02 February 2016

The Big Deal about Big History

R.I.P. David Bowie (8 January 1947 – 10 January 2016)You are among the most creative, beautiful, and positively impactful human beings
who ever lived!

Edit: Before anyone gets their hopes up, please note that this article has absolutely nothing to do with David Bowie, except ever so subtly, at the very end. I just couldn't let his death go unacknowledged.

The brainchild of David Christian at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, Big History is all about connecting knowledge—which is right up my alley, with my whole connectivity thing.

Big History is the story of everything. It’s a way of looking at how reality as we know it developed from the beginning of time, itself, that joins the theoretically modeled mechanical explanations used in the physical sciences with the empirically based social science of history. It’s a cosmological mapping of one historical continuum—an all-encompassing origin story for the 21st century. It’s the unifying force of a single narrative that says, “We are the universe looking back on itself.”

Starting with the Big Bang, Big History chronicles increases in complexity, from the time when the universe was nothing but a homogenous glob of energy and matter, through the advent of the first stars, the generation of the varied chemical elements in the centers of large dying stars, the formation of solar systems and planets, and then the emergence of life on Earth, humanity, agriculture, and the modern era. By framing the development of the universe in terms of increasing complexity, this multidisciplinary form of inquiry looks at how changes in the flow of energy bring about Goldilocks conditions, which are just right for a new threshold of complexity to be crossed, where something entirely new comes into existence.

How awesome is that!

When I first stumbled upon this thing called Big History on Coursera.org, I was blown away by what I was reading. Why? Because this concept of bringing different areas of knowledge together, showing how it is all connected, and indicating that we have the capacity to put together this unified vision is basically what I have been getting at, albeit in a much less cohesive—and informed—way, with my essay “Connections” in the philosophical anthology, What I Believe, my book No Stranger to Strange Lands, and my blog Connectively Speaking.

Suddenly, I didn’t feel so alone in the universe. After all, I’m in the company of Bill Gates, when it comes to people who have been blown away by Big History!

So, I took the course and learned oh so much about our current understandings, in a wide variety of disciplines, of how the energy and matter that exploded out from the Big Bang 13.8 billion years ago came to form the world we live in today, as well as about the way that scientists and historians in these diverse disciplines have come to their conclusions and how the disciplines, themselves, have developed. Now, I feel like I can make some kind of sense of the universe—and of the big, global-scale problems that the world faces at this moment in time.

Learning about the formation of the stars, after gravity eventually began pulling together the simple hydrogen atoms that existed, 400,000 years after the Big Bang, and many other astrophysical concepts is very exciting to me. Looking at the origins of life is also so intriguing. And although the human history segments of Big History don’t get into the specifics of the various civilizations or historic eras, other than to examine a few examples, I find it fascinating to look at how collective learning, our impact on Earth’s resources, and the way that information, goods, labor, and capital crisscrossing the globe have shaped today’s world as much as the evolution of cultures and technology.

What really turns me on about Big History, though, is the framework of increasing complexity. This framework holds that, at each of the eight thresholds, something new emerged in the universe—some new structure that utilized energy in an entirely new way. Whether it was the creation of the first stars, the emergence of life, or the diversion by humanity of the energy entering the Earth’s biosphere through photosynthesis in the invention of agriculture, each of these developments opened the door to higher levels of complexity, diversity, and new possibilities.

Well, there’s all that, and there’s the connectivity thing.

Oh, and I shan’t fail to mention the strange coincidence that this Big History idea emanates from Australia, the very place I visited that got me all charged up and compelled me to write my crazy book about the connections between places, thoughts, and ideas, which led me to try to put it all together into one big, quirky, literary, pseudophilosophical, stream-of-consciousness version of a Theory of Everything.

Yes, I swam into waters that were way out of my depth with that book. But I’ve been working on my strokes, and I’m stronger now, some eight years later, than I was then. I’ve remained deeply engaged with the goings on in the world, even if I have not managed to show it on this blog over the past few years, and have been working on projects in my freelance writing career that have brought me into contact with all areas of inquiry and knowledge.

For several years now, I’ve been writing marketing copy for indy books, most of them self-published, and I’m always amazed at the diversity of thought that’s out there. Some of the authors are bat-shit crazy, and I’d say that the majority of them are not really introducing anything novel. Nonetheless, the variety of issues that people are passionate about is impressive in its scope, and I have the privilege of peeking into many windows of the universe of ideas—the “Thought-o-Sphere”—which gets my brain’s wheels a-spinnin’. There are soooo many books on New-Age spirituality to deconstruct, and although I’ve taken an unfortunate turn toward pretty hardcore skepticism, I would very much like to escape this realm…if I can find a reasonable way out! I’ve also become interested in studying up on Eastern versus Western culture, with their vastly different spiritual and philosophical foundations. These two issues are, of course, connected, because New Age spirituality is so infused with Eastern mysticism. But this is not just about my own inner struggle with spirituality versus reason and logic, as I am determined to find out how Islam fits into all of this. I’ve written about religion, fundamentalism, cultural violence, the Arab Spring, and other happenings in West Asia (PC alert: The term “Middle East” is way West-centric!) on this blog and over on Medium, and I want to find a way for the world to embrace Islam—and Islam, the world—so we can put an end to this violent cultural clash that’s happening today.

The truly amazing thing about Big History is that its interdisciplinary approach to understanding can be applied to tackling real-world global problems. In fact, the Big History Program’s newsletter Threshold Nine reports:
This year the Big History Institute online learning space will expand again with the launch of a series of "specialisation" courses. The series, entitled Big History: Solving Complex Problems, will take an interdisciplinary approach to tackling real-world global problems.
 Students will further develop critical thinking skills and will learn to draw from a wide knowledge base in their approach to any problem.
So with this post, I wanted to introduce Big History and convey why it is that I’m so jazzed up by it. What’s to come out of this, precisely, I don’t yet know. What I do know is that I have some big ch-ch-ch-ch-changes coming in my life in the next few months, and there are big changes occurring (and about to occur) in the world, particularly in the Islamic world, but also possibly in the United States, if Bernie Sanders keeps up his momentum, that I would like to pontificate about from a new perspective. Hopefully, I’ll have something useful to say.

So stay tuned!

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