The Universe is both mysterious and awesome (and I use “awesome” with its classical meaning and not in the debased way it is used colloquially today). As we have seen in past essays humankind has two principal instruments with which it attempts to fathom the Universe, viz.
- Logos which relies on our faculty of reason, and
- Mythos which relies on analogy, parable and intuition, indeed “another way of knowing”.
We know that humankind’s capacity to reason is a rather late evolutionary development which seems to have accompanied the development of the frontal temporal lobes which was part of the rapid growth of the human brain in the last couple of hundred thousand years. Indeed it seems largely contemporaneous with the development of consciousness itself.
But if we are to come to grips with the Universe, how we understand it and how we have reacted with it, it seems necessary to explore the thinking and experiences of our remote ancestors especially as they are depicted in their folk myths. Importantly it helps us to understand who we are. As the physicist Erwin Schrodinger wrote:
Who are we? The answer to this question is not only one of the tasks but the task of science.
The inherent arrogance of Humankind has often assumed that the Universe was made especially for us and that humanity is at the centre of the Universe. Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan commented:
As the infant is said to feel it is the centre of the Universe, so we were once sure, not just of our central position, but that the Universe was made for us. This old comfortable conceit, this safe view of the world has been crumbling for five centuries.
The folk myths and religious parables of many of the world’s peoples frequently attempt an explanation of the essential questions “How did the Universe come to be”, and “What is our part in it?”
Because of our Judeo-Christian heritage, most in our society would be familiar with the creation myth as detailed in the Book of Genesis in the Old Testament. This account of the creation was written by the scholar who was a member of the Priestly school (and therefore known as P by theologians) sometime around the sixth century BCE. God appears in the very first sentence without introduction or explanation using the formal divine title Elohim. The Jewish God was omnipotent. He just willed the Universe into existence.
(A humorous Darwinian argument against divine creation argues why was it necessary for God to create so many species of beetles? There are more species of beetle than other species on earth!)
The Pagan Gods of the near neighbours of the Jews were not nearly so powerful. Marduk, the god of the Babylonians, for example only managed to bring the earth into existence after a mighty battle with the goddess Tiamat, the primal sea. Marduk rent her body in two thus forming the earth and the sky. As in this myth the earth and sky were formed of the same material there was no ontological gap between the sacred and the mundane in contrast to the Judeo-Christian tradition.
Many creation myths start with the building blocks of the Universe already in existence and therefore can only be a part explanation of creation. The Judeo-Christian version of creation is creation “ex nihilo” (out of nothing) – except of course it assumes the prior existence of God, which always raises the question by non-believers “What are the origins of God?” Creation ex nihilo isn’t however unique to this particular strand of religion (and despite protestations by believers, there are very few unique concepts in the mythology of Judeo-Christianity). Ex nihilo creation is also found in the creation myths of Egypt, the animistic cultures of Africa, Asia, Oceania and North America. The book of Sanskrit Vedic Hymns commonly known as the Rig Veda also includes an ex nihilo creation myth.
One of the alternative genres of the creation myth has the Universe being created out of Chaos. In these stories all the constituent parts of the Universe were already in existence and the creation process provided order to enable the component parts to arise. The end of the Universe anticipates a return to disorder. There is a strong similarity to this myth and the Second Law of Thermodynamics which states that disorder (as measured by entropy) always increases.
Greek mythology provides a prime example of this form of creation. It is a very convoluted and extensive myth which precludes my relating it to you here.
Some Taoist writings suggest that the Universe emerged from the Void (which some philosophers have wrongly assumed meant nothingness but in fact is better described as latent potentiality). And there is some similarity between this concept and the creation from Chaos.
Buddhism neatly avoids the question of beginning and ends with its notion of the wheel of life (samsara) or, as it is sometimes called, the wheel of becoming. Just as individuals are believed to be born, live, die and then reincarnated, the Cosmos suffers a similar fate. But there are no real beginnings or ends it is just one long never-ending sequence of rebirth, expansion, decline and finally rebirth again.
Now all these creation myths had their origins in the deep past. In the vernacular of today the word “myth” is often used in a disparaging way. It is seen as an untrue, fanciful story. To our remote ancestors myths were not meant to be taken literarily, but were understood to point to great truths that were only available to us by prying into our subconscious mind. This is a fact that has escaped our fundamentalists and literalists. Moreover the myths of ancient societies helped fashion and maintain their cultures.
Consequently it is hard to overestimate the importance of the creation myths in these ancient societies. In Primal Myths: Creation Myths Around the World, Barbara C Sproul wrote:
Not only are creation myths the most comprehensive of mythic statements, addressing themselves to the widest range of questions, but they are also the most profound. They deal with first causes, the essences of what their cultures’ perceived reality to be. In them people set forth their primary understanding of man and the world, time and space.
But let us in contrast to the Mythos approach to creation, examine the Logos approach as outlined by modern science.
A chronology of how the Universe was created by the so-called “big bang” some 14 billion years ago goes something like this:
- 10-43 seconds – The big bang.
- 10-36 seconds – The Universe undergoes a rapid expansion (known as cosmic inflation), under superheated conditions, enlarging from the size of an atom to the size of a grapefruit.
- 10-32 seconds – Still unimaginably hot, the Universe boils with electrons, quarks and other particles. The previous rapid inflation decreases, or takes a pause, for reasons not fully understood.
- 10-6 seconds –Having cooled dramatically, the infant universe now gives rise to protons and neutrons that are formed from groups of quarks.
- 3 minutes – Charged particles exist but no atoms yet and light cannot escape the dark fog the Universe has become.
- 300,000 years – The cooling process has reached a state where atoms of hydrogen and helium begin to form out of electrons, protons and neutrons. Light can now escape, and how far it travels will determine from this point onward the outer edge (the event horizon) of the visible Universe.
- 1 billion years – Through the attraction of gravity, hydrogen and helium coalesce into clouds that will give rise to stars and galaxies.
(Source: You Are The Universe by Deepak Chopra and Menas Kafatos)
Now some qualifying statements need to be made in the context of the Big Bang Theory.
To begin with this is another ex nihilo process. The big bang manifested itself from a singularity of no dimensions. All the matter and the energy of the physical Universe was derived from there. In the Genesis version of ex nihilo creation a prior existing God is assumed. The big bang theory is silent on whether some Cosmic consciousness played a part.
Whilst the big bang is attributed with creating our current Universe, it leaves open to conjecture whether there were preceding Universes or indeed whether there are other Universes that exist in parallel with the Universe we are aware of.
When you read this description of the big bang are you more satisfied that this is a rational, objective description? Compared with the offerings of Mythos does “singularity” describe better the preconditions of physical existence than “void” or “chaos”?
Moreover the cosmic inflation that is postulated to have resulted from the big bang defies all known laws of physics. At the end of the inflation period stars and galaxies are formed by gravitational attraction. Gravitational attraction would have countered the cosmic inflation. So there are still many enigmas here.
Now our so-called scientific approach to creation, whilst it provides a better description of the Universe and enables us to predict further development and Cosmic events far better than those of Mythos is still far from perfect. It is founded on some very bold assumptions which future scientific probing might invalidate and it is far from a complete explanation. As we saw earlier, to exemplify the former point, there is no science to explain cosmic inflation.
Furthermore it is easy to demonstrate the inadequacy of the big bang explanation.
According to Paul Davies and his popular book The Goldilocks Enigma the expansion of the Universe is accelerating. The conjecture among scientists is that is caused by a huge amount of so-called “dark energy”.
Pierre St Clair in Cosmology on Trial writes:
This dark force makes the Universe expand faster and faster over time. “Dark” means that it is invisible so it might be impossible to detect. “Energy” means it is not matter, so there is no other option (we know only matter and energy). Basically it is called dark energy because it is mysterious.
Whatever it is, if you add up the dark energy responsible for making the Universe accelerate, you find that it actually represents a total mass that is more than all the visible and dark matter put together.
(You will remember that Einstein in his famous equation E=MC2 showed us that matter and energy were different manifestations of the same thing.)
As Davies alludes in order to understand the current big bang model of the Universe, not only do we have to postulate dark energy but also “dark matter”. Dark matter is inferred by the gravitational influence it exerts on stars and galaxies. We use the term “dark” because it neither emits nor reflects light.
Incredibly when the cosmologists do their sums they postulate that 74% of the Universe comprises dark energy and 22% dark matter. That is, the big bang theory only reliably accounts for 4% of what constitutes the Universe!
In this respect it is hard to make the case that Logos has presented us with a much more convincing model of the Universe than Mythos has.
We are inclined to give greater credence to Science (Logos) because we assume that scientists are scrupulously objective. But they are not. Thomas S Kuhn showed us in his seminal book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions that scientists hold unconscious biases related to the various paradigms they adopt.
We believe that scientists arrive at their conclusions from the application of proven scientific principles. But they do not. In the more complex and speculative realms of science, from quantum theory to cosmogony, many of the conclusions reached rest on (at least currently) unverifiable assumptions.
Developments in science make it easy to refute the literal truth of the ancient creation myths. For example it takes a certain naivety to now believe that God created the Universe in seven days and the earth is only thousands of years old.
But we would also be naïve to believe that the replacement modern myth of Logos, the big bang theory, is an infallible picture of the Universe’s beginnings.
We know without doubt that this myth:
- Provides at best a partial explanation,
- Relies on (currently) untestable assumptions, and as a consequence,
- Could be blatantly in error!
(If you want to explore this issue further I would refer you to Cosmology On Trial by Pierre St Clair. This is an eminently readable book that addresses the issues in a way that is accessible to laypeople.)
[One of the untestable assumptions on which our picture of the Universe depends is the so-called “red shift”. This was first postulated by the eminent astronomer, Edwin Hubble. Hubble wondered if the frequency of a light beam would lengthen the longer it travelled through space. Hubble himself wasn’t convinced that this was actually so but later generations of physicists took it as a given and even refer to it as Hubble’s Law. This phenomenon is used to demonstrate the Universe is expanding and is used to determine the age of the Universe among other things. But this part of the big bang jigsaw remains speculative and has never been proven.]