Abraham “Avi” Loeb is back at it again, continuing down the path to guru status. The Harvard astronomer became famous a few months ago when he published a paper speculating that the Oumuamua interstellar object was an extraterrestrial craft, but since then, he has used the notoriety his declaration engendered to promote a quasi-spiritual philosophy he calls “cosmic humility,” speculating about everything from the godlike nature of ancient astronauts to his self-perception as a hero standing against critical and angry “elites.” Now, in a new Scientific American column, Loeb redoubles his claim to be a lifestyle guru in the style of Jordan Peterson.
Ostensibly, the column was a discussion of how humans should behave when and if they encounter other planets with life on them. But in reality, Loeb uses this semi-scientific speculation to engage in moralizing based on transcendentalism and a vaguely pantheistic quest for truth beauty. The key paragraph is this one: “Cosmic modesty would leave us with the sole desire of embedding ourselves in nature, soaking in its beauty as spectators, not reformers, and suppressing ego-motivated plans for space colonization.” He goes on to quote Thoreau on the desire to live simply and in harmony with nature. It is a recipe for stagnation and self-satisfaction.
There is a lot to unpack there, but much of it is related to an earlier piece he wrote, in 2017, before he became a household name. In it, he reflects on the lessons that the cosmos teaches about “modesty,” arguing that humanity should stand before the cosmos the way children are taught to be seen and not heard. In his argument for “cosmic modesty,” he freely mixes the personal, the political, and the cosmic in service of what is, at heart, a New Age spirituality dressed up in the language of science. “What are we then, if not just a transient shape that a speck of material takes for a brief moment in cosmic history on the surface of one planet out of so many?” Loeb’s “cosmic modesty” is almost indistinguishable from H. P. Lovecraft’s “cosmic indifference,” except that Lovecraft thought that the universe’s lack of interest in humanity gave us the power to choose our own destiny, and Loeb seems to prefer to retreat into the indulgent nihilism of the privileged, enjoying a lazy decadence since nothing really matters.
But as a moral philosophy, this is a failure. As a consistent view of nature and reality, it also leaves much to be desired. Loeb speaks of nature as being “contaminated by artificial intent” in the form of civilization and technology, and this is a very dangerous position to take. It sets up a false dichotomy between intelligence and nature, and suggests that creatures that possess a level of intelligence sufficient to alter their environment are no longer “natural”—and therefore corrupt and evil. The beaver might build his dam, and the squirrel may plant her nuts, but these acts of environmental alteration are “natural” because the animals are “innocent” and unknowing. But taken too far—cities, technology, etc.—these acts cease to be innocent and thus become unnatural. It’s the story Genesis tells in the run up to the Flood, and there are certainly parallels here with the biblical view of antediluvian sin. To take Loeb’s claims to their inescapable conclusion is see a discontent with civilization painted with a veneer of cosmic philosophy, demanding the universe—as a sort of pantheistic deity—restore the imagined disconnect between civilization and nature.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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