The idea of a living universe is not a new invention. More than two thousand years ago, Plato said, “The universe is a single living creature that embraces all living creatures within it.” However, for the past three hundred years or so, science has viewed the universe as essentially non-living at its foundations and made up of primarily of inert matter and empty space. A non-living view of the universe has led to rampant materialism and global environmental degradation. To transform our planetary crises, we need to move past a paradigm of separation and exploitation and learn to live sustainably on the Earth, in harmony with one another, and in communion with the living universe.
To align our efforts and fulfill our potentials, it is vital for the human family to find a compelling sense of direction for living and growing together. But what vision of humanity’s journey has the breadth, depth, and reach to enable humanity to look beyond our many differences and galvanize our efforts in building a promising future? This integrative vision or “great story” of humanity’s journey can be summarized as: The universe is deeply alive as an evolving and learning system and we humans are on a journey of discovery within it. We are learning to live within a living universe. If we lose sight of where we are (living in a living universe) we profoundly diminish our understanding of who we are (beings of both biological and cosmic dimension) and where we are going (growing into an ever more intimate relationship with the living universe).
We cannot understand who we are or the journey we are on without first understanding the universe we are in. Our future pivots on how we answer the question whether we regard the universe as dead or alive. A growing body of evidence points toward regarding the universe as “alive” and there is a meaningful distinction between two views:
- Dead Universe View: The universe is a barren and inhospitable place that is comprised almost entirely of non-living matter and empty space. Life is extremely rare. On Earth, matter has somehow organized itself to high levels of complexity and has produced living entities. However, considered in the context of the larger universe, the human enterprise is a trivial speck. Our existence as humans appears to be pointless and without purpose, and will be forgotten. A dead universe has no memory and tells no stories. When the body dies, the “lights go out” and we disperse, leaving no trace or remnant, either physical or non-physical. What matters most is matter—material possessions, material power, material pleasure and material prestige.
- Living Universe View: In counterpoint to the dead universe perspective, this paradigm portrays the universe as buzzing with invisible energy and aliveness, patiently growing a garden of cosmic scale. It also suggests that we humans, as conscious life forms in this immensity, are very precious. We serve an important purpose for a universe growing conscious forms of life: Through us, the universe sees, knows, feels, and learns. We are learning how to live ever more consciously in a living universe. What matters most is not matter but what is invisible—the aliveness within ourselves, our relationships, and the world around us. In a single sentence, a “living universe” is a unified and completely interdependent system that is continuously regenerated by the flow-through of phenomenal amounts of life-energy whose essential nature includes consciousness or a self-reflective capacity that enables systems at every scale of existence to exercise some freedom of choice.
For more detail about the difference between a Dead Universe View and a Living Universe view, download this pdf.
Several hundred years ago, the mechanistic and materialistic view of a non-living universe was liberating—part of the Enlightenment-born rationalism that helped humanity free itself from superstition and fear, and achieve extraordinary intellectual and technological breakthroughs. But this paradigm no longer serves human evolution. By removing aliveness from the fabric of the universe, the initial success of the materialistic perspective has ultimately led to environmental exploitation and a global ecological crisis.
Because our view of the universe creates the context within which we understand and choose our future, it is critically important that we have an accurate understanding of our cosmic home. Where a dead universe perspective generates alienation and despair, a living universe perspective generates inspiring and resilient visions of a higher pathway for humanity.
The Story in Action
As we discover our subtle participation in the larger fabric of reality, it awakens a sense of connection with and compassion for the totality of life. We no longer see ourselves as isolated beings whose identity stops at the edge of our skin, instead, we regard ourselves as interconnected beings and tend to treat everything that exists as uniquely alive and worthy of respect. We can tune into this living field and sense, as a kinesthetic hum, whether our actions are in harmony with the well-being of the world. Every action is felt to have ethical consequences as it reverberates throughout the interwoven field of the living universe. The implications of this perceptual paradigm are profound. As we see ourselves as the offspring of a living universe, it awakens a new sense of identity, ethics, and potential for the future. More specifically, what difference does it make if the universe is dead or alive at its foundations? When children are starving, climate is destabilizing, oil is dwindling, and population is growing, why is it important to put our attention here? Here are a few reasons why aliveness makes a profound difference.
- Consumerism or Simplicity? Materialism is a rational response to living in a dead universe. In a material universe, consumerism offers a source of identity and a measure of significance and accomplishment. Where do I find pleasure in a non-living universe? In things. How do I know that I amount to anything? By how much stuff I have accumulated. How should I relate to the world? By exploiting that which is dead on behalf of the living. Consumerism and exploitation are natural outcomes of a dead universe perspective. However, if we view the foundations of the universe as being intensely alive, then it makes sense to minimize the material clutter and needless busyness and develop the areas where we feel most alive—in nurturing relationships, caring communities, creative expressions, time in nature, and service to others.
- Separate or Interconnected? If we are no more than biological entities, then it makes sense to see ourselves as disconnected from the suffering of other living beings. However, if we are all swimming in the same ocean of subtle aliveness, then it makes sense that we would each have a direct experience of communion with, and concern for, the well being of others. If we share the same matrix of existence, then the rest of life is already touching me, and co-creating the field of aliveness within which I exist.
- Pull Apart or Pull Together? If we see the universe as mostly barren and devoid of life, then it is natural to see our time on Earth as primarily a struggle for material existence. In turn, it makes sense that we humans would pull apart in conflict. However, if we see the universe as intensely alive and our journey here as one of discovery and learning, then it makes sense that we would pull together in cooperation in order to realize this magnificent potential.
- Indifferent or Welcoming? If we regard the universe as dead at its foundations, then feelings of existential alienation, anxiety, dread, and fear are understandable. Why seek communion with the cold indifference of lifeless matter and empty space? If we relax, we will simply sink into existential despair. However, if we live in a living universe, then feelings of subtle connection, curiosity, and gratitude are understandable. We see ourselves as participants in a cosmic garden of life that has been patiently developing over billions of years. A living universe perspective invites us to shift from indifference, fear, and cynicism to curiosity, love, and awe.
- Biological or Bio-Cosmic? Are we no more than a bundle of chemical and neurological interactions? If so, the boundaries of our being are defined by the extent of our physical body. However, in a living universe, our physical existence is permeated and sustained by an aliveness that is inseparable from the larger universe. Seeing ourselves as part of the unbroken fabric of creation awakens our sense of connection with, and compassion for, the totality of life. We recognize our bodies as precious, biodegradable vehicles for acquiring ever-deepening experiences of aliveness.
Our view of the universe as either dead or alive creates the context within which we understand who we are and where we are going. In turn, it is vitally important that we have an accurate understanding of our cosmic home. Where a dead-universe perspective generates alienation, environmental destruction and despair, a living-universe perspective generates feelings of communion, stewardship, and the promise of a higher pathway for humanity. Although the idea of a living universe has ancient roots in human experience, it is now radically new as the frontiers of modern science cut away superstition and reveal the authentic mystery, subtlety, and aliveness of our cosmic home.
The Universe as a Living System
Duane describes the ways in which it makes a profound difference whether we regard the universe as either dead or alive at its foundations.
Cosmic Consciousness and the Holographic Universe
Here is an interview by Deepak Chopra with Ervin Laszlo.
The Living Universe
Here is a short introduction to the idea of a living universe.
A Quiet Walk Through Nature
“A quiet walk through nature offers moments of beauty and serenity that often go unnoticed. In celebration of Earth Day 2012, we invite you to take a few minutes to enjoy this journey through cycles of light, water, wind and earth.” Source: http://www.globalonenessproject.org/library/films/full-circle
- Duane Elgin, Deep Big History: A Living Systems Paradigm, (2014)
- Elisabet Sahtouris, Discovering the Living Universe: Scientific Spirituality for a Global Family, (2003)
- Duane Elgin, The Living Universe: Where Are We? Who Are we? Where Are We Going? (2009)
- Ervin Laszlo, Science and the Akashic Field: An Integral Theory of Everything (2004, 2007)
- Joanna Macy, Mutual Causality in Buddhism and General Systems Theory (1991)
- Dean Radin, The Conscious Universe: The Scientific Truth of Psychic Phenomena (1997, 2009)
- Gregg Braden, The Divine Matrix: Bridging Time, Space, Miracles, and Belief (2007)
- David Bohm, Wholeness and the Implicate Order (1980)
- Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Phenomenon of Man (1955, 1959, 2008)
Video & Audio
- Duane Elgin Audio interview with George Noory about “The Living Universe” on the radio program, “Coast to Coast”