In the Beginning . . .
Some fourteen billion years ago the entire cosmos, what would become the great wheeling galaxies with their trillions of blazing suns, burst into being from a single point, in an unimaginably violent, unfathomably immense explosion of light and energy. Since that “Great Flaring Forth” the universe has been expanding, cooling, and growing in complexity. . . and consciousness. *
This is the most astounding discovery of the last four hundred years of modern science and the foundation of our deepest understanding of reality. It is also the limiting case of credulity. If you can believe this, you can believe just about anything. Yet our best science tells us it is so: that the infinitely ordered complexities of the earth — the delicate beauty of birds, flowers, forests, and oceans; the glories and tragedies of self-conscious humanity — all of this grows out of that single, infinitely mysterious, explosive beginning. The cosmos is not so much a place as it is a continually unfolding event.
Scientific laws and theories generally deal with universal, repeatable, predictable regularities. In contrast, stories capture the meaning of unique events — novelties — transforming over time. Every individual human life is a unique story told in the living. We could say the evolving universe itselfis a story “telling us into existence.” Narrative captures something fundamental about the nature of reality. The story becomes a primordial unit of meaning, connecting the present to the past and all things to one another as they emerge from an original unity. All past cultures and civilizations have had some intuitive sense that humans lived within a larger process — a story whose ultimate origin was the most profound and sacred mystery. Each had a cosmology, a story of origins that formed the foundation of its way of life and guided its economics and politics. The viability of a society depended on the success of its cosmology in attuning human activity to the larger, ultimately unfathomable reality that created and sustained all of life.
The cosmos is not so much a place as it is a continually unfolding event.
Today, the story we tell ourselves about our economics and politics has run its course and is exhausted. Humanity enters the twenty-first century in a state of extraordinary crisis. It is a crisis of planetary dimensions involving every major social and biological system, affecting almost every aspect of our individual lives. The same method of persuasive scientific inference we trust to splice genes and rocket humans to the moon tells us that industrialized humanity is directly responsible for the collapse of ecosystems on every continent. All our oceans are polluted, our fisheries dying, coral reefs bleaching, deserts expanding, and forests shrinking.
Almost half the terrestrial surface of the earth has been transformed by urbanization and agriculture. There is overwhelming scientific consensus that human activity is accelerating global warming and climate change, which in 2012 melted the Arctic ice sheet to its smallest expanse in recorded history. Scientists warn that our civilization is forcing a planet-wide tipping point — a transition in our biosphere that is dramatically changing the conditions under which civilization developed and flourished for the past ten thousand years. They tell us we have entered the Anthropocene, a geological epoch marked by the destructive impact of industrialized humanity on the earth. 1
There is a growing awareness that nothing this catastrophic has happened to life on earth since the last great mass extinction, which ended the age of dinosaurs sixty-five million years ago.2
Almost as astounding is the fact that most human beings are completely unaware of our situation. In the words of William van Dusen Wishard, we are “sleepwalking through the apocalypse.”3
How has this happened? More than three centuries ago the story driving our politics decisively separated human self-understanding from the experience of the natural universe as sacred. Today the primordial experience of the mystery of our earthly origins has ceased to be a moral force in our lives.
All our dominant institutions, from the global marketplace to the factory model of industrial production, were constructed on the basis of a radically constricted understanding of the place of the human in the cosmos. We urgently need a vision of a new politics and economics that is attuned to our larger reality.
The Personal and the Planetary — A Primal Resonance
I started as an amateur political philosopher simply searching for a way to improve myself and my society. As I confronted the shocking extent of our crisis against the backdrop of the immensities of modern cosmology, the search came to dominate my life. Many times along the way I felt alone, as if swimming against the tide and was forced to question myself, to ask why and how I was searching. Then it occurred to me that in spite of the terrifying prospect of civilizational collapse, and in spite of the personal sacrifices and difficulties, the process of searching had also become a comfort, a way of connecting more deeply with others and with the world. The search had become a kind of psychological and spiritual discipline, a key to my personal growth. It was as if in waking up to the vastness of our outer universe and the chaotic condition of modern humanity, I had also woken up to the inner universe of the human psyche and found an expanse just as limitless, astounding, and full of creative possibility. Bringing the outer and the inner together generated a resonance that healed and inspired me; in doing so, this process revealed itself as the core of a better way to live — a new form of a very old politics.
How has this happened? More than three centuries ago the story driving our politics decisively separated human self-understanding from the experience of the natural universe as sacred.
Once I became more self-conscious about my searching, I saw how its most essential aspects were obvious and simple, but strangely neglected in modern universities and public life. There were four essential, perennial components of the search, which seemed to differentiate out from the nature of consciousness. They were the pursuit of self-knowledge and personal growth; honest, face-to-face discussion that enlarged and qualified personal understandings; communication within small democratic communities of trusted equals; and a collective, cooperative weaving together of a big story — a narrative of meaning — that helped the individual find his or her particular place in the ever-expanding shared big picture.
Today, reflecting on the big picture of scientific cosmology helps us recognize that the searching human being is an organic outgrowth of an evolving earth. At the deepest level, we are an integral part of the biosphere, inseparable from the planet we are currently despoiling. We can see that, in some extraordinary way, our science-informed searching is the earth’s way of knowing itself through the human. Early societies, immersed in an unpolluted wilderness on which they depended absolutely, recognized this resonance between the natural world and human consciousness intuitively and explored it through their shamanic systems of religion and healing. This attunement between inner and outer seemed capable of generating spiritual experiences we commonly call ecstatic or mystical, which have the effect of inspiring and ordering our lives.
When we approach politics from such a perspective, magnificent possibilities open up: of ways of life profoundly “better, truer, and more beautiful” than our sad and frenetic destructiveness. Future Primal offers one such vision by weaving together the various narrative layers of my search, from my personal history to the history of civilization, our species, and indeed the universe itself. The vision draws from other models of politics but differs from them in one fundamental respect: at its center is awareness of the ultimate mystery of our origins, and with it the necessity for an ongoing process of creative searching.
Bringing Soul Back into Politics — the Truth Quest
Our modern use of the word politics has become as thoroughly debased and misunderstood as the practice it is commonly used to describe — seeking and wielding power over others for personal gain. On the scale of public opinion, politicians rank somewhere between prostitutes and used-car salesmen. The whole business of politics is considered as far from its Socratic roots in philosophy and “cultivating virtue” as one can get. To move out of this dead end, we need to retrace our steps to find a new way forward. If we go back two and a half thousand years to classical Greece, we can find the origin of the word politics in the Greek polis — the self-governing, autonomous, democratic city-state — where “politics” simply referred to the affairs of the polis, and as the concern of all, it was regarded as the most ennobling and meaningful of all human activities.
I use the word politics in this original, inclusive sense, to mean the universal human struggle, individually and collectively, to seek and to live the best possible life. Political philosophy can then be reconnected to its original Socratic intention as the search for the ideal of “the good life.” This has two primary aspects: On the one hand, there is what Socrates called “the improvement of one’s soul,” or what we loosely understand as personal growth, since the Greek word for “soul” is psyche, from which we get our psychology. On the other hand, there is the improvement of one’s society. Traditionally, this sort of Socratic knowledge was called wisdom. By contrast, in today’s universities “political philosophy” refers to an obscure subspecialty within the discipline of political science that focuses on the texts of the great philosophers of the past. It has lost its living connection to the primordial questions: “How should I live?” and “How should we all live together?” Part of my purpose is to recover this original search for meaning, what I call “the primal truth quest.” Everything we do — the failure and success of all our politics — depends on our grasp of this quest and the reliability of the understanding it produces.
I use the word politics in this original, inclusive sense, to mean the universal human struggle, individually and collectively, to seek and to live the best possible life
The dangers we face today are compounded by the fact that we have never been more confused or more cynical about what constitutes the good, the true, and the beautiful. We are daily inundated with vast quantities of information but lack the most basic shared understanding of how we should live together. Not only do we lack a shared vision but we are profoundly confused about the way we should search. Science provides only neutral tools.
Religion, when based on strict obedience to the Holy Scriptures, remains blind and closed to the search. If we don’t know how to look, how will we recognize the truth of a vision of a better way? Here is our central failing: We have created a political culture that has eliminated in principle the need for the individual to consider and take responsibility for the good of the whole. We have abandoned the truth quest in public life. Our system is set up so that economic and political decisions are made according to the conviction that if individuals, organizations, and nations follow self-interest, the “invisible hand of the market” will automatically convert selfishness into the best possible outcome for the largest number. This is reinforced by a prevailing intellectual culture of skepticism and scientific materialism, which assumes that “good” and “evil,” and “right” and “wrong” are entirely subjective matters for individual judgment.
This sort of relativism has led to a global economic system that rewards a few individuals with grotesque quantities of wealth, rivaling the GDP of small nations, while a billion people go hungry. Never before has so much power over so many been concentrated in the hands of so few in the service of unashamed self-interest. All the while the collective frantic energy of globalized humanity continues to pollute and plunder the planet.
Our situation embodies a stark paradox. We stand on the edge of great danger and great opportunity, both closer to and yet farther than ever from fulfilling some of the most crucial conditions for an enlightened and liberated humanity. No period in history has had the benefit of the staggering vistas of modern cosmology — of how life evolved out of a planet that 4.5 billion years ago was a ball of molten rock. No previous generation has had such reliable detailed knowledge of the diversity of past human societies.
This sort of relativism has led to a global economic system that rewards a few individuals with grotesque quantities of wealth, rivaling the GDP of small nations, while a billion people go hungry.
This ongoing, exponentially expanding understanding of the human condition is now directly available to masses of ordinary human beings through the miracles of industrialization and electronic communication. The radical democratization of wisdom is a practical possibility for perhaps the first time since hunter-gatherers sat around the campfire every night sharing stories.
Yet emotionally we live in a smaller cosmological space than any previous society. Our daily routine keeps us urbanized and indoors as we go from home to car to office, from health club to shopping mall and back home. Asphalt and concrete bury wilderness, and our city lights blind us to the stars and galaxies. The “liberation technologies” of electronic communication can enlighten and mobilize masses of people, but they are shamelessly captured by commercial culture. The mass media of television, film, and radio are largely controlled by a few corporations who are as disinterested in the truth quest as they are interested is maximizing their profits through entertainment and advertising.
So we endlessly pursue self-interest and wind up feeling alone, meaningless cogs in the machinery of mass society, while congratulating ourselves on being the freest people in history. Globally, contradictions sharpen as we see a rise in murderous fundamentalism and the slow destruction of every traditional culture by consumerism. We are exhausting the resources of our planet and exhausting ourselves in the process. The philosopher Richard Tarnas summed up the paradox well: “The unprecedented outward expansiveness of modernity, its heroic confidence, contrasts starkly with an unprecedented inner impoverishment, uncertainty, alienation and confusion.”4
To find a way forward we need to know where we are and how we got here; we need to ask in the words of the political philosopher Eric Voegelin how the “spectaculum of modernity” became a “global madhouse bursting with stupendous vitality.”
“Big History” and the Fourth Revolution
Answering the big questions today requires the perspective of “big history”— the vastly expanded story of human emergence from an evolving earth. From this vantage point, we see that civilization’s 5, 500-year written history is little more than a millionth of the history of the earth, and that the life of the earth is but a small fraction of the life of the universe. 6
Twenty years ago, physicist and philosopher Peter Russell graphically demonstrated the power of big history’s capacity to illuminate our crisis. In his book White Hole in Time, Russell used what has since become an unintentionally ominous image to wake us up to the significance of our present moment in human evolution. 7
He took for his scale what was then the iconic achievement of civilization — the world’s tallest building — the quarter-mile-high, 108-story World Trade Center. Against this, he imaginatively projected the 4.5 billion years of earth’s history. Street level, then, represents the formation of our planet, and the first living cells don’t appear until one-quarter the way up, on the 25th floor (about 3.5 billion years ago); plant life starts halfway up, around the 50th floor. Dinosaurs appear on the 104th floor, and mammals and the great apes arrive on the topmost, 108th floor, of the building. Homo erectus becomes fully upright only a few inches from the ceiling of the top floor. Already, 99.99 percent of the story of evolution has been told, and civilization has not yet begun. One-quarter inch from the ceiling, Homo sapiens replaces Neanderthals, and the first Paleolithic rock paintings appear. Modernity begins at less than the thickness of the coat of paint on the ceiling of the top floor of the quarter-mile-high structure.
Russell’s point is as simple as it is obvious and ignored: this exponential rate of evolutionary change in “informational complexity” is approaching a singularity — a leap into a radically different order of being. 8 Wherever this takeoff point is, and whatever lies on the other side, we are getting there fast. Something dramatically different is about to happen. The apocalyptic possibilities of our moment are reinforced by the fact that we can no longer use Russell’s metaphor without seeing the twin towers of the World Trade Center collapsing into rubble.
[W]e are on the cusp of a “fourth revolution” in human self-consciousness.
The convergence of these two perspectives — a vastly expanded historical narrative on the one hand, and global destruction on the other — puts extraordinary pressure on our moment. It impels us to consider the possibility that we are poised on the edge of a planetary transformation: of either global catastrophe or some “leap in being” that averts disaster and ushers in something radically novel. […]
Peter Russell’s curve of accelerating change suggests that we are on the cusp of a “fourth revolution” in human self-consciousness. Thanks to science and critical scholarship, we have a depth of understanding of all three revolutions that no previous generation could have hoped for. We are in a position to recognize the enduring but partial truths of each and to integrate their wisdom in a higher, more-inclusive synthesis. Such an understanding would join together what has been fragmented; it would integrate the earth-based wisdom of primal societies, which sustained humanity for nine-tenths of the time that we have been human, with the achievements of the classical civilizations and the past four hundred years of science and industrial capitalism. It would bring us into a fuller and more creative partnership with the evolving earth community. Such a future primal synthesis ultimately requires rethinking almost everything we do and, in the process, living differently.
*Thanks to Brian Thomas Swimme and Thomas Berry for their inspirational framing of “The Universe Story” and for this more fitting alternative term to “the Big Bang.”
1. Anthony D. Barnosky et al., “Approaching a State Shift in Earth’s Biosphere,” Nature 486 (June 7, 2012): 52–58, doi:10.1038/nature11018. For the term Anthropocene, see W. Steffen et al., “The Anthropocene: From Global Change to Planetary Stewardship,” AMBIO 40, Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences (2011): 739–61.
2. Evolutionary biologist E. O. Wilson estimates that we are eliminating twenty-four thousand species of living organisms from the face of the earth every year — over seventy species a day. Edward O. Wilson, The Diversity of Life (New York: Norton, 1992), 280. See also E. O. Wilson, The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth (New York: Norton, 2006), 5. A recent report in the Sunday Guardian supports Wilson’s gloomy estimates: Juliette Jowit, “Humans Driving Extinction Faster Than Species Can Evolve,” Sunday Guardian, March 7, 2010, http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2010/mar/07/extinction-species-evolve.
3. William van Dusen Wishard, “Sleepwalking through the Apocalypse: The 9/11 Memorial Address,” sponsored by the C. G. Jung Institute, Santa Fe, New Mexico, September 11, 2003.
4. Richard Tarnas, The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas That Have Shaped Our World View (New York: Ballantine, 1991), 421.
5. Eric Voegelin, “Immortality: Experience and Symbol,” in The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, vol. 12, Published Essays 1966–1985 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University
Press, 1990), 55.
6. The term big history was first used by David Christian in 1989, somewhat jestingly, to describe a history course beginning with the Big Bang. Since then the discipline has spread slowly, due to the rather obvious difficulties of finding it a home in the modern university. A number of United States colleges teach interdisciplinary courses in big history, and now Fred Spier has been appointed to the first university chair in big history, at the University of Amsterdam. See Cynthia Stokes Brown, “Why Aren’t More
People Teaching Big History?,” in The Evolutionary Epic: Science’s Story and Human-ity’s Response, eds. Cheryl Genet et al. (Santa Margarita, CA: Collins Foundation Press, 2009). See also Cynthia Stokes Brown, Big History: From the Big Bang to the Present (New York: New Press, 2007); David Christian, Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004); and Fred Spier, The Structure of Big History: From the Big Bang until Today (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 1994).
7. Peter Russell, White Hole in Time (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1992), 7–10.
This article was excerpted from the introduction to the book Future Primal: How Our Wilderness Origins Show Us The Way Forward by Louis Herman with permission of the author.
Photo by Heribert Bechen