The following text was presented to students at UCLA, as part of a student organized symposium. A shorter version of this text was later presented at the Hammer Museum as part of the Graphite Issue 6 Launch Party. Both were adapted from the introduction to my Master's Thesis for UCLA.
Hi Everyone, thank you for coming.
I’m going to spend some time this afternoon talking about a philosophical perspective I call Cosmic Materialism. It’s not really anything new, but rather a fusion of theories and hypotheses in quantum physics and evolutionary biology, in the philosophies of materialism, new materialism, speculative realism, and existentialism, and finally, in art and literature. Cosmic Materialism proposes a way of understanding the universe as one, whole, continuous sheet of space time—every object, every entity is a knot made up of smaller knots in the fabric of space. The implications of this philosophy establish a moral and political way of existing imbedded within the world: it denies hierarchy and establishes topography, accounts for the simultaneity of unity and diversity, embraces the order of chaos, and above all else establishes the vast unknowability of reality itself. The following lecture is an adaptation of the Introduction to a longer essay I’m working on entitled “Exploring a Cosmic Materialism: The Human Condition Imbedded in the Cosmos.” If you are interested in reading the entire essay, give me your email at the end of the presentation and I will be happy to send it to you.
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I will start with a quote from Carl Sagan: “The Nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of star stuff.” This quote first appeared in Sagan’s television series, “Cosmos: A Personal Voyage.” It has been played on television, quoted in books and all over the Internet, re-said by Neil DeGrasse Tyson in his reboot of the Cosmos, and even printed on T-shirts. This fact presented by Sagan with a sense of poetry, is undeniably awe-inspiring, but I think we, as a society, have failed to internalize this idea—we have failed to see how the implications of this objective, scientific fact affects our political structures, our cultural narratives, our day to day, individual relations with other people, other animals, and the environment.
When Carl Sagan says, “We are made of star stuff,” he uses a “we” that encapsulates the totality of all objects and all material in the cosmos—this is not a human “we,” this is a matter “we.” Our existence on this “pale blue dot” is causally tied to the nuclear fusion events inside a dying star. In the star’s core, hydrogen atoms are forced together, creating helium in an explosion of heat and energy. As especially massive stars die, their epic scale and gravitational forces facilitate the fusion of hydrogen and helium atoms into heavier elements, such as oxygen, neon, silicon, calcium, and iron. Clouds of these elements eventually form into celestial bodies like asteroids and planets. The cosmos created stars, stars created elements, elements came together to form planets, Earth developed life, life developed eyes that looked around at the world, life developed brains that could internalize and contemplate the world it saw, life developed hands that manipulated the Earth, materializing thoughts from the frontal lobe.
“We are made of star stuff.”
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One recent theory of the origin of the universe proposed by Alex Vilenkin, a professor of physics and director of the Tufts Institute of Cosmology, suggests that before the universe there was pure nothingness, “a closed spacetime of zero radius.” Summarizing Vilenkin’s theory, Jim Holt writes:
“Using the principles of quantum theory, he showed that, out of such an initial state of nothingness, a tiny bit of energy-filled vacuum could spontaneously “tunnel” into existence…Driven by the negative pressure of “inflation,” this bit of energetic vacuum would undergo a runaway expansion. In a couple of microseconds it would attain cosmic proportions, issuing in a cascading fireball of light and matter—The Big Bang!”
All matter that has ever existed—all matter that will ever exist—was created in that first moment when near nothingness tunneled into pure nothingness, creating spacetime.
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In his book, The Meaning of Human Existence, E. O. Wilson defines human consciousness and culture through an analysis of deep history and evolution, attempting to explain human psychology through identifying the distant origin of certain human behaviors that still present themselves today. Wilson examines phobias, gossip, music, religion and habitats in which we choose to live. In the last instance, Wilson cites a study in which volunteers from various countries and cultures around the world were asked to respond to photographs of a wide range of habitats as fantasies of where they might wish to live. Out of this study, an archetype emerged:
“The preferred choice had three factors: the ideal vantage point is on a rise looking down, a vista of parkland comprising grassland sprinkled with trees and copses, and proximity to a body of water, whether stream, pond, lake, or ocean.
“This archetype happens to be close to the actual savannahs of Africa, where our prehuman and early ancestors evolved over millions of years. Is it possible that the preference for the environment of the species remains as a residue of prepared learning?”
Wilson notes, following this passage that various social and cultural factors drive the majority of humans to live in cities. But even in cities, the most expensive (i.e. most valued) locations are often those that overlook parkland and water.
Concluding his chapter titled Instinct, Wilson recounts a time he visited some wealthy friends who lived in a flat in New York that overlooked central park. At one point in the evening he stepped out onto their terrace to observe the view: “We looked down from there onto the distant grassy center of the park and one of its two artificial lakes. We agreed that the vista was all quite beautiful. Being a guest, I refrained from asking him the burning question: Why is it beautiful?” This of course begs the question, is our vision of beauty simply conditioned by our evolution as a species in the savannahs of Africa? Are aesthetic decisions purely manifestations of genetic codes? A few pages earlier, Wilson references another study that identified several characteristics that all cultures share, even if the manifestation of these characteristics are vastly different: “athletic sports, bodily adornment, decorative art, etiquette, family feasting, folklore, funeral rites, hairstyles, incest taboos, inheritance rules, joking, and the propitiation to supernatural beings.” There exists within the construction of culture the simultaneity of unity and diversity—unity in that all cultures include these characteristics; diversity in that the ways these characteristics manifest in specific cases are extremely diverse.
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To quote Sagan:
“Everyone of us is, in the cosmic perspective, precious. If a human disagrees with you, let him live. In a hundred billion galaxies you will not find another.”
And to quote Wilson:
“We alone among all species have grasped the reality of the living world, seen the beauty of nature, and given value to the individual. We alone have measured the quality of mercy among our own kind. Might we now extend the same concern to the living world that gave us birth?”
Ethical declarations emerge from both Sagan’s effort to trace the world to its origin in the stars and Wilson’s effort to trace human consciousness and culture to our distant, evolutionary past on Earth. Both praise the diversity that exists on Earth, both advocate for fair and respectful living in relationship to one another and to the global ecosystem as a whole. We exist on a pale blue dot hanging alone in a dark expanse of nothingness. Our ecosystem is fragile and the only one we know to exist.
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In 2012, a team of physicists working in the field of Natural Growth Dynamics demonstrated that the universe grows in a very similar way as other smaller, but still equally complex, systems such as the brain and the Internet. A quick search of a map of the universe, a map of the human brain, and a map of the Internet will produce strikingly similar images, which all depict clusters of stuff connected to other clusters by long filaments, spread out in a semi-chaotic sprawling web.
In the Universe, long filaments of energy link centers of matter, facilitating the exchange of information, material, and energy between centers. As the Universe cooled, a result of its continuous expansion, the cosmic soup of hydrogen and helium began to form into a gaseous network of filaments spread throughout the cosmos. Areas within these congealing filaments with higher densities of gas eventually collapsed into stars, galaxies, and galactic super clusters, forming the visible objects of the universe. The brain works similarly through axons and synapses (which resemble the filaments of the Universe) and nuclei of neuron cells (which resemble galaxies). In the image here, the larger yellow circles illustrate the nuclei of neuron cells surrounded by axons and synapses. Neurons gather, receive, and transmit electrochemical charges through a network of axons and synapses that connect neurons to each other. Nuclei match up with stars and galaxies and galactic super clusters connected to one another by filaments. While the precise nature of consciousness remains a mystery, we do know that somehow, in some capacity, consciousness arises from the interactions between neurons in the brain. In the words of renowned astrophysicist and MIT professor, Max Tegmark, “Consciousness is the way information feels when being processed in certain complex ways.”
Recently, a study by a separate team of astrophysicists has shown that the growth of galaxies is mathematically equivalent to the population growth of cities on Earth. In both these cases, scientists don’t know why these similarities exist (or even whether or not they are coincidences). I can’t help but wonder if those elements in our bodies that, billions of years ago, were created by dying stars, still guide our actions despite consciousness and freewill.
This image of a Universe distributed along and connected by filaments of gas and dust, also bears a significant, or perhaps even stronger similarity to the Internet. And if the structure of the Internet resembles the structure of the Universe, then so too does the Mycorrhizae network resemble the Universe. The mycorrhizae network is a system of mycelia that grows through the dirt floor of a forest, entangling itself in the roots of various trees and plants. The trees and plants resemble stars and galaxies, the mycelia resembles the filaments that connect stars and galaxies together. The truly amazing aspect of this network is its capacity to help trees share information and nutrients: “By linking to the fungal network, they [plants] can help out their neighbors by sharing nutrients and information—or sabotage unwelcomed plants by spreading toxic chemicals through the network.” Through this network, older plants help younger, shaded plants to grow, plants learn from other members of their species defensive strategies for warding off unwanted grazers or viruses. Trees connected by mycelia grew larger, healthier, and faster than their disconnected cousins.
To Quote Jane Bennett, political theorist and central contributor to the development of New Materialism:
“A primordial swerve says that the world is not determined, that an element of chanciness resides at the heart of all things, but it also affirms that so-called inanimate things have a life, that deep within is an inexplicable vitality or energy, a moment of independence from and resistance to us and other bodies: a kind of thing-power”
In her book, “Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things,” Bennett reorganizes our understanding of inanimate objects and material, suggesting their own efficacy, vitality, a vibrant materiality. Thing-power is “the curious ability of inanimate things to animate, to act, to produce effects dramatic and subtle.” Through this reorganization, all aspects of the Universe may be understood as systems, networks, assemblages of matter that give rise to complex organizations such as life, consciousness, the electric grid, a hurricane.
She writes, “Assemblages are ad hoc groupings of diverse elements, of vibrant materials of all sorts. Assemblages are living, throbbing confederations that are able to function despite the persistent presences of energies that confound them from within.” “Living” does not literally denote things that are alive, but rather thing-power. This may sound like a kind of anthropomorphism or animism, but it is more akin to the analysis of matter from the perspective of physics. Consider the following quote from Erwin Schrödinger’s What is Life? The Physical Aspects of the Living Cell:
“Because we know all atoms to perform all the time a completely disorderly heat motion, which, so to speak, opposes itself to their orderly behavior and does not allow the events that happen between a small number of atoms to enroll themselves according to any recognizable laws. Only in the cooperation of an enormously large number of atoms do statistical laws begin to operate and control the behavior of these assemblées with an accuracy increasing as the number of atoms involved increases. All the physical and chemical laws that that are known to play an important part in the life of organisms are of this statistical kind; any other kind of lawfulness and orderliness that one might think of is being perpetually disturbed and made inoperative by the unceasing heat motion of atoms.”
Essentially, singular atoms are unpredictable and exist almost necessarily in a state of chaos. As more and more atoms congregate into molecules and from molecules into observable matter or objects, those objects begin to be ruled by statistical laws. We depend on the electric grid based on statistical laws of how and what creates and conducts electricity and facilitates its travel around the world. But these laws are statistical—99.9% of the time the electric grid will function as expected, but in 0.1% of the time, the chaos of atomic relations could cause a disturbance that results in the collapse of the electric grid. Schrodinger writes much later that genetic mutations occur through quantum jumps—evolution is made possible through the unpredictability of particles within individual atoms. We see through this quote a vision of all matter as assemblages of atoms, which, as individuals or in small groups, act in a chaotic unlawful way. Each atom has, in the words of Jane Bennett, a “vital force,” but in groups forming objects—a human, a rock, a hurricane, the electric grid—the assemblage has an agency of its own. Bennett writes, “precisely because each member-actant maintains an energetic pulse slightly ‘off’ from that of the assemblage, an assemblage is never a stolid block but an open-ended collective.”
Calling on philosophers such as Lucretius, Deleuze, and Serres, Bennett aligns herself with a type of monism that suggests that at the root of all things is the same matter (“Lucretius calls them primordial; today we might call them atoms, quarks, particle-streams, or matter-energy.”), but through various processes of collision, congelation, evolution, disintegration, consumption, production, et cetera… this ontological oneness becomes infinitely diverse in form.
And so, from Bennett we have a metaphysical vision of reality that acknowledges a certain type of agency and acting potential of seemingly inert, inanimate material. By her analysis of matter, we can say with some veracity that the equivalent growth patterns of galaxies, cities, and human brains is due to the fact that all are built by the same primordial material structures—atoms, quarks, particle-streams, vibrating strings, matter-energy.
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To Quote E. O. Wilson:
“We are all genetic chimeras, at once saints and sinners, champions of the truth and hypocrites—not because humanity has failed to reach some foreordained religious or ideological ideal, but because of the way our species originate across millions of years of biological evolution.
“Don’t get me wrong. I am not implying that we are driven by instinct in the manner of animals. Yet in order to understand the human condition, it is necessary to accept that we do have instincts, and it will be wise to take into account our very distant ancestors—as far back and in as fine detail as possible.”
The project of evolutionary psychologists such as Wilson, is to better understand modern human consciousness through the study of Earthly evolution—what aspects of our behavior arose eons ago when the first animals walked on land? What changes in the climate and landscape of Earth facilitated creativity and complex thought? What random biological mutations encouraged the development of art and culture? But why stop with life? Why not trace consciousness back into the cosmos? I propose to extend this search to understand the human condition and human consciousness beyond an analysis of deep history, beyond an analysis of deep time, and into the analysis of deep spacetime. Our very distant ancestors do not exist on Earth. They are the galaxies, stars, and supernovas that surround us, hanging in the darkness of empty space.
Is there a way to understand human consciousness through the structure of the universe on a whole? What light from the Big Bang can be shed on the human process of becoming self-aware? Can the forces that suspend cosmic bodies such as stars, planets, and black holes help us come to terms with our own experiences of loss, attraction, and companionship? Can a deeper investigation into the fabric of spacetime show us the fabric of our own personal, subjective reality? Does quantum entanglement speak to familial relationships or rivalries? Can gravity, electro-magnetism, or dark matter shed light on our constructions of self? Does the structure of our mind age the way the universe ages, expanding and thinning? When we die, will the resulting emptiness spark a second “Big Bang” of consciousness, birthing us into a new body? Where are the black holes in my mind? Where are the stars, the galaxies, dark matter, dark energy?
My project in investigating this Cosmic Materialism is to explore theories in physics and cosmology in relation to evolutionary psychology while meandering through quantum mechanics, ecology, metaphysics, cultural theory, and the arts, in an effort to produce a vision of humanity as fundamentally and essentially of the cosmos. Our birth in the cosmos, in dying stars, in the Big Bang is not an inert scientific fact—it is an ontic reality that shapes the metaphysics of our conscious existence, inside and out. This project is an attempt to outline a cosmic materialism and a poetics of humankind in the expanding universe. My humanness of course limits the scope of my project. However, I hope that my perspective can also bring energy and creativity to disparate philosophies suddenly thrust together. New elements are formed through fusion after all...
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In conclusion I will leave you with a quote that begins to suggest the way that this philosophy becomes translated into art and culture. The quote comes from a letter written by H. P. Lovecraft to his friend Farnsworth Wright:
“Now all my tales are based on the fundamental premise that common human laws and interests and emotions have no validity or significance in the vast cosmos-at-large. To me there is nothing but puerility in a tale in which the human form—and the local human passions and conditions and standards—are depicted as native to other worlds or other universes. To achieve the essence of real externality, whether of time or space or dimension, one must forget that such things as organic life, good and evil, love and hate, and all such local attributes of a negligible and temporary race called mankind, have any existence at all. Only the human scenes and characters must have human qualities. These must be handled with unsparing realism, (not catch-penny romanticism) but when we cross the line to the boundless and hideous unknown—the shadow-haunted Outside—we must remember to leave our humanity and terrestrialism at the threshold.”