Astronaut Edgar Mitchell’s Final Advice for Our Politicians

Edgar Mitchell's Advice

Edgar Mitchell’s Advice

On Sunday, April 3, 2016, I was privileged to give a talk at a special tribute to Astronaut Edgar Mitchell, who died February 4, 2016, one day before the 45th anniversary of his Apollo 14 Moon Walk. The tribute was held in St. Petersburg by the local community of members of the Institute of Noetic Sciences [IONS], the foundation Dr. Mitchell organized to promote research into human consciousness, after his return from space.

Dr. Mitchell’s quote that frames this blog does not appear on the pages of his book, The Way of the Explorer, nor is it included in my book Wonderlust, where I wrote about Dr. Mitchell’s Apollo 14 insight into our connectivity with the cosmos and our Earth and life itself, nor is it referenced in my February 2016 Edgar Mitchell blog.

Dr. Mitchell’s advice to our politicians was his final message – passed on to us on the back cover of his Palm Beach Memorial Service program.

His advice, included as a slide in the visuals of my Sunday talk, brought a round of laughter and applause. But, beyond our shared frustrations with today’s political process, there’s a deeper message for us all.

The tie is into Dr. Mitchell’s postulate that underlying our global and personal problems today is our lack of understanding that comes from consciousness.

It’s decision-making that comes from lack of consciousness that concerned Dr. Mitchell, as it should us.

Lee Harris illuminates us in his 2004 book, Civilization and its Enemies.

The problem, Harris tells us, arises from “abstract” reasoning – conclusions arrived at in the windows of our mind sourced in pure thought unconnected with the “dirty hands, wet feet” learning that comes from concrete experience. Many “self-evident truths” we hallow as sacred products of our Enlightenment – and teachings from the Age of Enlightenment – are the products of abstract reasoning, not concrete reasoning. I include this discussion in Wonderlust:

In his chapter 8, “How Reason Goes Wrong,” Harris discusses reasoning, and in particular abstract reasoning, a prime tool many of us intellectuals
use when we want to tell the world “how it ought to be.”

The problem, Harris points out, is that abstract reasoning, a product of the Age of Enlightenment, is separated from first-hand experience. It is not grounded in reality. The danger of reliance on abstract reasoning, particularly in ethics and politics, is that it easily converts to the “fanaticism of abstract thought,” which gives priority to the idea over the concrete. Harris ties his abstract-reasoning discussion into our systems of education, which use books, lectures and the Internet as tools to pass on secondhand knowledge to students, unconnected with students’ direct personal experiences. The way we educate today is not to first look at the real world and then consider concepts; we look first at concepts (abstract reasoning) and only then, and then only rarely, connect to the real world.

Our error is that we “focus on the definition of the concept in isolation from the world. . . .” That, he says, misses Socrates’ point when he wrote, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” What Socrates meant is that insight into life and its meaning comes from experience, from venturing into the world first and from that venture developing our insight.

Today, Harris concludes, teachers and professors too frequently present students with the investigations and solutions worked out by others, and give students the task of copying or memorizing what others have done. Learning is not hands-on. The result is that honing students’ curiosity and wonder, the prime goal of education, is lost in the process.

It’s worth repeating Harris’s conclusion:

Our error is that we “focus on the definition of the concept in isolation from the world. . . .”

The problem is not merely a schoolbook-schoolroom problem. The problem hits all of us, with the result that our deeply-held beliefs trump facts.

Consider the following:

In August 2007, PBS produced a show for its NOW series, God and Global Warming. This link will take you to the 30-minute program, well worth watching. The program description:

“In August, NOW traveled with an unlikely alliance of Evangelical Christians and leading scientists to witness the breathtaking effects of global warming on Alaska’s rapidly changing environment. Though many in the evangelical community feel recognition of global warming is in opposition to their mission, the week-long trip inspired new thinking on the relationship between science and religion, and on our moral responsibility to protect the planet.”

The “new thinking” emerged on a “dirty-hands, wet-feet” adventure in the minds of reluctant participants who saw, heard, felt and touched Alaska’s melting ice, disappearing glaciers, collapsing tundra, sinking islands – and the pain of the Alaskans whose homes and livelihoods have been damaged by climate change’s accelerating rathe. First-hand experience ameliorated the evangelicals’ previously-held intractable interpretations, sourced in their sacred texts void of the context of real-world experiences.

More than a century ago, Thoreau insightfully advised us,

“It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.”

First-hand experiences convert looking into seeing and morph abstract thoughts into concrete, evidence-based understanding.

It should be of little surprise that South Florida’s Republican Congressman Carlos Cubelo no longer needs the curt “look at that” Edgar Mitchell admonition. In February 2016, Cubelo broke ranks from his party’s climate-change deniers, joining with Florida Democratic Congressman Theodore Deutch in filing a Congressional resolution to create the Climate Solutions Caucus, whose objective is “to educate [Congressional] members on economically-viable options to reduce climate risk and protect our nation’s economy, security, infrastructure, agriculture, water supply, and public safety.” Florida is fast becoming America’s climate-change “endangered species,” the state most at risk from our warming and rising seas and climate change. Increased storm surge, salt water intrusion, and flooding have become too common experiences in South Florida to be ignored.

Speaking at the University of South Florida on February 21, 2016, framed by a dramatic change from his earlier position, Florida Congressman David Jolly, representing Florida’s 13th District [which includes Tampa Bay, which has serious vulnerability to damage from climate change and rising seas] concluded that climate is changing, man has had an impact, and we have to stop arguing about the science and work on solutions. Jolly recently became the 13th Republican to join as a sponsor of Congress’s Gibson Resolution, with the goal of achieving positive Congressional action regarding climate change solutions.

I recently perused The Heartland Institute’s Center for Climate and Environmental Policy’s home page, which has as its heading:

The Heartland Institute is ‘the world’s most prominent think tank promoting skepticism about man-made climate change.” – the Economist, May 26, 2012.

Heartland’s list of articles include:

• There is No “Scientific Consensus” on Global Warming
• The Global Warming Crisis is Over
• The Myth of the Climate Change ‘97%.’

As I perused, I pondered what Lee Harris wrote about first-hand experience and what I had written in Wonderlust:

I have often wondered about our ancient prophets who spent their lives trying to make some sense out of life, our world and our destiny. I have wondered how the stories they told — the ones they were so sure about, the stories that their ancient scribes inked onto the pages of our sacred scriptures that became in the minds of many irrefutable truths — would have been told had they stood with Edgar Mitchell on the moon, sharing his emotion and his awe, as they gazed on the distant Pale Blue Dot we call our home.

Or if they had sailed around the world with Darwin on the Beagle and worked with him gathering specimens in the Galapagos. Or if they had climbed Mount Sinai with Moses, or Mount Arafat with Muhammad, each with Galileo’s telescope in hand, and with Galileo’s curiosity, his wondering.

Or if they had seen the ancient cave paintings, the Neanderthal ochre paintings of seals adorning the Spanish Caves of Nerva some 40,000 years ago, or the Paleolithic paintings 10,000 years later of bison, lions, bears, hyenas and human hands, found in the caves of Chauvent-Pont-d’Arc in southern France.

Or if they had been guests in Switzerland, in the underground tunnels where scientists bombarded atoms at supersonic speeds searching for the Higgs Boson particle, a necessary cornerstone of life itself.

Or if they had an opportunity to share thoughts and observations with the likes of Copernicus, Newton, Einstein, Currie, Hubble, Schweitzer, de- Grasse Tyson, or any of the countless other inquiring minds that have continued to knock on the doors of the mysteries those early prophets worked so hard to comprehend.

Could we not pose the same sorts of questions to the science writers at Heartland or any of our other climate-change deniers? Would not first-hand, concrete experiences, grounded in reality, change what appears to be over-reliance on abstract thought and analysis, which result in their beliefs consistently trumping contrary evidence that a “dirty-hands, wet-feet” experience would not allow them to ignore?

Or will it take the kind of experience Edgar Mitchell had a quarter of a million miles in space to illuminate their doubting minds?


Dr. Mitchell’s talk about our Earth’s sustainability:

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A musical tribute to our astronauts:

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To learn more about Wonderlust, click on:

Wonderlust Cover

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Once again, Dick, your uniquely powerful message sounds the alarm. “More than a century ago, Thoreau insightfully advised us, “It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.” First-hand experiences convert looking into seeing and morph abstract thoughts into concrete, evidence-based understanding.” That especially is the phrase that re-inspires me and says it all. While the blind cannot see and must experience life through their other senses, they become miraculously adept at knowing and understanding, especially with excellent teaching/ training, by using the remaining senses to perceive and navigate the world. Alas, the powerful forces of greed… Read more »

Ricardo: Enjoy it I did. It’s right to the point – to Hell with what the priests and nutty politicians say, this is what’s real. As a science journalist I got to know Carl Sagan a little bit, and he pointed to Venus as a “runaway greenhouse,” closer to the sun than we are, making it so hot (900-degrees F at the surface) that everything that can melt and vaporize is in the atmosphere already has, causing it to retain a huge amount of heat. It’s a pressure cooker. Mars, farther out than we are, can’t hang onto its heat,… Read more »