This is the kind of piece that sets off alarm bells in me. The author is a philosopher of science, something that I studied in graduate school as well. Then I evolved into an astrologer, and spent the better part of twenty years nudging people to learn how to speak this symbolic language, since it’s one that we can all appreciate, no matter what our cultural differences. Why? Because astrology is based on the changing configurations in the sky above. So, I’d say that Abrams might have mentioned that just the sky itself, with the sun, moon, and stars, is also “equally true for every person on earth.” If we would only look up!
Moreover, I question the idea of utilizing a single story to help shape us up into some kind of form that may or may not (actually, of course does not!) exhaust the possibilities of which we, and the universe, are capable. Stories seem to “make sense” of the phenomenal flux; to that extent they feel good. In order to “make sense,” they must necessarily leave out everything except that which fits the narrative line. Like a path that leads through the forest without ever really bowing to the forest. That’s why we call stories, or any mirrors or other theories that we construct to help us see and understand, “pale” reflections, not, or not quite, as real as the original.
I’d rather see us learn how to live between the lines, below or within any of our stories; I’d rather learn how to abide in the spacious present that allows for infinite possibilities.
And then there’s the near-buried, and likely unnoticed scientistic assumptions that humanity is perhaps the only really really intelligent life (“We are alone in the universe”), that life and intelligence evolved up from matter (the reductionist, materialist hypothesis), and that “space” and “time” as we conceive them spread into the universe as a whole (rather than being an earth-encircling matrix).
Finally, I wish Abrams had penetrated more deeply into the “double dark” metaphor as it effects us, our understanding of ourselves. For one thing, it suggests that we can’t see most of what’s real! That our five outer senses are useless here. That within us lie mysteries beyond imagining . . . That recognition alone might make us get off our high “scientific” horses and realize that whatever we think we know is necessarily sooner or later and probably sooner swallowed up in something much, much larger that is way beyond our ken, no matter who we “think” we are.
Even so, despite all these caveats, I do very much appreciate this and any attempt to nudge us into thinking beyond the next cheeseburger or hedge fund or political argument to the awe-full immensity in which we “live and move and have our being.”
All the frightening global problems of today — such as mass extinction, environmental degradation, an out-of-control world economy — are largely the result of technologies with long-term effects wielded by people with short-term views. A short-term view stops us seeing the full consequences and from taking any responsibility for them and their impact on others.
The keys to developing a sustainable way of life that will benefit future generations are simple: learn how to think accurately about the long term, and feel deeply that you are actually a part of it. Without that feeling, no amount of knowledge will suffice; the motivation won’t be there, and we need motivation more than anything else if humanity is going to survive. But at this pivotal moment, when the planetary conditions required for human survival are at stake, we can get crucial help from an unexpected source: cosmology, the branch of astrophysics that studies the universe as a whole.
Cosmology is in the midst of a scientific revolution, and what is emerging is the first ever picture based on science of the universe-as-a-whole. Over the last three decades great new telescopes and other sophisticated instruments have produced a flood of data about the distant universe, shooting down all theories but one: the double dark theory, which posits that most of the universe is made not of atoms but of mysterious, invisible substances called “dark matter” and “dark energy”. Their interaction over billions of years has produced the galaxies, the only possible homes for the evolution of life. Though the double dark theory was developed to explain the largest scales, it has implications across the board. After all, the “universe” is not just about big things such as galaxies: it’s what happens at all size scales, including Earth, its climate and oceans, local economies, families, your own body, your cells, atoms and elementary particles. The universe is right here, and the double dark theory affects you.
This new cosmology provides the concepts we need in order to begin thinking in, and acting for, the very long term. It teaches us how to measure time in both billions of years and nanoseconds and to measure size across galaxy superclusters and the nucleus of an atom. Above all, it reveals how significant intelligent life is to the universe as a whole and it defines and helps us experience our place as part of the ongoing story of an extraordinary happening in a dynamic, evolving reality. From nothing but particles, energy and time we have emerged, a result of a riot of unlikely and unpredictable events that may not ever have happened elsewhere.
There is symmetry in people’s views of time: those who think the universe is only a few thousand years old can’t imagine, and therefore can’t value, a future of at least hundreds of millions of years. But this is what sustainability means! Our descendants could live comfortably on this planet for millions of generations — if we raise our thinking now to the level our times demand, by engaging with the stunning scientific evidence about our universe, exploring and accepting its implications for our own lives. This means understanding the immensity of our past — our shared-origin story — and the immensity of our potential future. In a society focused on short-term self-interest, where financial “success” is often achieved largely by side-stepping long-term responsibility, this takes bravery. But it also opens up vast creative possibilities for our societies, ourselves and our dreams.
To solve today’s global problems we humans must find a basis for worldwide co-operation that does not threaten the diversity of our lives. Our new cosmic story is the first unifying vision that is equally true for every person on Earth. It transcends all religious or local mythologies. Everyone, regardless of scientific background, is capable of expanding their perspective once they grasp this story and their personal role in it. It can help motivate us to protect the cosmically rare and invaluable phenomenon evolving on Earth — intelligent life. Us.
Nancy Ellen Abrams is a philosopher of science, a lawyer and the co-author with cosmologist Joel R Primack of The New Universe and the Human Future: How a Shared Cosmology Could Transform the World (Yale Univ Press), andThe View from the Centre of the Universe: Discovering Our Extraordinary Place in the Cosmos (Riverhead/Penguin)