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

Duane Elgin

Thanks for joining this conversation. You ask the core question: “What can we learn from this discussion that will help us ensure that our part of the universe, Earth, will continue to live”? In this regard, I appreciated your suggestion that we can hold different expressions of “aliveness” at the same time. As I’ve written earlier, I do not view the universe as being alive in the same manner as biological organisms here on the Earth. Instead, this is a different kind of aliveness—a distinction beautifully summarized by Plato who wrote, “The universe is a single living creature that contains all living creatures within it.” We can each discover this containing aliveness with a “science of consciousness”—a process of direct inspection whereby the knowing faculty of consciousness is turned back upon itself. This trans-conceptual process has been underway for thousands of years, engaging cultures all around the world. What is discovered in the process of direct inspection—a “science of self”—is beautifully summarized by Edward Carpenter in a book now more than a century old:

Of all the hard facts of Science: as that fire will burn, that water will freeze, that the earth spins on its axis, and so forth, I know of none more solid and fundamental than the fact that if you inhibit thought (and persevere) you come at length to a region of consciousness below or behind thought, and different from ordinary thought in its nature and character—a consciousness of quasi-universal quality, and a realization of an altogether vaster self than that to which we are accustomed. And since the ordinary consciousness, with which we are concerned in ordinary life, is before all things founded on the little local self, and is in fact self-consciousness in the little local sense, it follows that to pass out of that is to die to the ordinary self and the ordinary world. It is to die in the ordinary sense, but in another sense it is to wake up and find that the ‘I,’ one’s real, most intimate self, pervades the universe and all other beings—that the mountains and the sea and the stars are a part of one’s body and that one’s soul is in touch with the souls of all creatures.  [THE DRAMA OF LOVE AND DEATH: A Study of Human Evolution and Transfiguration, by Edward Carpenter, New York, Kennerley, 1912, p. 79.]

Unless someone directly engages in this scientific experiment of sustained inspection of their own knowing process or consciousness, this may seem like fantasy. But across the millennia and across cultures, this same insight has emerged again and again. We might consider this insight has been “peer reviewed” by examining people’s direct experience of their relationship with the universe. Across thousands of years and diverse cultures there have been numerous reports of spontaneous insight that the universe is a living system within which we are intimate participants. These experiences take people beyond their limited sense of biological self and, as Edward Carpenter describes, into feelings of direct communion with the entirety of existence. These experiences are often accompanied by feelings of love at the foundation of the cosmos, a sense that we belong here, that the universe is our larger home, and that the universe is uniquely alive.
Surveys of these unitive experiences in the general population in the United States indicate that this experience has been growing. In 1962 a survey of the adult population in the U.S. found that 22 percent reported having a profound experience of communion with the universe. By 2009, this had grown dramatically to 49 percent of the adult population. With roughly half of the U.S. population reporting a personal experience of communion with the larger universe, it suggests these experiences of connection with the cosmos are not a fringe phenomenon but rather are a normal part of the life-experience of approximately half of the adult population. [For a longitudinal overview, see: Andrew Greeley and William McCready, “Are We A Nation of Mystics,” in the New York Times Magazine, January 26, 1975. For more recent findings, see: “Many Americans Mix Multiple Faiths,” Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, December 2009, Pew Research Center, 1615 L St., NW, Suite 700, Washington, D.C. 20036, http://www.pewforum.org/files/2009/12/multiplefaiths.pdf]
Returning to your core question, “what can we learn from this discussion that will help us ensure that our part of the universe, Earth, will continue to live,” I am drawn to the foundational insight that if we regard the Earth as non-living at its foundations, we will see it as a resource to exploit on behalf of the most intensely living—ourselves. Recognizing some kind of aliveness infusing the Earth and universe seems vital if we are not to unconsciously exploit the Earth and create a ruinous future for ourselves. I do not equate the paradigm of a “living universe” with biological expressions of life. However, a larger and deeper aliveness of some form seems vital to a harmonious relationship with the Earth. As you describe so powerfully the ways of the indigenous Dene culture in the arctic:

“When I [the Belgian Oblate priest] was in the camps and would see a man with an axe in his hands down on his knees in front of a tree, I didn’t say a thing.” For many of the Dene the God in the Eucharist and the God in the Tree is the same God.

The experience of awe has been described as “the ultimate ‘collective’ emotion, for it motivates people to do things that enhance the greater good. . . awe might help shift our focus from our narrow self-interest to the interests of the group to which we belong.” [NYT, Sunday Review: Why Do We Experience Awe?, May 22, 2015] The experience of a living universe evokes a natural sense of wonder and awe and could encourage the group to which we belong—entire human community—to revere and preserve the world around us.