Book Review: Journey of the Universe

This summer, while enjoying the fine food of the resort town of Saratoga Springs as well as the intellectual atmosphere which can only be found in the Northeast, my reading included the book Journey of the Universe, by Brian Thomas Swimme and Mary Evelyn Tucker.  This book also has a website,  a film and is available as an Audible audio book.

I found Journey of the Universe to be a rewarding effort to forge a new, more conscious worldview, taking the latest empirical discoveries of science into account.  It seems to me that Swimme and Tucker are aiming for a worldview which is “spiritual,” but which does not rise out of or cling to fundamentalist or literalist beliefs. They strive to remain deeply engaged with a non-dogmatic spirituality and develop a worldview people are able to discuss without running into beliefs “held by faith” or dogma, i.e., held without intellectual understanding. The authors are after a  “discussable” worldview.

However, as a Jungian, I question if it really necessary to delve into quantum physics in order to have a rational, empirical, workable world view.  The book’s starting point, quantum physics. is a very specialized science. Isn’t there less specialized empirical data which supports a non-dogmatic world view? Also, isn’t the idea of the Big bang itself  a myth or story? And is the Big Bang really in accord with the best science we have? See for instance, opponents of the Big Bang theory.

I do agree that there is a need for the kind of worldview Swimme and Tucker are trying to establish.  An update or reconnection with old myths, making them relevant for the current generation.  Their attempt reminded me of the magnificent PBS series produced back in the 1980’s, The Power of Myth, which featured the mythologist Joseph Campbell also a “story-teller”).  

Campbell stated that the need for a new worldview really hit the man in the street when first pictures of the earth were sent back by the lunar astronauts. At that point, even the most die-hard true believer had to examine some of his dogma; the astronauts had traveled through all 7 of the celestial spheres supposedly occupied by angles loving watching over humanity;  they not only failed to encounter angles, but not a wise old man in the 7th heaven either.

Today, despite travel to the moon, people do still cling not only to old myths, old “containers,” stubbornly, irrationally and to humanity’s great detriment. We have Islamic fundamentalist attacking the US and other western democracies, Trump and his followers attacking the roots of democracy from within. There is, in fact,  a need to for an empirical approach to religious beliefs. A need for the foundations of Western culture  to be understood and made more conscious,  and for the achievements of Western civilization to be based on something other than poorly understood dogma. 

So I do feel that this book is a noble and timely effort.

The essence of the book’s argument is contained in it’s title, the “journey” of the universe. The authors want to point out that the universe is in us, and after trillions of years on it’s journey of development from the big bang onwards, has culminated in us, human beings and other life on the planet. For all we know, humans may be unique in the universe, the product of billions of years of evolution and the happenstance of elements coming together only by accident.  In other words, we humans, including our unique “symbolic consciousness,” are an end result of the journey that the universe has been on, and, this journey is  non-re-creatable. We are making alternations in things that took billions of years to create, and we don’t know whether what we have here is exists anywhere else in the universe. 

I found thought-provoking facts and ideas in each chapter of the book, including the early chapters: 

Epistemology as Raisin Bread

In chapter two, Swimme’s analogy of the “universe as a loaf raisin bread rising,” is a startling and vivid image capturing what I believe to be the true epistemological state human beings find themselves in today: 

As the loaf grows larger, and we imagine ourselves on one of the raisins, we would see all of the other raisins moving away from us. We would also conclude that we are not moving because we would not be moving through the bread. . . .  This staggering new perspective is causing a massive shift in how we imagine our own place  . . .
 

This raisin bread analogy strikes me as a wonderfully accurate image of the individual human’s actual epistemological situation: compared to 200 years ago, our thought is “relativized” or “subjectified.” Seemingly non-absolute. The new understanding of how much humans contribute to knowledge (as opposed to knowledge being a passive “gazing,” for a fixed “essence”), leaves many people in a state where they feel nothing is “backing” any claim to knowledge. Since God is dead, there’s nothing unifying our ideas or guaranteeing that they  are true. It seems like we are each free to have our own perspective. That seems to lead to a solipsistic tower of babble.   Personally, I think the problem is that we are still struggling with the discovery of the activity of the human psyche: psychology has shown that psyche is far more active than people used to think 200 years ago. It is this focus on the the subject of knowledge (the knower) in contrast to the “object” which fundamentalists and literalists rebel against and try to return to a world  where objects existence and knowability were “guaranteed by God.”

The authors don’t really offer a solution to this epistemological situation, but the above “raisin bread” analogy is very apt. We are, in fact, all “raisins” in our own little world, sure that our world view is the right one. Yet with globalization, we can also see many other worldviews, and we don’t know how to fit these views together.

Chapter three’s discussion of the “creativity of the universe,” and how creativity exists in the midst of chaos  is a hopeful and encouraging message for those of us who are, in fact,  experiencing some chaos:

The star then exists between extremes.  On the one side there is gravitational collapse; on the other is thermonuclear fusion and outward pressure. The star thus exists not is a world of stasis, but in a realm of seething disequilibrium.

The discussion makes clear that stars would not exist, in fact, if it were not for the opposing forces. The opposing forces created the stars, as well as many of the other beautiful things in the universe. Conflict creates beauty and conflict creates the energy of the stars. I cannot help but bring that image  into my own inner chaos. We would not be who we are without the chaotic forces around us.  I’m sure this hopeful, inner message is intended by the authors.

In chapter 4, Swimme continues this discussion of the “fiery furnace of the Cosmos,” and how, if not for conflicting forces, nothing would exist. He does this well and it is worth reading.

Chapter 5  introduces an idea very pregnant with possibilities: self-organizing dynamics. Here, in particular, I think we must be grateful for Swimme’s extensive survey of scientific literature.  He writes about an “innate ordering process of the universe,” and points out that this idea can explain the origin of consciousness.  His discussion of consciousness at the lower life-form levels seems quite accurate:

In a simple but elegant form, awareness appears in unicellular organisms. The capacity for discernment resides in a thin outer layer of each cell, called its membrane.  The membrane, through its receptor and channel proteins, selects what is of interest and what is not, what will enter and what will not.
 

Swimme points out that this primitive form of selection is a kind of consciousness. (I experience a bit of relief here when Swimme and Tucker move away from the field of quantum physics and into biology. However, in the discussion, they actually unite these two fields. )

In chapter 6, the authors point out that “we are enveloped in dream.” This is a view Carl Jungian pioneered.

Chapter 7, the Passion of Animals gets less “techie” and logos-oriented, and dives into the realm of Eros. I think Swimme and Tucker deviate from their theme a little bit in this chapter as well.   However, I think they were looking for a segue from hard sciences into the sciences which study man, the humanities.

Their thoughts on the humanities, starting in chapters eight and nine, “The Origin of the Human,” and “Becoming a Planetary Presence,” comprise what I find to be the book’s finest chapters. I think these chapters are the book’s “payoff” for having waded through some of the physical science. Chapter eight’s discussion of human being’s “behavioral flexibility,”  seems to hit the nail on the head, and explain why, in a short concept, human beings are over-populating the earth. The idea of “culture as collective DNA,” and how “cultural selection,” is overshadowing natural selection I find particularly interesting. This idea  cuts through the confusing questions about whether humans have stopped natural selection, or accelerated it, or what.  “Culture as collective DNA” clarified my thoughts on the issue, and I look forward to reading the references in the bibliography here in particular.

It is also In chapter eight  that Swimme and Tucker (Tucker, more so, I imagine) introduce the idea of “Symbolic Consciousness.” This, now,  is a totally  Jungian concept.  See for instance, Jung’s last bookMan and His Symbols, volume 18 of Jung’s Collected Works entitled The Symbolic Life, Edward Edinger’s article Symbols: The Meaning of Lifeand many other articles by Jung, Edinger and other JungiansThe idea of symbolic consciousness must have been brought into the book by Tucker, who’s mentor, Thomas Berry, was heavily influenced by Jung.

In chapter 8 the author’s also introduce the  quotation from the Chinese philosopher, Zhang Zai:

Yang is the father; yin is the mother. And I, this tiny thing, dwell enfolded in Them. Hence, what fills Heaven and Earth is my body, and what rules Heaven and Earth is my nature. The people are my siblings, and all living things are my companions.
–   https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zhang_Zai

This enforces the theme of the book that we humans are part of the universe. I agree.  However, I think that we have to see Zhang Zai’s Western Inscription through the lens of psychology in order to bring that idea to true fullness: Do we really see all people as our siblings?  An inner,  psychological movement or action is necessary for us to attain that perspective. A dropping of ego and judgementalness.

In chapter 9, the authors bring up the issue of symbolic consciousness again. Discussing nature and animals, they write

Each of [the animals] now evolves in a world that is structured by, in significant ways, by the effects of symbolic consciousness. We have radically altered the evolutionary dynamics of the earth. We live on a different planet now, where not biology but symbolic consciousness is the determining factor of evolution. Cultural selection has overwhelmed natural selection. (p. 100)

I have added the emphasis because I think the authors stated this in a manner which sticks to the facts and side-steps much of the conflict about man having a “right” to have dominion over the earth vs. environmentalism. I think the authors neatly side-step many “isms” by approaching the topics the way they do. They present the raw facts about population increase vs. animal life decrease and calmly show that it points to one conclusion:  we are destroying the matrix from which we evolved. Their approach cuts to the heart of the matter and sticks to facts and avoids ideological entanglements.

Chapter 9’s comparison of the earth’s population in Isaac Newton’s time, 1/2 billion people vs. today’s 7 billion, is eye opening and Swimme and Tucker do a great job of pointing out how the facts of what has happened on earth since Newton’s time ought to compel changes in our worldview.

In chapter 9 also, Swimme and Tucker ask “What does it mean when even the seeds begin not to live just in the Earth, but in an Earth shaped by human consciousness?” Biology, I think, has already answered this question: we live in a symbiotic relationship with the seeds and many other species on the earth (including bacteria and viruses!), but it is worth repeating here in the context of the author’s idea of “cultural selection.”

On p. 97 Swimme and Tucker resume a leitmotiv of the book, the Pythagorean philosophy of number. There was, they write, “something that Pythagoras intuited two and one-half millennia ago. There was an undeniable magic to the symbols themselves.” I can’t resist pointing out here the work of another student of Jung’s, Marie Louise von Franz, who wrote extensively on the psychology of number, particularly in her book, Number and Time: Reflections Leading Toward a Unification of Depth Psychology and Physics.  A danger in the Pythagorean philosophy has always been reifying numbers to the status of metaphysical elements. Swimme and Tucker do not bring that up, but von Franz’s works do, and make it clear that number is likely an ordering process inherent in the human psyche.

On p. 98, the authors bring up a viewpoint which captures a still contemporary conflict in: the conflict between Newtonian science vs. the way Immanuel Kant addressed and deal with the Newtonian world view.

So impressed by [Newton’s] equations, European philosopher’s such as Voltaire and Immanuel Kant concluded that Newton’s work was equivalent to a revelation.  . .  They imagined that those laws were established at the beginning of time by a deity who then let his world machine run forward.
 

Kantian scholars of philosophy would not quite agree with the way Swimme and Tucker characterize Kant. I feel, however, that they have, in fact, tapped into a key issue: people felt in Kant’s time and feel today that  ideas need to be “guaranteed by God,” otherwise the ideas are aren’t absolute or certain. Ultimately, I think that Kant did not fully address this issue; he ultimately came down in favor of knowledge still being guaranteed by “God,” except God is a collective idea for Kant and not a metaphysical entity. (“I have found it necessary to limit reason,” Kant famously said, “in order to make room for faith.”) Although frequently considered an Enlightenment philosopher, Kant didn’t bring us fully in to the age of reason, in my opinion.  Few would deny that we are really still living in a Kantian age,  and I would argue that Kant’s approach is one of the reasons Western cultural discussions are unable to get the “fully empirical” worldview that Swimme and Tucker strive for.

Chapter 10 I also thought was a great chapter. I appreciate the chapter’s opening call to take a step back and establish a “meta perspective,” to deal, not just with ideas, but on the process of how we come to those ideas. “What is it,” they ask, about our modern consciousness that enables us to avoid seeing the disastrous results of our way of life?”  And I also deeply appreciate  what they say about the rhythms of life:

When they enshrined the clock in the city’s towers, they disconnected themselves even further from the rhythms of life.” (p. 107). Disconnected from natural rhythms, humans became slotted into the enveloping industrial patterns. Our system of housing, transportation, agriculture and commerce are intertwined and constructed without significant reference to the patterns of organic life and enveloping ecosystems.

Finally, I appreciate Swimme and Tucker’s thoughts about “wonder” in the last chapter. “The sense of wonder is one of most valuable guides on this ongoing journey into our future as full human beings. . . .

Wonder is not just another emotion; it is rather an opening into the heart of the universe. Wonder is the pathway into what it means to be human, to taste the lusciousness of sun-ripened fruit, to endure the bleak agonies of heartbreak, to exult over the majesty of existence. 

My mind immediately jumps here to the opening line of Aristotle’s Metaphysics Book I, chapter II:

For human beings originally began philosophy, as they do now, because of wonder, at first, because they wondered at the strange things in front of them, and later because, advance little by little, they found greater things puzzling — what happens to the moon, the sun and the stars, how the universe comes to be. . . . However, the possession of this science must in a way leave us in a condition contrary to the one we were in when we began our search. For, as we said, everyone begins from wonder that something is the way it is, as they wonder at toys that move spontaneously, or the turnings of the sun….

 

This sense of wonder, I think, is also what the Buddhists mean by “beginner’s mind.”  In a way, we must empty our minds first, before being able to claim that we actually know anything. That’s not just a mystical idea, it is also an approach that the greatest Western scientists employ at the beginning of any investigation: observation without assumption.  (Bacon’s 4 “Idols.”) The observation connects things back to perceptual evidence.

In short, I found many interesting, inspiring, and fruitful ideas in this book, and I look forward to reading some of the books in its bibliography.

Critical Questions

  1. Is quantum physics and the big bang necessary to establish the points Swimme and Tucker really want to make?
The idea that we have to investigate  quantum physics in order to have a rational worldview always hits me  a little bit like fingernails on a blackboard. I understand why people take this approach. They do so out of the desire to ground the human sciences, such as philosophy and religious belief,  in something solid and rational. But in fact, the humanities are already so rich with great ideas, particularly in the light of Jung works Jung paved the way for approaching what seems like the most irrational ideas on earth in a scientific manner. Using Jung’s approach, we can understand philosophical and religious ideas of past as empirical.  Jung’s works themselves are so rich with scientific, anthropological, cultural and mythological comparisons, that it seems ridiculous to me to run to quantum  physics, which is a specialized science, in order to get a non-dogmatic worldview.  The special sciences and philosophy do  and should have a mutually informing relationship, they are required to take each other into account,  but the man in the street does not have to be a quantum physicist to have a rational world view.  To think that we have to go into quantum physics to have a rational view of the universe, is to miss out on a scientific, rational study of religion and Jung’s transformation of religious ideas from dogma into empirical phenomena.

When contemporary scientists get all excited about the “big bang” and call it the “creation of the universe,” my mind immediately thinks about “well, what did all those galaxies, stars, etc, explode into? Nothingness?”  If you visualize a big bang, the visualization is of it exploding into something. Isn’t that something is part of the universe too?  Doesn’t  the term “universe” mean “everything that is?”,  Yet we are excluding the something the stars exploded into from the idea of the universe.

My point here is an ancient one: there is no genesis story of the universe in ancient Greek philosophy. All Greeks, Plato, Aristotle, Thales, Pythagoras, all of them, believed the universe was eternal,  outside of time, and was never, as a whole, “created.”  The Greek understanding came primarily from a philosopher who lived at the dawn of Greek philosophy, Parmenides, who said “What is, is. And what is not, is not, and never can be.”  (Therefore, the universe as a whole has existed eternally, outside of time. So even if there was a big bang, there was something before that.)  Although the Greeks were highly concerned with the process of change, with “coming into being,” they did not think the universe as a whole was created. They thought was a logical impossibility and a confusion of terms.

Creation stories came into Western culture via ancient Hebraic thought, which did not have the emphasis on physics of the ancient Greek Ionian philosophers. Hebraic thought has an ethical genius, and was concern in a more refined degree with human behavior than were the Greeks. From this perspective of ethics and of  internal motivation, creation stories make some sense.  But Jung’s iew is that it is the human ego which got created, not the universe; the creation stores mark the rise of the ego out of animal consciousness. This is the empirical fact to which creation stories refer. See Edward Edinger’s Ego and Archetypeand also Erich Neumann’s The Origin and History of Consciousness

When contemporary thinkers get so excited about the “big bang,” and  I cannot help but think  they are

    1. really thinking of the Genesis sort of myth
    2. have not considered the Greek view in which the universe was never created, and
    3. commit the error which Kant is widely regarded as having put an end to: they are making “metaphysical statements;” they are still contained in a Christian “genesis myth,” when in reality those myths are not about the creation of the universe, they are about the creation of consciousness. They are confusing metaphysics and epistemology, which is what Kant (despite his flaws) warned against.

 

The Big Bang theory is, in fact, being criticized. A little Googling will illustrate this.  See for instance: The Cosmic Revolutionay’s Handbook.

  1. Science is Here Already

Although find great value in what Swimme and Tucker have written, I also feel that they do not get psychological enough. For me, the “Journey of the Universe” is right here. I think they are correct, we are, in fact, the product of billions of years of evolution. We are part of nature.  I am a part of nature. However, for me there are access points to the universe that are more immediate than quantum physics: the access points are my own dreams and my own internal life.

When my analyst started telling me to record my dreams, they immediately became enough “science” and empirical data for me. Enough to last a lifetime.

The universe, is, in fact, arising in me, and it speaks  particular loudly in my dreams.  By recording my dreams, contemplating them, relating them to current life experiences, I am not only interacting with the cosmic consciousness that Swimme and Tucker discuss, but also with the universe. So the opportunity for science is right here in front of me every morning. Dreams are a scientific connection to the story-making function that Swimme and Tucker are discuss, but they fail to mention dreams a scientific data.

  1. I also think Swimme and Tucker read ancient philosophical and religious ideas into science. The big bang theory discussed above is one example. But I think also at times are sort of “anthropomorphizing” science.

In conclusion, it just that for me, the dive into the big bang and quantum physics seems a little unwarranted. We have a wealth of scientific data in our  dreams, in our cultural history, religious history, as well as many other psychological investigations (association tests, projective identification tests, “Freudian slips,” typological investigations, etc.

The religions of the past are just what Tucker says,  they are “symbolic awareness.” When we take the dogmas of past religions as symbols, they become “rational.” By rational I mean “able to be understood as something over and above pure dogma.

When we see past religions through the lens of the science of psychology, we see that the phenomena which religious dogmas describe are common to all cultures, and these phenomena  are occurring in each of us right now.

There is, therefore, a treasure in the past religions, because they contain these “symbolic awarenesses,” stories, that Tucker discusses. As she mentions, we are enveloped in “story.”

The idea of matter itself is a “story.” What is mater really? An atom? A particle? A wave? A quanta? We don’t know which of these. Matter itself is a “story.” We have only a symbolic awareness of it, an image of an atom with electrons circling about it.

Final Note on “Subjectivity”

The awareness of how much human beings participate in acts of knowledge — the fact that knowledge is not handed down by God on a stone tablet, makes our conclusions “softer.” Our conclusions are “little ‘a’ absolutes, not capital “A” Absolutes.

This relativity and subjectivity has been there since homo sapiens first differentiated from the apes.  Yet, despite the subjectivity and the contribution of human consciousness to knowledge, humans have been able not only to  function, but also to build bridges, universities, highways, develop a discriminated awareness, created microscopes, gone to the moon, discovered causes of disease, extended the human life span, created inspiring art —  all of which are the outcome of billions of years of evolution as Tucker and Swimme describe.

In my opinion, consciously was merely misconceived  before. Objectivity was construed as “guaranteed by God,” whereas in realty the discovery of how to use their own consciousness is the product of millions of years of evolution.

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