Participatory Spirituality for the 21st Century
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.
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.]
Hi, Irmeli, thanks for your post, and for expanding on those two images. I also appreciate their use (and reinterpretation) of ancient symbols to present these ideas, and have been planning to write about that, but have been too busy this week. I'm still too busy, unfortunately, but I wanted to post a bit of additional information from Swimme that I think communicates a similar spirit and intention to the one that motivates Primack and Abrams.
This is from an interview with Swimme in WIE:
WIE: What do you feel is the most pressing crisis facing humanity today? What are the planetary issues we most need to wake up to and address?
BRIAN SWIMME: I think the fastest way to wake up to what is happening on the planet is to think in terms of mass extinction. Every now and then, the earth goes through a die-off of the diversity of life. Over the last half-billion years, there have been five moments like this. We didn't know about this two hundred years ago; we didn't have the slightest idea that the earth did this. Now we've discovered that around every hundred million years, the earth went through these amazing cataclysms. And just within the last thirty to forty years, we've discovered that the last one, which eliminated all the dinosaurs and ammanoids and so many other species, was caused by an asteroid hitting the earth. This happened sixty-five million years ago. There was no awareness of this any previous time in human history. You look through the Vedas, you look in the Bible—it's nowhere. But at the same time as we're discovering this, we're discovering that we're causing one right now. Two years ago, the American Museum of Natural History took a poll among biologists. They asked a simple question: Are we in the middle of a mass extinction? Seventy percent said yes. A mass extinction. You can't open your eyes and see that. It's a discovery that involves the whole. Our senses have evolved to deal with the near-at-hand, and this is a conclusion that involves the whole planet.
So now we're just discovering that we're in the middle of a mass extinction. We happen to be in that moment when the worst thing that's happened to the earth in sixty-five million years is happening now. That's number one. Number two, we are causing it. Number three, we're not aware of it. There's only a little splinter of humanity that's aware of it. The numbers are this: At the minimum, twenty-five thousand species are going extinct every year. And if humans' activity were otherwise, or if humans weren't here, there would be one species going extinct every five years. We've pushed up the natural extinction rate by the order of something like a hundred thousand times.
The point is that we haven't been prepared to understand what an extinction event is. We've had all these great teachers. We've had tremendously intelligent people, going back through time, but you can look, for example, through all the sutras or Plato's dialogues, and they never talk about an extinction. As a matter of fact, I don't think that Plato or the Buddha were even capable of imagining an extinction. First of all, at that time we weren't aware of evolution. We weren't aware of the whole process, so the idea of extinction didn't make sense. When every now and then scientists or other humans would find these bones, they would assume that these creatures were actually still in existence elsewhere, you know, on another part of the continent. So there wasn't the conception of extinction. We're only now having to deal with what it means to actually eliminate a form of life.
I have a new idea for a way to help people understand this. Christians have been reflecting upon Jesus' crucifixion for two thousand years. If you had happened to be around back then, for example, in Alexandria, it was a cosmopolitan world and they had news of what was going on, and you heard about some Jewish rabbi being killed—big deal. It wouldn't really have had an impact on you. But then, for two thousand years afterwards, Christian theologians are thinking about it. So my latest thought is, maybe for the next million years, humans will be reflecting on what it actually means for the earth to go through this extinction process. It may take us that long to fully take it in, with all of its ramifications. I don't understand it. It's vastly beyond my mind. I think that we're not prepared to really understand what it means. Right now, just to get a glimpse of it is tremendous. That's all I'm hoping for. If we just get a glimpse of it, we can begin to think at the level that's required to deal with it effectively.
WIE: What do you believe is the solution to this crisis?
BS: It would be to reinvent ourselves, at the species level, in a way that enables us to live with mutually enhancing relationships. Mutually enhancing relationships—not just with humans but with all beings—so that our activities actually enhance the world. At the present time, our interactions degrade everything.
You see, the cartoon version of our civilization is that we're all materialists, so we don't have a sense of a larger significance beyond us. In our materialistic Western culture, our fundamental concern is the individual. The individual, and accumulation—of whatever it might be. Is it fame? Is it money? We put that as the cornerstone of our civilization. That's how we've organized things. Now there are mitigating factors, but I'm giving a cartoon version. What's necessary is for us to understand that, really, at the root of things is community. At the deepest level, that's the center of things. We come out of community. So how then can we organize our economics so that it's based on community, not accumulation? And how can we organize our religion to teach us about community? And when I say "community," I mean the whole earth community. That's the ultimate sacred domain—the earth community.
These are the ways in which I think we will be moving. How do you organize your technology so that as you use the technology, the actual use of it enhances the community? That's a tough one. So long as we have this worldview in which the earth itself is just stuff, empty material, and the individual is most important, then we're set up to just use it in any way we like. So the idea is to move from thinking of the earth as a storehouse to seeing the earth as our matrix, our fundamental community. That's one of the great things about Darwin. Darwin shows us that everything is kin. Talk about spiritual insight! Everything is kin at the level of genetic relatedness. Another simple way of saying this is: Let's build a civilization that is based upon the reality of our relationships. If we think of the human as being the top of this huge pyramid, then everything beneath us is of no value, and we can use it however we want. In the past, it wasn't noticed so much because our influence was smaller. But now, we've become a planetary power. And suddenly the defects of that attitude are made present to us through the consequences of our actions.
It's amazing to realize that every species on the planet right now is going to be shaped primarily by its interaction with humans. It was never that way before. For three billion years, life evolved in a certain way; all of this evolution took place in the wilds. But now, it is the decisions of humans that are going to determine the way this planet functions and looks for hundreds of millions of years in the future. Look at an oak tree, look at a wasp, look at a rhinoceros. The beauty of those forms came out through this whole system of natural selection in the past. But the way they'll look in the future is going to be determined primarily by how they interact with us. Because we're everywhere. We've become powerful. We are the planetary dynamic at this large-scale level. So can we wake up to this fact and then reinvent ourselves at the level of knowledge and wisdom that's required? That's the nature of our moment. Our power has gotten ahead of us, has gotten ahead of our consciousness. This is a challenge we've never faced before: to relearn to be human in a way that is actually enhancing to these other creatures. If you want to be terrified, just think of being in charge of how giraffes will look a million years from now. Or the Asian elephant. Biologists are convinced the Asian elephant will no longer exist in the wild. Even right now, the cheetah can't exist in the wild. That means that the Asian elephants that will exist in the future will exist primarily in our zoos, likewise cheetahs. So the kinds of environments we make for them are going to shape their muscles and their skeletons and all the rest of it. I'm talking over millions of years. This is the challenge that is particular to this moment, because this is the moment the earth goes through this major phase change—the dynamics of the planet are beginning to unfurl through human consciousness.
That's why I'm thrilled by your asking these questions. You see, I do think that waking up, enlightenment, can save our world, can save the planet. Because we're doing things that none of us wants to see happen. And we're doing it because we're unaware. So if we can wake up and train all of our energies around this, then I have deep confidence that tremendously beautiful, healing things will happen.
WIE: You often speak about the fact that we are at a unique juncture in human history because we now have knowledge of the fourteen billion years of cosmological evolution that brought us to this point—and that this knowledge carries with it a responsibility that we never before imagined. Can you give a basic outline of the vast scope of this evolution?
BS: It's really simple. Here's the whole story in one line. This is the greatest discovery of the scientific enterprise: You take hydrogen gas, and you leave it alone, and it turns into rosebushes, giraffes, and humans.
WIE: That's the short version.
BS: That's the short version. The reason I like that version is that hydrogen gas is odorless and colorless, and in the prejudice of our Western civilization, we see it as just material stuff. There's not much there. You just take hydrogen, leave it alone, and it turns into a human—that's a pretty interesting bit of information. The point is that if humans are spiritual, then hydrogen's spiritual. It's an incredible opportunity to escape the traditional dualism—you know, spirit is up there; matter is down here. Actually, it's different. You have the matter all the way through, and so you have the spirit all the way through. So that's why I love the short version.
Okay, the longer version: Thirteen billion years ago, according to the most recent guess, the universe comes forth as elementary particles, screaming hot. It's not only trillions of degrees hot, it's also a million times denser than lead. So the universe doesn't begin as fire. It begins as this incredible dense, hot—we can't even imagine it. We just know it as some numbers. And then it begins to expand. After three hundred thousand years, it cools enough to form atoms. Those are the hydrogen atoms. And as the matter continues to cool and expand, it also begins to draw itself together into these huge clouds that we call galaxies.
When the universe is about a billion years old, the galaxies flutter into existence, whoooshh, like snowflakes falling—one hundred billion galaxies. It was an incredible moment because that was the only time in the history of the universe when galaxies could form. Before that, it was way too dense and hot. After that, it's too thin and spread out. Stephen Hawking discovered something incredible. If you look at the expansion of the universe, there's all this energy, right? It's just exploding out, and also, at the same time, you have this bonding force, gravity, that's holding it together. You've got these two opposing forces. If the gravitational force would have been slightly stronger, it would have crushed the whole universe into a black hole within a million years. Or, if the gravitational force had been weaker, it would have exploded apart and it wouldn't have formed galaxies. It's an incredible balance. The difference is one part in 1059—which is a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of one percent. That's how delicate it is. It's more delicate than dancing on the edge of a knife.
Later on, the galaxy is complexified in that the stars themselves burn, and the stars, to burn, transform the elements in their core. So the hydrogen is transformed into helium. And later on, it gets a lot hotter, and the helium is transformed into carbon, and so forth. All of the elements are created in the middle of the star, which then explodes. So the next star that's formed is formed out of these more complex elements, and then you have the possibility of planets. All of the elements of our body, every one of them, was forged out of a star. Walt Whitman had an intuition about this when he said, "A leaf of grass is no less than the journeywork of the stars." And you think, how did he come up with that? Well, that's called self-knowledge. In other words, a star gave birth to the elements that then assembled themselves in the form of Walt Whitman. So you could say that Walt Whitman had a deep memory of where he came from.
WIE: That's an amazing intuition.
BS: Isn't that something? How could he write that down? Likewise, when Einstein discovered the general theory of relativity, he discovered it from within. There was no data on the expansion of the universe or anything else. He said he just went into his own visceral movements—a strange way of thinking about creativity—and he paid attention to what was going on within, and he gave birth to the gravitational equations we use now. This is what I think Whitman did. He penetrated the depth of his own bodily reality and had this intuition about stars. And we've now discovered the empirical details about this. I just love that—everybody comes out of the stars.
So, to continue with our story—in certain planetary systems, life forms. That's a huge transformation. Life begins around three and a half billion years ago, and then it begins to complexify around seven hundred million years ago. And then, one strange little lineage forms—the worms. The worms actually develop a backbone and a nervous system. We're so impressed by brains. The worms created the brains. You see the theme I'm developing here? Hydrogen. It becomes us. All of matter is spiritual. And if the worms can create the brains, then creativity is everywhere!
Then we have the advanced life-forms—more advanced in the sense of more complex. There are the various stages of humanity that we've gone through; our consciousness has developed. And then: We have this moment. Now we're discovering ourselves in the midst of this story. And you see, all that went before was necessary for us to actually discover ourselves in the universe right now—all of the development of mind and instrumentation and so forth.
But the way I want to connect the story for you is to go back to the birth of the galaxies. There was one moment when the galaxies could form, not before or after. That's like our moment right now, I think. See, this is the moment for the planet to awaken to itself through the human, so that the actual dynamics of evolution have an opportunity to awaken and to begin to function at that level. It couldn't happen before, you know. And the amazing thing is, it probably won't happen afterwards. If we don't make this transition, most likely the creativity of the planet will be in such a degraded state that we won't be able to make that move. The chilling thing is that, in the universe, the really creative places can lose their creativity. We talked about the birth of the galaxies. There are two fundamentally different forms of galaxies, spiral galaxies—galaxies with spiral arms—and elliptical galaxies, which can be larger or smaller, but which don't have any internal structure. The galaxies that have spiral arms have the creativity to create new stars. So stars form. They create these elements. They disperse. Then they form another one, another star system, and it keeps going. But in elliptical galaxies, they can't. In our current understanding, spiral galaxies have collided at certain times and have destroyed their own internal structure and become elliptical galaxies. Elliptical galaxies are just sitting there, and the stars go out one by one, and that's it. So you can actually move off from the mainline sequence of creativity in the universe.
Now here we are in the middle of the Milky Way galaxy. There are two hundred billion stars. Lots of them have planets. Maybe a lot of them have intelligent life. There are approximately one hundred billion galaxies in the known universe. Obviously, lots of stars; most likely, lots of life. Who knows? But if you think of it in terms of the creativity of the universe, it may be that a lot of planets will go through the transition that we're facing now. And if they don't make it, they'll die out—like the elliptical galaxies. So the challenge before us as humans is to see that what we think of as small is immense. The very form of our consciousness has a cosmological significance that we didn't know about before. I've talked about it in an evolutionary sense, in terms of the animals and so forth, but it may go beyond that. It may have immense implications for the galaxy as a whole.
So that would be a way of thinking about the past thirteen billion years of the story—to think of the challenge before us as being a cosmological challenge. We've gone through transitions in the past that could have gone the wrong way. Then our planet would maybe still be alive, but certainly not at the level of complexity we see about us today. I don't want to suggest in any way that what's taking place is somehow engineered to happen. It's more of an adventure.
WIE: This new knowledge of the history of the universe certainly stretches the limits of your imagination.
BS: Yes. That's just it. Imagine what it was like when Copernicus showed up in town and told people for the first time, "Hey, you know what? The earth is going around the sun." Try to take that in. We failed to. We couldn't handle it. And so we split: The scientific venture went one way, and the religious/spiritual another. In one sense, we're at this same juncture. Can we find the resources to take this in and move with it? It is a challenge for the imagination.
WIE: What is the most important catalyst for the kind of change of worldview you've been speaking about?
BS: You know, that's a great question. I wish I had an adequate answer. I've thought about it, and my conclusion is that there are multiple catalysts. For some people, it's knowledge, just hearing about this new story of the universe—so that's what I do in education. But for others, it's personal tragedy. Or maybe having an early commitment to the beauty of a place, from childhood, and then coming back and seeing it destroyed. Some people awaken through varied forms of meditation; other people use drugs. I see multiple catalysts. I don't have an adequate answer perhaps, but the catalyst for me was knowledge. It was just being completely amazed at what we now know. So that would be my own particular path, but I don't privilege one over the other because I've met so many people who are beginning to get a sense of this and they come from a variety of directions.
WIE: You often speak about the importance of activating what you call "comprehensive compassion." What do you mean by "comprehensive compassion"?
BS: Well, when we use words like compassion, we tend to limit them to the human world. And part of this goes back to what I said before, that we think of the rest of the universe as being stuff, and we don't use words that are spiritual or warm or emotional concerning them. The scientific tradition has always called that "projection"—projecting your own qualities upon the universe as a whole or upon nature. And that's supposed to be a terrible thing to do. But I think that's breaking down as we begin to realize that it's all one energy event. It's one journey, one story, so that the qualities that are true of the human are in some way or another true of other parts of the universe. So I talk about compassion as a multilevel reality. It's not just something that's true of humans.
My interpretation is this. I think that gravitational attraction is an early form of compassion or care. If there weren't that kind of care at the foundation of the universe, there would be no formation of galaxies—and we wouldn't be having this discussion. This care or compassion begins to show up in the organic form when you have a bond developing between a mother and her offspring. You know, for a long time, there's no bond. There's no care—at least no visible way of seeing care—for instance, with bacteria. They replicate. There could be care there, but we haven't recognized it yet. But by the time you get to mammals, two hundred and twenty million years ago, you have this bond between the mother and the child. That arrives as a genetic mutation. But because of that, the offspring have a higher chance of surviving. So that mutation then spreads and starts to characterize the entire population. That's just the bond between a mother and an infant. Then other bonds develop between siblings, and they have a higher chance of survival. All of what I'm saying fits into Darwinian biology. This isn't outside of mainstream science. What it says is that the dynamics of Darwinian biology favor the appearance of compassion. It shows up between mother and child. It shows up between siblings, and it even develops between kin groups. And it starts to spread.
Now the human comes into existence. We are the first species that actually has the possibility of caring about all of the other species. You see, chimpanzees are our closest relatives, and they certainly care about one another, but their care doesn't extend over in any visible way to other species, even though they may share territories with baboons. I've asked naturalists if they've seen a chimpanzee take care of a baboon, and they haven't. But with humans, suddenly you have the possibility, largely through the human imagination, of actually caring. I mean, I care. I care so much about the cheetahs. And I've never even been around a wild cheetah. My point is that the human being is that space in which the comprehensive compassion that pervades the universe from the very beginning now begins to surface within consciousness. That's the only difference. We didn't invent compassion, but it's flowing through us—or it could. The phase change that we're in seems, to me, to depend upon that comprehensive compassion unfurling in the human species.
WIE: You're suggesting that throughout evolution, Darwinian natural selection has favored the formation of bonds of care and concern, but that now, in the human, we have the opportunity and the responsibility to extend that care and concern consciously beyond what is already genetically determined. In your video series The Earth's Imagination, you say: "It's terrific that you love your family members, but what about the species that are outside the reach of your genes emotionally? That's the challenge. Doesn't it seem ungrateful of us if we are just carried along by the emotional bonds that have been established by the past? What if we devote ourselves to developing a more profound concern for all species?" Can you speak about how to actually do this—how to extend the reach of our care and concern?
BS: My conviction is that the first step is just paying attention. What's amazing is that, as humans, if we dwell on anything, after a while we become fascinated by it. It doesn't matter what it is. The ability to dwell on things is uniquely human because we don't have such fixed action programs as other species do. We can forget about everything else and just dwell on something. I call it the power of gawking. We can pay attention to whales or to the hummingbirds and just become fascinated by them. It's noticing in a deep way, or contemplating, and my intuition is that as humans allow themselves to be fascinated by the other creatures, these species will awaken the psychic depths in the human that respond to their beauty. And then we become convinced that in some amazing way, they are essential to us. We can become amazed by how essential they are for our zest, our sense of well-being or happiness. Chief Seattle said that if the animals were not here, we would die of loneliness. I think that a deeper feeling of care begins with allowing ourselves to move into awe—with all of the different creatures, no matter which ones we've picked. If we would attend to them, we would see their colossal grandeur. Abraham Heschel said that awe is the first step into wisdom. You can just sit and watch fish and think of how they've developed over hundreds of millions of years and imagine what they're experiencing, and after awhile you're sunk into contemplation of ultimacy. This is what I think is the first step toward compassion.
WIE: Many spiritual traditions speak about transcending self-centeredness and expressing profound care for others as being the whole point of the spiritual path. Changing our fundamental motivations and making the leap from fundamental self-concern to a condition in which one's life is based on genuine care and concern for the whole of life is quite a radical transformation. Spiritual paths committed to this kind of transformation usually involve enormous dedication, and often years of extensive spiritual practice. Yet the situation that we're in now on this planet is critical. Do you think that it is still possible for enough people to make this leap quickly enough to see us through our current crisis?
BS: Well, I think the universe is carrying this out. But we get to participate in it consciously. And in a real sense, it's very important that we participate. At the same time, it's important to remember that we're not doing it. I mean, the universe has been working on this for a long time, and right now, it's exploding within human consciousness. But we're not in charge of it. So I haven't got the slightest idea if we have enough time. That's almost a secondary question to me. It just seems so deeply right that we be thinking about this and working on this. But I think all of the spiritual traditions are going to be accelerated as they learn about this new cosmology and this moment that we face as a human species. There'll be an amplification taking place. So, it could go very quickly. Or it might take thousands of years. I don't know.
WIE: Your vision of spiritual awakening is an embrace of the cosmic evolutionary journey of the universe as ourselves and a shift from seeing ourselves as separate individuals to identifying with the universe itself as the greater Self. What do you think about the Eastern mystical traditions that direct us to solely look within for enlightenment, and about statements such as this one by renowned Hindu sage Ramana Maharshi: "All controversies about creation, the nature of the universe, evolution, the purpose of God, etc., are useless. They are not conducive to our true happiness. People try to find out about things which are outside of them before they try to find out 'Who am I?' Only by the latter means can happiness be gained."*
BS: I can only tell you my orientation. It's just that there are so many things that we care about, that we carry in our hearts, that we want to help. People are suffering. Animals are suffering. So how can I interact in a way that would be helpful? That's my focus. All that I think about is somehow related to that. Just to be responsible and to participate in a process that will deepen joy. That's the only way I can put it. That's my high hope. There can be such a tendency for the individual to focus on "my enlightenment" and so forth. But it just doesn't seem to be what is really needed right now. Or it's not enough.
There can be such a tendency for the individual to focus on "my enlightenment" and so forth. But it just doesn't seem to be what is really needed right now. Or it's not enough.
Amen brother. The kennilingus myth in a nutshell.
Okay, I've read through their articles offered on line, and much of what they say is repeated in each of the articles, to the point where they often use the same turns of phrase, so I think I get it (though in another sense, I don't get it). Let me here give a few impressions and a general critique of their point of view, and then in another post I'll give what I think might consitute an alternative view of these matters (since apparently mere "deconstruction" is not enough these days).
As a general psychological impression, I get the sense that Nancy is the one writing these articles for the most part, and that in some sense she has the professor under her thumb. Despite references to her as a "philosopher of science" at some sites, I do not get the sense that she is trained in the history and philosophy or science. Her writing style strikes me as very journalistic and unacademic, like that of an amateur and autodidact. Why is this a problem? Well, they are presenting themselves as scholars, as belonging to a particular department of physics at Santa Cruz and so on, and their papers are being offered at academic conferences. (One can only imagine what Joel's colleagues must think of him: conceptually whipped? haha.) As an example of how this is problematic, at one point Nancy confuses Newton with newtonian and says that Newton rejected such an such view as "unscientific." She does not seem to be aware of the fact that Newton himself was a nut case in his own right (as geniuses often are -- just look at the paradigmatic experimental nutter of all time, Telsa), who conducted all sorts of bizarre "alchemical" experiments and gemetriatic speculations about the end to time and so on. So she does not seem to be up on the history of science.
Another sense I get is that there is an a prioristic agenda at work, one that I am not cogenial towards, and that is the agenda that we must somehow find a way in which "religion" and "science" are to be "reconciled." I have problems with this agenda for a number of reasons. First of all, it is a rather simplistic and vague dichotomy to begin with. As the example of Newton himself shows, it is by no means obvious where the line between the two actually falls. And yet people often operate as if there were a clear line, and as if the conceptions of both were absolutely clear and monological, and then someone comes along and sets about the task of "bringing the two sides together" usually along the lines of cosmological analogs: "Tantra says the same thing," or "we find the same idea in Kabbalah..." I find this whole approach simplistic, reflectively naive and philosophically unsophisticated; cynically speaking, I often also get the sense that it is designed to sell books to people who are troubled by the cognitive dissonance in their brains between the stories they heard at Sunday school and their high school science classes.
So that is the first problem I have: this idea that we are "compelled" to set out to "reconcile" -- and not mediate, which is another thing entirely -- "religion" and "science." The problem I have with this, to reiterate, is that it sets out with an a priori agenda that is, to various degrees, "religious" and apologetic to begin with. I also simply don't see why it is necessary. Further, I think that tensions might be ameliorated by way of a dialectical mediation that does not treat the two as the same kind of animal, attempting to splice the genes of one creature onto the other, so as to create some kind of conceptual gryphon.
Another unrelated, yet no less big, problem I have with the ideas of these two writers is this whole business of attempting to transfer their cosmological conceptions into the socio-political arena, of making their ideas "matter." Of course, anthropocentric conceptions of the cosmos have traditionally been seen as a problem among apologists for the "scientific" point of view (whatever that is), and while I have some sympathy with the argument that anthropocentric conceptions are often problematic, I do not want to necessarily align or reduce my position to that of a dawkinsonian -- not that that is necessarily bad, it's just boring.
So as to address the problem of anthropocentrism, the authors appear to be attempting to say that their view is both cosmocentric and anthropocentric. That's OK, I guess, and I don't have a problem per se with that, whether or not it's contradictory, it may very well be or not be. It's the attempt to transfer their images of cosmology into the arena of the political economy. I find the attempt forced, like a kind of non-sequitor, as I mentioned previously. Well sure you can do that if you want, and you can believe it if you want, but I am untterly unconvinced of the usefulness of this move simply because I don't see many others being convinced by it, apart from the chorus of those who read these kind of books and share the same "needs" as the authors. (One reviewer called this kind of discourse "annoying.") And again, the cynic (not the kynic) in me suspects that there may be an attempt to sell something here.
I agree that cosmology has always been aligned with ethics. Cosmology traditionally was a part of the metaphysics that underpinned a traditional teaching or spiritual path. It helped the practitioner guide himherself throught the cosmos as it was undertood by a particular path. But I don't see why science needs or is compelled to provide a "functional cosmology," as Nancy describes it, except perhaps for those who, as I say, are still conflicted by the respective authorities of their Sunday school teachers and their high school science teachers.
As a lead into my next post, let us review some ideas about anthropocentrism just to get our heads around the complexity of the issue. There are various ways to understand the idea of wo/man as the centre of the universe. One is the idea that the universe revolves around us. Another is that the universe was created for us. One idea that resonates with the view set out by Joel and Nancy is the idea of wo/man as the being in "the middle." Daemons too are often described as inbetween beings, with wpo/man being merely an earthly being. But when we add hell to the picture, man is the being between not heaven and earth but heaven and hell. And so we find in Buddhism, and perhaps Indian karmic conceptions generally, the idea that beings born as a humans are special in some sense. Being human is the place where one can really get a proper perspective on things. Hell-beings are too wrapped up in their torment to care about their redemption, while heaven beings are too wrapped up in the bliss of the Brahma realms to care about moksha. But humans are somewhere "between," and that is the place to traverse the "path." (I seem to remember some other tradition saying something similar -- was Lurianic Kabbalah, or Augustine? The idea may have originally derived from some gnostic teaching and found its way into India and then Africa or Spain where it was modulated.) In any case, that is one sense of the "specialness" of wo/man.
In my next post I am going to contrast anthropcentric visions tied to finding "meaningfulness" in the cosmos with alternate views that I will argue fulfill not only "scientific requirements, but certain requirements of the wisdom traditions.
Here's a new book on "cosmology," this one an earthly and fleshy cosmology:
Becoming Animal by David Abram
"Between the Body and the Breathing Earth
Owning up to being an animal, a creature of earth. Tuning our animal senses to the sensible terrain: blending our skin with the rain-rippled surface of rivers, mingling our ears with the thunder and the thrumming of frogs, and our eyes with the molten gray sky. Feeling the polyrhythmic pulse of this place -- this huge windswept body of water and stone. This vexed being in whose flesh we're entangled.
Becoming earth. Becoming animal. Becoming, in this manner, fully human.
This is a book about becoming a two-legged animal, entirely a part of the animate world whose life swells within and unfolds all around us. It seeks a new way of speaking, one that enacts our interbeing with the earth rather than blinding us to it. A language that stirs a new humility in relation to other earthborn beings, whether spiders or obsidian outcrops or spruce limbs bend low by the clumped snow. A style of speech that opens our senses to the sensuous in all its multiform strangeness.
The chapters that follow strive to discern and perhaps to practice a curious kind of thought, a way of careful reflection that no longer tears us out of the world of direct experience in order to represent it, but that binds us ever more deeply into the thick of that world. A way of thinking enacted as much by the body as by the mind, iformed by the humid air and the soil and the quality of our breathing, by the intensity of our contact with the other bodies that surround.
Yet words are human artifacts, are they not? Surely to speak, or to think in words, is necessarily to step back from the world's presence into a purely human sphere of reflection? Such, precisely, has been our civilized assumption. But what if meaningful speech is not an exclusively human possession? What if the very language we now speak arose first in response to an animate, expressive world -- as a stuttering reply not just to others of our species but to an enigmatic cosmos that already spoke to us in a myriad of tongues?
What if thought is not born within the human skull, but is a creativity proper to the body as a whole, arising spontaneously from the slippage between an organism and the folding terrain that it wanders? What if the curious curve of thought is engendered by the difficult eros and tension between our flesh and the flesh of the earth?"
I NEED MEANING IN THIS WORLD!! I NEED TO KNOW THAT WHEN I DIE IT WILL NOT HAVE BEEN FOR NOUGHT!!
boo hoo. cry on little boy. 'cause yer existence don't mean shit on the grand scale of things...
Very interesting reaction, Kela. I personally don't see this desperate, narcissistic cry for "personal significance" in the work of the people I've introduced in this thread. What I see, in part, is a concern that a number of prevailing views of the world -- current patterns of valuation and relationship to the world -- have contributed to, among other things, a number of the pressing ecological crises we face. Practically, the view that we (and the Earth) are basically "meaningless shit" on the grand scale seems to be on par with other world-denying, world-devaluing traditionalist views (e.g., of the world as fallen, evil, or illusory), in terms of its ability to undergird an apathetic disregard for the consequences of our actions.
A critique of the idea that such worldviews significantly inform human action on a large scale might be appropriate with these authors, in my view, but not an attack on them for promoting, or crying out for a return to, a childish, inflated worldview that feeds narcissistic, unrealistic demands for (or reassurances of) personal significance.
i'm in normative mode right now. please take my comment as a kind of "provocative dialogue," as per the kynic tradition. http://foucault.info/documents/parrhesiasts/foucault.diogenes.en.html the comment is directed at myself as much as anyone else.
i will explain my position shortly. i am compiling my references at this time.
David Christian on Big History (TED Talks).
From Mark Edwards' blog at IFIS:
"Meta-studies are integrative endeavours. But when does the search for integration and integral become a colonising endeavour? Where are the boundaries that distinguish a holistic integration from a totalising meta-narrative?
"There need to be many conversations around these issues if the relationship between scientific big pictures and their use in such areas as spiritual practice are even begun to be understood. Without those conversations and critical investigations the relationship between metatheories and how they inform spiritual models and practices will continue to be an area of ethical concern."
Kela, I haven't read the full essay yet, but I dipped into the beginning and the conclusion and believe that Abram is actually moving along the same line in his Becoming Animal text (taking the title from a common phrase of Deleuze).
The essay you linked concludes: Philosophy, if it can truly return to the great outdoors, if it can leave behind the dead loop of the human skull, must recognize not only the non-priority of human thought, but that thought never belongs to the brain that thinks it, thought comes from somewhere else. To return to the train image from the beginning “a locomotive rolling on the surface of the earth is the image of continuous metamorphosis” (Visions of Excess, 7) this is the problem of thought, and of thinking thought, of being no longer able to isolate thought, with only a thought-formed structure.
Here are some relevant passages from Abram's text:
“I’ve written this book, a spiraling series of experimental and improvisational forays, in hopes that others will try my findings against their own experience, correcting or contesting my discoveries with their own.
This venture will start slowly, gathering energy as it moves. Simple encounters from my own life — encounters unexpected and serendipitous — will provide a loose, structuring frame for each investigation that follows. The early chapters take up several ordinary, taken-for-granted aspects of the perceived world — shadows, houses, gravity, stones, visual depth — drawing near to each phenomenon in order to notice the way it engages not our intellect but our sensing and sentient body. Later chapters delve into more complex powers — like mind, mood, and language — that variously influence and organize our experience of the perceptual field. The final chapters step directly into the natural magic of perception itself, exploring the willed alteration of our senses and the wild transformation of the sensuous, addressing magic and shapeshifting and the metamorphosis of culture.
Many of our inherited concepts (our ready definitions and explanations) serve to isolate our intelligence from the intimacy of our creaturely encounter with the strangeness of things. In these pages we’ll listen close to the things themselves, allowing weather patterns and moose and precipitous cliffs their own otherness. We’ll pay attention to their unique manner of showing themselves, attuning ourselves to the facets that have been eclipsed by accepted styles of thinking. Can we find fresh ways to elucidate these earthly phenomena, forms of articulation that free the things from their conceptual straitjackets, enabling them to stretch their limbs and breathe?”
"The phrase that titles this book, "becoming animal," carries a range of possible meanings. In this work the phrase speaks first and foremost to the matter of becoming more deeply human by acknowledging, affirming, and growing into our animality. Other meanings will gradually make themselves evident to different readers. The phrase is sometimes associated with the late-twentieth-century writings of the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze (1925-1995). Like many other philosophers, I have drawn much pleasure from Deleuze's endlessly fecund writings, which are fairly brimming with fresh trajectories for thought to follow. We share several aims, including a wish to undermine an array of unnoticed, other-worldly assumptions that structure a great deal of contemporary thought, and a consequent commitment to a kind of radical immanence -- even to materialism (or what I might call "matter-realism") in a dramatically reconceived sense of the term. My work also shares with his a keen resistance to whatever unnecessarily impedes the erotic creativity of matter.
Despite the commonality of some aims, however, our strategies are drastically different. (One of my meanders through the backcountry will sometimes cross one of Deleuze's lines of flight at an oblique angle, but our improvised trajectories are rarely, if ever, parallel). As a phenomenologist, I am far too taken with lived experience -- with the felt encounter between our sensate body and the animate earth -- to suit his philosophical taste. As a metaphysician, Deleuze is far too given to the production of abstract concepts to suit mine. By choosing for my title a phrase sometimes associated with Deleuze's writing, I nonetheless find myself paying homage to the burgeoning creativity of his work, even as I hope to open the phrase to new meanings and associations." ~ David Abram