Blogs >> Cosmology can offer us a sense of purpose - by Andy Letcher

Cosmology can offer us a sense of purpose - by Andy Letcher

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Every day it seems the scientific study of cosmology brings new discoveries.

Recently we’ve heard about gravitational waves that wobble the fabric of space and time, and fast radio bursts (FRBs) that might, just, be signals from an alien civilisation. Then there was the news that three billion years ago a rogue planet smashed into our world, seeding it with all the ingredients necessary for life, and bequeathing us our Moon, formed from the wreckage.

These kind of insights are what most of us think about when we consider ‘cosmology’: the scientific study of the origin and evolution of the universe. Science doesn’t get much bigger or purer than this.

But there’s another sense of the word known especially to anthropologists, that’s to do with how people imagine the world and their place within it. 

In this sense cosmology orients us. It provides a sense of belonging, purpose and meaning.

So we might consider the many extant animist cultures who regard the world not as a machine but as a living thing filled with people, only some of whom are human. Their cosmology is, in other words, primarily concerned with relationship. It’s about how we live respectfully with these other people, be they animals, plants, trees, rocks or features of the landscape.

Cosmologies, cosmovisions, cosmograms, worldviews, lifeways. Call them what you will, it’s easy to imagine that such mythological visions belong to other peoples and other times, and not to us in our post-Enlightenment culture, built as it is on science and rationality. The colourful cosmologies of others are all too easily dismissed as so much magical thinking.

And yet there never has been a culture without a cosmology. Ours is no exception. The view that everything we see around us, from tables and chairs and laptops and music and politics and Donald Trump’s comb-over, all arose ultimately by chance from the random collisions of particles, steered by the inexorable laws of nature, is a cosmology. It may gain legitimacy from scientific discoveries but it’s a cosmology nonetheless, one that can only be inferred from the evidence and not deduced.

We can therefore turn the anthropological lens away from others to ourselves, to inquire about our own implicit cosmologies. What do we take for granted about the world? To what do we ascribe ultimate value or meaning? How do we orient ourselves?  

As French anthropologist Bruno Latour puts it, by what supreme authority are we brought together as a people?

Such speculation has long been the province of philosophers, but such is the dominance of the Analytic School in Britain, we have rather overlooked a whole tradition of metaphysics that sees the cosmos as very much alive and in a continual process of becoming. In fact, this tradition of Naturphilosophie, as it is known in Germany, often arrives at remarkably similar conclusions to those of animistic cultures: the world is not a dead thing, but radically alive. Mind goes all the way down.

Take for example the thought of the British philosopher Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947). Whitehead was originally a brilliant mathematician and while at Cambridge attempted with Bertrand Russell to establish once and for all the axiomatic foundations of mathematics. No intellectual slouch, he reformulated Einstein’s theory of relativity so as to remove what he saw as the bothersome need for space-time to be curved (it’s said to Einstein’s complete bemusement).

Whitehead wrote all his philosophy after his move to Harvard in 1924. For him, mind is not an attribute restricted to humans but imbues all things. There is some kind of experience to being say a star or a starfish or a proton. Novelty, to use his terminology, continually concresces into the world, a world that is in continual process and that reaches inexorably towards ever greater intensifications of experience.

In a Whiteheadian view, therefore, we are not idle bystanders on a world that is already made but, rather, active participants in what we can only call a cosmogenesis, a continual birthing of the cosmos.

Stop for a moment and try to take that in. Irrespective of whether Whitehead elicits in you an easy sympathy or angry antipathy, try, just as a thought experiment, to imagine what it would be like to live in such a world where we are participants in and not observers of the great cosmogenic unfolding.

How does it sit with your current cosmology? Would it change how you see yourself? How might it make you act differently?

Naturally, we are drawn to a particular cosmology by aesthetic taste, by dint of personality, by affect. But the reflexive study of cosmology, and the entertaining of alternatives, even for a moment, allows us to draw back the curtains on how we actually see the world.

Counter-intuitively perhaps, by challenging our assumptions we fortify our position as well as engendering a necessary sense of humility. We might, after all, be mistaken. When it comes to cosmology, can anyone claim to have the full picture, the final word?

And it may be that by simply changing our cosmology, our orientation to the world, we have at our disposal one of the simplest and most effective ways of creating change. I find that rather inspiring.