A Cosmic Book with Human Insight
I found my eyes opened, along with my mind, by an intriguing book, The View from the Center of the Universe, by Joel R. Primack, a distinguished physicist at the University of California Santa Cruz, and his wife, Nancy Ellen Abrams, an excellent writer. There have been a spate of books extending our concept of the universe and how human beings fit into it. In an earlier post I listed some of the most exciting concepts that are potentially revolutionizing cosmology, among them, that we live in a conscious universe, that the universe is a living thing, and that evolution drives the cosmos. Primack and Abrams continue to explore such ideas in their newest book The New Universe and the Human Future.
But they also campaign persuasively for a meaningful universe, contending that we no longer live in the ancient or medieval conception of the cosmos and not the empty, meaningless universe of Newton. “The lack of a meaningful universe is a modern mental handicap.” They are not aiming to reclaim old religious ideas, however. “There is a real dissonance between the colorful, volatile, science-expanded world we actually inhabit and the monotonously recycled language that religions use to describe ‘ultimate reality.'” So what kind of meaning do Primack and Abrams find in the cosmos? Their book answers this question through a totally engaging and very readable exploration of “the new universe” explained by quantum physics and contemporary astrophysics.
In a nutshell, “…the Big Bang powers us all, galaxies and human beings alike, in different ways on our respective size-scales.” This last phrase refers to how Nature operates differently depending on how big or small the scale is, moving from the subatomic to the universal. Primack and Abrams put great store in the unique scale of the human world and how our minds have turned to explain ourselves as well as the cosmos. They continue, “Every one of us is entitled to say, ‘I am what the expanding universe is doing here and now.'” This startling declaration isn’t solipsism. In fact, it echoes a sentence I remember from a noted Indian guru, who said, “You need to realize that the entire universe collaborated to create this exact second and everything that is happening to you right now.” Bringing such a perspective into practical life, as Primack and Abrams want to do, is not easy.
In the ancient world there was no strict division between cosmology and spirituality. Primack and Abrams remain firmly on the cosmological side when they argue that “Earth does reflect the cosmos.” Their data and the theory of an eternally expanding universe delves deeply; I won’t try to summarize it here. What opened my eyes was the notion that each of us is the center of the universe, which reinvigorates a crucial thesis of the world’s wisdom traditions. As Primack and Abrams do, we can lament that what the ancients saw so clearly has an enormous reach that moderns are blind to. At a time when a band of scientific atheists are hardening the divisions between science and religion, Primack and Abrams are inclusive as well as far-seeing: The future of the planet, which they envision in the slogan “Think cosmically, act globally,’ will need “to inspire huge creativity, intense commitment, and immense stores of enthusiasm and new hope.”
This is a very sympathetic appeal, and it sets Primack and Abrams apart from the strictly technological futurists, marching under the banner of research and development (plus a huge dose of science fiction) and yet equally far from the strict spiritual camp, which worships Mother Earth and prays for the regeneration of humanity under God. Primack and Abrams, quite rightly, ask for all hands on deck. “To guide and use this human energy will require every powerful tool that people have ever come up with, including religious truths, ancient mythology, science, and art, plus a detailed picture of reality.” This could be read as mere idealism of the kind that many friends of the Earth espouse. But Primack and Abrams are bolstered by the imagination and knowledge that they have poured into their “details picture of reality,” bridging the Big Bang with a host of ancient representations that have in common one thing: we are the point. The cosmos is about us.
Realizing that such a radical idea will never take hold without proof – Primack and Abrams are not remotely interested in returning to an age of faith – they list seven propositions in support of human uniqueness.
1. We are made of the rarest material in the universe.
2. We are at the center of our Cosmic Sphere of Time.
3. We live at the midpoint of time.
4. We live at the middle of all possible sizes.
5. We live in a universe that may be a rare bubble of spacetime.
6. We live at more or less the midpoint in the life of our planet.
7. We live at a turning point for our species.
Stated baldly, these statements may sound esoteric or speculative, but they aren’t. When religionists and atheists clash, or when science places itself as the alternative to myth, a larger trend is at work, the trend from a unified sense of humanity to a splintered sense of humanity. Unity may have been an illusion – the world that revolved around God for Christians wasn’t the same world of Buddhism or Islam. But the splintering of a coherent worldview goes hand in hand with a meaningless cosmos and fear born of doubt about who we really are.
By attempting to make coherence possible once more, Primack and Abrams open the only way forward that can possibly work. The existential alternative is grim for all of us, and that grim outcome will be the consequence of holding on to a cliché that science has drilled into us, “that in an expanding universe, ‘human’ is a small, even pathetic identity. ” Real optimism and true hope lie in finding a new home in the universe, so that its expansion doesn’t intimidate us or make our lives seem like insignificant specks in the vastness of space. An expanded science is called for, not for its own sake, but to expand human potential to the point where we can rescue ourselves. The View from the Center of the Universe goes a long way in that direction, and it should be read by anyone, not just scientists, who worry about the human condition.
Published by The San Francisco Chronicle