We have talked recently on the forum about story and "Big Stories," so I wanted to post something on a new book I just picked up:  The New Universe and the Human Future.  It's in a similar vein to the work of Brian Swimme, Thomas Berry, and Michael Dowd: telling the story of the universe from the perspective of cosmological science, and issuing a call for renewed human self-understanding and ethical relationship to the planet and to each other.  I'll post some of my own thoughts on the book -- and on the role of "Big Stories" in postmetaphysical spirituality and the current movement to give "mythic-quality" voice to the scientific picture of the cosmos that has emerged through the collaborative efforts of individuals across the globe -- in a future post.  For now, if you're interested, I invite you to check out the authors' website, or to read the following excerpt from a review by Matthew Fox.


Voyage to Virgo from New-Universe.org on Vimeo.




What Hubble Could See

A photo of the Andromeda Galaxy by NASA/Swift/Stefan Immler (GSFC) and Erin Grand (UMCP).


"Joel and Nancy have looked hard and analyzed deeply the amazing findings of the Hubble Space Telescope and other instruments from the past two decades of explosive findings in cosmology. Here is one metaphor that they put forth for our understanding:

Imagine that the entire universe is an ocean of dark energy. On that ocean there sail billions of ghostly ships, made of dark matter. At the tips of the tallest masts of the largest ships there are tiny beacons of light, which we call galaxies. With Hubble Space Telescope, the beacons are all we see. We don't see the ships, we don't see the ocean — but we know they're there through the Double Dark theory.

They take on the literalists of science (who have so much in common with the literalists of the Bible) when they say:

If taken literally, scientific cosmology is completely misleading. There was no loud bang at the Big Bang, and it wasn't big. (There was no size to compare it to.) Metaphor is our only entrée into invisible reality.

I have often said that the most important things in life are metaphors, whether we are speaking of life or death, spirit or sex, love or body. And the universe too is metaphor and accessible by metaphor. All the prophets knew these things. Metaphor carries us on wings larger than despair, self-pity, talk of "selfish genes," and pessimism — all of which is so often a cover-up and escape from responsibility.

This is a book on ethics, a book about renewing our foundation for ethics. The authors talk passionately about the folly of our race as we face our own potential extinction and the extinction of this marvelous planet as we know it. They see our uniqueness not just in terms of this planet but also in terms of what we know about the universe. They urge us to "crack open our imaginations" and to wake up to the "accident" of our being "born at the turning point." And what turning point is that? It goes back to the fact of the rediscovery of how unique we are as a species: "It took a series of outrageously improbable events on Earth, plus multiple cosmic catastrophes to earlier species like the dinosaurs before humans could evolve.… Our level of intelligence (and higher) may be extremely rare" in the universe.

We Are the Self-Consciousness of the Universe

With our uniqueness comes a special responsibility, for if humans go down, like many primate species before us have, then something very precious will be lost in the universe.

From the point of view of the universe as a whole, intelligent life may be the rarest of occurrences and the most in need of protection…. We — all intelligent, self-aware creatures that may exist in any galaxy — are the universe's only means of reflecting on and understanding itself. Together we are the self-consciousness of the universe. The entire universe is meaningless without us. This is not to say that the universe wouldn't exist without intelligent beings. Something would exist, but it wouldn't be a universe, because a universe is an idea, and there would be no ideas.

We are living at a "pivotal" moment in the history of the universe for today we can "see" the entire history of the universe, but there will come a time when, because of the expansion of the cosmos, the past will no longer be visible; distant galaxies will disappear over the horizon. We are able to take in more galaxies today than ever will be perceived in the future. And, in our own local group of galaxies, because of gravity at work, there will be a blending of the Milky Way and Andromeda that will shut our descendants off from the rest of the universe. No wonder Joel and Nancy feel so called to sing the universe's story at this time.

The authors recognize our moral obligations to change as a species. With the human race now at almost 7 billion people, the inflation we have been undergoing is not sustainable. We could — and are — destroying our planet as we know it. This is why they call for an ethic of sustainability that is itself sustained by the wonder of the world we now know we live in, the universe at its pivotal moment. They point out how we do not know if there is other intelligent life out there but we do know what we have here. Moreover:

We randomly-alive-today people actually have the power to end this evolutionary miracle, or not…. Without human beings, as far as anyone knows, the universe will be silenced forever. No meaning, no beauty, no awe, no consciousness, no "laws" of physics. Is any quarrel or pile of possessions worth this?

We need to adjust to realities as we now know them. For example, talk of "space war" is beyond dangerous because if we launch just a truckload of gravel into space we will destroy not only all sophisticated weaponry but also the satellites that we all depend on for weather information, global positioning systems, and communication.

Enough Is a Feast

We must move beyond the inflationary period of economics, of judging things by growth of GNP. We have to realize that spiritual relationships can grow continuously — but economic ones can't. Joel and Nancy write:

Our drive for meaning, spiritual connection, personal and artistic expression, and cultural growth can be unlimited … if we valued them above consumer goods, then we would have a new paradigm for human progress. For our universe the most creative period, which brought forth galaxies, stars, atoms, planets, and life, came after inflation ended, and this could also be true for humanity. A stable period can last as long as human creativity stays ahead of our physical impact on the earth.

If this isn't a call for a simpler lifestyle I don't know what is.

What is right action? "The goal should be sustainable prosperity, which is perfectly defined by the Zen saying 'enough is a feast.'… Nonstop creativity will be essential to maintain long term stability."

This is a daring book. The authors take on the hypothesis of multiple universes and draw a stunning conclusion:

If the theory of Eternal Inflation is right, then our universe — the entire region created by our Big Bang — is an incredibly rare jewel: a tiny but long-lived pocket in the heart of eternity where by chance exponential inflation stopped, time began, space opened up, and the laws of physics allowed interesting things to happen and complexity to evolve.

Just as our Earth is an "incredibly rare jewel," so too is our universe, whether it has happened alone or is one among many. The authors of this book have not grown numb to awe and wonder.

The authors also take on the subject of God's causation when they ask this question:

Is this then at last the place to credit God as the literal first cause? That's an option. But rather than skipping lightly over eternity itself to paste in the idea of God 'causing eternity,' we might do better to think of the beginning as being just as unknown as the distant future, and ourselves, as true explorers, moving outward from the center in both directions. In cosmology both the distant past and the distant future are in a real sense ahead of us, the one waiting to be discovered, the other to be created.

As a theologian, I hear this as a clarion call to rediscover the apophatic Divinity, the God of Darkness, the pathway of letting go and letting be, the God who "has no name and will never be given a name" (Eckhart), where the alpha (beginning) and omega (ending) are both bathed in mystery and in darkness — a double darkness, we might say. It's a call for a transcendence that is not "up" so much as deep down, into the depths of things where all is dark, and all is silent and beyond naming, but where creation and new birth gestate in the invisibility of the cosmic womb, where all that dark sea and dark energy and dark matter dwells and even dark ships sail. A call to silence. A call to depth; a call to divine Nothingness. No-thingness. Only relations. Some micro, some macro. How amazing that we have the minds to study them! How grateful we all should be. John of the Cross: "Launch out into the depths."

There is wisdom and passion in these pages. There are sacred cows to let go of, inner work to do, and outer work to accomplish. But we have the tools. Do we have the will and the heart? Anyone who studies this book will be deepening and strengthening both. Read this book and grow your soul. Right behavior can and should follow."  ~ Matthew Fox.


[Read his full review here.]

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also concerning the manifest image, brassier writes,

"Thus, although they are the totems of two otherwise divergent philosophical traditions, the two "canonical" twentieth-century philosophers, Heidegger and Wittgenstein, share the conviction that the manifest image enjoys a philosophical privilege vis-a-vis the scientific image, and that the sorts of entities and processes postulated by the scientific theory are in some way founded upon, or derivative of, our more "originary" pre-scientific understanding, whether this be construed in terms of our "being-in-the-world," or our practical engagement in "language-games."


this may be true, and probably is, considering wittgenstein's distaste for the worship of science and idolization for people like einstein, and heidegger's antagonism toward "instrumental reason." but that is not how i personally have read them or made use of their critiques. i have always read them or at least used them as saying that the epistemological project of philosophy, not "science" per se, the project initiated by descartes and carried on by locke, berkley, hume, kant, russell, husserl, etc. has its basis in our "historicity" (Heidegger) and/or "forms of life" (Wittgenstein). this does not put me at odds with brassier's interpretation, though.


something else struck me while reading brassier as well: that some professional philosophers may defend the manifest image since they may sense that when science eventually realizes that it is no longer in need of empiricists and positivists to provide theoretical "foundations" for their enterprise, philosophy will be out of business. i don't think wittgenstein would have minded that development though. ironically, and true to his bauhaus informed aesthetics of intellectual sparsity, he saw philosophy, apart from his own "therapeutic" brand, of course, as primarily a useless fifth wheel anyway. he was a kind of early proponent for the "voluntary extinction" of philosophy.




jeez, it sounds like i'm channelling ray brassier in the tract below. haha. i had a somewhat different tack in mind, though.

kelamuni said:

this stuff strikes me as arrogant and vapid and as in the same vein as the way of thinking that it would seek to save us from. it is the personalistic universe, a view that sees the universe as populated by personifications and as only having meaning by virtue of those persons. well that is not too far from seeing the sun as a living being, tornadoes as having wills, stars as creatures. etc.

onanistic fairy tales. juvenile fantasy. self indulgent, narsissitic 1st person nonsense. the buddha and all the great greek sages taught us to move away from this.

what the hell. did matthew fox just jerk off in front of us? is this where theology has come to?

this is the very same view that not too long ago put man at the center of the universe. and look where that got us. you've come a long way pontiac.

I remember when The Nameless One mentioned Brassier's book about a year ago.  At the time, he wondered if it might spell the end of the postmetaphysical project.  For that reason alone, I know I need to check it out.
You might recall we discussed some of this in the After Finitude thread. On the 2nd page of the thread there is a link to the free e-copy of Nihil Unbound at Scribd.

Hi Balder,

I guess it all depends on what we mean by "postmetaphysics." If we mean the Integral Post-Metaphysical Spirituality of Wilber and others, and the attendant idea of the "myth of the given," Brassier and Meillassoux may have to be contended with. But in another sense, the thinking of both Brassier and Meillassoux might also be understood as being post-metaphysical depending on what we mean by "metaphysics." And that is how I have taken them and why I have posted material on them here lately.

Balder said:

I remember when The Nameless One mentioned Brassier's book about a year ago.  At the time, he wondered if it might spell the end of the postmetaphysical project.  For that reason alone, I know I need to check it out.

Hi theurg,

I have noticed in some of the writings I've been reading online that the term "ungrund," which derives from Eckhart, Boehme and Schelling, and which Caputo makes schrift of (see "the rose is without why"), has been connected to some of the material mentioned here, particularly with Meillassoux rejection of Leibniz's sufficient reason. I have in the back of my mind been relating the too as well but we will have to wait until I have thought it through.


theurj said:

You might recall we discussed some of this in the After Finitude thread. On the 2nd page of the thread there is a link to the free e-copy of Nihil Unbound at Scribd.

It almost pains me but I agree with Kela. hahaha  However, if you see that all stories end at the outer limits of the atmosphere, what is the problem? That is, no matter how grandiose the projected story...it remains nothing but a big story i.e. it’s no big deal. So I guess I also agree with everyone else as well. :-)

This line of thinking can be brought into resonance with a particular take on Buddhism, which is where I am coming from here.

"It remains nothing but a big story." hahaha. That is also where I am coming from. And the Bible is nothing but a big story too. Stories are good. We can learn alot from stories. There are deep allegorical truths in the stories told from the venerable texts of the great religions. But they're stories.

e said:

It almost pains me but I agree with Kela. hahaha  However, if you see that all stories end at the outer limits of the atmosphere, what is the problem? That is, no matter how grandiose the projected story...it remains nothing but a big story i.e. it’s no big deal. So I guess I also agree with everyone else as well. :-)

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