From the instant of the initial burst of energy that propelled our universe into existence, it has been engaged in a path of progressive complexification that has led to unbounded creative expressions. There are several complimentary and opposing factors that have been instrumental in its development. As presented in the illustration below, they are repulsion, attraction, chaos, organization, complexification, and entropy. They manifest in innumerable ways, are ubiquitous and their influence is universal.
The items on the left are generally destructive and contribute to the perception of the cosmos as a rather hostile environment. Yet, the items on the right are continually at work within those conditions in amazingly creative ways. Physicists have identified four “attractive forces” that account for the structure of matter; strong and weak forces which maintain the integrity of the nuclei of atoms; electromagnetism which enables atoms to form bonds and maintain molecules; and, gravity, the weakest of these forces, is able to extend over enormous distances and compress gigantic hydrogen clouds into stars fueled by nuclear fusion, hold billions of stars in a rotating galaxy and draw multiple galaxies into swirling galactic clusters.
As matter is drawn together by these attractive forces, it tends to organize into infinite combinations, patterns and increasingly complex entities. This is evident in both living and non-living phenomena everywhere on our planet. Furthermore, the proliferation of stars throughout the cosmos suggests this creative force is at work on a universal scale.
Our presence in the universe is entirely due to the fact that we are living in a spiral galaxy that has density waves that circulate around our spinning stellar neighborhood. As they pass through clouds of matter that have been expelled during supernovas, elements are brought into closer contact where the force of attraction can exercise a greater influence.
These gigantic clouds begin circulating in ever tightening spirals. Eventually a star is born in the center of this swirling stardust. The matter orbiting around the star comes into contact, begins bonding, and new cosmic structures are formed. They may be nothing more than a few pebbles at first, but over time they become rocks, asteroids, comets and finally, planets.
These were the events that led to our existence. Our natural perception of our world is one of a stable planet. It is difficult to imagine a time when it did not exist. However, the reality is that about five billion years ago, the atoms that comprise everything around us, our homes, the ground beneath our feet, our loved ones, even our own bodies, were simply floating in space as part of an enormous cloud that had been expelled from a star, or perhaps several stars. Yes, we and everything we perceive around us are quite literally made of stardust.
The early stages of our solar system were extremely chaotic and violent. The gravitational force of our planet compressed the core and heated it into a molten mass. Our thin outer crust was initially quite vulnerable to eruptions from within. In fact, approximately 250 million years ago a lava flow lasted for a million years in the area that is now Russia.
The tumult was not limited to events occurring on the planet alone. Asteroids, meteors, and comets frequently impacted the surface. At one point the Earth collided with a smaller developing planet that penetrated deep into its core and caused a large portion of the Earth to break off and be propelled into space. Fortunately, the Earth’s gravitational force caused that mass to settle into an orbit around it, where eventually it was shaped into a sphere of solid rock which we now know as the Moon.
The tendency is to view all of these events as violent episodes of random chaos. Many consider our universe a hostile environment, but I would argue that that perception is based merely on our geocentric point of view. Certainly life, as we know it, could not have survived the colossal upheavals presented thus far. However, if we can maintain a cosmic perspective, the progressive advances of the universe become evident.
Do we see the hand of God in this or is it actually a natural process that expands and attracts, produces order in the midst of chaos, and transforms simple matter into complex structures? Based on Newtonian physics, it is hard to imagine inert atomic particles producing such an amazing cosmos without some deity guiding the events. However, it now appears that Newton’s understanding of a strictly mechanical universe may have been incomplete.
When science discovered the realm of quantum physics, it became clear that atoms are not as inert as originally thought. In fact, in 1977 Ilya Prigogine was awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry for his work demonstrating the self-organizing properties of matter. This organizational tendency would certainly explain the gradual progression towards structured complexity that has been unfolding since the initial moment of the Big Bang.
Nowhere is this more evident than what transpired during the formative years of our planet. In the midst of the primitive environmental instability certain molecules established a mutually supportive relationship that led to a quantum leap in complexity. Without question, this is the greatest mystery of all. How did life emerge from this molecular accumulation? Even in its simplest form, organisms consist of billions of atoms bonded in harmonious relationships that form differentiated substances performing diverse tasks in a fully integrated system.
The cells were extremely simple at first, but the fact that there were cells at all is nothing short of miraculous. How did molecules establish cell membranes to contain and protect the internal contents? What prompted ingestion, respiration, excretion, photosynthesis, or reproduction? Whatever generated this amazing phenomenon, one thing is certain: all living organisms alive today are direct descendants of this first life form. Although you will never find the documentation on Ancestry.com, the life force that animates you, me, and every other human on the planet has come from a single source that emerged over three billion years ago.
When we consider the progression of complexity on the earth beyond the emergence of life itself, two major events stand out. First, the transition from single-celled organisms to multi-celled organisms propelled life onto a path of unbounded diversity which is still underway. For the first 2.7 billion years (a timeframe that exceeds our comprehension) the earth was populated with single-celled organisms. Considering the volatility of the environment during that period, these were well suited for survival. Even today these forms of life thrive in a wide range of environmental conditions and can be found in the permafrost of Alaska as well as hydrothermal vents at the bottom of the ocean where temperatures can exceed 500 degrees.
About eight hundred million years ago certain life forms failed to complete the separation during cell division and were apparently benefitted by the union. Before long, multi-cellular organisms proliferated the environment. Amazingly this occurred both in the animal kingdom as well as among plants, resulting in extensive divergence of species and innumerable varieties. Somewhere in the midst of that early collection of microscopic organisms were a few who would eventually evolve into primates, then homoerecttus, homosapians, and finally modern man. Others would become horses, lions, peaches and spinach. Without this critical progression, we would still be floating around in some algae bloom with a life expectancy of a few days at best. As it is, the law of complexity never appears to be content with the latest emergence. Instead, complex elements are continually drawn together to form new expressions of creativity.
The second incredible occurrence was the appearance of human consciousness. If this had failed to transpire, we would still be wandering around some African savanna scavenging for fruit and small animals while we tried to avoid becoming dinner for those who were higher on the food chain. Many scientists debate what factors contributed to the growth of our brains. But more significant than the reason is the fact that approximately five million years ago Neurons simply began proliferating and integrating in our neocortex and produced a brain capable of reasoning in ways far superior to the rest of the animal kingdom.
That transformation almost guaranteed our survival and delivered us from an existence in which progress is totally dependent upon physical adaptation. We have become a life form that is capable of examining the source of its origin, comprehending the laws that govern matter, contemplating the meaning of life, imagining, creating, and influencing the future of our planet. In our sphere of awareness, human consciousness has become the most complex entity the cosmos has created thus far.
Of course, we do not merely observe the universe: we are the universe discovering itself. This realization is held by many scientists including Bill Nye the Science Guy. Furthermore, the creativity evident throughout the cosmos is also expressed through human consciousness. Every work of art, every musical composition, all of the books ever written, each new technical development and every poem ever recited are refined manifestations of that universal creativity.
If and when we focus that creativity on our social development, we will be able to transform our planet into the harmonious global community that has thus far existed primarily in our imaginings. We must simply keep in mind that every, human accomplishment begins as a thought. Those thoughts then become things. There is absolutely no reason to doubt our ability to create a brighter future for mankind. So, dare to dream.