Note: This transcript has not been proofread, and therefore its accuracy is not guaranteed.
Wright: Brian Swimme, a mathematical cosmologist, teaches at the California Institute of Integral Studies. He is the author of "The Hidden Heart of the Cosmos" and "The Universe is a Green Dragon" and co-author with Thomas Berry of "The Universe Story." I interviewed him in San Francisco. Well Brian, first of all, thanks for coming down to our West coast studio here. My staff and I are grateful. The... I've got two books in my hand. One is one you co-authored with Thomas Berry called "The Universe Story." The other is one that you authored solo more recently called "The Hidden Heart of the Cosmos" and the subtitle is "Humanity and the News Story." Now first of all, is the new story the same as the universe story only in elaborated form?
Brian Swimme: It's the same thing.
Wright: Largely the same thing. Not that you shouldn't buy both books. Why don't you then tell us what is the universe story?
Brian Swimme: The universe story is just the our account now of the birth of the universe around 4 millions years ago and then development of the galaxies and stars and our planet, all the way up until now. That's just the universe story or the evolution of our universe... Epic of the universe.
Wright: Big bang till now...
Brian Swimme: Big bang exactly.
Wright: And what is the what's what was your goal in telling the story?
Brian Swimme: Main idea is that human's have organized themselves around stories, stories about the universe, stories about their people and this is our our modern moment in terms of coming up with the story out of science that is in certain ways trans-cultural. It had it's origin in the West but still it's now being organized and developed by people from all cultures. So that was the whole idea. Celebrate a pan-human story.
Wright: Ok now what is the ... and as you said people have always told themselves stories about the world around them, how it came to be, and in fact in I know one of these books and probably both you talk a little about myth and the function of myth.
Brian Swimme: Yes.
Wright: What is a myth supposed to do for us? And can it be true or not true? Does it matter? Yours is true.
Brian Swimme: Yes there's there's that business of is it true or not true. Now that we have our scientific account does that somehow relegate all other accounts to falsehood and those are big issues. I I think of it as every every culture has it's way of establishing what it regards as real and so ours in now scientific. It doesn't it doesn't remove some of the importance of former stories but it changes them. And there are certain things that the former stories do that our scientific story doesn't do. So I I don't think of it science as being the truth and all the rest are just fairy tales. It's rather it's a very particular and interesting and and profound way of getting in touch with some of the important realities of the universe. So, a myth or story or now our scientific account it enables us to to orient our self in the universe. I would say that that would probably be the primary fact of the myth. It gives us sense of where we are and what's the nature of this universe and what what's the meaning of human existence and then and then even even what is my role in the midst of all that... I would say those are the...\
Wright: And does does it help tell you what what you should do?
Brian Swimme: Yea.
Wright: What your values should be?
Brian Swimme: Yes I think so.
Wright: So historically a myth does that...
Brian Swimme: Right.
Wright: And your goal in writing up the scientific story in this form is is to help people do that?
Brian Swimme: Yes I'd say so. One of the the differences with the way which we approached it was to see that the the basic modern stance of a knower apart from the universe isn't really viable now with our understanding of how we arrive at knowledge so we're attempting to not exactly tell the scientific story but rather we're trying to tell the story of the universe really based on science but inspired by other insights from other cultural accounts so it would be a it'd be an attempt to look at the universe telling it's own story. In fact one time we talked about the title being "The Autobiography of the Universe." So it's I think that's a fundamental shift that comes about in sometime during 20th Century science. It's no longer ...you know us knowing this universe out there...
Wright: And speaking of the universe telling it's own story, there's very much a sense in your books of the universe really being alive.
Brian Swimme: Yes.
Wright: You you tend to blur the distinction between you know often you hear words like "pre-biotic" and "biotic" to refer to you know before life and and and the living world. I gather you don't emphasize that distinction nearly as much as a lot of people and you and you come across phrases in your writing like you know the universe making choices, the universe had to make a series of choices to get us to where we are today and so on. What do you mean by that?
Brian Swimme: And the word choice would be a world that we tend to use exclusively in the human world, so in in the modern temper we we we relegate decision making to humans and then when you move outside of humanity it becomes the world of instinct and then if you further it's the world of mechanism so that is going to make it difficult to use the word choice and talk about actions in the universe but certainly you know from a strictly scientific point of view the universe goes through a series of steps and they... you can call them bifurcation moment ... so the universe it gets to a critical area and the it takes a direction. Now, there would be a way in which you could talk about that that's random without any sort of relevance to something like a decision but then what's remarkable is that we look back over the whole 14 billion year sequence and those earlier bifurcation moments, those seem to have a relationship with what we see about us now and so it's that connection with...
Wright: So the universe, from our point of view kept making the right decision. In the sense that it kept moving in a direction that was conducive to live.
Brian Swimme: Yes. Right. Yes that would be a way of saying it right.
Wright: And and and this this gets at a question I have... now you definitely with this story you want to do some things that religion has traditionally done, orient people, inform their values and so on... one thing a lot of religions have done is give people a sense that things were meant to be you know... there was a God that designed the universe or there were some supernatural order that imbues their own life with purpose. And there, as I read you, you are kind of teetering on the edge of that but not quite doing it. Right?
Brian Swimme: Yes. That's right. Teetering is not a word I'd use but it would certainly... there I guess it's trying so hard to get a feel for the way in which there is a random dimension to the universe without question.
Wright: Let me give you let me give you an example ...
Brian Swimme: Yes.
Wright: ... of you talk in "The Universe Story" about several kind of parameters of the universe that were just quite exquisitely fortuitous from our point of view. If they had been off a little in either direction, things would have collapsed, life could have been impossible or something. Here's just one example, you're talking about the curvature of space time which I can't quite imagine clearly but anyway ... the curvature of space time: "Had the curvature been a fraction larger the universe would have immediately collapsed down into a massive black hole. Had it been a fraction smaller the universe would had exploded into a scattering of lifeless particles. Thus the curvature of the universe is sufficiently closed to maintain a coherence of it's various components and sufficiently open to allow for a continued creativity." Now a lot of other you know...
Brian Swimme: Yes. Yes.
Wright: ...gravitational constant whatever I don't know if you mention that one but there are various things you do mention...
Brian Swimme: Right.
Wright: Now some people conventionally religious people have looked at these things and have said clearly the universe was designed for a purpose it's just too good to be true. What's what's your view on that?
Brian Swimme: Well I guess first of all it'd be the word design because as soon as you use the word design at least for me it then you're talking about a designer and so you have you have someone sort of outside the universe, Newton's idea was tinkering with it so you set the universe and kind of run run and tinker with it but I think what is what word discovers something way more exciting that is that universe is finding it's way, the universe is you know probing and exploring and it is from the beginning it's it's in search of something. Now I mean that I'm personifying by using that...
Brian Swimme: ... and that is that does make it hard I think...
Wright: Well but how literally do you mean the the personification. I mean is the you know... you do think the universe is a living system?
Brian Swimme: Yes.
Wright: And now living systems do have purposes though in the sense I mean even evolutionary biologists would say that an animal you can say is "designed by natural selection" and that's why it pursues goals like getting it's genes into the next generation and and and and goals that are subordinate to that I mean when we think of a living system we think of something that is the result of at least a process of design even if it's a kind of impersonal process like natural selection and something that has it's own little set of goals, right?
Brian Swimme: Yes.
Wright: Is that what you mean to imply?
Brian Swimme: I do...
Wright: About... you do? So the universe does have a purpose.
Brian Swimme: I would not call it it's own little set of goals.
Wright: No. Well if it's the universe it's big goals. Obviously.
Brian Swimme: Yes. I think that the universe does have purpose it does have direction in the sense that but they're not in my own way of thinking they're not fully formed. There are I think something like, go back early in the universe, I think there are literally an infinite of things that are possible but out of all those universe is always striving to give birth to the to the richness that's there potentially that'd be one way of how I'd talk about it so that it it could be that the universe would be very very different than it is right now, but it would still have something like life and something like a kind of rich inner-connected world of our planet. That'd be how I'd look at it. Those those those aims are present somehow, darkly, and then how are they present? Well. I don't know. I mean, we just found this out. We just discovered all this.
Wright: You mean by "all this" you mean?
Brian Swimme: I mean the the discovery of the big bang cosmology...
Brian Swimme: ... is extremely recent. We've been humans for 150,000 years.
Brian Swimme: And now just just just like yesterday we discovered some of the details of this happening we call the universe and so I it's going to take us time to to sort out really what's going on. When... to talk about designers... I think I think that's unfortunately collapsing back into a previous way of thinking that isn't... it's more exciting than that.
Wright: But but purpose is a word you are willing...
Brian Swimme: Yes.
Wright: ... to use.
Brian Swimme: Yes I am.
Wright: So the universe has a purpose?
Brian Swimme: Yes.
Wright: And you don't exactly what it is but you got a feeling that sentient life is part of the point.
Brian Swimme: Yes. Yes I do. Right. Sentient life and and and display of all kinds of energy constellations. So that the universe starts off so simple really in terms of of of it's structure and yet over time it just it throws out all this exotic stuff. So I think that is part of one of the main aims of the universe...
Wright: To display...
Brian Swimme: Yes...
Wright: ... beautiful stuff...
Brian Swimme: Yes.
Wright: But there wouldn't be much point in displaying beautiful stuff if there weren't creatures capable of apprehending beautiful stuff. I mean who is it showing off for?
Brian Swimme: Well, that's a good question. But it may it may just that alone may be what the universe is about... it doesn't happen without...
Wright: This is kind of it reminds me of kind of Whitehead a little bit.
Brian Swimme: Oh yes I would say that the three thinkers...
Wright: He was a process theologian, right?
Brian Swimme: Process... yes.
Wright: And and and do you have a good thumbnail definition of that or should we pass over that? What what what does process theology mean?
Brian Swimme: He would be a he would be a you know the first process thinker that gave birth to process theology. He was really doing cosmology. And his his I give you here's a thumbnail sketch of Whitehead... His idea was that we have in science exhausted the mechanistic metaphor and it it took us places but it was it was no longer viable in terms of what we learned but especially the quantum world so he was attempting to give a framework for understanding the universe with organism as the fundamental concept not machine. That would be one way to think about it. And then his idea of organism would be that that the fundamental reality of the universe is an experience in subject so his phrase is outside of experiencing subjects there's nothing nothing just bright nothingness. So not only would ... he would say it's not just display but it's the richness the intensity of the experience that would be what the universe is aiming at.
Wright: Ok. The so really I'm a little surprised because you're being more explicit than I think you generally are in your writing about the idea that the universe has a purpose. Maybe I mean I haven't read every word you've written but but but I'm a little surprised and what I was going to ask you was isn't this one thing that religions have traditionally done that you're world view doesn't do... that is to say by suggesting an over-arching purpose imbue people lives with a meaning from beyond in some sense... I mean would you say your world view has a transcendent source of meaning in it?
Brian Swimme: You see when you words like beyond then I start to loose my confidence because I'm really working out of primarily the scientific data so also like the word beyond or also transcendence I get a little bit uneasy but I would use I would use a word like inscendence ... I mean it's the idea that that it's the meaning and we're discovering is here and it's in this process we're reflecting upon this amazing process so we're speculating about what the meaning is and I mean humans have always done that. And so when you say a theologian is talking about the transcendence, well they're still talking about reflection on experience one way or another. So I think that our time is something like in significance something like the time the (()) age when these huge religious systems were constructed.
Wright: Is this between kind of what 300-800 B.C.E. or something?
Brian Swimme: Yes.
Wright: Around the world you had major rethinkings of kind of spiritual and moral concepts. Daoism, Confucianism, Plato...
Brian Swimme: The prophets.
Brian Swimme: And that's a huge moment.
Brian Swimme: And then we have run on that imagery for all those centuries. But throughout that entire time there was no knowledge of evolution I mean...
Brian Swimme: Really.
Brian Swimme: And so now we have this vast thing so we in "The Universe Story" we're simply trying to to point out what's taking place something immense is happening so rather than haul in concepts from other religious systems the idea here is lets reflect on what we're discovering freshly originally... you know this is Emerson's cry, "Can't we have an original relationship with the universe?" So that that's really what so again if we can avoid words like beyond and transcendence I'm comfortable with the idea that what I'm trying to do is to is to provide a reflections on meaning that would be similar in form to previous eras.
Wright: Ok. What is what is the connection of this to pantheism? Which is, as I understand it, is the idea that the universe is in some sense God, is divine, and it's a world view that, like yours, is adverse to talking about things beyond the universe or or transcendent things but wants to attribute a kind of sacredness to the universe which seems to me a little bit what you're after.
Brian Swimme: You know I have I have all this confidence and enthusiasm when I am talking about the universe and it just amazes me to think about the stars and trees and you know ants and... but as soon as you use a word like pantheist or pantheism then I feel as if I'm talking about a category of theology that I know nothing about so I it's I don't like to think about I don't like to think about the universe as being God I don't like to think about the universe as being sort of like controlled by God. I'm just trying to look at what seems to be the case if we just take in what we're experiencing about the universe and not using categories of theology... I mean other people might be able to do that very well...
Wright: Right but there's clearly for example you use the word "numinous" a lot...
Brian Swimme: Yes. Yes.
Wright: Now numinous means what?
Brian Swimme: Ok. Numinous would be... that certainly would be a word I'm comfortable talking about. It is I think it's it's being shocked by the splendor of existence so to say numinous is to is to say something like it's an awareness that what you're experiencing just goes beyond the categories of thought you have been taught to apprehend those things. I think that is what's taking place in the the scientific mentality that what ... the thing I was trying to talk about in "Hidden Heart" ... it is something to reflect on that Einstein couldn't handle what he had discovered...
Wright: This is where he fudged the... what was it he couldn't accept? That the universe is expanding at that point?
Brian Swimme: That the universe is expanding.
Wright: And that was an implication of his own equations and yet he assumed it was not true or couldn't handle the thought that it was true and so he stuck in this famous fudge constant...
Brian Swimme: Exactly.
Wright: ... to neutralize the result basically.
Brian Swimme: Exactly.
Wright: What do you see his problem as having been? Why was he why was he afraid to think the universe is expanding?
Brian Swimme: Ok. This this will explain everything about me using the words numinous and not wanting to use theology and so forth... this example... because it's Einstein sitting there and reflecting and he comes up with the field equations and then you look at them and they talk about the universe expanding, well now it's worth thinking about because he didn't have the data from Hubble... we did not know the universe was expanding...
Brian Swimme: So he he had some way of contacting the dynamics of the universe out of his creativity and he wrote these equations and then they talked about the universe... so it was the universe speaking through him and yet when he looked at what the universe was saying about itself he couldn't handle it because the categories of thought of the modern period didn't enable him to think of the universe that way and one of the and Eddington who is as equally brilliant as Einstein when he got what the equations were saying he called them abhorrent. Now that's the word he used. Why would a scientist talk about abhorrence when you're talking about discovering the universe? It was because the idea of the universe was only some billions of years of old was such a shock, you see that's what I mean by numinous or the other word we use is revelatory which causes a lot of dismay from people but it's it's the universe is attempting to be felt by humans as this seed that grows into this present reality. If if the universe were infinite in time there would be no reason to be astonished by what we see here. Now that too is...
Wright: If the universe were infinite in time there'd be no reason... I mean to be honest I am more and more astonished by the fact that anything exists at all you know this famous question "Why is there something rather than nothing?" The older I get the more amazing it seems that there is something. So so I would be a little...
Brian Swimme: Ok ok alright.
Wright: I would be a little taken a back in any event... but but but elaborate on that...
Brian Swimme: Ok. If the in the sense that if the universe were infinite in time then we could form a theory that would account for order and the theory itself would be nothing special, it'd just be random conglomerations of atoms. Now in a certain sense, in my way of thinking, that is how we talk ourselves out of the astonishment of existence, of anything. Now you apparently don't need it but scientists, we were so convinced we could account for order, so convinced we had it down that when this came along it just shattered that...
Wright: I kind of see what you mean ... I mean it it it's if you look at the order and complexity that exists in the world it's in one sense amazing in it's own right but it's even more amazing if you think of all of it as having in some sense been implicit in a little infinitesimally small seed...
Brian Swimme: Yes. Thank you. Good.
Brian Swimme: Yes.
Wright: So that that's ...
Brian Swimme: The astonishment deeps.
Wright: Yes it does. It really does.
Brian Swimme: And that is what I want to celebrate.
Brian Swimme: You say "What is my work about?" It's that. It's that it's that instead... if we start off with astonishment then we I think we have a chance for wisdom but if you start off thinking the whole things is just sort of nothing but mindless mechanism and what the hell we can just we can use anyway we want. We can turn hills into commodities. I just think that beginning point right there is what I'm attempting to deal with.
Wright: Now this now you're we're getting into what I think for you is a lot of kind of the pay off a practical pay off of your world view which is you know when you start talking about commodifizing nature and so on there's a very strong ecological spirit I guess in all of your writing probably. You see that as growing out of this very natural and again this is something that religious world views do, they talk about how things are and how they came to be and that is meant to imply something about the values we should hold and how we should behave...
Brian Swimme: Exactly.
Wright: So ...
Brian Swimme: That is exactly it. If you if we have an idea that that the the things around us are just here for our use if that if we're convinced of that then and we have our powerful minds and we have all of technologies then the whole planet becomes something like a gravel pit. I think of it... that's sort of the metaphor of our time. Around this... in the modern the earth as a gravel pit or a lumber yard and that's how we view it. Now, if that's the case then we can turn all of it into McDonald's and computer chips and whatever we want. Now I think that is it's just so contrary to the the magnificence that was required for the creation of this. So we talk about anything any species any being required all 14 billion years and you begin to get a sense of "Woa. Maybe something huge is taking place that we're apart of..." and maybe our ideas -- that we're here to dominate -- those should be questioned. So it is it certainly... I didn't get in to this with the idea that I would have a political message at all. I was just amazed at the universe like a lot of scientists are when they're young and then you know as time went on and I realized that that in order to dismantle the earth as we are right now you you have to first dismantle the idea of it's sacrality. I use the word sacred, so the earth is sacred the earth is numinous ... that that has to be removed before you can take apart and so I I'm attempting to to work at that level you know.
Wright: You you you do want to attribute sacredness to the universe in order to discourage us from turning it into a gravel pit...
Brian Swimme: Yes. In order to to suggest maybe our primary orientation might be different that thinking of it as a gravel pit.
Wright: But but let me let me ask you something when you in "The Universe Story" you tell the whole story of humankind and so on... and there's a kind of direction in this story there is growing complexity even before there is life and then there are living systems of growing complexity and then humankind shows up and humankind flourishes and increasingly does dominate it's environment and subordinate the environment to it's own aims... couldn't you look at the story couldn't you turn the story around and say, "Well, this this this seems to be drift of the thing." Maybe this is the purpose... for humans to run roughshod over the planet and create gillions of copies of themselves...
Brian Swimme: Yes. So then I'll tell you my thinking on that because it is the question... where I start of is the the fundamental news of our time is that the Cenozoic era is ending. The Cenozoic era is the way biologists would talk about the last 65 million years. So over the last half billion years we've had these three major eras of life... the Paleozoic the Mesozoic and the Cenozoic ... and they're characterized they're ending is characterized by a collapse of the system. The news of our time is that the Cenozoic era is coming to a close. Now that is that's news that will remain news for a million years because it will take roughly 10 million years for the system to achieve it's level it's level of beauty and diversity that was present a century ago so that's why that's the background of my of my comments... Is that a mistake? Is it inevitable? Were humans supposed to do this? In my thinking the human self-reflective mind is a is a novel emergence and it is turns out to be colossal ... it turns out to be a whole geological era. But it is, it's related to the way the dynamics of the universe work. What happens is that things that are negligible become dominant in this universe if you go back over 14 billion years. One example, if you look at the early universe what dominates is light so if you know what's going on with light, you know the whole story... matter is there but it's just swept along by the light. And then the universe is cooling cooling so it gets to a point where the matter matches the energy of the light and so you have another universe so that now you've got matter and light interacting you have the galaxies forming so that this takes place again and again and the same thing happened with us... we were this little negligible species about 4 million years ago... well our hominid ancestors... but then we had this new power of self-reflexive consciousness. And that has grown to become dominant. Right now we're making decision that match something like the atmosphere... so that we are the atmosphere over several billions of years worked out a whole carbon cycle, very intricate, all the plants and the waters are involved... processes 2 billion tons of carbon every year... right now we're adding 6 billion tons of carbon. So human decision now matches the atmosphere. All of our cultural traditions were formed not knowing this about the human so recent we've become a planetary power in in our action but not in our consciousness.
Wright: Right. Well I mean to some extent shouldn't just kind of crass self-interest lead us in this in this direction? I mean not wanting to live in a junkyard?
Brian Swimme: That would be one way... that would certainly be one way to go but I ... that would be again within the within the orientation of of the planets or for the human... and all I'm trying to suggest is that...
Wright: Right. I notice this this in your writing... you are going beyond that you're not just saying we need an environment that people like to live in you say at one point something like human significance is derivative from the larger significance of life...
Brian Swimme: That's right. I guess in trying to give in one sense what would be the different that I think that at least I'm trying to discuss is this that the ...during the modern period the the human... all source of reality and value was a human. Right now it is the human so that you know what's water for, well water's for the human. We use huge portion of the fresh water on the planet now so... the shift is to seeing that the Earth's community is primary and the human is derivative of that. That that offends certain sensibilities in some sense the idea of the Earth being somehow primary but it is in a certain sense obvious because the whole system is what gave birth to us. And so it's tempting to recognize that we're a mode of the whole and then to find our way inside of that exquisite reality we call Earth as opposed to thinking as opposed to thinking that we we know what we're here for and it has to do with this this consumer society we've we've constructed. I think that's the main division between ...
Wright: So your sense of your own significance as a person is inseparable from your sense of connection to the larger system of life...
Brian Swimme: Yes.
Wright: Ok. So if you were forced to chose between let's see wiping out the human species so that the rest of the ecosystem could survive on the one hand and wiping out the ecosystem and moving humans to like pre-fab houses on Mars... but that way at least the human species would survive ... would you have a clear preference there? I know I would.
Brian Swimme: It's just it's so... I guess here if I had to chose between living in a world of artifact entirely or living in relationship to these amazing realities we call animals or rivers I'd chose I'd chose the Earth community as a whole. The idea of the idea of the mall of America as our sacred sight and life inside there ... I mean I just find that a shriveling up of the ecstasy of living.
Wright: But but so one thing you are doing is bringing spirituality into the scientific age and trying to give it a scientific foundation... reconciling it with science, right?
Brian Swimme: That might be a way ... that might be how it appears you know to you or to other people and that might be a valider way but I really am not... what I'm really really doing... I'm trying to do is is to offer a way of of expanding and deepening what it means to be a human. To me there is a there is a there's a kind of of thrill of realizing that this this whole universe was involved with giving birth our moment and I just it I don't have to think that I don't have to think that that Brian Swimme was somehow intended in the past, I don't mean that at all... I just mean that those events that took place in the past, just the supernova explosion, that every atom of our body, all of the these the elements had to be forged in a star... I mean... and then the star had to explode and and spew this all out and then it had to come together I mean I tell ... people come to me and ... just my friends and so forth and they're complaining about oh you know their jobs or their relationships or whatever it might be and I say look 5 billion years ago all the atoms of your body were strewn out over a hundred million miles. Now you think you've got problems now? What if you were in charge of getting all that together in your body just just the idea is just it's about the thrill of ecstasy that's what I'm I'm about... that's what I'm really trying to do, I'm trying to I'm trying to say that you see we have this ... I had this conversation with a biologist once and he was was asking me "What motivates you?" And I said I'm really disturbed by the way in which the species are going extinct, we're losing 30,000 species a year... it's enormous and just horrible and he looked at me and then he looked behind me then he said "You know, like that pine tree back there, if that went extinct, we could just make another one." The idea that biotechnology can invent a new species, never been done... it's never been done but we think ok we're going to make new species... it's so it's a crazy kind of faith in a technological power that we don't have. Then I said to him... I was trying to establish a relationship by saying "Tell me about when when you discovered that..." -- he discovered a form of life which is fantastic -- I said, "Just tell me about that... what was it like when you discovered that?" And he said, "Nothing. I didn't have any feeling at all." I said, "I don't believe it." He said, "You stare into a microscope 16 hours a day at dust and see what you feel at that point." So I got it that science had has put so much energy into getting the details right and now what we discover is overwhelming. So I'm simply trying to make that available. I think it's another way of entering into the joy of being human.
Wright: So you you don't there's not necessarily where you see religion heading in the modern world? I mean ... or is it?
Brian Swimme: So, the various religions...?
Wright: Yes you would expect ultimately you know religions eventually sooner or later have to reckon with other forms of knowledge that establish their credibility.
Brian Swimme: Yes right.
Wright: And you would and and and there's the separate fact that right now the world's religions are kind of coming together and... because of globalization and and sometimes it's not working out that well and and and the the divergence the contrast of the belief systems is a problem and there are people I think who are hopeful that someday you could have more of a lingua franca among the world's religions and part of that language might be science which is something they're going to have to reckon with anyway. It has the advantage of being true and and so you know you hear talk about this ... what do you think of it?
Brian Swimme: Oh I love that. Definitely. I think that the the there's a there's a program at Harvard called the Forum on Religion and Ecology and they have brought together people from around the planet and all the major religions. They've had 10 major conferences and they had they have a website and it's on going but they just imagine you had you had like Jainism and ecology and you have Christianity and ecology and Buddhism and ecology... so ecology in other words the planet becomes the context in which this discussion can take place. If you if you take Buddhism and Christianity and so forth there's a kind of battle a subtle sort of struggle taking place because they're not standing in a common ground but if take the Earth or ecology then suddenly they can begin to explore what they had to offer. So I do think I do think absolutely that the the there will be a flourishing of religions, not a withering away. And they will flourish to the degree that they will move into the context of planet and universe. I even think that as a matter of fact that the some of the central insights of the religions are more powerfully presented by what we know about the universe now then when they were first formulated.
Wright: What's an example of that?
Brian Swimme: Well to take one example from Islam in the Sufi tradition they they they talked forever about the birth of the universe out of emptiness and so we will talk about that as the birth of the universe out of the quantum vacuum and they and they'll also talk about the idea that the universe is being born out of this emptiness continuously which is also what we talk about, not just the birth of the universe 13 or 14 billion years ago but every moment there's these particles are falling existence out of the quantum vacuum so I mean it's not something that quantum physicists were thinking about at all but they ended up articulating an aspect of the universe which has deep resonance with things like Muslim theology.
Wright: Yes, I wanted to ask you about that. It's you know you you use the phrase "the all nourishing abyss"...
Brian Swimme: Yes.
Wright: And you another another phrase used is "the bottomless vaults of generosity" meaning the universe is generosity.
Brian Swimme: Yes.
Wright: And as you said that that is and as you note in in one of your books it it's reminiscent of some conceptions of God. You could probably bring Daoism in here too right? The when you talk about an all nourishing abyss and and and and probably certain variants of Hinduism and so on. So is there is there kind of a God in your system?
Brian Swimme: Well I guess you know you talk about God ... it's just this vast word, "God," and... as soon as you say God there are centuries of Jewish and Muslim and Christian theology that rises up and ... so I don't use the word but I do I do think of a like a pervasive whole... an intelligence and a depth of feeling that I just refer to as the whole. Now, is that God?
Wright: You attribute feeling to it? Because I'd say you'd definitely moving in the direction of a God if we can you know...
Brian Swimme: Yes.
Wright: ... if you are willing to cross that threshold.
Brian Swimme: I guess I would I would put it this way that this is sort of where I feel comfortable I've come up with saying this ... the the feeling that well up in the human or in the goldfish whatever they are these feeling are a particular manifestation of a reality that goes beyond us and so it's something like the way in which the quantum fields feel given the opportunity of our complexity something like that.
Wright: Say that again.
Brian Swimme: I'd say something like the way in which the quantum fields... we talk about you know the quantum fields fluctuating throughout the universe and then we we conceive of them as as sort of inert without feeling and so forth ... I'm not going and talking about them per say but I'm saying it's it's the way in which they would feel if they are given the opportunity of complexity of the human so that there is there is a there is a dimension to the universe that is activated by our particular complex form that it's a relationship but I'm not saying it's identical.
Brian Swimme: I would think it'd be much less.
Wright: Because you you so often write about the universe as if it had as if it were literally kind of animate that that I wondered whether you think it is like something to be the universe... I mean we're part of the universe. It's like something to be us and in that sense the universe is sentient this one little corner of the universe is sentient but but it sounds like maybe you're agnostic on whether any larger the universe is sentient in a larger sense.
Brian Swimme: Well I guess I think I don't want to say the universe as a whole is sentient and because the reason I don't is this is because I think whatever it is it goes beyond the reach of our language right now. I don't think I have a clear way of saying what it is ,I'm just saying I feel as if it surfaces in this particular way.
Wright: And you also write sometimes as if this sort of sentience we constitute is kind of a latent reality all along.
Brian Swimme: Definitely. That's exactly what I think. Exactly. And that's what I mean about in terms of the possibilities. They're all... there's a great phrase from Eric Yaunch, he's talking about Illia Prigogine's work, and he says, he's talking about self-organizing dynamics... now that's just a phrase, what does it mean and he's trying to get at it and he says, "these self-organizing dynamics are in every place in the universe, waiting to at their marks." I love that phrase because you get that that you know for instance the ability the power for making water exists everywhere in the universe but the conditions have to be right but if the conditions are right these these self-organizing dynamics leap to it so I think it's something like that that those the possibility for sentience has always been there but waiting for a chance to really display.
Wright: And we're at least in this corner of the universe...
Brian Swimme: Well... you say we, the Earth community as a whole? Yes.
Wright: No I just mean you and me.
Wright: One kind of off the wall question, you mentioned light a couple of times... I'm only...I don't know much about light. But I've kind of started to get a sense of how strange it is I mean it's just in it's own category, right? It it it I ... Hughston Smith has kind of done some writing about how strange light is and he's almost comparing it to God, not quite.
Brian Swimme: Yes.
Wright: ... but... Yes what is it about light? What are some of it's amazing properties?
Brian Swimme: Well here's one, I mean, the more I learn about light the more I realize, man, I don't know anything about light... It's just bizarre. There the ... so we have the idea of time with Einstein relativistic time and how it change if you move and so we ... a particle has it's own proper time which slows down as you speed up. But at the speed of light it... there's no time. That's bizarre especially in terms of the ... that we can, right now, as you know, see interact with the light that has come from the birth of the universe. So we from our point of view, that light traveled for 14 billion years but from the point of view of the light it's the moment of creation.
Wright: But but but but are you saying we got here faster than the light did? I mean, that's not possible, is it? I mean we're just looking back and seeing light that took ...
Brian Swimme: It's two steps.
Brian Swimme: ... two steps to get there. One is that if we just look out and you look out and this is what Hubble did we see these galaxies you look further see galaxies and you go out 12 billion light years ok and you're seeing early galaxies ... they're early because the light had to travel 12 billion years to get here so we're looking at the galaxies 12 billion years ago when they're just forming. I mean that alone is just unbelievable to me... that we're watching the galaxies form in real time...
Brian Swimme: We're like watching them form... I can't get over that but then now if you look further than12 billion light years you don't see galaxies because now you're seeing back before there were galaxies. You're seeing to a time before there were galaxies...
Brian Swimme: ... and then you're still seeing some stuff...
Wright: You're not seeing a place where now there are no galaxies you're just... you're seeing a different time. You're not seeing a different place in real time you're seeing a different time.
Brian Swimme: You're seeing a different place at a different time...
Wright: ...at a different time... right.
Brian Swimme: Exactly. So now you look back and you you can you can see all the way to 13.89 billion so say 14 billion years you can see 14 billion light years away and then nothing. In other words we don't see anything beyond that point beyond that point. So what we're the way in which we understand all this is that we're seeing the light that was emitted at the birth of the universe. That's the first step. So that now that light so that here it's right now we interact with it ... 14 billion years it's been flying towards us but from the point of the view of the light, it's there at the moment of creation
Brian Swimme: So we... we... it's ... so time becomes more interesting because of light. So we're here 14 billion years later but in some sense because we're reacting to the light or we're reacting to the event of creation itself....
Brian Swimme: Yes...
Wright: No, go ahead...
Brian Swimme: Well I'm just saying I don't know how to think about that. I don't know how to think about the fact that the light hasn't aged. But that's what we're .... that's how we think on it...
Wright: I mean I use to think of light as just another available form of information you know there's sound waves there are the molecules that represent smells and you would expect an evolving form of life to it's I mean it's not surprising that an evolving form of life should pick up on should develop a sense for utilizing whatever forms of information there are and there are smells and there are sounds and there is touch things to touch and there is light so in that sense light is just another form of information and it's especially useful because it moves so fast that it can give you you know a certain kind of information. But then you know when you start seeing equations like E = mc2 you know and you think wait a second why is this particular form of information central to to to to the way matter is converted into energy and vice versa and I just don't have an answer to that... I mean there's something ultimate about light.
Brian Swimme: There's something ultimate about light there is something about ultimate about light and the universe seems to be somehow structured by light ....
Wright: It's weird.
Brian Swimme: It's weird.
Wright: Speaking of which, what do you make of quantum mechanics?
Brian Swimme: Well that would do the again one of the ways in which the the light comes in ... is it a point? is it a particle? is it a wave? how do you how do you understand that? And I think that my what I get out of the quantum world is that the universe is more interesting then we're able to capture in our language. It's not that after a few more years work we're going to find the term or whether or not light is a wave or a particle. But rather it is there's a richness that we attempt we attempt to say something about it we can't we can't fully capture it. I don't... I don't want to go into the intricacies of ...
Wright: You do talk a little about non-locality in one of your...
Brian Swimme: Yes.
Wright: ...books, meaning this idea that events can influence another across vast distances of space ...in principle instantaneous right? In that sense faster than the speed of light.
Brian Swimme: That's one way to look at it.
Brian Swimme: There... the word influence would be would be really thorny and scientists would argue about that ... the way I would say it that would be kind of more conservative would be so say this that the events that are are separate that are far apart they are nevertheless physically correlated.
Wright: Yes but they're not they're not correlated in the I mean they're not just correlate I mean if you you know if you if you sent two bullets fired out in opposite direction and imparted the exact kind of same spin on them then it might be the case that 2 miles down the road they were both still correlated but that's that's definitely not what they're talking about in quantum physics, right? They're talking about you make an observation of some particle or something here. And the fact that you made the observation influences the state of the particle two miles away, right? Isn't that the idea?
Brian Swimme: Well...well again there's a lot of interpretation about that or argument. I would put it this way that the and I'm really I'm just I'm reporting what people are saying about this is that they are you know the phrase is entanglement so these ....
Brian Swimme: ...they're entangled and so that when you make a measurement you're affecting the whole experimental situation. That's the part I get excited about. You see when you talk about well one way to interpret it is that something is moving from the from this observation over here faster than the speed of light and that I suppose is one way to look at it but I think the way that seems more viable to me is coming out of David Boem and and there it is that it is the whole once again it's the undivided wholeness so that we we naturally want to think of of these particles here as being simply located... and that and we can't do that. Now that I find really fascinating. In other words that this whole physical situation in some sense is present here and it's also present here... it's present everywhere. Now this relates to the earlier questions about how I seen the universe as living and or God and all those kind of words I think I think the discovery of non-localities touching in on the whole so that these these seemingly separate events are somehow connected through the whole. That's the way David Boem would talk about it and I think that's a fascinating way to talk about it. So then you'll have you have this larger enveloping field and we're you know just beginning to understand something about that... so I love that discovery although I don't think we're anymore near really knowing what we've come upon.
Wright: Yes. And finally I just want to revisit a little this issue of your world view, the world view that you put forth in your writing compared to a conventional religion. It clearly has some of the characteristics of a conventional religion... it describes the world, how it came to be, helps orient you in that world... you believe it has implications for how you should behave, how you should treat the world.... the but there are other things that religions do one is one is -- at least many religions -- give people a sense of I guess a sense of peace or a sense of consolation or in the face of tribulations whatever... does your world view do some of this for you in your everyday life?
Brian Swimme: Yes.
Wright: In what way?
Brian Swimme: Which one... there are several...
Wright: Well any of this... sense of peace, yes.
Brian Swimme: Ok. Sense of peace. So I'm like anyone whose alert... anxious about our situation and especially the the kind of world that is going to be here in the generations to come. So, that's constantly on my mind. Now... and especially when I think of the lack of leadership at our national political level...this lack of awareness of what the real issues of our time are... it's easy to become really discouraged. But if you look back over the universe story, what's incredible is the universe gets itself into these situations that just seem so bleak and yet there's these there's I mean I mentioned the supernova before I mean this here there's where my peace comes from... you have a star and then it's burning it's burning hydrogen and it's creating helium. After a while it uses up the hydrogen and the whole thing starts to collapse because the inner core is not longer able to to press against the gravitational collapse and the temperature soars to a hundred million degrees... it starts to burn the helium and then it uses that up. And then finally when it gets up to iron it can't burn anymore. Now at that point it's obvious to anyone who knows what's going on at the level of star that it's over. And the collapse is inevitable it just in a second the whole thing goes down to a dot and explodes out and then we have the creation of all the elements of the universe enabling the adventure to move forward so the break through moments are unimaginable until they happen.
Wright: ... but they do sometimes involve short term catastrophes.
Brian Swimme: Yes they do. Yes. In other words, this isn't some somehow shielding me from the reality of suffering but it is in the midst of it there's there's I have a sense that something amazing is at work, namely that I think our planet ... you didn't actually ask this question but I think our planet is actually moving into a time of profound harmony and fecundity and peace but whether that's going to take 600 years or 6 days I don't know I mean I think that as humans begin to take seriously... you'll like this ... as humans begin to take seriously the planetary dimension of conscious self awareness then we will become homonized versions of natural selection so that we will begin to make decision with the large scale dynamic of the planet in mind so I see that we're actually entering into a transformation of the human species out of the modern period into this new era... It may take centuries... but like the past and it's catastrophes I think that's is what's taking place in the midst of so many hardships ...
Wright: So people are coming to terms with for one thing their inner-dependency with one another and their inner-dependency with the ecosystem and so on? Or you're optimistic that they will come to terms with that?
Brian Swimme: I think they are coming to terms with that in different ways and that they will more so in the future. But I would even go further... inner-dependency is maybe the first step but I think it's ultimately a kinship. I mean just we ... so you have a religion that says you know God created all of the people and so you were all sons and daughters of God say... well I'm not saying anything like that but it amounts to something similar. We all float out of this process so that we are kin we're cousins we're genetic kin and I mean to really get that every human in African these are things that we sort of know scientifically but to really live that way that we are all cousins and not just humans but throughout the planet I'm saying as that as we start to live what we know to be the case then we will enter more deeply into this period of peace.
Wright: So does this help you in everyday life? Your world view? When you are walking down the street and you see someone and they may be doing something annoying I mean but but does this world view help you kind of empathize with them or I mean on a daily basis do you actually draw on this as a resource? ...kind of spiritual resource in that way...
Brian Swimme: Yes.
Wright: You like people more as a result of thinking about the universe story? Honestly?
Brian Swimme: I guess I would say that it I would put it more in terms of relationship... I feel as if ... you mentioned... talk about evil before that you have you know this amazing realization that if you're a hawk what's evil for the hawk is the mouse because the you know the mouse is quick and gets away but I did this one realization every scientist goes through at one point... if you gave the hawk power, the power of God, the first thing the hawk might do is to slow down the mouse. But then the hawk would lose it's speed. And then if you slow the mouse all the way down so it can just barely move the hawk would lose it's flight so that in a weird way the the tension between those two say natural enemies is what gives birth to their beauty so I definitely feel that the tension we have right now with in the human community in particular that those are ultimately going to be resolved and a deeper harmony and a deeper appreciation for one another and a respect so that hits me yes definitely everyday I think.
Wright: But certainly if you if you look at the history of life on this planet for analogies there could be massive disruption before the next phrase of progress, right?
Brian Swimme: That's right.
Wright: And that leads to I guess what's probably my last question... one thing religions do is help people deal with death. What you've just kind of said is you're long wrong optimistic for the system as a whole but doesn't sound like you're necessarily short run optimistic for my prospects or yours or any given persons and in any event however optimistic you are we all have to deal with death. Does this world view do anything for you? Anything about death?
Brian Swimme: Well... I think so in the in the sense that is like before when I was talking about how we maybe moving into a different era of humanity it is not just about inner-dependency about kinship but I think it's also an understanding of identity so that we have a sense of our personhood and there are individuals and maybe we're Americans or scientists whatever we might be but what I think we're discovering is that we're we're of the earth ... we're earthlings and maybe take it further then we are universe beings and then if you know for me to reflect upon the nature of who I am I realize I can't stop I mean in other words all of that has to be included... you have to go all the way back 14 billion years so ... one of the things that relates here is the... we talked about before in terms of decision... all these decisions that were made create the kind of universe that we live in. I think of the universe as being free in each moment so it could have been so different. Every moment we're making decisions. If you want to understand the universe as a whole you'd have to include all those decisions including our own lives so that even in the future our presence is going to be felt one way or the other so I think of the I think of of our death as being it's a death to a micro phase self or a small self ... it's a death into our larger self in that this this whole vast adventure is our larger identity.
Wright: So kind of like atman and brahman. as the Hindus. say the individual soul dissolving into the larger spirit?
Brian Swimme: Again you know it may be not knowing really that tradition well...
Wright: ... as well as I do I'm sure.
Brian Swimme: But it is definitely the idea of whole and part. You know and... I think I think the anxieties over death have a lot to do with ....
Wright: But feeling kinship with other beings and feel that in a sense the universe is alive helps you feel a little better about the knowledge that you are going to at least physically just dissolve into it.
Brian Swimme: Yes. Yes.
Wright: Ok. Let's end on an upbeat note then. Thanks thanks thanks a lot then. This has been fun.
Brian Swimme: My pleasure.