The Epistemic Overview Effect
14 September 2013
The Overview Effect
The “overview effect” is so named for the view of the earth entire — an “overview” of the earth — enjoyed by astronauts and cosmonauts, as well as the change in perspective that a few of these privileged observers have had as a result of seeing the earth whole with their own eyes.
One of these astronauts, Edgar Mitchell, who was on the 1971 Apollo mission and was the sixth human being to walk on the moon, has been instrumental to bringing attention to the overview effect, and has written a book about his experiences as an astronaut and how it affected his perception and perspective, The Way of the Explorer: An Apollo Astronaut’s Journey Through the Material and Mystical Worlds. A short film has been made about the overview effect, and an institution has been established to study and to promote the overview effect, The Overview Institute.
Here is an extract from the declaration of The Overview Institute:
For more than four decades, astronauts from many cultures and backgrounds have been telling us that, from the perspective of Earth orbit and the Moon, they have gained such a vision. There is even a common term for this experience: “The Overview Effect”, a phrase coined in the book of the same name by space philosopher and writer Frank White. It refers to the experience of seeing firsthand the reality of the Earth in space, which is immediately understood to be a tiny, fragile ball of life, hanging in the void, shielded and nourished by a paper-thin atmosphere. From space, the astronauts tell us, national boundaries vanish, the conflicts that divide us become less important and the need to create a planetary society with the united will to protect this “pale blue dot” becomes both obvious and imperative. Even more so, many of them tell us that from the Overview perspective, all of this seems imminently achievable, if only more people could have the experience!
We have a hint of the overview effect when we see pictures of the Earth as a “blue marble” and as a “pale blue dot”; those who have had the opportunity to see the Earth as a blue marble with their own eyes have been affected by this vision to a greater extent than we can presumably understand from seeing the photographs. Here is another description of the overview effect:
When people leave the surface of the Earth and travel into Low Earth Orbit, to a space station, or the moon, they see the planet differently. My colleague at the Overview Institute, David Beaver, likes to emphasize that they not only see the Earth from space but also in space. He has also been a strong proponent that we describe what then happens as a change in world view.
Deep Space: The Philosophy of the Overview Effect, Frank White
In the same essay White then quotes himself from his book, The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution, on the same theme:
“Mental processes and views of life cannot be separated from physical location. Our “world view” as a conceptual framework depends quite literally on our view of the world from a physical place in the universe.”
Frank White has sought to give a systematic exposition of the overview effect in his book, The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution, which seeks to develop a philosophy of space travel derived from the personal experience of space by space travelers.
The Spatial Overview
There is no question in my mind that sometimes you have to see things for yourself. I have invoked this argument numerous times in writing about travel — no amount of eloquent description or stunning photographs can substitute for the experience of seeing a place for yourself with your own eyes. This is largely a matter of context: being in a place, experiencing a place as a presence, requires one’s own presence, and one’s own presence can be realized only as the result of a journey. A journey contextualizes an experience within the experiences required the reach the object of the journey. The very fact that one must travel in order to each a destination alters the experience of the destination itself.
To be present in a landscape means that all of one’s senses are engaged: one not only sees, but one sees with the whole of one’s peripheral vision, and when one turns one’s body in order to take in more of the landscape, one not only sees more of the landscape, but one feels one’s body turn; one smells the air; one hears the distinctive reverberations of the most casual sounds — all of the things that remind us that this is not an illusion but possesses all the chance qualities that mark a real, concrete experience.
I have remarked in other posts that one of the distinctive trends in contemporary philosophy of mind is that of emphasizing the embodiedness of the mind, and in this context the embodied mind is a mind that is inseparable from its sensory apparatus and its sensory apparatus is inseparable from the world with which it is engaged. When our eyes hurt as we look at the sun we are reminded by this visceral experience of sight — one might say overwhelming sight — that we experience the world in virtue of a sensory apparatus that is made of essentially the same materials as the world — that there is an ontological reciprocity of eye that sees and sun that shines, and it is only because the two share the same world and are made of the same materials that they stand in a relation of cause and effect to each other. We are part of the world, of the world, and in the world.
Presumably, then, to the present in space and feel oneself kineasthetically in space — most obviously, the feeling of a micro-gravity environment once off the surface of the earth — is part of the experience of the overview effect, as is the dramatic journey into orbit, which must remind the viewer of the difficulty of attaining the perspective of seeing the world whole. This is the overview effect in space.
The Temporal Overview
There is also the possibility of an overview effect in time. For the same reason that we might insist that some experiences must be had for oneself, and that one must be present spatially in a spatial landscape in order to appreciate that landscape for what it is, we might also insist that a person who has lived a long life and who has experienced many things has a certain kind of understanding of the temporal landscape of life, and it is only through a conscious knowledge of the experience of time and history that we can attain an overview of time.
The movement in contemporary historiography called Big History (which I have written about several times, e.g., in The Science of Time and Addendum on Big History as the Science of Time) is an attempt to achieve an overview experience of time and history.
I have observed elsewhere that we find ourselves swimming in the ocean of history, but this very immersion in history often prevents us from seeing history whole — which is an interesting contrast to the spatial overview experience, which which contextualization in a particular space is necessary to its appreciation and understanding. But contextualization in a particular time — which we would otherwise call parochialism — tends to limit our historical perspective, and we must actively make an effort to free ourselves from our temporal and historical contextualization in order to see time and history whole.
It is the effort to free ourselves from temporal parochialism, and the particularities and peculiarities of our own time, that give as a perspective on history that is not tied to any one history but embraces the whole of time as the context of many different histories. This is the overview effect in time.
The Epistemic Overview
I would like to suggest that there is also an epistemic overview effect. It is not enough to be told about knowledge in the way that newspaper and magazine articles might tell a popular audience about a new scientific discovery, or in the way that textbooks tell students about the wider world. While in some cases this may be sufficient, and we must rely upon the reports of others because we cannot construct the whole of knowledge on our own, in many cases knowledge must be gained firsthand in order for its proper significance to be appreciated.
Elsewhere (in P or not-P) I have illustrated the distinction between a constructive and a non-constructive point of view being something like the difference between climbing up a mountain, clambering over every rock until one achieves the summit (constructive) versus taking a helicopter and being set down on the summit from above (non-constructive). (I have taken this example over from French mathematician Alain Connes.) With this image in mind, being blasted off into space and seeing the mountain from orbit is a paradigmatically non-constructive experience, and it is difficult to imagine how it could be made a constructive experience.
Well, there are ways. Once space technology becomes widely distributed and accessible, if a person were to build their own SSTO from off-the-shelf parts and then pilot themselves into orbit, that would be something like a constructive experience of the overview effect. And if we go on to create a vibrant and vigorous spacefaring civilization, making it into orbit will only be the first of many steps, so that a constructive experience of space travel will be to “climb” one’s way from the surface of the earth through the solar system and beyond, touching every transitional point in between. It has been said that the journey of the thousand miles begins with a single step — this is very much a constructivist perspective. And it holds true that a journey of a million miles or a billion miles begins with a single step, and that first step of a cosmic voyage is the step that takes us beyond the surface of the earth.
Despite the importance and value of the constructivist perspective, it has its limitations, just as the oft-derided non-constructive point of view has its particular virtues and its significance. Non-constructive methods can reveal to us knowledge that is disruptive because it is forced upon us suddenly, in one fell swoop. Such an experience is memorable; it leaves an impression, and quite possibly it leaves much more of an impression that a painstakingly gradual revelation of exactly the same perspective.
This is the antithesis of the often-cited example of a frog placed in a pot of water and which doesn’t jump out as the water is slowly brought to a boil. The frog in this scenario is a victim of constructivist gradualism; if the frog had had a non-constructive perspective on the hot water in which he was being boiled to death, he might have jumped out and saved himself. And perhaps this is exactly what we need as human beings: a non-constructive (and therefore disruptive) perspective on a the familiar life that has crept over us day-by-day, step-by-step, and bit-by-bit.
An epistemic overview of knowledge can give us a disruptive conception of the totality of knowledge that is not unlike the disruptive experience of the overview effect in space, which allows us to see the earth whole, and the disruptive experience of time that allows us to see history whole. Moreover, I would argue that the epistemic overview is the ultimate category — the summum genus — that must contextualize the overview effect in space and in time. However, it is important to point out that the immediate visceral experience of the overview effect may be the trigger that is required for an individual to begin to seek the epistemic overview that will give meaning to his experiences.
. . . . .
. . . . .
. . . . .