Sunday night the self-proclaimed “bravest networks” Fox and Nat Geo premiered Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey hosted by Neil Degrasse Tyson. The show is a reboot of astro-physicist Carl Sagan’s television series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage. Throughout Sunday night’s program, Sagan played scientific forebear, mentor, and muse to Tyson’s impassioned narration. In the final minutes of Sunday’s episode he told a touching story about Sagan’s hospitality toward him as a young boy from the Bronx.
Astronomy: The Foundation for Ontology
One of the major features of this premiere episode was the concept of the cosmic calendar. Originally formatted by Carl Sagan, this calendar is a way to help us conceive of the development of the universe. Tyson explains that if we take the 13.8 billion years since the dawn of time and fit it into a 12 month calendar year, we can better understand how the universe came to be.
Once all of cosmic history is fitted to the calendar year, a startling truth emerges–a truth that Tyson repeated several times: All of recorded history only occupies the last 13 seconds of Dec. 31.
Tyson’s point is to drill into the minds of the general public that we have no way of knowing what happened during the first 364 days 23 hours 59 minutes and 47 seconds of the cosmic calendar. Cosmos: Space Time Odyssey is Tyson’s way of offering to teach us what happened during those first 364 and some odd days. In his mind, astronomy and the study of the stars is the only way to discover the true origins of our universe–and ourselves.
Where did we come from? How did we come to exist? What is the meaning of life? Tyson will seek to answer these questions throughout this series by building his ontological foundation on astronomy. We know who we are, why we are here, and the meaning of life, according to Tyson, by looking to the stars.
Star-stuff: The Stuff of Legends
At a particular point in the narration, Tyson performs a passionate homage to his predecessor Carl Sagan. As visuals of an expansive universe and galaxies of stars flicker and flash across the screen, he says with wonder, “We are all made of star-stuff…” This famous quote comes from the original Cosmos series, and it has been passed down for years from one marveling astronomer to another since as early as 1913.
Tyson means more than pleasantries by this statement. “We are star-stuff” is a statement about the value of human existence. What he means is, “We all came from a chance explosion, but think about it…we all came from a chance explosion.” What should be a severe discouragement to seeing any value in our existence–an existence that came about by pure chance, Tyson wants us to see as the source for all meaning in life.
In his work The Seven Mysteries of Life, Guy Murchie quoted this “ancient Serbian proverb“:
Be humble for you are made of dung. Be noble for you are made of stars.
What Murchie and Tyson are articulating is a glass half-full approach to our existence. Yes, we are the result of a chance explosion of matter and time. But, we are made from the same stuff as stars! When we marvel at the beauty of stars, we are to find the value of our existence in the fact that we share substance with those celestial bodies in the night sky.
Is Existentialism Sufficient?
Does that do it for you? Is it enough to fabricate meaning and value for the human existence based on materialistic properties? Your body has components of irons, magnesium, and copper–all of which are from stars; is that enough to bring meaning to your life?
In his book The Gay Science (not that kind of “gay”), Friedrick Nietzsche gets to the bottom of this kind of thinking. Like Tyson, he operates from the presuppositional belief that the universe is an anomaly that arose out of chaos: “The astral order in which we live is an exception: this order and the relative duration that depends on it have again made possible an exception of exceptions: the formation of the organic” (168). Nietzsche believes our universe is an exception to the rule. Our existence, human life, is the height of all exceptions.
Nietzsche does not believe we can project meaning onto this disorderly universe: “The total character of the world, however, is in all eternity chaos–in the sense not of a lack of necessity but of a order, arrangement, form, beauty, wisdom, and whatever other names there are for our aesthetic anthropomorphisms” (168, emphasis added).
Nietzsche is arguing that men like Neil Degrasse Tyson are operating in an existentialism system of philosophy–a system where the individual creates meaning and projects it upon his universe. Like Tyson, Nietzsche believes that our universe arose out of chaos. Unlike Tyson, Nietzsche believes we cannot project concepts of beauty, order, wisdom, whatever upon a universe that arose from chaos and will shortly return to chaos.
Once man arrives at this truth, that we are the insignificant result of a chaotic universe in flux, man must claw for whatever meaning he can fabricate in his mind. Nietzsche explains, “We have arranged for ourselves a world in which we can live–positing bodies, lines, planes, causes and effects, motion and rest, form and content; without these articles of faith nobody now could endure life. But that does not prove them. Life is no argument” (177, emphasis added).
The Stars Aren’t Enough.
Both Tyson and Nietzsche are building upon the same foundation. However, I would argue that Nietzsche’s position is consistent, while Tyson is building a system of meaning that is inconsistent with his presuppositions. Is Nietzsche’s worldview depressing, meaningless, chaotic, and sad? Of course. But just because Tyson creates meaning with the words, “We are made of star-stuff”, does not make his worldview any less depressing, meaningless, chaotic, and sad.
If there is no purpose to the universe, if there is no Designer, if we are truly the result of a chaotic system in flux, no amount of projecting our “aesthetic anthropomorphisms” on the universe will ever give our lives meaning.
Where do your philosophical presuppositions lead? Either the universe arose from Chaos or it arose from a Cause. These are the only two options. One leads to hopeless disillusion, the other to true meaning.