War of the Worldviews: appeals to beauty and destiny in an era of space exploration
Tuesday, 11 April 2017
| James Garth
Two decades have passed since the day I saw a remarkable advertisement in Aviation Week. It took up a full page and featured a beautiful artist’s concept of an elegant, futuristic spaceplane. I can’t remember what the purpose of the advertisement was. I was too busy reeling from the existential crisis that the tagline induced:
In 200 years, space travel will be routine. You however will be dead.
As my career in aerospace has progressed, this phrase periodically reverberates in my mind. It threatens to take the gloss off otherwise marvellous test flights or moments of discovery. It risks tainting every wonderful space story in my news feed. For every epic vision of Mars colonisation painted by NASA or Elon Musk, for every exoplanet uncovered by the Kepler, my wonder is always tempered by the sober realisation that, by the time all the best stuff comes to fruition, I’ll be dead.
We don’t expect to be gripped by existential angst every time we check the feed from Space.com or Ars Technica. But I’m sensing a curious pattern. Visions of humanity’s future which elicit our awe also seem to make tacit comments upon wider worldview questions such as ‘what is reality?’, ‘what is ethical?’, ‘how should we attain our goals?’ and ‘where are we heading to in the future?’ Often, some sort of philosophical naturalism is the default canvas upon which the picture is painted.
This trend has intensified with recent advances in computer graphics and special effects. In his remarkable four-minute short film Wanderers, artist Erik Wernquist uses stunning CGI to paint a bold, awe-inspiring vision of humanity’s future exploration of our solar system. Wanderers has been viewed many millions of times, some comparing it favourably to Interstellar.
The genius of Wanderers lies in its seamless, scientifically informed depiction of plausible future technologies and real-life locations. Giant man-made dirigibles float gracefully across the surface of Mars. A space station orbits above the magnificent cryo geysers on Encaladus. Intrepid explorers don wingsuits and glide through the skies of Titan. Thrill seekers base jump off the tallest cliff in the solar system on the icy moon of Miranda. It’s breathtaking.
Fittingly, ‘Wanderers’ is accompanied by Carl Sagan’s dulcet tones. Invoking Moby Dick, Sagan reads a moving ballad about our species’ innate yearning to satisfy its ‘everlasting itch for things remote… [its] love to sail forbidden seas…’.
It’s impossible not to be excited and enraptured by Wernquist’s vision. Yet, after watching it, many can’t help but resonate with the poignant comment made the aptly named ‘Lost In The Cosmos’ YouTube user:
This fills me with both unbounding joy and sadness; joy at what the future holds for mankind, but a deep, lonely sadness that I will not live to witness it.
It’s the top comment. Alone at their keyboards, hundreds of people have clicked ‘Like’ in silent agreement.
What does this have to do with worldviews?
It’s a challenge to encourage hope in the face of the futility of seeing possibilities for deep exploration remaining forever beyond our mortal grasp. To segue straight into how a Christian worldview might have something to say here might strike some as a truly hackneyed apologetic. But bear with me here.
I submit that our rapidly developing ability to vividly depict new worlds and frontiers opens up tremendous prospects for dialogue about the very real existential dilemmas posed by competing worldviews (e.g. theistic, naturalistic and so on).
Our entry point for dialogue is beauty itself. It’s something that commands agreement as surely as any scientific theory. Astronaut Chris Hadfield recounts his personal experience of encountering the immense beauty of space during an extravehicular activity (EVA):
Intellectually, I’d known I was venturing out into space yet the still the sight of it shocked me, profoundly. In a spacesuit, you’re not aware of taste, smell, touch. The only sounds you hear are your own breathing and, through the headset, disembodied voices. You’re in a self-contained bubble, cut off, then you look up from your task and the universe rudely slaps you in the face. It’s overpowering, visually, and no other senses warn you that you’re about to be attacked by raw beauty. (An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, 2013, 90)
Hadfield compares the experience to suddenly looking up and finding yourself face-to-face with a tiger. Our apprehension of beauty while watching Interstellar or Wanderers might not quite match the ‘Overview Effect’ experienced by Hadfield and other astronauts, but it surely is fertilised by the same soil.
I propose we should take the opportunity to (gently) probe how one’s overall worldview impacts such experiences of beauty. Is our worldview a prism that helps us appreciate the beauty from even more angles? Or does the prism serve to dull or blunt the light that shines forth?
Biologist Ursula Goodenough describes how the bleakness of her perception of the universe’s ultimate fate tainted her appreciation of the beauty of the stars:
The night sky was ruined. I would never be able to look at it again. I wept into my pillow, the long slow tears of adolescent despair... A bleak emptiness overtook me whenever I thought about what was really going on out in the cosmos or deep in the atom. So I did my best not to think about such things.
Is there an alternative to ‘not thinking about such things’? Or burying our discontent in an austere stoicism? Alister McGrath offers a valuable perspective that he developed when transitioning from atheism to theism while studying science at Oxford University:
I finally realised that this was simply a way of looking at things, not a factual account of things. I was imposing meaninglessness onto the cosmos. It was what you saw when you looked at the world with one (unacknowledged) set of theoretical spectacles. So what would happen if you put on a different set of spectacles? What I the world was to be seen through a God lens? Through a theistic schema? I came to discover that the night sky looked rather different when seen from the standpoint of faith. (Inventing the Universe, 2015, 200)
Of course, the scientifically literate critic rightly asks, how is this not merely a psychologically comforting promise of ‘pie in the sky when you die’? And isn’t religion merely serving up a vague, un-defined, disembodied ‘heaven’ that hasn’t got anything to do with exploring our solar system and beyond? Isn’t ‘heaven’ just a nice cosy place where you go to escape this world?
Here is where I think we might profitably draw upon a distinctly biblical vision of the future that has gained much theological traction in recent decades. No scholar has been more influential on this matter than NT Wright. In his book, The Day The Revolution Began, Wright argues that:
We have Platonized our eschatology (substituting ‘souls going to heaven’ for the promised new creation) and have therefore moralized our anthropology (substituting a qualifying examination of moral performance for the biblical notion of the human vocation), with the result that we have paganized our soteriology, our understanding of ‘salvation’ (substituting the idea of ‘God killing Jesus to satisfy his wrath’ for the genuinely biblical notions we are about to explore). (The Day the Revolution Began, 2016, 147)
Wright’s solution, as I see it, is to re-invigorate the Christian worldview with:
- an authentically biblical view of a restored and redeemed cosmos.
- a call to a vocation that engages us to cooperate with God to bring this new world into being.
- the promise of a destiny whereby we will get to explore and delight in this new world in a fully embodied manner.
Imagine how a ‘soft apologetic’ might creatively deploy these ideas within the context of space exploration and the promise of new worlds. Such an apologetic might be analogous to the profession of architecture, which uniquely blends the functional and the aesthetic. Logic and reason remain essential within this apologetic – without those, the building won’t stand up – but the appeal to aesthetics is its beating heart. It’s a building that entices you in because you want to inhabit it, because being in the space nourishes you and inspires you to dwell on higher things.
Is this approach practical?
This is all well and good, but is such an approach practical? Theologian Peter Leithart (Aesthetic Apologetics, First Things, 2005) has some thoughts:
Aesthetic appeals … make for wonderful poetry, but can they be employed in ‘practical’ apologetics? Will it make any impact on that elusive creature, the ‘man in the street’? One response would be to point out that this cramped conception of what is ‘practical’ is already a concession to a questionable functionalism. Refusing to question the man in the street about beauty simply confirms his preference for useful but ugly streets. But if, as Augustine seemed to believe, man is created so as to respond to the beauty of God and His creation, then an apologetic that highlights the beauty that beckons us is perfectly practical. Another response would be to suggest that aesthetics is ultimately inseparable from rationality and ethics. Scientists frequently comment on the ecstasy of breaking through to a theory that configures the data into a new whole, and that it is improbable that one can live a good life without a certain grace.
It is here that I think we ought to give the ‘person on the street’ their due credit. He or she sees clearly enough to appreciate the beauty of this universe for what it is. Let us honour this by articulating and promoting a worldview worthy of such an insight.
Apostel et al., World Views - From fragmentation to integration, VUB Press, 2007.
J. Polkinghorne, Physics and the Final Frontier, Third Way, 2012.
A. Gijsbers, Towards a post-modern apologetic, ISCAST – Christians in Science and Technology, 2011.
J. Garth, Cosmology, Apologetics and the Will to Believe, ISCAST – Christians in Science and Technology, 2010.
Image links and credits
https://www.jpl.nasa.gov/news/news.php?feature=5052 (text added by author)
http://www.erikwernquist.com/wanderers/gallery_ringshine.html (also used as article main photo)
James Garth is a practicing aerospace engineer and a Fellow of ISCAST: Christians in Science and Technology. When not indulging in modern science-fiction movies, he enjoys writing and blogging about science, faith, technology, practical apologetics and the philosophy of science.