Hannah Arendt on Science, the Value of Space Exploration, and How Our Cosmic Aspirations Illuminate the Human Condition

A timeless case against human solipsism and a clarion call for non-egocentric curiosity about the nature of reality.


Hannah Arendt on Science, the Value of Space Exploration, and How Our Cosmic Aspirations Illuminate the Human Condition

“Who indeed will set bounds to human ingenuity?” Galileo asked in his magnificent letter to the Grand Duchess of of Tuscany as he dethroned the human animal from the center of the universe. “Who will assert that everything in the universe capable of being perceived is already discovered and known?”

Half a millennium later, as we continue to make revolutionary discoveries that invite us to revise our understanding of the cosmos and reassess our place in it — discoveries like the detection of gravitational waves, perhaps the greatest breakthrough in astronomy since Galileo pointed his telescope at the heavens — we continue to struggle with the same discomfiting questions: How are we to live with any sense of importance and meaning if the more we find out about the universe, the less significant we seem to be and the more meaningless it becomes? What, then, is the human and humane value of knowing more at all?

That’s what Hannah Arendt (October 14, 1906–December 4, 1975) addresses with great subtlety and uncompromising intellectual rigor in a 1963 essay titled “The Conquest of Space and the Stature of Man,” later included in her altogether spectacular and timely book Between Past and Future: Eight Exercises in Political Thought (public library).

The essay’s title was inspired by a question posed by the editors of the magazine Great Ideas Today for a special feature focusing on “what the exploration of space is doing to man’s view of himself and to man’s condition” — the question of whether humanity’s so-called conquest of space has increased or diminished the existential stature of human beings.

Hannah Arendt

Five years after she weighed the difference between how art and science illuminate the human condition, Arendt writes:

To understand physical reality seems to demand not only the renunciation of an anthropocentric or geocentric world view, but also a radical elimination of all anthropomorphic elements and principles, as they arise either from the world given to the five human senses or from the categories inherent in the human mind. The question assumes that man is the highest being we know of, an assumption which we have inherited from the Romans, whose humanitas was so alien to the Greeks’ frame of mind that they had not even a word for it. (The reason for the absence of the word humanitas from Greek language and thought was that the Greeks, in contrast to the Romans, never thought that man is the highest being there is. Aristotle calls this belief atopos, “absurd.”) This view of man is even more alien to the scientist, to whom man is no more than a special case of organic life and to whom man’s habitat — the earth, together with earthbound laws — is no more than a special borderline case of absolute, universal laws, that is, laws that rule the immensity of the universe. Surely the scientist cannot permit himself to ask: What consequences will the result of my investigations have for the stature (or, for that matter, for the future) of man? It has been the glory of modern science that it has been able to emancipate itself completely from all such anthropocentric, that is, truly humanistic, concerns.

[…]

For the scientist, man is no more than an observer of the universe in its manifold manifestations. The progress of modern science has demonstrated very forcefully to what an extent this observed universe, the infinitely small no less than the infinitely large, escapes not only the coarseness of human sense perception but even the enormously ingenious instruments that have been built for its refinement.

Although science is, as astrophysicist Janna Levin has memorably noted, “a truly human endeavor,” Arendt argues that the task of the scientist is to stand outside and beyond human solipsism; that setting out to answer such questions as what man’s stature should be, how we differ from other other animals, and why we pursue knowledge at all would shackle science to constraining concerns, to a sort of smallness of curiosity. She reflects on the paradox of such questions:

All answers … whether they come from laymen or philosophers or scientists, are non-scientific (although not anti-scientific); they can never be demonstrably true or false. Their truth resembles rather the validity of agreements than the compelling validity of scientific statements. Even when the answers are given by philosophers whose way of life is solitude, they are arrived at by an exchange of opinions among many men, most of whom may no longer be among the living. Such truth can never command general agreement, but it frequently outlasts the compellingly and demonstrably true statements of the sciences which, especially in recent times, have the uncomfortable inclination never to stay put, although at any given moment they are, and must be, valid for all. In other words, notions such as life, or man, or science, or knowledge are pre-scientific by definition, and the question is whether or not the actual development of science which has led to the conquest of terrestrial space and to the invasion of the space of the universe has changed these notions to such an extent that they no longer make sense.

So if science ought to be concerned with questions far beyond the human scale, free of human ego, then the very notion of the “conquest” of space and man’s “stature” implies a sort of hunger for power antithetical to the real enterprise of science.

Fifteen years before the pioneering scientist Erwin Chargaff made his beautiful case for the poetics of curiosity, she considers the true animating force of scientists — amplified access to what Einstein famously called the human “passion for comprehension.” Arendt writes:

It is, I think, safe to say that nothing was more alien to the minds of the scientists, who brought about the most radical and most rapid revolutionary process the world has ever seen, than any will to power. Nothing was more remote than any wish to “conquer space” and to go to the moon… It was indeed their search for “true reality” that led them to lose confidence in appearances, in the phenomena as they reveal themselves of their own accord to human sense and reason. They were inspired by an extraordinary love of harmony and lawfulness which taught them that they would have to step outside any merely given sequence or series of occurrences if they wanted to discover the overall beauty and order of the whole, that is, the universe.

[…]

It is, in fact, quite obvious that the scientists’ strongest intellectual motivation was Einstein’s “striving after generalization,” and that if they appealed to power at all, it was the interconnected formidable power of abstraction and imagination.

She turns to the particular case of space exploration and its immense humanizing value in enlarging not only our knowledge but our humility:

The magnitude of the space enterprise seems to me beyond dispute, and all objections raised against it on the purely utilitarian level — that it is too expensive, that the money were better spent on education and the improvement of the citizens, on the fight against poverty and disease, or whatever other worthy purposes may come to mind — sound to me slightly absurd, out of tune with the things that are at stake and whose consequences today appear still quite unpredictable. There is, moreover, another reason why I think these arguments are beside the point. They are singularly inapplicable because the enterprise itself could come about only through an amazing development of man’s scientific capabilities. The very integrity of science demands that not only utilitarian considerations but the reflection upon the stature of man as well be left in abeyance. Has not each of the advances of science, since the time of Copernicus, almost automatically resulted in a decrease in his stature? And is the often repeated argument that it was man who achieved his own debasement in his search for truth, thus proving anew his superiority and even increasing his stature, more than a sophism? Perhaps it will turn out that way. At any event, man, insofar as he is a scientist, does not care about his own stature in the universe or about his position on the evolutionary ladder of animal life; this “carelessness” is his pride and his glory.

Complement this particular portion of Arendt’s altogether indispensable Between Past and Future with physicist Sean Carroll on how “poetic naturalism” helps us wrest meaning from an impartial universe, then revisit Arendt on the crucial difference between truth and meaning, the power of being an outsider, how tyrants use isolation as a weapon of oppression, and our only effective antidote to the normalization of evil.


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Poem of the Day: May Day

They go, the early flags, the gory maples—
so too the daffodils & Lenten roses.
Other petals swirl & nights warm.
 
Buds thicken and cast shadows:
in a thunderstorm
I almost forget the ice that was.
 
Narcissi suckle watery paths;
meadows heap up emerald masses.
How green & I want to delight
 
except this undertow—it pulls so fast
passing before I recognize it—
like souls in Dante who can’t see the present,
 
white lilacs curdle in pre-summer heat.
The parade I barely noticed was beginning
is already halfway down the street.
Tess Taylor, "May Day" from Work and Days. Copyright © 2016 by Tess Taylor. Reprinted by permission of Red Hen Press.

Source: Work and Days(Red Hen Press, 2016)

Tess Taylor

Biography
More poems by this author

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Presentation Mockup Templates Free Download

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Sunday Special: Day Dress!

Door Sixteen

Day Dress outfit - doorsixteen.com

Tomorrow is the first day of May, and despite the weekend of rain, snow, and hail we just had in New Mexico, I’ve decided that even if tomorrow brings locusts, I will be dressed for springtime. This is always a tough time of year for me clothing-wise—I know summer will be here eventually, and spring is when I try to mentally prepare myself for not being able to wear jeans and boots every single day be weaning myself gradually into roomy dresses with bare legs…and boots. I can’t bring myself to wear sandals AND and a dress at the same time—it’s one or the other. If I’m wearing sandals, it has to be with jeans.

Anyway, I just got this great blue cotton PO-EM day dress from Moorea Seal. I finally tried it on this morning after having it draped over the back of a chair in my bedroom all week, and it’s super cute. I know it’s going to be a staple for me this spring and summer! So I thought I’d put together a little outfit roundup before a new week starts.

Enjoy your Sunday night!

1. Cooked Straw Hat / Madewell
2. Gate Hoops, Laurel Hill Jewelry / Adorn Milk
3. Girard Scarf / Block Shop Textiles
4. Day Dress, PO-EM / Moorea Seal
5. Meet Me At Sunset Nail Polish / Essie
6. Blocks Mini Bag / Bookhou
7. Rise Pendant / Lila Rice
8. Melissa Button Short Boots / Frye

The post Sunday Special: Day Dress! appeared first on Door Sixteen.

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Sleeping People Embroidered Onto Handmade Pillows by Maryam Ashkanian

Iranian artist Maryam Ashkanian embroiders individuals deep in sleep onto the surface of her handmade pillows, matching the size of her subjects to the area one would physically occupy if they took a nap on her work. The stitched sleepers lay sprawled in different configurations on the white background, some with their arms outstretched, whiles others hold them tucked into their bodies. These sculptures are a way to access the wide subject matter of dreams, a place where Ashkanian feels we can observe ourselves in one of the purest forms. You can see more of her sculptures on her Instagram and Twitter. (via Ignant)

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Sebadoh: April 22, 2017 Bell House


[photo by nyctaper]

In the half-dozen times I’ve seen Sebadoh live, I had never experienced a performance as good as their set at the Bell House last week. The band seemed relaxed and focused and worked through an hour-long set of inspired music. Perhaps buoyed by the fact that in this “co-headline” show they were tasked with playing second of three bands, Sebadoh had a few moments of playful banter, but for the most part were all business.

The set was structured to allow each song protagonist to play a mini-set of their material before a changeover. The show began with five Lou Barlow songs before Jason Loewenstein took over on the guitar at centerstage and played six of his songs, before Lou finished the set with four songs. The band released an album (Defend Yourself) and an EP early this decade after an extended hiatus, but this show was a fair representation of all of their material, newer and classic. This show was the last night of a brief five-city tour after the band played just three dates in 2016. If the Bell House set indicates the high quality of the band’s current performances, we hope that 2017 sees more dates for Sebadoh, particularly locally.

I recorded this set with the Neumann hypers mounted at the soundboard rail and mixed with an excellent feed by veteran house FOH Dave. There is one moment of feedback in the first minute, but overall the sound quality of this recording is superb — possibly the best recording we’ve ever made in this venue. Enjoy!

Download the Complete Show [MP3] / [FLAC]

Stream the Complete Set:

Sebadoh
2017-04-22
Bell House
Brooklyn NY

Digital Master Recording
Soundboard + Audience Matrix

Soundboard [Engineer: Dave] + Schoeps CCM4u Cardioids > Sound Devices 744t > 2 x 24bit 48kHz wav files > Soundforge (post-production) > CDWave 1.95 (tracking) > TLH > flac (320 MP3 and tagging via Foobar)

Recorded and Produced by nyctaper

Setlist:
[Total Time 54:02]
01 Not a Friend
02 Homemade
03 State of Mine
04 Soul and Fire
05 Beauty of the Ride
06 [changeover]
07 Got It
08 It’s All You
09 Drag Down
10 Prince-s
11 Beat
12 [banter – pieces of meat]
13 My Drugs
14 [change back]
15 I Will
16 Rebound
17 Skull
18 Arbitrary High

PLEASE SUPPORT Sebadoh:  Facebook | Bandcamp

Source: http://www.nyctaper.com