Must modern-day cosmologists be mythmakers to explain creation?
By Marcelo Gleiser
During the fall of 2004, while on a night flight from Boston to São Paulo to attend a conference on cosmology, I was greeted by an improbable pair of celestial objects aligned outside my window: the Moon, almost full, and Mars, still glittering orange-strong one month past its closest point to Earth in 60,000 years. Its simple symmetry stayed with me for a long time, resonating with some primal need we all share to search for meaning in the skies. Looking at a starry night, it is hard not to feel a deep connection with the cosmos, an irrational conviction that if we pry into its mysteries we will unveil something crucial about ourselves, perhaps our truest essence. The fact is, we try to make sense of the universe for an utterly selfish reason: to make sense of ourselves. For we know that its story is our story, and that it is the greatest of all stories.
In this we are no different from ancient sky-gazers: I am not aware of one culture that did not, through some mythic narrative, try to make sense of the sky above and the mystery of creation. The Amazon’s Yanomamis, the American Southwest’s Hopis, New Zealand’s Maoris, the Book of Genesis, the Babylonian Enuma Elish, Shiva’s creation dance, modern relativistic cosmology, all tell, each with its own symbolic imagery and tools, the story of the first birth, the birth of the cosmos itself. The richness of these narratives is staggering.1 Creation myths are held as the most sacred of all myths, bringing order and meaning to people’s lives, integrating their origin within the origin of the cosmos itself.
Children, before the hormonal onslaught of adolescence lowers their focus from the skies to the groins, always ask mythic questions: “Where does the world come from? Why do stars shine? How is it there are so many people and animals on Earth? What about in other planets?” Milan Kundera, in his novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being rightly wrote that the most profound questions are the ones that children ask.2 For oftentimes they are questions without answers, and as such define the limits of knowledge, pushing the boundaries of what it means to be human. Yanomami Indian or modern cosmologist, when it comes to the origin of the universe, we all feel as children. A relentless curiosity propels us forward, an existential itch that must be scratched. And scratching it we have been, the best way we can, from prehistory to today.
After reading hundreds of creation myths I realized they all fall within a simple classification scheme, based on how each answered the question “Did the world come to be at a specific moment in the past?” That is, “Was there a moment of creation?” The answer can only be “yes” or “no.” A “yes” means the universe has a finite age, just as we do; it appeared some time in the past and is still around today. A “no” can mean two things: either the universe has existed forever, an eternal, uncreated cosmos, or it is created and destroyed in a cyclic succession that repeats itself throughout boundless time. The Jains of India dismissed the idea of a world created by some god or gods as mere foolishness. They reasoned that if the world had always been, gods were unnecessary.
Hinduism’s dancing Shiva creates and destroys the world in eternally repeating cycles. Both ideas, uncreated and cyclic universes, re-emerged in twentieth-century cosmology with Einstein’s theory of general relativity, the one used to study the Big Bang. The germs of the ideas are essentially the same, mythic and scientific. Is science then simply rediscovering ancient wisdom? Sounds like the stuff one reads in countless New Age books that claim to find “parallels” between science and all kinds of mysticism, Far Eastern, Middle Eastern, Southwestern, etc. Tempting and profitable, but not so simple. The rules of theoretical cosmology are quite different from those of the sacred creation myths of the Jains and Hindus. For one thing, cosmological models must be empirically validated, tested against astronomical observations: in the end, there can only be one scientific creation story. But what about before a model is confirmed, when only math and physical intuition guide the scientist’s imagination? Is there a role for myth then? This is where things get more interesting. There are only a finite number of archetypical creation stories. I found five in total. The same five stories emerge across cultures, dressed in their own local colors. Science happens to be the narrative that defines our modern view of the cosmos.
This brings us to myths that choose a cosmos with a birthday. The overwhelming majority of myths fall into this category, which can be subdivided into three groups. Of these, one is by far the most popular: creation myths where the world is fashioned in some way by a god, goddess, or an assembly of gods. Genesis fits here. The cosmos is the result of a supernatural act, perpetrated willfully by a deity or deities.
The main message of these creation myths could be summarized as “from one the many.” Every creation story assumes the existence of something Absolute, godlike or not, that becomes or creates the relative, the reality we live in, with its polarized distinctions. This dissociation of absolute into relative is also true of scientific cosmic birth models.
Of course, taken at face value, a myth where creation is the result of divine intervention does not resonate with any modern scientific creation model. There is no such thing as supernatural phenomena in science, including the origin of the universe: either things happen, and are then amenable to a scientific description, or they don’t and thus are not the province of science. A phenomenon is by definition natural. The archetypical germ connecting science to myth here is of a more philosophical nature, the notion of unity as the essence of physical reality, the “from one the many” concept.
In physics, the notion of unity comes from geometry. The idea that the essence of nature is described by mathematics is the cornerstone of the physical sciences. But the notion that all physical phenomena may be reduced to a single unifying principle rooted in geometry is not. This belief can be traced back to Plato, who believed that truth could only be contemplated within the abstract world of geometrical forms. Platonism echoes strongly in the offices of theoretical physicists, especially those preoccupied with questions of cosmic origins. Stephen Hawking has equated understanding the origin of the universe to knowing “the mind of God.”3 The metaphor is no accident. God is the ultimate geometer. It is geometry.
Physics searches for ordered patterns in nature. Each ordered pattern is associated with a specific symmetry, such as the perfect symmetry of a sphere or that of the six-sided snowflake. Symmetries are also present in the way elementary particles of matter, the building blocks of physical reality, interact with each other. Those symmetries cannot be seen with the eye, but exist quite concretely in the mathematical formulation of the laws dictating how particles exert forces on each other. A physicist describes the world as composed of elementary particles of matter interacting under different forces. A century of experiments with particles led to a remarkable result: all manifestations of matter in nature can be described by combinations of only twelve elementary particles acting under the influence of four forces. Two of these forces are familiar—gravity and electromagnetism. Two are only active inside the nucleus—the strong and weak nuclear forces. But that’s it (at least so far): twelve particles and four forces, each with its own associated mathematical symmetry.
There is one more important concept in modern physics, that of a field. Every force has a field associated with it. A particle with a mass has a gravitational field around it. One with electric charge has an electric field around it. There is nothing ghostlike about fields, even though they are usually invisible. Think of them as music, flowing from an instrument that never stops playing. So, if there are four forces, there are four force fields, each with its own mathematical symmetry.
We can now go back to the search for unity in physics. The hope is that the four forces—or fields—observed in nature actually spring from one, the unified field. Imagine a majestic river that splits into four on its way to the sea. We live on the coast, where the four rivers run their separate courses. No one has ever swum far enough upstream. Those who tried have failed. But an ancient legend tells that if we could, we would see the four rivers merging into a single one. This belief sustains each new attempt.
The theory that attempts to unify all forces is known, humbly, as the Theory of Everything (affectionately named t.o.e. by its seekers). Einstein spent decades struggling to crack its secret. Hundreds of theoretical physicists around the world dedicate their professional lives to it. Although there are indirect observational reasons to pursue this idea, its main fuel is not empirical evidence but a deep-seated Platonic notion that all is one and that one is geometry. The key idea is that we live in an asymmetric world, described by four separate forces. However, as we probe reality at higher and higher energies—as we swim upstream—these forces start to behave more and more like a single force. At incredibly high energies, such as were only present during the first moments after creation, all forces were unified into one. In this sense, if we equate oneness with the creative force in the cosmos, the search for unified field theories springs from the same source as the “from one the many” creation narratives. This does not take away from the beauty and power of modern scientific narrative; it simply helps to contextualize it into a broader cultural perspective.
I recently invited Alex Vilenkin, a professor of physics from Tufts University, to give a colloquium at Dartmouth. Together with Hawking, James Hartle, and Andrei Linde, Vilenkin is one of the pioneers of quantum cosmology, the application of ideas from quantum mechanics to the universe as a whole. His colloquium was on the very controversial topic of anthropic reasoning and how it can help us understand why our universe is unique. Anthropic reasoning is a softer name for the so-called Anthropic Principle, which claims that the universe is the way it is because we are here: only a very special kind of universe could evolve in order to have intelligent observers asking questions about its origin and properties. Its premise is that we can use the fact we exist to learn quantitative things about the cosmos. Vilenkin made the case that we can actually use anthropic reasoning in a predictive fashion: he used it to justify the value of a mysterious component of the energy of the universe called “dark energy,” whose bizarre effect is to act as a kind of anti-gravity that pushes distant galaxies apart. Can we use anthropic reasoning to fix its value by saying that if it were any different we wouldn’t be here? Do we learn anything new from doing science this way?
Needless to say, anthropic arguments have met with much skepticism. In my book The Prophet and the Astronomer,4 I have equated it with the scientific equivalent of throwing in the towel: by accepting that the-universe-is-the-way-it-is-so-that-we-could-be-here as its starting premise, it stops people from asking truly fundamental questions. It drains science from its predictive power; it makes scientific understanding depend on the facts it’s supposed to explain and not passively accept. Our existence should be the end result of science, not its starting point. The anthropic principle places too much importance on humans, resonating with the “man is sacred” religious arguments. Not that Vilenkin or most of the defenders of anthropic arguments have a covert religious agenda. (Some do.) Quite the opposite, they claim that our universe is just one of an infinite collection of universes where things conspired to produce life. That is, we are just the odd case out there, an improbable statistical freak. The danger is that from anthropic arguments to the question “why are we special?” is a fairly automatic jump. Things get muddled together in the minds of many: this universe has evolved in a rather special way so that we, unique as we are, could be here. There is talk of “cosmic coincidences,” where only an old universe would be fit for life, since it takes billions of years for stars of the right size to evolve. In turn, coincidences breed thoughts of causes behind them, and the whole thing smells of teleology, a universe with a purpose. Anthropic arguments are worrisome. Apparently, there is a generation split; older folks are more easily attracted to it. Ask me in 10 years.
In our days of warring monotheistic fashions, it is refreshing that many creation myths do not assume an act of creation by an all-powerful supernatural being or a sense of cosmic purpose as their basic principle. Case in point, the second group of creation myths with a beginning states that the world came out of nothing. There were no gods, no time or space. Suddenly, out of a primordial urge to exist, the cosmos burst into existence on its own. An example of this kind of myth comes from the Maoris of New Zealand: “from nothing the begetting, from nothing the increase. . . .” Creation out of nothing is also the way modern cosmology describes the origin of the universe. Of course, the “nothing” here is quite different from that of the Maoris, which truly signified the absence of everything, including gods. The nothing of modern cosmology is based on the concept of a quantum vacuum, a nothingness pregnant with incessant creative activity.
It all started in 1900 when Max Planck proposed that atoms exchange energy the same way we exchange money, in multiples of a fundamental quantity, the quantum of energy. The quantum of the American monetary system is the cent: every financial transaction happens in multiples of this unit of currency. Before Planck, it was believed that all physical systems, from planets and bicycles to drops of water and atoms, absorbed and emitted energy continuously.
In 1913, Niels Bohr carried Planck’s idea into the inner structure of the atoms, proposing that electrons were only allowed to circle the atomic nucleus at certain fixed orbits, each with its own associated energy, like the rungs of a ladder. It all made sense: atoms only exchanged energy in little quantum packets because electrons could only jump between fixed energy levels, each jump related to a fixed quantum of energy or a multiple of it.
A question remained, though: why didn’t the electron fall into the nucleus? It was Bohr’s young assistant, Werner Heisenberg, who came up with an answer: the world of the very small is marred by an intrinsic uncertainty that makes it impossible to know precisely where something is at a given time: if you try to measure the electron’s position by interacting with it you end up bumping it somewhere else. To measure is to disturb. It is a slippery property of the quantum world, this uncertainty. Slippery and fundamental, for if you don’t know the electron’s position with precision, you also don’t know its energy. So, the electron is best pictured not as a little billiard ball, with a well-determined position in space, but as a wave-like entity, whose position is smeared across space. It doesn’t fall into the nucleus because it can’t fit there. In the world of the very small there is a residual quantum agitation that never goes away, a perpetual effervescence of being. This means that even empty space has fluctuations of energy, that the vacuum is never empty, that there is no such thing as absolute nothingness. Bring in Einstein’s famous E=mc2 formula, which says that energy and matter may be inter-convertible, and those fluctuations of energy may actually create, even if fleetingly, particles of matter. And if all there is in a universe is energy in different manifestations, these fluctuations may even create entire (tiny) universes. In the quantum world, there is no sharp boundary between being and becoming.
Armed with quantum uncertainty, we can present a version of how the creation-out-of-nothing cosmological narrative goes: “In the beginning, when the t.o.e. reigned supreme in its timelessness, there was a quantum vacuum, empty yet bubbling with evanescent energy fluctuations. This primordial soup was pregnant with infinitely many cosmic possibilities, each a potential universe, each a cosmoid. And they were of many kinds. Some, over-dense with energy, grew for a while before imploding upon themselves, victims of their own gravitational self-cannibalism. Others, emptier ones, expanded at a maddened pace, making it impossible for gravity’s inexorable pull to gather matter together into cosmic structures such as galaxies and stars. But one cosmoid, perhaps more, happened to have the right balance of attractive matter and expansive zest—a pin standing on its end—allowing it to survive for billions of years, its dynamical physical processes triggering the evolution of material forms of increasing complexity: nuclei, atoms, galaxies and stars, planets and intelligent observers. This cosmoid became our universe, a creation out of quantum nothingness, a causeless birth.”
There is one more group of creation myths with a beginning, completing the five archetypical answers to creation. These narratives state that before the world existed there was chaos, which embraced both creation and destruction in unstable tension. Order emerged spontaneously, and opposites were differentiated as creation unfolded. Creation always implies a polarization of reality. A Taoist myth from before 200 BCE starts: “In the beginning there was chaos. Out of it came pure light and built the sky. The heavy dimness, however, moved and formed the earth from itself. . . .” The formation of Earth is narrated as a self-starting dynamical process, a condensation from a heavy dimness. This idea resonates with modern descriptions of how galaxies, stars, and solar systems form as a result of large contracting clouds of matter—mostly hydrogen and helium gas sprinkled with heavier chemical elements. Large gas clouds contract due to their own gravity. Their added rotation causes them to flatten at the poles and to stretch at the equator, somewhat like pizza dough when it is spun. Lumpier spots—points of higher “condensation” (density) become stars while less lumpy ones planets. Is a Taoist creation myth scientific? Certainly not, as it has no intention of offering a quantitative, empirically validated, description of reality. The overlap is at most vaguely suggestive and the end results quite different. The point here is not to clip the scope of scientific creativity into a neat-fitting “nothing-is-ever-new” kind of scheme, but to argue that science, at least that concerned with questions of origins, belongs to an ageless tradition of meaning-seeking mythical narratives.
In order to be scientific, cosmology must in the end break away from its historical mythic roots. Myths cannot be contested rationally, but must be accepted by faith. To a Maori, a Yanomami, or a literal Christian, the myth is the uncontestable truth, God-given or shaman-revealed. Other mythic narratives are dismissed as false without a moment’s hesitation. There is no universality in belief. Much of the world’s history has been (and is being) written as a result of horrifying clashes between different creeds. Science, in turn, aims at being universally accepted. Its strength lies in its emphasis of having every idea empirically validated by laboratory experiments or astronomical observations.
For the past 10 years or so, we have been witnessing a true revolution in our understanding of the universe due to a number of enormously successful ground-based and space-borne missions. We now know that the universe is 13,800,000,000 years old—the time elapsed since the beginning—and that its geometry is flat or very nearly so. The Big Bang model describes a universe with a very dense and hot infancy. This much has been empirically validated and is a great triumph of modern cosmology. Does this mean that we have also understood its origin, that we can explain with confidence how the universe came to be? No. Cosmic infancy is not cosmic conception. The modern cosmological narrative has elements of the three classes of myths with a beginning: the belief in a unifying principle, the concept of a creation out of (quantum) nothing, and the notion of growing order to form increasingly more complex localized structures such as galaxies and stars. So far, only this last aspect has been shown to be correct. What about the origin of the universe itself? Does the current cosmic birth narrative, in the shape of a mathematical model of the cosmos, have predictive power? Can it be validated as other scientific theories, or are we dealing with something new here?
This is where things start to get messy. It is really hard to come up with present-day consequences of things that happened during the first cosmic heartbeats. There are some possible effects, but they are extremely hard to measure. Maybe things will change in the future, but for the moment, most models opt for the second-best approach: concordance—only those models that lead to a universe with characteristics similar to the one we live in are acceptable. It is an obvious strategy. As wrote Sir Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal of Great Britain, “[the theory] must be perceived to have a unique inevitability about it—a resounding ring of truth that compels assent.”5 Ideally, the models being proposed by cosmologists are not only in mere accordance with our universe. They should also predict something new and unseen, perhaps a new kind of particle or radiation that will help prove them right or wrong. The hopes are high. A whole fantastic bestiary of possible cosmic inhabitants has been proposed (some admittedly by this author), consequences of different cosmological models. We know they exist, but we don’t know yet what they are. Our eyes, however, telescopic and otherwise, are wide open. Not having all the answers is actually a very healthy thing. It is a precondition for learning more. Science thrives on crisis.
At the apex of plausible narratives sits the origin of the universe itself. The starting point we know: our universe must be unique, because it was one cosmoid out of the primordial quantum soup that survived long enough to house stars, planets, and people. It is a commonly accepted notion that we must be rare, that most cosmoids never grow into anything worth thinking of. At least according to anthropic reasoning. Of course, we have no clue if this is true or not, as we cannot step outside our expanding cosmoid to visit neighboring ones. The argument states that there could be countless, perhaps infinitely many, cosmoids out there, each with its own set of physical properties. In that case, as we have seen, our universe, our existence, would be the result of a mere statistical accident. We are unique because we belong to the tiny subset of cosmoids that can harbor life. And, perhaps more to the point, because we are the ones who create the theories that try to explain our existence. Andrei Linde, who embraces the anthropic reasoning, advanced the concept of a “multiverse,” the absolute meta-entity that spends eternity birthing cosmoids, most doomed to an ill-fated, ephemeral, existence. We don’t know how such an idea could ever be tested. Perhaps some of its very indirect consequences could, but that would not be strong evidence, only circumstantial. At the very beginning of time, the boundary between science and myth gets blurry.
Does this mean that cosmologists trying to explain creation are modern-day mythmakers? My contention is that we have no choice but to be mythmakers. However, there is a key distinction from faith-based mythmaking: in cosmology, the myths are necessary only to sustain the scientific creative process, acting as catalysts to the imagination. They stand out there, a distant magic mountain that must be reached by braving the territory in between. The science—the good stuff—is what comes out of this exploration. If we were to ever reach the mountain, it would stop being magical and become real. If this final goal were to be reached, myths would have no role left, as we would finally have discovered the rational model of reality that has all the answers. Unless, of course, this meta-theory is a Holy Grail. At this point, we do not know. Meanwhile, its luminous image sustains the search. It is no coincidence that Nobel-Prize winning physicist Steven Weinberg called his book describing the search for a unified field theory Dreams of a Final Theory. In his words, “We have to assume we shall succeed, otherwise we surely shall fail.”6 The power of a myth lies not in its reality, but in its believability.
- A valuable collection of creation myths with commentary can be found in Barbara C. Sproul’s Primal Myths: Creation Myths Around the World (HarperSan Francisco, 1979).
- Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being (Faber and Faber, 1984), 139.
- Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes (Bantam, 1988).
- Marcelo Gleiser, The Prophet and the Astronomer: Apocalyptic Science and the End of the World (W.W. Norton, 2003).
- Martin Rees, Before the Beginning of Our Universe and Others (Perseus Books, 1997), 159.
- Steven Weinberg, Dreams of a Final Theory: The Search for the Fundamental Laws of Nature (Pantheon, 1992).
Marcelo Gleiser is the Appleton Professor of Natural Philosophy at Dartmouth College and author of The Dancing Universe: From Creation Myths to the Big Bang (Dutton, 1997, 2005); and The Prophet and the Astronomer (W. W. Norton, 2002). He is currently working on a biographical novel of Johannes Kepler, whose mytho-poetic vision was the driving force behind his groundbreaking science.