10 Quotes that Will Give You a Cosmic Perspective

From astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson’s MasterClass

Cosmos
Image by beate bachmann from Pixabay

I’m addicted to MasterClass.

You know how cooking shows can be entertaining even if you’re a terrible cook and you’re never going to prepare anything they’re showing?

MasterClass lessons are sort of like that. I know next to nothing about sales, hostage negotiations, wine appreciation, space travel or astrophysics, but the classes entertain and fascinate me.

In astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson’s MasterClass Scientific Thinking and Communication, you get to learn about cool stuff such as leap seconds (we’ve had  27 since 1972), the precise shape of the Earth (oblate spheroid, somewhat like a pear), and how planets are discovered.

Beyond such facts, though, the class is about human thought and the vital role of scientific thinking on human progress, sound decision-making, and perspective-taking.

Here are some quotes that got me pondering.

“The urge to feel special knows no bounds.”

“The cosmic perspective undoes this urge to feel special but it undoes it in a way that rebuilds it better than it was before.”

“The cosmic perspective teaches you that you’re special not for being different from everyone else but for being the same.”

There’s nothing wrong with feeling special. After all, not even identical twins are exactly alike. The combination of genes and environment makes for infinite possibilities. The problem is when being special is framed only in terms of how we’re different and unique, and when uniqueness leads us to think of ourselves and those like us as better than. This thinking is at the root of the human tribal mentality and the tendency of groups of people to dehumanize other groups.

The cosmic perspective frames being special in terms of how all humans (and all living creatures!) are alike and what’s common among us.

We’re all the product of cosmic events. We’re all made of stardust.

“Nature is the ultimate judge, jury and executioner. You can argue all you want but if nature doesn’t agree with you, you’re wrong. Whatever bias you’re bringing to the table, nature will decide.”

Nature is one of the only forces that doesn’t fail to humble us. Both in their beauty and wrath, natural phenomena have the power to elevate and terrify us. A magnificent sunset, a perfect ocean wave, a ravaging hurricane, or an unstoppable avalanche — they produce awe and remind us that our power and knowledge are limited.

Nature is an entity that proves us wrong. We obstinately argue against its truths at times. Think of Galileo, considered a heretic and persecuted by the Catholic Church for contradicting the Bible. Eventually, Galileo was proven right. Nature decides and prevails and is more powerful than any religious or political institution created by humankind. We should never bet against it!

“The day you stop making mistakes is the day you can be pretty sure you are no longer in the frontier.”

Though deGrasse speaks of the “moving frontier of science,” the same applies to any frontier of human endeavor. Olympic world records, for instance, are broken at every Olympics because those at the frontier of sports keep trying new techniques and finding better ways to train.

In the process of expanding any frontier, we necessarily make mistakes because we can’t know exactly what will move the frontier further afield.

New knowledge lies at the edge of the frontier. Only those willing to make mistakes can be on the frontier long enough to expand it.

“Search engines on the internet are the epitome of confirmation bias.”

Confirmation bias: the tendency to process information by looking for, or interpreting, information that is consistent with one’s existing beliefs.” 

We are all subject to cognitive biases, confirmation bias being one of the most common. We actively seek to read, watch and listen to information that confirms our beliefs, and discard conflicting evidence that lands on our laps.

No one who’s convinced climate change is real would Google the following: “Proof that climate change is unrelated to human activity.”

Even if you wanted to be neutral in the wording of your search, the algorithm will favor the types of results you have clicked on in the past! Such results will obviously favor your existing beliefs. Search engines rely on and intensify our biases. I, for one, find this deeply troubling.

“If you want to get closer to objective truths, you have to be able to say to yourself, ‘I was wrong.’”

It’s so hard to do. We hold on to our beliefs for dear life and are drawn to people who speak with a sense of certainty.

Beware of anyone who never admits to making a mistake and who always blames others for anything that happens within their specific area of influence.

Such an individual isn’t interested in the truth.

“If someone keeps repeating something to you, chances are they want you to believe it without analysis, without judgment.”

This is not always the case of course, though it often is when it comes to politicians or anyone trying to manipulate.

“Climate change is real.” “Climate change is a hoax.” We hear opposing statements such as these over and over. One clue as to which is more likely to be false or true is whether those making the statement are asking you to believe it just because they say so, or by providing scientific evidence that has been replicated, peer-reviewed, and on which scientific consensus exists.

“Writing is the ultimate form of communication because it passes through time. You can talk to someone 100 years from now when they read your writing.”

As a writer, of course I love this quote. It makes writing sound like time travel!

You just never know who’ll come across something you wrote way after you’re gone, and if you’ll get people in the distant future to change, do or understand something because of what you wrote a century ago.

“A theory is the highest level of understanding we have of anything in this world. It explains what we know has already happened, gives us an understanding of what is happening, and gives predictive power of things that have yet to happen.”

Whoa. Isn’t that something? A scientific theory must apply to the past, present and future. Now that’s a cosmic perspective.

It’s no small thing for a scientific proposition to become a theory. Take the Theory of Evolution. It explains the diversity of living forms, why species die out and change, and gives us a notion of which species may adapt to or survive environmental changes.

“What is wisdom after all? It’s the distilled essence of knowledge once you’ve forgotten all the details.”

Wisdom, in adults, comes from the ability to analyze — deeply, honestly and humbly — accumulated knowledge and experience.

Wisdom requires a cosmic perspective, one that teaches that:

“You’re special not for being different from everyone else, but for being the same.”


🎧 YouTube link, for those who like to watch and listen.

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Right and Wrong: Seven Quotes to Help You Do the Right Thing

Words by famous thinkers on how to navigate moral dilemmas

Before you ask, “Who does this lady think she is to be preaching about right and wrong?” I’d like you to know I wrote these quotes down because they apply to ME. I’ve been guilty of all the wicked moral lapses they highlight.

With that out of the way, a few questions:

  • What’s the link between prosperity, competence, and morality?
  • When should you take a stand?
  • Why do you need ideals?
  • What’s the trade-off between power and empathy?

The quotes that follow come from scholars, business people, philosophers, journalists, an ex-slave, and a poet. They get at these questions and offer us insights into how we think of right vs wrong.


“Prosperity is the best protector of principle.” — Mark Twain

This was one of the many sharp quotes chiseled on the walls of Mark Twain’s House and Museum in Hartford, CT – worth a visit for sure if you’re ever in the area.

I’ve heard too many people who haven’t worked for a living a single day in their lives judge a jobless poor person as lazy and irresponsible.

It’s just so easy and, yes, fun, to judge others from the comfort of a nice house in a safe neighborhood with access to great schools, grocery stores, and recreation.

Don’t get me wrong. Prosperity is a good thing and I’m all for it.

It certainly minimizes the temptation to shoplift, the need to defend yourself from aggression in your neighborhood, and the necessity to miss work because you can’t afford a babysitter to take care of your child when he’s sick.

But prosperity also clouds our judgment.

Isn’t it funny how the flow of undocumented immigrants is from poor to prosperous country and not the other way around?

“But they’re breaking the law,” you say -and you’re right. Even so, this doesn’t mean that, as a group, they’re less principled than the average citizen of the more prosperous country.

Much less prosperous on average: that undocumented immigrants decidedly are.

Takeaway:

The feeling of self-righteousness is intoxicating. When you’re overtaken by this feeling, ask yourself: Am I more principled, or mainly more privileged?


“There is an inverse relationship between feelings of power and perspective-taking.” — Daniel Pink

Daniel Pink is the New York Times best-selling author of four books centered on business and human behavior. This quote comes from his MasterClass Persuasion and Communication.

There are two sides to every relationship. The greater the power divide, the harder it is for the individual in power to put herself in the position of the other party.

Takeaway:

If you’re in a position of power, you have got to make a conscious effort to be empathetic. Power, too, is intoxicating!

Would you address your boss the way you’re addressing those working under you?

Would you speak to your rich aunt the way you’re speaking to the childcare worker?

Would you treat the doctor better than the nurse?


“You should neither become like the bad because they are many, nor be an enemy of the many because they are unlike you.” — Seneca the Younger

This quote is from Letters from a Stoic, a must-read for anyone interested in Stoicism.

It’s so hard not to adopt the negative culture or bad behaviors that prevail in your environment. However, as Seneca notes, if you’re fully aware of what’s bad, you’re not justified in engaging in it.

Conversely, if many around you are or behave differently from you, different does not necessarily indicate bad. It’s a vital distinction: the bad many vs the different many.

Takeaway:

Ask yourself:

Do I perceive this group of people in a negative light because they’re different or because they’re bad?

Is this behavior bad or different? If it’s the former and you know it, don’t follow along, no matter how many people do.


“The existence of an ideal has nothing to do with whether anyone actually lives up to it.” — Michael Shenefelt

I came across Shenefelt’s book, The Questions of Moral Philosophy, in my son’s bedroom. Shenefelt’s a philosophy professor at New York University and the book was assigned reading for one of my son’s classes. A great, accessible read for anyone who, like me, never took a philosophy class.

We can all decide on what ideals we’ll seek to uphold. You can call it whatever you want: a code, charter, manifesto. I call mine a code and its first and most important item is:

“Do the good that’s in front of you, even if it feels small.”

I stole this quote from best-selling author and Buddhist meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg. I conjure it when I doubt the relevance of my small everyday actions. And I conclude that they add up and bring me a bit closer to my ideal of doing good.

Takeaway:

Ponder this: What are your ideals? Write them down and pursue them even if ideals, by definition, are not achievable.

We can only try to live a coherent life, but first we must decide what this life might look like.


“There is not a man beneath the canopy of heaven that does not know that slavery is wrong for him.” — Frederick Douglass

I admire Frederick Douglass immeasurably and consider him one of the most influential thinkers and activists of the nineteenth century in the United States. This quote comes from his speech “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro,” delivered July 5, 1852, in Rochester, NY.

In Douglass’s time, many argued that slavery for black people was the natural order of things, a religious mandate, good for the masters and the slaves.

The way Douglass frames the statement leaves no room for argument as to the basis of slavery. It’s nothing but evil exploitation of fellow human beings. No argument can justify something you just know is wrong for you.

Takeaway:

Douglass’s quote is an exhortation to ask ourselves, “Would this treatment, condition, be right for me?” If it’s wrong for you, it’s most likely wrong for everyone.


“There is no divinely mandated link between morality and competence.” — Philip E. Tetlock

This quote comes from University of Pennsylvania professor Philip E.Tetlock’s bestselling book Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction. Tetlock’s research and writing focus on psychology and behavior, particularly on the concept of judgment.

We tend to equate success and competence with morality. In fact, we go as far as to excuse or disbelieve moral failures in the case of highly competent individuals.

The average person will fall for a misdeed twenty times less damaging than what would ruin a highly successful person.

Individuals can be both highly immoral and extraordinarily competent. A few such individuals have been ridiculously popular and influential throughout the history of humankind.

It’s fine to admire and reward competence. But moral competence is entirely distinct from athletic, political, or business competence.

Takeaway:

To lead a moral life, make morally competent people your role models.


“The hottest place in hell is reserved for those who remain neutral in times of moral crises.” — Dante Alighieri

The Divine Comedy book
Photo by Tbel Abuseridze on Unsplash

This admonition comes from the great 13th-century poet and thinker’s epic poem The Divine Comedy.

Unlike the other works cited in this article, I haven’t read The Divine Comedy. However, I was struck by these lines the first time I heard them decades ago, and I think about them often. Neutrality is fine, as long as it’s not a time of moral crisis.

What counts as a moral crisis?

One situation that comes to mind is the sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church. The clergy who knowingly stood by and let it happen were “neutral” and would deserve hell as much as (or even more than) the clergy who perpetrated the abuse. So would those who turned a blind eye to the abuse by celebrities such as Harvey Weinstein and Jeffrey Epstein.

These, of course, are extreme examples of moral crises.

The reach of the individual situation, however, is not what makes it critical. The very same hell is reserved for us when we let a co-worker be bullied, when we tolerate the abuse of a loved one, or when we play along to a racist joke.

Takeaway

Never ignore a moral crisis. Do something. Take a stand. Engage. Vote. Report. Condemn when necessary. March. Write.

Speak up!

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