IS THOMAS BERRY’S NEW COSMOLOGY THE SAME AS THE UNIVERSE STORY?
IS THE NEW STORY THE SAME AS THE UNIVERSE STORY?
By Herman Greene
Within the Berry community three terms are used almost interchangeably: “the New Cosmology,” “the Universe Story,” and the “New Story.” I have concerns with this when people (1) use them interchangeably, (2) treat them as being monovalent and as referring primarily to the scientific narrative of the universe, and (3) pay attention to them and don’t give sufficient attention to Thomas’s other important work. In addition, I have concerns when later interpreters of Berry’s work are taken as being authoritative sources for Berry’s work with no need to refer back to his original work.
Interpreting Berry’s Work—Convention, Subsequent Interpretations, Original Sources
Various conventions have developed around Thomas Berry’s work. For many, it seems, one convention is that the New Cosmology, the Universe Story, and the New Story are the same. I don’t think people would say this if they gave attention to Berry’s original works.
Berry’s writings are rich and complex. He gives various meanings to terms. For example in one place he says that the Universe Story is a functional cosmology, and in another he says that ecology is a functional cosmology. In one place he says that the most important thing that can be done is to tell the story of the universe as disclosed through empirical science. Then, in his later years, he said science has taught us nothing about cosmology: when science thinks it is a cosmology it becomes a danger and when it functions within a proper cosmology it becomes a wisdom.
Berry’s original works need to be read and studied. His most important published works are The Dream of the Earth, The Universe Story (co-authored with Brian Swimme),and The Great Work. Students who wish to engage seriously in the study of Berry should, however, also refer to Berry’s unpublished Riverdale Papers. (Some of the Riverdale Papers appeared in Berry’s published books with varying amounts of editing. Reference to these papers in the Riverdale Papers will enable the student to study Berry’s earlier versions.) While not ignoring convention and the subsequent interpretations of Berry’s work, the student needs to be open to having Berry’s original work speak to her or him anew. If they arrive at a novel interpretation, rather than being puzzled they should be pleased.
Interchangeability of the New Cosmology, the Universe Story and the New Story
Historically cosmology was philosophical cosmology. In the modern period the dominant meaning of cosmology shifted to scientific or physical cosmology. The question shifted from, for example, what the stars mean to what they are physically. Formally, in academia “cosmology” is taught in two departments: physics and philosophy (cosmology is a branch of metaphysics). Berry brought philosophical cosmology back to the physical cosmology that has been dominant in an effort to create an integral cosmology sufficient for our age. He said many things with which most scientists would not agree such as the universe has had a psychic-spiritual as well as a physical dimension from the beginning and that subjectivity is present in every aspect of the universe.
Berry’s central task was to locate the human within the universe, not to describe the universe scientifically. He came at this in three different ways, by discussing cosmology including traditional cosmologies, by the evolutionary narrative of the universe story (in part based on the standard model of the universe), and the New Story which had multiple dimensions as it applied to the various human institutions, to culture, and to personal development. These are related, but also distinct. It’s important to study each of these.
Monovalent Meaning and the Standard Model of the Universe
In my opinion, Berry was in error when he wrote that the universe story is now known with scientific precision through empirical observation.* In the standard model of the universe 97% of the universe consists of dark matter and dark energy, neither of which has ever been observed empirically. Some scientists purport to know what happened 13.7 billion years ago down to the billionth of a second. They do not, however, claim that they know this empirically. They say that their knowledge is evidence-based, which means certain things are known empirically and then mathematical formulas are constructed that show relationships between these empirically known events.
Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Society is the international honor society of science and engineering. It is one of the oldest (125 years +) and largest scientific organizations in the world. Its primary publication is The American Scientist. In September 2007 Michael Disney published an article in that journal called Modern Cosmology: Science of Folktale? He states: “Current cosmological theory rests on a disturbingly small number of independent observations,” and he notes:
Big Bang cosmology is not a single theory; rather, it is five separate theories constructed on top of one another. The ground floor is a theory, historically but not fundamentally rooted in general relativity, to explain the redshifts—this is Expansion, which happily also accounts for the cosmic background radiation. The second floor is Inflation—needed to solve the horizon and “flatness” problems of the Big Bang. The third floor is the Dark Matter hypothesis required to explain the existence of contemporary visible structures, such as galaxies and clusters, which otherwise would never condense within the expanding fireball. The fourth floor is some kind of description for the “seeds” from which such structure is to grow. And the fifth and topmost floor is the mysterious Dark Energy, needed to allow for the recent acceleration of cosmic expansion indicated by the supernova observations. Thus Dark Energy could crumble, leaving the rest of the building intact. But if the Expansion floor collapsed, the entire edifice above it would come crashing down. Expansion is a moderately well-supported hypothesis, consistent with the cosmic background radiation, with the helium abundance and with the ages inferred for the oldest stars and star clusters in our neighborhood. However, finding more direct evidence for Expansion must be of paramount importance.
As to how much confidence we should have in the standard model he writes:
It is true that the modern study of cosmology has taken a turn for the better, if only because astronomers can now build relevant instruments rather than waiting for serendipitous evidence to turn up. On the other hand, to explain some surprising observations, theoreticians have had to create heroic and yet insubstantial notions such as “dark matter” and “dark energy,” which supposedly overwhelm, by a hundred to one, the stuff of the universe we can directly detect. Outsiders are bound to ask whether they should be more impressed by the new observations or more dismayed by the theoretical jinnis that have been conjured up to account for them.
And he ends his article with a warning:
The historian of science Daniel Boorstin once remarked: “The great obstacle to discovering the shape of the Earth, the continents and the oceans was not ignorance but the illusion of knowledge. Imagination drew in bold strokes, instantly serving hopes and fears, while knowledge advanced by slow increments and contradictory witnesses.” Acceptance of the current myth, if myth it is, could likewise hold up progress in cosmology for generations to come.
Tim Eastman’s article in this issue was written in August 2014 and it expresses other concerns with current physical cosmology, including philosophical presuppositions that are incompatible with Berry’s cosmology, which includes every being having its own spontaneity and creativity (in other words potentiality) and the universe evolving through an irreversible sequence of transformations.
In my opinion Thomas Berry is partially at fault for the problems that result from the wholesale adoption of the standard model of the universe into the “Universe Story” (sometimes a/k/a the New Story) without qualification.
As Connie Barlow and Michael Dowd wisely pointed out “science is the story of changing stories.”
Sir Arthur Eddington wrote: “The lack of finality of scientific theories would be a very serious limitation of our argument, if we had staked much on their permanence. The religious reader may well be content that I have not offered him a God revealed by the quantum theory, and therefore liable to be swept away in the next scientific revolution.”
Wesley Wildman wrote:
Physical cosmology is a discipline within the physical sciences that famously provokes many boundary questions with metaphysical and theological significance. Some of these questions are debated in the community of scientists studying physical cosmology when they need to clarify their procedures and whether what they are doing still counts as science. As complex as methodological questions in physical cosmology can be, these self-policing activities among scientists are just the tip of the iceberg of philosophical debate. Because physical cosmology concerns all of physical reality, at least in some aspects, its discoveries and theories and problems possess significance for the parts of philosophy and theology that ponder nature as a whole. For the sake of convenience, I shall follow Alfred North Whitehead and call these broader ventures “philosophical cosmology,” collecting both philosophy of nature, ontology of nature, theology of nature, and the cosmological parts of natural theology into the semantic net.
The inferential journey from physical cosmology to philosophical cosmology is complicated—far more complicated than is sometimes supposed by eager physicists and theologians.
Berry wrote that the human was that being who celebrated the universe in a special mode of conscious self-awareness. He also gave a longer version of this where the human celebrated the universe and its mysterious origins in a special mode of conscious self-awareness.
The origin of the universe is still mysterious and not simply because of its intricateness, unlikelihood or coincidences, but also because how the universe began is not known. Scientific investigations of the physical causes of the universe are warranted, yet they cannot explain the origin and nature of the universe. This goes beyond physics into metaphysics.
It is a mistake, in my view, to link Berry’s cosmology to the standard model of the universe and to think that by a recounting of the standard model of the universe one is expressing any of Berry’s New Cosmology, Universe Story or New Story.
Further, in my view, it is a mistake to take the standard model of the universe as a base for creating theologies, liturgies, philosophies, and stories where it is thought or implied that this model is settled. Science does of course provide many understandings that need to be taken into account in a philosophical or religious cosmology, such as we live in an evolutionary universe and much more. The point of this article is not to diminish the importance of science but to emphasize that Berry’s contribution was not popularizing physical cosmology as an end in itself, but rather bringing philosophical cosmology back to physical cosmology in an effort to create an integral cosmology sufficient for our age.
The New Cosmology, the Universe Story, the New Story in Relation to Berry’s Other Work
The universe story has been so prominent in the development of Berry’s work that people predominantly identify Berry’s work with the Universe Story. People have written such papers as “Thomas Berry and the New Story” pointing to the New Story as his major contribution. Leaving aside for the minute the extent of this contribution, this has had, in my view, an undesirable side effect of overshadowing Berry’s other work. This in turn has resulted in some people giving more attention to the latest scientific theory or discovery as an extension of Berry’s work than attention to other important aspects of his original works and their extension.
Attention needs to be given to Berry’s historical analysis, his cultural critique, his description of the Great Work, and his ideas for reforming culture, institutions and society. Further his contributions to theology, religion, and philosophy, while not given in a systematic way are significant.
Berry gave us the Great Work, one exceeding in its complexity that ever offered to humans, and this work is not accomplished solely by a new universal narrative based on accepted scientific understandings (even assuming that this narrative would be generally adopted by all people) Berry offers much, much more in the way of insight and guidance on how to bring into being an Ecozoic era. His original works as primary sources need ongoing study and attention in their full breadth and depth.
*See, e.g., Thomas Berry, Principle 1 of “Twelve Principles for Understanding the Universe,” in Evening Thoughts: Reflecting on Earth as Sacred Community, ed. Mary Evelyn Tucker (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 2006), 145: “The universe in its full extension in space and in its sequence of transformations in time is best understood as story: a story known in the twentieth century for the first time with scientific precision through empirical observation.”