Friday, June 27, 2008

The Universe is the Word

"Listen to this. Space and time shoot out from a point. In a matter of seconds, a universe is formed. It expands and expands. It slows down, it speeds up. And then, in some remote corner, it drops a speck of consciousness. It spills a little subjectivity. A touch of soul. Weird, eh?" (from The Story of Everything, Chap. 25)
Mathematical cosmologist Brian Swimme was working his way through a Greek salad when Thomas Berry suddenly said, "You scientists have this stupendous story of the universe. It breaks outside all previous cosmologies. But so long as you persist in understanding it solely from a quantitative mode you fail to appreciate its significance. You fail to hear its music."

An ear for the music led to a long collaboration between Swimme, now 58, and Berry, 94. Swimme established the Center for the Story of the Universe in California and the two co-authored The Universe Story in 1992. That's what the New Story was now called.

According to the authors, no book tells this story. No humans do. The text is nature itself. We are to read what's being said "by the galaxies, by the birds, by the Earth, by the winds, by the stellar explosions, by the fossils, by the rising and falling of mountain ranges, by the children of every species." These make up the Word.

Nature's text tells us that the cosmos has unfolded. From its original "flaring forth" it has gone through a series of stunning transformations, leaving atoms in its wake, then galaxies and stars and solar systems, then living cells and thinking selves. Each of these emergences was a decisive moment in the story. By reasons of its significance (look what it led to!), each was also a spiritual moment.

The unfolding had direction, "intention" even. It seems to have "aimed," for example, at greater differentiation. It's produced many different notes from a single one, all manner of Matter and Life from a hot and homogenous soup. Atoms and asteroids and ants, zebras and zucchini and Zen. It has related these different notes to each other. Atoms to atoms, zebras to zebras, cells to cells, selves to selves, you to me. The relationships, say Swimme and Berry, are based on attraction. They represent a kind of communion.

Selves like you and I illustrate a third direction of the unfolding: autopoiesis and subjectivity. Things in the universe organize themselves. Relate enough notes to each other and you get a melody. Increase the complexity and you get a symphony. The notes in the universe do it on their own. The more complex something gets, the more of an interior it develops--the more of a self, the more consciousness. In a human brain (the most complex object there is), a symphony isn't simply notes registering. It is an inner depth of subjective feeling.

Words like "communion," "self," and "subjectivity" are not standard cosmological fare. They are echoes of the music Berry once heard in a meadow. They are the stuff of spirit, not science. And it will take both, say the authors--science and spirit--to save our planet from the "technozoic" crisis that is leading to its devastation. An "ecozoic" vision is needed, a single story that tells of the universe as "a communion of subjects rather than a collection of objects." Swimme and Berry ask us to reset priorities: "The well-being of the Earth is primary. Human well-being is secondary."

P.S. A scientific take on the direction of the universe appeared in the June issue of Scientific American--here. Keep your eye out next year for Brian Swimme's documentary film called Journey of the Universe. Next week I'll tell you about the pastor, the atheist, and the Great Story.



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