A Living Systems Paradigm for Viewing Big History
“Big History” is the name given to an emerging field of study that describes the evolution from the big bang and up to the modern era. This is an enormous span of time—nearly 14 billion years—so it is understandably called “big” history. However, it is also a shallow view of history because it leaves out themes and ideas such as consciousness, meaning, and purpose. This article seeks to deepen big history by bringing in these neglected themes through the paradigm of a living universe.i
To begin, it is helpful to mention briefly several of the basic assumptions of materialism that establish the foundation for the current description of big history. “Materialism” is the belief that only physical reality truly exists and nothing else. In this view, all things are composed of physical matter and all phenomena, including consciousness, are the result of mechanical interactions of matter. Physical matter is regarded as the sole cause of every possible occurrence, including human thought, feeling, and action. In this view, the universe is dead at the foundations—inanimate, mindless and without consciousness. Materialism contrasts with the living systems view that there is vastly more to reality than interactions of physical matter. For example, given recent findings that 95 percent of the known universe is non-material and invisible, it implies that materialism applies to only a very small fraction of the overall universe.
The idea of a “living universe” is not a new perspective. More than two thousand years ago, Plato described the universe as a single living creature that encompasses all living creatures within it. In this view, we live within a living system of unfathomable intelligence, subtlety, power, and patience. In turn, we appear to be evolving expressions of that living universe, infused with a knowing capacity or consciousness, and with an existence that is largely non-material in nature.
In what ways does our universe function as if it were a living system? There is not the space in this short essay to do more than gesture toward the beginnings of answers to these provocative questions. However, summarized below are five attributes of our universe that point to a “living systems” perspective rather than a non-living perspective.
1. A Unified Whole—In physics, non-locality or action at a distance refers to the direct interaction of two objects that are separated in space with no apparent mechanism of connection. In quantum mechanics, physicists stress the fact that two particles can have immediate effects on each other, even when separated by large distances where this should be impossible. The universe is no longer regarded as a disconnected collection of planets, stars, and fragments of matter. Instead, the powerful tools of science have demonstrated that even, across vast distances, the universe is connected with itself. In the words of the physicist David Bohm, the universe is “an undivided wholeness in flowing movement.”
2. Immense Background Energy—Scientists used to think that empty space was completely “empty.” However, scientists have now discovered there exists an extraordinary amount of background energy permeating the universe. Empty space is not empty. David Bohm calculated that a single cubic centimeter of “empty space” contained the energy equivalent of millions of atomic bombs. We are swimming in an ocean of subtle energy of such immense power that it is virtually incomprehensible.
3. Continuous Creation—The universe is not static—despite outward appearances of solidity and stability, the universe is a completely dynamic system. In the words of the cosmologist Brian Swimme, “The universe emerges out of an all-nourishing abyss not only fourteen billion years ago but in every moment.” At every moment, the universe is being created as a single orchestration of manifestation. Because nothing is left out of the process of continuous creation, we are participants in a cosmic scale process whether we are conscious of it or not. The entirety of this great cosmic body of being, including the fabric of space-time, is continuously re-created at each instant. The mathematician Norbert Wiener expressed it this way, “We are not stuff that abides, but patterns that perpetuate themselves; whirlpools of water in an ever-flowing river.” Max Born, a physicist who was instrumental in the development of quantum mechanics wrote, “We have sought for firm ground and found none. The deeper we penetrate, the more restless becomes the universe; all is rushing about and vibrating in a wild dance.” If all is in motion at every level, and all motion presents itself as a coherent and stable pattern, then all that exists is a singular orchestration. All flows comprise one grand symphony in which we are all players, a single creative expression—a uni-verse.
4. Consciousness at Every Scale—With increasingly sophisticated tools, scientists are finding a spectrum of consciousness ranging from what might be called primary perception at the atomic and cellular level to a capacity for reflective consciousness at the human level. From the atomic level to the human scale and in between, we find a capacity for reflection and choice that is fitting for that scale.
The physicist and cosmologist Freeman Dyson writes that, at the atomic level, “Matter in quantum mechanics is not an inert substance but an active agent, constantly making choices between alternative possibilities. . . It appears that mind, as manifested by the capacity to make choices, is to some extent inherent in every electron.” This does not mean that an atom has the same consciousness as a human being, but rather that an atom has a reflective capacity appropriate to its form and function. Max Planck, developer of quantum theory, stated, “I regard consciousness as fundamental. I regard matter as derivative from consciousness. We cannot get behind consciousness. Everything that we talk about, everything that we regard as existing, postulates consciousness.”
Consciousness is also present at the primitive molecular level with molecules consisting of no more than a few simple proteins. Researchers have found that such molecules have the capacity for complex interaction that is the signature of living systems. As one of the researchers who made this discovery stated, “We were surprised that such simple proteins can act as if they had a mind of their own.”
As these examples begin to illustrate, if some form of consciousness is operating at the level of atoms, molecules, and single-cell organisms, then it seems wise to open to the possibility that “consciousness” is a very sophisticated, invisible, and basic capacity that is manifest at every level of the universe and has been an integral aspect from its beginning.
5. Freedom at the Foundations—Uncertainty—and therefore freedom—is fundamental to a quantum view of the universe. Quantum physics describes reality in terms of probabilities, not certainties. Uncertainty and freedom are built into the very foundations of material existence. No one part of the cosmos determines the functioning of the whole; rather, everything seems to be connected with everything else, weaving the cosmos into one, vast interacting system. In turn, it is the consistency of interrelations of all the parts of the universe that determines the condition of the whole. We therefore have great freedom to act within the limits established by the larger web of life within which we are immersed.
Summarizing, there is scientific support for regarding the universe as a unified system that is sustained continuously by the flow-through of phenomenal amounts of energy and whose essential nature includes consciousness or a self-reflective capacity that enables systems at every scale of existence to exercise some freedom of choice. 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 manifest in big history.