A Fish Out of Water: Reflections on Rereading the Overview Effect, Part II
In the first chapters of The Overview Effect, Frank White challenges us earthbound fish to jump out of our habitual perspective. That is the analogy he uses, along the lines of classic explanation of 4 dimensions to us by imagining a 2-dimensional creature encountering a 3-dimensional world. A fish flopping onto land, if he could survive it, would have a hard time comprehending what he was experiencing, and even harder time communicating that experience to other fishes once he reentered the water.
White does not push the analogy further, but I will. At the very least, the other fish might call the transformative fish crazy. No one likes their worldview challenged. At worst, they might crucify him or martyr him in some other way. Throughout history, humans have proven that they are more likely to solve their cognitive dissonance by denying or repudiating new factual evidence than doing the hard, often painful work of modifying their worldview to accommodate a new reality. Exhibits: Socrates. Jesus. Hypatia of Alexandria. Giordano Bruno. Galileo. Darwin. Climate change scientists. I think you get my point.
But over time, that which was once highly controversial becomes accepted. No one seriously disputes anymore, for example, that the Earth revolves around the Sun, or that the solar system is located in an obscure arm of the Milky Way Galaxy. Nothing of the physical layout of the universe has changed. But a very fundamental change has happened in the universe – our perception of it. Even more important than that is our ability to communicate that change with each other, to share the experience of change. As White says, “A shared context is critical for real communication to take place, because without it, what is meaningful to one person may be nonsense to another.”
We fish are currently struggling to maintain our worldviews in the face of an onslaught of new information and stimuli. The normal human reaction is to dig in and double down. “I’m right, and so by definition everybody else who disagrees is wrong.” We have seen the results of what that type of thinking leads to (Americans are no less culpable in this regard).
What is needed to break the logjam is the new physical perspective that the Overview Effect offers. Such a jarring “fish out of water” experience may be too much for some to handle, and we have to be prepared for that. But for most of us, I suspect, it would be a positively transformative experience, one that would take many years, if not a lifetime, to assimilate and express in new cultural forms.
Even the way we experience transformation may be transformed. It is common to hear statements like, “When I contemplate the immensity of the stars, the galaxies, the universe, I realize how insignificant I am.” If that is true, why then do you not feel correspondingly omnipotent when contemplating cells, molecules, atoms, and quarks? Often such contemplation leads to a similar feeling of insignificance. Why? Because those scales are out of our control, outside of our carefully constructed worldview. But consider this – who is doing the contemplating? How is it that a mass of biomatter can come to perceive scales from quasars to quarks, and have some measure of control over it, at least locally? That is amazing all by itself. We are a legitimate part of the universe, and belong in it, and we have to understand things on a human scale.
One of the beauties of the Overview Effect is that it can broaden that “human scale” to encompass so much more, so we are not shocked into insignificance or incapacity when faced with realities far beyond our current comprehension. We fishes can help each other to comprehend this majestic, magnificent universe we find ourselves in, and strive to become more than fishes, without ever losing our essential “fishness.”
White says, “Our ‘worldview’ as a conceptual framework depends quite literally on our view of the world from a physical place in the universe.” We will always be human. We will always be constrained by the physical limitations that that implies. But that does not mean that what we think are our limitations now are the actual limitations. We will never discover those limits unless we push the boundaries, then communicate with each other, rationally, artistically or otherwise, the new parameters of what it means to be human. That is the gift that the Overview Effect can give all of us.