Big History: Engaging the New Narrative of Science

Big History: Engaging the New Narrative of Science

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Science is progressive, and it tends toward consensus of necessity. Science discovers, illuminates, and crafts facts, and we rely on these complex facts in practical ways. Unlike religion, science is pretty much the same collection of complex facts in all cultures around the world. These facts are uncovered with considerable effort by peer-reviewed scientific guilds around a multitude of specializations and societies. It is a remarkable global division of labor.

The cumulative result of this detailed and systematic study of nature is something quite remarkable and unexpected—a grand narrative that unifies knowledge and the many languages of science. All of the facts discovered by scientists working in narrow specializations turn out to be hierarchically organized by chronology, scale and thresholds of emergent complexity. The jumble of disconnected facts you learned in high school and university turns out to be an amazing story—a history of nature and our species. The physicist Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker called this history of nature “the most important discovery of modern science.” We call it Big History.

Big History is the narrative account of the 13.7 billion-year history of our universe, the 4.5 billion-year evolution of our planet, the 7 million-year rise of our species, and the 10,000-year accelerating drama of human civilization. Every time we log on to the Internet or pump 200 million-year-old fossil fuels into our cars, we affirm this story in deed, if not in thought or understanding.

In brief, our omnicentric universe began as something like infinite heat, infinite density, and total symmetry. This universe expanded and evolved into more differentiated and complex structures—forces, quarks, hydrogen, helium, galaxies, stars, heavier elements and planetary systems. Some 3.5 billion years ago, in a small second- or third-generation solar system, the intricate processes called “life” began on at least one small planet. Animate matter-energy on Earth presented itself as a marvelous new intensification of the creative dynamic at work in the universe. Then some 2 million years ago, as if yesterday in the enormous timescales of the universe, proto-humans emerged on the savanna of Africa with enormously heightened capacities for conscious self-reflection, language, and tool making. Ten thousand years ago, agriculture began, and with it growing populations of humans living in ever larger and more complex societies. This unfolding leads us all the way to today, 7 billion of us collectively transforming the planet and ourselves.

The wonder of it all is that each of us is a collection of transient atoms, recycled stardust become conscious beings, engaged in a global conversation, brought to us by ephemeral electrons cascading through the Internet and bouncing off of satellites.

Religionists and others who deny certain facts of this Big History, who don’t understand or accept the scope and some of the important details of this new unity of knowledge, do great damage to our culture and to their own credibility.

Big History, however, does not necessarily authorize a disenchanted universe, as argued by many of the popular oracles of science today. Like any great story, Big History is open to multiple interpretations, so long as one is faithful to the text—in this case, the “Book of Nature” as progressively discovered by science. The Stoic and existentialist interpretations of science are not the only or even obvious choices.

Other interpretations of Big History, friendly to religious intuitions, are possible, though it would be silly to look for the specifics of science in sacred scriptures. Religionists must first comprehend scientific facts and scientific methods before they can constructively debate scientism and productively engage their own sacred traditions. One should not confuse the content of science with one’s own metaphysical prejudices and ideological preferences.

But we must learn to walk, before we can run. We need to humbly put questions about the universe and the universal back at the heart of education, including and especially religious education. We should approach science from the vantage point of Big History, and teach religion in a way that embraces our common scientific origin story.

As the politician and sociologist Daniel Patrick Moynihan once quipped, “everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” Big History is the largest compilation of facts that we have about the universe and ourselves. The challenge is to study this new story with eyes that see and ears that hear.

Originally published on the Huffington Post Religion Section, 2012/1/25.