Hidden Heart of the Cosmos
Humanity and the New Story
- ISBN: 9781626983434
- Published By: Orbis Books
- Published: October 2019
In Hidden Heart of the Cosmos, Brian Swimme’s thesis is relatively simple: The radical scientific discoveries of the last hundred years situate human beings in a breathtakingly large and complex universe. For example, we know simultaneously where and when the universe began and, since space itself is expanding, each location is itself a center—as all the rest are being carried by expanding space further and further away.
The more we open ourselves up to the ultimate meaning of such cosmic realities, the more we see ourselves and each other in a dramatically new way. This new vision has elements of premodern cultures in which human beings experienced and represented themselves as belonging to a cosmic order. Yet for such cultures the understanding of that order was mythic—a narrative and symbolic construction that lacked empirical verification and mathematical calculation. Such verification arose with the scientific revolution from Copernicus on. But modern science, or at least the way such science was interpreted, lacked a living sense of the ultimate significance of its own findings. The universe was dead matter without spirit.
Therefore, it is Swimme’s goal to merge the mythical celebration of human identity rooted in a cosmic order with the scientific understanding of that order. Science and religion (or, as many current believers would put it, science and spirituality) mutually reinforce awe at the miracle of existence and ultimately undergird a social order of peace and respect. Science understood in this way might be considered as the foundation of a form of Jnana Yoga—an intellectual discipline that leads towards enlightenment.
Such a merger would provide, Swimme believes, a desperately needed alternative to the destructive narrowness of a modern culture defined by mass media, consumerism, and constricted cultural and political affiliations. As opposed to a life oriented towards spectacle and consumption we would experience the vista of the Milky Way, the multibillion-year history of the configuration of our planet, sun, solar system, and galaxy, or even the comforting spectacle of a daily sunset. Such experiences are essential to human well-being. Swimme writes: “Not to enter moments of awe, not to wonder over the majesty of the universe . . . is to live a life that is deprived . . . vulnerable to fundamental distortions” (43).
This is a revised edition of a 1996 text, and in all probability some of the scientific calculations require updating—as well as the fact that the book predates the global neurological colonization by computers and cell phones. Yet the essential points of Swimme’s critique of modern culture remain valid. What is questionable, for me at least, is his notion of the potential power of this cure for our current global malaise.
For one thing, the notion that the sheer size of anything has necessary spiritual implications is questionable. Yes, the universe is very big, very old, and in it light moves very fast. Yes, the sun’s matter is transforming into energy that fuels life on earth. But it is a very large step from these facts to experiencing the sun as “sacrificing” itself because its matter is transforming into energy which benefits us (34–35), or taking the vastness of the universe as a motivation for kindness, equanimity, and love. The sun is not a personality, and so cannot sacrifice (any more than spring water which we drink is “sacrificing” itself to slate our thirst). The scope of the universe can make us feel connected to a vastness and might undermine our conventional ego—or it might prompt a few minutes curiosity before we return to our compulsion or violence. We might, as the subject of Albert Camus’ The Stranger (Gallimard, 1942) put it, summarize the whole show as “benign indifference.”
“If only we realized the truth of . . .” Swimme frequently repeats. But why does he think people are particularly interested in the truth? At least, the truth as discovered by modern science? Despite the long-predicted collapse of religion into science and bureaucracy, powerful denials of science—of climate change, environmental crisis, Covid-19 vaccines—are rife. As well, the growing global rise of fascism means that a large percentage of the world’s peoples have—freely or under compulsion—accepted a social order based in narrow national, racial, ethnic, and gender privilege and antagonism, as well as all sorts of historical and scientific falsehoods.
Swimme understands that his cosmology, while rooted in science, is a different kind of enterprise, one that attempts to orient human beings in the universe and help them see why they are alive—a task that science is not equipped to fulfil. He invokes the meaning of various elements of quantum mechanics—for example, the seemingly determined way in which galaxies emerged from the Big Bang (“Atoms and the galaxies are the expressions of the universe’s aim,” 91); and how particles emerge from seeming vacuum (“the all-nourishing abyss,” 108), to support a view of life in which the development of complexity and the infinitely birthed cosmic energies constitute our welcoming home.
This may help Swimme sleep through the night, but it does not work for me. How “nourishing,” after all, is an evolutionary path in which well over 90 percent of all earlier species are extinct—not to mention all the ones humans are extinguishing day by day? How comforting is the fecundity of the darkest vacuum of deep space when my personal fecundity is cut short by a fascist’s machine gun?
Meaning and morality are human inventions, which, as we are seeing, are extremely fragile. Love and generosity only exist in the universe in us, or beings like us. These virtues cannot be read off the stars, the protons, the Big Bang, or evolution. Either we create and live by them, or we will be yet another casualty in a universe that is constantly bringing forth—but also annihilating—everything within it.
Roger S. Gottlieb is the William B. Smith Dean’s Professor of Philosophy at Worcester Polytechnic Institute.Roger S. GottliebDate Of Review:August 25, 2021