Ep. 3: How do we see ourselves (from space)?


In episode 3 of Space Midrash, Jacob probes the Overview Effect, its implications on Jewish civilization, and what that means about narrative collapse. The Overview Effect is a philosophy of social evolution in the space age by Frank White inspired by his interviews with astronauts about their experience.

In his opening monologue, Jacob jests on the famous hubble photo of earth from space adorning every classroom in his elementary school. In part one he examines three tenets from Frank’s book: 1) The overview effect 2) copernican perspective 3) Universal insight. In part two, Jacob offers his definition of Jewish civilization as well as a Jewish analysis of Frank’s ideas. In the last part, Jacob probes narrative collapse and how Jewish civilization is ready for another one.

  • [02:43] “Earth from Space” Poster in every classroom
  • [04:20] The Overview Effect and Passover
  • [06:37] What is the Overview Effect, Who is Frank White
  • [08:18] What is the Copernican Perspective
  • [09:34] What is Universal Insight
  • [ 10:17] Quote from the Overview Effect, 2021, p.131
  • [12:50] The Overview Effect’s affect on Jewish Civilization
  • [14:47] Why Jacob says “Jewish Civilization” over other nomenclature
  • [16:43] The Copernican Perspective and Jewish Civilization
  • [18:33] Universal Insight and Jewish Values
  • [20:48] Note about Jewish astronaut interviews in the Overview Effect
  • [22:03] Quote from Present Shock, by Douglas Rushkoff, p.39
  • [22:47] Quote from The Overview Effect,2021, p.218
  • [25:34] Opportunity for cultural leadership in space age

The overview effect is the experience astronauts have when leaving the Earth and looking back down, whether they’re in low Earth orbit or flying as far away as the moon. This experience can have a profound impact on how we see ourselves and our place in the universe.
The Overview Effect is a philosophy by Frank White that discusses the social, psychological, cognitive, and spiritual impact of going to space. The three major concepts are the overview effect, the Copernican perspective, and universal insight. These ideas are accessible to us through the cognition, through this articulation that Frank and these astronauts have made. These ideas are much more palatable, and they are not incongruent or inconsistent with any other philosophies that are out there.
The Overview Effect and the Copernican perspective have the potential to change how Jewish people see themselves in the world and their place in history.
The Formal Framework is designed to assess the effectiveness of your organization’s formal processes and structures.
As technology advances, we are increasingly thrust into a reality where we must come to terms with our place in the universe. This new reality has the potential to drastically change the way we see ourselves and our place in the world. Jewish civilization, with its long history of storytelling, has the opportunity to lead the way in this new era.

Transcript:

My article on Pesach in the Space Age: https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/our-first-seder-in-outer-space/

Transcript

Jacob Sager: You are listening to the Space Midrash podcast. This is episode three, titled: “How Do We See Ourselves from Space?” In this episode of Space Midrash, we’re going to talk about the overview effect, which is a philosophy coined by Frank White.

The overview effect is both a philosophy and an experience. It’s the experience astronauts have when leaving the Earth and looking back down, whether they’re in low Earth orbit or flying as far away as the moon. Frank White has spoken to many different astronauts and cataloged their different experiences to come up with a common ground in language for understanding the impact of seeing the Earth in space has on human psyche. And he went further and deeper to explore and consider and theorize how this knowledge will affect culture and civilization at a larger level.

So in this episode we’re going to go over the overview effect and some other ideas from Frank White’s philosophy. We’re going to talk about the impact that those ideas will have on Jewish civilization right now and very likely in the near future as space travel continues to expand, become more accessible, and impact more people and more communities. And lastly, we will talk about how this impact of the overview effect on civilization as a whole will lead to a certain type of narrative collapse that doesn’t have to be frightening, but instead is a wonderful opportunity for leadership and storytelling as a new way of life will emerge.

So, my name is Jacob Sager. You’re listening to the Space Midrash podcast. I believe in an artful, ethical and inclusive humanity living amongst the cosmos. And I believe that there is an opportunity for leadership for Jewish values in such a time. So you’re listening to episode three titled “How Do We See Ourselves from Space

What’s interesting to me about the overview effect is I remember growing up and in every classroom at my school there was a picture of Earth that was taken from the Hubble telescope. And you could see the continents and you could see the oceans, and you could see the clouds. And, uh, it was there from kindergarten through fifth grade. And it became very commonplace. And I never really thought of it. As much as I loved space, this image was not that exciting or inspiring as it was intended by the people who arranged to put it up there.

Now, it wasn’t until this last year that I first heard of the overview effect. It was in a Quora answer about a question about astronauts. And immediately reading about it, it all made sense to me and actually really turned me back on to my interest in space.

I’m not an engineer, I’m not a mathematician. I’m not the physical specimen that is going to be picked out to become an astronaut. But I saw that there is a very important place for philosophy and discussions about the impact on our thinking and our way of life. That is not the Sci-Fi conversation, that is not a technology conversation. It is a conversation of meaning and perspective.

And so at the time I had read about the overview effect on Quora was spring and Passover was coming. And Frank’s ideas began to mesh with the thought I was having going into Passover, which is: we need to ask better questions every year.

If we’re going to keep doing the same thing in a cyclical way, even though we might have guiding questions that are eternal or timeless or passed down for a long time, that we need to have new questions because we live in the present tense and we don’t know what the future is going to bring. And I have this thought that existentially speaking religion’s and long established culture’s narratives will collapse as a result of the impact of the overview effect.

With the new class of space travel emerging this year, I felt the need to get ahead of it. And in particular, I see an opportunity to create a greater story. No longer one in which we march backwards into the future, but leap forward empowered by an inclusive history and a larger perspective than just the Earth. Yet if we don’t consider it now, we may not be able to lead ourselves through this transition.

So at the time, I wrote an article for Times of Israel considering what a seder in outer space will be like, but really hitting into some of the questions about how do we see ourselves and know ourselves.

If the overview effect is considering, almost spiritually but existentially, what it’s like to see the Earth from space and how that changed your thought on humanity and your existence, then how can Jews and Jewish civilization see ourselves when we go to a perspective like that? Because looking down on Earth you won’t be able to see and know what’s Jewish and what’s not Jewish.

So there’s a bigger question of impact and identity here that I don’t have an answer to and I only have the first questions for. But I feel that the overview effect and the implications of this philosophy are very important right now for any cultural, ethnic or religious group on planet Earth to consider. And if they don’t consider it, there will be a consequence of collapse, of not creating the right conversation to handle this impact.

So I want to get into it. We’ll go into now what Frank White’s philosophy is and a few of the major tenets of the Overview Effect. The Overview Effect is a philosophy by Frank White, who first wrote about it in the first edition of his book in 1986. In the Overview Effect, Frank has met with and interviewed many of the astronauts from around the world through the different ages of the space program astronauts who have been in a space shuttle, astronauts who have been in Soyuz capsules, astronauts who have been on the surface of the Moon.

He has spoken with so many and he’s asked some very interesting questions that a lot of people haven’t even considered which is very much the social, psychological, cognitive, spiritual impact of going to space on those individuals. And in doing so, in cataloging this, he also has built a framework and a theory of how the next steps in history are going to unfold. In terms of, it’s not a spirituality – it’s this existential realism, that we are on a planet floating through space.

So I want to get into the major concepts here from Frank’s book in order to set the framework for today’s conversation. We’ve already discussed the overview effect. It is this experience that astronauts have when leaving the Earth. They see the Earth as a whole and the spiritual implications of that have an existential effect on those people and it changes how they see the world. But there’s another depth to this, another level of nuance which, Frank points out which is the Copernican perspective.

Copernicus, as we know, pointed out that the Earth isn’t the center of the solar system or the universe. That in fact, we are in a heliocentric model here and it’s much more complex than that. And astronauts have a shift when they’re out in space and they see Earth and maybe they get a little bit further away. Although they know this in order to pilot the ship and because they are accredited scientists in order to get to where they are they know the Earth is around. They know a lot more of this physics of the sun being at the center of our solar system and whatever this entity we’re in called the galaxy and how it’s moving works. They know so much about that. But once they get out there, really, it hits them.

We’re so grounded in being in our story here on planet Earth that we know it to be the center. Despite the science that we know, we still live with a simpler brain that we don’t really get that we’re not the center of the universe. So there’s this other piece that Frank goes into called the Copernican perspective.

Lastly, and I think in a way almost most interestingly he talks about the universal insight. It’s this realization of Earth being very small in the scheme of things. While the Copernican perspective is a bit of an orientation, the universal insight is almost philosophy that gets clicked. It’s just the universe is so vast and you can see it and you can feel it and it’s maybe even a culmination of this preciousness that occurs from the overview effect tied into the orientation of the Copernican perspective.

So I want to read this quote from Frank, from his book, from page 131. “The overview effect is the foundation of the philosophy necessary to build a planetary civilization and a planetary overview system. The Copernican perspective tends to occur in extended Earth orbit missions or on journeys to the moon is a realization of the sun centered rather than Earth-centered reality. The overview effect having communicated the reality of the earth as a whole, the copernican perspective established that it is also a part of the experience  andis the foundation of a solar civilization and a solar overview system. Finally, especially for astronauts who have gone to the moon, there is the universal insight, a realization of how small the Earth is in the scheme of things. There is a sense of the unity of everything in the universe and an understanding that our ultimate destiny is to become citizens of the universe.”

So that’s from Frank White most recent edition of The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution, published in 2021. That’s available on Amazon and popular booksellers. These three points are the tenets of the overview effect. We have the overview effect, the Copernican perspective, and universal insight. And what’s interesting and awesome about them is they are accessible without the experience. They are accessible to us through the cognition, through this articulation that Frank and these astronauts have made. These ideas are much more palatable.

 And they are not incongruent or inconsistent with any other philosophies that are out there. Unless those are philosophies based on avoiding truth or hiding from what’s really there. You could be a Jew, a Christian, a Buddhist, and be very open to these ideas and incorporating them into your life. You could even be a very traditional religious conservative person and still be open to these ideas. It’s really good stuff.

So in the next part, I want to talk about these three tenets and their impact on Jewish civilization. To begin this, I want to explain why I say Jewish civilization and why I don’t use other nomenclatures such as the Jews, Judaism, Jewish culture, Jewish this or that. I say Jewish civilization because I want to take an overview effect perspective. I want to get as big as possible here.

Being Jewish to an individual can be a religious identity. It can be a cultural identity, it can be an ethnic identity. It can also be all three of those or any combination of those three with other, maybe cultural, ethnic identities. There are a lot of Jews on planet Earth. And despite the comics that antisemitic propaganda puts out there, it’s a very diverse set of cultures and a diverse set of religions and ethnicities that make up Jewish people worldwide. And that gets lost by the religious and by the antisemitic out there. They tend to portray what is Jewish civilization as being one thing. But Jewish civilization is thousands of voices over thousands of years speaking on thousands of topics. And there is a consistency and there is a continuity, but it has never, ever been just one thing.

And so I say Jewish civilization because the overview effect in thinking about human civilization spreading out into space requires that we think bigger. There will be so many more people and so much of what we know will either be transformed, no longer relevant or have a different occupancy than it does now in our sets of meaning. So I say Jewish civilization because I want to include what matters and I want to take a real inclusive and powerful perspective when making the considerations and opinions that I want to put out there. So next, let’s go into the three ideas from Frank White’s philosophy and talk about how those impact Jewish civilizations.

The first is the overview effect: seeing the Earth as a whole from space. I think it’ll be interesting for this next class of space tourists. And I know that there will be a lot of Jewish people from around the world that will participate in this new class of astronaut. And I’m curious and envious for them not having to have the stresses of their normal missions and being a tourist and being able to look down on Earth because that is the blissful serenity of this idea. But in particular, the overview effect is important for Jewish civilization to consider because of why I say Jewish civilization.

So often for many of the different communities and subcultures within, Jewish civilization becomes so encapsulated in themselves so myopic that they don’t see the rest of the world and they don’t see the rest of the Jewish world. So I think the overview effect is something to talk about and to remind people of because we’re so fixated on our lives here on planet Earth. The pettiness and the political rivalry and things of that nature that come into the Jewish community can be overcome, or at least recontextualized in a more productive manner by spreading this idea, by asking people to think from that altitude.

The next concept, the Copernican perspective is an interesting one to talk about its impact on Jewish civilization. Now, so many Jews value science and many Jews participated throughout the ages in the astronomy and the mathematics that allow us to understand the Copernican perspective that the Earth is not the center.

But there is a piece of the judaic self-concept, the Jewish self-concept that even people who are not religious feel. It’s tied into our sense of chosenness and this narrative and mythology of chosenness. This thought that history kind of starts and ends with Jewish action and meaning. And it’s not right. It’s like an incorrect model of history for anyone to say that you’re the beginning or end or meaning of history or why things are moving or happening. Sure things happen and they mean something and they have an impact on others and it keeps meaning something. But the meaning of meaning is relationship. It’s not that there is this bigger structure and the whole of history and humanity is set so that the Jewish people’s history can take course. And so it’s like the Copernican perspective that the Earth is not the only thing that’s happening in the solar system and everything else isn’t just happening to it. The Earth is part of it and like it happened and we’re lucky. We’re lucky we’re here. And it’s part of a, uh, bigger model and we need to shift to understand. And I don’t think that this has deeply impacted Jewish self-conception and I think it’s high time that it does.

Lastly is the Universal Insight which I described in a certain way and then I read Frank’s quote about it. And the Universal Insight has an interesting impact on Jewish civilization in that Jewish civilization and religion has long had a language of spirituality, of unity with the cosmos. And there is a rich level in Torah about the cosmos and imagery there.

The Universal Insight opens astronauts up to this unity with the universe and this thought and this notion of almost being drawn forward that we have this destiny of becoming citizens of the universe. And to me that resonates with some of my deepest Jewish values in that when I look at the Jewish people historically around the world, in many different continents and cultures that they become parts of, that is the ethos. There it is to go and become citizens of the world, to take the strongest values and the best work ethics and care about our families and go there and be citizens of these places and become better ourselves and make these places better. Now that we have this paradigm shift, that our technology allows us to go into outer space and that we can start having really have civilization out there now it speaks to me. To my Jewish ethos and to some of my deepest value here of being a citizen of the universe. Of being a person who goes and gives the strongest of your value and your time to the people around you and to each other to make something amazing together. And so that’s what I think would be the positive impact of the Universal Insight on Jewish civilization.

So those are the three concepts from Frank White: Overview Effect, Copernican perspective and Universal Insight. And we discussed through my perspective how I think those will affect, uh, Jewish civilization moving forward. I do want to know.

One interesting thing that popped in my head was going through the most recent edition of the Overview Effect in which Frank has interviewed many astronauts. Out of the 16 Jewish astronauts who have been to space, he has actually only interviewed one, which was Dr. Jeffrey Hoffman. And interestingly enough, it was earlier, um, in his career that he had interviewed Dr. Hoffman before the Challenger disaster. They mentioned that flight that is going to be taking place because I, uh, don’t know it’s interesting.

Anyway, so we’ve discussed the impact of the overview effect on Jewish civilization. And the next part, I want to talk about the narrative collapse that will come as a result of the overview effect and what that possibly means and how there’s an opportunity for leadership in the last part of space, midrash today. I want to talk about narrative collapse as it relates to the overview effect and Jewish civilization. So to do this, I want to just start with a quote about narrative collapse from Douglas Rushkoff in his book Present Shock, and the chapter is titled Narrative Collapse.

So here’s the quote: :”concerned mythologists and anthropologists foresaw this moment of discontinuity and called upon the storytellers to create a new story for this new society or else. Joseph Campbell believed the first images of the Earth from space utterly shattered our individual cultural narratives and required humanity to develop a universal story about GAIA that clearly hasn’t happened. Robert Bly sees manhood is the principal victim of the end of storytelling, as men no longer have a way to learn about the role of the father or the qualities of good leadership. By retelling lost myths, Bly hopes men can reestablish their connection to these traditions.” So that’s from page 39 of Present Shock by Douglas Rushkoff.

And that quote relates to this next quote from the overview of by Frank White from page, 218. This quote, he says “Joseph Campbell, one of our leading mythology scholars, put it this way the mystical theme of the space age is this the world as we know it is coming to an end. The world is the center of the universe, the world divided by the heavens, the world bound by horizons in which love is reserved. For members of the in group, apocalypse doesn’t point to a fiery Armageddon, but to the fact that our ignorance and complacency are coming to an end. It’s fashionable now to demand some economic payoff from space and reward to prove it was all worthwhile. Those who say this resembled the ape like creatures in 2001. They are fighting for food among themselves, while one separates himself from them and moves to the slab, motivated by ah, this is the point they are missing. He is the one who evolves into a human being. He is the one who understands the future.”

I like both of those quotes together, and I want to use that to wrap up all the ideas here, which is we are on a ball floating through space and our technology has brought us to a place where we can no longer live in ignorance of that truth. But we’ll be thrust powerfully whether or not we go into space. We’ll be thrust as a humanity into that reality. As a result of that, much of the storytelling we have told for centuries and eons and possibly since the earliest campfires when we started using our voices to inspire each other, will not hold up scrutiny against what we’re going to come to know. And that does not have to be frightening, and it does not mean the end. It only means the end of the ignorance that was there. It means the beginning and the continuity of who we are always evolving into being. And the only way to be in the present tense of that is to be storytelling and to be telling the story of where we are and where we’re going.

And so I hope that this episode of Space Midrash in which we’ve discussed The Overview Effect has been enjoyable. If you are a person who is concerned and interested in this, but you’re not a scientist and you’re not an engineer and you’re not a mathematician, and you felt that there was no space for you, there is. The time now is coming for the philosophical discussions and the very impact discussions on humanity, and there is an opportunity for cultural leadership. For Jewish people in many cultures of the world, our history has been one of narrative collapse, of huge social and historical change. And yet in every episode, Jewish people of different flavors and history have looked within themselves and have looked at the past and have charted a powerful course in their present moment by telling a powerful story.

So let’s tell a powerful story together. Let’s look back down at the Earth, let’s look out into space, and let’s work together. This has been Space Midrash, episode three. How do we see ourselves From space? I’m Jacob Sager. Thank you so much for listening.


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