I believe that the most far-reaching trend of our times is an emerging shift in our shared view of the universe – from thinking of it as dead to experiencing it as alive. In regarding the universe as alive and ourselves as continuously sustained within that aliveness, we see that we are intimately related to everything that exists.
This insight – that we are cousins to everything that exists in a living, continuously regenerated universe – represents a new way of looking at and relating to the world, and overcomes the profound separation that has marked our lives. From the combined wisdom of science and spirituality is emerging an understanding that could provide the perceptual foundation for the diverse people of the world to come together in the shared enterprise of building a sustainable and meaningful future.
Fundamental shifts in perception happen slowly, are subtle, and often seem inconsequential or even go unnoticed by the majority of people living through them. Yet such shifts amount to nothing less than revolutions in our sense of ourselves, our relationships with others, and our view of the universe. Only three times in human experience has our view of reality been so thoroughly transformed.
The first transformation occurred when humanity “awakened” roughly 35,000 years ago. The archeological record shows that the beginnings of a reflective consciousness emerged decisively at this time as numerous developments were occurring in stone tools, burial sites, cave art, and migration patterns. Because we were just awakening to our capacity for “knowing that we know,” we were surrounded by mystery at every turn. Nonetheless, human culture was born in these first glimmerings of personal and shared awareness.
The second time our view of reality and human identity changed dramatically was roughly 10,000 years ago when our ancestors shifted from a nomadic life to a more settled existence in villages and farms.
Mid-way during the agrarian period, roughly 5,000 years ago, we see the rise of city-states and the beginnings of civilization. The third time that our perceptual paradigm transformed was roughly 300 years ago, following the scientific revolution, when the stability of agrarian society gave way to the radical dynamism and materialism of the industrial era. Each time that humanity’s prevailing paradigm has changed, all aspects of life have changed with it, including the work that people do, the ways they live together, how they relate to one another, and how they see their role in society and place in the universe.
We are now living at a time when humanity’s perceptual paradigm is again undergoing one of its rare shifts, and that shift has the potential to dramatically transform life for each of us. A paradigm shift is much more than a change in ideas and how we think. It is a change in our view of reality, identity, social relationships, and human purpose.
A paradigm shift can be felt in the body, mind, and soul. At the heart of the new paradigm is a remarkable idea: Our cosmos is not a fragmented and lifeless machine (as we have believed for centuries) but is instead a unified and living organism. Although it is new for our times, the idea that the universe is alive is an ancient one. More than 2,000 years ago, Plato described the universe as “one Whole of wholes” and “a single Living Creature that encompasses all of the living creatures that are within it.” What is unprecedented is how this notion is being informed today by both modern science and the world’s diverse spiritual traditions (see Note: “The Mother Universe”).
Scientific Evidence of a Living Universe
Less than a hundred years ago, when Einstein was developing his theory of relativity, he considered the universe a static, unchanging system no larger than the cloud of stars we now know to be our galaxy.
Today, we know that the universe is expanding rapidly and contains at least a hundred billion galaxies, each with a hundred billion stars, or more. Our cosmos embodies an exquisitely precise design. Researchers have calculated that if the universe had expanded ever so slightly faster or slower than it did (even by as little as a trillionth of a percent), the matter in our cosmos would have either quickly collapsed back into a black hole or spread out so rapidly that it would have evaporated.
It is reasonable to assume that if our cosmos is alive it would exhibit specific properties characteristic of all life – unity, regeneration, freedom, sentience, and a capacity for self-reproduction. These in fact are among the properties of our universe emerging from the frontiers of modern science. The cosmos is a unified system. Physicists once viewed our universe as composed of separate fragments.
Today, however, despite its unimaginably vast size, the universe is increasingly regarded as a single functioning system. Because other galaxies are millions of light years away, they appear so remote in space and time as to be separate from our own. Yet experiments show that things that seem to be separate are actually connected in fundamental ways that transcend the limitations of ordinary space and time. Described as “nonlocality,” this is one of the most stunning insights from quantum physics.
Although scientists working in this domain hold divergent views about the implications of quantum mechanics for our everyday lives, physicist David Bohm says that ultimately we have to understand the entire universe as “a single undivided whole.” Instead of separating the universe into living and nonliving things, Bohm sees animate and inanimate matter as inseparably interwoven with the life-force that is present throughout the universe, and that includes not only matter, but also energy and seemingly empty space. For Bohm, then, even a rock has its unique form of aliveness. Life is dynamically flowing through the fabric of the entire universe.
Our home galaxy – the Milky Way – is a swirling, disk-shaped cloud containing a hundred billion or so stars. It is part of a local group of nineteen galaxies (each with a hundred billion stars), which in turn is part of a larger local supercluster of thousands of galaxies. This supercluster resembles a giant many-petaled flower. Beyond this, astronomers estimate that there are perhaps a hundred billion galaxies in the observable universe. Scientists and spiritual seekers alike ask the question: If this is a unified system, then could all this be but a single cell within a much greater organism?
The cosmos is continuously regenerated. For decades, the dominant cosmology in contemporary physics has held that creation ended with the Big Bang some fourteen billion years ago and that, since then, nothing more has happened than a rearranging of the cosmic furniture.
Because traditional physicists think of creation as a one-time miracle from “nothing,” they regard the contents of the universe – such as trees, rocks, and people – as being constituted from ancient matter. In sum, the dead-universe theory assumes creation occurred billions of years ago, when a massive explosion spewed out lifeless material debris into equally lifeless space and has, by random processes, organized itself into life forms on the remote planet-island called Earth.
In striking contrast, the living-universe theory proposes that the cosmos is completely recreated at each moment, and is maintained, moment by moment, by an unbroken flow-through of energy. Imagine the cosmos as the vortex of a tornado or a whirlpool, as a completely dynamic structure. David Bohm calls the universe an “undivided wholeness in flowing movement.” In this view, our universe has no freestanding material existence of its own. The entire cosmos is being regenerated at each instant in a single symphony of expression that unfolds from the most minute aspects of the subatomic realm to the vast reaches of thousands of billions of galactic systems.
It overwhelms the imagination to consider the size and complexity of our cosmos with its billions of galaxies and trillions of planetary systems, all partaking in a continuous flow of creation. How can it be so vast, so subtle, so precise, and so powerful? “We are not stuff that abides, but patterns that perpetuate themselves; whirlpools of water in an ever-flowing river,” states the mathematician Norbert Wiener.
Physicist Max Born, adds: “We have sought for firm ground and found none. The deeper we penetrate, the more restless becomes the universe; all is rushing about and vibrating in a wild dance.” Physicist Brian Swimme tells us, “The universe emerges out of an all-nourishing abyss not only twelve billion years ago but in every moment.”
The foundation of the cosmos is freedom. Traditional physicists have seen the cosmos as being like a clockwork mechanism locked into predetermined patterns of development. By contrast, the new physics maintains that the cosmos has the freedom and spontaneity to grow in unexpected ways. Uncertainty is so fundamental that quantum physics describes reality in terms of probabilities, not certainties. No one part of the cosmos determines the functioning of the whole; rather, everything seems to be connected with everything else, weaving the cosmos into one vast interacting system.
Everything that exists contributes to the cosmic web of life at each moment, whether it is conscious of its contribution or not. In turn, it is the consistency of interrelations of all the parts of the universe that determines the condition of the whole. We therefore have great freedom to act within the limits established by the larger web of life within which we are immersed.
A living universe is a learning system in which we are free to make mistakes and to change our minds. “Through us, the universe questions itself and tries out various answers on itself in an effort – parallel to our own – to decipher its own being,” writes the philosopher Renee Weber.
Consciousness Is Present Throughout
Consciousness, a capacity for feeling or knowing, is basic to life. If the universe is alive, we should therefore find evidence of some form of consciousness operating at every level. Renowned physicist Freeman Dyson writes about consciousness at the quantum level: “Matter in quantum mechanics is not an inert substance but an active agent, constantly making choices between alternative possibilities … appears that mind, as manifested by the capacity to make choices, is to some extent inherent in every electron.” This does not mean that an atom has the same consciousness as a human being, but rather that an atom has a reflective capacity appropriate to its form and function.
Dyson thinks it is reasonable to believe in the existence of a “mental component of the universe,” and that, if so, “then we can say that we are small pieces of God’s mental apparatus.” While it is stunning to consider that every level of the cosmos has some degree of consciousness, that seems no more extraordinary than the widely accepted view among scientists that the cosmos emerged as a pinpoint some twelve billion years ago as a “vacuum fluctuation” – where nothing pushed on nothing to create everything.
The cosmos is able to reproduce itself. A remarkable finding from the new physics is that our cosmos may very well be able to reproduce itself through the functioning of black holes. In his book, In the Beginning: The Birth of the Living Universe, astrophysicist John Gribbin proposes that the bursting out of our universe in the Big Bang may be the time-reversed mirror image of the collapse of a massive object into a black hole.
Many of the black holes that form in our universe, he reasons, may thus represent the seeds of new universes: “Instead of a black hole representing a one-way journey to nowhere, many researchers now believe that it is a one-way journey to somewhere – to a new expanding universe in its own set of dimensions.”
Gribbin’ s dramatic conclusion, reflecting the work of many physicists and cosmologists, is that “our own Universe may have been born in this way out of a black hole in another universe.” He explains it in this way: If one universe exists, then it seems that there must be many – very many, perhaps even an infinite number of universes. Our universe has to be seen as just one component of a vast array of universes, a selfreproducing system connected only by the “tunnels” through spacetime (perhaps better regarded as cosmic umbilical cords) that join a “baby” universe to its “parent.” Gribbin suggests not only that universes are alive, but also that they evolve as other living systems do: “Universes that are ‘successful’ are the ones that leave the most offspring.”
The idea of many universes evolving through time is not new. David Hume noted in 1779 that many prior universes “might have been botched and bungled throughout an eternity ere this system.” In the light of recent scientific findings, our universe is revealing itself to be a profoundly unified system in which the interrelations of all the parts, moment-by-moment, determine the condition of the whole.
Our universe is infused with an immense amount of energy, and is being continuously regenerated in its entirety, while making use of a capacity or consciousness throughout. As an evolving, growing, and learning system, it is natural that freedom exists at the quantum foundations of the universe. It even appears that the universe has the ability to reproduce itself through the mechanism of black holes. When we put all of these properties together, it suggests an even more spacious view of our cosmic system.
Our universe is a living system of elegant design that was born from and is continuously regenerated within an even larger universe. We are living within a “daughter universe” that, for twelve billion years, has been living and growing within the spaciousness of a Mother universe. The Mother Universe may have existed forever, holding countless daughter universes in its grand embrace while they grow and mature through an eternity of time.
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Available at amazon: Mind Before Matter
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