Cosmology and Meaning: The Search for Harmony Above and Below

Source: Stockvault

(Today’s article is by guest writer Dwayne Schulz. For a brief bio, see below.)

From a naturalistic perspective life is often thought to be meaningless because it arose from cosmic processes that are ultimately random in nature. These processes include the Big Bang, the chance emergence of self-replicating molecules and the role of random mutation in the evolution of Homo Sapiens. Indeed, there are thinkers like Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss who assert this explicitly. Let’s call the above view the ‘nihilist’ perspective.

In resisting the nihilist view of things, some go to the opposite extreme. They argue that the cosmos is somehow primed to give rise to life or that life is meaningful because the cosmos itself is animated by an overarching purpose culminating in humanistic traits like consciousness, love or the veneration of beauty. The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead and Philip Goff in his recent book, Why? The Purpose of the Universe. I think they would be happy to describe themselves under the latter category. Let’s call this view the ‘teleological’ interpretation.

I think both points of view are mistaken. My main reasons arise from the fact that the cosmos is neither purely random/indeterministic nor exclusively lawful/deterministic. Rather, nature exhibits tendencies towards both deterministic and indeterministic outcomes. The nihilist and teleological views over-generalize one or the other tendency – but what needs emphasizing is that there is always a creative mixing of both necessity and contingency, a back and forth dialectic that gives rise to interesting patterns in everything from physics to evolution and culture. At certain points necessity may reign supreme, at other times freedom. Necessity and contingency might also be seen as examples of an even more fundamental interplay between order on the one hand and disorder on the other. We could, after the ancient Greeks, call these two meta-tendencies Logos and Chaos.

The historical trajectory of a given person or entity is made up of different phases. Some of these are tightly restrained by what came before, others exhibiting intense novelty unanticipated by their antecedents, all interacting in complex and unique ways. As a child I had little control over my body or environment but as an adult I exercise greater physical powers and choices. One day I will regress to a state in which my aging body severely restricts what choices are open to me. 

Similarly, in the first eons after the Big Bang perhaps there were few choices on the table regarding the generation of the first elements hydrogen and helium – their emergence may have been nearly inevitable. On the other hand, the generation of heavier elements via nuclear fusion in stars and the subsequent rise of complex chemistry may have been a more contingent matter because it was uncertain whether gravity would be strong enough to support stellar formation but not so strong as to crush matter into the monotonous existence of black holes. And once life arose there was a new explosion of possibilities – our current biosphere being but one branch amongst millions of possibilities – radically different domains, phyla, genera and species of life might have arisen instead.

The above cosmological example is purely speculative but the particular physics involved is irrelevant. My point is that the cosmos, life, human culture or even you as a person, result from the long and complicated intertwining of necessity and chance, order and randomness. As a consequence it is wrong to think that life, consciousness and meaning are inconceivable unless the universe is somehow pre-disposed to create them from the beginning. Certainly there was an abstract potential for these things to emerge but there were billions, trillions of other possibilities that may have occurred in their stead. In a similar way a block of marble has the abstract potential to be carved into Michelangelo’s Statue of David but also into the Venus de Milo and who knows what else. The original block of marble by itself tells us little about what might become of it. 

The particular mix of necessity and contingency, repetition and randomness and how they are related in any given sphere of life is what’s important. The object of many disciplines and practices, whether medicine or even politics, seems to be to harmonize these different principles to reach optimum results, how to balance things like routine, stability and security in a given sphere of life with things like excitement, creativity and risk. Ancient sages from Heraclitus to Confucius understood that the key to the good life was harmonizing these different inclinations in personal and social affairs: civic responsibility with individual freedom, work with play, discipline and practice with flexibility and creativity, whether in the field of art and poetry or in matters of state and warfare. As Heraclitus observed “from things that differ comes the most beautiful harmony”, that harmony results from “opposing tension, like that of the bow and lyre” (Chenyang Li 90-91). Confucius would have agreed. In the Analects, he famously advocates ‘harmony with distinctiveness’ meaning harmony that respects but reconciles differences between individuals whether in the family, the state or in nature (Chenyang Li, Confucius 432).

According to Plato it is the task of the scholar and philosopher to investigate the right proportions of things in each particular case so we can emulate nature’s own inclination towards harmony and flow. This reflected an ancient Greek obsession with divine proportionality in everything from geometry to sculpture to ethics. According to Plato there was an internal spiritual dimension to learning about cosmic harmonies. In the Timaeus he writes:

by learning thoroughly about the harmonies and revolutions of the universe [we] … restore our understanding .. to its likeness with the object of understanding. When that is done, we shall have achieved the goal set us by the gods, the life that is best for this present time and for all time to come” (90cd). 

On this view the cyclic harmonies sought by the heavens above are of a kind with the ethical and spiritual harmonies sought by humanity below. In more modern terms we might say that just as planets tend to find orbits that harmonize their inertial movement away from the sun with their gravitational attraction towards it, so there exist certain legal codes, constitutions, norms etc. which harmonize social tendencies pulling in opposite directions, e.g. the desire for individual freedom with the need for collective security or the pursuit of profit with the requirements of justice. Nature and society are thus of a piece, each seeking after patterns of behaviour that resolve opposing tensions within them. Contrary to what C.P. Snow once famously argued, there is no fundamental divide between science and the arts.

Traditional religion tends to embrace the teleological view placing humans and their concerns at the centre of a grand cosmic drama. Scientists on the other hand often incline to the nihilist position. I think spiritual naturalists should seek a middle path which sees human endeavour as something that is part of nature but not required by it, as its contingent product but not for that any less meaningful. It is in the struggle between Logos and Chaos at the human scale, that meaning finds its place, as part of our perpetual struggle to maintain health, friendship and civility for example in the face of things like disease, prejudice, war and violence.

The pursuit of a meaningful life becomes a spiritual quest when we strive to feel, think and act in accordance with some higher principle emphasizing an overarching harmony of mind, body and soul with nature and the wider cosmos. This sense of cosmic harmony is often better expressed in things like poetry and music because it is more of a feeling or tone than an idea. It can also be nurtured through practices like meditation, yoga, prayer and ritual. Such practices do not eliminate suffering or trauma but can cultivate a deeper appreciation of existence that helps us weather the storms of life. As I have said, the cosmic tendency towards the Logos, or harmony is just that, one always vying with its opposite Chaos, but we value and focus on the former in accordance with Spinoza’s dictum that ‘the wise meditate not upon death but upon life’ (67).

To summarize. The fact that we are products of random mutation in evolution does not detract from the pursuit of a meaningful or spiritual life one bit. The cosmos may not dictate the emergence of life, humanity or the rise of things like art and mathematics, but such things are nonetheless outgrowths of nature and 100% compatible with it even if they are amongst possibly millions of alternatives that might have otherwise evolved. Human pursuits, including the spiritual pursuit for inner and outer harmony, are extensions of our biology. They are no more alien to the cosmic process than the planets pursuing harmonious orbits around the sun or electrons pursuing stable ground states inside the atom.

Learn about Membership in the Spiritual Naturalist Society

The Spiritual Naturalist Society works to spread awareness of spiritual naturalism as a way of life, develop its thought and practice, and help bring together like-minded practitioners in fellowship.

SNS strives to include diverse voices within the spectrum of naturalistic spirituality. Authors will vary in their opinions, terms, and outlook. The views of no single author therefore necessarily reflect those of all Spiritual Naturalists or of SNS.

Chenyang Li, “The Ideal of Harmony in Ancient Chinese and Greek Philosophy,” Dao 7, 2008.
Chenyang Li, “The Philosophy of Harmony in Classical Confucianism,” Philosophy Compass 3/3 (2008): 423–435.
Plato. Timaeus , Lee, D (trans), Timaeus and Critias, Penguin, 1977.
Spinoza, B. – Ethics. Penguin Classics 1996.

Brief Bio: Dwayne Schulz lives in Queensland, Australia, working as a lawyer in the field of Aboriginal land rights. He completed a thesis in 2016 on the thought of Alfred North Whitehead for a Master of Arts in Philosophy at Monash University. His interests include philosophies of life, civilization, indigeneity and environmentalism.

3 thoughts on “Cosmology and Meaning: The Search for Harmony Above and Below”

  1. Fascinating article! I do have a speculative question concerning your conclusion that “the cosmic tendency towards the Logos, or harmony is just that, one always vying with its opposite Chaos…”

    This SNS’s view doesn’t seem that far removed from Process Philosophy’s view (such as Whitehead’s) that ‘Meaning” is emergent in the midst of chaotic matter and energy, bringing order into being or even one Jewish view that in the beginning when elohim began to create, tehom was chaotic…a symbolic-mythological explantion of the nature of reality.

    Would you agree with Whitehead or disagree?

  2. Hi Daniel, thanks for your comments. I don’t think there is an official SNS position on the question of meaning. The article is my own interpretation. I don’t think either Chaos or Logos are primary – they always seem to go together just in different proportions at different times. Perhaps the chaos at the beginning of our cosmos was just the leaping off from the end of a prior universe, more of a Big Bounce as Lee Smolin has called it than a Big Bang. Order emerges from chaos but chaos also emerges from order. I’m interested in this constant back and forth. Health follows from disease but disease from health, peace from war and war from peace, etc. There is always a back and forth. I’m also trying to stress how there were multiple pathways through the space of cosmic possibilities. One pathway led to us here now. Others would have taken the cosmos to universes utterly different from ours with different kinds of physics, chemistry, etc. The kind of meaning we seek as humans is certainly emergent but is just one possibility. We might never have existed – I think we need to be careful of seeing ourselves as the special culmination of cosmic history. Regarding Whitehead, I think he is immensely important but his teleology, panentheism and eternal objects are problematic from a naturalist perspective.

  3. Excellent paper, well written, really made me think. I am jealous of your writing ability!


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