Saying Thou to the Universe

Can a person live in I-Thou relation to the universe? Martin Buber thought so. But what did he mean?

The universe, too quickly confronted, overwhelms human inspection. Let’s examine the I-Thou relation in smaller places first.

We live daily beneath a set of intersecting and expanding domes, as presented in an earlier blog. The domes assume various physical forms – the cranium housing each human brain, the ceilings of rooms in which groups of people gather, the arcs of oxygen depletion and exhaled gas and smog shared by people who live in cities, the circles of light-speed information bouncing through the internet among connected groups (such as this one, you participating), and even the sky extending as far as the orbit of the international space station, which is the current physical limit of human life and intelligence.

“Every sentence is first-person” (our Rule #1) means that all discourse emanates from these domes. When we “break these rules” (according to Rule #4), our actions can provoke the emergence of a new dome, a new we-group, and a new first-person plural voice.

Communication moves back and forth between domes, thanks to the beautiful presence of you.

Communication also occurs between larger and smaller domes. Children go to school to funnel the wisdom of their forebears into their skulls. They grow up smart and later collectively and individually add to the cultural endowment – a larger dome extending in time as well as space.

Can we distinguish the I-Thou relation from the I-It relation, as proposed by Martin Buber, in the context of communication between the various domes in which we live? I think yes. If that distinction means anything at all, certainly it applies here.

Consider humanism as described by Morris Storer, Paul Kurtz, and others in the latter part of the 20th century.[1] Humanists turn to science as the means to interrogate nature objectively through I-It relations. Humanists find no Thou in nature.

If the question is asked whether nature, which created us through evolution, cares about us, humanists stoically answer no. The physical universe is uncaring. From this cold fact, they draw an imperative that we must care for each other. Then the human species becomes the focus, the archetype, the existential hero.

What is the relation between an individual person and humanity? The relation is I-Thou. Humanists indeed believe in a higher power, named humanity. They exhort each of us to pledge life and fealty to our species.

Is it possible that even science could involve an I-Thou relation? How do scientists relate to science. Consider that science is much more than an assembly of facts, more than a puzzle of interlocking pieces. Science should be viewed as the practice of an ongoing community of like-minded researchers, who pledge to accept only that which answers to public observation and experiment, compelling agreement within the community. I, an individual scientist, meet my Thou in this like-minded community pledged to impartiality.

Gazing at the stars, many have reminded us how small are humanity, science, and all that passes for knowledge and effort on this earth. What a tiny fraction of carbon in the universe occupies human bodies. How infinitesimal are the molecules of life compared to hydrogen clouds and fiery nuclear reactions in the galaxies. In the time scale of the stars, terrestrial humanity has appeared and will disappear in the blink of a cosmic eye.

Can we dare now consider the largest dome, the one that seems to overarch all others? Call it the universe, or call it natural law. We might with my friend Karl call it the grand scheme of things, GSOT. Some of us might say God.

Can there be an I-Thou relation between my own small hive of activity and the largest dome?

An ordinary believer in God, a person who prays to God, simply takes an I-Thou relation for granted. Sometimes the believer in God views herself as a child of God. Her sacred text tells her that she is made in the image of God. Generally she views herself as having free will, and she views the creator of the universe as having free will. Searching for GSOT, she perceives a spirit kindred to her own, and she speaks Thou.

Under the night sky, she may sing with the psalmist –

The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they reveal knowledge.
They have no speech, they use no words;
no sound is heard from them.
Yet their voice goes out into all the earth,
their words to the ends of the world. [2]

If the telephone rings and I hear someone say, “Hello, Johnny,” those four syllables are usually enough to let me recognize the voice of one of my brothers or sisters. I know their voices by heart. Likewise, we may look at the sky and our hearts say, “God, I recognize your voice.”

This is a theme that Immanuel Kant advanced when he wrote –


“Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the more often and steadily reflection is occupied with them: the starry heaven above me and the moral law within me. Neither of them need I seek and merely suspect as if shrouded in obscurity or rapture beyond my own horizon; I see them before me and connect them immediately with my existence.” [3]

When I was young, I remember hearing or reading that Kant was the greatest of all philosophers. That opinion, I later learned, is by no means unanimous. Nevertheless,  let’s acknowledge the parallel between inner self and the universe in this famous quote. In his own terms, Kant says Thou to the universe.

A similar recognition might also be found in science. Think about the Cosmos television series with Carl Sagan, playing weekly in the Nova slot on public television. Sometime in each program to my recollection, Sagan appeared on the foredeck of a spaceship peering rapturously under magnificent eyebrows through a large curving window at the heavens, expressing wonder at the “billions and billions of stars” in front of him.

Carl Sagan viewed free will as a concept with no useful meaning, and he certainly viewed the universe as having no free will. Yet his response to the universe was conscious and intentional, by his own understanding of those words. His response involved recognition and embrace.

With just a couple of modifications, the 19th Psalm quoted above reads like this:

The heavens declare the glory of nature;
the skies proclaim the rule of constant law.
Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they reveal knowledge.
They have no speech, they use no words;
no sound is heard from them.
Yet their voice goes out into all the earth,
their words to the ends of the world.

Can you allow that Sagan answered this voice with his own voice? Let me propose that the relation of Carl Sagan to the universe resembles I-Thou much more than I-It. For Sagan, subject and predicate of conscious action are not categorically different as I-It demands. In the first episode of his television series on Nova, Sagan said this:


…the cosmos is also within us. We’re made of star stuff. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself. [4]

“We’re made of star stuff,” the same stuff that builds the universe. Therefore, subject and object are categorically similar, marking the relation as I-Thou in his own terms.

Sagan and others like him do speak Thou to the universe. They recognize in the universe something kindred to themselves. At times they may describe that something as nominally minimal, but their lives – work, play, and relations – emphatically define a far greater notion.

Most scientists are not astronomers engaging the universe. What about the others, such as those whose professional life might be devoted to a single class of molecules and their interactions? In the mid-90s, I was struggling to get new funding for research. A kind friend, much more successful in the lab than I, invited me to lunch. He simply wanted to give me encouragement, and I was grateful.

My friend told me about a biochemist in our school whose discoveries had advanced his field greatly, bringing recognition and top awards. In his 70s the man developed leukemia, putting him in the hospital time after time. Finally the treatment was only palliative. He had weeks to live. His response? To get back into the lab for another experiment. My friend said he once asked his esteemed colleague which of his discoveries he deemed the best. The old man’s answer came quickly. “The next one,” he replied.

That is the appeal of science and the response of a scientist. He seeks the feeling of being the first to unwrap a discoverable mystery, the first person in all the world to know something new. Nature calls through a set of clues. With the right design, the right instruments, the right controls and buffers, he answers the call, says Thou to nature.

Albert Einstein knew the feeling well. Here is how he said Thou to the universe:


Although it is true that it is the goal of science to discover rules which permit the association and foretelling of facts, this is not its only aim…. Whoever has undergone the intense experience of successful advances made in this domain is moved by profound reverence for the rationality made manifest in existence. By way of the understanding he achieves a far-reaching emancipation from the shackles of personal hopes and desires, and thereby attains that humble attitude of mind toward the grandeur of reason incarnate in existence, and which, in its profoundest depths, is inaccessible to man. This attitude, however, appears to me to be religious, in the highest sense of the word. [5]


Next post:  Rule #5. Get Back to the Rules

Previous post:  Ich und Du

Searching for GSOT outline:  Home

Header image:  Galaxy and stars, CC0 Public Domain, Pixabay.  Immanuel Kant, frontispiece to Prolegomena and Metaphysical Foundations of Natural Science, transl. Earnest Belfort Bax, 1883, public domain. Carl Sagan with planets, CC0 Public Domain, Pixabay. Albert Einstein, CC0 Public Domain, Pixabay.

[1] Storer, M., ed. Humanist Ethics. Prometheus, New York, 1980.

[2] Psalm 19:1-4a. The Bible. New International Version, 1955.

[3] Kant, I. From the concluding remarks in Critique of Practical Reason. In Theoretical Philosophy, 1755–1770, trans. and ed. D. Walford, in collaboration with Ralf Meerbote, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992,  pp. 161-162. Quoted by Paul Guyer in Immanuel Kant, Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy,, accessed 9/17/2016.

[4] Sagan, C. from the first episode of Cosmos in the Nova television series, 1980. See and Youtube link, accessed 9/17/2016.

[5] Einstein, A. Ideas and Opinions. ed. by Seelig, C., transl. by Bargmann, S. New York: Bonanza, 1954, pp. 48-49.


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