The Morphogenetic Universe and the Global Ethics of Attunement, Accommodation, and Actualization

Tetsunori Koizumi, Director

Since the emergence of classical mechanics in the seventeenth century, the universe as a mechanical clock had been the metaphor most frequently used by scientists until the twentieth century. With the emergence and development of relativity and big-bang cosmology in the first half of the twentieth century, this metaphor of the universe as a mechanistic clock started to lose its popularity among scientists, as they started to accept the idea that the universe has its evolutionary history which includes the birth of the solar system and the emergence of life on one of its planets. Towards the end of the twentieth century, scientists started to use such new metaphors as the “interconnected universe”, the “self-aware universe”, and even the “dreaming universe” to describe what the universe is like, pointing to the idea that the universe is like a living organism1. Although there are a large contingent of scientists who still cling to the materialist philosophy and the mechanical view of the way the universe works, the idea of the universe as a “living organism” is steadily gaining support among scientists today.2

Actually, the idea that the universe is like a living organism is not new. It has a long history that goes back to Greek philosophers and scientists who saw the order of the universe to be that of a living organism, and a long list of proponents of this idea includes such illustrious figures as Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), William Gilbert (1540-1603), David Hume (1711-76), Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914), Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), William James (1842-1910), and Henri Bergson (1859-1941). David Hume, for example, suggested that the world could have originated from something like a seed or an egg. Recent proponents of the idea of the universe as a living organism point out that the universe is not a mechanical system like an inanimate clock made of matter, but rather a lively system full of spontaneity and creativity, whose evolution can only be described by such terms as “emergence” and “self-organization”3. Some go as far as using such terms as “meaning” and “purpose”, though doing so is still regarded as taboo by a majority of scientists.

Once we accept the idea that the universe is a living organism, it becomes possible for us to talk about ethics in the context of a scientific inquiry. This is so because it is in the context of the evolution of the universe as a living organism that human species emerged on one of the planets in its local system, and the question as to what kinds of behavior are required of us humans if we are to ensure coherence, order and viability of all systems in the universe can be discussed in that context. What kind of ethics is implied, then, by the idea of the universe as a living organism?

That the universe is a living organism means that its evolution involves the dual process of growth and decay, of birth and death, of all systems in it. In other words, the evolution of the universe has the creative as well as the destructive aspect to it. The creative aspect of cosmic evolution involves such phenomena as emergence and self-organization. The destructive aspect of cosmic evolution, on the other hand, involves such phenomena as disorder and decay.

Judging from the spontaneous appearance of order and coherence to be observed in such varied systems as a gas of electrons, a pan of heated water, a slime mold, and a colony of ants, systems in nature seem to be capable of making “meaningful connections” among thier constituent elements. These meaningful connections are spontaneously formed as if from nowhere, from the ground state of the universe, reflecting the “implicate order” to be found there, as one physicist suggests4. The universe as a living organism can be called a “morphogenetic universe” in the sense that every system in it has an inherent tendency to generate—and dissolve—“forms”, or “structured patterns of interaction”, among its constituent elements. The creative side of systems evolution in the universe involves two phases of “formation” and “preservation”, while the destructive side involves two phases of “contravention” and “dissolution”. The creative side of systems evolution is full of creativity and synergy, while the destructive side full of conflict and friction, among constituent elements in the space of interaction among all systems in the universe.

The idea that the universe is a living organism, while exciting and stimulating for its creative possibilities, is at the same time depressing and traumatic for its destructive implications. For one thing, the universe, if it is a living organism, will sooner or later come to its death, which is the end of history for all systems in it. Indeed, the cycle of birth and death, of creation and destruction, of formation and dissolution, is the inherent tendency of the evolution of all systems in the universe, including human systems such as groups, organizations, societies, and civilizations.

If there is something unique about human systems, it is that the dual process of formation and dissolution for them is accentuated by the capacity our species has acquired during its evolution to influence human as well as natural systems around us. As a result, a human system, instead of making gradual adjustment in the changing natural environment, tends to make rapid adjustment in an artificially created environment of competing human systems as every human system is an open system that must carve out its niche in an ever-changing environment of Toynbeean challenges and responses among human systems.5 More often than not, challenges coming from other human systems, instead of being transformed into creative stimuli, are met with destructive responses in the form of conflicts and wars. Thus, the tragedy of human systems is that the natural tendency for formation and dissolution that comes from aging and generational turnover is artificially magnified into violent forces of change and transformation aided by raw human emotions and powerful technologies.

While destruction and death may be unavoidable for all systems in the universe, how can we prevent one human system from forcefully imposing destruction and death on other human—and natural—systems? While competitions and rivalries among human systems may be unavoidable, how can we prevent those competitions and rivalries from escalating into violent confrontations and wars?

Here developing, and acting on, an awareness of the universe as a living organism seems to hold a key to the creation of a new global ethics. Being aware of the universe as a living organism means that we are aware of the interdependence among all systems in the universe, for every system is an open system whose viability depends on the exchange of matter, energy and information with other systems. What emerges out of such awareness of the global interdependence among all systems in the universe would be a global ethics based on the shared sense of belonging to the universe6. Such a global ethics is not, however, a system of behavior rules based on fixed notions about what should be done and what should not be done. Rather, it is a system of spiritual practices that can be summarized by three A’s of “attunement”, “accommodation”, and “actualization”: to attune ourselves to collective memories we share with other systems from the evolutionary past of the universe, to accommodate changes taking place in the evolving network of interdependence among all systems in the universe, and to actualize ourselves to become mindful participants in that evolving web of reality around us.

  1. See Laszlo, Ervin, The Interconnected Universe, Singapore: World Scientific, 1995, Goswami, Amit, The Self-Aware Universe: How Consciousness Creates the Material World, New York: Jeremy Tarcher, 1995, and Wolf, Fred Alan, The Dreaming Universe: A Mind-Expanding Journey into the Realm Where Psyche and Physics Meet, Touchstone, 1995.
  2. See, for example, Sheldrake, Rupert, The Science Delusion: Freeing the Spirit of Enquiry, London: Coronet, 2012, and Capra, Fritjof, and Luisi, Pier Luigi, The Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014.
  3. See, for example, Bohm, David, and Peat, F.David, Order and Creativity, New York: Bantam Books, 1987, Kauffman, Stuart, At Home in the Universe: The Search for the Laws of Self-Organization and Complexity, New York: Oxford University Press, 1995, and Sheldrake, Rupert, The Science Delusion: Freeing the Spirit of Enquiry, London: Coronet, 2012.
  4. See Bohm, David, Wholeness and the Implicate Order, London: Routledge, 1980.
  5. Toynbee, Arnold, A Study of History, London: Oxford, 1954.
  6. See Capra, Fritjof & Steindl-Rast, David, Belonging to the Universe, San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1992.