Have you ever been fascinated by space? All that black expanse that looks like nothingness, but is actually a vast amount of exploding supernovas, flaming stars, galaxies, and strange planets? It’s fascinating, I’ll admit. Who knows what’s out there. It could even be something. Like life. Like life that we already have a lot of on this planet. But what if there is life on other planets? In other galaxies? Or even in this one? Can you imagine just how profoundly little that discovery would affect your life, if you knew that there is more life out there than you already know about? Humorous hijinks aside, I want to reflect on the film Europa Report, which is supposed to be a psychological dissection of the profundity of the possibility of discovering life beyond Earth. The attitude towards space exploration is usually couched in terms of progress, knowledge, and science. I am not against all that nice-sounding stuff. In fact, I make science my daily work. Also, there are many different reasons (curiosity, pursuit of knowledge, search for resources, etc.), many different motivations that lead people to explore outer space. I am not going to focus on these, however. I would just like to point out that there is one particular source motivation that propels people into space. Loneliness and the resulting existential anxiety (second maybe desire for money, power, status, and ridiculous ideas about taking over the real estate market on Jupiter), is a powerful propeller in our rocket engines.
Jeannette Catsoulis of New York Times says about Europa Report, “Banishing showy effects and cheap scares, the Ecuadorean director Sebastián Cordero has meticulously shaped a number of sci-fi clichés — from the botched spacewalk to the communications breakdown — into a wondering contemplation of our place in the universe.” See more here. I agree with the bit about the film contemplating our place in the universe. What the film highlights for me, is how such contemplation can mask some very real motivations for exploring space.
To sum up the plot of the Europa Report (spoiler alert), a team of scientists go on a very long mission to Europe, a moon of Jupiter, to explore the possibility that there is water and, therefore, tiny molecular life on this distant moon. The film focuses on psychological aspects of the mission rather than aliens, explosions, or things that otherwise appeal to our eight-year-old selves. The crew are in space for months, the contact with base gets cut off, and one of their crew dies. In fact, they have to make a decision to allow him to die to save their own lives. They are truly alone in all that space. Now we’re getting existential!
Here’s the interesting part, from my perspective. They keep going, of course. I mean, the mission must go on. But that’s not the interesting part. It wouldn’t be a movie if they just turned around because someone died. The interesting part is how they justify it. They go right for the existential meat (or tofurky) of the matter. They talk about how important it is to find out if there is life beyond Earth. If they could find it, they would finally know they are not alone! The existential themes are just begging to be highlighted here: it is the human condition to feel alone, to feel angst, to feel discomfort with the idea of the meaning of your own existence and purpose at times. Existential philosophers, such as Simone de Beauvoir, have been trying to explain this to us for some time now. The “miserable” loneliness, ambiguity, uncertainty are all inexplicably linked to the flip side of being human: freedom, capacity for choice, and potentiality (de Beauvoir, 1947/2000).
No knowledge of alien life, not matter how intelligent, shiny, or deadly those aliens might be will make that go away permanently. Here’s what the astronauts (and the rest of us sometimes) forget: we are not alone. We live on a planet with billions of other people, and that number is growing every day. There are also billions of other animals on this planet, although we are doing a very job of destroying them.
Humans have this uncanny ability to feel alone in a crowd or on a very crowded planet, this need to go “beyond the beyond” itself, to have their existence validated by an obscure alien bacteria on Jupiter. I don’t know about you, but when I feel existential angst, I am always comforted by knowledge of tiny molecular life somewhere out there. I like to look at pictures of amoebas and one-cell organisms when stressed out. I have a picture of a unicellular bacteria taped to the face of a stuffed bear and I like to cuddle it sometimes. Well, not really. Not to say finding molecular life comforting is a problem, just that that’s not what people typically go to for comfort and soothing.
I am amazed that in the plot of the film they spent so much time, money, resources, and sacrifice of human lives just to know the fact that other life exists. Why? Because we already knew that! If life is possible on Earth, and if the universe is as big as those fancy space scientists say, what makes us think that life can only exist on Earth? ‘Tis a bit silly, methinks, and a bit anthropocentric. At the end of the film, a tearful mission director says that the finding of the Europa mission, that other life exists, has now profoundly changed the context in which humans think of themselves. Well, that can only be if we completely discount the other life that surrounds us on this planet – other human and non human animals. It is not the film I am critical of, it is the idea that the film illustrates that many people hold on to – discounting what we have to strive for a silver bullet solution to our loneliness in the loneliest place there is: outer space.
I am not against space exploration. In fact, I find it absolutely fascinating – all the mysteries out there that we have not yet learned about. The point here is that it is not necessary to go into space in order to regulate the emotions of anxiety and loneliness. You could just … sit with the emotion? You could tolerate it. Validate it. Acknowledge it, yet not cling to it. You could tell yourself that it is part of the human condition. Zen Buddhist teachings (e.g., Suzuki, 1955) that encourage tolerance and non-clinging to emotions have infiltrated Western psychology and, since the latter is steeped in the scientific method, we can now say with enough confidence that these are not just empty words. This way of relating to painful emotions is helpful (see the Khoury et al., 2013 study if you are a person who likes a good old meta-analysis). You could also reach out to one or two of those six billion other people and reach for connectedness and a shared understanding of each other. Loneliness hates that. If we direct our energy, resources, money, and technology, we can perhaps address the problems we have on this planet rather than hoping to find psychological and emotional comfort in something we may find in outer space.
While I don’t know what might come of space exploration, I do know that a mindset that discounts what we already have is not going to make that existential angst or sense of loneliness disappear. Humans have embarked on many projects in our long history to try to eliminate loneliness, but it is part of the human condition. Despite all the technology we acquired, all the discoveries we made, loneliness and existential angst still exist. Trying to eliminate them will just make it grow into resentment and obsession with a solution that does not exist.
Photo credit: NASA/Hubble Telescope
De Beauvoir, S. (1947/2000). Ambiguity and freedom. In Macdonald, P. S. (Ed), The Existentialist Reader, pp 277-294. New York: Routledge.
Khoury, B., Lecomte, T., Fortin, G., Masse, M., Therien, P., Bouchard, V., & … Hofmann, S. G. (2013). Mindfulness-based therapy: A comprehensive meta-analysis. Clinical Psychology Review, 33(6), 763-771. doi:10.1016/j.cpr.2013.05.005
Suzuki, D. T. (1955). Studies in Zen. New York: Delta Books.