A world unfolding at every moment: matter, energy, and information originating from who knows when, where, or what across stretches of times and spaces incomprehensibly large and infinitesimally small. Mostly dark and empty we are told. But such terms as “space,” “time,” “dark,” and “empty”—are they placeholders for something grander still?
Without warning a big BANG! or maybe many bangs. Gasses to stars, elements to minerals, and cells to organs to organisms to consciousness to self-consciousness to artificial intelligence (whatever that means).
What do we know about a molecule of water? Three atoms total: two of hydrogen and one of oxygen. Together they have emergent properties that the elemental pair do not possess separately—properties which could not be predicted before their wedding even by an omniscient presence that knew everything there was to know about oxygen and hydrogen. Wetness for one; and, for another, water is a molecular lightweight with high-boiling and low-freezing points, a rarity in the universe. Hydrogen and oxygen are themselves emergent properties of the unfolding universe. Hydrogen appears 380 thousand years after the Big Bang, and oxygen about 250 million years later as a byproduct of the internal combustion of stars. We say that frogs come from tadpoles and butterflies come from caterpillars, but the actual emergence of any one thing or event into any other thing or event is much more complex, uncertain, and misterioso.
In the beginning was a verb. And now and again, and again, for nearly fourteen billion, verbing years. Myriad mineral forms, life forms, musical, artistic, and cultural forms. Darwin’s tangled bank wherein “so simple a beginning, endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.” An “endless net of threads studded with crystal beads,” proclaims a Rig Veda hymn. The “rhythm of being,” in theologian Raimon Panikkar’s danceable phrase.
Like the morning stars in the Book of Job, the emergent in each of us bursts out singing for joy in recognition of the unfolding of the Universe. The way it is described in the story of the Hindu god Krishna–creator and destroyer of worlds–as a young child, accused by another of eating dirt, and opening his mouth so his mother could have a look. Instead of dirt, his mom sees the whole universe inside her divine, mischievous son’s mouth. Or years later when the same Krishna, now serving as the charioteer for the great warrior Arjuna, provides him with a similar vision. The view is too much, overwhelming both mother and warrior.
We don’t need a divine child or charioteer to get a peek now and then. Bacteria as numerous as our cells live in separate communities and communicate across those communities in, on, and around our bodies, doing what bacteria do while we do what we do. Species-jumping viruses mutate with abandon while their new hosts feel suddenly vulnerable and inadequate to the challenge. Tree roots share nutrients with one another. Newly discovered microbial life in the quintillions, miles below Earth’s surface, thrive without photosynthesis and in extreme temperatures. And always and everywhere extinction is the rule: loss of habitats, sudden changes that cannot be accommodated, new competitors in town, and asteroid collisions. All the while our blue-green planet whizzes through cold, empty space faster than the Coney Island Cyclone, while quantum pulses keep the circuits humming 24/7, at least until our local sun explodes its neighborhood into smithereens.
Self-conscious, carbon-based, cellular organisms—that’s us—arrive so late to this party that it’s difficult not to conclude that the party must be for us. Many are the creation narratives in which the human storytellers are the lead characters. Goddesses and gods also appear, and they are given roles and powers that they sometimes share with their story-makers. But sometimes not, and humans become disobedient or worse, thieves. All too quickly the latecomers become impatient and eager to separate from the rest, to go it alone even when their own stories warn them against it. We read in the Book of Genesis that the first couple is expelled from paradise. They are more like teenagers being expelled from high school, happy to be out of there, assured and cocky, and ready to give the “on-your-own” thing a try.
In a mere twelve thousand years, some bands of humans turn away from the creative, emergent commons and towards the hard work of recategorizing most plants into weeds and most animals into predators, while putting the commons into a disciplined, lockstep regime. The most basic act of feeding one’s body becomes an annual labor of disturbing, ripping, and evicting life from the soil until only its naked fertility remains. Annual grasses—wheat, corn, rice, and barley—are increasingly planted and cultivated for human use alone. The bounty from such violence creates mountains of caloric surplus in the form of seeds that can be stored, counted, traded, taxed, and defended. It creates specialized, surplus professionals, too: accountants, farmers, priests, soldiers, scholars, kings, and laborers. Large, hierarchical state-societies are built on these surplus mounds, and soon the human voice is replaced by script, and the wisdom of living memory is erased by formulas, laws, and abstractions. The mythical is replaced by the theoretical, and in the quick seconds of centuries, the flashy prowess of numbers and alphabets overwhelm whole landscapes and cultures.
These new tools and their handlers turn the emergent universe of surprise and co-creativity into a “cosmos,” a familiar and almost comforting term to our ears but derived from the less familiar and less comforting Greek verb “kosmein,” meaning generally “to dispose, prepare,” but especially “to order and arrange (troops for battle), to set (an army) in array;” also “to establish (a government or regime).” 1 “Cosmos” becomes a dominating proper noun in the writings of Pythagoras twenty-five centuries ago. Mathematics, logic, philosophy, and science soon follow, and thus begins the Everything Explained Project: the dream of putting a chaotic world into good cosmic order, marching to commands increasingly human in origin. No wonder some twenty centuries after Pythagoras, the word “emergency” shifts from meaning simply “to arise” or “bring to light,” to describing something fearful, unexpected, and unwanted. Emergencies become the broken promises of a steady-as-it-goes world of nouns, laws, and predictable results. “Unfolding” and “surprise” are downgraded to “unruly” and “not-yet-predictable,” and the world becomes something merely to be explained. As Henry David Thoreau observed in his journal entry of January 5,1850: “Science applies a finite rule to the infinite, its sun no longer dazzles us and fills the universe with light.” The extraordinary? Just ordinary now.
Siddhartha Gautama–the Buddha–often reminded his followers that the human lifeform offers a rare and uncommon view not afforded to Earth’s other living members. As humans, we get a glimpse of the universal dance as a dance. We dance, but somehow, we also know that we are dancing. And on that dance floor of awareness suffering is born, and it must be made sense of. Some accept and justify it. Others meet it with compassion and the resolve to end it.
The human experience lives in paradox and dilemma. What many experience as a divine presence may turn out to be an emergent property of a creative universe, not its originator. Unity and stability are the fruits of diversity and change (the converse is also true). Bold human arrogance leads to discoveries that show us our humble and co-dependent origins. “The earth bestows,” the poet Rainer Maria Rilke writes, but we plow it up in an unholy sacrifice enacted for our own and our loved one’s daily bread. We are all guilty. We are all innocent.
Sand in the hands of glassmakers becomes glass in the hands of lens makers. Lenses in the ends of tubes show us our origins in deep pasts and our relationships with microbial companions riding us like wings on the wind. “In spite of all the farmer’s work and worry, he can’t reach down to where the seed is slowly transmuted into summer.” Rilke’s lines again, just before he concludes “The earth bestows.” And the philosopher Martin Heidegger, in a poetic moment, says “all our heart’s courage is the echoing response to the first call of Being, which gathers our thinking into the play of the world.”
The play of the world, rough and tumble, leaves us little else to do but to play, too. To play with every breath and gesture in a most serious, focused, and practiced way. To play with lightness, kinship, kindness, imagination, humility, grace, affection, gratitude, and joyful resignation. We are each and all of us playing the music of the spheres in the Big Bang Orchestra, which doubles as our hearth and home. All things considered, it’s a pretty good gig.
Suggested Readings and Works Cited
Nancy Ellen Abrams, A God That Could Be Real: Spirituality, Science, and the Future of Our Planet.
Daniel Chamovitz, What a Plant Knows: A Field Guide to the Senses.
Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species.
Didier Debaise, Nature as Event: The Lure of the Possible.
Ilia Delio, The Unbearable Wholeness of Being: God, Evolution, and the Power of Love.
Wendy Doniger (translator), The Rig Veda.
Peter Godfrey-Smith, Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness.
Yuval Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.
David George Haskell, The Songs of Trees: Stories from Nature’s Great Connectors.
Martin Heidegger, Poetry, Language, Thought.
Elizabeth A. Johnson, Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love.
Joseph W. Meeker, The Comedy of Survival: Literary Ecology and a Play Ethic.
Stephen Mitchell (editor and translator), Ahead of All Parting: The Selected Poetry and Prose of Rainer Maria Rilke.
Stephen Mitchell (translator), The Bhagavad Gita: A New Translation; The Book of Job; and Genesis: A New Translation of the Classic Biblical Stories.
Harold J. Morowitz, The Emergence of Everything: How the World Became Complex.
Raimon Panikkar, The Rhythm of Being: The Unbroken Trinity.
Carlo Rovelli, Reality Is Not What It Seems: The Journey to Quantum Gravity.
James C. Scott, Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States.
Damion Searls (editor), The Journal of Henry David Thoreau, 1837–1861.
Teaser photo credit: By NASA, ESA, G. Illingworth, D. Magee, and P. Oesch (University of California, Santa Cruz), R. Bouwens (Leiden University), and the HUDF09 Team – http://www.spacetelescope.org/images/heic1214a/, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21680596