Modern Physical Cosmology and Traditional Creation Myths—Is There Any Relationship?
Section 1: Introduction
More is demanded of myth than of science. A creation myth needs to provide an overall meaning and context for our lives, addressing our values and our hopes as much as our understanding. Physical cosmology, of course, does none of these things. And yet, physical cosmology is globally accepted by all modern cultures. Is it possible for the narrative associated with physical cosmology, suitably interpreted and augmented, to supply the dimensions of meaning and value offered by a mythic account? This question will be further explored in the present paper.
Within the framework we will employ, any knowledge that is bounded by empirical and rational limits cannot contradict the scientific worldview, even if it is not explicitly a part of that worldview. The narrative of physical cosmology, then, will serve to constrain the content of any sacred mythic narrative that can be found acceptable. This sort of constraint, however, is not really new and unexpected if we look at the content of traditional creation myths. Such myths are always constrained by observations of the natural world. Whether the first humans were made from cornmeal or red clay depended on the materials known to the ancient mythmakers of that culture; if we now know that humans are made from heavy elements forged by stellar nucleosynthesis, this is merely a more sophisticated version of the same underlying process. What we now lack is the mythic dimension accompanying the knowledge, but this lack bears no necessary relationship to the higher degree of refinement, correlation, and inference in the observations that form the basis of the knowledge.
Put differently, we can say that the fundamental role of science is to bring order to our empirical observations, and physical cosmology excellently accomplishes this role. The cultural role of myth is more subtle and complex, involving an attempt to answer questions and bring meaning on a variety of different levels through a shared narrative. These two roles, though they are distinct, are not entirely divorced from each other. Science frequently entails some sort of narrative structure and is used culturally as a source of meaning. Myth, on the other hand, has always functioned in part as a source of explanations for observed natural phenomena. Our task, then, is to understand more deeply how mythic and scientific pictures relate to each other while not confusing categories by blurring the distinctions between them.
We can attempt to supply this mythic dimension to our modern outlook by going in either of two opposite directions. Starting with the mainstream version of physical cosmology and its usual interpretations, we can then further develop the big bang narrative to extend the meanings possible within this narrative by invoking a radically different worldview that enlarges upon the restricted aspects initially inherent in the mainstream view. This has already been attempted by a number of investigators, and we will briefly review a few of these attempts. We will not construct a new version of this kind of project here, however; instead, we will analyze the epistemological underpinnings of all such projects using a tool previously developed by the author (the generalized complementarity framework). Alternatively, we can start at the opposite end of the spectrum. We can start with a particular cultural creation myth having its own idiosyncrasies of narrative and associated meaning, and then proceed to reconcile this account with the orthodox physical cosmology narrative as appropriate. After repeating this process for a variety of traditions, a sort of global creation myth might emerge. This approach is more novel, so we will discuss it in some detail and include one extended example to illustrate the method. Finally, this second approach will also be analyzed from a generalized complementarity viewpoint.
In order to follow these arguments, it is helpful to have some background knowledge of both the scientific content of physical cosmology and the mythic content of the creation stories from a variety of cultures. As a convenience for readers who do not already have this background in either or both areas, we have included such material in Section 3 of the paper. So as not to interrupt the flow of the argument for those who do have sufficient background, it is continued now in Section 2. Those who are unfamiliar with any of the requisite material should read Section 3 before proceeding.
Section 2: Creation Myths for Modern Cultures
If we start with physical cosmology, we can see clearly how the astronomical data are coherent and consistent with the familiar big bang narrative. From a purely scientific point of view, this narrative can have no further meaning or implications. But, we can legitimately ask the following question: what further meaning or implications might it have in a world not bounded in this fashion? This question immediately raises the further question of whether any such meanings are valid, and how such meanings are related to the scientifically grounded narrative itself. It is at this point that we believe the framework of complementarity becomes a valuable tool. Within this framework, two seemingly contradictory views of reality can both be equally true and valid, as long as the conditions under which each view is apprehended do not overlap.
The detailed epistemological argument underlying this conclusion is beyond the scope of the present paper, and it has been presented elsewhere. A highly condensed summary of the main lines of the argument can be given as follows: There is an inherent inseparability between the knowing subject and the known world in our apprehension of nature. This is so because we only know the world through our experience of it. This experience is conditioned (in some sense at least) by our minds (broadly considered, including language, culture, neurophysiology, and so on), limiting our available concepts. Due to these limitations, our understanding of nature is only meaningful when the concepts that we use and the conditions under which we use them are carefully examined. The results of such a careful examination yield clusters of concepts (which we can conveniently label “nature as sacred” and “nature as mundane”) that appear to be contrary descriptions but that in fact are indicative of differing and mutually non-overlapping conditions of knowing; both descriptions are necessary in order to have an exhaustive description of nature itself.
Using this language, we can call the scientific content of physical cosmology a mundane view of nature, and then argue that the complementary sacred view of nature will have more of the attributes associated with traditional creation myths. With this in mind, we now repeat our question: what further meaning or implications might the narrative of physical cosmology have in a sacred world? Perhaps the first obvious answer to this question concerns the evolution of order from chaos. One of the overwhelmingly pervasive themes of many worldwide creation myths is the establishment of a reign of order from the initial chaos of the universe. Presupposing the validity and importance of this theme, we can obviously see its consistency with the standard big bang cosmology, in which the initially unformed primal substance gradually unfolds into matter, radiation, forces, space, and time as we know them. We can infer another layer of meaning from this by noting the implication of connectedness among all things based on their common origin in the single primal substance. There are also a number of more particular aspects of the narrative that we might point to. For example, we can cite the heavy element nucleosynthesis mentioned earlier, and the need for this process (or some such process, anyway) to occur in order for humans to appear in the universe. The fact that it happened does not make it meaningful, but if we presuppose meaning and look for examples, then examples are clearly not hard to find.
A number of people have worked out more detailed accounts of creation as a mythos grounded in a scientific big bang cosmology. Let’s look briefly at several such projects, in order to get a sense of the range of possibilities that exist. One well known example is the work of Ursula Goodenough (The Sacred Depths of Nature), who maintains a fairly naturalistic emphasis but adds a metaphorical overlay of sacredness to the purely scientific account. Her major interest is in the origin and evolution of life, but she does start with a brief account spanning the time from the Beginning of the universe to the arrival of conditions on earth under which life could form. Her reflections on this part of the story are sparser and less prone of be meaning-laden than her later reflections on biological aspects of nature; she focuses more on the deep Mystery that underlies these more physical aspects. Although Goodenough’s insights are often quite beautiful, she usually sticks to a fairly prosaic account of the actual science involved and adds her reflections afterwards as a kind of humanizing gloss on the more factual parts of the narrative. One of her main points is that we share, as a global heritage, this factual narrative and that it serves admirably as a basis for a shared religious sensibility. The other side of this coin, however, is that there is little contact with some of the important religious content found in various cultures and times. A more imaginative treatment, with considerably more direct influence from traditional creation myths and religious ideas, has been given by Brian Swimme in a number of books and videos. The danger in this case is the opposite of that in Goodenough’s work; in this case, the poetry of the narrative may become decoupled from its scientific aspects. Finally, let’s consider a less well known but very elaborate version of a creation myth (which actually unfolds into an entire religion) based directly upon big bang cosmology (in conjunction with other modern scientific results). I am referring here to the work of Alfred R. Globus, which he expanded and developed over half a century and to which he gave the name “Veritism.” In his text (Veritism—the Relationship of Science to Theology), Globus employs a style similar to biblical poetry to relate both reasonable scientific facts (“And the atoms, attracted to each other by gravity, formed great clouds of gas, and these contracted and coalesced to form the stars, condensed like fiery drops in vast systems that were the galaxies.” [Globus, 1-11]) and overtly religious statements (“Verily is the source of all things without limit and without end.” [Globus, 1-9]). Globus goes on in this vein for hundreds of pages, including some moral injunctions (“Beware the right of might;—in the hands of the strong, coercion must be used but sparingly, for force without control is tyranny. It is a doublebladed sword that strikes the wielder with each thrust.” [Globus, 5-21]) and philosophical reflections (“To have belief to such degree that it bends not beneath the weight of facts, or yields not to reason, is not faith.” [Globus, 6-11]). His primary message is that a purified religion must be based on science rather than the flawed foundations that have been employed in the past. His own awareness of the limits of science and what can be asserted outside these limits seems to be based primarily on personal insights he has developed during his own lifetime of searching. Although his poetic synthesis of the science and religious insights intentionally integrates them (and in a very original way, one might add), this very synthesis make a more rigorous analysis problematic. Efforts like this, which freely employ scientific results but in a radically unscientific fashion, are often ignored because they violate our usual categories and in so doing seem to be somehow wrong. Our task here is to look more closely at how these categories relate, and to ascertain how a work like Globus’s Veritism (or Goodenough, or Swimme) may have unsuspected philosophical validity based on a complementarity analysis.
Recall that the primary issue in such an analysis is to critically examine the conditions under which knowledge is acquired. For Goodenough, the conditions under which scientific knowledge is acquired are normative and straightforward, requiring little further examination. She says, for example that “any global tradition needs to begin with a shared worldview—a culture-independent, globally accepted consensus as to how things are. From my perspective, this part is easy. How things are is, well, how things are: our scientific account of Nature….this is the story, the one story, that has the potential to unite us, because it happens to be true.” [Goodenough, xvi, italics in original] As my treatment of physical cosmology in Section 3 indicates, the situation is not quite as simple as this; however, it is still certainly correct that such a scientific narrative is the best objective consensus that we can form, because the conditions under which this knowledge is acquired are precisely those conditions needed for an objective consensus. Globus does not make any clear declarative statement in the way that Goodenough does, but his overall message seems to be consistent her point of view. He does make a few fairly conventional statements about scientific inquiry, such as “All of science begins as a hypothetical interpretation of the unknown and results in the accumulation of enough observations to draw conclusions by which the theory becomes fact.” [Globus, 6-22A] Globus also makes clear his belief that only science can serve as a reliable foundation upon which to construct our knowledge of God (“Yet even the laboratory is a temple of sort, for at its altars men have approached closer to their God than in any church.” [Globus, 5-30A]) Thus, the mundane view of science that Globus and Goodenough share in their common understanding (with each other and with most other informed people) of the appropriate conditions for apprehending the world in this mode does not seem to extend to other modes of apprehension. What are the differences and how should we characterize these other modes?
Goodenough’s reflections leave ambiguous the conditions under which she arrives at her insights. She says, for example, that “I have come to understand that the self, my self, is inherently sacred.” [Goodenough, 59] but does not offer any explanation of how or why she has come to this understanding. The closest Goodenough comes to a description of her state in such circumstances is this: “…when I am invaded by Immanence, most often in the presence of beauty or love or relief, my response is to open myself to its blessing. It is the path to the holy, taken by seekers before me and seekers to follow….the possibility of transcending my daily self….Even as I don’t understand it, it is nonetheless very immediate, and experienced, and known.” [Goodenough, 102] It is presumably the accessibility to this sort of transcendence that leads her to her insightful reflections on the meaning found in Nature. Goodenough remains ambivalent as to the ontological import of these experiences and hence the resulting insights. “As a non-theist, I find I can only think about these experiences as wondrous mental phenomena. But in the end it doesn’t matter: All of us are transformed by their power.” [Goodenough, 102] An important part of this transformative power is related to the environmental ethic that it entails, and this ethical concern is probably more important to Goodenough than abstract questions of ontology, because the actions it demands of us are real enough by anyone’s standard. From the perspective of the complementarity framework, the meaning found in Nature that she describes is a real attribute of Nature, not merely an epiphenomenon of our beliefs, and from this perspective Goodenough has indeed been able to weave a modern creation mythos. I’m not certain that Goodenough would agree with this characterization, but as she says, in the end that doesn’t matter much.
Globus, of course, is much more radical in his project. He has given us nothing less than a prophetic work, a new world religion grounded in science. Globus is also more forthcoming about the sources of his inspiration. “Thus have I written these words as was given me to write, for they have come to me in a Voice of Silence, yet have I heard them within myself as with a crystal clarity, by day and by night, in increments over more than fifty years, and thus have I recorded them, not as the Author, but as the writer; not as the Creator, but as the instrument thereof.” [Globus, 8-1] We see in this passage, and in many of the passages that follow it, that Globus is acquiring his knowledge concerning the spiritual reality of the cosmos under conditions totally different from those under which the objective knowledge of science is acquired. He is acquiring these spiritual insights from a direct contact with the Divine, essentially unmediated by the senses. This is clearly a non-overlapping set of conditions compared with those of the mundane view. What is interesting about Globus’s work is that he also explicitly advocates for a religion that is based almost entirely on science. He eliminates the apparent contradiction here by pointing to the limits of scientific inquiry; there are some things about Nature about which a scientific investigation will simply need to be mute, and these things are the subject of his further investigation by other methods. “God is the inconceivable Cause of an incomprehensible world, a God that is immeasurable within the limitations of the measurements of man…” [Globus, 6-10] This is not a concept of the Divine that is amenable to scientific understanding: “Science cannot accept a God that reason understands…” [Globus, 5-30] and “A God born out of reason is assailable by any fact…” [Globus, 6-2] Where then does the science enter the discourse, as promoted so emphatically by Globus? His answer is double-sided and, I think, rather profound: “Even as the Creation is a reflection of the Creator, so is the evolution of a mind which can set forth the Laws that govern the creation of the universe a greater revelation of the power of the Primal Energy than the creation of the universe itself and all else that is therein.” [Globus, 5-12] This position starts out being similar to the traditional stance of any theology of nature, but Globus carries the logic unflinchingly to conclusions that are usually rejected as heretical. In this way, he is able to found his theology purely on science, and yet he is not in any way restricted by this gambit because he is (I would argue) implicitly employing a complementarity perspective in his discourse. The complementarity arises not in any sort of overt logical analysis but instead in the very descriptions of his Godhead and its relationship to the world and to our knowledge of the world and Itself: “…thus does science serve to augment religion by revealing the awesome dimension of the universe, and for a God to be transcendent over the entire universe, It must be great enough to encompass all of it and even beyond it, even to the boundaries of infinity.” [Globus, 6-1A]
But let us now switch gears, and approach our problem from the opposite direction. Instead of starting with the mundane science and educing a wider set of meanings from it, let’s now start from the traditional content of creation myths and try to relate this to a more modern scientific perspective. Although this method might be a little less “clean” than the manner in which Goodenough and Globus proceed, it has the potential advantage of offering a richer and broader array of cultural resources from which to extract meaning important to the human experience. Clearly, such a project could be vast and unmanageable if done thoroughly, but we will merely look at one small example to get a sense of the possibilities. The example I’ve chosen is the Ymir motif.
I’ve chosen the Ymir motif because it seems to be mostly a primitive and bloody remnant of pre-rational minds, a particularly unlikely prospect for coherence with the modern scientific thinking of physical cosmology. The widespread appearance of this myth in many cultures and times suggests that it does, however, carry some important underlying meaning for humanity. What is this meaning, and can we map it onto other visions of reality as suggested by cosmology? If we look beyond the vivid pictorial imagery of slain corpses and particular organs or body parts morphing into geographical features, then we find archetypal themes of new forms arising from destruction, of life from death, of the sacrifice of some parts of creation in order that other parts may grow. Considering the facts recounted in the big bang creation narrative, these themes might well be seen in the death of stars by supernova to create the novel heavy elements in the universe or by the destruction of higher symmetries so that new forces can come into being. Of course, these are just scientific facts to which no meaning is necessarily associated, but by the same token no meaning can necessarily be prohibited. The ascription of meaning, the Ymir motif, to the death of a star in the creation of new elements is not merely a fanciful reverie, but nor is it an implication of the cosmological model. To interpret this meaning properly, we need to ask ourselves what the conditions were under which we came to this understanding. Presupposing the validity of the archetypal themes underlying the meaning of the Ymir motif (taken very broadly, not in the sense of details in specific stories), we come to understand this meaning within the context of a sacred world-view, where the universe is alive with spiritual potentiality. Subsequent to this understanding comes contact with the mundane world and a way of expressing the archetypal themes that’s appropriate to the culture. In the primitive Norse culture, Ymir’s blood came to form the life-giving water of rivers and oceans. We live in a radically different mundane world than the Norse tribesmen did, and the novel expression of these ancient themes in terms of our world’s creation from the “corpse” of a dying star doesn’t seem to be that inappropriate, even if our knowledge of this event was acquired under the rigorous conditions appropriate to scientific work. We must live in a mundane world to understand this process of nucleosynthesis, but we must live in a sacred world to understand that the process may also have deeper levels of meaning related to ancient and primal matters. Complementarity allows to acquire both levels of understanding and to keep them properly disentangled but not disengaged.
The foregoing analysis of the Ymir motif serves as an example of the kind of analysis that could be done for a wide variety of mythic themes associated with creation (the cosmic egg; primal parents; primal chaos turned to order; an uncreated initial void; good & evil, eschatology, and a moral order; redemption; the place of humanity in the created order; and so on). More detailed analysis of all these themes is beyond our present scope, but the methodology is fairly clear. Having made a point of contact between the mythic and the cosmological worldviews (associating the initial singularity with the cosmic egg, to note a rather obvious case), we then ask what it means to make that contact by looking closely at the entire worldview and what each term (singularity, cosmic egg) really signifies and under what range of conditions the signification is valid. If we are successful, we move from the stage of vague analogy to a stage of complementary understanding. To repeat a key point, the mythic dimension of understanding is only possible by accessing a sacred apprehension of the universe in general. It’s worth noting that several of the mythic themes listed above (e.g. good & evil) will have little relationship to physical cosmology, which then serves mainly to limit the mythic picture (rather than generating novel imagery) but obviously can’t even impose limits on aspects of the mythic narrative that are totally unrelated. Once again the complementarity analysis would be used to determine these relationships, areas of independence, and appropriate limitations.
It’s worth noting at this point the important limitations to using physical cosmology as the basis for a mythic account. Seen from the framework of complementarity, we have no compelling reason to reduce the rich worlds of mythos to a single self-consistent account. We are obliged to make the sacred and mundane worlds consistent with each other only at the interface between them where they merge. Hence, physical cosmology might legitimately constrain some mythic claims (the chronological age of the earth, to choose an obvious example). But claims made within the realm of the sacred itself, without contact or consequence in the mundane world, have a wider range of validity and may well represent a set of complementary truths not necessarily bound by rules of logical consistency. This is not to say that we should abandon our quest for a coherent world-view or accept any claims uncritically, but the criteria for truth in the realm of the sacred need to be worked out on radically different terms.
So, what can we conclude from all this? Is there any relationship between modern physical cosmology and traditional creation myths? I am arguing that there surely must be some sort of relationship, because modern physical cosmology serves as the empirically grounded basis for whatever “modern creation myth” we may develop. The real questions are to what extent and in what ways physical cosmology can play this role. This article is a small contribution to the larger project of building a genuine global creation mythos (that need not be monolithic or rigid, I should emphasize), one which speaks with richness to our deep cultural needs and yet remains intelligible in a world that understands the hot big bang narrative. One of my primary points has been to emphasize the importance of addressing epistemological questions appropriately in such an endeavor, and to advocate for the use of a complementarity framework in that regard. Beyond that, we have merely looked at a variety of specific examples to illustrate the way in which such a long-term project might be approached and what the results might begin to look like.
Section 3: Background
3A: Physical Cosmology
Physical cosmology is a rather recent addition to the sciences, dating from the early part of the 20th century when theorists tried to solve the equations of Einstein’s general theory of relativity for the universe as a whole by making various simplifying assumptions. The choice of assumptions would specify some model for the universe, and the solutions of the equations would show how such a universe behaves and evolves over time. These early attempts were not informed by any data, but that problem was soon corrected. Present cosmological models are now tested by and based on a great deal of empirical information.
The theoretical structure upon which cosmology is based still rests on Einstein’s 1916 general theory of relativity. This is essentially a theory of gravitation, but it’s also a theory of space and time. Space, time, matter, and gravity are all indissolubly linked together; physics and geometry are no longer entirely distinct from each other, and space/time become physical entities rather than the inert container within which the laws of physics play themselves out. Space and time had already been melded into a single spacetime continuum by the special theory of relativity (in 1905), and now this spacetime became non-Euclidean, i.e. curved rather than flat. The curvature of spacetime, caused by the presence of matter, is what we have traditionally called gravity. The relationships among space, time, matter, and gravity are governed by a set of equations, and the application of these equations to the entire universe (along with their solutions) marks the beginning of modern cosmology.
Einstein performed such calculations, making a set of simple and reasonable assumptions about the properties of the universe. He assumed that the universe was homogeneous (the same everywhere, at least on a large scale) and isotropic (looks the same in every direction), consistent with the underlying ideas of relativity theory that there are no special preferred observational frames of reference. Any point in the universe is roughly equivalent to any other point, a statement that is often now called the “cosmological principle” and is still an important idea. Surprisingly, Einstein’s solution of the equations under these conditions revealed that space was expanding with time; in other words, the solution was non-static. To obtain a static solution in which the universe remained the same over time, Einstein had to add an arbitrary constant to the equations. Work by de Sitter showed that this sort of non-static behavior occurs even in a universe without any matter in it. Extensive studies by Friedmann and by Lemaitre investigated a number of different models with varying assumptions, demonstrating that non-static solutions were obtained under a wide variety of circumstances. Although such solutions seemed perplexing at first, given the apparent static nature of the universe, observational astronomy soon revealed a surprising fact: the universe is expanding.
A number of astronomers, most prominently Hubble, were able to show during the 1920’s that distant galaxies are receding away from us with a speed that is proportional to their distance. The velocities of such galaxies are relatively easy to measure using a phenomenon called the Doppler effect. The light from a galaxy that is traveling away from us has a lowering of its frequency and a shift toward the red end of the spectrum (hence the name for this effect, redshift). From measured changes in frequency (using spectroscopic analysis) the velocity of the galaxy can be calculated. Measuring the distance to such a galaxy is more difficult, but it can be accomplished by correlating brightness to some other physical property and then using the brightness to calculate the distance. Ultimately, a set of redshift and distance measurements were collected and the direct proportionality of velocity to distance was shown. Moreover, except for minor “local motions” it was found that every galaxy observed was in fact receding away from us. According to the cosmological principle, there is nothing special about our particular point in space, so we can conclude that every point is receding away from every other point. In other words, the universe is expanding.
Two important conclusions follow immediately from this fact. First, the expanding universe solutions found based on general relativity are dramatically vindicated. Second, if the universe is expanding as time moves forward, we can imagine moving backward in time with the universe getting smaller and smaller at earlier and earlier times. Clearly, there must be some limit to this process and as we extrapolate backward to earlier times the size of the universe would approach zero. The time at which this occurs might well be interpreted as the beginning of the universe (though there are many potential problems with such an interpretation). Subtleties of interpretation aside, the empirical fact of the universe’s expansion clearly broaches the possibility of a finite age, an evolutionary history, and a beginning in time for the universe.
Leaving aside questions of origins, the cosmological models based on general relativity taken in conjunction with the empirical data for an expanding universe strongly suggested that a very hot dense phase existed early in the history of the universe. The proposed existence of this hot dense phase offered the opportunity to add more physics to these cosmological models, because such hot dense conditions were expected to be just the conditions under which nuclei might be created (nucleosynthesis). This idea was explored by several people, with especially important early studies made by Alpher, Gamow, and Herman. Part of the problem is to determine properly the conditions found in the early universe (about 100 to 300 seconds old) and the other part of the problem is to calculate the nuclear fusion reactions accurately. It turns out that only the light elements were formed in the early universe, the rest being formed in stars (elements lighter than iron) and supernovae (the heaviest elements). At times that were too early, the temperature of the universe was too high for any nucleosynthesis to occur. As the universe cooled, a fair amount of helium was produced. But as the universe cooled further, there was not enough energy to create any heavier nuclei (except trace amounts) and the density also became too low for any further nucleosynthesis. The initial abundances of hydrogen and helium (plus traces of deuterium and lithium) are thus frozen into place and remain the same (except for subsequent stellar nucleosynthesis of heavier elements) to this day. Detailed calculations of these abundances have been made, quantifying the qualitative reasoning outlined here, and the results predict that about 25% of the universe (by mass) should be helium. This prediction is in excellent agreement with the measured data, offering strong support for this cosmological model.
Further dramatic support for the model came in the 1960’s, when Penzias and Wilson accidentally discovered the cosmic microwave background radiation. As we’ve discussed, the universe cooled as it expanded. The very high-temperature radiation found in the early universe is still with us, but after billions of years of cooling and expansion its temperature is presently quite low, namely about 3 K (degrees Kelvin), i.e. 3 degrees above absolute zero. The energy of this radiation decreases as its temperature decreases, so it is presently at low energy and long wavelength, in the microwave region of the spectrum. As a consequence of our cosmological model, we would predict the presence of this radiation uniformly distributed everywhere in space, a fossil remnant of the early hot universe. Once again, we can calculate the properties of this radiation (technically, its blackbody distribution spectrum) very precisely and compare these calculations with very accurate measurements. The good quantitative agreement found plus the strongly intuitive explanation for the presence of the cosmic microwave background serve as extremely robust evidence for the correctness of the model. There is now virtually unanimous agreement that this model, known as the “hot big bang model,” is substantially correct.
It is useful to keep separate the evidence, the coherent model that explains the evidence, and the narrative story that closely follows from the model. Often, only the narrative itself is given. Also, speculative embellishments to the basic narrative, such as inflationary scenarios, exotic dark matter, etc. are often included without distinguishing them from the well-established facts and consensus view. The familiar basic big bang narrative runs as follows: In the beginning, all of the matter and energy of the universe existed in a single point of infinite temperature and density. Space and time came into existence as this point started to expand; at the unimaginable temperature and density found in the early universe, matter and energy as we know them did not exist, being found instead in the form of an undifferentiated primal substance. The laws of physics as we know them likewise did not exist, all fundamental forces being merged into a single unified force. As the universe expanded and cooled, matter and radiation separated out while the unified forces sequentially broke into the forces as we now know them. As the universe continued its overall expansion, gravity accumulated some of the matter into stars and galaxies, which then evolved through their own life cycles, forming the heavy elements along the way. Elements up to iron were formed by fusion in regular stars, while the heaviest elements were formed in the explosions of supernovae. Eventually, these new elements found their way into later generations of new star systems, including our own, where conditions on the planet earth gave rise to the origins of life. Life then went on to evolve into the present global ecosystem, while the universe continues to expand, possibly forever (though no one yet knows).
The narrative is a little misleading in some respects, as is its name (big bang cosmology). It’s called the big bang because it appears as though the beginning of the universe was a huge explosion at a specific point, from which the matter in the universe flew away with great speed and force. This seems to imply that the location of this initial point is the center of the universe, and that material is hurling outward through space. Both of these ideas are wrong. The cosmological principle assures us that there is no center of the universe; all points are equivalent. Moreover, space itself is expanding, and the matter is simply carried along with the expanding space. A huge explosion in space, hurling matter outward, can’t possibly make sense because space itself was created in the initial event. This concept is extremely difficult to comprehend. “If we take any point in the present universe and trace back its history, it would start out at the explosion point, and in that sense the Big Bang happened everywhere in space.” [Liddle, 44] Because we are trying to put inherently mathematical results into a pictorial language, we are generally forced to rely on analogies of some sort. “To use another common analogy, visualize the universe as the surface of a balloon on which the galaxies are distributed as spots. As the balloon is inflated, the spots will move away from one another. Clearly, there is no preferred position on the surface…..Note that the center of the expansion (i.e., the center of the balloon) is not in the space-time geometry of the two-dimensional residents of the two-dimensional surface of the balloon.” [Alpher and Herman, 18]
The big bang is the name for the initial event itself, and also for the cosmological model of which that event is a part. Ironically, the name “big bang” was coined by the opponents of the model in an attempt to discredit it. This initial event, however, despite the stunning successes of the cosmological model in accounting for physical observations, remains mysterious. As we extrapolate backward in time, we arrive at a point in time where the physics (namely, a proper theory of quantum gravity in which all forces are unified) is simply not understood. Although this time is very early (about 10-43 s after the initial event), we’re not quite there yet. Even worse, the conditions at the initial event itself may defy any physical meaning at all: described as a singularity, it is a mathematical point with infinite density and infinite temperature. No laws of physics as we usually conceive them could exist under such conditions. What, then, is the meaning of the model now? Finally, there is the rather puzzling status of space and time, neither of which exist until the initial event takes place. If this is so, where does the singularity point reside, since no space exists for it to reside in? Likewise, our very language forces us to talk about conditions prior to the big bang, a contradiction in terms if time “began” with the big bang event.
3B: Creation Myths
In this section, we will simply consider a few of the many hundreds of world creation myths, in order to develop a sense for the cultural roles they play in various contexts. A very ancient example is the Babylonian account given in the Enuma elish. The primal father and mother (Apsu and Tiamat) exist as personifications of the original chaotic waters. From their union, two further generations of gods arise. These new gods begin to impose order on the chaos, but this process of creation is opposed by Tiamat, who vows to destroy them and reassert the rule of chaos. Tiamat is challenged by Marduk, a powerful warrior god of the third generation, and Tiamat (who now has the form of a giant dragon-monster) engages Marduk in single combat. Marduk slays Tiamat, dismembers her body, and uses its parts to create the sky and the earth. Marduk then continues to complete the job of creation, including creating humans from the blood of Tiamat’s follower, Kingu. Scholars of myth have noted the possible psycho-sexual implications of this account, and also its interpretation as the victory of a patriarchal conqueror over a more ancient mother-goddess culture. A very similar set of themes are found in the Greek creation myth recounted in Hesiod’s Theogony, where the familiar story of Uranos (sky father) and Gaia (earth mother) giving birth to the Titans is told. The Titan Kronos revolts against his father Uranos, killing him and usurping his power. But the son of Kronos, Zeus, in turn revolts against him and the gods led by Zeus eventually defeat the Titans, resulting in the reign of order (relatively speaking) experienced by early Greek culture.
The creation of the world from the dead body of a being, found in the Enuma elish, is a theme found in many myths. This theme is often referred to as the Ymir motif, named after the frost giant Ymir from the Norse creation story. The Norse gods, led by Odin, defeat the frost giants and create the world from his dismembered body. “In stipulating the use of a corpse to engender something new, the Ymir motif introduces the cycle of birth, death, and regeneration that is central to earthly life.” [Stookey, 213] The Ymir motif is found in a variety of cultures, including the Aztec (the monster Tlaltecuhtli), the Hindu (the giant Purusha), the Kabyles (the giant Ferraun), and several others. A variant is found in the idea of a being who commits a voluntary act of self-sacrifice, dying so that his body can be used to further creation. Examples of this are the Chinese myth of the giant Pan Ku and the Japanese myth of the creator deity Izana-gi.
A very different motif, but also one that is inspired by first-hand observations of the world, is that of the primeval egg. Within this egg lies all the potentiality of the cosmos. In one of the Hindu versions of creation, for example, a cosmic egg floating on the primal waters contains Brahma, who emerges from it after a year of meditation and then creates the sky and the earth from the two halves of the shell. A similar tale is told by the Samoans, whose deity Tangaloa-Langi broke out of the egg and used the pieces of shell to create the Samoan Islands. Sometimes a god resides inside the egg, while in other cases the world itself is born directly from the egg, as in one of the Orphic creation traditions. The cosmic egg motif is fairly widespread, including myths from the Egyptians, Tahiti, Tibet, Sumatra, the Finnish Kalevala epic, the Persians, and the Phoenicians. In some versions, a mythical divine bird or other creature lays the egg, and sometimes the egg is broken open by a violent action or event. In a variant of the usual theme, humans are sometimes the creatures that emerge from the egg.
A related theme is that of the primal procreative act. An archetypal Father God and Mother Goddess join sexually and give birth to the world. We have already seen examples of this in the myths involving conflict between successive generations of gods. Many other cultures also offer examples of the motif. In Egyptian mythology, for instance, the sky goddess Nuit and the earth god Geb are the offspring of Shu and Tefnut and are the parents of Osiris and Isis (also of Set and Nephthys). In the Maori creation story, the sky father Rangi and the earth mother Papa give birth to six sons, who must separate their tightly joined parents and complete the final steps of creating the world. Here again, the psycho-sexual implications of such myths have been much commented upon, but they can also be interpreted more broadly in terms of the formation of dualities or polarities from initial unities and the rejoining of these fundamental polarities so as to create novelty and multiplicity. Such themes are found in Taoism and Cabala, for example, and the mythic renderings offer a more colorful pathway to the same ideas as the more austere religious philosophies offer. A variant of the primal parent motif is the case of human creation instead of world creation. The original parents of humanity may be divine, as in the Zuni creation story, or may be first-created humans themselves, as in the Navaho, Persian, and Biblical accounts.
Many of these stories don’t seem to start “at the beginning” but instead seem to presuppose some already-existing starting point. Often this starting point is some form of chaos, and this undifferentiated state is sometimes identified with a vast expanse of uninterrupted water. The imposition of order on chaos as the basic scheme of creation was used by Plato in his literary version of creation, the Timaeus. But in some creation myths, the initial state is a void and existence must be brought into being by a deity using whatever method the story specifies. “In the myths from many cultures, creator deities think, dream, speak, or sing the cosmos into being. ….for example, in the myths of the Laguna people of New Mexico…Thinking Woman conceives within her mind the original being of all that exists. Thinking Woman makes the world, including the thoughts and the names of all it contains…” [Stookey, 43] In some Gnostic creation stories, there is a sort of self-willing internal to God through which the world comes into being. Both in the creation stories of the Maori and in the Samkhya school in India, space forms spontaneously out of an initial void. The well-known account given in Genesis is usually interpreted as creation ex nihilo, but God does seem to bring the world into existence through the word (“Let there be light” and there was light). In the Cabala, there is a distinction between non-being (Ain) and the initial monadic point from which the rest of existence emanates (Kether), but any process by which the Ain gives rise to Kether is not specified. In the creation myths of the Zuni, “Awonawilona, the All-Container, is self-conceived. By His own volition, He comes into being, then thinks the outward forms of the cosmos, which until now is only void and black desolation. He becomes the sun, mists, clouds, and terra firma of the visible and tangible world.” [Freund, 36]
All of these myths are considerably more elaborate than the brief summaries I’ve given, and to really do justice to them they should be studied in more detail. The creation myths of complex and long-lasting civilizations like those of Egypt and India tend to be extremely elaborate, and the creation myths of virtually every culture contain far more than an account of origins. Explanations of various natural phenomena, both trivial (why the rabbit has short forepaws) and profound (why death exists) are often embedded within the creation narratives, along with explanations of the social order, moral order, and even eschatological expectations. The ancient cultural memories and unconscious archetypal projections that seem to lurk within these mythic stories can only be discussed thoroughly by examining the details of the stories themselves, despite the fairly obvious references to such themes that we’ve noted already in a broad general fashion.
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