Home: The Milky way and its 100 billion stars
A review of:
The New Universe and the Human Future How a Shared Cosmology Could Transform the World. Nancy Ellen Abrams and Joel R. Primack
The New Universe and the Human Future is a wonderful book, and I encourage everyone who has a passion for understanding both the human future and humanity’s place in the cosmos read it. The authors are veteran cosmologists, and they have taken the time to bring together the latest research and information about the universe we live in, and put it all in one short and readable volume. Today I am going to provide a very general overview of the book, and make one specific points about it. I may write another post commenting on other aspects of the book soon.
Abrams and Primack’s thesis is simple. Currently there is no universal human mythology which provides a big picture map of the cosmos or our place in it. The maps of yore, mostly religious in nature, are not only in disagreement, they are woefully inaccurate in terms of their depiction of the cosmos. Without a common “coherent, meaningful” map, humanity cannot work together as a united whole to face the huge problems that are upon us in this moment in history. What is it that can provide that unified map? It is, the author’s believe, a knowledge of the science of cosmology, and how our universe is put together. As I shall write below, I believe their aim is noble and necessary, but in itself is not enough to achieve its vision. Nonetheless the book is such a wonderful excursion through space and time in all its cosmic vastness, that I give it a definite five star rating. It admirably achieves one of its prime aims, to share with the reader the reality that we live in a cosmos of literally unimaginable size, wonder, beauty and complexity.
Abrams and Primack's web site is well worth checking out too, especially for its great photos and videos. The following wonderful three minute video, which also appears on their site, provides the best overview of the kind of knowledge that the authors are sharing. To get a perspective of the vast distances depicted in the video, remember that light travels at 186 000 miles (300 000 km) per second. The moon, the furthest any human has travelled, is a bit more than one light second away.
The video takes you on a voyage starting from the Earth, past local stars and then past the Milky Way (our galaxy), which has about 100 billion stars and is about 100 000 light years side to side. Then we travel partway across our local supercluster of galaxies to the Virgo Cluster of galaxies. That's about 60 million light years in total. If that makes you feel small, consider the fact that the edge of the known universe is about 67 billion light years distant!
One more fact worth contemplating is that at the turn of the twentieth century the known cosmos was exactly one galaxy big. Now it is one hundred billion galaxies large, give or take a few. How big will it be at the turn of the 22nd century?
The Carina Nebula: The birth of a star
How cosmic is cosmology?
Scientific cosmology, write the authors, “is the study of the universe as a whole - its origin, nature and evolution”. Yet there is a hole in the map put forward by the authors, and it is not a small one. Herein lies the main weakness of their thesis. As integral philosopher Ken Wilber has pointed out, an upgrade of worldview, while helpful and necessary, is unlikely to shift human consciousness significantly. It is not enough in itself. This is where the spiritual and introspective traditions are of greatest importance. As a person who had devoted a great deal of his life to developing both the rational/critical and intuitive parts of his mind, my experience leads me to conclude that it is in restructuring the way that the mind relates to the ego that the greatest shift in human consciousness will occur. Without this shift, worldview shifts are purely cosmetic. This requires that a person be able to witness what emerges from her mind, and understand how it relates to the drives, fears and judgments of the ego. It necessitates that we learn to listen to what I call “the inner Sage”, in my book Discover Your Soul Template.
There was no obvious concurrent reduction in human neuroses and psychoses in the wake of the Copernican Revolution (15th century), the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species (1858) or the activation of the Hubble Space Telescope (1996). This is despite the fact that almost everybody now knows the Earth is not the centre of the cosmos, that humans and apes have a common ancestor, and most have seen images of vast galaxies. It seems unlikely therefore that the vast expansion of the frontiers of cosmology will make things any better, because our consciousness remains under the control of the ego and its projections.
I must point out that Abrams and Primak are not dismissive of religious and spiritual traditions. In fact they write enthusiastically about the contribution of religious and spiritual understandings in helping human beings develop moral awareness, compassion, and providing frameworks for developing intimate relationships with society and cosmos. They believe that progressive, open religion and spirituality are an essential part of the human future. But they maintain that religious institutions must be open to scientific knowledge. I must say that I am deeply impressed by the authors’ attitude of openness and respectfulness. This understanding attitude makes a most attractive change from the intolerance and bigotry of some scientists and rationalists, including Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennet and Christopher Hitchens. These men do more harm than good in their ironically Zionist crusade to dispel the religious infidels from the halls of scientific knowledge.
What does appear to be lacking in Abram’s and Primack’s discussion is an appreciation of the limits of the scientific method, and the ways of knowing that it is predicated upon. While they do readily admit to the vastness of what is yet to be known, they are insistent that we must place our “faith” in the scientific method to fill in the gaps.
I believe that this is a fundamentally faulted position. Different domains of knowledge require different ways of knowing, and entirely disparate cognitive processes are often required to perceive different domains of knowledge. The development of the scientific method has been one of the great steps forward in human thinking, and the vast quantity of information and understanding that has emerged from that leap of understanding has been unimaginably vast. Yet there are entire vistas of knowledge that are inaccessible via the scientific method, at least at this time in human history. In particular, the spiritual domains are not yet directly accessible via our current science. One day they will be, but until we develop the instrumentation to do so, and are willing to acknowledge the data that comes forth from the science, it will remain true that it is only via introspective and meditative techniques that spiritual understandings can be derived.
Some things can only be known when 'thinking' stops
This is especially important because that inner data is required in order for us to make ultimate sense of the place of human beings in the cosmos. Observing the external cosmos is not enough. It is through inner work that we can become aware that human beings are not alone in the cosmos, that there are entire dimensions which exist beyond the limits of the physical universe, and that there is an intelligence to the universe that provides insight, wisdom and guidance - if only we allow ourselves to open to it.
Despite the profound, beautiful and mindboggling advances of science as shown in The New Universe and the Human Future, we will remain deeply cognitively impoverished while the spiritual realms and spiritual experiences continue to be misunderstood and denied by dominant science and philosophy.