Cosmos and Culture, Initial Reading

I mentioned that I’ve been reading Cosmos and Culture, a book published by NASA in 2009 about “considering culture in the context of the cosmos”, and I’d really like to recommend it again to anyone interested. 

The book begins by prefacing the idea of the cosmos in its relation to cultural theory with the concept of cosmic evolution: the idea that the universe and its constituent parts are constantly evolving. It’s something we haven’t always been aware of - in fact, it had taken us just until the last century to really solidify our acceptance of such a belief. Today, we take the evolution of the universe for granted - stars are dying out, the universe is expanding, billions of years ago planets begun to form, atmospheres were generated, life began. But centuries ago, many assumed that activity in the universe was stagnant (especially where religious beliefs are concerned, wherein many religions claimed that their creator made the world impeccably from the beginning, ruling out many cosmological possibilities: constant change of stellar bodies, the existence of intelligent life on other planets, and more).

It’s important that we understand how our own cultural beliefs shape our understanding and our expectations of the universe, to which this book offers “authors with diverse backgrounds in science, history, and anthropology [who] consider culture in the context of the cosmos, including the implications of the cosmos for our own culture”. It also seeks to explore more general and theoretical ways of thinking about the origin and evolution of cultures in all forms, and to better grasp "how our expanding knowledge of the cosmos impacts culture and cultural evolution".

The work does not seek to achieve the impossible, however, and does not attempt to provide the reader with an oversimplified definition of what it means to be a “culture”. They offer a possibly controversial belief instead: that “imperfect definitions should not prevent exploratory analysis”. In their defense of such ambiguity, they suggest that a stronger sense of what culture is may arise from the combination of the articles to follow. The authors invoke many different senses of the term at hand, but share some core similarities worth investigating.

Some notable figures exploring such a broad concept that appear in the work are philosopher Dan Dennett speaking on models of cultural evolution, and skeptic Susan Blackmore discussing cultural extinction at the pattern that contagious cultural ideas take.

Cosmos and Culture sets out four general statements to exemplify the intent of the novel: 1) Long-term cosmic perspectives can be theoretically and practically illuminating for reflecting on culture; 2) cosmology deeply affects and informs culture; 3) culture may have surprising significance in overall cosmic evolution; and 4) expansion into the wider universe is an important, perhaps critical, endeavor.

Being a rather humanistic text, they also issue a note of caution as to their apparent biases: "The material is biased toward natural and scientific perspectives, and arguably toward mechanistic and perhaps reductionist views". And, it’s pretty clear for those who know my own biases that I agree with such an exploration of this topic. There is little room for pseudo-scientific or spiritual explanations to arise in categories of exobiology, or evolution, or any of the matters practically discussed by these authors. Mentions of such beliefs should only be from an historical or anthropological viewpoint, and not encouraging them as substitutes for natural and scientific perspectives.

A brief commentary on "Cosmos and Culture: Speaking in Defense of Science" (Marcelo Gleiser, NPR Cosmos and Culture Blog)


When I taught freshmen, some of them seemed convinced that academic and federally-funded scientists were part of a conspiratorial cabal making massive profits in exchange for telling us that human-influenced global climate change, and in some cases even fundamental biological principles like evolution, exist. If this were true, I’M convinced that O'Reilly and his ilk would WANT us to believe in science. And wouldn’t there be a glut of scientific literacy, since it would be so profitable?

What DO they teach our children in school these days?

meditations on science

“Science, by its nature, involves enormous hubris: we try to make sense of the world from our limited observations. We expect that what we observe here and now will tell us something about what we haven’t observed and may never observe. Science is all about generalizations.

But science is also modest: it changes in light of new evidence. Science is willing to admit when it’s wrong. And it’s this combination that makes science such a powerful partner…”

from: Science: A Relationship You May Not Understand (by, Tania Lombrazo)

The Re-Enchantment of Humanity

In the beginning, God created light and dark, severed day from night, land from sea, and created all the birds of the air, fish of the sea, and plants and animals of the world. Then he created Adam and Eve in His very image and set humanity in dominion over all of creation.

We of the Abrahamic religions were, and many remain, enchanted. In the West, this enchantment lasted until the 16th century with the black and white magi. The former sought by occult magic to stand nature on her head and wrest their due.

Then came Newton: “God said let their be Newton and All was light.”


With the differential and integral calculus, three laws of motion and universal gravitation, Newton gave us not a, but thescientific framework that persists today. A vast computing system in the sky could deduce the entire future and past of the universe using Newton’s laws, declared Laplace 130 years later.

Our world in the West became Descartes “mechanism”, a deterministic machine. Only mind might be safe via his doubted Res Cogitans. The Catholic Church holds to this view today. My past NPR blog posts from November 2010 to the end of January 2011 have sought mind and an ontologically real and responsible free will.

The theistic God retreated to the deistic God of the Enlightenment who wound up the universe and allowed Newton’s laws to hold sway. The Enlightenment sought the redress of the clerics and the rise of science for the ever betterment of humanity by ever mastery over creation — God’s promise to Adam.

But with Newton and the Enlightenment, says early sociologist Max Weber, we lost our enchantment and entered, he says,modernity. We live in modernity, even with the post-modern mutterings.

Our disenchanted world is our quotidian world. We do not even know we are disenchanted, but take ourselves to be rational, scientific, modern.

We know the good and bad of the modern world, child of Newton and the Enlightenment: constitutional government, thanks to Locke, Newton’s friend — a balance of forces due to separation of powers; a vastly increased standard of living due to the industrial and post industrial revolutions wrought by science — mastery over nature.

But also a Jungian shadow: laying waste to a finite planet in the name of forever GDP growth. We have no notion of “enough”. A financial industry in the U.S. which spawned mortgage-backed securities and credit default swaps, where they bet trillions and charged billions leading to the crash of 2008, leading to the corruption by money and power of Locke’s crafted balance of power. The shadow is shown so clearly by the gluttonous greed for money and power that We the People, no longer blind, can have but one overriding emotion: revulsion.

Does our first world best serve our deepest humanity when we are reduced, as British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said, to price tags? None of us thinks so. Yet we know not what else to do. But “else to do” is our task, to find and tread.

We have the first deep hints that the Newtonian world view, cherishing reason, command over nature, and power to achieve it, is profoundly inadequate intellectually, scientifically, morally and humanly.

Perhaps a single new truth of science itself says this most: We live in magic, in an evolving biosphere, econosphere, culture, and history, beyond entailing law.

We do not know beforehand the ever becoming “phase space” of the possibilities of what we shall become. I have now argued this in my books InvestigationsReinventing the Sacred, these blog posts and, most recently, my last post.

Two weeks ago I met senior mathematician Giuseppe Longo, of the Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris, who gave a stunning lecture. Physical laws, he said, are based on fundamental symmetries: Nother’s famous theorems show that the fundamental laws of conservation of energy, momentum and angular momentum derive from the symmetries of time, space and rotation. But, said Longo, the evolution of the biosphere evades such symmetries and forever constructs an ever changing “phase space”, or space of the possibilities into which it becomes and which we cannot pre-state. Thus, in physics itself, we may assume, for the time being, that physical matter may be theoretically analyzed in pre-determined phase spaces (at least, this is what classical, relativistic, quantum physicists do … let’s assme that they are right). But this cannot be done in biological evolution, where we cannot pre-state the ever-changing phase space.

A fortiori so too the econosphere, culture and history. Life may be a necessary, surely a sufficient condition for this. As I argued in the last post, we do not know the very niche selective boundary conditions that play a role in evolution. Yet Newton taught us that entailment requires initial conditions, laws, and boundary conditions. Yet we cannot pre-state or deduce the boundary conditions afforded by the new adjacent possible empty niche yielded by the advent of the Darwinian pre-adaptation of the swim bladder. Thus we cannot have even entailment and law for the detailed becoming of the biopshere. Nor was that swim bladder niche, as a new empty adjacent possible niche, even subjected to natural selection. The biosphere is building, beyond even Darwin, beyond sufficient law, the new adjacent possible niches it will become. So too the economy, culture and our history.

We are beyond Newton, Einstein, Darwin and even Schrodinger because the becoming of the biosphere is partially quantum acausal mutations, and yet non-random, in the 11-fold evolution of the eye and the convergent evolution of the Tasmanian marsupial wolf and mammalian wolf. The mixture of quantum and classical is here neither deterministic, after Newton and Einstein, nor quantum random, after Schrodinger and von Neuman. The world is new.

How much do you wish for magic? William Gaddis said, “There is no truth beyond magic”. We live this magic enchantment every day in the evolution of the biosphere. We live it every day in the econosphere where the Japanese man invented a new business scanning books in tiny apartments into iPads, and selling the books to create space in such tiny apartments. Here is another new adjacent possible empty niche, here economic, created willy nilly by the invention of the iPad.

If you are not enchanted go quiet into a forest and feel the magic becoming.

But more: If we often cannot know even what can happen, reason is an insufficient guide to action. We need our whole humanity and need more than ever to find that humanity. With this, the 1950 illusion of General Motors that life is a decision problem over pre-stated relevant variables whose probabilities can be known and optimized given utility functions is just that: an illusion. As Harvard theologian Gordon Kaufman said: we live In Face of Mystery.

We live in this world, not in dominion over it. We do notcommand it, we help co-create it. If 25 percent of Harvard’s graduating class streams to Wall Street to feed its gluttony, I am revulsed.

We need to find our humanity and begin to envision an enchanted world where our 30 civilizations feel that enchantment, find what is “enough” as they also find how to end poverty around the globe, and find a new way to mingle and be in the world that most enhances what we together discover our deep humanity to be.