Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Is Big History Science or Myth? Or Both?

In 1978, Edward O. Wilson, in On Human Nature, warned that the naturalistic explanation of human nature as a product of natural evolution rather than divine creation created a spiritual dilemma: as products of a purposeless evolutionary process, we have no transcendent purpose or goal around which we can organize our societies, and yet the religious longing for transcendent meaning is part of our evolved human nature.  Wilson thought Friedrich Nietzsche was right in warning that evolutionary science was a deadly truth in denying human life any transcendent meaning, and that human beings would not accept this, because they would rather have the void as purpose than be void of purpose (171).  The dilemma is that human beings cannot live nobly without some religious belief in mythic stories that convey the cosmic purposefulness of human life, and yet modern scientific materialism must deny any such belief.

Wilson's proposal for resolving that dilemma was to appeal to the "mythopoeic drive" of the human mind by turning scientific materialism into a mythology of the "evolutionary epic" as "the best myth we will ever have" (201).  This evolutionary epic will begin with the origin of the Universe in the Big Bang of fourteen billion years ago, as deduced by astronomers and physicists, which is "far more awesome than the first chapter of Genesis or the Ninevite epic of Gilgamesh" (202).  This epic will move forward through the evolution of everything from stars and planets to plants and animals, and finally to the hero of the epic--the human brain as the most complex device we know.

Wilson claimed that although the evolutionary epic's "most sweeping assertions cannot be proved with finality," the scientific method of empirically testing hypotheses and discarding those hypotheses that are falsified can improve our understanding of the evolutionary epic so that it approaches ever closer to some approximation of reality (201).

Is this reasonable?  Or is the very idea of a scientific mythology based on an evolutionary epic incoherent?  Must any myth or story be a human fiction that cannot be fully grounded in empirical science?  Or is it possible to construct a scientific narrative of the evolution of everything that can be supported by empirical scientific research?  Can such a scientific narrative satisfy our religious longings for cosmic meaning?  Or must scientific knowledge and religious belief always be in conflict?

These are the questions that must be raised about the Big History promoted by David Christian, Fred Spier, and others, which is the elaboration of Wilson's proposal for an evolutionary epic.  An engaging presentation of Big History is Christian's TED talk, which is entitled "The History of Our World in 18 Minutes."  Over the past five years, this talk has been viewed almost 6 million times!  The influence of Christian's vision is indicated by the fact that Bill Gates is supporting Christian's "Big History Project," which is promoting the teaching of Big History courses in high schools.

The debate over Big History can be seen in an article by Ian Hesketh--"The Story of Big History" -- and an article by Eric Chaisson--"The Natural Science Underlying Big History"

Christian's TED talk is organized around the question of how the Universe creates ordered complexity without violating the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which says that randomness or disorder (entropy) increases everywhere.  His answer is that ordered, complex systems can arise when there is a flow of energy into them from the environment outside the system.  The order of the system does not violate the Second Law of Thermodynamics, because the net disorder of the system and its environment always increases.  So, for example, the complex order of life on Earth arises from photosynthesis, by which some of the energy radiated onto the Earth from the Sun is captured by plants to power the processes of life.  He can then narrate the history of the Universe from the Big Bang to humankind as an evolutionary history of increasing complexity powered by the flow of energy into ordered systems.  The complexity of human systems of order depends not just on the flow of energy but also on the uniqueness of human language and networks of communication that allow for collective learning, culminating in the modern global community that constitutes a global brain.

Christian ends his lecture with a vision of the future prompted by pictures of him visiting his grandson Daniel.  Christian explains that he worries about the current threats to human civilization--particularly, nuclear war and global warming--that could disrupt the "Goldilocks conditions" for human life on Earth.  He wants his grandson's generation to study Big History in high school so that they can understand how to meet these challenges to human life on "this beautiful Earth."

Hesketh sees Christian's lecture as a good illustration of the rhetorical trick in all of Big History, in which historians claim to have found an empirical science of history that embraces the entire history of the Universe, but actually what they have done is to use the literary techniques of story-telling to tell "an anthropocentric story of cosmic origins" that has no grounding in empirical science (193).  "Indeed," Hesketh asserts, "like any myth, big history's deep meanings are not inherently derived from empirical observations but from its anthropomorphic projections of an idealized cosmic world" (196).  In fact, Hesketh notes, Christian and the other proponents of Big History have often explicitly identified this cosmic history as "a modern creation myth," and they admit that they are engaging in the sort of mythology dressed up as science that was recommended by Wilson (174, 180-81, 183-86).

The anthropocentric and anthropomorphic character of this myth is evident in the way Christian ends his story of cosmic history with pictures of himself with his grandson: he thus ends with human beings on Earth occupying the center of the Universe as they face the moral challenges of securing the ecological conditions of human life on Earth against the threats coming from nuclear weapons and global climate change. 

Hesketh points out (192-93) that this corresponds to what Christian at the end of Maps of Time predicted for the "near future" of the next hundred years, but then Christian went on in his book to predict the "remote future" of the Universe--the end of life on Earth, the burning out of the Sun, and the Universe becoming "a dark, cold place filled only with black holes and stray subatomic particles that wander light-years apart from each other" (Maps, 486-89).  In his TED lecture, Christian is silent about this dark, cold future of the Universe, because that would have taken away the heroic ending of his story with human beings at the center of the universe on "this beautiful Earth."

Hesketh's fundamental criticism of Big History is conveyed in the two quotations at the head of his article.  Hesketh identifies Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry's The Universe Story as one of the first of the recent Big History texts.  He quotes them as saying: "The goal is not to read a book; the goal is to read the story taking place all around us."  He then follows that with a quotation from Hayden White's Tropics of Discourse: "No one and nothing lives a story."  Swimme and Berry present themselves not as authors of the "universe story" they tell but as discoverers of the story that can be found in Nature (186).  Against this, Hesketh points to White's "insight" that every story is a human fictional creation that has no factual grounding in Nature (196).

If you read Hesketh's article, you should notice that he simply asserts White's "insight" without offering any evidence or argumentation to demonstrate its correctness.  In contrast to this, Chaisson presents his natural science of Big History as cosmic evolution as a "grand scientifically based story" (36).  So Chaisson thinks a story about cosmic history really can be grounded in empirical science, and he backs up that claim with scientific evidence that energy is "a common currency for all complex, ordered systems," and that one can find a quantitative measure of complexity in "energy rate density," which is the amount of energy passing through a system per unit time and per unit mass (4-5).  He surveys the evidence supporting a cosmic evolution of increasing complexity as measured by energy rate density that moves from physical systems to biological systems to cultural systems.  In some of his earlier writings, Chaisson had spoken of this as a "cultural myth."  But now he speaks of this as a "scientific narrative."  He avoids the term "myth," because that often carries the connotation of "fiction." 

But Hesketh would insist that any kind of story or narrative is fictional--that's White's "insight"--and therefore it's impossible for it to have any grounding in empirical scientific evidence.  Oddly, Hesketh recognizes the importance of Chaisson's science of cosmic evolution for Big History, but he is completely silent about Chaisson's presentation of the empirical evidence for this science, because Herseth is confident that an empirically-based science of history is impossible.

It's noteworthy that Chaisson agrees with Hesketh in criticizing the Big History of Christian and others as being too "anthropocentric" or "anthropomorphic" (see Chaisson, 1-3, 14, 35).  Chaisson criticizes Big History for restricting its view mostly to our Milky Way, our Sun, our Earth, and our history on Earth.  They do this because "big historians like all historians, basically strive to know themselves, nobly and ideally, yet sometimes dubiously rendering humanity as central or special while deciphering our sense of place in the grand scheme of things" (2).

Chaisson agrees that the empirical evidence of the cosmic evolution of complexity as measured by energy rate density shows that human brains and human cultures are some of the most complex systems in the Universe (23-30).  And yet he sees no empirical evidence that cosmic evolution follows some grand design leading up to human life as having some privileged position.  While we can hope that the human species will endure into the near future, the empirical evidence of how ordered systems evolve and of the rare conditions required for human life make it clear that human life is unlikely to last for long, and that the eventual death of the Sun will bring earthly life to an end.

Chaisson observes: "As a confirmed empirical materialist, my vocation is to critically observe Nature and to experimentally test theories about it" (36).  And thus, in contrast to Hesketh, Chaisson believes that stories about cosmic history can be tested empirically by scientific research.

Still, as we saw in the previous post, Chaisson concedes that our grandest models of the cosmos depend on speculative thinking that cannot be tested through observation and experimentation, and consequently our scientific knowledge of the cosmos must always be severely limited.  Why was there a Big Bang?  What was there before the Big Bang?  Such questions cannot be answered according to the traditional standards of scientific method.  Wilson admitted that such questions leave a big opening for religious belief in God as the First Cause (On Human Nature, 1, 171-72, 191-92, 205).

But even if empirical science cannot give us absolute knowledge of the whole--a theory of everything--it can give us empirically grounded stories about the cosmos that approximate reality.  If so, then, contrary to Hesketh's confidence in White's "insight" that all stories must be fictional, we can use science to help us read (even if only dimly) the story taking place all around us.

The first attempt at telling a scientifically based story of Big History or cosmic evolution was Lucretius's De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things), which Lucretius wrote as a didactic epic poem.  The poetic artistry of Lucretius's writing in presenting Epicurean atomistic science is evident.  But those like Hesketh would raise the question of whether this poetic story-telling is the fictional imposition of a literary order onto a natural order that does not speak for itself.


Chaisson, Eric J., "The Natural Science Underlying Big History," The Scientific World Journal, volume 2014, 41 pages.

Christian, David, Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004).

Hesketh, Ian, "The Story of Big History," History of the Present: A Journal of Critical History, 4 (Fall 2014): 171-202.

Wilson, Edward O., On Human Nature (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978).

Some other posts on topics related to Big History can be found here, here, here, here, here, here, here., here., and here.


Mike said...

I'm reminded of H.P. Lovecraft's philosophy, which was likely shaped by his reading of Lucretius from the original Latin:

. All is illusion, hollowness, and nothingness—but what does that matter? Illusions are all we have, so let us pretend to cling to them; they lend dramatic values and comforting sensations of purpose to things which are really valueless and purposeless. All one can logically do is to jog placidly and cynically on, according to the artificial standards and traditions with which heredity and environment have endowed him. He will get most satisfaction in the end by keeping faithful to these things.

And Lovecraft buttressed his worldview with serious study in astronomy and the other sciences. Perhaps he, too, can be considered a pioneer in Big History.

Larry Arnhart said...

Even without a moral cosmology, why isn't it sufficient to have a moral anthropology? Given an enduring (but not eternal) human nature, we can look to those natural ends inherent in our nature as our guide.

Mike said...

In addition to the question of "how" we should live, we still need a "why."