Website updates

Written by Roger Harris on Sunday, 14 September 2014. Posted in Other Issues

Please let me know if you need anything related to website updates, troubleshooting, etc. You can email me [roger] [at] [harrissocialmedia.com].

Metaphor, Myth and Meaning: Reflections on Rereading The Overview Effect, Part III

Written by Alex Howerton on Saturday, 08 February 2014. Posted in Overview Effect

In Chapter 3, “An Overview of the Spaceflight Experience,” White discusses metaphor as a method used by the astronauts to attempt to explain their spaceflight experiences. Launching from the ideas of Julian Jaynes in his book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, White concludes that “one result of space exploration is that language will grow as spaceflight is described more frequently.”

White is spot on here. Metaphor is powerful. It is a way for the human mind to strive to express something that cannot be grasped directly, either by the speaker or the listener. In essence, it creates reality by indicating a relationship that was hitherto unrecognized, or even existent. Spaceflight, for example, is a raw experience, but what does it mean? Like all life experiences, it does not have one meaning for all time, but changes in context over time and with different astronauts. White makes the point that “memory of it [the spaceflight experience] acts as a time-release capsule, emitting feelings, insights, thoughts, and ideas over the years after it has occurred.”

White then goes on to describe the active legend-building that orbited the early astronauts. “Societies need heroes who are specially selected to undergo hardship and danger on the frontiers of civilization. Space is today’s frontier, and the astronauts and cosmonauts have become today’s heroes, people who have extraordinary experiences unknown to others in the society, doing something that requires uncommon bravery.”

Deeds are the germ of legend, and legend is the fount of myth. And metaphor is the language of myth. We moderns hear ancient myths, and instantly think “how preposterous,” or “how quaint.” We have even morphed the word “myth” to be synonymous, in some contexts, with “lie”. We constantly feel the need to debunk or bust myths, as if they are some insidious plague of which we must rid ourselves. But that is because we are losing our sense of metaphor, and what it is trying to do in helping shape our reality, and give it meaning.

While we are eschewing myth in one sphere, we are actively building it in another. The early astronauts were indeed our heroes, the strong-willed warriors with “The Right Stuff” who would battle the Cold War by proxy. Even the very name “astronaut” is an evocative metaphor – “sailor of the stars.”

But the context of myth changes over time, and the metaphor which once served so well has now fallen into disrepute. Those noble heroes of that bygone era, the “Space Age,” are now one more relic of the Military Industrial Complex. We don’t need fighter pilots in space anymore – the nature of conflict has changed, and the anticipated space war is probably not going to happen any time soon. We have even gone so far in our popular culture as to parody that “right stuff” mythos in movies like Armageddon and Space Cowboys. Many view the early space program as a dead end, and now say things like “Why go to space until we solve all our problems here on Earth first? The space program is just an elitist escapist fantasy that can do nothing to help the planet.”

But that is the result of our modern myth-busting proclivities. Just because the cultural terrain has shifted does not diminish the accomplishments or worth of those early space explorers, those heroes. The valuable and worthy activity now is to actively engage with our space explorers, to interact with them to reach for new, fresh metaphors that transform our understanding of space from something to conquer to viewing it more as an extension of our environment, which is precisely what it is. The role of the space explorers has transformed from conquering heroes to dedicated, focused achievers of missions, precisely the same shift in dynamics we have seen in many frontier contexts. This in no way diminishes the stature of the early space pioneers, but rather places them in the mythic context of blazing the trail and making it possible for more of us to go, when the opportunities present themselves.

White then goes on to ask whether spaceflight is a spiritual experience. “Spiritual” is now one of those loaded words in our culture, along with “religion” and God” that mean something different to just about everybody who uses them, and are subject to our myth-busting propensities. But space exploration definitely does have an effect on humans that take us beyond our normal context. The renowned mythologist Joseph Campbell discussed the transformative power of metaphor to reach for deeper insights in his book The Flight of the Wild Gander. He tells us that the philosopher Immanuel Kant “offers a four-term analogy (“a” is to “b” as “c” is to “x”), which points not to an incomplete resemblance of two things but to a complete resemblance of two relationships between quite dissimilar things…. Mythological, theological, metaphysical analogies, in other words, do not point indirectly to an only partially understood knowable term, but directly to a relationship between to terms, the one empirical, the other metaphysical; the latter being, absolutely and forever and from every conceivable human standpoint, unknowable.”

Space is that inconceivable unknowable metaphysical condition, that astronauts have experienced directly, albeit from their limited human perspectives, and are continually reaching to find the right metaphors, the right Kantian relationship, to express to the rest of us, to give us a sense, as White points out, of what is was like. That metaphysical reality can never be fully apprehended or understood by even those who experienced it. The astronauts need us as much as we need them, so we can mutually push our communal language to find new metaphors, new ways to understand and communicate that ultimately ineffable experience.

That experience definitely has a spiritual quality to it, in that it compels all of us, the astronauts and the ground observers, to reach beyond ordinarily-experienced reality to a metaphysical sense of participating in something greater than ourselves. As White points out, for some astronauts, that translated into achieving the goals of the mission to the best of their ability, with no attention paid to what is commonly considered “spiritual.” Yet the challenge of the experience called to the fore that response from those individuals which would otherwise not have come to fruition. Space calls out the best in us, and it is our constant challenge to grapple with the shortcomings of our language to strive to create new metaphors which can lead us to a greater sense of context, meaning and myth, as we struggle to understand our place in the universe.

 

Metaphor, Myth and Meaning: Reflections on Rereading The Overview Effect, Part III

Written by Reflections on Rereading The Overview Effect, Part 1 on Tuesday, 21 January 2014. Posted in Overview Effect

In Chapter 3, “An Overview of the Spaceflight Experience,” White discusses metaphor as a method used by the astronauts to attempt to explain their spaceflight experiences. Launching from the ideas of Julian Jaynes in his book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, White concludes that “one result of space exploration is that language will grow as spaceflight is described more frequently.”

White is spot on here. Metaphor is powerful. It is a way for the human mind to strive to express something that cannot be grasped directly, either by the speaker or the listener. In essence, it creates reality by indicating a relationship that was hitherto unrecognized, or even existent. Spaceflight, for example, is a raw experience, but what does it mean? Like all life experiences, it does not have one meaning for all time, but changes in context over time and with different astronauts. White makes the point that “memory of it [the spaceflight experience] acts as a time-release capsule, emitting feelings, insights, thoughts, and ideas over the years after it has occurred.”

White then goes on to describe the active legend-building that orbited the early astronauts. “Societies need heroes who are specially selected to undergo hardship and danger on the frontiers of civilization. Space is today’s frontier, and the astronauts and cosmonauts have become today’s heroes, people who have extraordinary experiences unknown to others in the society, doing something that requires uncommon bravery.”

Deeds are the germ of legend, and legend is the fount of myth. And metaphor is the language of myth. We moderns hear ancient myths, and instantly think “how preposterous,” or “how quaint.” We have even morphed the word “myth” to be synonymous, in some contexts, with “lie”. We constantly feel the need to debunk or bust myths, as if they are some insidious plague of which we must rid ourselves. But that is because we are losing our sense of metaphor, and what it is trying to do in helping shape our reality, and give it meaning.

While we are eschewing myth in one sphere, we are actively building it in another. The early astronauts were indeed our heroes, the strong-willed warriors with “The Right Stuff” who would battle the Cold War by proxy. Even the very name “astronaut” is an evocative metaphor – “sailor of the stars.”

But the context of myth changes over time, and the metaphor which once served so well has now fallen into disrepute. Those noble heroes of that bygone era, the “Space Age,” are now one more relic of the Military Industrial Complex. We don’t need fighter pilots in space anymore – the nature of conflict has changed, and the anticipated space war is probably not going to happen any time soon. We have even gone so far in our popular culture as to parody that “right stuff” mythos in movies like Armageddon and Space Cowboys. Many view the early space program as a dead end, and now say things like “Why go to space until we solve all our problems here on Earth first? The space program is just an elitist escapist fantasy that can do nothing to help the planet.”

But that is the result of our modern myth-busting proclivities. Just because the cultural terrain has shifted does not diminish the accomplishments or worth of those early space explorers, those heroes. The valuable and worthy activity now is to actively engage with our space explorers, to interact with them to reach for new, fresh metaphors that transform our understanding of space from something to conquer to viewing it more as an extension of our environment, which is precisely what it is. The role of the space explorers has transformed from conquering heroes to dedicated, focused achievers of missions, precisely the same shift in dynamics we have seen in many frontier contexts. This in no way diminishes the stature of the early space pioneers, but rather places them in the mythic context of blazing the trail and making it possible for more of us to go, when the opportunities present themselves.

White then goes on to ask whether spaceflight is a spiritual experience. “Spiritual” is now one of those loaded words in our culture, along with “religion” and God” that mean something different to just about everybody who uses them, and are subject to our myth-busting propensities. But space exploration definitely does have an effect on humans that take us beyond our normal context. The renowned mythologist Joseph Campbell discussed the transformative power of metaphor to reach for deeper insights in his book The Flight of the Wild Gander. He tells us that the philosopher Immanuel Kant “offers a four-term analogy (“a” is to “b” as “c” is to “x”), which points not to an incomplete resemblance of two things but to a complete resemblance of two relationships between quite dissimilar things…. Mythological, theological, metaphysical analogies, in other words, do not point indirectly to an only partially understood knowable term, but directly to a relationship between to terms, the one empirical, the other metaphysical; the latter being, absolutely and forever and from every conceivable human standpoint, unknowable.”

Space is that inconceivable unknowable metaphysical condition, that astronauts have experienced directly, albeit from their limited human perspectives, and are continually reaching to find the right metaphors, the right Kantian relationship, to express to the rest of us, to give us a sense, as White points out, of what is was like. That metaphysical reality can never be fully apprehended or understood by even those who experienced it. The astronauts need us as much as we need them, so we can mutually push our communal language to find new metaphors, new ways to understand and communicate that ultimately ineffable experience.

That experience definitely has a spiritual quality to it, in that it compels all of us, the astronauts and the ground observers, to reach beyond ordinarily-experienced reality to a metaphysical sense of participating in something greater than ourselves. As White points out, for some astronauts, that translated into achieving the goals of the mission to the best of their ability, with no attention paid to what is commonly considered “spiritual.” Yet the challenge of the experience called to the fore that response from those individuals which would otherwise not have come to fruition. Space calls out the best in us, and it is our constant challenge to grapple with the shortcomings of our language to strive to create new metaphors which can lead us to a greater sense of context, meaning and myth, as we struggle to understand our place in the universe.

 

It Really is a Fragile Oasis!

Written by Frank White on Saturday, 25 May 2013.

 

When I first heard astronaut Ron Garan use the term “fragile oasis,” I immediately thought of it in ecological terms. Many astronauts have echoed Ron’s thoughts, focusing in particular on the thin atmosphere that is the only barrier between us and the vacuum of space.

 

            However, I had another understanding of the term recently, when two extraordinary events took place on the same day. First, there was a meteor strike that hit Russia, shaking buildings, shattering glass, and injuring more than a thousand people. Then, there was the too-close-for-comfort flyby of an asteroid that passed within the orbits of many of our own communications satellites.

 

            The asteroid encounter was expected, the meteor strike was not. Both engendered excitement and fear, though, as scientists let us know how lucky we were that the meteor did not explode closer to the ground and the asteroid was not in a slightly different orbit. We heard a lot about the dinosaurs and why they are no longer with us.

 

            The asteroid, named 2012 D14, is actually the more serious problem. Meteorites crash into the atmosphere every day, most of them burning up harmlessly. The danger of asteroids is that there are so many out there, and we don’t know where all of them are. The media talked at some length about mitigation strategies, which sounds plausible, but you need to have advance warning before you can try to nudge these space rocks away from our home planet.

 

            After the excitement died down, what occurred to me is that the Earth really is a fragile oasis, in more ways than one. It’s not just an environmental issue; it’s also the fact that a collision with something the size of a small car could be the end of life as we know it.

 

            As one who has long been interested in the Overview Effect, it also brought to mind something those of us at the Overview Institute have been trying to communicate for some time: we are in space, we have always been in space, and we will always be in space.

 

            We are traveling through the universe in a natural spaceship at a high rate of speed, and there are lots of other things rushing about as well: comets, asteroids, meteors, and even a rogue planet or two.

 

            It is not surprising to me that astronauts like Rusty Schweickart and Ed Lu are interested in figuring out how to save the planet from an asteroid hit. They have been out there and they’ve seen the Earth not only from space but also in space. They know that you can hold up your thumb and blot out the past, present, and future of humanity and all life. They know, in short, how precious this fragile oasis really is.

 

            For some, the message is clear: if we are to survive, we must become a multi-planet species, and that is likely to happen, perhaps sooner than we think. For others, it is asteroid mitigation to protect the planet. For me, it is both. Our true environment, as the asteroid and meteor reminded us, is the solar system, and we need to learn as much about that new environment as we can if we are going to survive an

The Unsung Hero of the Overview Film Premiere

Written by Frank White on Monday, 21 January 2013.

When you watch the video of the event that was held at Harvard on December 7 to premiere the film “Overview,” you will see a number of people who helped to make it happen—Rob Neugeboren, Guy Reid, Ron Garan, Jeff Hoffman, Doug Trumbull, and me. There were others who do not appear, too numerous to name, who played important roles in making this event happen.

However, you won’t see the person who is, in my opinion, the unsung hero of the event—my wife Donna. That’s because Donna was too sick to attend, something I mentioned in my own short talk about the Overview Effect.

Donna suffers from a chronic illness called Crohn’s disease, with vascular complications resulting from the treatments she’s had. She had wanted to attend the event, and we had rented a room in the Charles Hotel the night before, so that it would be easy for her to get to it, or she would be close by if she couldn’t make it.

Anyway, what most people don’t know is that Donna was so sick she really should have been in the hospital that day. However, she had said over and over again to me, “I don’t care how sick I am, I’m not going to get in the way of your big event. Don’t even mention going to the hospital to me.”

I said okay, but it was difficult, because it was clear to me on the morning of December 7 that Donna was very unwell. Anyway, I did go through the day and into the evening as planned, and it was a great introduction of the film and of the Overview Effect idea.

The next morning, however, Donna was much worse and she told me to call an ambulance. We rushed her to the hospital, where she had surgery to open up blocked veins and insert three stents to prevent additional blockages.  She is much better now, but it is clear to me that her love for me and support for my work on the Overview Effect was all that kept her from going to the hospital much sooner.

This is not the first time that Donna has made sacrifices to allow me to speak at conferences or attend events connected with this work. In fact, she has been a strong supporter of anything connected with the Overview Effect and Overview Institute for nearly 20 years. I have told many people how much I appreciate her commitment, but it is time now to acknowledge her contribution to the world.

Thank you, my Donna!