Contrary to popular belief, the first response to the Heliocentric theory was not denial.
In 1533, Johann Albrecht Widmannstetter delivered a series of lectures outlining Copernicus’ theory to Pope Clement VII and several Catholic cardinals. An archbishop encouraged Copernicus to publish a full version of his theory, which he called De Revolutionibus.
It wasn’t until the Counter-Reformation and the inquisition against heretics of all sorts that heliocentrism was seen as a threat to the truth of Holy Scripture and brought the wrath of the pope upon the Copernicans. The burning of Giordano Bruno, the trial and imprisonment of Galileo, and the ban of all works advocating heliocentrism, kept the Copernican theory repressed for some 100 years.
In 1584, a Dominican cleric named Giordano Bruno published a book called On the Infinite Universe and Worlds. It suggested that Earth was not the center of the universe and that there were infinite worlds, or planets, like our own, potentially populated by living creatures like ourselves. He described the universe as we now know it to be and for that he was burned at the stake. Bruno was the first in a list of early Copernicans castigated by the Catholic Church.
The Catholic church was right to be worried. The displacement of the Earth from the center of the cosmos threw the universe off-kilter. But as later astronomical observations by Kepler, Newton and others confirmed the Copernican worldview, opposition slackened. The Renaissance swept Europe and the growing power of science and Enlightenment reason became harder to deny.
But some were already concerned about what scientific discovery would eventually entail. With this new worldview came a new philosophy: nihilism.
The word “nihilism” was made popular by the German philosopher Heinrich Jacobi. He criticized Enlightenment reason. He worried it would explain away the mysteries and uncertainties of the world, that it would render everything knowable and thus lead to atheism and then nihilism. The last 200 years have not proven Jacobi wrong. While science by no means necessitates nihilism, it seems the more we’ve come to know about the world, the less it all means.
William Shakespeare eloquently summarized the existential nihilist’s perspective when, in this famous passage near the end of Macbeth, he has Macbeth pour out his disgust for life:
Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more; it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
A series of philosophers including Soren Kierkegaard, Friederich Nietzsche, Martin Heideggar, Albert Camus, confronted the question of meaning in a world where humanity’s role was rapidly shrinking. They came to be known as existentialists. Rather than advocating for nihilism, their primary concern was establishing ways to live meaningfully in a meaningless world.
Sartre and Camus fell from favor among French intellectuals after the 1960s, but the ideas that they and their predecessors shared have retained their vitality and popularity among artists, directors, thinkers, and regular people.
The question of how to live in a vast and indifferent universe is a question for anyone struggling to find their footing in a universe that’s both physically and psychologically expanding with no end in sight. These anxieties have recently found popular expression in the form of what Fortune magazine called, quote, “Millennials’ favorite TV show:” Rick and Morty.
“You Pass Butter”
Rick and Morty is an animated series that follows Rick Sanchez, an anarchic scientific genius, and his adolescent grandson Morty on a series of absurd intergalactic adventures.
Rick’s scientific genius opens the doors to a vast, amazing, but ultimately amoral and absurd world. Jaded by his inter-dimensional wanderings, Rick has accepted the absurdity of existence and deals with his existential anguish using a mix of alcohol, hedonism, escapism, and egotism. Through their adventures, Morty is repeatedly traumatized by what he sees of the multiverse which repeatedly mocks and trivializes life’s fragility.
In episode six, Rick accidentally turn the entire human race into horrible monsters in an attempt to make a love-potion for Morty. The two of them flee to a parallel dimension where their parallel-universe bodies were blown apart in a botched experiment. They bury those bodies in the backyard and take their place, leaving the old Earth for lost.
To deal with the lunacy Rick’s science gives him access to, Rick councils Morty to focus on a simple anti-philosophy: “don’t think about it.”
The best way to deal with a question that has no answer may simply be not to ask the question.
But asking this question may be one of the very things that makes us human.
We are caught between our strong human need to search for truth and our equally strong need to have meaning. But scientific discoveries have forced us into a deeply uncomfortable contradiction. On the one hand our pursuit of scientific truth suggests our significance in the cosmos is either miniscule or completely nonexistent; on the other hand, this realization feels like a deep violation of our need for meaning.
Part of Rick and Morty’s appeal is that it provides both confirmation and comic relief for this contradiction, and uses humor to sooth our existential fear that our lives are essentially as meaningless as a robot designed to pass butter for someone’s breakfast pancakes.
Dark as it is, the show’s moral message is that, ‘Yes, the universe might be meaningless—but cheer up, don’t take things too seriously. There’re still plenty of reason to live, even if there isn’t necessarily meaning to life.’
From the mouth of one of the show’s creators, Dan Harmon:
“Do I agree with Rick that nothing means anything? No I do not because the knowledge that nothing matters, while accurate, gets you nowhere. The planet is dying, the sun is exploding, the universe is cooling, nothing’s gonna matter, the further back you pull the more that truth will endure. But when you zoom in on earth, when you zoom in to a family, when you zoom into a human brain and a childhood and an experience you see all these things that matter. We have this fleeting chance to participate in an illusion…knowing the truth, which is that nothing matters, can actually save you in those moments…once you get through that terrifying threshold of accepting that, then every place is the center of the universe, and every moment is the most important moment, and every thing is the meaning of life.”
But there are also religious traditions that, rather than deny nothingness, are uniquely prepared help us live in a vast and awesome universe and accept our seeming impermanence within it. Mystical traditions in particular tend to see Nothingness not as a dispiriting and dreadful idea but as a deep, powerful, and life-giving mystery. Not as something contrary to human meaning but the place from which all meaning springs and a glimpse at the foundations on which reality stands.
This series is adapted from the podcast episode I produced for the Ministry of Ideas. Listen to it here.