Ilia Delio and Gabi Sloan interview Cosmologist, Dr. Brian Swimme on Cosmology and Evolution.
A discussion of cosmogenesis: the story of an unfolding universe, one that inspires awe, wonder, and mystery. Along with Teilhard’s vision of the noosphere and consider technology’s role in human evolution, the development of consciousness, and planetary life.
About Dr. Brian Swimme:
Brian Thomas Swimme is the Director of the Center for the Story of the Universe and a professor at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco. He received his Ph.D. from the Department of Mathematics at the University of Oregon in 1978 for work in gravitational dynamics. He brings the context of story to our understanding of the 13.7 billion year trajectory of the universe. Such a story, he feels, will assist in the emergence of a flourishing Earth community. Swimme is the author of many books, including Cosmogenesis, The Hidden Heart of the Cosmos, and The Universe is a Green Dragon.
“We belong to a dynamic unfolding universe that inspires wonder, awe, and creativity.” Brian Swimme
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Robert: 0:01 Welcome to “Hunger for Wholeness,” a podcast from the Center for Christogenesis. I’m your host, Robert Nicastro. In our first episode of Season 2, Ilia and Gabi speak with cosmologist, Brian Swimme. In Part 1 of a two-part episode, they reflect on Cosmogenesis, the story of an unfolding universe, one that inspires awe, wonder, and mystery. Our discussion begins with Brian sharing how he found inspiration in the big night sky.
Ilia: 0:37 Cosmology, what a fascinating area, really! And I think Gabi would second me on that. What drew you into the study of cosmology? Maybe, you could just begin on that question.
Brian: 0:49 Yeah! I’ve thought about that a lot. And it was two things. When I was like four, I don’t know exactly how old I was, but I was definitely younger than five, I hit my bed. It was upstairs. And it was right next to the window, one window in the room. At night, sometimes, I would lie there and look up. My curtains were made of gauze, but you could see through them. And I was just amazed by the stars, really. They just amaze me, just their presence. I had no idea anything about... And then, the second thing was, when I was in the second grade, Sister Isabel Mary — I think that she was actually frustrated with me because I was always a hyperactive kid — she gave me a book all about stars. And I just loved it. And then, I put together my experience of the stars with these fantastic claims about how much they weighed and how big they were. Yeah, so I went back to that time.
Ilia: 1:49 Gabi, have you had the same experience with stars?
Gabi: 1:52 Yeah! I mean, in Rhode Island, where I go for the summers, I think, you can really see the stars better, because it’s not as big of a city as DC. And so there aren’t as many lights, and everybody goes to bed, so the lights are out. And I remember, we did this thing every summer where we would camp out on the field where everybody played soccer. And I was looking at... Everyone was messing around with glow sticks, and I was looking up at the stars, because I think they’re just incredible.
Ilia: 2:18 A few years ago, I was in New Zealand. And St. John’s observatory had a great... St. John’s University, I think, or Christ Church University had a great observatory that we went up to at midnight. And so you couldn’t have any of your headlights on. And we just got to this place of total darkness. And then, all of a sudden, they allowed us to look up into the night sky. And it was like Earth was turned upside down. It’s like this whole blanket of stars and galaxies that were just fully alive over our heads. And it was a pretty amazing experience. Brian, why should we pay attention to cosmology today? I think, it’s one of the most important areas that we should attend to. But what’s your two cents on that?
Brian: 3:13 It reminds me, the question reminds me of something Neil deGrasse Tyson said that we as civilization has created so much light pollution that most people living in cities have never experienced the Milky Way galaxy, because you just can’t see it. And so we’ve created a civilization that blocks out the universe. And so he asked the question in an ironic way, he says, one might wonder if we even need it. So, we can just do away with the universe. So, the way I would ask that question would be to say that the night cosmology, the night sky, galaxies, they enable a moment of deep reflection. And then, we find ourselves asking the existential questions: “Why am I here? What am I supposed to do? And who am I, even?” And I think, those questions are essential. They’re essential for us to become human beings. I mean, so many animals are exquisite, elegant, fondly intelligent. Many in ways that we are not, but they don’t have existential angst. We never come upon horses wondering about why they exist. But so that kind of wonder, I think, is essential for being a human. And I have a quote from the [Unclear 04:38] Indians in South America, and they said something that stunned me: “In order to become a human being, you must dwell in the immensity.”
Ilia: 4:48 I love that. That is a wonderful saying. It reminds me of something that Nancy Abraham and her husband Joel Abrams said in their book on 21st century cosmology, they said, “Let out the big picture, we are little people.” In a sense, without really standing in the wonder of the cosmos of the universe, as we experience it, to really know who we are. And that goes hand-in-hand with what you said before, when we block out the universe, cities that block out the Milky Way, they become very anthropocentric. It’s all about me. And we get wrapped up in human concerns in such a way that we want to solve human problems humanly, and not cosmically, and not with the bigger picture in mind. Gabi, what question do you bring to Brian this afternoon?
Gabi: 5:43 I mean, I think that not only are the amenities like physical things in our world, but they’re also like ideas. Like, what would you say are some immensities you like to dwell in?
Brian: 5:56 Again, my own path has been largely focused on stars and galaxies. And I would say, as well, the development of the universe, that’s astonishing. And just to give you a sense of what I mean, we have these elementary particles. I mean, they are small, alright? They are the smallest thing we know. And then, when they start to get involved with one another, they create the stars and galaxies, there are no new particles brought in. These are the same electrons, protons, and neutrons from the beginning. And all they did was deepen their relationship. And now, we have a trillion galaxies. That just blows my mind. And just to give you one more — here’s an immensity that I reflect on a lot — Earth developed life 3.5 billion years ago or so. And for 3 billion years, life was unicellular, meaning that every living being was smaller than the sharp end of a pin. Now, 3 billion years of that, which is fantastic. But then they started to get involved with each other, they deepen their relationships, and then we have giraffes and whales. Nothing new came from some outer space visitor. This is the power that is matter. The power in matter! Those are the mysteries that I reflect on often.
Ilia: 7:17 Really, Brian! I mean, this is quite incredible. The power of matter to deepen relationships and give rise to new things without importing any new matter or any other things. Like, the potential of matter seems to be infinite. It’s open to infinite possibilities.
Brian: 7:39 Absolutely! And I know that our views are very similar, of course. And by that, I mean, this is something that you’ve emphasized. Relationship is at the root of being. That’s fundamentally what we are. We are relationships. And we’re deepening relationships. That’s the story of universe. It’s a story of our own development.
Ilia: 7:58 Gabi, you showed me this book. I think, it was Anthony Panthea, the cosmologists on numbers. So, cosmologists — if I understand, I mean, you can tell me — seems to be a lot of mathematics. It seems to be a lot of, at least, theoretical physics. It has a lot of math built into it.
Brian: 8:15 Yeah!
Ilia: 8:16 Numbers! The kind of magic of numbers like 0.000000175 is the radius. It’s just mind boggling that we humans can even know this stuff. Who are we? That’s the big question! We’re emerging out of this universe. And then we have this amazing capacity to know it on these levels of sophisticated mathematics and physics and science.
Brian: 8:50 Yeah! It is really something. And that is to identify how we are new. Here’s another immensity I reflect on. I am just picking up on what you’ve said. We diverged from the chimpanzees around 6 million years ago. And ever since that moment, till now, things have happened, but the human is 99% identical with a chimpanzee in terms of DNA. I mean, 99% identical. It’s pretty close to identical. But obviously, there’s some amazing difference. But here’s the part that really amazes me. Over the last 30 million years, the chimpanzees have stayed right there in Equatorial Africa, content, happy, good life, and all the rest of it. But humans, we had this restlessness, and we had to explore, and off we went million year journeys into Asia and so forth. So, this restlessness is evidence of our sense that we are still coming in to existence. We have gone through a number of amazing changes, but we have not completed the journey, the journey of humanity. I mean, I think, we’re very much in the process of discovering who we are as human. I mean, I’m just trying to emphasize the way in which... And one last thing, so one of the difficulties — we’ve talked about before — the way cities have blocked out the universe, some of those hubrises come from the arrogance of thinking we know what humanity is.
Ilia: 10:28 Exactly! I think that’s probably the greatest downfall of the modern human person, this fallacy of misplaced concreteness to use the white heady in term that we think our knowledge is self-sufficient that we actually know what we are. And I think just the opposite. So your notion, the 99% cousins, the lineage with chimps, I mean, I don’t wake up thinking my nearest relative is a chimpanzee. So, it’s pretty remarkable. And yet, did something turn? Did something mutate? Did we get an extra gene? But I don’t think so. What is it that made the human? What’s that leap? Did we automatically go into this loop of self-consciousness and all of a sudden became knowers who know? So, there’s tremendous mystery, I think, of the human person. And I, honestly, just want to say: “Wait a minute, stop! We’re talking about the human person. We actually know we’re talking about!” Yeah. Take five, would you because....? We’re somewhere, we’re in between species, we’re sort of straddling, we’re coming out of the animal world, and yet we have this openness to this incredible sense of beauty, wonder, oneness, and God. And we have this amazing capacity. As the medieval was called the [Unclear 11:57]. We have the capacity for God, or even to entertain the notion of God. Something absolute, something more than us. So, what are we? Are we Gods emerging out of a long cosmological and biological life? What are we? That’s the question.
Robert: 12:22 Cosmology helps us see the bigger picture. It brings into focus our place and the grand sweep of biological and cosmological evolution. This is the story of the universe, our home. But what are we exactly? Next, Ilya, Gabi, and Brian dig deeper into Teilhard’s vision of the newest sphere. And they consider technology’s role in human evolution, the development of consciousness, and planetary life.
Ilia: 13:00 And we’re moving out of what we are anyway with technology. Technology’s changing us as we speak. We’re moving beyond homosapiens, I think, to something different like a techno-sapien or something beyond. There’s a beyondness built in cosmos, maybe.
Brian: 13:21 And one way to just underlying what you’re saying, that’s just yet another immensity to reflect, for 3.5 billion years, life has proceeded under the processes of genetic mutation and natural selection. And there may be more going on, but those are two massive insights that come out of biology — natural selection and genetic mutation. And that is how things happen. That’s how things evolve. But that’s changed. It’s no longer that way. Now, there’s this amazing species with the consciousness to reflect back on the processes themselves and to permeate to enter them. So, now we live on a planet that is evolving consciously for the first time in 3.5 billion years. Animals have consciousness for sure, but there weren’t animals that realize they had the power to shape the planet’s evolution. Here we are.
Ilia: 14:15 Yeah! We have willful consciousness, directed consciousness, a consciousness that makes a difference.
Brian: 14:22 And this goes back to Thomas Berry and his thought. And there are different ways to talk about the human. Many of them are valid. I think, this is one of them. That the human species is able to reinvent itself at a species level without changing its anatomy. So, other species would develop fins or they learn to fly or whatever it is, but with our development of technology and tools — this is one of Teilhard’s great points, of course — we are inventing ourselves. And in Thomas’ various point, it’s happened a number of times in the past. And in each one of these moments, it was sent an example from genetic mutation. It wasn’t just that at all. It was that consciousness had got involved with the creativity of the universe and it gave birth to another form. Now, we have different ways of talking about these other species of humans.
Ilia: 15:15 Yeah! Teilhard had that... He wrote about this that we had maxed out, so to speak, physical evolution. In fact, evolution has physically spreads, in essence, to all parts of the globe. But he says, now we’re on a new level of evolution, which is the evolution of mind. And that is, you might say, distinctly new of the human level of evolution. It is distinctly. It’s not a break from. In some ways, it’s taking what it was and then maximizing what we’re capable of as embodied conscious beings. Like, matter has this incredible openness. And I do believe in the consciousness of matter. I don’t hold to. I do incense, more and more becoming pantheist. I always think, good pantheism maybe needs to be revived or something. We just ditched it too early. There is something really amazing. You’re right. I mean, new phases of evolution are definitely the phases of conscious evolution, which makes technology the next level of conscious evolution. Marshall McLuhan recognize this. And he said, “Yeah! This is exactly what we should expect. Mind would continue to expand itself through our developments of technology.” So, we shouldn’t be overly surprised by our inventions. This is exactly we’re on the right path. Your question is toward what.
Brian: 16:56 We live in a time of — as you know — better than I, just amazing, rapid, and novelty throughout, especially the techno sphere. And so, it’s inevitable that confusion will reign. And a lot of bad choices will be made. Because we’ve never done this before. But the whole idea of the novice sphere that came from [Unclear 17:19], I think, that really is a guidance system, an image that can help us bring technology into alignment with the fruitful development of our planet.
Ilia: 17:30 Yeah, I completely agree. But I think, honestly, it’s happening at such a rapid rate, our development, I think, definitely, with technology, evolution has sped up. I think, we’re always living a half a century behind. We’re just catching up to the 20th century. And here we are in 2023 already. And it... We can’t... I think, it was McLuhan who said, we’re always kind of looking in the rearview mirror. We’re always, in a sense, evaluating ourselves by looking what we have just passed. And most difficult thing for us is to get our heads around, where we are in this conscious evolution, and to begin to look forward, and it’s very hard for us. Many people find it really challenging, if not almost impossible to get their head around technological evolution or techno-sapien life, where the fact that consciousness is, maybe, the prime driver of both cosmological and biological life, even that’s such a huge.
Brian: 18:31 Really this is a question, it relates to what you just said, the role of consciousness and the rearview mirror and catching up. Looking at the question, just from the point of view of love, one of the things that I have been attracted to is the notion that we fall in love first and then we awaken to the fact that we have.
Ilia: 19:03 Say that again, Brian.
Brian: 18:57 We fall in love first and we’re unaware of it. Something is really exciting to us, whatever, we’re not thinking about it, but it’s already happened. And then, we wake up and realize, “Wow! I’m in love.” I mean, on a personal level, like Gabi was saying, in terms of an idea or vision or a dream. And so I guess my point is... I’m picking up on your statement, the consciousness lags behind. So, I think, the main action of evolution is at the level of the body. So, bodies respond to each other with an energy that goes back through billions of years. And then, this high level self-reflection is really catching up with what has already taken place. So, I tend to think of these innovations and technology and so forth, these wizards, they’re captivated by something, and they’re moving forward, and I think, it’s the way in which the creativity works. I mean, Ilia, I want to hear your viewpoint.
Ilia: 19:58 Yeah! I can’t speak that to you. But I think, you’re absolutely right. You know, Whiteheads notion is that the ultimate principle of all life is creativity. And Teilhard had something similar, he said, the core energy of the universe is love. And I tried to develop that as well into a metaphysics or a hyper-physics of love. Like, the basis of all that is his energy of attraction and transcendence. It’s an energy that pulls us on into the more-ness of life. And we’re driven by a passion for more, whether it’s more knowledge or more beauty. There’s something there that’s ahead of us. And, of course, for Teilhard’s, I think that’s the whole point of omega. That principle of wholeness, which I would like to say is, wholeness and love. That is both within us, but more than us. And there’s this more-ness. And I guess that is the name of God. God is more. God is that infinite well-spring of ever flowing love that’s pulling us on to this more-ness of life. And that’s the thing. It’s that... Through all our trials and trajectories and the way evolution has dead ends and a lot of violence and even on the human level, there’s a lot of stuff going on, and yet, there is this unyielding energy of love. There’s something that gets us up every morning and says, “I hope for a new day, new friendship, more forgiveness, more peace, more something.” We live for the more-ness of life. And I think that love is what drives consciousness, in a sense...
Brian: 19:58 Yeah! Love is first.
Ilia: 21:40 Yeah! Love is first. Yes, you’re drawn and attracted to... And as you’re attracted to, you want to know. So, we always want to know that which we love. And then as we come to know that which we love, that love deepens. So, love and knowledge have always worked together for the ancients and for the medievalist, for sure. And Bernard of Clairvaux is one who said that love itself is a form of knowing. It’s a deeper form of knowing. St. Augustine would say that wisdom is knowledge deepened by love. So, it’s not just head knowledge or knowing the facts of things, even standing in the awe of universe, it is that higher knowledge of love. And it’s a knowledge that doesn’t need a lot of words. Because it’s a knowing by way of the heart. It’s a deep knowing. And that’s I think, what we need today, that deep knowing, that deep awe, the deep feeling, or this belonging to this incredible home that we be called cosmos, and the earth as our mother that nurtures us. I think, sometimes our knowledge has become too left brain, too analytical, too logical, who wants to parse everything out into bite-sized bits that we can analyze, and put into data, and put into charts. And its kills love, quite honestly. I’m thinking just...
Brian: 21:44 It got the fullness of the intellectual, for sue. I am connecting back to what you said earlier, quoting Nancy Abrams on the fact that, without the big picture, we become little. And I think, I am going to this idea that the love happens first, so I think of all these creative technologists, and they’re just giving birth to all things. And I believe that they definitely act energized by this drive to create. So, this is creativity happening, but for the most part, it is taking place in a form of consciousness that has blocked out the universe. It’s taking place in a smaller, tiny, little fragment called capitalism. I’m not anti-capitalism. My point is, if we can begin to think in terms of the large scale universe, the depths of time and biology, billions of years are involved here, and I think that’s when the wisdom you speak of, will take place. It might take a decade, it might take 100,000 years. I mean, that has to happen.
Ilia: 23:24 Yeah! But let me ask me Gabi because she’s a younger person. Where are you on this question of wisdom and love in the universe? And what do you hope for?
Gabi: 24:45 I mean, to paraphrase you, you said the human species is one of reinvention, right? I was thinking that love is seeing someone else creating and reinventing themselves and recognizing that. Afterwards, you realize, “I saw that person, I knew them, or I saw the universe.” And I think that’s really important, not just to love people, but to look up at the sky and to love the billions of years that you can see. I think, that’s really meaningful.
Ilia: 25:23 Yeah! That’s great, Gabi. Yeah, what question... Do you have any other questions for Brian because you are ending this conversation?
Gabi: 25:30 What do you see when you look at the universe? Like, what do you see when you love the night sky, the Universe, and the stars?
Brian: 25:40 It’s been an ongoing development of my eyes. Like I said, at first, I had the sensation of little points of light. And you’re surrounded by mist. But then, as I learned and grew, I learned, for instance, that stars create all the elements of body, and then they explode in a supernova explosion. And so we can see the remnants of some supernova explosions. And I would begin to see the elements of my body, not literally, but the same supernova explosion led to each of us. So, that was different. I would see the supernova as the creator of my body. And then, recently, I’ve begun to see that as a gift. So, the supernova is an amazing manifestation of the generosity in the universe. And the most recent change in the way I look at, it was what I just wrote about, this last book I wrote. Now, what I look at the sky... This is going to sound strange, Gabi. But when I look at look at the sky, I’m looking at that which gave birth to my looking. So, the stars not only created the elements of a body, that process of evolution led to the emergence of a mind that could look back at them and know.
Gabi: 27:03 You are the stars looking at yourself.
Brian: 27:05 Yeah! That changed. So then, it was a way of leaving behind the idea that I’m inside my brain, and the stars are out there, the object. It became circular.
Robert: 27:22 This concludes the first half of Ilya and Gabi’s conversation with Brian Swimme. Please be sure to listen to Part 2. A special thanks to our partners at the Fetzer Institute. If you’d like to dig deeper into today’s conversation, you can support “Hunger for Wholeness,” on Patreon for access to transcripts as well as additional content produced by our team at the Center for Christogenesis. I’m Robert Nicastro. Thanks for listening!