Friday, April 22, 2011

Cosmic Solitude

I heard this expression several years ago, but I didn't remember exactly in what context. It seemed very appropriate, though, to describe the feeling that comes over us when we face the idea that we are alone before the Universe. When we get to the conclusion that there is no supernatural being to protect us, the first sensation is of helplessness, it's scary. The intensity of that fear will vary according to how much the person was involved in the religious thinking, but it always occurs in some degree, except for those who become atheists in a very young age, before they develop the psichological dependence on this "divine entity".

Where did it come from?

The story behind the expression is interesting. It started with an interview a writer (Vides Junior) had with me about five years ago for a book he was writing, yet to be published.
One of the questions was:

8 - Does the search for knowledge necessarily lead to atheism?

My answer: No, but it favours it. It depends a lot on what premise the person starts from. I know people who have a lot of knowledge, but as they start from the premise that there is a god, they only take into consideration the arguments that favour this perspective. For knowledge to lead to atheism, the person has to be very honest, and he has to be able to face very hard truths, among them what I call 'cosmic solitude'.

And in the next answer I took up the subject again:

          9 - What is god?
My answer: That's complicated. I think it comes in part from the need to feel protected, in part because human beings are not able to accept their own finitude. It's hard to face the cosmic solitude.
According to Freud, 'god' is the father figure, and can be protective or punishing, or both. Anyway, extreme religiosity is usually a sign of immaturity, incapability for making decisions.
He got curious and asked me to get deeper into the concept of "Cosmic Solitude"

My answer: Searching the internet, I found that it has to do with Carl Sagan, but it's about the fact that we don't have contact, and neither do we know if there are inhabitants on other planets. I started to use the expression to define the feeling of helplessness that follows when we stop believing in a god. I got the idea from a book of Flávio Gikovate [a Brazilian author], but I don't think he used this expression.
The idea is that before the Universe we are nothing, totally insignificant. As there is no god to protect and guide (and punish) us, we are alone, helpless. We are forced to decide for ourselves, to assume total responsibility for our lives, and that's hard to do. This makes people more important, since they are our only source of support. It also forces us to accept imperfection as something inevitable, to understand that life is not fair and the world isn't good, and will never be.


Later on I developed the concept a little further.

The acquisition of knowledge will never be enough to make someone reconsider his concepts, especially the most cherished and deeprooted ones. You have to resort to an almost brutal honesty, you have to be able to bear the pain of realizing that we are wrong and trying to fool ourselves. Facing ourselves is the most difficult thing to do, and to admit that we are wrong causes a mental distress very hard to bear.

But after the fear passes, after the feeling of helplessness is accepted as the inevitable consequence of our independence, many things change for the better. One of the feelings that arises is an amazing sensation of freedom. Since there is nobody to protect us, neither is there anyone to punish us. The responsibility that is imposed upon us during this process also implies in freeing ourselves from 'imaginary sins', there is no such thing as sinning in our thoughts, the only thing that matters are the concrete results of our actions. We are alone before the Universe, that's true, but we have each other; human solidarity assumes an entirely new meaning.

The idea that we are absolutely insignificant in the great scheme of things, that the Universe wouldn't change a bit if our little planet would cease to exist, is a hard blow on our self-esteem. The paradox of our existence is this: on one hand we are nothing to the Cosmos, on the other hand we are extremely important to the people around us.

Alone in the Universe, but together.


[Originally posted on - translated by myself]