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A Selfie of Planet Earth

Updated: Nov 18, 2023

Earth and moon seen by the NASA probe OSIRIS-REx, from a distance of five million kilometers, October 2017.

“I believe the Cosmos is alive and conscious”

- Iain McGichrist, neuropsychiatrist, author of ‘The Master and His Emissary -The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World”, former Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, an associate Fellow of Green Templeton College, Oxford, a Fellow of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, a Consultant Emeritus of the Bethlem and Maudsley Hospital, London, a former research Fellow in Neuroimaging at Johns Hopkins University Medical School, Baltimore, and a former Fellow of the Institute of Advanced Studies in Stellenbosch.

“Through conscious beings the universe has generated self-awareness. This can be no trivial detail, no minor byproduct of mindless, purposeless forces. We are truly meant to be here.”

- Paul Davies, author of "Mind of God: The Scientific Basis for a Rational World."

He began as a researcher in theoretical astronomy at the University of Cambridge (1970-1972) and then lecturer (lecturer) in Mathematics at King's College London (1972 - 1980).

His research interests are in the fields of cosmology, quantum field theory, and astrobiology.

Professor of Physics at Arizona State University since 2006 and Visiting Professor at the University of New South Wales since 2015 and Imperial College London, Department of Bioengineering since 2014. He was Professor of Natural Philosophy at Macquarie University (2001-2006) and University of Adelaide (1993-1997). Previously, he was Professor of Mathematical Physics at the University of Adelaide (1990-1993) and Professor of Theoretical Physics at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne (1980-1990). In 1995, he was awarded the Templeton Prize.

“We see the world piece by piece, as the sun, the moon, the animal, the tree; but the whole, of which these are shining parts, is the soul.”

- Ralph Waldo Emerson

This essay requires about twenty minutes of reading time. You can also listen to this audio version, read by myself.

Dear friends, readers and followers of A Biosphere Project,

I have already shared the above photo of our home planet once before, on the occasion of my birthday, in a post on Facebook in October 2020. It was a reflection on friendship, mortality, the pandemic, and our connectedness on this planet in an endless cosmos. You can read that text also on this website, it is one of the first ‘essays’ that I posted here.

I am now sharing this particular picture of Earth again, this time with a different story attached.

Accompanying the quotes I habitually begin this essay with, below the photo, I have this time listed a load of academic references for two of the authors of these quotes. That seems a bit excessive but I have done that on purpose, why I will explain a little further on.

The photo was taken on Oct. 2, 2017 by space probe OSIRIS-REx, at a distance of five million kilometers from Earth. OSIRIS-REx was then on its way to the asteroid Bennu to collect samples from the clump of rock dating back to the time our solar system was formed.

I was reminded of this photo and my text from back then, by the news that OSIRIS-REx has now returned after seven years, unloading from orbit a capsule that landed in the Utah desert, carrying soil samples from asteroid Bennu. The space probe itself, meanwhile, after a ‘gravity slingshot’ around Earth, is already on its way to an another asteroid, Apophis, where it will arrive in 2029.

I found it a moving photograph then, and I still do.

Most images of Earth are taken from ‘low orbit’, the distance from Earth at which the ISS orbits the planet. Those images are also beautiful and impressive, but are still somewhat reassuring: the Earth is still close and still appears large, a bit like from an airplane but much higher.

This image was taken from a much greater distance, and shows how ‘small’ our home world is in endless space. I put the word 'small' in quotes, because the Earth is at the same time awesomely large. It just depends on your perspective.

From the perspective of the countless microorganisms that make our soil fertile and turn the oceans into a soup of life, the Earth is the size of a Universe.

And an interesting fact is that, on the scale between the size of the visible Universe and the scale of the very smallest (the ‘Planck scale’, named after physicist Max Planck), the human body is roughly in the middle. This means that relative to the Planck scale, the human body is as vast as the entire visible Universe is relative to the human body. So, relative to the Planck scale, you, reader, are as big as the whole Universe. So scale depends on the perspective from which you look.

The distance to our planet in this picture is still small enough that you can distinguish some of the blue of the oceans, and the white clouds.

You can still see and feel that it is indeed our ‘Blue Marble’, that beautiful home world of ours. But you can also see and feel that our world is limited, and that conditions beyond those limits are not immediately suitable for life as we know it.

But so I don't want to adopt the perspective, however, that Earth is ‘insignificantly small in the endless cold, empty and lifeless universe’. First, as I said, scale is relative.

And second, the perspective that we live in an indifferent and lifeless universe, and that the Earth, and we, are 'lost' in the boundless emptiness of this lifeless universe, is also only a perspective. Even the idea that space is ‘empty’ is but a perspective, a story.

Quantum physicist David Bohm (about whom you can read/ listen/ watch in my blog post ‘The scientist, the monk and the philosopher) suggested that the ‘vacuum’ should rather be called the ‘plenum’, because space itself is actually full. Full of energy, full of information. Bohm proposed to reverse our perception: rather than seeing the stars and planets as dots in the void, he proposed to see space as the ‘fullness’, in which the stars and planets are rather like ‘holes’. Space itself as one big organism, within which what we call 'matter' manifests in what we could almost call a kind of 'womb.' For space is a thing; it is not simply an absence of something. Space, at the very smallest Planck scale, consists of a 'granular' structure, in which a kind of 'basic unit' of space can be discerned, which can not be further divided into smaller ‘bits’. But space is also not static. Like a huge organism, space can stretch and shrink, for example under the influence of gravity.

So rather than as the absence of something, space, according to the latest developments in science, can rather be seen as a fullness, an organism that makes all of the Universe possible.

An organism that moreover contains an unimaginable amount of energy. One cubic centimeter of the ‘vacuum’ or ‘plenum’ contains as much energy as the visible Universe.

Space can therefore by no means be called ‘empty'.

Imagine if there were no space. All matter and all stars would be crammed together in one lump. More than that, matter couldn’t even exist, because matter too consists mainly of 'empty' space. An atom consists of 99.9999999 percent empty space.

So space can be seen as a fullness that, moreover, makes all existence possible.

And the vacuum (or plenum) contains information, or arises from information. David Bohm spoke of the field of information from which everything arises as the ‘Implicate Order’, systems philosopher Ervin Làszlo calls this information field the ‘A-Field’.

I'll talk a little more about that another time, but for now you can remember that the space in which our planet is located is anything but 'empty'.

Why does this matter?

Why, in a blog supposedly about ‘ecology’, pay attention to interstellar space?

Ecology is essentially the science that studies the relationship of an organism to its environment.

But where does that environment end? Is it only about our planet and our biosphere? Does what is outside of that biosphere have nothing to do with it?

The study of ecology makes it clear that everything is connected to everything, and that in the ecosystem we call our biosphere, every part is seamlessly connected to the whole, and that the whole is more than the sum of its parts. But it is impossible to say, "beyond the boundary of our atmosphere we do not look," because the whole of that organism of our biosphere is seamlessly connected to the greater whole of the Universe. You cannot say, up to there and no further.

Moreover, what we do and don't do on our planet is a consequence of what we believe about our planet, and by extension what we believe about the Universe. What we believe matters, as systems thinker Jeremy Lent so beautifully demonstrates in his extraordinary book ‘The Web of Meaning’, and eco-philosopher Charles Eisenstein explores in his masterpiece ‘The More Beautiful World our Hearts Know Is Possible’, and neuropsychiatrist Iain McGilchrist in his ‘The Master and His Emissary -The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World’. What we believe about the Universe and the space in which our planet resides will manifest (largely unconsciously) in the way we interact with life, with the planet, and with ourselves.

Ecology must be concerned with the entire Universe, for our planet and biosphere are connected to it and dependent on it. For example, all life on Earth is made possible by the energy of our star, the Sun. Our star, in turn, is part of a wider organism, our galaxy. And so you can go on and on.

A lot can be said about the history of what we believed about the Universe, but I'll keep that for another time.

We do need to realize -and feel again- the importance of what we believe about the Universe.

How we relate to the Universe has a direct influence on how we feel about ourselves and how we define ourselves.

The great Yogi, Michael Singer, author of ‘The Untethered soul’ and ‘The Surrender Experiment’ (both highly recommended reading) is one of the great Western ‘explorers’ into the world of Eastern philosophies of life and meditation, and the expansion of consciousness that can result from that. Like no other he has translated the Eastern thought and spiritual practice of Buddhism and Hinduism for a Western audience, yet without falling into the facile distortions that characterize a certain kind of self-help industry.

In each of his books and also in his lectures, he very often emphasizes the fact that part of his daily spiritual practice is to be as acutely aware as possible of the fact that he (and all of us) are on a very small planet (but that is relative as I pointed out) spinning around in an endless Universe, and that on its small surface harbours everything that we care about.

As the photo of OSIRIS-REx makes palpable, the totality of our Earth is not so much or not only incredibly small in relation to the size of the Universe (please keep in mind the relativity of that again), but that Earth is also embedded in a larger whole, and thus we are also part of that larger whole, like it or not. And since we are part of a greater whole, what we believe about that greater whole affects how we define ourselves. And making yourself aware of that greater whole on a daily basis is an exercise that can bring about a far-reaching shift in perspective. I call it ‘planetary consciousness’, the broadening of the sense of place, identity and relationship from the immediate environment and from day-to-day personal experiences, to ALL of Earth, as well as to everything in which that Earth is in turn embedded.

This is a very far-reaching shift, one that cannot be realized all at once and one that may initially evoke much resistance or even fear. I will talk more about this shift in perspective in future posts, as well as about exercises that can be helpful in this process.

It is a meditation exercise that I have also made my own. So the purpose of that daily exercise is not that we should feel ourselves small and unimportant (because each of us is an entire Universe), but rather that we should thoroughly put our major and minor concerns into perspective, that we do not create great dramas when it is usually completely unnecessary and useless, and not fall into selfishness, greed, fanaticism or violent tendencies of all kinds. That we not only come to know ourselves to be framed in a much larger whole that extends far beyond our daily horizon, but that we also know ourselves to be connected and carried by that same all-transcending mystery of which we are a part.

Who would, in full awareness (felt and embodied through and through, not just as a mental concept ) of our position in and relation to the Universe, start a war over power or resources? Who, in full awareness of our position in the Universe and its significance, would destroy their own home world for the sake of short-term financial gain? It seems to me that very many of the problems in our world have to do with an acute lack of awareness of our place in and relation to the Universe. On the contrary, man has felt himself to be cut off from his own connection with the greater whole for a very long time, and in its place has been indoctrinated with all sorts of mental ideologies, consciousness-constricting ideologies (both those of a religious nature and secular ones) that are all premised on one's own rightness and the need to defend one's own property against and gain power over the other and over nature.

By way of example of the effect of a belief on how you feel, I would like to suggest the following exercise. An exercise in which we hold a particular belief about the Universe in the center of our attention for a moment, and then try to notice the effect of that belief. It is not a difficult exercise, but it may require a moment of quiet concentration. If you have a daily practice of mindfulness or meditation, you might want to incorporate this exercise into that. Or you may find another way to create some calm and get in touch with your feelings.

Look again at the picture of the earth at the top of this blog post. And concentrate for a moment on the thought: "this planet is insignificantly small and alone and lost in an infinitely cold, empty and hostile universe." Try to feel how that idea feels to you.

Then create the thought: "this planet is an incredibly beautiful wondrous world embedded and enabled by an even more wondrous organism that is intelligent and conscious and full of energy and information." Then feel how that idea feels to you.

Yes but, you may object, the first idea is the truth, and the second idea is just wishful thinking, an idea we create to comfort ourselves in that lifeless, endless cold universe. Moreover, what we feel about something is irrelevant because emotions have nothing to do with what is real.

Well, the belief that the first idea is the right and the 'scientific' one is a story that originated in the nineteenth century, but which is in no way based on 'science'.

As I cited just now, science is increasingly coming to the opposite view: the whole Universe as an organism that is alive, and conscious, and even learning and evolving. And the view is gaining ground that it is also no accident that we are here. In the new vision, we are here as the Universe's way of becoming aware of itself, like celebrated astrophysicist Paul Davies stated in the quote at the beginning of this essay.

And the idea that what we feel is irrelevant, is also only a story. The separation between reason and feeling is partly an illusion, and as quantum physicist David Bohm also stated, thinking is always also a form of feeling and vice versa. The idea that we can form a picture of reality without involving our feelings is an aberration and a story that has gotten us into a lot of trouble. As neuropsychiatrist Iain McGilchrist, whom I quoted (with very many credentials) at the beginning of this blog post also states: any understanding of the world must arise from science, reason, as well as intuition and imagination. So an exercise like the one I just asked you to do is anything but irrelevant. What we imagine about the world and what we feel about it has a defining influence on what we do and don’t do, and what we consider possible or impossible.

We must be able to imagine again that the Earth is alive, that we are there with a purpose, and that the Universe is there with a purpose. And that image is not a fantasy but a form of knowledge.

As philosopher Alan Watts put it, “man is symptomatic of the Universe”.

We live on a planet that produces people like an apple tree produces apples. We live in a Universe that produces human beings like a cherry tree produces cherries.

And both of the above ideas, which I will explore further later, are reflected in the quotes accompanying the photo at the beginning of this post, quotes that are in support of both of these perspectives. Both quotes are from highly ‘respected’ scientists. Hence, almost ironically, I added the plethora of 'serious' scientific references.

After all, we live in a culture that can only believe something if it comes from a 'respected' scientist (at least, so it used to be, because a deep distrust of that science is growing in a significant part of our society). 'Respected' means with a lot of credentials like the one I quoted in the process. Not for nothing do we call such references ‘credentials’. If you can present such a list of important credentials, then I will believe what you say. But that is also a story. The story of how we grant authority to people to determine what is real and what is not. And I will talk more about that story later.

Yes, but, you may object again, there are also scientists with equally impressive credentials who claim the opposite: that the Universe is meaningless, the result of an accident, an anomaly. That the emergence of life was an accident, and that the evolution of that life was simply a result of a terrible ‘survival of the fittest’ in a cruel nature that is soulless. That life is simply a mechanical process that also has no meaning or purpose. That your consciousness is also just an illusion in your brain, an illusion that offered evolutionary advantage in the endless struggle against all other organisms, nothing more. That the whole universe is a stupid mechanism and existence is an exercise in meaninglessness, which will end by entropy in an endless black universe in which nothing will eventually remain.

That proposition, by the way, at first sight still seems to be the majority opinion in the scientific community.

But actually, we currently have no idea what the real majority opinion is in the scientific world, because many scientists are afraid to say openly what they actually think for fear of repercussions for their reputation and careers. Certain opinions are still taboo in the scientific community, all the more reason to appreciate ‘respected’ scientists like Paul Davies and Iain McGilchrist for having the courage to state outright what many of their colleagues dare not. As Paul Davies puts it, "The belief that there is 'something behind it all' is one that I personally share with, I suspect, a majority of physicists." But most of those physicists will not yet dare to state that openly.

It was not so long ago that John Maddox, the editor of the authoritative scientific journal Nature called for the public burning of the books of renowned biologist Rupert Sheldrake. Sheldrake, a Cambridge alumnus with excellent credentials like the two scientists quoted earlier, but who had the audacity to proclaim several decades ago certain things that were diametrically opposed to the prevailing dogmas of the scientific establishment. Book burning, if that evokes associations with religious persecution, it is no coincidence. John Maddox even stated explicitly: "Sheldrake can be condemned in exactly the language that the Pope used to condemn Galileo, and for the same reason. It is heresy”. Science as an institution has acquired all the characteristics of a religion, with dogmas and commandments and prohibitions, unlike the scientific method that cannot help but question everything. In making his bold statement, John Maddox also momentarily forgot that Galileo was indeed right. But the institution of science and the scientific method are two entirely different things. More on that in future writings as well.

But, to return to our earlier dilemma, who should you believe in the end? Both ‘sides’ have excellent or stunning credentials from our institutions that determine who is granted ‘credibility’ and who is not.

Well, what if you would believe what makes you feel the best? What increases your desire to live and gives you the feeling that you are part of something transcendent that is wonderful and mysterious? What if you believed that which gives you the feeling that everything is connected to everything else in a wonderful dance without end?

As Alan Watts put it in his wondrous seminar ‘What is Reality’ (which you can listen to in its entirety in the blog post Playing Hide and Seek with Alan Watts’), the story you believe must be worth betting on. Even if the data point equally toward two possibilities (one positive and one negative), why would you choose to believe in a story that is exclusively negative and nihilistic? Why bet on a story you don't actually want to live in? Why would that be a good choice? Because it is ‘the truth’? But there is no proof that that nihilistic story is the correct one! And the data do not even point equally toward both possibilities. On the contrary, that other story, that the Universe is alive and conscious, and that you are not just there by accident, that story is more and more confirmed by the new scientific ideas and models that are emerging. Because that also remains a possible basis of a choice about what to believe: does it match what we observe using the scientific method?

And the ‘proponents of the world view that assumes soulless meaninglessness and mechanical deadness, and which actually still goes all the way back to nineteenth century science, don't really have any empirical proof for their argument. On the contrary, verifiable and repeatable experiments today tell us an entirely different story about matter, about energy, about consciousness, and even about belief and the effect of belief on reality. Which is why Dutch physicist and systems theorist Bernardo Kastrup went as far as to call this vision of materialism ’baloney’ and even gave one of his books that title. And the proponents of a new vision on the nature of reality are getting more and more confirmation of their viewpoint on all fronts in latest experimental data. But (much) more on that another time.

So, more and more scientists are coming to the conclusion that neuropsychiatrist and author Iain McGilchrist and physicist, quantum physicist, philosopher of science, astrobiologist and astrophysicist Paul Davies are proclaiming here: the Universe is alive AND conscious, and we are not just here by accident.

Even if this is a proposition that is still far from accepted in the scientific community as a whole.

(At least, in public that is. Behind the scenes, many more scientists probably believe this than are openly stated)

And I will gradually explore these two propositions and the science that confirms them in this blog and essays. Because I think it is essential that we can believe and feel that again. It is, in my opinion, an essential part of the paradigm shift that is coming. If we can believe again that we are here for a reason, and that we live in a universe that is alive and conscious, we have a chance to really change course and really ground our civilization back into a belief that gives us and our world meaning again.

If it is true that we are here for a reason, if it is true that we are the way the Universe becomes (more) aware of itself, and if it is true that the Earth produces us like an apple tree produces apples, then we can consider the photo at the beginning of this post, and the one below at the end, to be ‘selfies’ of our Earth, as we are an intrinsic part of Earth and its ecosystem. If we are here with a reason, then Earth ‘grew’ us, like apples, with a reason. Perhaps one of the reasons Earth has created us is just that: to be able to see herself like this, like in a mirror.

And the Earth should be happy with her selfie, because she is a beauty and that shows in every picture.

The Earth probably also is quite worried by our behavior right now, because we are doing things that are not good for her health. And so we have come full circle to ecology. How could we ever start caring for a world if we fundamentally believe that the world is a meaningless and soulless lump of matter? Scientific reductionism cannot but lead us to destroy that same world. The idea that a nihilistic worldview can lead to a flourishing civilization living in harmony and synergy with its environment is a very strange idea. You might as well expect a suicidal drug addict to be well positioned to raise happy children.

Finally, I would suggest this exercise: look again at both selfies of Earth, and try to imagine that this planet is not only alive, but that you have a personal connection to it. After all, you grew out of it, in the words of Alan Watts like an apple grows out of an apple tree. Like a baby grows out of a womb. Try to feel how that image feels to you.

Visualize that you are no orphan lost on a strange and indifferent world, but that you have emerged from this wonderful organism that is our biosphere, that you are also inseparable from it, and that you yourself are an expression of the unimaginable creativity of that biosphere, which has produced such an incredible variety of life and beauty of such unimaginable complexity and cohesion. Even a single-celled creature is incredibly wondrous and complex if you look closely, and one tablespoon of fertile soil contains some six billion of those organisms. And if we go from there to the complexity of your body, words fail to describe the unimaginable harmony and complexity of the universe that you are. And our biosphere, that beautiful planet in these wonderful selfies, has produced all of that. And not without reason.

Try to feel that you are inseparable from all of this living planet, just as the cells of your liver or your spinal cord are inseparable from you. And try to imagine that you have a function in all of that organism, just as the cells of your liver or spinal cord have a function in your body.

Human beings often feel lost and ‘thrown into’ a hostile world. But that is a story we imagine. We can create, imagine and live another story. And that other story will not be wishful thinking or ‘unscientific’ fantasy. No, it will be a more accurate approximation of what is real, than the story we are currently creating. And it will allow us to treat our planet, from which we ourselves grew like apples from an apple tree, differently. And it will allow for us to start treating ourselves differently.

All the best to you,

With much love for you and for our home world,


Earth as seen by NASA probe OSIRIS-REx.


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