Beyond Materialism: How Cosmology Makes Us Confused and What To Do About It
Stephen Friberg, Aug 14, 2016 …
The title of a series of talks on cosmology and the Baha’i Faith that I will be giving at the San Jose Baha’i Center is “Beyond Materialism: How Cosmology Makes Us Confused and What To Do About It.”
The goal is ambitious – to probe the roots of modern materialism and to find a work-around away from the problems caused by undue adherence to those roots. The view that the world – and our role as denizens of that world – is purely material is a big part of the problem, I believe. To the extent that modern cosmologies are how that view is promoted and maintained, they are also part of the problem. So, we need to understand these cosmologies and how they have deviated us so far from an acknowledgement of the spiritual, moral, and ethical aspects of our respective human realities.
A couple of things strike me. First of all, it looks as if cosmology – modern physical cosmology and ancient cosmology alike – function much as do myth and superstition. To the extent that religion was propagated to large numbers of people through shortcuts, tricks, and the encouragement of unquestioning acknowledgement of authority, cosmology was a major offender. Modern cosmology continues in that role, although its handlers and owners have changed.
The other thing that strikes me is that there is no going back – we can’t return to the comfortable cosmologies of the past. Instead we must, I suggest, abandon our adolescent embrace of cosmology and its mythical, inspirational character and turn to a wider, more embracing view of reality, one that takes into account our inner world and the role of human endeavor and activity as well, and one that honors, respects, and above all understands the multiplicity of perspectives of the peoples of the world.
This means that the modern physicist’s view of cosmology, so limited, so circumscribed, so tied to physical pictures of the universe, must be dethroned. Only when properly dethroned – and only when it takes its place as one among many ways of considering reality – will materialism give way to a more mature – and more ambitious – way of improving the world.
Cosmology as a Bedrock of Materialism
Cosmology – including modern physical cosmology – is in many ways the same thing as myth. A myth, according to Wikipedia is “broadly, any worldview-based traditional story, or collection or study thereof.” Myths come in many different flavors, including the “sacred narrative, which validates a religious system,” the “origin myth, which purports to describe the origin of some feature of the natural or social world,” and the “political myth, ideological explanation for a political phenomenon that is believed by a social group.” Of particular interest to us are origin myths, which include the “creation myth, symbolic narrative of how the world began and how people first came to inhabit it”, and the “etiological myth, intended to explain the origins of cult practices, natural phenomena, proper names and the like.”
Briefly, what seems to have happened in the scientific revolution is that the scholastic and academic parts of the European religious establishment – the “natural philosophers,” the great theologians, the university professors, the leading ecclesiastics, and the like – were very much invested in the Aristotelian-Ptolemaic cosmology as an origins myth and saw it not only as integral to their own worldview, but as a central part of their teaching and pastoral mission as well. Aristotelian-Ptolemaic cosmology was not only the scientific, philosophical, and theological state of the art of the day, but it provided a powerful, readily pictured and easily understood picture of the universe that anybody, regardless of their educational level, could grasp and understand. Its political relevance – a lowly earth with its inhabitants at the center of a universe ruled over by God and the political establishment – was equally easily grasped.
Think about it! What an extraordinary prize! Take it – make it yours – and not only have you captured an important lever of power in religion, in philosophy, and in theology, but you have captured the levers of power in the universities and even in the rule of kings, popes, princes, and emperors. And take it they did. By the late 18th century, enlightenment thinkers were threatening the overthrow of the French monarchy – the leading political power in Europe – and the dominance of the French Catholicism. By the late 19th century, European colonialism, firmly anchored in evolutionary fitness narratives of white man’s superiority, controlled almost the whole of the earth.
Why is this the bedrock of materialism? The short answer is that religion in Europe underwent a period of collapse ending in its virtual disappearance, and science emerged as the owner of the high ground. Science, not religion, came to be seen as the arbiter of truth and power, and the new cosmologies that science proffered cut out the feet from under the old Aristotelian / Ptolemaic cosmology of the church and the ancien regime. And the science of the time was simple, material, and just in its beginnings. That, plus its extraordinary and continuing success and the lack of a robust, progressive, and world-embracing religion, has locked its material aspects in place (although that is starting to change as more complete thinking about evolution and things like ideas about information, creativity, social growth, and related ways of thinking slowly percolate up.)
Is it time to abandon these myths of origin, these cosmologies that seem to so hinder us? Have we matured to a point where we don’t need them and confusion they sow? Good questions, and certainly we have to think about what is appropriate for our modern age and the future and not revel in cosmic perspectives – no matter how grand – that are rooted in the past. One need only glance at what is happening all around the world to see the dangers of that.
Next time, a brief review of some of the cosmologies of the past.