Home Forums Deep Time Journey Forum Is the universe a "living system"? Reply To: Is the universe a "living system"?

Davidson Loehr


I know you’re heavily invested in this, but the things you’re citing are neither scientific nor evidentiary for the argument that the universe is “living.” It’s a misuse of language, and an important one to clean up. “Living” and “Dead” are biological terms. Used elsewhere, they’re being used as metaphors. You use words in senses far more “sweeping” than they can be used: Universe, living, consciousness, and the rest of them. There is no sense at all in which the Universe is alive. As most of the BH writers point out, almost everywhere, at every scale, the universe is a dull place with nothing happening: almost all suns burn out without ever growing beyond hydrogen and helium, burning out in a short time, producing nothing. The same is true at every level of magnification. The overwhelming majority of prokaryotes never got complexified at all, and are still with us — prokaryotes/bacteria/archaea account for half the biomass of the Earth today (the weight of living and recently dead things). No complexity, no advances, etc. Only rarely is this monotony broken, and to try and make those exceptions the Rule is not at all scientific. The same applies to all the words you’re using out of their original context, and in very misleading ways. I know you’re not alone in this. Many people want to think we’re special, that the Universe somehow “cares” or at least “notices” the presence of wonderful us. But no. 


This is why I keep bringing up the word “mysticism”: the game where the wish and need are parents to the data we choose to see and cite. And I know people like saying things like “we are the universe being conscious of itself,” and so on. But it’s important to say this is scientific nonsense — and to say it to the scientists who use the language this way, as well. This applies to the four qualities of “life” you cited from David Christian. When applying them to “the Universe,” you’re using them metaphorically, not factually, and not helpfully. 


In my limited experience — not enough to be scientific — the roots of mysticism are biographical and psychological. A very dear, now dead, longtime friend of mine was the example I knew best — and he helped explore his own past as we both wondered about these things. John was into every kind of (my word) goofy crap that came down the pike, and there was a LOT of that in the 70’s! Marijuana, LSD, Transcendental Meditation, Astrology, auras. I would tell him he never met a flaky idea he didn’t love. Once, I asked what he GOT out of this, and he answered quickly: “A feeling that I am loved, valuable, accepted in Reality even at its largest scales.” We were both surprised by that! He was puzzled, but figured out where that came from (John had his Ph.D. in psychology — no surprise!). His father was a fundamentalist Christian minister of the most soul-numbing literalist kind, living in a world where Rules governed absolutely everything, there was Judgment everywhere, and almost no one could ever pass that judgment — least of all John, he said. As he grew, this very bright boy grew toward adulthood with a monstrous vacuum where a contented and fertile soul should have grown. When he got to the University of Michigan in the late 60’s, he was in the perfect place to experience every sort of alternate reality there was, and he did. Marijuana first relaxed him and gave him a sense of belonging. LSD blew his mind, gave him very creative illusions, wrapped him in a “world” within which he felt loved — for the first time in his life, and so on with the rest of it. 


Once, when I was grilling him about the Astrology crap, he first told me that’s just what a Taurus would say, and wanted at least two points for that move — we decided it was worth more like five. Then he said “Oh very well, I’ll come into your world to answer your questions.” And he did. He described the whole grammar of astrology as a system of metaphors and symbols, along with fertile and imaginative images and stories, that offered him a set of lenses through which he could view the world, and the people, around him, and find insights that let him accept everyone for their “gifts differing” (he knew the Bible very well, even though he didn’t like it). That orientation let him accept the wild differences he found in people, without ever Judging them — a very bad word for him, given his biography. Acceptance meant a lot to John, and he was one of the most accepting and loving people I’ve ever known. After spending some time fleshing out this world in ways I could understand, he said “Is that enough?” I said it was, and thanked him for it. “Fine. Now if you don’t mind, I’m going back to MY world!” 


John was as complete a mystic as anyone I’ve ever known, and helped me understand why someone would leave reality for a far more fertile imaginative world/universe in which they felt — for the first time ever, in John’s case — part of an inclusive, empowering and loving Whole. We would be poorer without our mystics, whether they’re writing in religion, poetry, history, or the sciences. But we must still insist that language is too innocent to deserve being bent as mystics bend it. Yes, it’s fine in their world, as John insisted. But it’s important that in empirical sciences, we outlaw such deceptive uses of words that have their meaning in other fields: like “living,” “dead,” “metabolism,” and the rest of them. No, “the Universe” doesn’t care if we’re here, because it can’t hold any anthropomorphic attributes: caring, seeing, loving, any of them. It’s important to make distinctions between knowledge and yearning: between science (scientia = knowledge, meaning empirical knowledge) and wishing. 


I’m not trying to be mean, but am meaning to say language doesn’t deserve being used so sloppily that it can slough off its important connection with empirical facts/data. No, of course “the Universe” isn’t “living”. Mostly, it’s terribly boring, with very little of interest happening — no matter how much all those prokaryotes weigh. There’s no Presence, no Life, sort of hovering over the universe, beckoning to it and to us. I still think the metaphorical use of words whose meanings — empirical meanings — lie in quite different areas is probably best explained by biography and psychology. Nor does this condemn us to an existence without hope or meaning, though it’s misleading to use words like “hopeful” or “meaningful,” “purposeful,” outside of specific situations where “potential” can have meaningful products because the circumstances happen to be just right. People often — perhaps usually — look to religion to fill the universe with meaning, embrace them in love and so on. That’s the solipsism that is no friend of honest religion. But it’s the mortal enemy of honest science. The fact that there are some scientists, including some popular ones, who use scientific language in deeply unscientific ways doesn’t mean they’re right to do so. Personal authority can’t reach that far, even though personal need and wishing can always reach that far without even breaking a sweat. We’ve not met, Duane, and I don’t know anything about you, but you’re mixing science and religion/mysticism in ways that don’t serve either of them well, as I understand them, and as I understand language.