A conversation with Professor Brian Swimme, author (and host) of works like Journey of the Universe and, more recently, Cosmogenesis.
Professor Swimme had learned under the infinite perspective of renowned cosmologist Thomas Berry.
Of all possible takeaways from the Q&A presented below, of most importance can possibly be the following excerpt:
“When you’re younger, you keep amassing knowledge.. it really does change though when you get older. Maintain that curiosity — it’s so important.”
[Time Developmental Consciousness]
In chapter 16, you noted that we’re deeply enmeshed within the instability of the beginning of the universe — that THEN and NOW coalesce — and that the mathematical equations from the beginning of time are still alive in us today.
Is there some method by which we can overcome our perceptual limitations to sense this coalescence more vividly — to ‘feel’ the beginning of time? Or are we forever confined to the imperceptibility of our temporal situation?
Swimme: I think that some people are right now in the process of developing a skill of seeing things in their depth of time. I think it’s something that we’re not only capable of but we are.
There was a time where vertebrates developed depth perception; sensitivity to light began over 3 million years ago. The first eye — what we would now call an eye — with the trilobites, had no depth perception. But we eventually developed that, so that we switched from a two-dimensional to a three-dimensional perception.
Now (by now I mean the last three to four centuries), we’ve had this task of developing what I call in the book time developmental consciousness— to feel into the 100 million years that led to the oyster shell. To really feel that.
It’s real but it depends upon what Whitehead called Propositional Feelings.
It’s human consciousness, enhanced with symbols. I have that one passage in there where I’m imagining Edwin Hubble and I’m imagining him from the point of view of time developmental consciousness.. If you look into the telescope, you start off with the two little dots of light — it’s a two dimensional experience. As you deepen into the experience, it becomes this experience of feeling the dynamic structure of what we’re viewing, and that includes its long development.
My intuition is simply that those alive today are going to deepen this experience and make it available, through cultural means, to the planet as a whole — to the human species.
This my thought. Many people see this moment as a speciation event — we mean homosapiens but we enter into a new mode of being human. I love Thomas Berry’s notion, that one definition of human species, is that we reinvent ourselves at a species level without changing our anatomy of physiology. We’ve identified nine of these moments.
My whole point, with Cosmogenesis, is to just be part of the activation of the moment of creativity.
That’s how Teilhard framed it right — he called it the activation of energy?
What inspired you to start looking into Eastern philosophies and Eastern wisdom — to take that direction?
Swimme: My natural curiosity got me going in college. I took a course on mysticism in the East and West. D.T. Suzuki made the claim, what he understood of Zen Buddhism was present, fully present, in the work of Meister Eckhart so I jumped on that. While studying Eckhart, I stumbled on this book by Matthew Fox, and it was in conversation with Matthew Fox and others that I began to see the similarity.
For me it began with the amazing congruence between Buddhism and quantum physics. Thomas Berry, he introduced his own favorite traditions — Daoism and Confucianism. They’ve excited insights into the nature of the universe that are coherent with western science.
Do you have any hope that we’ll be able to reverse some of the compartmentalizing we’ve done under the dissections of the Western scientific method?
Swimme: I’m firmly convinced that we will. To go beyond reductionist science that we have right now, I think one of the drivers of this is the discovery of cosmic evolution.
Physics is completely appropriate for understanding the early universe. Then you move forward and then astrophysics became appropriate to understanding the development of stars and galaxies. Then you move forward [and] geology is completely relevant and appropriate for understanding the formation of planets, especially rocky planets, and so forth, up into biology and anthropology, so that all of the sciences really can be seen in a holistic way if you bring them together — a holistic way of understanding our universe.
We’re leaving the mechanistic phase of science and we’re branching into — we’ve already entered into — the holistic phase of science. Science is becoming another wisdom tradition as this happens.
It’ll be very different from 19th century science.
Voegelin asserted that the root of our substantive transitions as a human species had been our experience — not so much our ideas, beliefs and scriptures, but the new experiences that lead to the transformations of humanity.
But what about the rest of the picture? Everything around us? Why do we have such trouble personifying stars, or attributing a sense of consciousness to them?
Swimme: That too is one of those metaphysical orientations, and Teilhard is really great on this. His view, as you know, is that everything has a dual aspect — a mental and physical aspect to everything.
“Well why don’t we perceive it in rocks?” and so forth.
His answer’s fantastic: If you hold a rock — I’m using my own words — but if you hold a rock and if you move it a couple of feet — in that movement, it has gained mass. We don’t perceive it because its so miniscule, but what if you get it moving toward the speed of light?
With consciousness, it’s not velocity, its not the increase in velocity that shows the increase in mass, its the increase in complexity. So you start off with atoms and then you build molecules and as things become more complex, the consciousness becomes more obvious.
Your 'boulders on Mars' analogy is a good example — that latent in the molten rock is the carbon-assembling capability to form mammal life; eventually that life looks back at itself..
How can we explain the fact that the universe is looking at itself, or evolving itself through our experiential navigation, and why do you think so many people disregard it?
Swimme: It’s a great question. I started off in a traditional home and, when I was young, we only thought there were these nine planets in the universe, so like everybody else, I started at zero. The day came when I got it. Just taking in that the rocks I was looking at, that they actually became the intelligent eyes of the ape, to that example.
I was so overwhelmed. It was just one of those ecstatic moments
It breaks your perspective.
Swimme: It’s a breakthrough — that’s the exact word Meister Eckhart used. To wake up to the power that’s in a rock. How ever one thinks of consciousness, the rock had power of becoming these intelligent apes.
Why are we not just astounded every day of our lives? The answer is that there are lots of different reasons. Rather than focus on those reasons, I just come up with ways of awakening that same experience.
I just think of all of us— we’re scattered all around the planet. We’re in these zones that are going more deeply into their own experience and realizing with shock the magnificence of where we are. That’s sort of the meaning of my life.
You could say that we’re a sense of the universe developing itself — we’re but a data point through which empirical evidence could be cultivated for some infinitely greater intention.
But what do you think that intention ultimately is?
Swimme: You know.. I’ve often thought that the primordial impulse, that humans feel, it’s complex, but it can also be articulated — different dimensions of it can be articulated.
The one that has governed my life, and I see at work in the history of humanity, is the one you’ve already pointed to: there’s a primordial desire to know the nature of the reality we find ourselves in. But that would be one.
The whole history of science and technology can be understood as this primordial desire, of basically the universe — to come to an understanding of itself.
But that would be one, in its primordial desire to express its magnificence — just that alone, or another word would be beauty — to give expression to the profound beauty that we are. And I don’t have a list of these but, Whitehead had named five.
We continue to discover more primordial impulses.
Given that psychedelics seem to be one the most efficient means of breaking down perspective, do you feel that they hold any value towards doing what Teilhard said —of activating energy?
Swimme: My thoughts are that, it’s like what you mentioned earlier — that Western science, as powerful as it is and as wonderful as it is, it doesn’t articulate all of the universe. I tend to think in terms of multiple pathways into a deep understanding, and psychedelics certainly are one pathway. It’s not mine but a friend benefitted tremendously from it. There’s psychedelics, there’s meditation like yoga, another one is sports. The athletic tradition of intense concentration. That’s another way. As well as philosophy and science. I just think there are so many different ways. Business. To become a really great business person, you need to develop so many skills. So many approaches.
Do you think we can somehow configure, elevate or develop our capacity to transcend the limits of our understanding? Berry didn’t think we had the capacity — what are your thoughts on that? I feel like you might be a little bit more optimistic.
Swimme: I would say that, I think that our cognitive capacities are evolving, like everything. Everything is evolving, and our attempts to articulate the structures of reality are part, they’re actually one of the drivers of the evolution of our cerebral powers.
Say in a billion years, the human species evolves into a different species with or without AI. Will we ever get to a place where we can know the true nature of everything? I think that kind of question I just asked myself, is a question that’s beyond us. And I don’t even have a strong opinion.
Rather, the way I approach it is this: in every moment in history, there are particular challenges that have to be met if we’re going to deepen our journey — this mysterious journey that we’re on. That’s my own optimism and confidence.
We have the capacity now to deal with the challenges before us. And that, by extension, we’ll continue to develop the capacities to deal with whatever problem at peak appears in the future. And that’s a faith statement.
I don’t have knowledge of this at all, it’s kind of how I operate.
[A.I. - The next transformative experience]
We’re going to come up to an interesting crossroad with A.I .— do we embrace it or do we realize that it can’t ever really deliver on what we want it to? That moment will be the transformative experience going forward — the kind that Berry referred to. Do you envision any other such points on our horizon? Whether it’s AI or the findings from the JWST?
Swimme: I guess in a very speculative sense, I think yeah, we’re in the middle of it, the transformation. What really separates humans from chimpanzees is the power of the symbol. The symbol enabled us to understand, to talk about things that weren't physically present. [We’re] the only species that does this. It led to the development of abstract formulations. With all kinds of dangers associated.
But it also gave enormous power because our knowledge could accumulate. We use minds that have been in the making for hundreds of thousands of years. Like a different kind of animal.
I see AI and ChatGPT as the next step. All that amazing knowledge we have is present in a way that’s becoming universal all around the planet. It’s going to raise the IQ of planet earth by a factor of I don’t know what. So that the transformation I see is with this kind of enormously powerful connection of former humans and their experience with our own experience. All the knowledge they developed. They’re all here now. All the humans on the planet, they’re all here.
I see it as the birth of a new kind of mind. A planetary mind. This is what Teilhard meant with the Noosphere. I meditate everyday on the fact that these tiny tiny cells joined up and eventually created a whale and that’s how I see our present situation. I mean, it’s loaded with all kinds of dangers but the vision is of a linked up, unified humanity, a kind of power we can only dream about — a power of understanding.
There’s not even a word for it — I say planetary mind, but it’s not even a mind because it involves all sorts of organisms; it’s also called a super organism. I don’t think we even have a name for what we’re building right now.
Math has been central to our understanding of the natural world but, like language, it tends to fail us. You, yourself, say that we have neither the language nor the mathematics to explain how the universe operates and we can become bewitched by theory.
My question is: do you think that this sort of intellectual sickness, as you term it, where we become too enamored with the symbolic representations of mathematical theory and then we reify these theories — do you think that it might be getting worse?
Swimme: It goes back to the different pathways. We have to proceed with humility. We can’t do all the pathways, there’s just no way. You might do two or three but you can’t do all of them. We need each other and we need to stay in touch so that, together, all of us, are able to take in what we’ve learned.
The JWST is a good example — you start off with the equations that Newton gave us concerning gravity. Then other humans looked at this equation, the equations for his mathematics for the sun, the earth and the moon. When you look at that system, there are five places where the gravitational forces cancel out. Nobody is going to experience that directly in the 17th or 18th or 19th century. We’re earthbound. But we can identify a place where we can actually go there and just stay there in this revolution around the sun. Then other people come along — the engineers — and they use their power to build this machine that can beam right at L2, a stationary point. Then we have all this data coming in that’s sent around the planet and we have these people who are astounded by the nature of the universe we’re finding and they’re able to — this is all imaginary — they’re able to give expression to it, they’re able to write poetry about it and create philosophical theories.
In other words, it lights up. Because we can see this. What’s going on in the universe is so amazing! It can change peoples lives. But none of them, they don’t know any of the mathematics — they don’t NEED to know. The mathematics captures so little of what’s going on. Fall in love with someone and then keep writing down all the data — he or she weights this much, etc. But the mathematics is essential for findings these pathways. That’s just part of the process.
There’s a fear that the JWST will capture some kind of revolutionary data but, because that data has to sift through many mechanisms of discernment, it’ll contaminate it — thus the telescope won’t ever be able to fully capture the whole picture at play (referring to your intellectual sickness point). In other words, our modes of understanding, of contextualizing new information, can stunt the magnitude of a discovery. Do you think that’s possible?
Swimme: The responses to the data will be variable. Sometimes the grandeur is just too great; Dante — that was his view — of all the people in hell, all of them were unable to handle the magnificent beauty of reality.
People like us, that have this enormous feeling for the vastness, we have to learn how to express that in ways that can be taken in by others. That’s part of our mission — to learn that skillful means of compassionately connecting with others around us.
[The Universe is Green Dragon]
The Green Dragon is the most serendipitous signal throughout the book — can you expand on your inspiration? What inspired you to capture that term?
Swimme: I thought about putting this in the book but decided against it. I was at a lecture and it was a philosopher who was talking about science and at one point he got frustrated with the questions coming from the audience; the questions were about the limits of science. He was a person who viewed science like Sagan — the one and only way of knowing things. He was a little bit on the defensive, and he said: “You know, it’s not like we live on the back of a green dragon!” It really struck me and then I forgot all about it until I was looking for a title and it came roaring out.
Because no one can have that kind of cognizance — our knowledge is finite. How many more forces are we going to discover? It’s an ongoing journey into understanding — it’s thrilling that we haven’t yet finished it because it’s been such a great journey.
What do you think will happen when we turn our consciousness around and realize that our awareness of cosmogenesis is also the work of the universe? In other words, how do you think we will change when we face the universe and find the universe facing us? It can’t be an end point right?
Swimme: I think it would be the end point of one era of human history. If a person just sinks into what I was trying to give expression to in that chapter, really give into the vastness of the milky way — which is one galaxy out of two trillion — to really feel that.. And that’s part of this movement into the Noosphere. We will discover a depth of intimacy with each other that will be another era of human history.
[Retrocausality & Time]
Can you elaborate or apply the concept of retrocausality to the idea that the universe knew, from the very beginning, that life was coming?
Swimme: I would say that we’re at the limits of my understanding and this may be an example of an aspect of cosmogenesis and the emerging story that you will have to do.
In that case, what shape do you think best describes time? How can we best visualize time?
Swimme: I do like the spiral. Because there are ways by which our moments are bonded with previous moments. They kind of come and go. A spiral reconnects and at the same time advances.