Joel R. Primack Professor of Physics, University of California, Santa Cruz
There is no way to describe scientifically the origin of the universe without treading upon territory held for millennia to be sacred. Beliefs about the origin of the universe are at the root of our consciousness as human beings. This is a place where science, willingly or unwillingly, encounters concerns traditionally associated with a spiritual dimension.
For thousands of years people have wondered, speculated, and argued about the origin of the universe without actually knowing anything about it. In the closing years of the twentieth century, we’re learning enough to begin to peer across the gulf that separates our universe from its source at the beginning of-or perhaps before-the Big Bang. A story is emerging in modern cosmology that will, if it follows the pattern of earlier shifts in cosmology, change our culture in ways no one can yet predict. It is important to start now to speculate on the possible meanings for our time of this emerging cosmological story. Rather than assuming that science and spirit are separate jurisdictions, I assume that reality is one, and that truth grows and evolves with the universe of which it speaks.
Why is this important? In a speech given in July 1994, on the state of the world and its prospects, the Czech poet-president Vaclav Havel said that the planet is in transition. As vastly different cultures collide, all consistent value systems are collapsing. We cannot foresee the results. Science, which has been the bedrock of industrial civilization for so long, he said, “fails to connect with the most intrinsic nature of reality and with natural human experience. It is now more a source of disintegration and doubt than a source of integration and meaning…. We may know immeasurably more about the universe than our ancestors did, and yet it increasingly seems they knew something more essential about it than we do, something that escapes us…. Paradoxically, inspiration for the renewal of this lost integrity can once again be found in science…a science producing ideas that in a certain sense allow it to transcend its own limits…. Transcendence is the only real alternative to extinction.” 
Modern cosmology is now undergoing a foundation-building revolution as it seeks a verifiable description of the nature and origin of the universe. This revolution may require that we transcend previous notions of space, time, and even reality. This seems to me the kind of science Havel is hoping for-a science whose metaphors may illuminate not only the subject matter of its own field but possibly also problems of humanity and the earth from a cosmic perspective.
Every religion is a metaphor system, and like scientific theories, every religious myth is limited. Perhaps progress in religion can occur as it does in science: without invalidating a theory, a greater myth may encompass it respectfully, the way General Relativity encompasses Newtonian Mechanics. In the next few decades, powerful ideas of modern cosmology could inspire a spiritual renaissance, but they could also be totally ignored by almost everyone as irrelevant and elitist. In the worst of circumstances, they could be abusively interpreted and turned into a tool of exploitation-as some would contend that the medieval hierarchical cosmology was interpreted as a justification for a hierarchical organization of society in which the vast majority of people were oppressed. How well our cosmology is interpreted in language meaningful to ordinary people will determine how well its elemental stories are understood, which may in turn affect how positive the consequences for society turn out to be. There is a moral responsibility involved in tampering with the underpinnings of reality.
Anthropologists tell us that in virtually all traditional cultures, a cosmology is what gives its members their fundamental sense of where they come from, who they are, and what their personal role in life’s larger picture might be. Cosmology is whatever picture of the universe a culture agrees on. Together with the picture-upholding the picture-is a story that is understood to explain the sacred relationship between the way the world is and the way human beings should behave. Other cultures’ stories may not have been correct by modern scientific standards, but they were valid by their own standards, and they had the power to ground people’s codes of behavior and their sense of identity within a larger picture. This sense of identity may be part of what Havel feels has been lost.
If you ask a modern audience of people fascinated by cosmology but untrained in it to close their eyes and visualize the universe, some will report seeing endless space with stars scattered unimaginably far apart, others will see great spiral galaxies, and others will see an exotic scene such as the rising of an ember-red moon over an unknown planet. They do not realize that these are merely snapshots on a given scale of the universe-no more representative of the universe as a whole than is a single molecule of DNA or a moonrise over your own backyard. The strange fact is that in modern Western culture people have only the foggiest idea how to picture the universe, and certainly no consensus on it.
The lack of social consensus on cosmology in the modern world has caused many people to close off their thinking to large issues and long time scales, so that small matters dominate their consciousness. Of course, modern people do know much more about many things than members of isolated, traditional cultures, but we are not so different in our basic needs from people millennia ago. We have to get our sense of context somewhere. It is worth looking at earlier cosmologies and the cultures in which they held sway in order to understand how deep and in fact inextricable the connection is.
In Biblical times when people looked up at a clear, blue sky, they saw a transparent dome that covered the entire flat earth . It was an awesome object, created by God himself on the second day to hold back the endless quantities of blue water clearly visible above it. There was water above and water beyond the horizon; doubtless there was also water below. God had divided the waters “above” from the waters “below” by constructing this immense dome that held open the space for dry land. In ancient Egypt the dome had been the goddess Nut, who arched her back over the earth so that only her hands and feet touched the ground. She was the night sky, and the sun, the god Ra, was born from her every morning . In the Hebrew Bible the dome is called “raqi’a,” meaning a firm substance, and rendered in the King James translation as “the firmament”-a concept that cannot be understood independently of the flat earth cosmology in which it made sense. The firmament in Biblical times was understood to be firm only by the will of God. If God were angered, as everyone believed had actually happened in the time of Noah, “the windows of heaven” and “the fountains of the deep” could burst open once again and those lovely blue waters would destroy the earth. God was said to have promised not to do it a second time and to have sealed this covenant with the rainbow, but who could predict the behavior of God? A watery Sword of Damocles hung over every creature on the flat earth, and God held the threads.
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Cosmology and Culture – University of California, Santa Cruz