“The starry heaven above me and the moral law within me” filled Immanuel Kant’s mind “with ever new and increasing wonder and awe.” He continued, “I see them in front of me and unite them immediately with the consciousness of my own existence.” As I gazed at the photographs of planets, galaxies, nebulae, and clusters in the exhibition “From Earth to the Universe” in front of Butler Library last week, I contemplated what Kant said and wondered whether we forget too often our place, as tiny human beings, in this vast universe.
Philosophers have always had an element of star-gazing fanaticism in them, but I think it is a difficult task in the 21st century to wonder as freely about the starry skies at a time when astronomy is no longer an abstract theory, but a convincing reality accompanied by photographs like the ones displayed here.
Carrying a philosophical paper titled “What Is There?” and books from a history class on World War II, I suddenly felt deeply conflicted. It seems that, given these photographs of actual galaxies far, far away, no one can legitimately doubt the existence of “what is there” outside of Earth. The long history of different nations fighting against each other suddenly seemed minute when I gazed at the photo of the Milky Way Galaxy, where I experienced immense difficulty pinpointing Earth.
These images, lacking in any obvious signs of human existence, reminded me of what Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama said about humanity—it needs to develop a “cosmic consciousness.” Many political analysts have dismissed this comment as awkward and out of place in a political environment, but I can’t help but think that Hatoyama has a point.
We are indeed progressing toward a more global community. There aren’t too many secrets left about the topography of this planet, as anyone can see from the free software Google Earth. And it seems like peoples of different cultures understand each other better than before, with more foreign specialists of different countries as well as interpreters to help people communicate. Yet through all this, we earthlings continue to want to preserve these distinct cultures despite the disagreements and misunderstandings that can even lead to devastating wars.
Some might argue that despite cultural tensions, it is communities like the ones at this university, both diverse and international, that make people here especially open-minded. However, diversity and internationalism simply indicate more representation, and do not necessarily imply a meshed open-mindedness.
“I am not an Athenian or a Greek,” said Socrates, according to Plutarch, “but a citizen of the world.” However, Socrates did accept his death penalty as an act of a true Athenian in Plato’s “Crito.” Similarly, just saying “I am a cosmic being” might not correlate with the actions you take. Consider, then, how one might design this cosmic consciousness to fit realistic conditions.
I’ve heard the expression that America is a melting pot, but I think it’s more like an awkward trail mix. Some ingredients blend delightfully while others clash in taste. With so many types of textures, spices, and aftertastes, melting all of these into one united quality would be difficult, and perhaps unappealing. If it succeeds in being a “melting pot,” though, it can serve as a microcosm for a potential global state with “one race” with respect to the entire universe.
This means that in order to actualize a cosmic consciousness, we need to figure out how to appreciate this awkward, unsavory trail mix. Because the only thing getting in the way of “international peace and security”—something for which the United Nations has been working diligently for half a century—is countries claiming their superiority over others, whether indirectly through economic negotiations, or directly through invasion, sometimes war.
You have to choose. You can fight to preserve these cultures and continue to have wars, or crush the existence of “cultures” and instead embrace a cosmic consciousness, making us more peaceful, but potentially less interesting. Which is better?
Being a Japanese citizen but ethnically half-Korean, having grown up in the United States, and attending an “international”—more like bicultural—Americanized school in Japan for seven years, I sadly have absolutely no sentiment regarding any nation. So this culturally indifferent cosmic consciousness sounds like a great idea. But a person like me can never love a country enough to fight for it. And despite the terrible consequences of war, these cultures define people so powerfully that I have a hard time not being envious of them.
In the end, we are left with 50 images of outer space that we can’t ignore on our way to educating ourselves for a better future. And I almost wish that these photographs were artistic fabrications, so that I can just say, “How pretty,” and keep walking.
Yurina Ko is a Barnard College junior majoring in philosophy. She is a senior editor of the Columbia Political Review. 2+2=5 runs alternate Mondays. firstname.lastname@example.org