What Cosmology Can Teach Us About Morality
Modern cosmology, the understanding of our origin and evolution, can give us the understanding that we’re all in this together.
Joel R. Primack is a professor of physics and astrophysics at the University of California, Santa Cruz and is a member of the Santa Cruz Institute for Particle Physics.
Primack specializes in the formation and evolution of galaxies and the nature of the dark matter that makes up most of the matter in the universe. After helping to create what is now called the "Standard Model" of particle physics, Primack began working in cosmology in the late 1970s, and he became a leader in the new field of particle astrophysics. His 1982 paper with Heinz Pagels was the first to propose that a natural candidate for the dark matter is the lightest supersymmetric particle. He is one of the principal originators and developers of the theory of Cold Dark Matter, which has become the basis for the standard modern picture of structure formation in the universe. With support from the National Science Foundation, NASA, and the Department of Energy, he is currently using supercomputers to simulate and visualize the evolution of the universe and the formation of galaxies under various assumptions, and comparing the predictions of these theories to the latest observational data.
With Nancy Abrams, he is the author of The View from the Center of the Universe: Discovering Our Extraordinary Place in the Cosmos (Riverhead/Penguin, 2006) and The New Universe and the Human Future: How a Shared Cosmology Could Transform the World (Yale University Press, 2011).
Morality is a complicated subject because it depends so much on human traditions and human understanding of how we live and how we interact with each other. Cosmology, as the term is used by anthropologists, represents the big picture of the world and how we humans fit into it. We scientists use the word, “cosmology” to refer essentially, exclusively to the science of the whole universe, its origin, evolution, structure and composition. But in the larger sense, cosmology is the big picture that we humans all live in.
Now one of the problems of morality has been that a crucial part of traditional moralogy is an “us versus them” attitude. That there’s the "in crowd" and then there’s the outsiders. And the rules that apply to us are very different than the rules that apply to them and to our interactions with them. So, for example, in the Bible, in the Ten Commandments, the “Thou shalt not kill,” obviously doesn’t apply to the enemies of the Hebrews who were killed with abandon and, in fact, God commands that they all be annihilated under certain circumstances. So that’s because that, “Thou shalt not kill,” really only applies to us, in this case the Hebrews.
Now, the problem is, that as the world has become more and more integrated and when things that happen in one place don’t stay in that place, but affect the whole world, this us/them mentality has to break down. We have to start to see “us” as being all humanity, and in fact, maybe all life on Earth or Earth itself. And, cosmology can help us do that because cosmology makes it clear that Earth is a gem of the cosmos; it’s an extraordinary planet. We’ve now discovered more than a thousand planetary systems. There isn’t any that resembles our own.
And in many respects, our planetary system is truly extraordinary. And Earth is, in some ways, the most extraordinary planet of them all. It’s been in what we call the habitable zone around the sun for its entire lifetime and will continue to be in the habitable zone for a long time. And it’s the only planet that has been.
And if we can simply preserve the good features that we’ve inherited on Earth, Earth can become, can remain, the Eden of the universe, at least, the known universe. And it’s very important that humans understand that we are more closely related than almost any species is. We humans seem to have come through at least one bottleneck where there were a very small number of humans, something like 50,000 years ago, and we’re all descended from that small number of humans.
Genetically, we humans are more closely related to each other than almost any other species is related. And we all face many problems, which are essentially the same across the world. So to the extent that modern cosmology, the understanding of our origin and evolution, can give us this understanding that we’re all in this together, we can break down that crucial column of traditional morality of the “us versus them” and see it all as “us.” And I think that that could be one of the most important achievements of humankind, especially over this critical transition at the end of our exponential inflation on our home planet.
In Their Own Words is recorded in Big Think's studio.
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