Sacralizing Nature: On Marcelo Gleiser’s “The Dawn of a Mindful Universe”

Paolo Musso believes the work of an open-minded, bighearted scientist like Marcelo Gleiser is of paramount importance to our future.

Sacralizing Nature: On Marcelo Gleiser’s “The Dawn of a Mindful Universe”

The Dawn of a Mindful Universe: A Manifesto for Humanity’s Future by Marcelo Gleiser. HarperOne. 256 pages.

MARCELO GLEISER, a distinguished scientist and world-renowned thinker, has always given his books a strong interdisciplinary slant. The Dawn of a Mindful Universe: A Manifesto for Humanity’s Future (2023), however, is unique, because its purpose is to help us understand not only how the world is but also how it should be. Indeed, as the book’s subtitle suggests, Gleiser uses his wide-ranging interdisciplinary reflection on the evolution of science to derive a political “manifesto” (in the broadest and noblest sense of the term) addressed to all the inhabitants of “Earth, the planet that makes our story possible,” to which, as to a person of flesh and blood, the book is dedicated.

In the first two parts, Gleiser describes how human beings initially imagined, and then discovered, the way the world is. With regard to the first, he focuses mainly on the pre-Socratic philosophers, showing how their philosophical conceptions, seemingly rather rudimentary, actually present surprising similarities to modern cosmological and physical theories. As for the second, Gleiser briefly traces the history of astronomy using a particular interpretation of the Copernican Revolution, which has, he argues, an ambiguous meaning. As a historical fact, it enabled a leap in our knowledge of the physical world, but, precisely due to its importance, it has also functioned as a guiding principle for research in the following centuries. Unfortunately, according to Gleiser, it has sometimes been applied uncritically even when it should not have been, and this has led to the progressive desacralization of nature and ultimately to the belief that there is nothing special about Earth (not for nothing, the “Copernican principle” is also called the “principle of mediocrity”).

This process reached its climax, but also its crisis, with the discovery, starting in 1995, of the first extrasolar planets. On one hand, this seemed to confirm the “mediocrity” of Earth. But on the other, discovering an unexpected and surprising variety of planets made us realize that finding a “twin” of Earth may not even be possible, if, in addition to astronomical features, we consider those features that would make life possible. Better yet, it may be very difficult or even impossible to find other planets on which life exists, even in forms different from ours.

Gleiser insists a lot on the so-called “eerie silence” of the universe, which has often been interpreted as showing that life (or at least intelligent life) is very rare, if not unique. And that’s certainly a possibility. Personally, I’m a great fan of Rare Earth: Why Complex Life Is Uncommon in the Universe, a book published in 2000 (which Gleiser also quotes with great favor), in which paleontologist Peter D. Ward and astronomer Donald Brownlee argue, in an extensively documented and convincing way, that life in simple bacteria-like forms could be very common in the universe without necessarily implying that intelligent life is also common. Therefore, it’s very important to emphasize that this is not a retrograde and obscurantist idea, as is generally assumed, but a real possibility, perfectly compatible with our current knowledge.

However, we should also consider that, as Gleiser explains, our technology is not yet sophisticated enough to discover biomarkers (i.e., signs of possible biological activity) in the atmosphere of extrasolar planets, so it is not surprising that we have not yet found them. It may happen in the future. As for the search for intelligent life, carried out primarily by the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) program, which looks for possible radio signals from other civilizations, it’s true that we haven’t yet found anything after more than 60 years, but, once again, things are more complicated than is widely believed.

In particular, the United States’ SETI scientists have always insisted on the importance of carrying out a targeted search, rather than just analyzing data from standard radio astronomy, as is generally done (essentially due to lack of funds, since renting a radio telescope is very expensive). However, as SETI’s Italian school has been arguing for almost 30 years, the real problem lies not so much in receiving possible alien signals, but mainly in recognizing them as such, given the strong “white noise” coming from natural sources. In fact, current algorithms allow us to do it only with a very particular kind of signal, consisting of a single frequency, as could only happen in the case of a message intentionally sent to Earth, which is a rather unlikely eventuality. Paradoxically, we might have already received many alien signals that we haven’t been able to recognize as such.

Only in recent years has this problem been seriously considered in the United States, mostly in the wake of the Breakthrough Listen program at UC Berkeley, thanks to a $100 million windfall. This funding allowed the United States to carry out a serious targeted search for several years, without finding anything. With more advanced algorithms, which allow us to recognize signals with a complex shape, like those of our radio and television broadcasts, we might discover that the eerie silence is not actually such: it is we (i.e., our instruments) who are deaf.

Just for this reason, the most important aspect of Gleiser’s reasoning is to explain why, even if there existed many other intelligent civilizations in the universe, this wouldn’t make ours any less important. First of all, we might never be able to get in contact with, let alone to dialogue with, those hypothetical civilizations. And should we fail, our narrative of the universe would forever remain the only one possible for us. But above all, it is unique in a much deeper sense, which would remain so even if one day we were able to establish some kind of dialogue with one or more alien civilizations. Although an alien civilization is likely to have many features in common with us, it would inevitably be different in many other respects, so that our peculiar point of view on the universe would remain unique and unrepeatable, and therefore precious and worthy of being preserved.

This reminds me of an example given by the Canadian astronomer Yvan Dutil during the first Workshop on Interstellar Message Composition, organized in 2001 by the SETI Institute in Toulouse, France:

Think of a civilization living on a moonless planet: half of our literature would be incomprehensible to it. Or imagine a species having a slightly narrower perception of light than ours, failing to see the two extremes of the spectrum, red and blue. Of course, they could study them scientifically as frequencies and wavelengths, as we do with infrared and X-rays, but they could not experience them as colors, and this would deeply affect their way of perceiving the whole reality.

This is the central message of Gleiser’s reasoning, which leads him to lobby for profound cultural change: overturning the “received view” according to which “the more our knowledge of the universe grows, the more insignificant we become.” According to him, a correct interpretation of what science has discovered proves exactly the opposite: we are becoming more and more significant. The implicit nihilism of the received view, which has historically prevailed, has played a very important role in generating the enormous economic and ecological problems with which we are dealing today. For this reason, Gleiser believes that, in order to overcome the current crisis, we must recover a sense of Earth’s sacredness and of our brotherhood with all the other creatures that inhabit it. And, in his opinion, not only scientists but also extant Indigenous cultures have much to contribute on this front.

I very much agree with Gleiser’s analysis, and also with the apparently strange alliance between scientific culture and Indigenous cultures that he proposes, which I, too, have been advocating for years, especially given the extraordinary experience of the Amazonian university UCSS-Nopoki of Atalaya, in Peru, where something similar to what Gleiser hopes for is already happening (see, for example, this 2020 report in the Journal of Big History). The only weakness in his reasoning seems to me the role he attributes to religions. Gleiser believes that only the animist religions of Indigenous peoples preserve this sense of sacredness and brotherhood with nature, and that all the other religions (especially the monotheistic ones) believe in an “abstract” god who is used to legitimate power structures with a very different origin and purpose.

This analysis evocatively describes what has happened in recent centuries, particularly in the Christian West, but maintaining that religions were such from the beginning and by their intrinsic nature seems to me an error of historical perspective. For over a millennium in the Christian world, God has been something—or, better, somebody—that had to do with every aspect of life and whose presence was felt everywhere. After the collapse of the Roman Empire, Western civilization was reborn around Benedictine monasteries, which lived in harmony with nature, albeit in forms rather different from those typical of animism. We should hardly consider it merely fortuitous that the man who most iconically represents universal brotherhood with all living and nonliving beings, Francis of Assisi, was born in the Christian world and became one of the greatest and most venerated saints.

On the other hand, not only Newton, as Gleiser says, but also Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, and all the founding fathers of modern science in general deeply respected and admired the nature they studied. It is only in the last century that their work has begun to be interpreted as a form of dominion over nature. Even the so-called “loss of the center,” due to the advent of heliocentrism, is usually interpreted as a loss of value by us moderns, as Gleiser well explains. But this was not the case for the protagonists of the astronomical revolution: in the medieval cosmos, Earth was at the center of the universe not because that was the noblest place but—exactly the opposite—because it was the least noble place of all (so much so that the center of Earth was theorized to be hell). So, moving it to the sky implied an increase in its value, as Galileo wrote in his world-famous Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems (1632).

This point seems to me very important, because this is not only a theoretical issue but also a practical one: Indigenous people and scientists (and even more scientists thinking like Gleiser) are small minorities, not numerous enough to create the revolution Gleiser seeks. And he is certainly aware of this: his final “manifesto” is an invitation to each of us to resacralize our relationship with nature, basing it on a sense of “gratitude and awe” that can arise from any possible source and express itself in any possible way. Yet, as important as individual contributions may be, those are not enough in the face of the enormous forces that are trying to push the world in a completely different direction. Allies are needed, and the most logical allies are religions, which may have their flaws but are among the few organizations in the world that don’t have a merely utilitarian and economics-based vision of reality. So, I think that what we should do is lobby organized religions to rediscover their original cosmic dimension.

During the last decades, the Catholic Church, thanks to Pope Francis in particular, has made enormous progress, and the Amazon Synod, held in Vatican City in 2019, has shown that this alliance already exists with the Indigenous Amazonian peoples (who often are both Catholic and animist). Should a similar alliance arise with the scientific community, thereby overcoming false conflicts—essentially due to the unfortunate affair of the Galileo trial and not to an alleged in-principle opposition between science and religion—this would constitute another enormous step forward. From this point of view, the work of an open-minded, bighearted scientist like Marcelo Gleiser is of paramount importance.

LARB Contributor

Paolo Musso is an associate professor of theoretical philosophy at the University of Insubria (Italy), the director of the InCosmiCon International Research Center, and a member of the SETI Committee of the International Academy of Astronautics (IAA). He is also a member of the European Academy of Sciences and Arts (EASA).


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