The Universe, in all its unfolding creativity


The New York Times ran a story about a supernova that scientists observed this January.

Two paragraphs at the end of the article mention the connection between supernovas and us:

Many of the elements necessary for life and its accessories, like carbon, oxygen, iron and gold, are produced in a thermonuclear frenzy during the final stages of these explosions, which then fling them into space to be incorporated into new stars, new planets, new creatures.

“If you’re wearing gold jewelry,” Dr. Kirshner said, “it came from a supernova explosion.”

I am less interested in the relationship between astronomical events and bling bling here on earth than I am on the fact that supernovas are part of the chain of cosmic interconnectedness that make us humans possible at all. I see these massive star explosions as part of the creative unfolding of the universe over time. It was this creative process that contributed to the development, at least on our own planet, of consciousness and self-awareness.

Some might say that the fact that we exist at all is in no need of deeper origin, explanation, or first cause; and while I respect that point of view, it is not my own. When I look at the seemingly unlikely combinations of conditions that made it possible for self-aware creatures to evolve on a rocky little planet in a backward corner of one galaxy among countless galaxies--and who is to say that other self-aware creatures have not arisen elsewhere in the vast universe?--I can't help but marvel at the sheer improbability of it all. Out of all the possible sets of laws of physics that could have arisen out of the Big Bang, the ones that did arise resulted in an incredible chain of being where the explosion of stars over billions of years creates the elements that accumulate on this tiny backwater planet and which in turn lead to the development of life.

Maybe there is not just one universe, of course. There is the multiverse theory, which says that there are countless universes, perhaps all with different laws, and we just happen to have arisen in one in which the physical laws were just right for us to happen at all. In that sense, then, our universe might not be so remarkably improbable in its capacity to produce life, since there would have been infinite rolls of the cosmic dice, and we just happened to be in the one universe among many that came up right. I suppose that is possible, although there may not be any way to know. But even if it is not so improbable that our universe is just right for us to exist, the way that it all takes place still inspires in me a measure of awe. After all, within our universe, whose existence itself may or may not be improbable, a whole series of events had to take place over vast distances and across eons in order for us to arise into self-aware being.

One can see these supernova explosions as simply natural processes, without meaning. But a religious interpretation might instead see these as creative events. Not just creative in the sense that they manufactured new elements, but creative in these sense that those new resulting elements contributed something to the universe beyond themselves. These acts of creation were acts of contribution within the greater unfolding drama. We are deeply dependent on a web of activity within the entire universe. For me, the ultimate source of this creative impulse is found within God.

Religion, to me, is about interpretation and meaning. We can look at what happens in the world and assume it has no meaning at all; or we can imbue it with an interpretive framework, one informed by a sense of awe. I prefer the latter to the former.