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.
2/22/2019 09:17:29 am
Indeed a lot to unpack. I am reminded of a modern political philosopher who said (paraphrasing): humans tends to cycle between complacency and fear. Or put it another way, we tend to be indifferent or when sufficiently motivated by fear, to panic.
2/22/2019 10:20:39 am
We are corrupted from birth with the impetuous force to survive. No need for technology.
2/22/2019 01:23:16 pm
"Corrupted," as if nature isn't an inherent war zone to begin with, well before humans ever evolved...the very process of evolution itself is a battle. How can it be "corruption" if that's the base state in the first place?
2/22/2019 08:26:11 pm
Oh, don't get me wrong V. Corruption is a human construct. But if you see it as self-interest, well... that begins at birth with that whole drive to survive thing going on. We learn to get on with others solely to survive. In that way, I suppose other people are a necessary evil...
2/22/2019 12:57:34 pm
I thought the new column was poorly argued. He says that because there are so many planets, "the human imprint on the cosmic stage is destined to remain negligible. Perhaps we should limit our cosmic ambitions in light of this perspective."
2/22/2019 01:57:28 pm
It does sound logically inconsistent. I read it as part of his apparently emerging belief in a sort of nihilist transcendentalism: Do nothing, and bliss out.
2/22/2019 03:49:36 pm
I dunno Jason. Rereading this it seems like you're bothered all out of proportion to this fellow's fame and influence, which both seem to be miniscule. And if he does become a "lifestyle guru" he's Doctor Oz's problem. I suggest filing under "Don't worry about it."
2/22/2019 03:59:00 pm
I am only worried about it to the extent that weird New Age-style philosophy is masquerading as science in the pages of Scientific American, the Washington Post, and other high-profile outlets.
2/22/2019 04:32:00 pm
The idea that one can have a discussion of pure scientific facts that's pure of any for of sentimentality or hack mysticism is pretty arrogant and delusional.
2/22/2019 08:30:31 pm
"I am only worried about it to the extent that weird New Age-style philosophy is masquerading as science in the pages of Scientific American, the Washington Post, and other high-profile outlets."
Phil the Hill
2/24/2019 08:53:16 am
I always thought that the three dullest things in the world were watching paint dry, watching grass grow and curling. I need to expand that list to this blog and its comment section. Even the trolls, like Hal, have stopped coming to this blog and where is American Cool "Disco Dan"? At least he, with his limited store of fifth grade knowledge and insults were at least interesting. Now all that is left is Joe "I know everything" Scales.
2/24/2019 09:36:58 am
It is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness.
Phil the Hill
2/24/2019 01:16:25 pm
It is also better to light a fart then say nothing.
2/24/2019 01:53:44 pm
2/25/2019 01:40:35 pm
Phil, I visit this blog maybe 2-3x/week, just to see if Jason has penned anything re: aliens, UFO's, UAP's, blah, blah. When he does, which isn't often lately, I usually find something I disagree with and therein lies my interest.
An Anonymous Nerd
2/24/2019 09:40:29 am
I read the piece. There is little of substance there that isn't also on Star Trek, when the characters get to talking about the Prime Directive.
2/27/2019 11:30:36 pm
As a moral philosophy, this is a failure
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