Contributions of a Living Systems Paradigm
What value does a living systems perspective contribute to big history? Importantly, a living systems paradigm includes the co-evolution of culture and consciousness as an important aspect of the human journey. Through history, humanity’s capacity for self-reflective consciousness has developed progressively—from the magical world of the hunter-gatherer, to the nature-based world of the agrarian farmer, then into the dynamic world of the urban-industrial society, and now into a holographic perspective and collective consciousness rapidly awakening within our global brain.
1. Transformed Identity: In the paradigm of scientific materialism, we are no more than bio-chemical beings—evolutionary accidents whose consciousness and aliveness are ultimately separate from the rest of the non-living and unconscious universe that surrounds us. In contrast, from a living systems perspective, we are both biological beings and cosmic participants in a vast field of life-energy. Our identity is immeasurably deeper and larger than imagined by scientific materialism: Physicist Brian Swimme explains that the intimate sense of self-awareness we experience bubbling up at each moment, “is rooted in the originating activity of the universe. We are all of us arising together at the center of the cosmos.” We thought that we were no bigger than our physical bodies, but now we are learning that we are participants in the flow of continuous creation of the cosmos. Awakening to our identity as simultaneously distinct and intimately interconnected with a living universe can help us transform feelings of existential separation and species-arrogance that threaten our future.
2. Compelling Purpose: A non-living universe is not conscious and is therefore oblivious to any sense of human purpose. As existentially separate life-forms, we may strive heroically to impose some reason for our existence on the universe, but this is ultimately fruitless in a cosmos unaware of life. In dramatic contrast, a living universe is intent on growing self-referencing and self-organizing systems within itself at every scale. We are expressions of aliveness that, after nearly 14 billion years, enable the universe to look back and reflect upon itself. A living universe paradigm brings a profound shift in our evolutionary purpose: We are moving from seeing ourselves dropped into a fragmented and lifeless cosmos without apparent meaning or purpose, to seeing ourselves on a sacred journey within a living and unified cosmos whose purpose is to serve as a learning system. We are agents of self-reflective and creative action who are engaged in a time of great transition and conscious learning.
3. Deep Meaning & Feeling: If the universe is dead at its foundations, then, in its depths it has no feelings for us as human beings nor does it offer a sense of meaning and purpose. Because a non-living universe is unconscious at its foundations, it is indifferent to humanity and unknowing of our evolving creations and conditions. Nothing will ultimately matter to non-living matter. All will be forgotten. An old saying goes, “A dead man tells no stories.” In a similar way, “A dead universe tells no stories.” In contrast, a living universe is itself a vast story continuously unfolding with countless characters playing out gripping dramas of awakening.
With regard to feeling, how we experience ourselves within the surrounding universe has an enormous impact on our approach to life. If we regard the universe as dead at the foundations, then feelings of existential alienation, anxiety, dread, and fear are quite reasonable. Why seek communion with the cold indifference of lifeless matter and empty space? If we allow ourselves to drop into life, won’t we simply sink into existential despair? However, if we live in a living universe, then feelings of subtle connection, curiosity, and gratitude are understandable. We see ourselves as participants in a cosmic garden of life that the universe has been patiently nurturing over billions of years. A living universe invites us to shift from feelings of indifference, fear, and cynicism to feelings of curiosity, love, awe, and participation.
4. Natural Ethics: In a non-living, bio-mechanical cosmos, we are existentially isolated entities whose being stops at the edge of our skin. In turn, it is rational that our scope of ethical concern would not extend much further than ourselves, our family, and others on whom we depend for our well-being. In contrast, a larger scope of ethics can emerge from an intuitive connection with a living universe that provides us with a “moral tuning fork.” We can each tune into this living field and sense what is in harmony with the well-being of the whole. When we are in alignment, we can experience a positive hum of well-being as a kinesthetic sense that we call “compassion.” In a similar way, we can also experience the dissonant hum of discordance. When we are truly centered in the life current flowing through us, we tend to act in ways that promote the well-being and harmony of the whole.
5. Sustainable Living: In a dead universe, consumerism makes sense. In a living universe, simplicity of living makes sense. On the one hand, if the universe is unconscious and dead at its foundations and each of us is the product of blind chance among materialistic forces, then it seems fitting that we, the living, exploit on our own behalf that which is not alive. If most of the known universe is lifeless, then it has no deeper purpose, meaning—or value. It is only natural, therefore, that we focus on consuming material things to minimize life’s pains and maximize its comforts. How do we know we “matter”? By how much matter we have in our lives: a big house, a big car, a big bank account, and so on. In this view, the more matter we have the more we must matter. An alternative view is that, if the universe is uniquely conscious and alive, then we are the product of a deep intelligence that infuses the entire cosmos. We shift from feelings of existential isolation in a lifeless universe to a sense of intimate communion within a living universe. If life is nested within life, then it is only fitting that we treat everything that exists as alive and worthy of respect. In turn, the search for a meaningful way of life shifts from a desire for high-consumption lifestyles and toward simpler ways of living that enable us to connect more directly with a living universe of which we are an integral part. In a living universe, it is only natural that people would choose simpler ways of living that afford greater time and opportunity for connecting with the aliveness of the world in meaningful relationships, creative expressions, and rewarding experiences in nature.
In conclusion, as a provisional paradigm, a living systems perspective brings with it a transformed description of our cosmic identity, purpose, meaning, consciousness, and ethics as well as a compassionate concern for sustainable ways of living. These are of immeasurable value to humanity as we seek to grow consciously through a time of profound planetary transition and come together to build a promising species-civilization.
First published in KOSMOS magazine