Cosmic Consciousness

We are a Way for the Universe to Tell Its Story

Galaxy history, as seen by Hubble Space Telescope. NASA/ESA, Windhorst, S. Cohen, M. Mechtley, and M. Rutkowski (Arizona State University, Tempe), R. O'Connell (University of Virginia), P. McCarthy (Carnegie Observatories), N. Hathi (University of California, Riverside), R. Ryan (University of California, Davis), H. Yan (Ohio State University), and A. Koekemoer (Space Telescope Science Institute).

Occasionally I’ve written about what I think of as the scientific history of the universe. That’s the story of the mechanics of the cosmos starting with the Big Bang some 13.7 billion years ago and tracing the creation of the first stars and galaxies and eventually the planets, and then on to life. It’s a compelling history and astronomers and cosmologists are still inking in the details as they learn more about things like dark matter, dark energy, and so on. I like the story, mostly. What I don’t like about it is that it seems to put humans at the top of the evolutionary chain that stretches back all those billions of years. And, that’s most emphatically NOT what cosmic history is about. There is bound to be other life out there, other planets teeming with biota of some kind–and each of those is also part of the evolutionary tree.

There’s another way to look at this bounding evolutionary story, and that’s from the standpoint of something that the late Carl Sagan once said, “We are a way for the universe to know itself.”  I don’t think he meant just you and me and the tree on the corner.  He meant Earth and all the structures it contains and the life it bears.  “We” in this context are part of a living, breathing construct that encompasses Earth and all the stuff it contains. And, in our DNA, in the structure of the rocks and trees and lakes and continents and seas and deserts and microbes and all the life that surrounds us, is encoded the story of the universe. Our bodies contain elements first created in the Big Bang, and others that were created and cycled through one or more stars. Our planet has the same makeup. That makes us part of the cosmos that I’m not sure we fully appreciate yet. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be treating each other and our planet as if all were disposable.

What brought all this to mind tonight was a program currently appearing on PBS called the Journey of the Universe. It is billed as an epic story of cosmic, Earth, and human transformation, and it is a very nicely done exploration of the evolution of the universe and our place in it,and the evolution of our consciousness along with everything else. It’s both a film and book project, hosted by evolutionary philosopher Brian Thomas Swimme and historian of religions Mary Evelyn Tucker.  Their story is nicely woven, bringing together scientific discoveries in astronomy, geology, and biology and infusing them with humanistic insights concerning the nature of the universe. I found it a very poetic and compelling program to watch, and as I did, I wondered just what sort of universe has evolved that allows us to use the miraculous consciousness we’ve all evolved with to do great things like explore the cosmos, create art and music, create families, and learn to live with other living beings on the planet. Unfortunately, some people among us also use that same consciousness to do things like trash the planet, exploit animals, kill other humans, use spiritual beliefs to foster hate, and use political power to foster misogyny, ignorance, and fear.

When I look at the stars, I see where we came from. I see where we’re going. And, I often wonder (as the authors of this lovely program do), what we are going to become—and I see what we will have to overcome in order to move forward in step with the evolution of the cosmos.

If you’re interested in a spirited, open-minded look at the cosmos, us, and our place in it, check out this program. The web page I linked to above has a list of screenings on PBS and in various towns and cities. It’s worth checking out. It might just give you some pause for thought.

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