The Imaginative Generalization of Evolutionary Theory
“In the most literal sense the lapse of time is the renovation of the world with ideas…[The universe is] passing with a slowness, inconceivable in our measures of time, to new creative conditions, amid which the physical world, as we at present know it, will be represented by a ripple barely to be distinguished from non-entity.” -Whitehead114
The main outlines of the doctrine of evolution, on Whitehead’s reading, must be “[absorbed]…as the guiding methodology of all branches of science.”115 Grasping the transdisciplinary significance of evolution requires the “negative capability” mentioned earlier, a willingness to consign oneself to the speculative risks Whitehead’s philosophy of organism has proposed for thinking. Because all our knowledge depends upon abstraction, the point is not to avoid it but to do it gently, such that our knowing leaves the concrete life of the world unharmed and intact. Whitehead’s contribution to the philosophical integration of the special sciences and their abstract domains of relevance is derived from what he calls his method of “imaginative generalization.” Metaphysics is the imaginative attempt to express in language the most general features of experience, and therefore, of nature. Every special science devises its own instruments: the instrument of metaphysics, the science of sciences, is language.116 Like physics, metaphysics should be undertaken as an experimental practice, only the experiments are to be performed on language itself. “The success of the imaginative experiment,” according to Whitehead, “is always to be tested by the applicability of its results beyond the restricted locus from which it originated.”117
In the case of the connection between evolutionary theory and the new physics, Whitehead’s experiment is to imaginatively generalize Darwin’s specialized concepts of variability, reproduction, and inheritance, such that evolution comes to describe the activity of self-organizing entities at every scale of nature, no longer just the biological. In this sense, as was mentioned earlier, biology becomes the study of the evolution of the larger organisms, while physics becomes the study of the evolution of the smaller organisms.118 “I am…a thoroughgoing evolutionist,” says Whitehead,
…Millions of years ago our earth began to cool off and forms of life began in their simplest aspects. Where did they come from? They must have existed in potentiality in the most minute particles, first of this fiery, and later of this watery and earthy planet.119
Einstein’s famous equation E=MC2 demonstrates that “mass [is] the name for a quantity of energy considered in relation to some of its dynamic effects”; this leads, according to Whitehead, to the displacement of matter by energy as the most fundamental concept in physics. But what is energy other than
the name for the quantitative aspect of a structure of happenings…[a structure] that depends on the notion of the functioning of an organism?120
That is, if energetic activity is to be understood in its full concreteness, and not just as mathematical functions in an abstract equation, then some reference must also be made to the mental functions of the self-realizing but prehensively interrelated creatures of the actual world (i.e., to purposeful organisms in an ecology). Whitehead explains:
Evolution, on the materialistic theory, is reduced to the role of being another word for the description of the changes of the external relations between portions of matter…There is nothing to evolve…There can merely be change, purposeless and unprogressive…[and] there is material [or energy]…which endures. On the organic theory, the only endurances are structures of activity, and the structures are evolved [units of emergent value].121
After Whitehead’s imaginative generalization, evolution by the reproductive inheritance of variations under selective pressure becomes evolution by the rhythmic propagation, or vibratory reiteration, of actual occasions along historically organized routes, whereby a specific occasion’s conformal physical prehensions of past actualities (=the cause of structural inheritance) become synthesized with its novel conceptual prehensions of future possibilities (=the source of structural variation) into some enduring pattern of experiential value. In other words,
There is a rhythm of process whereby creation produces natural pulsation, each pulsation forming a natural unit of historic fact.122
These processes of evolutive concrescence “repeat themselves to the crack of doom in the creative advance from creature to creature.”123 Whereas in the Darwinian version of the theory, a pre-existent environment of inert material in empty space is considered to be the sole source of selective pressure, in the Whiteheadian version, organisms are understood to be co-creators of their own environments.124 Also, whereas in the Darwinian theory the competitive struggle for existence is considered the primary engine of evolution, in the Whiteheadian version, cooperative interaction becomes the essential factor for long-term survival. Wherever resilient ecosystems are found, whether at the atomic, biotic, or anthropic level, it is evident that their success is a result of an association of organisms “providing for each other a favorable environment.”125 Whitehead offers a descriptive example of the evolution of atomic ecologies:
Thus just as the members of the same species mutually favor each other, so do members of associated species. We find the rudimentary fact of association in the existence of the two species, electrons and hydrogen nuclei. The simplicity of the dual association, and the apparent absence of competition from other antagonistic species accounts for the massive endurance which we find among them.126
In the image of the cosmos constructed by the philosophy of organism, evolution comes to refer not only to the process of biological speciation in the earthly mesocosm, but also to wider micro- and macrocosmic ecologies of individualizing energetic activity. Evolution, in its most general outlines, is a theory relevant to the entire scope of cosmic history. Just as Copernicus’ heliocentric theory threw Earth into motion, thereby turning the medieval world upside-down, under the new requirements of the evolutionary theory, the sturdy mechanistic cosmos of modernity has been turned inside-out, revealing an organic cosmogenesis creatively advancing through emergent stages of organization. Cosmogenesis, resting on the infinite potential of literally nothing (i.e., the quantum vacuum), has since its eruption been rushing toward more and more complex forms of realization over the course of billions of years.
Cosmic evolution began with the “primordial Flaring Forth,” after which the earliest generation of primate organisms emerged out of the “cosmic fecundity” of the quantum vacuum.127 In Whitehead’s philosophy of organism, this fecundity finds its place as the ultimate principle of his metaphysical scheme: Creativity. Creativity is “universal throughout actuality,” such that it eternally pervades creation to infect each and every one of its creatures with sparks of potentiality.128 As the geologian Thomas Berry and the physicist Brian Swimme suggest,
Though the originating power gave birth to the universe fifteen billion years ago, this realm of power is not simply located there at that point in time, but is rather a condition of every moment of the universe, past, present, and future.129
In Whitehead’s scheme, even God is creaturely, and therefore conditioned by the power Creativity. As discussed in the last section, Creativity is also conditioned or concretized in turn by God’s all-embracing valuation of the multiplicity of potentialities, thereby providing each finite organism with erotic lures encouraging the sort of harmonious functioning that has lead to the stages of enduring societal organization characteristic of the universe.130
Whitehead’s organic primates–or, speaking metaphysically, actual occasions–cannot be understood in isolation; like all biological creatures on Earth, with both their ecological relations in the present and their evolutionary relations in the past, primate organisms are bound together as co-creators in a multiform cosmogenetic community, all of which emerged from one original unfathomably powerful energy-event. “At the base of the serene tropical rainforest,” write Berry and Swimme,
sits this cosmic hurricane. At the base of the seaweed’s column of time is the trillion-degree blast that begins everything. All that exists in the universe traces back to this exotic, ungraspable seed event, a microcosmic grain, a reality layered with the power to fling a hundred billion galaxies through vast chasms in a flight that has lasted fifteen billion years. The nature of the universe today and of every being in existence is integrally related to the nature of this primordial Flaring Forth.131
The primitive beings which first emerged from the Flaring Forth have come since Whitehead’s day to be known by the standard model of particle physics as the muon and tau leptons, along with the charm, strange, top, and bottom quarks, collectively called the fermions.132 These fundamental organisms have mostly evolved, or decayed, since the Big Bang into the more familiar electrons, protons, and neutrons which make up (as organelles, so to speak) the larger atomic organisms of the periodic table of elements. Left out of this picture are the bosons, or force carriers, like gluons, photons, and the as yet undetected graviton. In Whitehead’s organic terms, bosons and fermions can be described according to the two types of vibration, “vibratory locomotion” and “vibratory organic deformation.”133 Organic deformation describes the wave-like aspect of primate organisms (i.e., their continuous transition, or duration, of realized pattern, as felt from within), while locomotion describes the particle-like aspect (i.e., their discontinuous epochal realizations, as felt from without).
The entire genus of atoms did not appear all at once. Prior to the assistance of the higher-level activity of stars (i.e., the process of stellar nucleosynthesis), no elemental organisms heavier than hydrogen and helium were able to stabilize out of lower-level energetic activities. But before stars could emerge, hydrogen and helium had to collect into huge swirling clouds, which became galaxies.134 At the center of these early galaxies there emerged black holes (whose gravity was so intense not even light could escape), further securing the next stage of evolutionary complexity. According to astrophysicist Caleb Scharf, the influence of “energy feedback” from these early black holes played a crucial role in forming the stars and planets making up the universe we know today.135 Star formation was first catalyzed as a result of the rapid revolution of the black holes at the center of galaxies, which generated gravitational density waves that “shocked clouds of hydrogen and helium to condense rapidly into thousands of stars at a time.”136 Had this rapid process of star formation continued unabated, the raw hydrogen and helium gas of most of the galaxies in the universe would long ago have become far too hot to form any new stars.137 Fortunately, the energy feedback effects of supermassive black holes has kept star formation in check. In effect, the eating habits of black holes allow them to act as cosmic thermostats, “making sure the porridge of intergalactic matter is not to hot and not too cold.”138 Black holes have played a fundamental role in the evolutionary adventure that gave rise to our present cosmic ecology.139 According to Scharf,
The fact that there are any galaxies like the Milky Way in the universe at this cosmic time is intimately linked with the opposing processes of gravitational agglomeration of matter and the disruptive energy blasting from matter-swallowing black holes. Too much black hole activity and there would be little new star formation, and the production of heavy elements would cease. Too little black hole activity, and environments might be overly full of young and exploding stars–or too little stirred up to produce anything.140
Galaxies and black holes can be understood as analogous to massive cellular systems, where the regulative role of the black hole is akin to that of the central nucleus of a cell. Like all other organisms, galaxies appear to have a finite life-span, beyond which they can no longer produce new stars. The nested feedback loops at work to secure the self-organizing dynamics of a biological cell are obviously far more complex and adaptive than the simpler feedback exhibited by black holes; but nonetheless, the general analogy seems to hold.
114 Whitehead, Religion in the Making (Edinburg: Cambridge University Press, 1926/2011), 100, 144.
115 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 101.
116 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 11.
117 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 5.
118 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 97.
119 Price, Dialogues of Alfred North Whitehead, 277.
120 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 96.
121 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 101.
122 Whitehead, Modes of Thought, 88.
123 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 228.
124 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 105.
125 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 104.
126 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 104-105.
127 Thomas Berry and Brian Swimme, The Universe Story: From the Primordial Flaring Forth to the Ecozoic Era, A Celebration of the Unfolding of the Cosmos (San Francisco: Harper, 1992/1994), 21.
128 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 164.
129 Berry and Swimme, The Universe Story, 17.
130 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 244.
131 Berry and Swimme, The Universe Story, 21.
132 Lederman, The God Particle, 62.
133 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 121-125.
134 Berry and Swimme, The Universe Story, 34.
135 Caleb Scharf, Gravity’s Engines: How Bubble Blowing Black Holes Rule Galaxies, Stars, and Life in the Cosmos (New York: Scientific American, 2012), 210.
136 Berry and Swimme, The Universe Story, 34.
137 Scharf, Gravity’s Engines, 202.
138 Scharf, Gravity’s Engines, 143.
139 Scharf, Gravity’s Engines, 164.
140 Schwarf, Gravity’s Engines, 204.
Here’s a hyperlinked outline of a long essay on Whitehead and scientific cosmology that I’ll post in sections. Here is a link to a PDF of the complete essay: Physics of the World-Soul: The Relevance of A. N. Whitehead’s Philosophy of Organism to Contemporary Scientific Cosmology
Table of Contents
Several weeks ago, I had the pleasure of introducing Sam Mickey at the PCC Forum. Sam graduated earlier this year after successfully defending his dissertation entitled: Philosophy for a Planetary Civilization: On the Verge of Integral Ecology. Along with Sean Kelly, Brian Swimme and Catherine Keller served on his committee. The dissertation weaves together a diverse array of thinkers, including Kelly, Swimme, Keller, Thomas Berry, Ken Wilber, Edgar Morin, Deleuze and Guattari.
Sam has worked with the Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale and currently teaches environmental ethics and other courses at the University of San Francisco in the theology and religious studies department.
Sam spoke to us about hopeful new beginnings, for earth and for humanity. He also talked about endings and transitions. It was clear to most of the people in the room at his talk, and increasingly to the rest of the world, that we are in the midst of an event of the greatest possible historical magnitude unfolding all across the planet. This event is multifaceted: there is, of course, an anthropogenic ecological crisis resulting from climate change and mass extinction; there is also a cultural crisis, a failure of ideas and of consciousness, resulting in tremendous economic and geopolitical instability and injustice, in post-factual campaigning where the monetary speech of corporate persons is replacing civic participation, and resulting in global terrorism, whether that brought about by the remote-controlled drones of nation-states or by religiously-motivated suicide bombers. We live in an increasingly wired world, a world woven by an electronic web of instantaneously interconnected media into an ecology of screens; a world, therefore, held fast along the blurred boundary between image and reality, where cartoon pictures of prophets incite violent uprisings in one land, while in another, satellite photographs of melting glaciers, gigantic hurricanes, and shrinking rainforests barely make the news. As far as earth is concerned, our human presence will be making headlines for millions of years. We’ve already left our mark on the very geology of the planet. Literally, we are on the verge of a ground-breaking shift in the nature of nature and the nature of culture that has already reshaped the face of the planet. Too often, philosophy has made itself irrelevant to social and ecological realities, focusing narrowly on texts, on knowledge, and on politics to the exclusion of contexts, wisdom, and the cosmos. Sam is a philosopher, and a friend, who I know has heard the call of the earth to think in this time of emergency the intimate links between the variety of who’s and what’s that have too often gone unthought by traditional philosophies…. Enjoy!
I walked to the top of Grand View Park here in the Sunset district of San Francisco. I wanted to clear my head by ascending to the mountaintop, where place expands into space and time transforms into history. History, as we know it, has a beginning and an end. Civilizations, and the cosmopolitical habitats they enact, are always a temporary affair. Their spatial constructions of time into the civilizing myths of liberation from “nature,” “the gods,” or “barbarism,” however, are falsifications of time (see Jean Gebser‘s Ever-Present Origin). As scientific cosmology has tried to suggest, it turns out that time has no beginning or end. Time is creation itself. Time is Origin, in Gebser’s terms. Time is “a moving image of eternity,” in Plato’s terms.
From up here, thoughts were produced in me that conceptually crystalized the Occupy movement. I believe I can see more clearly now that it is a planetary movement that did not begin a month or two ago in New York City; it has been in the works in an occult form everywhere forever. Occupy camp activism is a form of occult amplification: the silenced, the unheard, and the invisible are being given a voice, made audible and visible. What had been privatized is being made public again.
Some complain that Occupy remains a leaderless and somewhat amorphous movement. I do not think it is so much amorphous as polymorphous; and it is precisely this protean and processual nature that defines its demand. Its demand cannot be listed like legislative proposals, since the movement is apolitical at heart (at least in the sense that contemporary “politics” survives in the market-subsumed polis of the global corporatocracy). Occupy rejects all political solutions as part of the problem, since they are made only within the context of techno-capitalist civilization. The economics of this civilizational system have been just as deficient as its politics, since the accumulation of money has now come to supersede the exchange of actual energy in importance. We have an economy designed for Empire and corporations, unfit for Earth and its creatures.
Occupy is rejecting this late industrial capitalist “system” from the ground up. The message the movement is trying to articulate is bound up with the question it is attempting to formulate. It goes something like this: “The civilization of old has failed; now, how are we to (re)make the cosmos?” Answering this question is the ultimate creative act, and amidst a world in decay, it requires the utmost courage.
I do not know to what extent my own cosmopolitical (even cosmotheandric) angle here could be readily extracted from polling a sample of Occupy supporters, but to my mind, it is cosmic change that is being demanded, rather than cosmetic re-legislation within the existing order. I phrase the question above as one of creative remaking because I believe our task to be at least partially religious in nature, in the sense of the Latin religare, “to bind.” Our task is profoundly artistic, but we cannot create ex nihilo and expect to flourish within the long established ethos of the Earth Community (see Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry, The Universe Story). The ecological catastrophe brought forth by industrialism has already shown the dangers and limitations of any supposed “second nature” created atop the first. Kant suggested that “to know the world we must manufacture it”, thereby neglecting the extent to which, both culturally and biologically, we are creatures of the past, shaped and nourished by the words and worlds we inherit from our ancestors, human and -non.
The re-interpretation of tradition is just as important as the critique of tradition. Perhaps it is true, we needed a good dose of nihilism to fully realize the severity of our collective wrong turn, our civilizational sin. The military horrors and political failures of the 20th century, and the coming trauma of ecosystem collapse (due to the compound crisis of climate change and mass extinction), all continue to remind us of the persistence of chaos and injustice. But I think what would be more helpful at this point is a healthy dose of theology, though theology in the interests of re-establishing a humane cosmology. We need constructive philosophy (like Speculative Realism/Object-Oriented Ontology, Enactivism, and Process-Relationalism), but not just that. We need a renewed aesthethical orientation, a sense of the Good and of the Beautiful that corresponds with and even informs our understanding of the True. Metaphysics must be thoroughly soaked in aesthetics, but also in prophetics (i.e., something like the cosmo-ethical cries of the Jewish prophets).
Occupy is not the protest of an already dying kingship, but the prophecy of a living kinship to come. It is time to descend from the mountaintop, like Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, to proclaim that Empire is dead, and that Earth is dying. We are responsible for their demise, but can also resurrect and re-imagine a new Heaven and a new Earth. As Amos prophesied, “The eyes of the Lord God are upon the sinful kingdom, and I will destroy it from the face of the earth (9:7)…[because] they sell the righteous for silver and the needy for a pair of shoes…they…trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth (2:7). “But,” he continues, we are learning to “let justice roll down like the waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (5:24).
- Occupy Wall Street: The Supply of Demands (speculumcriticum.blogspot.com)
- The New Reformation: Whitehead on Christian Metaphysics (footnotes2plato.com)
Last night I had the privilage of attending a lecture by Brian Swimme and Bonnie and Kashka Wills on the thought of Howard Thurman. Brian is a mathematical cosmologist who teaches at CIIS here in San Francisco. Bonnie is a Restorative Justice Facilitator in Oakland. Her brother Kashka is a former literature professor turned poet. They focused both on the ethical and cosmological dimensions of Thurman’s work, which I will attempt to summarize below.
Though he was a Christian pastor, Thurman was critical of Christianity because of the extent to which it had strayed from the religion of Jesus. Jesus’ religion might be summed up in one word: Love. Thurman saw Love as the source of cosmic kinship–a stern yet kind intelligence that functions to maintain the Life of the universe. He thought American Christianity in general had become narrowly focused on personalistic, as opposed to cosmic love. Love lacks a cosmological dimension when it fails to deal honestly with the adversaries of hatred, fear, and deception. Rather than resorting to sentimentalism in regard to these matters (“be a good person!”), Thurman plunged right into the deeper nature of hatred. While acknowledging that vengefulness can bring one down to the level of their enemy, Thurman also recognized the great power that sometimes comes from meeting adversity. He thought hatred may sometimes be necessary to overcome the sense of worthlessness instilled in the oppressed by their oppressors. It produces one with the surplus energy needed to speak truth to power despite fears of breaking long established taboos of racism, sexism, etc. In the end, however, if hatred cannot be released, it dries up the creativity of life as we become unable to focus on anything but our enemies.
Bonnie emphasized the importance of a cosmological dimension in Christianity, since without it, we dwell to heavily on the personal and familiar and forget the extent to which we are creatures of the earth, embedded in a much larger, and stranger, community of life. Thurman’s cosmological orientation (“the earth beneath my feet is the great womb out of which my body comes”) places him way ahead of his time (he was born in 1899). He felt quite deeply the increasing rootlessness of industrial life and blamed the increasing prevalence of mental illness on our species’ increasing alienation from nature.
It is his emphasis on the cosmic extent of Love that draws me to Thurman most. His is undoubtedly a cosmopolitical vision. I’m fascinated by the possibility that Love may eventually overtake power as the most prevalent shaping influence of human society.
- Visions of a Better World: Howard Thurman’s Pilgrimage to India and the Origins of African American Nonviolence – Beacon Broadside (beaconbroadside.com)
- Lord, Lord, Open Unto Me: Howard Thurman (Prayer) (gatheringinlight.com)
I’ve been struggling through Isabelle Stengers‘ newly translated book Thinking with Whitehead: A Free and Wild Creation of Concepts (2011). The first quarter of the book focuses primarily on Whitehead’s first explicitly philosophical text, The Concept of Nature (1920), in which he sets for himself the task of avoiding an account of nature based in a bifurcation between objective and subjective, or primary and secondary characteristics. On the one hand, there is the real world of atoms and molecules studied by physicists, while on the other hand, there is the apparent world of beautiful rainbows and delicious strawberries experienced by creatures lucky enough to be in the possession of something called a “mind.” This bifurcation is easily spotted in the abstractions mobilized by a number of contemporary scientific thinkers, especially Richard Dawkins. Listen to what he had to say earlier this year at a panel discussion on the essence of life (I’m particularly interested in what he says about “purpose” between the 4th and 5th minutes of the talk):
Purpose, from Dawkins’ point of view, is not a natural phenomenon, but an illusion produced by nervous systems, which themselves are the result of the differential selection of randomly mutating genetic molecules. Until brains evolved, nature was entirely without purpose or value, “a dull affair, soundless, scentless, colourless; merely the hurrying of material, endlessly, meaninglessly…” (Science and the Modern World, 1925). According to this story, only once neural tissue came to be arranged in just the right way could the meaningful world celebrated by poets suddenly spring into existence (however illusory, or secondary it is). In what seems a miraculous flash, mind emerges out of nature: the sky becomes blue and the wind is no longer mute.
An evolutionary geneticist, Dawkins is trained to view the world through the abstractions of his particular discipline. As a result, his reasoning concerning the more general phenomenon of life succumbs to what Whitehead would later come to call the fallacy of misplaced concreteness. Living organisms, with all their spontaneity and experiential valence, become swarms of genetic algorithms blindly vying for passage into the next generation. The human world of aesthetic and ethical ideals becomes irrecoverably divided off from the physical world of mere mechanical motion. Whitehead laments the radical inconsistency underlying such an impoverished perspective on the nature of nature. For him, this inconsistency is characteristic of much modern thought, serving to distract and enfeeble it from the task of attaining a harmony of understanding.
We have “become content with superficial orderings from diverse arbitrary starting points…”
…the enterprises produced by the individualistic energy of the European peoples presuppose physical actions directed to final causes. But the science which is employed in their development is based on a philosophy which asserts that physical causation is supreme, and which disjoins the physical cause from the final end. It is not popular to dwell on the absolute contradiction here involved. It is the fact, however you gloze it over with phrases (SMW).
In the final chapter of what is perhaps his best known book, The Selfish Gene (1976), Dawkins hammers home his bifurcated view of nature: “We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators.” Only human beings, that is, are capable of rising above the purposeless mechanism to which all other entities are chained.
Dawkins was, until very recently, the professor for the public understanding of science at Oxford, and most non-academicians come to understand evolution and the relation between science and religion by reading his books. The challenge for Whiteheadians, I think, is to make his “wild” ideas digestible by a wider audience. Our civilization is in desperate need of a less muddled and self-contradictory cosmology, one that can offer a robust alternative to the consumerism that neo-Darwinism implicitly legitimates.
Brian Swimme, author of The Universe Story with the late Thomas Berry, has done a tremendous job domesticating Whitehead’s metaphysical approach, and I think his understanding of the role of science and the place of the human in the universe offers a sorely needed alternative to still reigning perspectives like that of Dawkins’.
Michael over at Archive Fire recently linked to a published essay by a friend and former colleague at CIIS, Annick Hedlund-de Witt. Annick researches the way changing world-views in America and Europe stand to influence–whether positively, negatively, or not at all–the push for a more sustainable approach to development around the world. She focuses specifically on spiritual imaginaries (my term) that have been dubbed “New Age” in an attempt to understand, from a sociological and developmental perspective, what impact they may have in our burgeoning planetary civilization’s attempt to respond to the various social and ecological (or perhaps socioecological and cosmopolitical) crises of our time. Her essay, linked above and here, is very thorough. I’m unabashedly sympathetic and supportive of her work.
I have argued extensively (here and here) that adequately responding to the socioecological crises of our time is not possible without spiritual transformation. When it comes to “spiritual matters,” I tend to think most easily along the lines articulated by Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry in The Universe Story (1994). Brian, a cosmologist, has called for the “re-invention of the human,” while his mentor, Berry, a religious scholar and geologian, invoked the alchemical mystery of metamorphosis by referring to our civilization’s present challenge as the Great Work.
But what on earth does “spirituality” even mean? I tend to distance myself from the so-called New Age movement, since its popular manifestations seem to suggest that all the world needs now is “positive energy.” Usually this energy is touted as a deeply mystical “secret,” but nonetheless comes conveniently package and sold in DVD-sized boxes, each one inspected by Oprah (there is a pink “O” sticker on the cover to prove it). I think this sort of “spirituality” fits too easily into the same old capitalist mold all good “Young Hegelian” thinkers want to break free of.
Slavoj Žižek, who contrasts Young (to which he could be said to belong) with Old, or conservative Hegelians (think Ken Wilber) in his recent book Living in the End Times (2010), also has a number of interesting things to say about New Age eco-apocalypticism. On the one hand, he points out that Daniel Pinchbeck’s vision of a coming “deep spiritual shift” (as recorded in his book on 2012) is structurally identical to a kind of communism, at least if “we scratch away its spiritualist coating” (Žižek, p. 350).
If we are graduating from nation-states to a noospheric state, we may find ourselves exploring the kind of nonhierarchical social organization–a ‘synchronic order’ based on trust and telepathy–that the Hopi and other aboriginal groups have used for millennia. If a global civilization can self-organize from our current chaos, it will be founded on cooperation rather than winner-takes-all competition, sufficiency rather than surfeit, communal solidarity rather than individual elitism, reasserting the sacred nature of all earthly life (Pinchbeck, p. 213).
On the other hand, Žižek also notes that the New Age imaginary is an all-to-easy, feel-good temptation that, especially in the context of the ecological crisis, neglects “the basic lesson of Darwinism: the utter contingency of nature” (p. 350). Earth is not a pristine and perfectly balanced harmony of organisms and environments (as imaginaries like Deep Ecology often suggest); it is a dynamically evolving, far-from-equilibrium system of complex relationships that scientific research is only beginning to unravel. When trying to comprehend the nature of our relationship to the natural world, Žižek suggests that we “[bear] in mind that ‘nature’ is a contingent multi-faceted mechanism in which catastrophes can lead to unexpectedly positive results” (p. 351). The oxygen crisis comes to mind as perhaps the best example, with the astroid collision that helped end the dinosaurs’ reign close behind.
Returning to the potential upside of New Age spirituality, Žižek goes on to question whether the typical “anemic-skeptical liberal stance” as regards spiritual matters is enough to “revitalize our post-political desiccation of democracy” (p. 352). Could it be that some sort of “return of the religious” is necessary to inject passion back into Leftist politics?
Žižek, right on cue, dialecticizes the dichotomy between secularism and religiosity :
…as Hegel already showed apropos the dialectic of Enlightenment and faith in his Phenomenology of Spirit, such counter-posing of formal Enlightenment values to fundamental-substantial beliefs is false, amounting to an untenable ideologico-existential position. What we should do, by contrast, is fully assume the identity of the two opposed moments–which is precisely what an apocalyptic ‘Christian materialism’ does do, in bringing together both the rejection of a divine Otherness and the element of unconditional commitment (p. 353).
What exactly Žižek means by a “Christian materialism” is not clear to me as of yet, but I think my work toward developing a “logic of incarnation” could also be described in this way.
What might it mean to call the human a “spiritual animal”? In light of some of my recent blogs on death, perhaps the human is spiritual because, unlike most other organisms, it is not simply “living”; rather, due to its knowledge of death, it also participates consciously in Life itself. We are spiritual precisely because, at least in the non-ordinary circumstances when we are made to pay attention to it, our sense of being alive–of living–seems to hover somewhere between life and death. Our present consciousness at first appears limited by the horizon of the sensory world; but just as we cognize this limit, we come immediately to recognize our spiritual participation in bringing it forth. As soon as we grasp our own bodily mortality, consciousness instinctually protests by either repressing the full trauma of the fact or transforming itself through a religious act (i.e., faith) into something spiritually immortal.
Kel’s blog: http://kelosophy.blogspot.com/
So I’d much rather enter a dialogue with you here than on Pharyngula. It doesn’t seem to me to be the best place to critically discuss these issues. I hope that is okay with you.
“What I worry about Matthew is that this [my comment that a scientific cosmology could still be sacred] could be taken two ways. There’s the fallacy of taking an intuitive sense about the world and expecting science to hold that sacred – vitalism, dualism, the soul, gods, etc. – trying to impose these ideas into science just makes for bad science. But to celebrate science in the way Carl Sagan did or in the way Michael Dowd is doing, there’s already that now.From my interaction with you on here, I think you fall into the first category. You’ve repeatedly talked about the negative implications of materialism, so I have to wonder just why you would be trying to argue for celebrating scientific knowledge? You reject its implications!”
So far as I am aware, Michael Dowd is not a materialist. He does, however, take the revelations of the scientific method very seriously. I see him in the same lineage as Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and Thomas Berry. The mathematical cosmologist Brian Swimme is another for whom scientific knowledge is fundamental to his worldview, but who is also not a materialist. Vitalism, dualism, etc. not the only metaphysical options available aside from materialism that remain live options when considered alongside modern scientific facts. The most well-articulated metaphysical alternative to materialism that I’ve yet come across is that of physicist, mathematician, and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead. It is not a matter of expecting science to hold certain values sacred, but of holding our knowledge about the world to certain common sense tests of adequacy. If materialism, as a metaphysical system, is true, then all of our common sense notions about responsibility and freedom are wrong and our entire legal system and pretenses to civilized democracy are a sham. To me, this invalidates materialism as a possible metaphysical system, not for consequentialist reasons, but for empirical reasons. It is a a matter of hard-core common sense that human persons can behave intentionally. There is nothing more plainly evident to me than that “I think,” and that these thoughts are both influenced by and have real influences on material processes in the world. We cannot reject this assumption (in the way that materialism does) without a performative self-contradiction. The point isn’t that, as Descartes was lead to believe based upon his deductions from the cogito (“I think”), reality is composed of two different substances, mind and matter. Rather, if (1) material processes are not made of bits of stuff, but of experiential events (or what Whitehead called “actual occasions,” and William James referred to as “drops of experience”) and (2) intelligence is built into matter and not an extra, supernatural addition, then the evolutionary cosmology produced by modern science has all the necessary features to serve as a new sacred story for a new civilization. Check out Brian Swimme’s approach: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TRykk_0ovI0
This NPR article mentions one of my professors, cosmologist Brian Swimme. Here is my comment:
Dr. Swimme calls gravity love, and I think it is an apt metaphor. Anthropomorphic? Perhaps, but how else are we to really understand gravity unless we can relate it to our human experience of the universe? And it is not as if physicists haven’t always been morphing that “great apparition” (Emerson) called nature into something more down to earth so as to understand it: energy, for example, is defined as the ability to do “work,” which is a sociological concept. Similarly, Darwin’s whole theory of natural selection is built upon an analogy with human selection of domesticated animals. Physics is typically mechanomorphic, which is to say it understands the nature of the universe by analogy to a machine. The universe is not a machine, of course. Dr. Swimme’s poetic cosmology is an attempt to remind us of the cosmos’ more human dimension.
Setting the Stage
There were no eyes to see it happen, and even if there were, there was not yet any light for them to see, nor even any space in which to look. The universe was born out of an infinitely creative quantum womb poised somewhere (or is it nowhere?) between being and non-being. In an instant, since there was “not yet” any time for it to hesitate about its future, with a flash of warmth and light the cosmic embryo began to grow…
Though there is undoubtedly an organic integrity to space-time, perhaps “grow” is here a bit of an understatement. The universe began with a BANG! From 10-33 cm3 —the smallest volume physicists can measure—the universe inflated to the size of a human being within 10-32 seconds. To put this in perspective, it has taken another 13 billion years for the universe to grow by the same order of magnitude that it did in this initial fraction of a fraction of a second. Our cosmic seed seems to have been in quite a rush to get its evolutionary adventure underway, as if it already had some glorious end in mind.
That said, chance and accident have also undoubtedly left their mark on the history of our universe. It only takes a glance upward at the night sky to reveal the seemingly happenstance location of the formation of stars in space. To the untrained eye, we seem to be adrift in randomness. But we must look deeper: there is a certain “fine tuning” at work beneath the surface that continues to baffle the scientists who study it. The rate of the universe’s inflation had to be exactly right for stars to form, and under the pressure of gravity within these enormous sidereal masses, as Teilhard de Chardin describes it, unfolded a “harmonic series of simple bodies, spread over the notes of the atomic scale from hydrogen to uranium.” The elemental music emanating from the core of these spheres made possible the formation of planets, and upon at least one, the emergence of life. The beauty and coherence of this process is evidence enough that our universe longs to express itself, and that some mysterious ordering principle is at work pulling it toward greater complexity and deeper feeling. As Brian Swimme puts it, quite simply, “The universe is about something.”
Still, if there be any doubt about the meaning of the music of the spheres, we need only consider the ears for whom they now sing and the eyes whom, awestruck, now absorb and reflect upon their light. With the emergence of mind out of life and matter, the narrative arc of the universe becomes unmistakable. There is a story being told. It is no metaphor: the universe is struggling to be born again within human consciousness by learning all that it has done and loving all that remains yet to do.
Knowledge and love: these are the protagonists of our story. Each, the knowledge pursued by science and the love fostered by religion, have been essential in guiding the course of human history. It would be naïve and irresponsible, however, to fail to mention how often these same guides have been our fiercest adversaries. With every increase in knowledge comes an increase in power. Often, the latter overreaches the former, leading to the invention of technologies whose detrimental effects are only understood in retrospect. Similarly, the unifying impulse of love can be so strong that it blinds us to the evils committed in its name. It seems that what our species lacks is not knowledge or love, but knowledge of love. We don’t yet understand, and so have been unable to take responsibility for the full extent of our mission on earth.
In the essay to follow, I will delve into my own heart-mind in search of clues concerning the way forward. As Teilhard reminds us, it is upon increased personalization, “the internal deepening of consciousness on itself,” that the emergence of a planetary Weltanschauung “in which each of us cooperates and participates” depends. To help me imagine the future, I will also need to recollect and unpack the Western tradition that informs my metaphysics and cosmology. But before reaching into the past or the future, let us come to grips with the present.
Facing the Challenge
For all of us alive today—the nearly 7 billion human beings currently populating the earth—the problems are obvious, but the way forward remains obscure. We are faced with an unprecedented evolutionary challenge. Never before has the universe been in a position to consciously choose the next chapter in its story. Nor have human beings ever been so anxious and uncertain about their collective future. Few remain who are not at least aware of the magnitude of the crisis. For most, it is a fact of daily life.
The WHO estimates that 2/3 of the world’s human population is malnourished or starving. In the time it takes to read this sentence, someone, probably on the Indian subcontinent, will have died of starvation.
The world wars of the 20th century, estimated to have killed nearly 100 million people, were apparently not enough to convert us to pacifism. Armed conflicts each killing more than a thousand people a year continue to embroil our species in India, Afghanistan, Somalia, Iraq, Pakistan, Mexico, and Sudan. Smaller conflicts over beliefs and resources wage in twenty-nine countries across the world.
Issues of poverty and wealth distribution, racism, sexism, and religious intolerance don’t even begin to round out the human extent of our planetary crisis. Sea level rise due to climate change threatens to redraw continental shores, creating tens of millions of refugees in the coming century. As if this were not bad enough, production of the very fossil fuels responsible for climate change has peaked, bringing the industrial economy we remain so dependent upon to the brink of collapse. But this crisis has more than a human face. Not a single ecosystem on earth has been unaffected by our human presence.
In total, 17,291 known species are currently threatened with extinction. This number includes 20% of mammals, 25% of reptiles, 40% of fish, and 70% of plants. Scientists estimate that the background rate of extinction is approximately one per million species per year. At present, this rate has increased by a factor somewhere between 100 and 1,000. Renowned biologist E. O. Wilson claimed in an interview with the BBC in 2009 that the rate could soar to upwards of 10,000 times the average rate by 2030.
I could go on listing the social and ecological issues that our planet is confronting, but the only way to understand this crisis, so far as I can tell, is to interpret each separate issue as the symptom of a deeper sickness of soul. Humanity is experiencing the pains associated with every birthing process; but unlike the universe in its embryonic form, which had no time to hesitate, self-reflective human beings can become stuck. We can refuse to participate in this crucial evolutionary moment, whether due to fear or pessimism or ignorance. It is as though our greatest gift, self-conscious freedom, is simultaneously our tragic flaw. It gives us the ability to step back from the immediacy of sensory and emotive experiences as if to understand them from outside—in short, it allows us to doubt; but in doubting our experience of the world, we become alienated from it. The true cause of our crisis is this alienated consciousness.
Despite scientifically awakening to the full spatio-temporal extent of the universe, we seem to have forgotten that we are that very same universe. We are not outside it, not other than it. Or, perhaps it is not despite this awakening to the immensity of space and time, but because of it that we feel so alienated from nature.
Concerning the relatively recent discovery of the true dimensions of the cosmos, Teilhard writes,
“Leaving some dark prison, we are blinded by light; emerging abruptly onto a high tower, we are overwhelmed by a flood of emotions. We experience the dizziness, the disorientation—the whole psychology of modern uneasiness related to its abrupt confrontation with space-time.”
Teilhard acknowledges the difficulty of coming to terms with this spatio-temporal awakening, but suggests our initiation into the universe’s true dimensionality remains dangerously incomplete if we do not also acknowledge its evolutionary trajectory. Modern scientific knowledge has re-situated the human in relation to the rest of the universe, which is a far vaster and more difficult to imagine place than it was prior to Copernicus. But evolution is the thread that ties it all together, placing the human being, if no longer at the center of a static cosmos, at least at the creative edge of cosmogenesis.
So what is required of us now that we have woken up to this grand evolutionary process? I believe we must come to recognize that individual self-consciousness and the arbitrary freedom of choice that it wields is not an end, but merely a brief developmental moment in the ongoing noogenic process that is already transforming us in order to bring forth a new human for a new earth. Each of us is being called to become something more, a new kind of person at home with and in love with others and with the rest of the community of life on earth. We are searching for a new collective identity, but to find our true humanity, we must overcome the narrow-minded individualism so characteristic of our Western civilization.
Before attempting to investigate, and if I’m lucky instigate the movement of consciousness beyond the isolated ego, I will take a brief detour to explore the role the West has played in world history. I will also unpack the ideas of a few major thinkers, especially as they are relevant to the evolution of modern Western consciousness.
Remembering the Past
The West, for better or worse, has according to Teilhard, “lead all peoples, from one end of the world to the other…to put the hopes and problems of the modern earth in the very terms in which [it] has succeeded in formulating them.” Similarly, Sean Kelly credits the West with having played a “catalytic role” in the emergence of our still developing planetary era. The European colonial conquests during the course of the past 500 years, violent as they were, have resulted in the economic and biocultural co-evolution of every race on earth. All people are now inextricably netted together in a “complex human fabric [that is weaving] itself around the planet.”
This is not the place to speculate about what could have been had the West not been so bent on world dominance. Post-colonial critiques continue to expose the latent Eurocentrism of our modern geopolitical scene, compelling us to overcome ongoing injustices, but it is hard to deny the impact the Greco-Judeo-Christian impulse has had on our now planetary civilization. If we take a Hegelian view of history, it may be easier to understand how the evils of war and conquest have worked to bring forth higher forms of goodness than would otherwise have been possible. The “cunning of reason,” as Hegel famously refers to it, assures that Spirit’s universal goals are met despite the seeming chaos and contingency of particular world-historical personalities and events. Hegel’s philosophy of history allows us to see how conflict is necessary for more ideal possibilities to manifest themselves on earth. Evolution could not occur, after all, unless strife and opposition were met along the way.
“War,” according to Heraclitus, “is the father of all things.” But as Alexander the Great exclaimed on his deathbed, perhaps prematurely at the time, but no longer so today, “There are no more worlds to conquer!” There is now only one world. The evils of war have exhausted their dialectical magic, binding humanity inextricably into a single biocultural and economic whole. More war can now lead only to collective ruin.
A year before his death in 323 BCE, in an oath given before thousands of his Macedonian and Persian subjects not far from modern day Baghdad, Alexander is alleged to have said the following:
“Now that the wars are coming to an end, I wish you to prosper in peace. May all mortals from now on live like one people in concord and for mutual advancement. Consider the world as your country, with laws common to all and where the best will govern irrespective of tribe…On my part I should consider all equals, white or black, and wish you all to be not only subjects of the Commonwealth, but participants and partners. As much as this depends on me, I should try to bring about what I promised. The oath we made over tonight’s libations hold onto as a Contract of Love”.
It seems that love works in mysterious ways to bring about the unity it seeks. It is as if during the course of the historical period, this hidden spiritual force has been driving individual human beings to sacrifice themselves for a future they could only dimly imagine. Alexander’s call for peace and participatory planetary governance still awaits realization, but it becomes more apparent every day that history’s hidden goal is precisely such a “Contract of Love.” But I am getting ahead of myself…before imagining this still nascent future, we must understand the core religious, scientific, and philosophical ideas that have shaped the Greco-Judeo-Christian impulse mentioned above.
In discussing the Biblical stories to follow, I aim only to draw out their archetypal meaning, leaving the question of their physical reality aside. As Carl Jung reminds us, “‘Physical’ is not the only criterion of truth: there are also psychic truths which can neither be explained nor proved nor contested in any physical way.”
Though the exact date remains unknown, sometime around the 13th century BCE a prophet by the name of Moses lead the Hebrew people out of Egypt, crossing the Red Sea and settling temporarily at Mount Sinai. It is here that Yahweh revealed the Ten Commandments, which to this day represent the essence of moral law for many in the West. But there is an earlier revelation I want to draw attention to, that which first inspired Moses to lead his people out of slavery and toward the Promised Land.
While Moses was still a shepherd tending his flock near Mount Sinai, according to biblical legend, he came upon the angel of the Lord in a burning bush that somehow was not consumed by the flames. The voice of the Lord called to him, “Moses, Moses. Here am I!” Covering his face, “as he was afraid to look upon God,” Moses then received his divine mission to lead the Jews out of Egypt. He asked the Lord his name, to which the response was: “I am that I am.” This cryptic statement is significant because Moses, at one time a member of the Egyptian royal family, was an initiate into the Egyptian mystery schools, whose secrets can be summed up with the phrase “know thyself.” This call to attain self-knowledge would later inspire Socrates and Plato, and indeed every genuine lover of wisdom since. Moses’ encounter with the “I am” represents the beginnings of a mutation in human consciousness from tribal to individual identity, but as I will explore below, it seems this mutation will remain incomplete until the esoteric meaning of Christ’s incarnation is understood. Moses was still too afraid to look upon the face of the Lord, which with the benefit of 3,000 years of consciousness evolution, we can safely say was his own. Nonetheless, his powerful experience allowed the Hebrews to come, according to Rick Tarnas, “to experience themselves as the Chosen People.” The revelation of the “I am” lead this particular community “to believe that they existed in a unique and direct relationship to the one creator of the world and director of history.” This was an extremely novel perspective in comparison to the polytheistic religions of other tribes at the time.
The Hebrew notion of human history being fulfilled in a future era of universal peace and justice brought about by the coming of a messianic figure is described by Tarnas as the “divination of history.” It set the stage for Jesus, who many centuries later fulfilled the prophecy of Moses by announcing that he was Christ, the Son of God. Throughout the Gospel of John, Christ refers to himself as the “I am” revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai. But this time, it was not a chosen few who would have this mystery revealed to them, but the entirety of humanity. Much of the Western world’s subsequent history can be understood as the playing out of the “great code” embedded in the birth, death, and resurrection of Christ. Birth represents the original Garden of Eden, where all was idyllic and humans and nature remained undifferentiated. Death (and the torture that proceded it) represents the Fall, wherein the knowledge of good and evil fractures humanity’s original participation in the earthly paradise, making us aware of our nakedness and giving rise to the sense of homelessness and alienation that the consciousness of our age has come to know so well. The Resurrection represents the promised redemption of the world through the restoration of all that was lost as a result of the Fall, though with the added benefit of a consciousness not present with the original innocence. Not only would humanity return to paradise, it would know it was in paradise.
The Western imagination, whether consciously or not, seems to be playing out this code upon the stage of world history. Hegel’s entire philosophy of history is modeled after the great Trinitarian code of Christianity. Indeed, it may not be too much of a stretch to suggest that the very concept of history, implying as it does the narrative structure of beginning, middle, and climactic end, is a Judeo-Christian invention. Prior to this innovation, most cultures conceived of time as cyclical. The West is unique in its conception of time as providential.
Between the time of Christ and the birth of the modern era around 1500 CE, much of great significance occurred, including the fall of Rome and the rise of the Catholic Church. But for lack of space, I will focus for the remainder of this section on three modern thinkers whose ideas continue in subtle ways to shape our worldview: Copernicus, Descartes, and Kant.
The timely motions of the planets were a sign to ancient peoples that the universe was a divinely ordered whole and a likeness of eternity, but by the time of Copernicus, the geocentric Ptolemaic model used to predict their orbits was growing more and more cumbersome. Epicycle upon epicycle was required to “save the appearance” of the motion of the planets and the sun around the earth. Copernicus was asked by the papacy to clean up the mathematical mess so that more accurate calendars could be made. While researching possible solutions, Copernicus came upon ancient Greek manuscripts discussing the undeveloped hypothesis of a heliocentric solar system. Working out the mathematical details, he came to realize that “the appearance of the moving sun and stars [was] deceptively created by the earth’s own movements.” The long reigning medieval cosmology, classically depicting the universe as a series of perfect heavenly spheres encompassing the stationary earth, began to fall apart.
“The Copernican shift of perspective,” writes Tarnas,
“can be seen as a fundamental metaphor for the entire modern world view: the profound deconstruction of the naïve understanding, the critical recognition that the apparent condition of the objective world was unconsciously determined by the condition of the subject, the consequent liberation from the ancient and medieval cosmic womb, the radical displacement of the human being to a relative and peripheral position in a vast and impersonal universe, the ensuing disenchantment of the natural world.”
This radically disorienting cosmology prefigured and perhaps required the ontological and epistemological developments that Descartes and Kant would later articulate. Descartes recognized, as Plato had millennia earlier, that sensory appearances were often deceptive. He needed a new method of arriving at certain knowledge that would allow the burgeoning sciences to continue to unveil the secrets of nature. He began by going into his own mind, doubting the very existence of the external world, including the existence of other people. He was left with only his own thinking activity, and realized that in this, in the very the act of doubting itself, he had found something which could not be called into question. The entire world may be an illusion, but in thinking of this possibility, I undoubtedly am. Or, as Descartes famously formulated it, “I think, therefore I am.” The discovery of the cogito lead Descartes to develop an ontology of two substances: a thinking substance, or soul, which is autonomous and has access to clear and distinct ideas; and an extended substance, or matter, which is mechanically determined according to mathematical laws. Human consciousness was thus alienated from the natural world, and even from the physical body housing it.
Kant remained a thoroughly Cartesian philosopher, but his motivations were a bit different. Inspired by the success of Newton’s mechanistic picture of nature, Kant was nonetheless uneasy about the steady march of scientific understanding. If all material motion could be understood to behave according to deterministic mathematical laws, what kept these laws from applying to embodied human beings, as well? Kant saw very clearly that the freedom of the human soul could no longer be taken for granted.
In his most famous work, the Critique of Pure Reason, Kant convincingly argued that the mechanisms science thought it was discovering in the natural world were in fact a necessary result of the inherent structure of the human mind itself. Our relation to space and time, for example, is not a result of our empirical encounter with them in a pre-existing world. A quick phenomenological look at our experience reveals that we do not see space, only colored surfaces; nor do we see time, only movement. The mind, Kant realized, does not passively receive an already ordered world. Rather, forms of intuition like space and time, and categories of understanding like causality and substance, must be presupposed as necessary conditions for any human experience of the world to be possible. We know reality, in other words, only as it appears to us after being filtered through the mind’s pre-existing categories.
Kant referred to his epistemological re-orientation as a second Copernican revolution, as objects were now understood to revolve, so to speak, around the subject, their appearance always already shaped by the latter’s cognitive lenses. By limiting science to knowledge of appearances, Kant was able to protect traditional religious ideals like freedom, God, and immortality from being dispelled; though these could not be known with any certainty, either. He famously wrote in the introduction to the Critique of Pure Reason that he found it “necessary to deny knowledge to make room for faith.” But in so doing, he also further alienated human consciousness from nature, which became an unreachable “thing-in-itself.” As Tarnas describes it, Kant’s revolution was fundamentally ambiguous: “Man was again at the center of the universe, but this was now only his universe, not the universe.”
Kant’s uneasy dualism between the phenomenal and noumenal worlds inspired a generation of philosophers in Germany, most notable among them Schelling and Hegel, to strive to find a way to re-unite the human mind with nature and the divine. As Kelly writes, “for the Idealists, instead of the machine [as in Newton’s science], the organism and life become the root metaphors for the cosmos as a whole.” Kelly also points out that, in these thinkers, much emphasis was placed on the idea of development and evolution. For them, “the overall drive of the cosmos is toward the production of increasing complexity of organization as the vehicle for the eventual emergence of self-reflexive consciousness.” It is these more organic and evolutionary cosmological perspectives that may provide a way forward, as they reawaken us to our embeddedness in an ensouled and purposeful universe. Let us now turn our eyes to the future to see what that purpose might be.
Envisioning the Future
All this emphasis on purpose in general—in the universe and in history—cannot be separated from my personal consciousness. I must admit that I am unable to imagine a universe so absurd as to have no reason for being, just as I am unable to live my own life in the absence of spiritual ideals. I have tried to doubt the teleological picture of the universe, but there really are no viable alternatives that are coherent with and adequate to my actual experience.
The universe is about something. The warmth and light with which it began its story manifest themselves as the love and wisdom at work through human history. The culmination of history, its end, can only be brought about when every human soul has come to know love. Then the world will be transformed from the inside out. Or perhaps it has already been transformed…perhaps, as Teilhard writes, “Omega already exists and is at work right here and now.” In the face of all the earth’s current ills, I am unable to lose hope in the underlying logic of the historical process.
I must interrupt the linear flow of this essay to offer a stream of consciousness prose-poem written late one evening around Easter of 2010 as an attempt, not only to envision the future, but also to fully embrace the divinity of the present. There is a logic to the historical process, I do not doubt; but this logic is dressed in mythopoeic parable, seeming at first to be obscure. To understand the meaning of history, we must participate in the realization of its end. This requires a certain turning about of the mind—a metanoia. Poetic language is one way to instigate such a mental turning.
On this night, like any other, the gospel reveals its light, shouts the good news and becomes an open secret. It is simple in its complexity: We are Each and All the Many eyes of One God, and in dying, we live this Truth Eternally. The Gospel is now open, because Man, through history, has been brought to his utmost extremity, crucified and flayed bare beyond all conception.
History has ended.
The world and all of its hells are already over. Only heaven remains. This secret will be forever retold. The Gospel here and everywhere is the very mouth of God, the breathing presence of divinity that I know only through my communion with you.
Man’s inner most recesses have been exposed, his most ungodly horrors and humiliations have been spread before the witnesses of his trial, their eager eyes like entirely amoral eagles whose only wish was to feast on the delight of spirits adrift in the wind of their own wondrous and self-indulgent melodies.
How quickly the world gets lost without wisdom, how empty even the music of the spheres can seem to sound unless in each of the seven is discovered the common harmony, the most secret and the most well-known, the always and undying source of the ever renewing breath of eternity.
Only here, at the utmost edges of human life, does the infinite gain entrance and can the holy truly poor into the life of mortal souls.
What appears in me is merely the other end of you, the love who through evil became my own enemy. Evil is the inverse of love, the dismemberment of the One. But in being destroyed, the One can only be forever renewed.
The good news is now known by everyone. We can only love one another, because we are not other than one another.
Spirit is the undulating mystery that brews between our patient and modest human breaths, overflowing in the words we speak to share our souls.
What secrets can I keep from you, who know me as clearly as I see myself? There is nowhere to hide from the light of God. It reveals everything, it reveals all to everyone at once. And yet, there is something in the light that remains concealed. The true source of wisdom, the holiest of holies, is hidden within nature’s most laborious of labyrinths, to this day remaining a mystery even unto itself.
Know thyself, which means also, love thy enemy. In each of us is the All. The One is none other than you and I.
Knowledge truly is of good and evil, and unless in love we are able to remember the good expressed in our mortal nature, we die without having recognized the divinity of our every living, moving moment. There is no eternity but what is here and now… and in this unending surprise the world is created forever anew out of its own ashes. The good news is now an open secret.
It seems paradoxical to say that the “good news” that reveals the meaning of human history is an “open secret.” If it were open, why would it remain also a secret? Grasping this paradox, I believe, is crucial for humanity’s future on earth. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus is reported to have offered a series of cryptic parables to a great multitude that crowded around him on the beach. At one point, his disciples asked him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” Jesus answered that the multitude had not yet been granted knowledge of the mystery of the kingdom of heaven. “Therefore,” he said, “I speak to them in parables; because while seeing they do not see, and while hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand.”
More paradoxes: seeing that sees not, hearing that hears not. What could this possibly mean? To grasp the subtle meaning of what has been said above, it must be placed in the context of the evolution of consciousness.
“Has history any real significance,” asks Owen Barfield, “unless, in the course of it, the relation between creature and Creator is being changed?” The evolution of consciousness, for Barfield, is a continuous movement from immediate, or original participation in the meaningful rhythms of the natural world towards an increasingly alienated “null point,” wherein “a contraction of human consciousness from periphery to center” reduces all the wisdom of the cosmos to an isolated ego housed somewhere within the sinews of the human brain. The human brain is the organic labyrinth nature has labored for eons to produce, the tabernacle meant to house something so much more holy than the “null point” now lost within it. But this is not the end of the movement, according to Barfield. It is, however, where nature’s labors, at least in the human, are at their end. From this point forward, it becomes our own responsibility to evolve into what Barfield calls final participation. While for original participation, the heart was enlivened from a source outside itself, namely, the still spiritually imbued natural world, final participation requires that the heart burn from within, irradiated by the light and warmth of Christ, the “I am” incarnate within each and every human being.
In an apocryphal text written sometime in the 2nd century, Jesus is reported to have said: “The kingdom of heaven is within you. Only he who knows himself can find it.” The paradox of an “open secret” may now be understood. The evolution of consciousness has transformed human beings from unconscious participants in the course of natural events into conscious creators of history. The divine is no longer to be found outside ourselves. Divinity is hidden in the only place our eyes could not see, nor our ears hear. Having thus realized our own divinity, we must ask ourselves “whether we ought to shrink from the notion that we are to share the responsibility of maintaining an earth which it has already, it seems, been given into our hands to destroy.”
The future of the earth and humanity depends upon our gaining the inner strength and imagination required to re-invent ourselves. The new story of the universe as a living, self-organizing system has made Copernicus all but obsolete, and the “null point” reached in the philosophies of Descartes and Kant continues to be challenged by a flurry of embodied ontologies and participatory epistemologies emerging to meet the needs of our time. Whether we like it or not, as Coleridge writes, “in our life alone does Nature live.” Our presence has already forever changed the face of the planet, but I have more faith than all the world can contain that we will be born again and come to live in peace on earth. What else could human history be than the toilsome work of preparation required for our cosmic seed to finally flower and bear its fruit?
- Barfield, Owen. Saving the Appearances.
- Gebser, Jean. The Ever-Present Origin.
- Teilhard de Chardin, Pierre. The Human Phenomenon.
- Kant, Immanuel. The Critique of Pure Reason.
- Kelly, Sean. Coming Home.
- Primack and Abrams. The View from the Center of the Universe.
- Tarnas, Rick. Passion of the Western Mind.
- The Hegel Reader. Ed. by Stephen Houlgate.
 All measurements above taken from The View from the Center of the Universe by Joel R. Primack and Nancy Ellen Abrams.
 The Human Phenomenon by Teilhard de Chardin, p. 14
 ibid., p. xvi
 ibid., p. 184-185
 http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2010/apr/11/peak-oil-production-supply ; Even the US Military now admits to the severity of the problem, estimating that, by 2012, surplus oil production could entirely disappear.
 The Human Phenomenon, p. 158
 The Copernican revolution will be discussed in more detail below.
 Overcoming individualism doesn’t mean jettisoning values like universal human rights and equality. On the contrary, it means coming to experience our responsibility to other earthlings as strongly as we demand our own rights.
 The Human Phenomenon, p. 147
 Coming Home, p. xi
 ibid., vii
 The Hegel Reader, p. 413
 Jean Gebser suggests that this, like most of Heraclitus’ aphorisms, is an incomplete fragment whose polar correspondence has not survived the ages. He suggests Heraclitus must also have written that “Peace is the mother of all things.” (The Ever-Present Origin, p. 151)
 Recounted in fragments written by Ptolemy and Plutarch based on Alexander’s diary.
 Answer to Job, p. xi
 All quotes from chapter 3 of Exodus.
 The Passion of the Western Mind, p. 94
 Coming Home, p. 35
 The Passion of the Western Mind, p. 249
 Ibid., p. 250
 Ibid., p. 416
 Descartes also wrote of God as the one true substance, but this is not the part of his ontology that has had great influence on the modern psyche.
 Critique of Pure Reason, p. 29
 The Passion of the Western Mind, p. 349
 Coming Home, p. 61
 This was almost 50 years before Darwin would later formulate his disenchanted mechanistic theory of evolution by natural selection, which, unfortunately, still commands the attention of the popular imagination.
 Coming Home, p. 63
 The Human Phenomenon, p. 209
 Saving the Appearances, p. 160
 ibid., p. 182
 Gospel of the Hebrews, ch. 38
 Saving the Appearances by Owen Barfield, p. 160
 Ode to Dejection