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    • #3234
      Jennifer Morgan

      What do you think about the articles in the latest “Origins” (the newsletter of the International Big History Association)? The questions posed in the newsletter have to do with: 1) should the IBHA conference be open to others representing approaches to a grand narrative that are different from the founders of IBHA; and 2) if the answer is yes, HOW should presentations be labeled such that attendees can identify the approach of the presenter?


    • #3357
      Duane Elgin

      The current IBHA newsletter raises the key issue of whether Big History is at a crossroads, divided into two camps of “scientists and spiritualists.” Joseph Voros revealed the reality of deep division when he stated that “Big History is a scientific, research-based discipline with core points that are not discussable. Religion and spirituality are not part of that core . . . “  

      It is extraordinary to hear that spirituality is “not discussable”! To me, this view is stunning in its exclusionary, narrow and shallow description of Big History. In my presentation at the Big History conference I concluded:

      It is scientifically valid, critical to our pathway into the future, and enormously enriching to bring a living systems paradigm into big history as a legitimate track of discovery and development.  I will add the overall presentation from the Big History conference in the resource section. See: “Deep Big History: A Living Systems Paradigm.”

      • #3388

        Duane, I read the bit about core points and came away with a different take from you. They said that the core points are not open to discussion, but that spirituality is not core. That means it’s open to discussion. No one can force spirituality down someone else’s worldview at IBHA because spirituality is not part of the core. Still, it’s legitimate, as the report says. If spirituality were part of the core with no room for dissent, then the non-spiritual people would have to bail out of the IBHA. The core is for what everyone holds in common, and spirituality is only for one segment of the participants, so it can’t be core. I don’t think atheism is core, either, but I bet there are some atheists at IBHA.

    • #3385

      That’s quite an interesting conundrum that the IBHA is facing. It doesn’t surprise me that a number of scientific people want to create a bright line between themselves and people who interpret Big History spiritually. A lot of what science does is challenge our intuitive expectations, so I can see them not wanting to open the door to BH ideas that are intuitively appealing but lack scientific rigor. As for “living systems,” that’s the sort  of intuitively appealing idea that scientists are often on guard against. Personally, I get all misty-eyed thinking of how natural selection has created systems of living organisms. Systems that weren’t created by natural selection shouldn’t be expected to be “alive” the way organisms are alive. Natural selection is unique because it creates meaning. Poetically, I can think of the universe as being alive, but literally living things got they way they are through natural selection, and there’s no natural selection driving the universe at large to do what living things do. I believe in science and poetry, so I can say scientifically that only evolving things are alive, and I can say poetically that the whole earth is alive. It’s easy to imagine scientists not wanting people to take poetic talk literally. To me, saying that the earth is literally alive the way an animal is alive, that robs natural selection of its unique power. I’d like to see the IBHA embrace spiritual perspectives. Maybe the distinction could be between science and art. Spiritual interpretations are artistic. Art moves the soul. I’d like to think that the IBHA would be open to people using the concepts of Big History to inspire people as well as inform them.

    • #3389
      Duane Elgin

      Thanks for your thoughtful comments Jonathan. These are important reflections for the future of Big History.

      Very importantly, the paper I presented at the Big History (“Deep Big History: A Living Systems Paradigm“) conference was not about spirituality, religion, poetry, or art. I do have a footnote regarding the work of the eminent historian, Arnold Toynbee, where he uses the words “spirituality” and “religion” but these terms and themes were very purposefully not a part of the body of my presentation and paper. The core theme of my paper is that, seen through the lens of science, the universe seems to be a unique kind of living system. Science now indicates that our universe: 1) is a unified whole, 2) contains immense levels of background energy, 3) is in a process of continuous regeneration as energy flows through it, 4) exhibits a spectrum of sentience or consciousness or a self-reflective capacity that is appropriate to the functioning of systems at every scale, and 5) has freedom at its quantum foundations. Based on these findings from science, I concluded that, while these scientific properties do not “prove” the universe is a living system, they clearly point in that direction and invite a much deeper inquiry into how a living systems perspective could serve as one legitimate track in big history. So, leaving spirituality, religion, poetry, and art aside completely, I do think it is appropriate to include a living systems perspective as one legitimate track in describing big history.

      Then, turning to living systems, you write that “systems that weren’t created by natural selected shouldn’t be expected to be “alive” the way organisms are alive.” This seems to assume that a creative force is somehow at work to produce aliveness. What is that creative force? Simply giving it the name “natural selection” does not provide a scientific answer for the evolutionary force that seems at work from the quantum scale up to the level of human systems and then to galactic systems. You write that “natural selection is unique because it creates meaning.” What is the meaning that it creates in your view? 

      You further write that “there’s no natural selection driving the universe at large.” Yet, that is the very paradigm that many cosmologists are now using to describe the evolution of cosmic systems in a multi-verse (where our universe is but one of countless others). Many cosmologists assume there is some kind of “natural selection” underway in the multi-verse. The universe’s that flourish are assumed to be those which are most fitting within the larger meta-cosmic system. In short, there is often assumed to be an evolution of cosmic systems to produce, for example, the one we are living in today.

      I completely agree with you that, “No one can force spirituality down someone else’s worldview. . . ” Again, my paper and presentation was not about spirituality but about living systems. As I wrote in my paper, I see living systems as “one legitimate track in big history.” I do not see this as the only track but as one of the scientifically legitimate approaches for understanding the deep, big history of the universe and humanity. 

    • #3393

      The way I see it, the science people at the IBHA are going to accept spiritual contributions only if they’re clearly distinguished from the science. I’m happy to see mystics at an IBHA conference, but scientists will want a clear demarcation between their work and nature mysticism. If you can convince them of your case scientifically, you’re in. If your argument is by analogy, that the universe is like a living system, then I wouldn’t expect them to treat that as science. What’s the difference between the universe being an organism and the universe being like an organism? Why do you insist that it is alive rather than us all agreeing that it’s like a living thing? Maybe I’m missing something, but I can see why science types would not look favorably on your argument by analogy. I wish it were as easy as saying, “Duane is right so he should be able to give his talk his way,” but in science it’s not about being right. It’s about having scientific evidence. Get the scientific evidence, and you’ll be welcome. If the scientific evidence isn’t sufficient, then the ideas are art instead of science. And I love art!

    • #3394
      Duane Elgin

      Thanks Jonathan. No “sorry” needed as your views are important and respected. My approach has been to ask, “What are the core properties of living systems and does our universe exhibit those properties as viewed through the lens of science?” As I look at the scientific evidence (as I summarized in my paper Deep Big History), the evidence seems to point more in the direction of regarding the universe as a living system than a non-living system. Importantly, this inquiry is not about an “analogy” for describing the universe but a scientific exploration to describe the basic nature of living systems and then do scientific research to see if those properties are actually found in the universe described by science. I am very open to exploring, with a scientific lens, each of these properties of our universe to see if they are valid within the realm of accepted science–and I think they are. I am puzzled why you insist on calling this description of living systems “spiritual” and “mystical” when I use neither of these terms and the evidence I refer to comes from the domain of science. Lastly, I want to reiterate, I see a living systems paradigm as one legitimate track in developing big history. I do not see it as the only track but as one, scientifically legitimate approach for understanding the history of the universe and humanity.

    • #3395

      Duane, OK, I think I see where you’re coming from, and I hope I’ve been clear. As for the terms “spiritual” and “mystical,” as an atheist I use those terms in perhaps a more scientific sense than lots of people do. Neil deGrasse Tyson says that affirming our kinship with all living things is a soaring spiritual experience. It sounds like you’re advocating our kinship with the universe at large, so that sounds spiritual in the same sense. Mysticism is our profound sense of connection to the greater order, especially beyond the boundaries of the ego.

    • #3396
      Duane Elgin

      I appreciate your clarification Jonathan. I do not view exploration of the universe as a unique kind of living system as either “theistic” or “atheistic” but rather inquiry in a different territory than those two terms imply. My interest is in exploring whether it is scientifically valid to describe the universe as fundamentally “alive” and, if so, then our aliveness exists within a larger aliveness. I don’t see this as “advocacy” but rather as inquiry into scientific evidence concerning the nature of the cosmos and our connection within it. As a provisional perspective, the evidence seems to lean toward regarding the universe as a living system.

    • #3587
      Imogene Drummond

      Hi Duane, Jonathan, and Jennifer,


      I find this a thoroughly fascinating conversation.  @duane: I greatly admire and respect your work supporting and promoting Living in a Living Universe and Great Transition Stories. I also agree with the clarity of your statement on your DTJN profile that “With deep time comes not only a longer sense of perspective but also a deeper and wider sense of perspective as well.” This makes so much sense. The necessity for multi-dimensional understanding of the universe is vitally important.  As I wrote the “other” letter (not the one Jennifer refers to in her initial post on this thread) in the IBHA ORIGINS newsletter in which I proposed that the IBHA expand their identity to include both scientific and meta-scientific approaches, I’m interested to hear your response to my ideas. Perhaps I could have described including “meta-scientific” approaches as providing wider and deeper understanding of the universe—and a wider and deeper IBHA identity.


      I’d love to hear your feedback. For my article, see pp 23-25. Here’s a link to the ORIGINS newsletter: http://ibhanet.org/Resources/Documents/newsletters/Origins_IV_10.pdf

      I appreciate your comments and look forward to hearing from you, and hopefully other DTJN members.

      Warm regards,
      Imogene Drummond, MSW, MFA

    • #3589
      Jennifer Morgan

      Thanks Imogene for sending your letter to IBHA with the intent of expanding the definition of Big History.  @Duane . . . Duane, I agree with your critique of the view that religion/spirituality aren’t discussable, and should be.   On the other hand, is there a particular and very important niche and role that Big History is filling?  It may not be able to be all things to all people.  The leadership of IBHA is more oriented toward a narrower definition, and this narrower focus may help to get it into academia.  Big History is riding a knife’s edge.  What do you think about the  suggestion about labeling talks for the next conference?  Further, is there a role here that DTJN should be fulfilling?  That is, how are we creating a LIVING COSMOLOGY for our time that is: intellectually rigorous, affectively engaging, personally and culturally meaningful, and guides us in right relationship with each other, Earth/Cosmos?


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