The Universe Or Nothing

Human history can be viewed as a slowly dawning awareness that we are members of a larger group. Initially our loyalties were to ourselves and our immediate family, next, to bands of wandering hunter-gatherers, then to tribes, small settlements, city-states, nations. We have broadened the circle of those we love. We have now organized what are modestly described as super-powers, which include groups of people from divergent ethnic and cultural backgrounds working in some sense together — surely a humanizing and character building experience. If we are to survive, our loyalties must be broadened further, to include the whole human community, the entire planet Earth. Many of those who run the nations will find this idea unpleasant. They will fear the loss of power. We will hear much about treason and disloyalty. Rich nation-states will have to share their wealth with poor ones. But the choice, as H. G. Wells once said in a different context, is clearly the universe or nothing.

– Carl Sagan (via)

What this suggests to me is that whatever collective notion of the self that humans tend to have, it has always related to their known context. Just as a vacuum expands to fill all available space, self-identification will grow to encompass a group that is bigger than that which is known but still foreign. Each stage of this historic trend of expanding inclusion was triggered by the awareness or threat of a stronger outside force; tribes become settlements when their world view becomes bigger and they realise that they need to fortify against those other large tribes out there. Which makes sense, seeing as everything is relative. You’ve got to beef up the ranks by accepting more people into your group or you suddenly become the small guy. Right now we’re stalled at the super-power stage, because there’s nothing bigger out there to necessitate further growth.

If you accept that premise, you don’t have to go much further before you figure that the ultimate fate of humanity probably won’t be based on some intrinsic or intellectual ability to broaden our loyalties further, but by the changing context within which we perceive ourselves. Humans groups will always be content to be big fish in the pond, but seeing ourselves as a bit player within the broader frame of the universe would certainly change that perspective. If that’s the case, things are pretty much out of our hands. Or else figuring out what’s actually out there could be the most humanity-affirming thing that we ever do.

Put it on a button: “Why haven’t we seen a photograph of the whole Universe yet?”

— 06 May 2010