The book blurb for a new book called The New Universe and the Human Future urges humankind to gather together to write a new, globally-unifying story of the universe and our place in it, an endeavor the authors say is enabled by advancements in a branch of astrophysical science called cosmology.
Intriguing, I thought, though a bit vague. So I bought the book, read it, and read up on the co-authors.
As it turns out, there is a dark side, a very dark side, to the story the co-authors urge upon us.
The co-authors are the highly-degreed husband-and-wife team of Joel Primack and Nancy Ellen Abrams, who also co-teach a course called “Cosmology and Culture” at the University of California-Santa Cruz (UCSC).
Primack is a physics professor there. He has an undergraduate degree and a Ph.D., both in physics. His research centers on galaxy formation and evolution. Currently, he works with supercomputers to create models simulating and visualizing how the universe evolves under various assumptions and comparing testing the modeled data with against observational data. (Where have we heard of computer modeling before?)
Abrams has a bachelor’s degree in the history and philosophy of science, a law degree, and a certificate in Mexican law and international trade. She is interested in “the role of science in shaping a new politics” and worked at U.S. EPA and elsewhere to popularize “scientific mediation,” a technique she co-created to enable public policy formation based on disputed science. (Red flag, here.) She is also a singer/songwriter, communicating the possible deeper meanings of cosmology and culture.
Unlike the Book of Genesis and other religious “stories” or “myths” about our origins – as its co-authors call them – Primack and Abrams say the story we need to write is not religious. Rather, the story needed merges the mythical with “a science-based appreciation of our place in a meaningful universe.” This story, unlike religious ones, tells not only of the origins of the universe, but also its ever-changing future.
Their book is heavily cosmological, describing the current state of our knowledge of the universe. The universe consists of an “ocean” as it were, of dark energy, about 70 percent of the universe. Dark energy causes the expansion of the universe by causing dark matter to repel itself and spread out over space. This is an imperfect description of their very complex theory (for more detail, read the book). But the authors’ point is that, until quite recently, scientists posited that the universe is expanding at a slower rate than previously. Now, they say, we know expansion is accelerating. This is true, they say, even while acknowledging scientists can see by instrument only one percent of the universe.
The cosmological astrophysics is all quite complicated, they concede, but they go on to argue we mere humans need not bother to understand the details. Rather, they say, we should take their word for it – and the word of other scientists. More importantly, they say, the cosmological science requires humans to acquire the “feeling” that we are connected to a larger universe, and that this feeling will give meaning to “life’s more mundane moments.”
The Book of Genesis, and other religion-based “stories,” gave rise to such feelings of connectedness, they say, but they were not scientifically accurate. Their science-based story is. And their story unites science and spirituality (if not religion) after the separation of each modality since the time of Galileo.
So far, so good. But they go on to say such a story, if formulated by humans, will solve all the world’s woes, from war, nuclear waste, and – brace yourself – global warming. We must embrace the earth and care not only for it but also care for the more expansive universe of which humans are an important part.
So now I’m humming “I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony; I’d like to hold it in my arms and keep it company.” Perhaps I was inspired by Abrams to use music to comprehend the deeper meaning of cosmology. But I’m also thinking that, though there is not much new about their proposed new story, there is much to like about it.
The theory of connectedness is straight out of the teachings of psychologist Carl Jung, that a collective unconsciousness exists, linking all human beings. It also borrows from the more recent writings of Jungian psychotherapist and spiritualist Thomas Moore, formerly a Catholic monk, who found a higher purpose in performing humble tasks to the best of his ability – a elevated version of “offering up” unpleasant things to God.
The authors’ theory also embodies elements of pantheism, caring for the earth mother Gaia, though the authors do not acknowledge the influence of either Jung or Gaiaism. They do refer to the writings of the late Joseph Campbell, a famous mythologist, though they do not mention the phrase for which he is most famous: “Feel the bliss.”
I’m making fun here to some extent, but Jungian theory, in particular, has a certain nobility and is therefore appealing. The authors tell a classic Jungian-type story of two bricklayers in France constructing a building. Here is how one of them describes his work: “I lay bricks, one on top of the other, again and again.” The other, doing exactly the same thing, says he is “building a cathedral to the mother of God.” Being part of something vast, spiritual, and cosmically meaningful is an elegant and worthy way to live one’s life.
Framed like this, the authors’ message is inspirational, powerful and truly could transform the world. I applaud the authors for this part of their book.
But here’s the dark side. Evidently seeking to motivate us to write our universal story out of fear, the authors say humans face “a bleak future on a declining planet.” Largely due to global warming. We must care for the earth, stop using fossil fuels, and use alternative fuels, they say.
Man is entirely responsible for increased emissions of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, they say. Carbon dioxide levels have never been higher in the past 800,000 years than the current levels of 300 parts per million. And these emissions are causing temperatures to rise. They cite a paucity of sources, including the book accompanying Al Gore’s movie An Inconvenient Truth and the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 2007 Report.
Recently, Milt Rosenberg, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Chicago, interviewed the co-authors on his Extension 720 talk-radio program on WGN-AM in Chicago. He then opened up the telephone lines for questions. I called in and actually got on the air.
I started by briefly praising the elegance of their book and their Jungian approach. But, I asked, why do you then spoil the elegance by saying humans face “a bleak future on a declining planet” largely due to global warming? And won’t you acknowledge: (1) carbon dioxide levels have been vastly higher than 300 parts per million in the past? (2) scientists agree carbon dioxide levels increase as temperatures increase, not the other way around?
Primack, not Abrams, answered my questions. I didn’t really expect him to agree with me, but he has a Ph.D. in physics, so I though we could debate it briefly. No such luck.
First, he said, there is a “consensus” of scientists around the world that man-made emissions of carbon dioxide are causing global warming. A “consensus?” Oh, really? It’s one thing when Al Gore, trained as a journalist, utters the “c” word. But it was pretty surprising to hear a Ph.D. physicist abandon the scientific method of proving scientific hypotheses, a process which is rigidly factual and decidedly not a popularity contest, in favor of “consensus.”
Second, he said, smugly, you obviously get your information from Fox News and the Republican Party. A personal ad hominem attack if I ever saw one. Not what I expected.
Time for a commercial break, but Milt Rosenberg held me over. When we came back, I said, first, I admire your book, but why are you insulting me? I do not get my information from the media or political parties. More to the point, though, won’t you at least acknowledge we can have a debate about the science? No, he said.
These professors are dangerous – much more dangerous than Michael Mann and his hockey-stick graph, which is easily refuted, or other global warming factual falsifiers. We formerly had tree-huggers; more recently we’ve had Gaia-huggers. But these professors are Gaia-huggers using cosmological physics – and very few people are knowledgeable enough to dispute the science – to mask the scientific fallacies of their argument for radical restrictions on carbon dioxide emissions.
In Galileo’s time, heliocentrism was condemned as contrary to religion. Perhaps now, global warming activism as urged by Primack and Abrams as a spiritual matter, should be condemned as contrary to science.