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By Jupiter! Following Voyager 1's Mission

Those who are bored with space are bored with life.

When we consider what religion is for mankind, and what science is, it is no exaggeration to say that the future course of history depends upon the decision of this generation as to the relations between them.

A. N. Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 1925

Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.

Albert Einstein, 1940

The generation Whitehead was addressing—I was born in the year before he wrote—has all but done its work. But not as he had hoped. In the realm of science, the results have been remarkable; in the realms of religion and philosophy, they have been barren. Science has increasingly turned to religion and philosophy to rescue it from its lameness, to answer the questions it cannot and is not obligated to answer. But religion and philosophy have mostly been content to ignore what science is doing, or to disdain it, and so have remained almost wantonly blind in their own gropings after the truth. This is the greatest lacuna in the life-view with which we approach the end of our century. It affects us all: how we think and feel, and work and play; what we attempt; even, as I hope to show, how we vote. What are we here for? What is our duty? We don't know

Convincing people of the importance of space research is not easy. On the Monday evening when Voyager I flew by Jupiter and its satellites, I wore NASA's own Voyager badge on my arm, and was enchanted when the publisher of this magazine said that it made me look raunchy. A week later a friend at NASA gave me a complete set of the color photographs taken by Voyager I. They are breathtaking and beautiful: no other 8x10 glossies like them. Even those who have been dull to the exploration of space were amazed, and some of them were even awed. But a day or two later these people were back to earth, mundane again in their concerns, their eyes fixed as nervously as ever on the ground. But these are not the lost souls; they are waiting to be unblinded. As one of them looked at the pictures, he said, "But these have their own aesthetic value."

The lost souls are those who say, always rather brightly, that they are bored with the exploration of space. To these I feel like paraphrasing the remark of Johnson about London: "Those who are bored with space are bored with life." It is difficult to find what they are not bored with. They show slight interest in religion, rarely talk about anything in philosophical terms, and have natures that are unpoetic. They stay on the sidewalks of even their own lives. They remind me of those who say that they are bored by small talk, which nnakes one wonder when one will ever hear any great talk from them. Yap! Yap! They say that they are bored, because they have to say something, and to say that they are bored seems to be profound. As Jacques Merleau-Ponty says in a book to which I will return, to Wonder if one can see the world itself "is a philosophical question which does not come naturally to the mind of someone who busies himself in the world and has to deal with things, animals, or people." They have no speaking silence in them. 

The spectacular success of Voyager I's fly-by of Jupiter and its satellites—it is now on the way to Saturn, in 10 years to Uranus, and then who knows where it will go?—is not in itself the most significant event of our century. But it is a brilliant confirmation of what is the most significant event. There was justice in the fact that the fly-by of Jupiter took place in the week of the centenary of Einstein's birth. Since he published the general theory of relativity in 1916, science has been on the prowl in our century. It has been a kind of alley cat, out and about in the dark, when most of us are asleep. All that we have had from it are yet more abstract conjectures and calculations, irrefutable in their own terms, which it has seemed impossible to submit to even the experimental method of science. Science has been dealing with things so vast and distant, out there in the universe, or so minute and invisible, inside our own make-up, that we have made no head or tail of it. We want to see—and we are right to want to see—what science is looking at. In the two most obvious fields—space and genetics—we are now beginning to see. As one could have expected, the two are linked. When James Watson and Francis Crick published their classic paper in Nature in 1953, elucidating the structure and function of DNA, they contributed not only to our knowledge of our own organisms, not even only to the long inquiry about evolution, but to the discussion of the origins of the universe, which is also part of the concern of the exploration of space.

It is important that we should be able to see what our science is doing. We are right to go on talking about the sun setting and rising, to speak as if it makes its daily journey around us, still to see the sky and the universe as a great dome that we look up at. No astronomer since Galileo may have relied only on the naked eye, but our naked eye is the common sense with which we question our science. Even astronomers say to their families, "The sun sets at 7:12 tonight." They do not say that the orbit and rotation of the earth will cause us to lose sight of it at 7:12. Even they see the sun go down below the horizon, swallowed by the earth or sinking into the sea. Something very important begins to happen, therefore, when we can see these great outer planets. For they were discovered as a result of conjecture, of predictions that certain irregularities in the motions of one planet could not be explained except by the existence of another planet. So to have those photographs of Jupiter is reassuring. Our science is not, we can begin to believe, one great game or hoax.

I am arguing that our most everyday perceptions and therefore our day-to-day actions are ruled by our cosmology or our lack of one. Greek philosophy began with speculations about the physical nature of the universe. In order to cope with the questions that were raised, it then had to call logic into being. Once it was thus involved in questions of logic, it had to meet questions about the validity of knowledge. Questions about the nature of knowledge then stirred others about ethics. Once questions about ethics had been raised, political philosophy could not lag far behind. So we have the dialogues of Plato, and the vast system of Aristotle. Wow! as the young would say, just before mellowing out. Neat! The cosmology of Aristotle, refurbished just in time by Aquinas, lasted almost 2000 years. Then it was shattered by Brahe and Galileo, by Kepler and Bruno, by Descartes and Newton. This classical system then lasted for a little more than 200 years, until Einstein crumbled it in his hands because its blooms were already sere. The story is well known. What needs to be emphasized here is that, as long as the Aristotelian or Newtonian syntheses were dominant, they also ruled our attitudes to ethics, and therefore to the expression of our morality in our politics.

This is nowhere more strikingly illustrated than in the Autobiography of Calvin Coolidge. His chapter on his education is twice the length of his chapter "On Entering and Leaving the Presidency." Every page of it is worthwhile, but especially the passage in which he describes the influence of George D. Olds, later the president of Amherst:

It was under him that we learned of the universal application of the laws of mathematics. We saw the discoveries of Kepler, Descartes, Newton and their associates bringing the entire universe under one law, so that the most distant point of light revealed by the largest reflector marches in harmony with our own planet. We discovered, too, that the same force that rounds a tear-drop holds all the myriad worlds of the universe in a balanced position. We found that we dwelt in the midst of a Unity which was all subject to the same rules of action. My education was making some headway.

I find this passage both instructive and moving. There is a brave nostalgia in its cadences. Only a few years after Einstein had published his general theory, Coolidge was looking back to the harmony and hierarchy of the Newtonian synthesis. Longing for it. Things were fixed. Laws were laws. "My education was making some headway": the conservative knew a conservative world.

Everyone who considers these matters at all knows that our cosmology determines how we perceive ourselves, our place in the universe and therefore why we are here, the ethical injunctions that we will obey and therefore the political action into which we translate them. I do not agree with Eric Voegelin's vast synthesizing of ancient history, simply because I do not believe that history can be reduced to such convenient patterns. But he is right when he says that, when Moses led the people of Israel out of the land of Egypt, he led the human race to freedom. The Egyptians had no real cosmology. As B. J. Kemp, of the faculty of Oriental studies at Cambridge, said recently, "Egyptian theologians seem to have displayed little interest in the details of the creation of the physical world." (Go and look again at the meaningless relics of Tut.) But then came Moses and the rest of the Old Testament and— wham! bam!—man is shoved up against the cosmos and God as personally—and inescapably—as any bunch of talkative tribes could be expected to tolerate.

He had turned mankind forever into a permanent Knesset: no wonder he threatened to send them all back to Egypt. Aquinas understood this all very well, which is why he undertook to rescue the Aristotelian system from too premature a demise. Down with the cosmology would go all social order. The works of Aristotle had only just been rediscovered and, a few years before Aquinas's birth, had been ominously attacked by the Church. Aquinas recognized that both Aristotle and the scriptures had to be reinterpreted. In the 12 volumes of the Summa Theologica he undertook this task, and for another 400 years until Newton, all was fixed and peaceable again.

But then Newton clamped the hand of his genius on the universe and on wayward mankind. The world that he described was the world which to Coolidge was safe. Then why were the next two centuries—the Principia was published in 1687—years of such tumult and revolution? The fault was not Newton's. It was others who took from his calculations what they thought could be applied as laws to the rest of life. There was perhaps no more brilliant but shallow movement in history than the Enlightenment; there has perhaps been no more brilliant but shallow man in the story of the human mind than Voltaire. For a little more than 200 years, mathematical calculations were transferred to human life. Harmony ought to reign here as it does out there. So from where came the tumult of the age of revolutions? It came from the immediate and furious response of the romantics, to so mechanical a view—at first so majestic and so needed, and then so quickly debased and made misleading and destructive. In our own century we have seen it work itself out, in the most violent and trivial forms of irrationality, as we have waited for our science to cease to be on the prowl. It is my claim that science has now returned to us the possibility of a cosmology, that once again we can freely find ourselves, and our ethics and our politics, under the "dome" of a universe that we can see and understand for ourselves.

So let us come down to our voting: even to the kinds of problems that face a president now, or the behavior of our representatives in a congress or a parliament. It is a long time since I first suggested that, contrary to most descriptions of it, our century has been conservative and even reactionary. The last gasp of Victorianism was 1917: the Russians love Dickens and Balzac, and there is other evidence for this. One reads the history of the Social Democrats and Spartacists in Germany after 1918, and one is in the world of John Stuart Mill and antimacassars. So the 20th century overwhelmed them in uncouth forms against which they had no resistance. To read of a Rosa Luxemburg, great as she was, is to read of a governess. One cannot stand against "flux" in a wimple. It was the Hitlers who felt the "flux"—the breakdown of a cosmology—and knew that it would breed them.

Far be it from me to despise the spirit of a conservatism that is genuine. But I have seen enough of conservatism to know that it can be as mean as hell if it is vulgar or ungenerous. The conservative should so enjoy life that he cannot but welcome all to its feast. The conservatism that I see around me today is mean, not because of any lack of generosity in its motive, but because of a narrowness in its vision. It may swear itself the enemy of Zero Population Growth; it may want to build more factories for Boeing wherever it may be that Henry Jackson seeks his votes, and indeed as many manufactories as George Meany will properly pray for; it may be pitted against the Sierra Club, and want to see more and thriving industries. But this signifies very little. At bottom its view of the universe and therefore of the future is that they are closed. If there is anything that we should be taking from the cosmology that is now available to us, it is that the universe is infinite and that therefore the future is open. It will not be long before the space shuttles are up there, and from then it will not be long, as one serious scientific writer has persuasively envisioned, before most of mankind is also out there, returning to the earth as we now go to Athens, in order to see "where it all started." That is the practicality of it; it is in no way what matters.

Whether we regard ourselves as conservatives or liberals or socialists or whatever label we choose, our universe is being returned to us after long centuries in which we have felt divorced from it: man pitted against nature, absurdly as existentialism had it, both the brute and dumb force of nature itself and the cold and hostile representations of nature in the abstractions of our science. This is why the hook that I mentioned at the beginning is so interesting. Jacques Merleau-Ponty, as a philosopher, collaborated with Bruno Morando, as an astronomer, to engage in a dialogue, which they call The Rebirth of Cosmology. It is not satisfying as a book; dialogues very rarely are, unless one is writing, like Plato, both sides of the argument. Both men are too aware that they are breaking ground. They are not yet on the wings of their vision. Yet their book is important and enriching. It is by far the best attempt that has been made to bridge the gap between our philosophy and our science, certainly much better than the maunderings of a Teilhard de Chardin. One believes that it could not have been written before this decade, before the direct exploration of space had given us a new confidence. When Merleau-Ponty says of the cosmology of the Greeks that it was totally erroneous, but that "it nevertheless carries a kind of permanent truth, in the sense that its economy results from a very subtle adjustment between what the eye sees, what the imagination constructs, and what reason requires," one feels that our philosophy may be ready once more to confront the metaphysical questions about the nature of the universe, from which both existentialism and linguistics in our century have retreated.

The conservative mood of our century, and more recently of this decade, has been pitted against our science as well as against nature. The contemporary conservative is anxious and nervous about science. He does not know where it will lead, on the one hand; on the other hand, he feels that it will lead to a lack of reverence. But it is precisely this need for reverence, even for some form of transcendence, that our science is more and more willing to encompass. Sir Bernard Lovell, the great director of the radio astronomy station at Joddrell Bank, has said that we may now he able to examine the molecules in a sunset, and to begin to understand the strange atmosphere and surface of Venus, but that our science is unable, and no longer claims, to unravel the ethos of the evening star. The more we gaze on our own system and even on the rest of the universe, even on phenomena like the black holes that we cannot see, the more lovely and wondrous, intricate and awe-inspiring it seems. Lovers have not forfeited the moon to the astronauts, or to the scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Our science is no longer the sorcerer's apprentice, but again the handmaiden of our deepest longings, and this is why the exploration matters to us, because there is all the difference between the pictures of Jupiter, of Io and Ganymede and Callisto and Europe, and the calculations that made them possible. Our world and the future are not closed, but are opening to us as never before. This is the new vitality for which we, our philosophy and our societies and our politics, have waited so long.