The role of faith in the age of space exploration: how can humanity deal with the infinite unknown?
“Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there-on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.” – Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space, 1994
Today, we are once again aiming to go beyond that pale blue dot and explore the cosmic landscape: our galactic home, infinite, strange and silent.
I say once again because our attempt to “go out there” between the stars and explore is as old as civilisation.
However, with the help of new and more advanced technologies, as well as a more developed understanding of physics, the human species’ present attempt at venturing into space is unprecedented.
After more than fifty years since the NASA’s moon landing in 1969, our approach to space has changed a lot. It is no longer seen as an area where only the military or scientists dare to venture. Commercial venues dedicated to exploring the universe nearby may become a reality in the near future.
Some of the planet’s richest people, like Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson, have announced plans to develop or have already developed capable spacecrafts to let people travel to the orbit, moon and soon to Mars.
Space also appears to be increasingly on the minds of investors who are eager to exploit the seemingly endless opportunities that can be found beyond Earth’s orbit. Investment bank Morgan Stanley produced a report in the summer of 2020 in which it projected that the “global space economy” will reach over $1 trillion by 2040, up from roughly $350 billion currently.
Our ambition to venture between the stars is on such a scale and has such determination that it prompts serious questions about the nature of who we are as a species and who we want to become going forward.
In risking to state the obvious, most of the universe is still unknown to us and I am certainly not breaking any new ground in psychology by stressing that we have a phobia of the unknown. “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown”, wrote Lovecraft in Supernatural Horror in Literature published in 1973.
The manners in which we engage with what appears to be an infinite unknown is with what this essay is concerned.
Human Cognition and The Unknown
Building on the writings of Romanian philosopher, Petre Tutea, cognitively speaking, we have three faculties to engage with both the known and the unknown world: reason (intellect), imagination and intuition (instinct). These faculties are all linked between themselves (for example, memory is a by-product of all three) and they all have their own limitations in exploring and explaining the outer and inner existence of man.
Philosophically, the limits of reason have been acknowledged and explored by many thinkers, such as Immanuel Kant, Friedrich Nietzsche, Nishida Kitarō, G.K. Chesterton, Albert Camus, Terrence McKenna and Plato, among many others. From different perspectives, these philosophers have raised all sorts of questions about the limitations of reason, such as:
- Can reason alone yield complete knowledge about our nature and the way reality works?
- Can reason yield superior results when we explore the known or the unknown, relative to imagination and intuition?
- Can the truth be extracted from the rational approach to life?
- Can reason be the source of moral actions?
- Can reason lead to unintended and severe consequences, such as treating others inhumanely and causing pain and suffering, if we rely on it too much?
The Greek philosopher Plato appropriately summarised the limits of reason when he wrote in The Republic: “I am the wisest man alive, for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing.”
The boundaries of reason have also been established psychologically and scientifically. Note that the difference between psychology and science is that psychology deals in part with the soul, which cannot be examined through the method of scientific inquiry: in fact, one of the admitted limitations of reason is to make sense of the soul which seems to communicate more frequently through the subconscious mind and through faith (at which we will return shortly).
This is not to say that reason should be discarded as a cognitive tool of engaging with our inner world and with the existence outside of ourselves. Without reason we cannot have peace, we cannot communicate, we cannot develop common sense, we cannot structure – at least to some extent – our thoughts and emotions, we cannot analyse, deduce and infer and we cannot focus the effort of rising above the animal condition. Reason is a precious cognitive function, but not without limits.
One of these limits are the irrational fears: phobias which we cannot explain with reason, includin the phobia of the unknown. Why we fear the unknown? Because we do not know the unknown. But what do we mean by this?
We cannot make order out of the unknown. We cannot cast a light with our cognitive tool that is most capable of structuring – with reason – over the chaotic and dark world that lies beyond the horizon of our knowledge. In other words, we cannot make sense of the unknown.
There are different types of unknown. Naturally, we do not know what will happen the next second, but few people, if any, spend their lives worrying about the next second, or even the next day. The worry and fear starts to creep up once the perceived time frames become longer and the locations more distant – the closer towards the notion of an infinite unknown that we get, the bigger the anxiety and fear that rise in our chests. An infinite unknown means a never-ending time and place of which we can never make sense of as a whole.
The universe is an infinite unknown: no matter how much we discover, there will always be more that we do not know. The observable universe is “around 46 billion light years away. That’s a diameter of 540 sextillion (or 54 followed by 22 zeros) miles”.
Anything that our mind can conjure is probably lurking between the stars of the observable. Not monsters necessarily, at least not the ones that have a consciousness, but natural forces which defy our ability to make sense of them.
Take for example the intergalactic anomaly known as the Great Attractor, the huge dimensions of UY Scuti (a red supergiant star), the Boötes void (c.330 million light-years in diameter) and the nature of dark matter and dark energy, to name a few.
Even closer to Earth, the many accounts from astronauts that have left the planet and came back suggest that venturing into space has a profound impact on the person which cannot be explained by reason alone. As Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor, the first Malaysian astronaut, stated following his 2007 trip to the International Space Station, the experience is akin to feeling “[…] that you’re close to the creator.”
You can read scientific articles and journals and you can watch documentaries about some of the objects and phenomena found in space, but when it comes to make sense of them, reason fails to fully comprehend the scale and implications of the observable universe, let alone of what lies beyond its dark and cold edges where light has yet to arrive and reveal to us what stars, galaxies and anomalies dwell there.
As Blaise Pascal said in his Pensées (Thoughts): “But if our view be arrested here, let our imagination pass beyond; it will sooner exhaust the power of conception than nature that of supplying material for conception. The whole visible world is only an imperceptible atom in that ample bosom of nature. No idea approaches it. We may enlarge our conceptions beyond all imaginable space; we only produce atoms in comparison with the reality of things. It is an infinite sphere, the centre of which is everywhere, the circumference nowhere […]”.
To push the boundaries of knowledge, we make use of other two cognitive tools: imagination and intuition.
As Immanuel Kant stated, imagination is a “productive faculty of cognition“. Imagination is what enables us to model the unknown, to communicate with it and to attempt to enhance reason’s capacity to create order out of the unknown.
Indeed, imagination travels the visible, the tangible, the known world, transporting ourselves into the realm of what is possible (not just probable). Albert Einstein is recalled to have said that “knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.”
And yet, what is possible is limited by what and who we are: human beings with a self that is partly inherited from the past generations and developed uniquely through our own experiences. As such, reason and intuition form the boundaries (limits) of imagination – what we can imagine is not everything that is possible, but only what we deem possible.
Psychologically speaking however, imagination is recognised as a powerful tool in dealing with reality, especially the unknown. Psychology Today defines imagination as “the faculty of the mind that forms and manipulates images, propositions, concepts, emotions, and sensations above and beyond, and sometimes independently, of incoming stimuli, to open up the realms of the abstract, the figurative, the possible, the hypothetical, and the paradigmatic or universal.”
Without the aid of imagination, reason and intuition would have a hard time in dealing with existence: the known facets of our inner and external worlds are infinitely smaller than the unknown that lies deep inside us and beyond our analyses.
What dwells there between distant stars? What lies beyond our solar system? What will life on Mars be like? How will the Milky Way look in the future? Reason’s answers are limited by data and experience while the ones provided by intuition are limited by experience. However, the answers are widened by imagination.
Imagination is the tool that helps the scientist to wonder and pursue further examinations, hoping to uncover new things and generate additional knowledge. Imagination is the tool that enables the artist – the painter, the musician, the writer, the sculptor – to express and, sometimes, explain what certainty, data and scientific inquiry cannot.
It is through imagination that we can come closer to understanding some of life’s greatest unknowns, such as death and what lies beyond it. Imagination is the gateway towards the unseen world, but imagination alone can also fail us.
American thinker, Terence McKenna, explained that “if the imagination runs riot in the dimension of the mundane, it’s paranoia. In other words, if you believe every cop on the corner is looking at you, every chance heard comment is about you, the imagination is, in that situation, pathological.”
Moreover, imagination, if left unchecked by reason and intuition, can lead us astray from the real expressions of matter. For example, one can look at the visual representations of certain animals during medieval times by people who never saw the actual beings but rather imagined them.
Therefore, as we allow imagination to roam free, to interpret the known world and to explore the unknown realms of existence, reason and intuition ought to serve as the cognitive tools with which we mould and order the chaos that imagination can conjure.
Without tempering the sheer madness that imagination can unleash, to venture into space with a rich and unbound imagination is akin to inviting the strongest visions and fears to possess our minds and bodies even to the point of paralysis. Indeed, unchecked imagination is not our friend when it comes to facing Lovecraft’s most potent elixir for moving his readers: the fear of the unknown.
Although reason, with its capacity to abstract patterns and instil common sense, brings us above other animals, its limitations in explaining, exploring and engaging with the unknown, other than acknowledging its existence, make intellect a limited cognitive tool in keeping imagination in check. Thus, we must also use a more primordial, even animalistic, cognitive function, which is embedded deep in our collective unconsciousness as human beings: instinct (intuition).
Instincts or intuitions are emotions that “tell” us when something is or is not right. However, we can never clearly explain this feeling or define what is it that makes something alright or not. As McKenna explained, intuition “is a feeling into things that comes to answers and leaves no trail. It expresses truth in contravention to the flow of logic and casuistry”.
Psychologists would say that intuition is more than a feeling. “[…] we can use unconscious information in our body or brain to help guide us through life, to enable better decisions, faster decisions, and be more confident in the decisions we make”.
However, no matter how we look at intuition, as a feeling or more than that, its function is to tell us something about ourselves or the world around us from a place which we cannot articulate clearly in words: we cannot describe the exact origin of intuition, nor can we explain how we “know” what it tells us to be right. And yet, we do act on intuition.
The unconscious roots of intuition, or instinct, are shrouded in the primeval time of the first man who climbed down from trees or from Heaven and became the human being, keeping with him both the animal and the spiritual.
As J. H. Arnold wrote for Plough Magazine in the Summer of 2021, “What is man? He exists in a field of tension between animal and spirit”. From this tension or overlap between beast and more than beast, instinct or intuition forms and communicates with us. As such, intuition, whatever it is, informs us, always vaguely but surely, about what lies beyond the world of senses, the world of matter.
However, just like with reason and imagination, instinct has its own limitations in aiding us on our quest to explore the infinite unknown that space is. As its roots sink deep into the unconscious side of the psyche, a chaotic world which can never be fully ordered, intuition can also misfire: our fears, buried deep in our psychological makeup, part of which we inherit through generations and part which we develop throughout our own lives, can send the wrong signal about the unknown with which we are confronting.
Also, the emotional side of instinct, the feeling aspect of it, can become volcanic, erratic and too intense or the complete opposite: numb, dull and too quiet. We need to train ourselves to know when to listen to intuition and when not to; to observe when the unknown tells us something through our instincts and when it is just our inherited fears that overgrew other parts of our psyche and speak the loudest.
Consequently, reason, imagination and instinct, our cognitive functions, are equipped, to various degrees, in dealing with the unknown. Let us review this position briefly before moving on to faith.
Reason is king in explaining and ordering the world of matter, of senses and of known reality but fails provide logic and common sense beyond this. Imagination goes further than reason: indeed, it seems that it can extend its colourful, mad, light to the edges of the infinite but then it stops. What lies beyond the infinite cannot be imagined. Meanwhile, through intuition we can also get a sense of what lies ahead, in the unknown. Although, this communication can be deformed by our dual nature of beast and more than beast.
Therefore, none of these three cognitive tools can offer hope in exploring the infinite unknown of the universe truthfully and without risking to lose our selves to the lonely abyss between stars and galaxies. However, we have a fourth cognitive function which is faith.
Faith works through us via inspiration (the gift) and revelation (the way). Faith enables us to engage with the unknown in a matter that is truthful to the nature of existence, i.e. completely.
Faith and The Unknown
I am not talking here about religious attitudes towards space exploration which, according to political scientist Joshua Ambrosius, differ from religion to religion. Although, many astronauts, even those who claimed not to be religious, upon returning from space have made public the religious experience they had as a result of journey outside Earth:
“John Glenn, the first American astronaut to orbit the Earth, said he prayed every day on his spaceflights. “To look out at this kind of creation and not believe in God is to me impossible,” Glenn told reporters in 1998, just after returning from his final trip to space at the age of 77. “It just strengthens my faith.”
What I am arguing is to embed faith in our efforts towards exploring more and more of the nearby and distant universe. In other words, I am claiming that faith should be taken seriously, as a potent, if not the only capable, cognitive function when engaging with the infinite unknown.
However, what does this mean – to embed faith in our exploration of the infinite unknown? And what is faith? Let’s start with the latter.
What is Faith
Faith, like reason, imagination and intuition, has been the subject of many philosophical writings, often discussing “faith” within the context of religious views, experiences and institutions.
Indeed, there is a whole field called the Philosophy of Religion, which aims to explore religious elements, including faith, through the perspective of philosophical inquiry: a sort of metaphysics which seek to extrapolate human thought into the absolute realm of the spirit, to evoke Tutea’s ideas once more.
Faith is closer to the world of spirit (spirituality) than that of religion. While religion draws its values in guiding human life from the world of spirit, it is also built on human-made foundations, such as institutions, books and interpretations of the word of the Devine.
If we think of the mortal human existence, the journey through the earthly life, as a mountain with one peak – the eternal, objective and absolute world of the spirit – the paths, trails and hikes that lead up to that peak are the various religions. Metaphorically, this is the relationship between religion and spirituality: religions are paths towards the world of the spirit. To state this in a more practical manner, religion necessarily involves institutions, books and writings and spirituality does not.
Faith belongs to spirituality first and then to religions. Through religion, man aims to reach the absolute world of spirit and receive objective values, such as morality, in order to instil them in human affairs. Faith however is of the world of spirit, and it comes to man: he cannot reach it, but only receive it as spirituality manifests through faith: the acknowledgement, acceptance and believing in the existence and role of mysteries.
Sometimes philosophy reduces faith to the notion of “some sort of trust”. In part, this is correct: faith is trust and more specifically, it is trust in the unseen, unfelt and, ultimately, the unknown. For example, one might think that understanding certain laws of nature would enable one to trust that whatever we explore in the unknown universe will, at least to some degree, behave according to these laws. In other words, we can say that one has faith in the laws of nature.
However, to view faith as trust only, it is a mistake. Trust is a concept that also implies some degree of care, which requires conscious actions.
For example, through training (repetitive actions), a dog can trust its master. This is instinctual, of course. In the case of people, through consistent actions, we can develop to trust one another. This is only in part instinctual but also rational: in society, in order for it to function, it makes sense to believe that someone who has kept their word in the past will likely do so now and in the future.
But faith must be something more than trust – the unknown, viewed as nature, such as the unexplored universe is, is indifferent. The unknown becomes concerned with our existence (i.e. it cares) only when viewed theologically: when God is equivalent with the universe and the latter becomes the Universe through the acceptance of the existence of the Devine.
Faith can be better understood as a belief, from which trust derives. While trust often requires some sort of evidence upon which it can be established, belief is blind trust. “Although I know nothing, I can understand everything” –this, in my view, is the essence of belief.
Faith as belief does not need anything for its existence to be justified: belief simply manifests itself in us. As Swiss psychologist Carl Jung said: “The seat of faith, however, is not consciousness but spontaneous religious experience, which brings the individual’s faith into immediate relation with God”. You can replace “religious” with “spiritual” to enlarge the application of Jung’s insight. However, its essence – that faith is a spontaneous experience, i.e. that it comes to us and that we cannot command it to come into existence – remains unchanged.
Therefore, perhaps some of the best works on faith are not of philosophy but of anthropology coupled with psychology and theology: in other words, the study of the history of religions, believes, myths and mysteries in the works of Mircea Eliade, Carl Jung, Petre Tutea, and Jordan Peterson.
From what I have read by the above authors, I derive the following insights:
- Faith is universal in understand both the inner world and the out world of human existence, which extends far beyond the realm of the senses and the boundaries set by rational and scientific inquiry.
- Faith is defined by its undefinable character, meaning that we can never fully and concretely articulate what faith is.
- Faith is expressed through rituals – processes which are characterised by a stable (consistent) set of actions (from which trust derives) which aim to provide a small, but real, gateway into the infinite unknown which faith can explore completely.
- This infinite unknown is the home of the gods. From this perspective, the universe is the home of the gods.
- Faith is essential for human existence and development. It is not reason, nor imagination and certainly not instinct (intuition) which elevates us above other creatures, but faith.
- What we call “soul” is as real as the flesh and bones that make up our body and the neurons matter than makes up our brains. The lack of ability to define what the soul is does not invalidate its existence, but it highlights the nature of the soul.
- Faith is the soul’s cognitive function.
Interestingly, and before moving over to answering the other question, the notions of faith, soul and even religion are not at odds with scientific development. They go hand in hand. I offer two sources to back up this claim.
First, a book published in 2021 called “Canceled Science” which reveals how pertinent an evidence-based arguments for the theory that the universe may have been created by intelligent design are being suppressed. The second one is a talk in April 2021 between Peter Robinson and Dr Stephen Meyer (who directs the Center for Science and Culture at the Discovery Institute in Seattle) on a similar idea: that the universe may have an intelligent mind behind it.
Anyone who claims to be interested in the truth (not a truth, but the truth) and in expanding the boundaries of human knowledge for the sake of civilisation (not for titles, money or power), cannot dismiss the role of faith in guiding the human mind (reason), the human imagination and the human instinct (intuition) in venturing into the proverbial caves of the unknown in an attempt to return with the gifts of knowledge and wisdom.
Faith and the Exploration of the Infinite Unknown
As stated previously, faith, the cognitive tool of the soul, works through us via inspiration (the gift) and revelation (the way). It is with these two concepts – inspiration and revelation – that we seek to answer the second question.
In 2012, Wired Magazine published an article called “Human Exploration of Space as Inspiration” in which the author wrote: “Human exploration into space is more about the exploration of space. It is about inspiration. It is about making heroes. It is about making EVERYONE want to be a hero.” This is not what inspiration means in the context of faith: it is not something which we can generate, rather inspiration manifests in us.
To be inspired is not the same as having a vision, a goal, something to aim at. Inspiration is a conviction which you must follow. It has been reported that when Newton was asked how did he discover the law of gravity, he replied: “I was inspired”.
Inspiration expresses itself in two main media of human activity: scientific inquiry and artistic creation – both necessary for successfully exploring the infinite unknown that space is. In both cases, inspiration can be best described as clear, but inherently vague, visions, directions and ideas of what to do, how to do it, what to look for, where to look for it and so on.
However, to act on inspiration, faith is required: the believe and trust in the unknown, that the unknown can reveal to us something new which we can choose to transform it into something beneficial or not, depending on our actions.
For inspiration to express itself, faith is also required. This shows the absolute nature of faith: we cannot access the wisdom that lies beyond the world of our knowledge (abstract or material) through inspiration if we do not have faith.
Importantly however, there is no guarantee that we all get to be inspired, even if we may all have faith. This is one of the many mysteries of the soul’s cognitive function and a perfect segway towards its second manner in which faith works through us: revelation.
Revelation is, for reasons we will never become familiar with, the way through which faith operates in the chosen individuals. Chosen that is by Divinity. In other words, through revelation, Divinity speaks to man. This does not make the person receiving the revelation(s) in any shape or form superior or less corruptible than the rest. On the contrary, it places an immense burden on him or her to behave in such a way that he or she overcomes the earthly human nature in the service of Divinity that exists in all individuals of mankind.
We can see how close this line of thinking is to religious views and for good reason: it is a theological perspective borrowed from the works of Tutea, Aquinas, St. Augustine and Plato, among others. The motivation behind underlying this aspect of faith is expressed by Tutea in an interview in 1990: without Divinity “man is a sad, rational animal which can speak, that comes from nowhere and goes nowhere”.
This line of thinking was echoed by classist John Burnet who claimed, and I paraphrase from memory, that the Greek Olympus melted under the negative power of questions steaming from reason. In other words, if we do not see the gods between the stars, we are bound to feel alienated and fearful as we gaze into the primordial beginnings of the universe.
Faith can eliminate this anxiety, allowing us to feel free and, no matter the outcome, no matter what questions we find answers to (and there are some to which we may not be prepared to know the answer to), by allowing faith to work through inspiration and revelation, in ways which we cannot and should not try to explain, engaging with the infinite unknown (space) will be an experience far less daunting and more productive.
Venturing in Space not as Humans but as Human Beings
We needed to speak of space exploration in more abstract terms because it is the world of ideas that informs how we behave in the material world.
In other words, if we are not willing to tackle the issue of space exploration at its most fundamental level – i.e. the relationship between us and the infinite unknown – we will not have any hope in trying to explore the universe in a humane and civilised manner that reduces the probability of abuses, conflicts and other stupid but pervasive behaviours.
This is even more important now that the human species is decidedly focused on landing more people on the moon with the possibility of establishing permanent bases there. A key NASA programme for achieving this goal is called Artemis. In September 2020, the US space agency, released a document in which it explained in detail the strategy behind the Artemis project.
“The foundation for our return to the Moon is NASA’s deep space transportation system: the Orion spacecraft, SLS rocket, the HLS, and the EGS facilities that include a modernized spaceport. The Orion spacecraft, powered by a service module provided by ESA (the European Space Agency), has been specifically designed for deep space human operations for up to four crew. The SLS rocket is the human rated heavy-lift rocket designed to launch Orion and send it on missions to the Moon.”
The document also reveals that, if successful, the principles behind the Artemis programme, will be applied to sending people on Mars: “After Artemis III, NASA and its partners will embark on missions on and around the Moon that also will help prepare us for the types of mission durations and operations that we will experience on human missions to Mars.”
The United States is not the only country with such intentions: China, Russia and many European countries are gearing up to explore the nearby space for scientific and military reasons. Therefore, looking at the space from the perspective of reason, imagination and intuition, we can identify a few components to extra-terrestrial exploration and, in the future, colonisation: economic, political, military, scientific and artistic.
However, without incorporating faith, which elevates our cognitive function to that of the spiritual realm or, in other words, without the spiritual (and, if you want, religious) aspect of space exploration – religious not in the sense of institutions but of the ritualistic process of exploring the unknown through faith (revelation and inspiration) – mankind will be in danger of succumbing to dangerous behaviours based on relativistic philosophical views which may put human life as secondary consideration when it comes to the vast political power and economic gains which are expected to be made from expanding our reach outside the “blue dot”.
Such dangerous behaviours already lurk on the horizon. A dubious school of philosophy, called “longtermism”, that is being developed by researchers from the Future of Humanity Institute at University of Oxford is arguing for the idea of viewing individual life as secondary in light of the great “longterm potential” which can result from transhumanism, space expansionism and total utilitarianism of a perfect future society (i.e. another utopia and therefore, extremely dangerous).
As Phil Torres, a PhD candidate in philosophy at Leibniz Universität Hannover in Germany, wrote for Aeon Magazine: “The underlying reasoning here is based on the idea that people – you and I – are nothing more than means to an end. We don’t matter in ourselves; we have no inherent value of our own. Instead, people are understood as the ‘containers’ of value, and hence we matter only insofar as we ‘contain’ value, and therefore contribute to the overall net amount of value in the Universe between the Big Bang and the heat death.”
Therefore, going into the infinite unknown, we need something that goes beyond human law, such as the Outer Space Treaty which may or may not bound countries to its rules. We need morality, which only comes from the realm of the spirit – objective, eternal and never changing – and which is enforced only if the role of faith is acknowledged. Morality sits above all man-made laws: it holds equally accountable the heads of states, the CEOs, the entertainers and average citizens, and it is the only just force to do so.
Technology will likely advance into ever more dangerous and exciting versions of what we currently have now. Unless Werner Herzog’s premonition turns out to be correct, and “the age of space” proves to be just another unrealisable utopian dream, our civilisation will begin a new stage in its adventure throughout the galaxy. We must do so not merely as thinking bodies and certainly not only as mechanical bodies, to borrow from the humanist school of thought, but as complete human beings with mind, body and soul.
Thank you for reading.