Science as Wisdom:
The New Story as a Way Forward
Brian Swimme interviewed by Lauren de Boer
Issue #26, Summer 1997, p 10-11, 15, 22
Reformatted for web publication October, 1998*
My first encounter with Brian Swimme came at a time when I was on an active search. As a graduate student in the late 1980s, I was interested in the human-earth relationship, in exploring how landscape affects the human imagination. If I had any idea of the sacred, it was unconscious. Then I ended up studying at the Institute in Culture and Creation Spirituality (ICCS) in Oakland where I took Brian's course "Cosmos as Primary Revelation." Here was a scientist talking about the great mysteries of the Universe in the most passionate way I could imagine! By the time I left the program, I had come to understand that the human imagination was not something "out there," separate from some great matrix called the Universe. It is a deeply embedded expression of a great unfolding of creativity -- the Epic of Evolution. And I, as a human being, had an astounding role to play as the way in which the Universe reflects on and takes joy in its existence. What a profound gift to receive! It helped heal what for me had been a significant missing piece of my Christian Reformed upbringing: the sacredness of the human-earth relationship. The ICCS program, in general, gave me hope that the Christian tradition contained seeds of earth renewal for those willing to search them out. I hope the following interview imparts something of this gift from one of the great teachers of our time. -- LdB
Lauren de Boer: You began your teaching career at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma after you got your degree. What happened there? What subsequently brought you to the Epic, to want to tell the story through what you've called the "poetry of science?"
Brian Swimme: I didn't understand at the time but I could never really feel at home in the classroom of the university. I look back now and I can tell you what it was. But at the time I said something's odd, something's strange, not right. I really wanted to teach the mysteries of the Universe, but the whole idea of teaching the mysteries in the university meant that I ran into one difficulty after another because there are two things that you have to give a university student: employment, or entrance into another educational program where they will get employment. I thought, there's something wrong with that. I just hated the thought of taking all the knowledge of the Universe and using it to get a job. I wasn't against people working, but it was amazing how much it bothered me. It just felt sacrilegious. So that alone, I would say, is what ruined me as a regular university scientist.
The way I think about it now is that if you grow up in America or Japan or France -- any of the modern countries -- you have been given the most advanced training in a very particular form of consciousness. You know, we read about these Tibetan lamas. At two years old they start to train them and by the time they're in their 30s, they've really gone somewhere in this particular form of consciousness. We do the same thing. And our form of consciousness is materialism, or consumerism. Our whole society gives a really advanced training in it. That's what I've come to understand. What is necessary, I think, is to have a process that goes deeper than that, and it has to liberate a human from the hold which is very deep in the soul -- the hold of the modern materialistic, capitalistic, consumerist worldview. For myself, part of what I'm doing in education is working with the roots of consciousness, attempting to liberate the confinement, and ease a human into the magnificence of the universe. The very fact that the human -- especially Americans -- cannot easily slide into ecstasy, that fact alone is a symptom of the diseased consciousness of consumerism. I'm attempting to provide an antidote and an introduction to this more fulfilling and ecstatic mode of consciousness.
Lauren: When did you first have a sense that the Epic of Evolution, the Universe Story might be an antidote?
Brian: My sense of the power of the Epic, but even more, my sense of the ecstatic side of life and the infinity of the mysteries -- that you can go directly into an infinite, bottomless intimacy in the universe -- that's something that goes back all the way to childhood. The idea of science as a way of moving us into an intimate understanding, as an antidote or a way forward, that wasn't until talking to Thomas Berry. It seemed strange to me that everyone wasn't moving to this naturally. But it was Thomas Berry who really named it and said, the story of science is the way into the future. What I was doing was sort of unconscious and intuitive. I had no real understanding of it in a cultural framework. Thomas understood it completely, explicitly. Working with him enabled me to deepen this understanding of the cultural significance of the new story of science.
Lauren: The notion of science moving into a new phase, that it no longer has to be the handmaiden to technology, no longer a mere process of collecting data and facts, a materialistic analysis of the world -- what would that mean for a culture which is so oriented toward buying things, so oriented toward a world that's always "getting better," at least in a material sense.
Brian: The idea of science moving away from a materialistic worldview and away from being the handmaiden of technology -- that would be great. I think it's a major assumption. For me the question is: Is it possible that we can move away from that attitude? It's the major challenge before us. In a certain sense, we have to. Can we scientists wake up sufficiently to the way in which we have been used for the execution of so much that's destructive? Can we begin to just be awestruck by different aspects of the universe?
I think for the scientist, and for other people, it's a question of "is the universe valuable? Is it sacred? Is it holy? Or is the human agenda all that matters?" I just don't think we're that stupid to continue in a way that continues to destroy. I'm hopeful that the Epic of Evolution will be yet another strategy in our culture that will lead our consciousness out of a very tight, human-centered materialism and that we'll just sort of ease it out into seeing the magnificence of the whole.
Of course there are indigenous cultures all over the planet that don't need scientists to tell them that the universe is holy. What's really great is the indigenous people who have come to me and others and are working with both the most advanced concepts in their indigenous culture and the most advanced ideas in science. I see that as a synthesis that will be part of the whole movement called the Epic of Evolution. It's not just mathematical scientists, but anyone who is rooted in an understanding of the evolutionary sequence -- and who in that sequence, begins to think through the challenges of today.
Lauren: Let's talk more about indigenous cultures. The cosmologies of many native traditions, while not necessarily evolutionary in nature, have encouraged right relations with the Earth, with other species. How does that relate to the Epic? Is their intense awareness and observation of the natural world a type of science?
Brian: Yes. Completely. It's a type of science. And I think that it's a level of consciousness that is, for the most part, way beyond most scientists. The movement of science has mostly been toward the abstract. Certain philosophers of science will say that until a science becomes mathematicized, it isn't really in its mature state. It's a bias that pushes the scientific towards a study of abstract mathematical laws. But there is a whole tradition in science that goes in the other direction. It goes to the unique, and the historical, and the differentiated -- the tradition of natural history in a certain sense. E. O. Wilson is really great on this -- no one wanted him to talk. I mean, talking about the details of an ant -- it just seemed so old-fashioned.
All across the land in American universities, the naturalist tradition is in a very subdominant form. Everyone is going to genetics and molecular biology because that's more mathematical. They have a code, and so forth. So one of the reasons we don't recognize indigenous science as science, is because we don't recognize natural history as science! This to me is part of the lopsided psychic orientation of the modern mathematical scientists. I'm one of them -- I know. It's a great honoring and valuing of mathematics and a denigration of the specific. We're so impressed with our human minds for coming up with mathematics and so unimpressed by the marvels of a fern or an ant. Again, we don't recognize that as being of supreme significance. Or holy. So in science itself, as we can overcome this lopsided psychic disposition, we will once again recognize the power of the naturalist tradition. And we'll see that inside that tradition itself is indigenous knowledge. Indigenous science is in a leadership position within this particular natural history tradition.
Lauren: They're in a leadership position because of centuries and centuries of building that body of knowledge from direct observation.
Brian: Direct observation. And cherishing that local knowledge. And passing it on. And teaching the form of consciousness that can see it.
Lauren: I wonder sometimes what it really takes for us to be able to see it on a deep level. You mentioned E. O. Wilson. He says that he wrote his book The Diversity of Life in epic form because he believes that it is absolutely essential to strike "the inner mystic chord of emotion" when telling the story of the epic, not to just present the story in a book of facts. What do you think he's getting at here?
Brian: That's such a deep question. My whole life is devoted to that question. How do you break through a form of consciousness that doesn't see that we are destroying everything? How do you break through that? Joanna Macy is convinced that because we refuse to grieve, we remain in denial. I think that's an important insight into the collective psyche. We refuse to grieve. And we're afraid that if we begin to grieve, we will become so overwhelmed, we'll become catatonic and useless.
Lauren: When in reality, there's a kind of empowerment that happens when one moves into grieving.
Brian: Exactly. I think there's something important about that; that it's through our woundedness that we really see it. By taking into consideration where the suffering is greatest. You could begin anywhere. It depends on where your heart lives. For me, it's all the unborn. I'm somehow terrified by what they are going to see, when they emerge, when their moment comes, say in a thousand years or so. And it just seems so horrendous that we would act in a way that would ruin their chances of living. Of fulfilling life.
I think that what E. O. Wilson is trying to suggest is that to be fully human, a person has to see that life has a heroic dimension. If you try to deny that, you settle for something little like a good job or a good savings account, something like that. He's saying that unless you really see the heroic moment, you won't rise up and act in a way that's really appropriate. Thomas Berry is convinced that it's only in a story that you can make sense of anything. Of course, I'm captivated by this suggestion, that we live our lives in stories. He sees a lot of the destruction as an attempt to put together human life without a cosmic, vast story. So he thinks our way forward, then, is to begin to see our lives, in all the details, as part of a vast story.
Lauren: A part of the narrative for me that's one of the most exciting is the notion that we as a species are the Earth actually reflecting on her own stunning beauty. Somehow through that crucible of the evolutionary story, the universe came to "taste itself" through the human, I think is how you've phrased it. It's a part of the story that really grabs me on a deep level.
Brian: Me too. And this goes back to your first question -- why was I just not happy teaching in a regular university? Looking back on it now, what I can say is, I am just so profoundly happy serving out the role of the human as the realm in which the universe and the Earth reflects upon and tastes its beauty. I mean it's just so satisfying, it's just so complete. It's almost as if we've been given this great gift and we're not quite capable of believing that this really is what we're to do. We're really to bask in beauty. When I talk about just basking in beauty, it's not to suggest that it's dissociated from hard work. There's all kinds of hard work involved here, but if a person is working with food and agriculture, say permaculture, and the primary motive is to produce the food, then there's something missing. In a certain sense, the primary motive has to include this opportunity of being stunned by the amazing reality in which we're dealing. It's like this, for me, becoming a parent. I never stopped being amazed at participating in giving birth to a human. It's just unbelievable that we would be given that kind of power. And we're not just given the power, we're also given the power to become aware that we have that power.
We've only recently developed this power of conscious self-awareness. It's very recent. So there is a challenge to maintain it and what happens is that we tend to collapse into older strategies, evolutionary strategies and we drop away from conscious self-awareness, become more reptilian or, even now, I say machine-like. But if the conscious self-awareness can be maintained, there is just this deep sense of satisfaction and joy that is the natural birthright...
Lauren: In ordinary life...
Brian: In ordinary life. Exactly, Lauren. One of the deepest convictions of my worldview is that if we would attend to the task of creating work and forms of culture and forms of society that would enable us to remember the magnificence of existence in ordinary life, then all of the craziness and obsession in consumerism would just drop away like a disease that's run its course. And we would ease out of that and into this form of consciousness that just takes deep delight in ordinary life.
And then you think about the amount of energy we're putting into consumerism -- you work really, really hard and without thinking, you end up surrounded by a whole bunch of stuff you never really wanted! If we find ways to ease out of that compulsion, then we have all of this energy for creating a life that's simple, that's compassionate, that's ...
Lauren: ...profoundly spiritual...
Brian: ...profoundly spiritual. Moment by moment. And then instead of all of that energy being trained on destruction, it would all be drawn back into the true work of the human -- which is to be where beauty is deeply felt. That to me is the essence of the Epic of Evolution.
Scientists have discovered these amazing truths, and they did so, for the most part, within a materialistic mindset. Then you have these surrounding spiritual traditions, like the indigenous peoples, with such deep insights into what it means to be human. Indigenous people who are working with the Epic of Evolution tell me this: that the young people on the reservation don't listen to them when they're telling them traditional stories, until they put it in the context of the new science. Then suddenly they're interested. They don't want to be behind the times or out of it. They want to be hip and with it, with the modern culture. Then they find out that the cutting edge of modern culture is a profound recognition of the truth of their tradition. And suddenly, it comes together for them. Finally they can see the depths of their own tradition! I think that would be the greatest gift science could give us -- a way of easing us out of materialism into the depths of spirituality within the context of an evolving universe.
Lauren: In your book, Hidden Heart of the Cosmos, you write that science is moving into its wisdom phase. Can science be a wisdom tradition?
Brian: I'm not sure wisdom tradition is the best phrase, even though I use it. "Wisdom tradition" sounds almost as if you have Christianity, Buddhism, Taoism -- and then "Science." It becomes an equal player and I don't think it can be. It's more of the context and it doesn't really have the content of these other religions. But there are certain crucial perspectives that can be achieved by science that in a certain sense, can't be achieved elsewhere. One is the realization that we are bringing the Cenozoic to a close. God, that's important! You know, it's like when the Buddha goes out and he discovers these noble truths. There's suffering, decrepitude, and so forth. Well, now, science discovers something -- the ozone is disappearing. The biosphere is evaporating. How do you really get that? You can't see it! You might see a plant, or one little animal die over here, but that's not going to do it. It's not enough to have direct observational knowledge. It takes the systemic knowledge of the whole based on a whole bunch of observational knowledge all taken together. And then to even have a concept of biosphere? That is really something -- a biosphere and an understanding of how it is an integrated system, and then to know about its 4 billion year history!
Taken all together, it gives you a perspective that is very powerful and which I think is essential for the development of wisdom today. Science won't be another wisdom tradition, but it will be essential for wisdom. At its best, science is going to deal with the way in which the universe works and how the human really can position within those workings -- that's the wisdom that science can bring. The focus has to be the Earth community. If we make that our fundamental context with science and religion as happening within it, we'll have an easier time moving toward a holistic consciousness.
Lauren: Creativity is so at the core of what you do and seems a process so essential to the story. Is creativity a link between the larger cosmic process and our personal lives?
Brian: It's really interesting -- the word creativity wasn't even used before the 20th century. As a concept, it's new, even though we're kind of immersed in it. In classical thinking -- Plato, for instance -- creativity wasn't a category because of people's spatial form of consciousness.
The whole sense of evolutionary time escaped former periods. It's awesome when you think about that. I think that the very essence of the universe is creativity! That's what we've discovered -- the movement forward. That would be a great contribution of science, and it's what is being discovered in every area of science -- evolution, creativity. The same thing. Here again is the wisdom perspective. In the view of the [new] sciences, human being and human creativity are synonyms. To be human ultimately means to be creative.
True creativity is breath. It's each moment. Because each moment really arises new, so that we're participating again in creating the ultimate reality. Going back to what you said, it's in the ordinary things of life that we participate directly and creatively in this upwelling of cosmic energy. It's not a question of "gee, can I be creative." Everyone's creative. Constantly. Every second. It's how!
Creativity has to do with breath, with walking, conversation and lovemaking, and childrearing. And for humans to enter into creativity fully means to also enter into an awareness of its awesome power! Really, the only way you can do that is by reflecting upon what creativity has accomplished in 15 billion years. It's the same creativity that gave birth to the stars, the galaxies, the angiosperms. If you really get into that and then you begin to see the whole thing as a flame, you just feel it as this ongoing fire. And here we are in the middle of it! It's just like being part of a whirlwind. It's only a choice of how you want to creatively participate.
For a human to stop and think about what creativity has accomplished and then to realize that we are exactly that -- with the difference that we actually know what direction we're choosing -- can be just overwhelming. But, you can also enter into it in the ecstatic sense, the sense that, "wow! I am that power!" Or you can sell it and have it serve someone else. That's what science has been doing in the destruction of the Earth for hundreds of years. It's that tension. Dante called it the threshold of assent. What exactly we give our assent to. Obviously it's an invisible spiritual place, that threshold. But that's where the great drama of the person takes place. And the killer is that in the person -- in the drama of the person -- is the drama of the Earth! Because the Earth is now just trembling under the weight of our destruction. And so -- this is Teilhard -- all of that cosmic evolution is concentrated on that decision. No wonder we do all sorts of strange things to hide ourselves from it!
Lauren: Myth in its deepest sense is a communion with the truths of existence. It has also been accused of being a form of lying. Is the Epic of Evolution a myth? A constructed worldview? A reality?
Brian: I think of myth as one of the ways the universe organizes itself. The universe as permeated with self-organizing dynamics at a variety of levels -- elementary particles, stars, galaxies, consciousness. We live within that realm.
Here's a myth as a lie: The notion that the human can examine the universe from an objective place and understand. This is actually a false notion, but one that dominated a lot of science. No matter what position you take, you're a part of the universe. Which means that you're a part of its self-organizing dynamics. I think the self-organizing dynamics of the universe have us. We don't have them.
Wittgenstein talks about this: "you have to accept the forms of life." We're in the universe, we're an expression of the universe and there are these amazing powers at work. One way we give expression to those powers is in a mythic form. In my mind it's the conscious shape of a self-organizing dynamic. In that sense we're always mythic. And the Epic of Evolution is definitely mythic. But it's another form of myth because it is a form of myth that comes along with this mode of inquiry we call empirical or scientific. It doesn't alter the fundamental nature of being mythic. An expression of the modern worldview is that the human mind is separate from the universe. All of our notions are somehow not real. They're separate. Within the evolutionary point of view, you realize -- holy toledo! -- the mind itself is just an expression of the powers of the universe. And then you have that non-dualistic, hand-in-glove realization that Newton couldn't have and that Darwin enables us to have but that he didn't fully have. It's come out of a lot of hard work by a lot of people. ###
Brian Swimme, a mathematical cosmologist and physicist, is author of The Universe is a Green Dragon (Bear & Co.), The Hidden Heart of the Cosmos (Orbis), and co-author, with Thomas Berry, of The Universe Story (Harper San Francisco). All are available from the EarthLight bookstore. His work in the new cosmology was featured on the BBC production "Soul of the Universe," along with such scientists as Stephen Hawking, Ilya Prigogine, Danah Zohar, and Alan Guth. Dr. Swimme is on the faculty of the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco.
Kurt Lauren de Boer is the editor of EarthLight.
* For sake of continuity with other articles on this web site, the interviewer is identified in this web release of the interview according to current usage: "Lauren," rather than "Kurt," as appeared in the original. Title in original was "Science as Wisdom: A Way Forward."
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