Exile and the Cosmos

Subtitle Here?

In the book of Genesis, Adam and Eve are banished from the Garden of Eden as punishment for eating from the Tree of Knowledge. The cost of their new-found knowledge, we’re told, was perpetual homelessness, ceaseless toil, and mortality. Very much like these two biblical forebearers, I suspect that we secular Westerners have also been expelled from a primordial state of innocence and meaning on account of knowledge. The only difference is that the apple we ate was the one that fell onto Newton’s head. The price of science’s empirical knowledge, it seems, is a crushing sense of cosmological exile.

Of course, many scientists do not bemoan this exile. In fact, they see the draining of meaning from the universe as a salutary shedding of superstitions — a courageous forsaking of the fairy tales our ancestors invented to feel safe in a terrifyingly unpredictable world. Although it might sting to admit that there’s no purpose or meaning to existence, the priests of our New Atheism remind us that this is the price we must pay for the objective truth and predictive power delivered by science. It’s important to note, however, that this Faustian bargain is premised on the assumption that the cosmos is, in fact, devoid of purpose and meaning. It’s only with that assumption in place that we are forced to choose between (meaningless) truth and (illusory) meaning.

[I think that we should consider cutting this section on the myopia. Can we find a way to skip that part. Also need to edit the last two sentences just above.]

Just for a moment, let’s consider the possibility that this assumption might be wrong, and that the universe might not be a meaningless machine. As a brief thought experiment, let’s imagine that the cosmos is actually pervaded with meaning and purpose — as almost every other culture on this planet has affirmed. In that light, our current mechanistic worldview would look quite different. Instead of representing a hard-fought victory against dogmatic delusion, the gradual disenchantment of the cosmos would appear as a growing blindness to the cosmos’s inner depths.

In my view, this degenerative myopia was already quite advanced by the colonial period. In 1550, for example, the Catholic Church convened a conference in Spain to answer a seemingly intractable question: Were the indigenous people of the Americas actually humans? In addition to being tragically incapable of grasping the majesty of the Native Americans’ cultures, it seems that Europeans could not even see their souls. Since then, our civilization’s blindness to soul seems to have spread across the entire cosmos. By the next century, philosophers such as Descartes — a man who prided himself on the power of his perception — had lost the ability to see the souls of other living creatures. Just one century later, Europeans could no longer see the cosmos’s soul, though they still unanimously agreed that the mechanistic cosmos had been created by an ensouled deity. By 1900, this divine soul had become invisible, and, one century after that, many secular scientists had grown blind to their own souls.

As historian Richard Tarnas sees it, however, we shouldn’t think of this increasing myopia as an unmitigated mistake or a ruinous wrong turn. In fact, Tarnas claims that stripping the outer world of meaning was an enormously empowering — and perhaps even necessary — move, since it’s what allowed modern humans to differentiate themselves from the all-encompassing matrix of nature and to stand as self-responsible moral agents. In this light, our current disenchantment is directly related to many of modernity’s greatest gifts: our sense of personal uniqueness, our individual creativity, and our moral autonomy. At the same time, however, we need to acknowledge that these gifts have come at an exorbitant price.

In my view, the cost of this empowered sovereignty has been an ever-increasing sense of exile. By denying soul to other species, we exiled ourselves from the earth community. By reducing the universe to an inert machine, we exiled ourselves from the cosmic community. And now, our mechanistic approach to biology and neuroscience has exiled us even from ourselves. In Richard Dawkins’s influential view, for example, humans are nothing but “lumbering robots” used as survival tools by selfish genes.


Personally, I’ve been acutely aware of this feeling of exile for as long as I can remember. As a teenager, I assumed that this alienation stemmed from a literal exile — the fact I had lost any meaningful connection to my motherland and mother tongue when I moved from France to New York at the age of nine. In my twenties, however, I became convinced that my estrangement was psychological in origin — the result of a familial wound that had banished me from the warm nest of human intimacy. Over the last decade, however, I’ve come to see that my exile is much more pervasive. I’ve been exiled from my body, my dream world, my ancestry, and more broadly, I’ve also been estranged from my ecosystem, my planet, and the universe as a whole.

As with most wounds, this one also harbored a hidden blessing. In my case, it was this relentless sense of alienation that led me to devote my life to the wondrous journey of homecoming. Instead of chasing financial security or societal status, I’ve spent my entire adult life scouring public libraries, tropical beaches, and human faces for any hint of the way home. Over the course of three decades of spiritual practice, psychological introspection, philosophical inquiry, and creative exploration, I’ve been blessed with staggering experiences of belonging. While surfing, I’ve been cocooned inside majestic Hawaiian waves and kissed by the ocean’s immense power. While dripping sweat on the Bay Area’s dance floors, I’ve felt the ecstasy of four hundred humans giving themselves over to communal rapture. And while reading the work of cosmologist Brian Swimme, I’ve realized that I am the Milky Way galaxy, now experiencing itself in conscious self-awareness.

My sense of exile also changed dramatically when I recognized that this devastating alienation wasn’t just a personal affliction. In fact, I realized, our entire civilization seems to be wracked — and also driven — by a very similar experience of pervasive exile. As I’ve learned from the indigenous elder Martín Prechtel, it’s this alienation — from our bodies, our past, and our planet — that propels our civilization’s insatiable addictions and its rapacious need to subjugate everything it encounters.

Of course, this estrangement isn’t a recent apparition. In fact, exile is the very starting point of the West’s founding story. By the Bible’s fourth page, Adam and Eve have already been exiled from Eden, and by the start of its second book, their descendants have already been enslaved in a foreign land. And in a strangely prophetic way, this scriptural story of exile has become historical fact. On the most literal level, the Jewish people have lived in a more or less perpetual state of exile from their homeland since the Bible was written down in the second millennium BCE. In addition, the vast majority of people who colonized the American continent — both European and African — were also exiles. Since then, alienation seems to have infected every aspect of modern life. With the rise of cities, industrial capitalism, and mechanistic science, most Westerners have lost their connection to their land, their ecosystems, and their cosmos.

Curiously perhaps, this realization filled me with hope. If my exile wasn’t just personal in origin — if it was, instead, the result of civilizational processes — perhaps the same was true for the remedy. As it turned out, this conjecture would propel me on a decades-long quest focused on a single question: What happened to Western civilization that led to this pervasive experience of exile, and how might this wound be healed?

I believe that such a healing is possible, and — perhaps more radically — that it doesn’t require us to abandon Western civilization’s vast scientific, spiritual, and artistic treasures. As a lifelong student of Western art, science, and philosophy, I’ve been continually astounded by the richness and profundity of our tradition: the architectural majesty of the Alhambra, the poetic genius of Emily Dickinson, and the scientific imagination of Einstein. In light of these treasures, I’ve refused to believe that Western civilization is a dead-end or a terminal disease. Instead, my sense is that our civilizational dysfunction is a necessary step in a larger evolutionary process, akin to the alienation felt by many adolescents as they discover unfamiliar impulses and unwieldy powers. In fact, I’m confident that Western civilization can move through this phase of dysfunctional alienation and contribute something important — perhaps even essential — to the Earth community.

In the next post, we’ll have more to say about this journey back into deeper intimacy with the cosmos.