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Of what use is this Cosmology?
by William McGaughey
A book titled History of the Triple Existence: Matter, Life, and Thought now exists. A web site, http://www.BigHistorySite.com, also exists. (You are now reading it.) These works exist in print form. Maybe someone can receive mental stimulation in reading them. Maybe this book can be used in a high-school or college course? Maybe students can receive academic credit in knowing the content of this book? But, if that is all, the book would be a failure. To be a success, it needs to jump out of the print mode into people’ collective thinking. It needs to become a part of humanity’s culture.
The printed structure comes first. There needs to be a written history for common reference. There needs to be a structure of thoughtful narrations of past experience as a reference point for what is to come. But now we have that. What next?
This Cosmology provides a history of existence in three realms - matter, life, and thought; or, as Vladimir Vernadsky would have it, the Geosphere, Biosphere, and Noosphere. Being a creation story, it is a history of everything we know. In his 1945 book, The Biosphere and the Noosphere, Vernadsky wrote: “I look forward with great optimism. I think that we undergo not only a historical, but a planetary change as well. We live in a transition to the noosphere (which is the realm of human thinking).”
It is this optimistic spirit that I mean to recapture and express in suggesting that something more can come out of this book. A cosmology is a world view that is a general framework of our thinking. Sometimes it can become a focal point of community thought. This happens most spectacularly in religion. Every viable religion has an historical component to support its ethic as well as a vision of the end times. To wit:
The Judeo-Christian religion narrates the origin of the physical universe, of life, and of the human species in the first three books of Genesis. The remaining part of the first sixteen books of the Old Testament is concerned with the history of the Hebrew tribe and nation. Finally, the books comprising the Judaic prophecies present scenarios of future history. Following the destruction of the Jewish nation at the hand of the Assyrians and Babylonians, God will restore this nation under the rule of David’s descendant, the Messiah, when human history ends and is succeeded by an eternal “Kingdom of God”.
The Marxist ideology (a quasi-religious system of thought) also has a strong historical component that is expressed in Frederick Engels’ book, Socialism, Utopian and Scientific, and other works. It deals mainly with history in the period of civilized times, focusing upon economic relationships and class struggle. Civilization advances from barbarism and slavery to feudalism and then to capitalism, which will end with socialist revolution. Like the Kingdom of God in Judaic religion, the socialist order will comprise a society governed by science which achieves eternal perfection. Class conflict will end as working people seize the reins of government, confiscate the means of production, and create a perfect society.
The point of this is not to disparage traditional religion or even the Marxist ideology but to say that two elements are required for a viable religion: (1) the cosmology (or history) and (2) the ethic infused with a vision of the end times.
The first requirement is met, I would argue, with the publication of History of the Triple Existence. That is not to say that I think this book is the ultimate work in the field of Big History. Based on the current understandings of history and science, its story would, of course, be changed as better scientific or historical knowledge becomes available. It might also be changed or replaced when a better writer produces a better book even if the knowledge base is not changed. However, I would be so impudent as to suggest that the Cosmology reflects adequate workmanship and understanding at this time. I think it satisfies the requirement of a universal history.
As for the second requirement, we must ask the question: What is the meaning of this history? Can it provide a sense of purpose for individuals or for humanity? This is the ethical component. The knowledge of history must somehow motivate people to think in a certain way or do certain things. If humanity no longer believes in an imminent Kingdom of God or worker’s paradise, it must nevertheless believe in a future that is both hopeful and realistic. Is that even possible?
With respect to individuals, history gives people a sense of place in the grand sweep of events that extends from the distant past into the future. Guided by historical knowledge, the focus must be upon events to come. Where will I fit into the world that is emerging before my very eyes? I want a sense of my own identity that is both hopeful and realistic.
With respect to humanity’s perspective, I would argue that Big History would focus increased attention upon the problem of human survival. Its ethical component is the idea that we want to survive. Humanity should therefore be motivated to take actions now that will increase the chance that the human species will survive, and hopefully prosper, in the centuries to come. It should also develop a vision of how this species can prosper when the limitation of earthly resources portends a materially poorer mode of existence.
Yes, we must be pessimistic about the prospect of continued economic growth in the traditional mode. As human populations increase and require increased consumption of materials, a conflict will develop with the fixed resources available on earth. There must be a diminution in per-capital consumption of those resources over the long run. If living standards are defined in terms of material consumption, our expectations of continued prosperity will necessarily be lowered. Physical reality dictates that there must be flat or lowered consumption of materials. But that does not mean that future progress toward a better life becomes impossible. It only means that our definition of progress must change. Prosperity must be defined in different terms.
It could reasonably be inferred from this Cosmology that progress could continue in the realm of human thinking even if it is blocked in terms of economic expansion. Both theoretical and practical knowledge could increase without limit. The most interesting area of progress at the moment lies in the technologies of artificial intelligence and robotics. We are living in a period when scientific and technological knowledge have advanced to the point that we can recreate ourselves artificially, both in body and mind. The literary hallucinations expressed in Frankenstein are now becoming realized. We must find a way now that these developments can become a basis for hope rather than fear.
The monstrous possibility now is that the human species will destroy itself either through overpopulation and related degradation of the environment or through the dangerous applications of technology, thermonuclear explosions being one of the worst. If humanity can summon the will and create the political structure to avoid this fate, we will be left at best with a stable situation.
However, our species requires further progress to remain spiritually alive. I would suggest that the desire for future progress can be satisfied in continued technological improvement. It can be satisfied in the development of intelligent machines that approach our own level of intelligence and it can be satisfied in greatly expanded exploration of outer space. And, if the human race is hell bent on destroying itself, its legacy of thought might even survive in the form of machine intelligence derived from our own.
These are potentially horrible times. They are times when people want to consider ultimate questions and find resolutions to problems at hand. I am reminded of another time when humanity - at least, the European segment - reached the point of despair. It was the time, in 1919 or 1920, when the horrors of World War I sank in.
It was a unique moment in history, marked by mass deaths and profound change. Three European dynasties plus the Ottoman empire were overthrown. The Bolsheviks came to power in Russia. Adolf Hitler’s career as a political agitator began. Oswald Spengler published “Decline of the West”. A poem by Yeats declared:
“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”
Worried about the future of humanity, Albert Schweitzer wrote The Philosophy of Civilization. Ever the intellectual, Schweitzer believed there was fundamentally a crisis of ideas. In the preface to the English edition of his book, he made two points, first: “If the ethical foundation is lacking, then civilization collapses, even when in other directions creative and intellectual forces of the strongest nature are at work ... The second point ... is that of the connection between civilization and our theory of the universe... The real fact is that all human progress depends on progress in its theory of the universe, whilst, conversely, decadence is conditioned by a similar decadence in this theory. Our loss of real civilization is due to our lack of a theory of the universe.”
So we have two things that Schweitzer considered important to civilization: an ethical foundation and a theory of the universe. Expressed differently, this is: our knowledge of what is and our understanding of what ought to be or what we should do.
I assume that in this day and age our “theory of the universe” is the framework of understanding created by scientific knowledge. It may also be the idea of cosmic history. We are currently in the midst of a revolution in the latter field. National, regional, and world histories are advancing toward the idea of Big History, which combines natural and human history. However, it is unclear if this is what Schweitzer would have meant by a theory of the universe that could sustain civilization.
Schweitzer’s ethic was embodied in a concept he called: “reverence for life”. This reverence for life was embodied in the survival instinct both in humanity and other forms of life. Collectively, it may be the concept of human survival or our survival as a living species. However, Schweitzer also required that the ethic of civilization be optimistic. It had to contain the idea of progress.
These are important topics of discussion in our own time: How can humanity survive and what do we need to do now? How can humanity continue to experience progress in an era of lowered material expectations? Our “theory of the universe” expressed in History of the Triple Existence could reasonably lead to asking such questions.
In an attempt to answer the questions, we need people thinking about and discussing them. We need big thinkers contemplating our fate both as civilized people and as a species.
Of what use is this Cosmology? It will be useful mainly if it stimulates discussions of our future in light of past experience. It will be useful if it provides a stable framework of understanding for the instability and uncertainty to come.
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