourselves and the world as best as we can, downing whatever scraps of happiness we can filch from the abstracted scientist smiling down at us from the heavens.

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