The View from the Centre of the Universe — The New Story Retold
The View From The Center Of The Universe: Discovering Our Extraordinary Place In The Cosmos is part of a sub-genre of interpretations of Thomas Berry’s essay, The New Story. Find out why the authors believe our current thinking needs a drastic change.
There’s a new movement afoot. Its roots go back a few decades, but it started catching on in 2011 and took off into the mainstream about four years ago.
The worldview doesn’t have an official name yet. It’s based on the teachings of an obscure scholar of world religions and Roman Catholic priest named Thomas Berry.
Berry wrote an essay in 1978 called The New Story. He argued that every culture has a creation myth and that knowing and telling these stories is vital to living a meaningful life.
Telling These Stories is Vital to a Meaningful Life
He pointed out that, with the Enlightenment, our modern culture turned from the realm of myth to the domain of science. An unintended result of that shift was that modern culture lacks a coherent creation myth.
Berry called for the adoption of a new, science-based story that could restore that sense of meaning. He argued that this was essential to the future of humanity and of our planet.
In 1998, Berry wrote a book called The Great Work that stressed the urgency of imparting such a story. He believed that the story would lead to a renewed interest in caring for Nature and reversing the harm to our ecosphere caused by ruthless, technology-driven industrialization.
Renewed Interest in Caring for Nature
Others have followed in Berry’s footsteps, especially Brian Swimme and Mary Evelyn Tucker. They co-wrote and released an Emmy-winning film based on Berry’s ideas called Journey of the Universe.
There’s also a companion book and an online course from Yale, where Tucker is a professor with the same title. They all share the same worldview that our notion of cosmology needs to go beyond the science of the early Universe to encompass astrobiology, ecology and the humanities.
Another offshoot of this movement is the work of husband and wife team Joel R. Primack and Nancy Ellen Abrams. I only stumbled across their books recently, and I’d like to share a review of their first one in this story, which is called The View from the Centre of the Universe.
Husband and Wife Team Primack and Abrams
Primack is a professor of astrophysics. Abrams has a background in the history and philosophy of science and is also a lawyer.
Like Tucker and Swimme, Primack and Abrams apply the vision of Thomas Berry, among others, to their view of a new life stance and culture grounded in modern cosmology. The View from the Center of the Universe was their first work on this topic, which they published in 2006, a few years before Journey of the Universe came out.
The View from the Centre of the Universe sets out by making the point that “Prescientific people had believable answers to big questions that became impossible to answer once we started to demand scientific accuracy.” According to the authors, this poses a problem because “Ours is probably the first major culture in human history with no shared picture of reality.”
“First Culture with No Shared Picture of Reality”
Primack and Abrams believe that the implications of this state of affairs are devastating. “The main threats to our survival result from the almost total disjunction between the power of our technologies and the wisdom required to use them over the long period during which their effects will last,” they argue.
Drawing on Joseph Campbell’s insights, the authors make the case that, in traditional cultures, cosmology is at least as much about myth as it is about science. In their view, Campbell was also calling for a new story.
As they put it, “The story must demonstrate humanity’s connection to all there is, yet be consistent with all we know scientifically.” Campbell passed away in 1986, which they find regrettable, given that so many scientific discoveries supporting his views have since come to light.
History of Various Cosmologies
The book then leads us through a history of various cosmologies from Ancient Egypt through the Bible to the classical Greek philosophers. The evolving awareness of the Earth as a sphere was a fundamental paradigm shift for that era’s people.
This classical, geocentric worldview dominated medieval thought. Scholars believed that the Earth was a sphere at the centre of the Universe, surrounded by a series of outer celestial spheres containing the sun, moon and planets.
The authors describe how Copernicus, Galileo and Newton upended this comfortable worldview at the dawn of the Enlightenment. The authors depict society being cast adrift in this period, with humans left to make sense of a universe where our world and we ourselves are nowhere important and nothing unusual.
The Double Dark Universe
As the title of their book suggests, Primack and Abrams argue that this perception is now obsolete. They point to discoveries such as dark matter and dark energy forming much of the Universe; a new paradigm they refer to as the “double dark Universe.”
They make the case that we and our planet are, in an authentic sense, the centre of the Universe from our frame of reference. Our galaxy is the core of the sector of the Universe that we can perceive, just as other galaxies are in the centre of what someone would perceive from their frame of reference.
Our body proportions fall near the centre of the size scales of the Universe; not too big and not too small. We’re also alive at a central point in the history of the Universe, allowing us to observe its unfolding at just the right time in the history of cosmic inflation.
Haven’t Made the Leap to this New Understanding
Primack and Abrams are concerned that most people haven’t made the leap to this new understanding of our place in the Universe. They argue that we’re still wandering aimlessly in Newtonian thinking while waves of technology sweep us toward destruction.
As they explain, “Earth is a planet integrated into the Cosmos, but our current thinking about it is not, and therein lies the root of many problems: we are out of tune with our planet and our Universe.”
The book concludes with this inspiring passage, “When with all our hearts and minds we grasp that we are central to the expanding Universe, we will have connected. Then we too, like our ancient ancestors the world over, can say once again with confidence and commitment that we uphold the Universe.”
Backgrounds in Science and Humanities Blend Well
These two authors and spouses make an excellent team. For the most part, their backgrounds in science in his case and the humanities in hers blend well together.
Even so, in reading the book, I got the sense the Primack was often reigning Abrams in from wandering off on flights of fancy. Not everything the book asserts derives from accepted science; there’s also a thread of motivated reasoning interwoven in these pages.
This includes such ideas as a “cosmic uruboros” based on the ancient symbol of a snake swallowing its tail. Another fanciful example is a reference to our place in the cosmic size scale as “Midgard,” the name Norse mythology gives to our human realm.
Readers Will Be in Tune with Most of its Message
On the whole, though, I found this book to be a rewarding volume, and I think many of our readers will be in tune with most of its message. Primack and Abrams have also released a more recent book on these topics.
It’s based on a series of lectures they delivered around the same set of ideas. They published it under the title The New Universe and the Human Future.
Resonates with the Messages We Espouse
Indeed, The View from the Centre of the Universe resonates with the kinds of messages we espouse here at Dare to Know. Let’s wrap up with this resonant passage.
“No cosmology, ancient, scientific or otherwise is the Ultimate Truth. What is required for a satisfying, centring cosmology is that it be big enough and uplifting enough to awaken a new level of insight, hope and creativity.”
We always have more to learn if we dare to know.
The View From The Center Of The Universe: Discovering Our Extraordinary Place In The Cosmos
The New Universe and the Human Future: How a Shared Cosmology Could Transform the World
The 5 Big Questions We Need Cosmology to Answer
Age of the Universe Challenged Again
Cosmic Background Radiation Tells Story of the Universe
Originally published at http://daretoknow.ca on February 20, 2021.