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Integral World: Exploring Theories of Everything
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber
Federico Nicola Pecchini is an independent researcher and activist focusing on conscious evolution, integral development, cooperative economics and transnational sociology. He is currently based in Dharamsala, India. Contact: fpecchini @ gmail.com.
The "Cosmic Nook"
Natural Religion, Part 2
Federico Nicola Pecchini
After millennia of egocentric pride, a little existential humility is just what our species needs.
We live in one of the many galaxies of the Local Group, called the Milky Way. It’s about 200,000 light-years wide, the shape of a barred spiral. Its massive spiral arms contain hundreds of billions of stars and planets, which orbit around its galactic center once every several hundred million years. Our Sun is just an ordinary, average-sized yellow star near the inner rim of the Orion Arm, 26,000 ly away from the center.
What is left of the grand history of humanity, when we place it on this kind of spatio-temporal background? We find ourselves relegated in a peripheral corner of the universe, and this realization deals a definitive blow to our old claims of grandiosity. The cosmic stage as described by scientists doesn’t allow for any teleological interpretation where humans are the final product of an intelligent designer/creator, and leaves us little hope for any ultimate and all-encompassing “theory of everything”, since the scale and scope of the universe will probably always exceed our observational and intellectual capacities.
In the second half of the 20th Century, all previous cosmologies from Aristotle to Einstein—who unanimously believed the universe to be stationary—were conclusively proven wrong. It was Edwin Hubble, with the discovery of the inflationary universe in 1929, to pave the way to a demolition of the same concept of cosmos.
Recent findings have shown us that not only the universe is expanding, but that it’s doing so at an accellerating rate. Although the exact reason for this is still unclear, most cosmological models today predict that galaxies will keep growing apart from each other at increasing speed, to a point when the supply of gas needed for star formation will be exhausted; existing stars will thus run out of fuel and disappear, leaving behind only black holes until they too will disappear emitting Hawking radiation and the whole universe will reach the state of maximum entropy, in a scenario known as “heat death” or Big Freeze.
Coming a bit closer to our point of observation, the Sun has probably enough hydrogen reserves to fuel its nuclear reactions for another 5 billion years, but it’s fate is already written as for the other stars: when the hydrogen supply gets below a critical point, stars either cool down to a white dwarf or else explode in a supernova. The Earth formed from the solar nebula, around 4.5 billion years ago. As it cooled down the first oceans appeared, and by the start of the Archean they covered most of its surface.
The unique biochemical conditions of the early oceans allowed for the creation of the first organic compounds such as amino acids and nucleotides, from which—about 4 billion years ago—emerged the phenomenon of life. Humanity is only a late addition to the phylogenetic tree of living organisms, stemming from the branch of the great apes only a few millions years ago.
Life emerged on this planet, in this solar system, simply because here it found the right circumstances which made it possible.
The fact that we appeared right in this particular spot at this particular time is something we can no longer attribute to some kind of deterministic necessity inherent to the cosmos itself, but rather—if anything—to the fulfillment of some extremely narrow chances within a probablistic set of possible outcomes. Life emerged on this planet, in this solar system, simply because here it found the right circumstances which made it possible, and its subsequent evolution into plant, animal and human forms was just a long and fortunate series of contingent events.
This “cosmic nook” in which we happen to find ourselves was indeed the starting point from where we began our inquiries about the origin of things, and it’s understandable that this perspective bias led us to assume the centrality of the observer. But any kind of finalism is today only an obsolete anthropocentric residual. The irreverent discoveries of science reveal us that life is just an ephemeral phenomenon inside the universe and that man, extreme example of life’s evolution, isn’t, as our forefathers thought, at its centre, but is instead—in Monod’s words—a lost wanderer “in the indifferent immensity from which he emerged by chance at the periphery”.
If the universe were really made by God, such a God wouldn’t care about us. The universe is just too large, and we are just too insignificantly small. If the universe actually had some kind of inherent purpose, it would be to reach the terminal point of its entropic drift into the void, and then just stay there forever.
Nature, hence, should not be confused with the entire universe, since it only amounts to an infinitesimal portion of it outside of which everything is deadly: a small island of life surrounded by the abyss, which at some point will swallow it up. Nor is it grounded to identify the universe with the “cosmos”—a construction of the human intellect whose proper function shouldn’t be to project our hopes of rational order on the universe at large, but rather to ensure and preserve the living processes within the biosphere for as long as possible. Outside this tiny island inscribed within our solar system, continues undisturbed the tumultuous uproar in which stars and entire galaxies are created and destroyed every second, with no intelligible signal coming from the other islands and with no hope for us to cross the constitutive limit of finite physics, the speed of light. The closest star, Proxima Centauri, is over 4 light-years away from us—about 38 trillion kilometers—and our solitude seems therefore without escape.
It is easy to feel insignificant when facing such an incommensurable vastness. And probably, after millennia of egocentric pride, a little existential humility is just what our species needs. But once we zoom closer to our scale and dimension, we can actually find some comfort and meaning:
“This Nature—wrote Edgar Morin—which is so dear to us, isn’t but a tiny island of life lost between the thermonuclear fire of the stars and the freezing emptiness of space, and yet this island is, for the scale of each individual as well as for the entire humanity, an ample and embracing placenta.”
Nature is our home, this fragment of the universe where, around planet Earth, shaped itself a vital belt—the biosphere—that wonderful twine of elements to which all life belongs.