Reason No. 5: We Are Made of Stars with Professor Brian Swimme



About Professor Brian Swimme

Brian Thomas Swimme is a professor at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco, where he teaches evolutionary cosmology to graduate students in the philosophy, cosmology, and consciousness program.

His published works include The Universe Is a Green Dragon, The Universe Story, written with Thomas Berry, and The Hidden Heart of the Cosmos. His recent book is Cosmogenesis, an exciting hybrid of autobiography and cosmology.



Shai Tubali: Hello, everyone. I am truly honored to have Brian Thomas Swimme with us today. Brian Swimme is a professor at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco, where he teaches evolutionary cosmology to graduate students in the philosophy, cosmology, and consciousness program. His published works include The Universe Is a Green Dragon, The Universe Story, written with Thomas Berry, and The Hidden Heart of the Cosmos. His recent book is Cosmogenesis, an exciting hybrid of autobiography and cosmology. On a personal note, I have actually known Brian Swimme for decades as an avid reader of his fascinating books on evolutionary cosmology.

Hello, Brian. I’m overjoyed that we have this opportunity.

Brian Swimme: Wow. Thanks, Shai. Makes me feel right at home. It’s great to be here.

Shai Tubali: Thank you so much. So, it is clear that your work is permeated with a sense of awe. Even reading these lines on the first page of your recent book is sufficient as a basis for a full discussion on awe. So perhaps I can read these few lines.

Brian Swimme: Great.

Shai Tubali: “Our cosmic genesis can be summarized in a single complex sentence: The universe began 14 billion years ago with the emergence of elementary particles in the form of primordial plasma, which quickly morphed into atoms of hydrogen, helium, and lithium; a hundred million years later, galaxies began to appear, and in one of these, the Milky Way, minerals arranged themselves into living cells that constructed advanced life, including evergreen trees, coral reefs, and a vertebrate nervous systems that humans used to discover this entire sequence of universe development. That sentence required four and a half centuries of scientific investigation of matter.” What opening lines!

So, what is your chosen reason for feeling awe, at least in the limited context of our discussion?

Brian Swimme: Yeah, it’s a great question, I think. It’s also a tremendous mystery, awe. For me, it has to do with being stunned by the nature of reality and the structure of our existence. Even as you’re reading that sentence, wow! Right? Who would have guessed this? It’s just so amazing to me that we have this long, long process, and then it leads to this power to understand the long, long process. So I think the way in which the universe folds back on itself is what stuns me. I didn’t know that growing up. Maybe in 100,000 years, we won’t be as stunned as we are now by this discovery. It’ll be something else. But learning about the time-developmental nature of the universe has just blown my mind for fifty years now. I first got a glimmer of it when I was studying physics and mathematics. I got a glimmer of it, and then, over all that time, the insight has deepened, but it has never lost its ability to move me into awe. It’s still there.

Shai Tubali: So it stays this way to this day. 

Brian Swimme: Sometimes my mind can relax into the facts of cosmology, or I’ll be thinking about something and trying to get some detail straight in my mind, so my consciousness is sort of ordinary in every day life, and then all of a sudden, I’ll shift or I’ll see things from a slightly different angle, and the awe comes rushing in again. I think maybe it’s even a synonym for me: the experience of awe and the experience of being stunned. There are many different ways of being stunned, and I think they might all relate to a feeling of awe. But I guess for me, it’s an experience of magnificence. That’s how I would put it.

Shai Tubali: Wonderful. Can you bring us closer to this experience of being stunned in the face of the discovery of the development of the cosmos? Can you bring us closer to this actual experience?

Brian Swimme: Definitely. I think this is something that, after learning all of that mathematics, which I love, what we’ve discovered doesn’t require knowledge of mathematics. It’s actually very available to anyone. So the first step is the amazing discovery of where the atoms—the complex atoms—come from. When I’m speaking of complex, I mean carbon, oxygen, phosphorus—these atoms, we didn’t know where they came from. I mean, science has been exploring ideas like this for centuries, and throughout that time, we didn’t know where they came from. It was in the 1950s that scientists began to realize that carbon, phosphorus, and these larger atoms came out of stars. So this whole process of “stellar nucleosynthesis,” as the phrase goes, was an amazing discovery. So that’s right there, just to begin with that: every carbon atom of our body—you just feel your flesh, and it’s just all these carbon atoms—every one of them was constructed by a star that then exploded and spread it out in the Milky Way so that these atoms could come back together in the form of planets like Earth. So that’s the first step: just to take in that, at the level of atoms and molecules, we are the construction of a star.

But then here’s the second and final step: knowing that, knowing now that we come out of supernova explosions, when we look out at the stars, it’s a very amazing event because we’re looking out of the stars so that we are assembled by the stars, and now we’re looking at them.

So, we have to take that in. As opposed to thinking of the stars as “out there” and “other,” we have to think of them as something like mothers, because they are our source. But all of this is at an intellectual level, and that’s fine. People can stay there with that. But to really take this in, you have to realize that the consciousness that we have of the stars is not just knowledge. I’m looking at the night sky. I’m looking at stars. I have consciousness—I have this awareness of these bright points of light out there, and I have awareness that they built my body. Well, now look at the whole process of the star creating the molecules, coming together in the form of Earth, Earth developing life, life developing a nervous system and our human consciousness. So our awareness of the stars was also created by a process that began with the stars. The stellar process led to an organism with a mind that could reflect upon the stellar process. So it’s the circularity of the universe. The other word is—I’m blanking on the word I want, but here it is—we’ve discovered the recursive nature of the universe, how it turns back on itself. So then, here’s just a direct experience: Go out and look up at the stars and take in the fact that your consciousness is aware of the stars, so you are aware of the process that began with the stars and led to your awareness. Another way to say it: the inner is aware of the outer, which created the inner.

So instead of being just an organism that happens to be in the universe, we suddenly discover that we are a mode of the universe, of the whole thing. We’re woven by the universe. Some people would say we are woven by the universe so that we can enable the universe to know itself. It just blows my mind.

Maybe one last way of saying it. It’s something that anyone can do by just going through the step-by-step sequence of what we’ve learned. But it leads to this: When we look out at the stars, we are looking at the process that is looking. That process developed into us. We are looking at the process that is looking. So it leads to a kind of intimacy with the vast universe, and suddenly we see that, even though we’re individuals, we are this entire universe in the particular form of a human. I just can’t get over it.

Now, this insight was actually available to earlier civilizations, but it was arrived at in a different way, maybe in a spiritual manner. It’s a different mode, and that’s great. I don’t want to say that this is something that was not known. I think this was known in an intuitive way by certain individuals and certain cultures. And what science has done now is provide an understanding of this process using empirical data. That doesn’t mean science is superior to other ways of knowing, but perhaps it is a wonderful way that science complements other ways of knowing. And that too is a cause for amazement.

But just to focus on the science, that would be how, Shai? There’s my whole life right there. I’ve just given you the whole thing.

Shai Tubali: Yes, that’s astonishing to meditate on. So you are basically describing the beginning of a cosmic consciousness, but one that is not mystical in any sense; it is actual, it is substantial, and it is what it is. So, it is basically looking at the scientific fact and going all the way with it?

Brian Swimme: Yeah, that’s a nice way of saying it. So that science devoted itself—I mean, millions of humans devoted themselves—to this hard work of tracking things in terms of empirical knowledge, and so we have amazing data now about the universe. But what I’m providing, and others as well—it’s not unique to me at all—is an understanding that goes beyond just the data. It puts it all together into what can be called a story. That’s why we used the word “universe story” when Thomas Berry and I wrote that book—it’s an account; it’s a story that has these amazing features, but one that is grounded in science, as you say.

The good thing about that is that it’s available to people from all cultures. It’s not taking one spiritual orientation and imposing it. It’s rather allowing the scientific facts to speak for themselves, in a way.

Shai Tubali: Yes. That’s wonderful. How does one break the thin glass that separates the subject from the object? Because obviously, I’m going to look at the night sky, and as I’m gazing at the night sky, I’m aware of the fact that I’m observing an object. I think this is something that is shared by scientists and common observers, right? It has this sense of a subject looking at an object. So there is a sort of thin glass that separates me from this kind of revelation.

Brian Swimme: Absolutely, yeah. And finding a way through, right? Finding a way through that dualism that separates us is so crucial. And I just have to say, there are many different pathways through the glass, to break the glass, and to realize we’re not separate. I think all of these different pathways are important.

Here’s mine, which I think comes out of science. This happened when I was very young. I was at this park near our home, and I came across some dead fish that had been thrown. The carcasses had been thrown onto the beach by the fishermen who were cleaning the fish up above. So anyway, I came upon this fish head, and just being a little kid, I was curious about its brain because the eye was still there, and I sort of looked underneath, sort of looking for a connection between the eye and the brain. I didn’t get very far, but later on, when I was an adult and studying science and so forth, it came back. The memory came back. And now I could put it in a larger story.

I’m going to talk about myself over a period of time. I was fascinated by the fish and wondered about fish consciousness. But now just examine that situation. Those are the facts. How do we understand that from the point of view of science, especially the science of evolution? I was curious. I was curious because that was in the nature of my nervous system and my mind. And so I was using this brain, and it gave me the power to examine the fish. And I come out—all of us do—of a long lineage of humans thinking about fish. And the recent discovery, by which I mean over the last couple of centuries, is recent compared to the 100,000 years of human existence. The recent discovery of evolution has to be brought into this story because the fish invented a number of brains. One of their inventions led to the brains of amphibians, then reptiles, then mammals. So I was using a brain that was constructed out of the fish brain. And in that moment, I was no longer looking at an object that was separate from me. I was looking at something that had given birth to me. Dualism crumbled away for me forever.

Anyway, that would be the way in which the discovery of cosmogenesis is a powerful way out of the dualism that is causing us so much sorrow and anguish, when we look at the way we are behaving on planet Earth in the year 2023.

Shai Tubali: So you’re saying that this kind of revelation is also key to a different relationship with the Earth, with the cosmos, because we’re no longer dual, we’re no longer separate from it?

Brian Swimme: Yeah, I think that sort of the overriding image of the Earth in modern industrial consciousness is that the Earth is kind of like a hardware store. It has stuff that we can go and get, or it’s like a gravel pit. That’s how we view Earth, and we call it “there are resources.” And so it’s looking at all of this stuff out there, and it’s there for our use.

But now that’s the industrial consciousness that served us for a while but is breaking down. And what is replacing it is this awareness that we live inside an Earth community that gave birth to us. These aren’t resources. They’re all relatives. They’re all cousins. If we can learn to act with that awareness, things will be very different on this planet. Instead of tearing it apart, we will enter into its amazing existence. We’ll be part of a larger community as opposed to reducing it and using it for whatever purpose we might have.

Shai Tubali: And the beautiful thing is that our scientific discoveries can lead us to that.

Brian Swimme: Absolutely. Yeah, absolutely. And I think that’s what’s happening at this time. I mean, the scientists like these ichthyologists who were studying fish went about it by looking at something out there, examining it, dissecting it, and so forth. They, for the most part, hadn’t yet integrated what evolution was saying, and they came up with amazing stuff using that kind of dualistic orientation.

But we live at a time when that is all breaking down. It’s no longer a viable way of understanding things. So I think science is undergoing a profound change from its mechanistic form to its wisdom form. Science is another path to wisdom, one that is related to other forms of wisdom but brings something new as well.

Shai Tubali: Yes, that’s a complete paradigm shift.

Brian Swimme: Yes, exactly.

Shai Tubali: So can we return for a moment to the “star stuff” realization?

Brian Swimme: Yeah.

Shai Tubali: So basically, as we are sitting right now and discussing, we are a consolidation of star stuff, sitting and discussing the reality of our relationship with the universe.

Brian Swimme: Yes.

Shai Tubali: Now, I’m just trying to understand, scientifically, what does that mean that we are made of stars? Does that mean that these materials come from the far edges of the universe or from a particular spot? I’m just trying to understand, essentially, this kind of realization.

Brian Swimme: Sure. So here are some of the things we know: If we go back 5 billion years and just stay right here, we go back 5 billion years, and there’s no sun and no Earth. They haven’t come forth. We have to say, “Wow, all right, where were we?” There’s no sun. No Earth. There’s no Shai, no Brian. But scientists are piecing together the data and now speak of three stars that went supernova. This is an explosion of not just one star but three different stars, not all together but spread out. And in each one of these supernova explosions, they dispersed the atoms that they had built in their core so that the star exists by transforming hydrogen into helium, so that we can use some of the mass of hydrogen and convert it into energy, into light. That’s in the core of the star. Without that, the star would continue to collapse under gravity.

So you have to picture this star as having this tension. Gravity is trying to squeeze it down to a dot, and the fusion interactions of hydrogen transforming to helium are releasing energy and pushing the star part. We live inside that balance. After most of the hydrogen has been converted, the helium is converted into carbon. And so we step through the elements until the supernova, and there’s an explosion, and then all of the elements are scattered, and then they come together under the gravitational attraction and give birth to the sun, the earth, Mars, Jupiter, and all the rest.

We don’t even have a name yet for the supernova explosion, or maybe three of them, that gave birth to our solar system. You see, this is just entering human consciousness. Think of how important our ancestors were: Thomas Jefferson, Jesus, and Buddha. I mean, all of them are so important. Well, we have another one: this star that exploded and gave birth to a new solar system. That is something we need to wonder over and feel reverence for.

So here we are. We’ve come out of that process and, through ever-deepening complexity, have arrived at the ability to actually understand how it all took place. The universe, in the form of humans, is now understanding its infancy, its adolescence, and its mature, later stages. All of that is entering.

I mean, just think: if you go back 6 million years, when the first humans separated from the chimpanzees, they were almost identical to the chimpanzees. They didn’t know any of this, right? These humans were completely content living that life in Africa. And the chimpanzees stayed the same. I mean, we share 99% of our identification with chimpanzees. They stayed the same. We kept asking questions, and we moved out of Africa and went to the moon. The human species is amazing, and among other things, we are that place where the whole sequence has become aware of itself.

That’s something we do really well. We don’t do warfare very well. We don’t do consumerism very well. We’re great at learning things and entering into awe at what we’ve learned. That has to be one of the deepest meanings for humanity.

Shai Tubali: And that’s why we experience meaning when we are doing this.

Brian Swimme: Yeah, we feel down to our bones that it’s meaningful. Even if we don’t know the ultimate end, we just know it’s so important.

Shai Tubali: I have one last question, and this is perhaps the subtlest one. You are speaking about the stars, which produce us, in a way to be aware of them. Now, my question is whether you ascribe a certain intentionality to the stars or to the cosmos. Is it an intention? Or what is this kind of binding force that connects these two processes—first of all, let’s say, apparently unconscious or inanimate matter and conscious extensions of the universe. Is there a certain intentionality?

Brian Swimme: I mean, yeah, here we are, you know, billions of years after the birth of the universe, and we’re just captivated by that question of intentionality. It’s just so interesting.

Here’s how I view that: At one time, we couldn’t count to ten. Humans hadn’t invented numbers yet. We finally got to one, two, and then many. But, I mean, just think of early humans not being able to count yet, and yet they’re fascinated with the ability to mark time. But some people think that it was really this realization of the heartbeat and the seasons that led to our discovery of numbers. But now you look at something like calculus or differential equations. There’s no way the early humans could handle it. They couldn’t! If someone showed up and said, “Hey, let’s do some derivatives,” that’s not possible. I think that’s where we are with respect to some questions. I really believe that we have not yet complexified our minds to a level where we can really understand this mystery of intentionality.

But I do want to say something, and that’s this, and this, to me, is amazing: We go back to the early universe, which consisted of elementary particles, so there are electrons, there are protons, and there are neutrons, and they are in this form we call plasma, and it’s expanding. Now, did it know how to create stars? Now, when I say “know,” I put that in quotation marks because, in my guess, it certainly didn’t know consciously. There was no human consciousness around to know. But at the same time, it did know, on some fundamental level, how to create stars and galaxies.

As a matter of fact, if you ask any scientist, even the most reductionist scientists, if the early universe was heading towards the construction of galaxies, all scientists agree it was: the universe was heading towards galaxies, because if you altered the nature of the early universe even slightly, there would be no galaxies. So, you see, there’s something intrinsic to the early universe about the construction of galaxies. And so, I would say that’s a kind of cosmic knowing. It’s not conscious, but the primordial fireball knew how to create galaxies, and it got right down to it and did it. I think that’s as far as I can go talking about this deep mystery of intentionality.

Shai Tubali: Thank you. Well, I could definitely listen to you for hours. Your students are most fortunate.

Brian Swimme: Thank you.

Shai Tubali: It’s been an enormous delight to discuss with you, to listen to you, and to meditate with you on what is, in a sense, our true nature, who we are.

Brian Swimme: It’s been a delight, Shai. It really has been. I wish you all the best for your great work. That’s exciting. Our world really needs some reflection on awe.


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