Friday, September 3, 2010

Cosmological Concerns

The word “cosmology” has at least two meanings. One is strictly scientific: “The scientific study of the origin, evolution, and structure of the universe.”[1] The second is cultural: “A system of beliefs that seeks to describe or explain the origin and structure of the universe.”[2] Whereas cosmology in the first sense is an intellectual pursuit that aims to unravel the laws that govern the physical universe, in the latter sense it is a wisdom tradition that seeks insights not only through science but also via religion, art, and philosophy.[3] Scientific cosmologists make observations, gather facts, and advance theories, with a focus on the celestial. Conversely, the aim of cultural cosmology is much more down to Earth, no less than the transformation of the aesthetic, affective, and moral dimensions of being human. In short, although both cosmological forms may attempt to explain the origins of stars, planets, and other celestial phenomena, the latter mode seeks to apply this understanding in constructing a framework for living.

For more than 99% of human history, all cosmology was of the cultural variety, and every culture had its own cosmological origin story that informed their daily life. Only with the advent of modernism was the practice of cosmology split into two spheres. The scientific sphere became the realm of objective facts, whereas the religious sphere was deemed the realm of subjective meaning. The persistent tragedy of this split is that the two spheres became isolated from each other. Whereas science (and later, science education) divorced itself from meaning and purpose, the religious search for meaning and value in the universe was no longer informed by direct reference to our changing understanding of the universe! Even today, when conducted by major religious traditions, this search generally occurs within the context of a pre-scientific cosmos dominated by classical scriptures.

Meanwhile, science has radically and irrevocably changed our conception of who we are and how we fit into the scheme of things. For about four centuries now, we have known that the Earth revolves around the sun instead of the opposite. One and a half centuries have passed since we came to understand that all life on this planet, including us, shares common ancestry, evolving from single-celled lifeforms over unfathomable spans of time. Only during the past century, a single human lifetime, have we learned that we live in a galaxy of billions of stars, in turn merely one of billions of galaxies. For less than half a century have we realized that the earth’s surface consists of a dozen or so crustal plates that move about, bumping into each other before being resorbed into the planet’s interior. At about the same time, astronomers discovered that we are constantly bombarded with faint radiation that has traveled 14 billion years from the cataclysmic birth of the universe. And only in the past decade have biologists determined that the bacterial cells on and in our bodies outnumber human cells by a factor of about 10 to 1, which means that each of us is walking colony of trillions of lifeforms rather than an isolated self of one.

Most profoundly, science has taught us that we are living in a dynamic, evolutionary universe. We now speak of the origin and evolution of particles, galaxies, stars, planets, life, and culture. It is more than poetry to claim that we humans, offspring of this evolutionary process, are the universe becoming conscious of itself. Thus, it’s horribly ironic that we, who have arguably the most accurate understanding of the history of the cosmos, are members of the first culture to lack a cosmology.

Indeed few of us today have even the most meager comprehension of the astounding insights generated by science. Why have we failed to communicate these profound ideas more broadly? A major obstacle to dissemination is that the deepest scientific insights tend to be counterintuitive. Some of the most brilliant minds of recent history have struggled mightily with notions that scientists now take for granted. (Take, for example, Albert Einstein’s famous refusal to initially accept his own finding that the universe is expanding.) So it should come as no surprise that it requires considerable work to garner meaning from science. To grossly understate matters, it’s not easy to grasp intellectually, let alone bodily or emotionally, that we are chunks of starstuff living on the side of a giant, spherical rock hurtling through space at thousands of miles an hour.

Nevertheless, if we are to address the sustainability crisis and shift the course of civilization so as to come into harmony with nonhuman nature, an entirely new worldview is required, one that reinserts humanity inside nature. This moment in history demands no less than a transformation of what it means to be human.[4] If this pressing transformation is to occur, we must reunite the scientific and religious spheres of cosmology in order to establish a revitalized sense of meaning and purpose based upon our best understanding of the cosmos. On the one hand, success will depend on religions embracing the new view of the universe revealed by science. On the other, science must not shy away from its central role in defining who we are and where we come from, presenting this story in a grand narrative rather than a meaningless staccato of “facts.”

Critical to this endeavor will be the transformation of education. One legacy of the scientific enterprise has been the minimizing of subjective experiences in favor of objective observations. Only the latter have been considered “real,” worthy of our attention and value. At present, science education strictly adheres to its modernist heritage, concerning itself almost solely with quantifiable facts. If we are to learn to live sustainably in this world, facts alone are not enough. We must revamp science education to address the aesthetic and affective dimensions so long avoided. I see no reason why science learning cannot foster a vivid sense of mystery, wonder, and awe.

In particular, if science is to inform the meaning of our lives, we must experience key concepts bodily. Among other things, this will require that we venture outside classrooms into natural settings. Scientific ideas become meaningful when we experience and reflect upon them directly with multiple senses. An understanding of nature must enter our bodies through our pores as well as our minds. Alongside ecological literacy, or ecoliteracy[5], we must foster evolutionary literacy, or evoliteracy—that is, an understanding of the Epic of Evolution, the story of the Big Bang to the present day[6].

Let me be clear. I am not arguing that we change the way we do science, but rather the way we teach science. Nor am I advocating that humanity embrace a single, global cosmology. The beauty of the Epic of Evolution is that it allows for an endless variety of interpretations, with and without God(s). So every culture can still fashion its own unique cosmology, informed by its own unique historical, cultural, and ecological context.

I will explore experiential education in a future post, discussing the contributions of John Dewey and others. For the moment, suffice it to say that the acquisition of knowledge must be accompanied by an inner transformation.[3] Only then can we hope to raise a generation that regards the world as a meaningful place worthy of respect and nurturing. Only then can we establish new, more accurate cosmologies that reflect what we actually know of the universe. Only then can we begin the move toward a new, more viable form of human existence.

1. The American Heritage® Science Dictionary. Copyright © 2002. Published by Houghton Mifflin.
2. The American Heritage® New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition. Copyright © 2005 by Houghton Mifflin Company.
3. Swimme, B. 1996. The Hidden Heart of the Cosmos: Humanity and the New Story. Orbis, New York, 115 pp.
4. Berry, T. 1999. The Great Work: Our Way into the Future. Bell Tower, New York, 242 pp.
5. Stone, M. K. and Z. Barlow (eds.). 2005. Ecological Literacy: Educating our Children for a Sustainable World. University of California Press, Berkeley, 275 pp.
6. Chaisson, E. 2006. Epic of Evolution: Seven Ages of the Cosmos. Columbia University Press, New York, 479 pp.

All images courtesy of National Geographic:


  1. very informative blog thats why i visit your posts daily so keep posting if any one wants to study abroad then he can apply for University admission from here.keep posting

  2. I admit that I have been guilty of belittling other people's personal cosmologies, in favour of the reality of not only what but who we are. I suppose that I have this reverance for nature that I cannot stand the primitive, seemingly "selfish" cosmologies and religions that explain our relationship to the cosmos at large. Thank you for your insight and your thought-provoking reflective pieces.

    This reminds me of two quotes:

    "We are a way for the Cosmos to know itself." -Carl Sagan

    "Nature's imagination is so much greater than man's. She's never gonna let us relax" -Richard Feynman

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