Today, Harvard astronomer Avi Loeb’s new book Extraterrestrial was released. It was mostly as I expected it to be, though even I wasn’t quite expecting it to contain so much discussion of the author’s obsession with middle-twentieth-century existentialist philosophy, of the Camus variety, or his apparent inability to understand that this was neither the culmination of all human intellectual achievement, nor an exceptionally influential school of thought in terms of modern intellectual history. I am not reviewing Extraterrestrial as a book because, frankly, its discussion of the evidence that the interstellar object ‘Oumuamua is an extraterrestrial space probe is simply beyond my ability to evaluate, being neither an astronomer nor a physicist. Those with much more training than I have found reason to doubt Loeb’s conclusions, and even Loeb frames his conclusions as a “wager,” like Pascal’s, claiming that it’s better to assume it’s E.T. and be wrong than doubt and be right, since finding aliens will give humanity a philosophical orgasm of sorts. I can do little more than shrug and say that the non-specialist reader will likely see in the arguments a reflection of whatever idea he or she brings to them.
I can say, however, that Loeb’s book (repetitive, repetitive, repetitive as it is) is only half about ‘Oumuamua. The other half of the book, interspersed with his discussions of the interstellar object, contains autobiography and musings about existentialist philosophy. We learn, for example, about Loeb’s youth, when his mother introduced him to the existentialists, twenty years after their heyday, and how he developed a deep passion for existentialist philosophy, which he would read unendingly, to the exclusion of other schools of thought. We learn, too, about his Israeli upbringing, and it is quite evident that, despite his protests, much of his so-called philosophy of “cosmic humility” has been heavily influenced by the cultural Judaism of his youth, even if he calls himself nonreligious today.
Here is how deeply into existentialism Loeb is: Even though existentialism was an unsystematic school primarily of the West in the 1940s and 1950s with diverse, sometimes contradictory ideas (“Existentialism? I don’t know what that is,” Sartre said, half in jest), primarily a philosophical reaction against the previous period of totalitarian oppression of human life and freedom, and declined in popularity in the face of new schools of thought, Loeb imagines that it is a universal truth that even space aliens would have independently discovered and embraced:
… I have to imagine that among the alien intelligence we eventually encounter, there will be a few existentialists. I don’t think that is a fantastical concept. Just as the intellectual history of humanity allowed the existential school of thought to flourish on Earth, informing what came after it, I suspect the same will prove true for alien intelligence. I believe that they, no less than us, will have spent a civilization’s lifetime confronting life’s most stubborn mysteries, the ones that are impossible to move from the miraculous to the mundane. […] Sentient life’s common circumstance, to live and die without ever learning why, was, Camus believed, absurd. I believe that other sentient beings—who are bound by intellectual limitations, just as we are—will inevitably arrive at the same conclusion: life is absurd.
Loeb’s claims about cosmic humility, briefly, are that humanity are not special, or interesting and therefore we should avoid undertaking great actions because superior space aliens will be more powerful and more deserving of a leading role in the cosmos. But even Loeb admits in his book that his “humility” posture isn’t born simply of scientific conclusions that aliens are “superior” (there being no way to know that they have better moral philosophy, or greater justice, than we do) but rather was derived directly from his existentialist readings: “It is difficult to remain arrogant in the face of the absurd. Humility is the more apt posture.”
At points throughout the book, and especially near the end, Loeb promotes philosophical speculations that I found deeply uncomfortable. He takes a highly negative view of humanity, calling for humankind to view themselves as insignificant. In one disturbing passage, he argues for passivity—for literally giving up and not bothering to aspire to do great things: “Perhaps, rather than behaving like outsize actors in puny roles, we should adopt the perspective of spectators and simply enjoy the dazzling show all around us. […] Not all of us can remain spectators, of course. Some of us will aspire to make a difference.” So, in his view, people who sit passively and watch others do things are inherently superior, the Eloi blissfully perched atop Morlocks. That’s the argument of a privileged elitist, someone who can afford to sit back and watch wealth wash in like the tide. But Loeb wants us to feel that his philosophy is ennobled by space aliens, who, like some sort of imagined divinities, give divine sanction to his faux-“humility” by dint of their “superior” understanding of existentialism.
Now, just to be clear: Loeb’s posture here is not traditional existentialism. Existentialists, while diverse in opinion, were far from humble. They imagined the individual as author of his (they were also sexist) own destiny, forced to craft meaning in the face of the absurd or else succumb to suicide. In short, they argued that in an atheist cosmos, there is no meaning and therefore no reason to continue suffering. The only question was whether to find personal meaning in one’s life, or to kill oneself. Loeb tries to solve the dilemma of existential angst by interposing nature (especially superior space aliens) as a mediator taking over the role of God or gods as an outside force of sufficient majesty to impose authority, power, and meaning onto an otherwise pointless existence. As always, the aliens are God by other means.
But don’t take my word for it. He openly imagines that the aliens will provide a materialist revelation, a sort of messianic message: “The main benefit from an encounter with superior beings would be the opportunity to ask them the fundamental question that has been bothering us for ages: What’s the meaning of life? I hope to live long enough to be around for their answer, stemming from numerous millennia of acquired scientific knowledge.”
Science will not answer that question. Science can give you facts, but it cannot tell you how to feel about them. Even Camus and Sartre understood that you have to make your own meaning.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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