Written By:


Sean Kelly*

After reading the manuscript of Cosmogenesis, I wrote these lines:

  • Not since Augustine’s Confessions has a single volume captured such a momentous shift in the evolution of consciousness. This is not only an engaging memoir of a leading cosmologist, but an autobiographical coming of age story of the cosmos itself. It’s a new Confessions for the Ecozoic era.

Let me explain.

I cannot reproduce the many remarkable insights, the vitality, the wonder, and the occasional hilarity suffusing the personal vignettes that Brian Swimme artfully recounts and which serve as icons of the deeper meaning of cosmogenesis he wants to convey to the reader. I will simply focus on this deeper meaning and place it in the context of the history of ideas, my understanding of the evolution of consciousness, and the significance of Cosmogenesis in this evolution. In doing so, I will draw particular attention to two of Swimme’s spiritual and literary ancestors and the works with which they are most associated.

The first, as noted above, is Augustine’s Confessions. Swimme at one point highlights the resonance between our times and those of the collapsing Roman empire (273) during which the Confessions were written. Augustine stood on the threshold marking the end of the ancient and the beginning of the medieval world. His work not only signaled, but in a real sense helped catalyze the development of the Western mind in the direction of what would later emerge as the modern era. He did so by establishing a paradigm of reflective inquiry, a culture of inwardness, in dialogical relation with nature (creation) and with God. As M.H. Abrams puts it, Augustine’s text is “an extended ‘confession’ addressed to God, who overhears the meditation that the author conducts in solitude but renders in the rhetorical mode of colloquies with himself, with God, and with the natural creation.” In the triad of self, creation, and God, God is the true center and circumference of the inquiry. However, it is only as inquiry—that is, as a manifestation of self-consciousness—that the truth of the divine sphere can reveal itself. [1]

Today we stand at the threshold marking the end of industrial civilization, with the paired threat of ecological devastation and the lure of an Ecozoic age. In Cosmogenesis, as in Confessions, the true center and circumference of the cosmos being unveiled is inseparable from the developing self-consciousness of the narrator. Just as Augustine from “the multitude of the res gestae et visae of his past, . . . selects, orders, and dwells upon only those few which are heavy with spiritual significance, as indices of a stage in his toilsome journey from attachment to the things of this world toward detachment and the transference of his allegiance to a transcendental kingdom,”[2] Swimme selects a series of representative vignettes from his personal life as progressive indications of the deeper meaning of cosmogenesis. In contrast with the Confessions, however, Swimme’s allegiance is not to any transcendental kingdom, but to the cosmos itself. In this sense, despite the parallels, the two texts stand as polar opposites of one another, or better as starting point and terminus of a single, organic evolution of consciousness.

The work of the second ancestor, and the middle term in the evolution from the Confessions to Cosmogenesis, is Wordsworth’s Prelude. Written not long after the French Revolution and thus during the dissolution of Europe’s ancien régime, Wordsworth’s autobiographical poem is an account of the development of the poet’s mind. Despite some pious and functionally redundant references to God, the dialogue of the Prelude is entirely between self and world, especially the world of nature. Abrams notes how the role of God as creator is taken over by the poetic imagination. Through the creativity of the latter, the cosmos is seen not only as the mirror of the human mind but reveals its deeper nature through being illuminated by this mind. Moreover, the triphasic deep structure of the Bible, the “Great Code,” as Blake called it, which for Augustine provided the plot and overarching meaning of history, in the Prelude is now internalized and reappears as the phases of Wordsworth’s journey from paradisal innocence to redemptive (poetic) experience.

There is a kind of redemption for Swimme as well. As with the Prelude, it is a this-worldly redemption, a deliverance not only unto but as the cosmos. While in Cosmogenesis there are not even the few pious references to God, the divine or the sacred is by no means absent. Like Cusa’s God whose center is everywhere, Swimme’s omnicentric cosmos is permeated by the numinous energy of creation, the “primal flaring forth” from the initial cosmological singularity, the mathematical understanding of which was Swimme’s area of specialization in physics. Whether awestruck beneath the night sky, imagining photons from the primal flaring forth streaming through his cupped hands, contemplating his wife Denise pregnant with new life, or in dialogue with his mentor and eventual collaborator, Thomas Berry, Swimme helps us see the truth of Thales’ dictum that “All things are full of gods.” 

What is radically new to Cosmogenesis relative to its two predecessors is the core insight of the cosmos as an ongoing time-developmental process. This is not simply the idea of Darwinian evolution, but rather the kind of “dynamic” evolution that was first articulated by Wordsworth’s contemporary, F.W.J. Schelling (and, with certain qualifications, by Hegel) and the other Naturphilosophen influenced by him. It reappeared the following century in the French paleontologist and mystical theologian, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. For Swimme, as for Schelling and Teilhard, the cosmos is a meaningful development or unfolding in the direction of greater complexity and depth of consciousness, where matter rushes toward life and life (at least on Earth, and presumably on countless other Earth-like planets across the universe) rushes toward self-reflective mind. In considering the initial conditions of the early cosmos, for instance, Swimme notes, “The universe is the way it is at the beginning because its future form demands that it be that way so that it can develop into complexity and consciousness” (67). This is a bold stance to take, given the still dominant paradigm in the sciences, which rejects in principle any attribution of intrinsic meaning, purpose—or teleology, to use the technical term—to evolution and the cosmos.

In the Epilogue, Swimme proposes that human evolution is currently negotiating a new stage comparable in importance to the stabilization of symbolic consciousness or “reproductive imagination,” early and dramatic evidence of which we see in Paleolithic cave paintings. This new threshold is defined by the pervasive awareness that we exist within, and as expressions of, a time-developmental cosmos. Augustine’s unprecedented catalyzation of the reproductive imagination presaged the emergence of the modern subject and its powerful self-reflective consciousness. His Confessions also contain unsurpassed meditations on the nature of time. His cosmos, however, was essentially fixed at the time of creation. By the time of Wordsworth, this modern subject had taken on the creative power of the Godhead. And though this subject or self undergoes a process of teleological development, nature or the cosmos is still essentially fixed.

Swimme pursues and extends the otherwise neglected pathways of the Romantic Naturphilosophen. He extends them, to begin with, by drawing from the revolutionary discoveries in physics and cosmology that have intervened since the time of the Romantics. More significantly, by initiating the genre of what he calls “auto-cosmology,” Swimme has wed spiritual autobiography with the Romantic tradition of dynamic evolution. Taking literally to heart the insight—first articulated by Schelling and reimagined by Teilhard—that the human represents the coming to self-consciousness of the process of cosmic evolution, Swimme recounts the major shifts in his own awakening to the nature of cosmogenesis. This individual awakening, and its recounting, is an essential expression of the evolutionary threshold the human is being called to negotiate.

It is essential, to begin with, from a theoretical perspective. A fundamental feature of the dominant modern paradigm has been the separation, and even the disjunction, between subject and object, values and facts, the human sciences and the natural sciences. A full embrace of the truth of cosmogenesis, by contrast, is inconsistent with the illusion of a “view from nowhere,” that most stubborn holdout of the old paradigm. As Swimme recounts in the Prologue:

  • After decades of teaching this evolutionary cosmology, I suddenly realized something. I had left myself out. The demands for getting the necessary knowledge to tell the stories of Earth and universe filled me so completely I forgot to include the story of the storyteller. To be honest it was not just that I had forgotten, I had tricked myself into thinking cosmology was the story of how things “out there” evolved through time. But then I realized I was one of those things, that I was evolving, that I was as much a development of the universe as were stars and galaxies. If I wanted to tell the story of the expanding universe and how it developed through time, I needed to include the story of my long struggle out of the structures of existence I had been born into. (4)

But it is essential from a practical perspective as well. By having not only the literary gifts but the moral courage to compose his auto-cosmology, Swimme invites the reader into a living, participatory relationship with the ongoing story of cosmogenesis. He models what it actually feels like to experience oneself as the self-unveiling of the cosmos. He imagines a day when it will become common, if no less exhilarating, when gazing at the night sky, to know that “we are looking out at that which is looking” (315).

  • Looking out at the stars, we will imagine the vastness of a trillion galaxies and will know that we are beholding that which constructed the eyes that are doing the beholding. Our minds will be challenged to make the figure-ground transformation: the inner is looking at the outer, which has given birth to the inner. That is the heart of cosmogenesis. (315)

The word “heart” here is exactly right. The recursive, holographic, and omnicentric nature of the expanding cosmos means that there is no absolute separation between here and there, then and now, you and me. Cosmogenesis is a singular and radically participatory ongoing event. Despite its irreversible thresholds and phase shifts, its nature, to quote David Bohm’s phrase describing the fundamental nature of reality, is one of “unbroken wholeness in flowing movement.” Thanks to Swimme, more of us can now more easily experience this movement. We can also understand in a new way Meister Eckhart’s otherwise enigmatic saying, substituting “cosmos” for “God”: “The eye with which I see the cosmos is the same with which the cosmos sees me. My eye and the eye of the cosmos are one eye, one seeing, one knowing, and one love.”

Photo by Ion Fet on Unsplash

* Sean Kelly is Professor of Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness at the California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS). He is the author of Becoming Gaia: On the Threshold of Planetary Initiation and of Coming Home: The Birth and Transformation of the Planetary Era. He is also co-editor of The Variety of Integral Ecologies: Nature, Culture, and Knowledge in the Planetary Era and co-translator of Edgar Morin’s Homeland Earth: A Manifesto for the New Millennium. Sean’s current research areas include the evolution of consciousness, integral ecologies, transpersonal theory, integral theory, and metatheory.

[1] Abrams, M.H. Natural Supernaturalism: Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature. (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1971), 84.

[2] Ibid., 86.