When I was a child in Jamaica, my father built a large telescope in our backyard in Havendale. It was anchored into the ground in a cement platform. An avid amateur astronomer in those days, my father was president of the Astronomical Association of Jamaica and I remember him telling me about the time that a comet was visible in the night sky and he woke me up in the pre-dawn hours so that I could see it through the telescope. I was three years old in 1965 when the great Comet Ikeya-Seki gave earth its spectacular show and while I don’t specifically remember being woken up to see it, I think back fondly to that time when a father woke a sleepy child so that he could show her the wonders of something special taking place in the universe.
It is that wonder at the universe and our place in it that has inspired the life and brilliant work of the imminent cosmologist and evolutionary philosopher Brian Swimme. I had the privilege to hear Dr. Swimme speak on Thursday evening at Marylhurst University as he delivered an inspiring talk titled The Cosmic Force of Feeling.
Swimme’s books include The Universe is a Green Dragon and The Universe Story with Thomas Berry and The Journey of the Universe with Mary Tucker. He teaches at the California Institute of Integral Studies and recently won an Emmy award for his new documentary that aired on PBS, The Journey of the Universe (see below for clip).
Swimme is that rare breed of scientist: a cosmologist who dares to go beyond the conventional Newtonion scientific point of view by bridging the humanities and the sciences without losing sight of the gifts of both. For a lay audience Swimme makes the world of cosmology accessible and wondrous. He decodes scientific discoveries about the nature of the universe by giving us analogous examples that allows us to see ourselves and our human actions placed in context with the larger forces that operate within the universe.
Swimme tells us that there is nothing more human than wondering about the universe and our place in it. He says a full human life includes questions. “We get swept into a life and that movement is a feeling – something moves and attracts us – that isn’t something we create. It is a wave that had its start in the universe and we participate in this wave.”
He says that Thomas Berry got him to think about “what does it mean that we are discovering a fundamental unique account of the universe?”
Swimme acknowledges that he has a different point of view from conventional scientists and that he tries to include explorations of scholars in the humanities as well as the sciences. He says that Berry said that scientists don’t understand the implications of the story of the universe. They get the data but miss the bigger picture of its implications. “The question of meaning is not something that science wants to consider.”
The great discovery of contemporary science is that the universe is not simply a place, but a story – a story in which we are immersed, to which we belong, and out of which we arose. This story has the power to awaken us more deeply to who we are. For just as the Milky Way is the universe in the form of a galaxy, and an orchid is the universe in the form of a flower, we are the universe in the form of a human. And every time we are drawn to look up into the night sky and reflect on the awesome beauty of the universe, we are actually the universe reflecting on itself. And this changes everything. ~ Brian Swimme and Mary Tucker The Journey of the Universe
Swimme said that he tries to imagine what would have happened had Copernicus gone to London in 1543 to explain his newly discovered theory that the Sun is the center of the solar system. At that time England had been going downhill for 300 years with effects of the plague, etc and this new theory was met with great skepticism.
Swimme makes the analogy that we also, in 2013 are suffering a kind of plague: consumerism and the fact that Americans idolize money. Swimme says “we have a bizarre situation where our economic achievement is ruining the planet but conventional wisdom is that we need to increase economic activity! The earth is not a resource bin. It’s actually alive and on a remarkable journey. But the default worldview is that earth is a hardware store.”
Swimme describes how his own consciousness about the earth changed back in 1986 when he read an article in the New York Times about a conference being held at the Smithsonian. The article said that scientists were saying that the present moment is the most destructive in at least 65 million years. In other words, not since the demise of the dinosaurs has there been such a destructive time of extinction taking place on the planet. Swimme gets big laughs from the audience when he describes how this information hit him. It was presented on page 26 of the New York Times, and astonishingly received no follow up in days after.
“There is something massively out of alignment – it is a spiritual pathology when your actions are accomplishing the opposite of what you think you are doing. There is a stark lack of coherence and to hear it means we’ve got to re-think things at a very deep level. We have to change our Newtonian way of thinking. Our challenge now is to give birth to a civilization that is congruent with the forces of the universe.”
For more on Brian Swimme, see his website at The Story of the Universe.