A Review of Richard Tarnas's
"The Transformation of the Cosmos"

home page
German version

Richard Tarnas shows why the modern scientific world view is deeply implicated in
the philosophical, psychological, social and economic problems of our time.

Richard Tarnas's book Cosmos and Psyche (2006) has eight parts. This is a review
only of Part I, entitled "The Transformation of the Cosmos".

The modern scientific view of the world has its historical roots in the Copernican Revolution, some 500 years ago, when it was first espoused publicly by Kepler and Galileo. Until approximately the mid-17th C. humans lived in a world where the Earth was at the center of the cosmos, a cosmos in which they themselves were fully embedded, and which spoke to them via meaningful signs in the heavens and elsewhere.

In the section entitled "The Dawn of a New Universe" Richard Tarnas draws our attention to the
breathtaking experience ... [of the] earliest scientific revolutionaries of the modern era ... as they first began to grasp the stupendous truth of the heliocentric theory. The sense of cosmic upheaval and wonder would have been nearly inexpressible. A view of the Earth and its place in the universe that had governed the human mind virtually without question for thousands of years was now suddenly recognized to be a vast illusion. ...

[But] conventional histories of the Scientific Revolution tend to overlook entirely the degree to which the original discovery was charged with intense spiritual significance. The early scientific revolutionaries perceived their breakthroughs as divine illuminations, spiritual awakenings to the true structural grandeur and intellectual beauty of the cosmic order.

This wonder and awe, which was accompanied by a powerful realization of the ability and untapped potential of human intelligence and reason to discern the true workings of the cosmos, has now been lost, and the heliocentric view of the solar system, with the Sun at its center and planets in orbit about it, is now part of the conventional modern view of the world.

In the section "Forging the Self, Disenchanting the World" Tarnas explains how the perception of a "surrounding natural world as permeated with meaning, meaning whose significance is at once human and cosmic" was transformed into a world "seen as entirely impersonal and unconscious ... [so that] whatever beauty and value that human beings may perceive in the universe, that universe is in itself mere matter in motion, mechanistic and purposeless, ruled by chance and necessity ... altogether indifferent to human consciousness and values."

This transformation came about because of a shift from what Tarnas calls "the primal mind" to "the modern mind". The former "engages the world more as a subject embedded in a world of subjects, with no absolute boundaries between or among them. ... The primal world is saturated with subjectivity, interiority, intrinsic meanings and purposes." In contrast, the modern mind "engages the world within an implicit experiential structure of being a subject set apart from, and in some sense over against, an object. The modern world is full of objects, which the human subject confronts and acts upon from its unique position of conscious autonomy." From the perspective of the modern mind, primal experience is the result of projection of human concerns onto a non-human world.

The basic presupposition of modern science, says Tarnas, is that the human mind is the sole source of meaning, value and purpose, that these have no place in the physical world, and that any perception of these as present in the physical world must therefore be merely a projection, a kind of delusion.

Tarnas points out that this did not just happen at the time of the Scientific Revolution in the 17th C., but had its earliest beginning in the development of language and tool-making, after which "we began to differentiate ourselves further from the world, objectifying out experience in ways that could articulate the world's acting on us and our acting on the world."

But with the acceptance of the Copernican view of the solar system, the way was open to seeing the cosmos as we do today, as a void containing an uncountable number of celestial objects moving in ways which can be investigated and understood by observation and reasoning. The cosmos thus ceased to be a source of meaning and became an object of investigation, along with all that it contained.

As modern science developed following Isaac Newton's discoveries, the mode of this investigation increasingly distinguished between 'facts' and 'values'. Facts were descriptive of the physical world — the world perceivable by the outer senses, whereas 'values' were regarded as being of human origin, having their source in human consciousness, in the human mentality, or in human minds (though then, as now, physical science does not know what the term 'human mind' means or could refer to). 'Facts' are for modern scientists 'objective' whereas 'values' are 'subjective'. According to the modern mind, says Tarnas, "the world outside the human being lacks conscious intelligence, it lacks interiority, and it lacks intrinsic meaning and purpose. For these are human realities, and the modern mind believes that to project what is human onto the non-human is a basic epistemological fallacy."

The consequence of this modern view of the world is a world devoid of meaning, a cosmos which is simply a random collection of objects within empty space, having properties such as 'mass' and 'velocity', and interacting in mechanical ways with other objects. These objects have no color (since color does not exist outside of consciousness), no history (that is a human construct), no value or worth (except within human minds), cannot possess beauty, and cannot act purposively. And humans are, according to the modern scientific view, simply a subset of these objects, themselves objects which cannot exhibit qualities such as honesty, courage and integrity. It follows that humans can be treated just like any other objects within the physical world, and so can be exploited, primarily for financial profit, which is what we see occurring so often and everywhere that many people, lacking all moral sense, regard this as simply "business as usual".

Tarnas's writing reveals to us that the modern scientific worldview is the root of the modern psychological disease of alienation, in which we perceive ourselves as beings who value art, beauty, love, kindness, etc., existing in a cosmos in which, according to the ontology presupposed by modern science, none of these things exist, except perhaps as a delusion — a delusion within consciousness, which itself has no place in the modern scientific worldview, cannot be explained within it, and so must be 'explained away'.

Tarnas begins the section entitled "The Cosmological Situation Today" by saying that "In the course of the past century, the modern world view has seen both its greatest ascendancy and its unexpected breakdown ... [and] almost every defining attitude of the modern world view has been critically reassessed and deconstructed, though often not relinquished, even when failure to do so is costly."
Recently there have been emerging from the deconstructive flux of the post-modern mind the tentative outlines of a new understanding of reality, one very different from the conventional modern view. ... [a] reappraisal of the epistemological limits and pragmatic consequences of the conventional scientific approach to knowledge ... [which includes] a new grasp of complex interdependence and subtle order in living systems, and an acknowledgement of the inadequacy of reductionist, mechanistic, and objectivized concepts of nature.
The world view of any society is based upon its view of the cosmos, that is, it is based upon a cosmology. When a society is reappraising its world view it does so on the basis of its cosmology, so the reappraisal of the modern scientific world view is based upon its cosmology, which, upon examination, turns out to be incoherent and thus to provide an insuperable obstacle to that reappraisal.

The cosmology of the modern world view is incoherent because it divorces the human world from the natural world, yet (according to that cosmology itself) the human world is wholly embedded in the natural world. One consequence of this is "a form of psychological compartmentalization and denial", an alienation which is not simply a psychological condition but is a form of mass insanity.
The status of the human being in its cosmic setting is fundamentally problematic — solitary, accidental, ephemeral, inexplicable. The proud uniqueness and autonomy of "Man" have come at a high price. He is an insignificant speck cast adrift in a vast purposeless cosmos, a stranger in a strange land. Self-reflective human consciousness finds no foundation for itself in the empirical world. Inner and outer, psyche and cosmos, are radically discontinuous, mutually incoherent. ... With the encompassing cosmos indifferent to human meaning, with all significance deriving ultimately from the decentered and accidental human subject, a meaningful world can never be more than a courageous projection.
The failure to relinquish this pernicious attitude of the modern world view has indeed been costly. Tarnas writes:
Since the encompassing cosmological context in which all human activity takes place has eliminated any enduring ground of transcendent values — spiritual, moral, aesthetic — the resulting vacuum has empowered the reductive values of the market and the mass media to colonize the collective human imagination and drain it of all depth. If the cosmology is disenchanted [as it is in the modern world view], the world is logically seen in predominantly utilitarian ways, and the utilitarian mind-set begins to shape all human motivation at the collective level. What might be considered means to larger ends ineluctably becomes the dominant impulse moving individuals and societies, until these values, despite ritual claims to the contrary, supersede all other aspirations. ... The disenchanted cosmos impoverishes the collective psyche in the most global way, vitiating its spiritual and moral imagination ... For quite literally, in a disenchanted cosmos, nothing is sacred.
Tarnas says that "No amount of revisioning philosophy or psychology, science or religion, can forge a new world view without a radical shift at the cosmological level" and that this radical shift should begin with a critical examination of the assumption of the modern mind that all meaning and purpose in the universe derives solely from itself (since it can have no basis in a meaningless and purposeless natural world).
Let us, then, take our [post-modern] strategy of critical self-reflection one crucial and perhaps inevitable step further. Let us apply it to the fundamental governing assumption and starting point of the modern world view ... that any meaning and purpose the human mind perceives in the universe does not exist intrinsically in the universe but is constructed and projected onto it by the human mind. Might not this be the final, most global anthropocentric delusion of all?

Perhaps the greater Copernican revolution is in a sense still incomplete, still unfolding. Perhaps a long-hidden form of anthropocentric bias, increasingly destructive in its consequences, can now at last be recognized, thus opening up the possibility of a richer, more complex, more authentic relationship between the human being and the cosmos.

In the remainder of his book Richard Tarnas seeks a "deeper order" in the universe, drawing our attention to the now widely recognized principle of synchronicity, first made explicit in the work of Carl Jung, that phenomena which the modern mind dismisses as mere "coincidences" reveal an underlying non-causal, and meaningful, connection. He then goes on to provide a large amount of evidence in support of this main thesis, that planetary alignments "coincide with specific archetypally patterned phenomena in human lives" and more generally with events in human affairs and periods which are characterized as innovative, revolutionary, expansionist, constrained, creative, etc. Whether or not one is persuaded by this evidence that "the world possesses more underlying unity, order, and meaning than the modern mind has assumed" and that the cosmos is "a coherent embodiment of creative intelligence, purpose, and meaning, expressed through a constant complex correspondence between astronomical patterns and human experience", the fact remains that in Part I of his book Tarnas has enabled us to understand the reason for the lack of wisdom in the modern world and the unrestrained rise and triumph of individual and corporate greed and the desire for control over others, culminating in a ruthless drive for world domination in which humans are regarded as of no value except as a means to this end. The cosmology which has enabled this to occur must be abandoned and replaced by a truer one if the human species is to have any future consistent with our deepest human values.

Richard Tarnas's Website
Physicalism: A False View of the World
Planetary Aspects and Transits Home Page