Did anyone else feel kind of disappointed walking out of the movie theatre after seeing Star The Last Jedi?
I’m not talking about the movie or the story. I thought it was great (hey, that hyperlink has spoilers – be careful).
I’m talking about the distance between the human imagination in great stories like Star Wars (space travel! Life on other planets! The mysteries of the universe!) and ordinary life.
We don’t know of any intelligent alien life on other planets. We don’t even have space travel yet, let alone the speed of light travel that would allow us to visit other planets. There certainly isn’t a “The Force” we can use to “control people and make things float.” (don’t click on that if you haven’t seen the movie)
So yes, a bit of a letdown to leave behind the huge expanse of the cinematic universe for our own.
It’s a good sign when a movie leaves you feeling that way. But you really shouldn’t feel that way for long. A good fantasy story makes you more in tune with your reality. Good fantasy should feel more like reality. But more importantly, a good fantasy should make reality seem more fantastical.
And so today, while I was walking through a quiet Atlanta neighborhood on a cold winter’s day (and listening to the magnificent Last Jedi film score), I found just that feeling.
A lot of philosophers use the “outside alien observer” thought experiment when they want to look at human social institutions from a bird’s eye view. You have to put yourself in the mindset of a visiting alien observer, with no prior knowledge or experience of “normal human things.” THEN you have to describe the institutions that seem mundane and acceptable.
That practice leads to eye-openers. A lot of the things humans do are just plain weird.
Today on my walk, I fell into the same mindset in looking at nature around me. I stopped taking the shape and behaviors of creatures and natural objects for granted. I found myself all of a sudden on an alien planet.
Why do leaves spin in the wind like that when they fall?
Why do those birds know how to fly together?
Why does a squirrel look the way it does? Why is that considered normal?
Why does the water do that weird crystal formation thing when it gets cold?
The short answer is “because physical laws, and because natural selection/evolution”.
OK, fair enough. There are good precise scientific answers for a number of the specifics in those questions.
But there’s another layer of “why” and mystery under that explanation which we’ll probably never unravel. Physical “laws” may explain the way things are, but why are physical “laws” the way they are? Why are certain evolutionary forms best suited for certain physical constants? Why does anything exist at all?
The short answer here is “we don’t know”.
Creatures and things and landscapes and human beings could be different in a billion ways. But for whatever reason, we ended up with this particular iteration of a world. We ended up with a world in the first place. How strange and wonderful is that? And how much of our world is still unknown to us? The microscopic world, the deep sea world, the structures of the brain – we still have so much to learn.
For all intents and purposes, we ARE on an alien planet. We are surrounded by life forms just as (if not more) interesting and mysterious than anything a storyteller could dream up. The difference is that we actually have this world at our fingertips.
We’ve just gotten used to it.
If we’re bored by our own planet, we’ve just been too lazy and cowardly to take it on for all it’s worth. If we ever do get around to space travel, we’ll do a much shoddier job on other planets because we can’t really handle the strangeness of our own.
That’s no reason to stop working on space exploration – it’s a reason for the rest of us to do the other explorations that matter. Look through microscopes. Look through paintings. Look through poetry. Look through your pet dog. Look through your job. Look through your walk in the park. Look at things without taking their forms for granted. You might see something different. And if my hunch is correct, we’ll never really be done exploring the beauty and oddness and danger and adventure this Earth has to offer.