Cosmologies: Mythic and Scientific

The Greek word “cosmos” means order and a cosmology is an attempt to account for the order or lawfulness of the world, with a particular emphasis on its origin. 

Virtually all of the cultures that have been studied by anthropologists have had a cosmology of some kind. These cosmologies are presented in the form of myths, and we might also say that it is characteristic of myths that they present elements of a cosmology. These myths range from the relatively simple, earthy myths that are found in many Native American cultures, to the grandiose myths of India, ancient Greece, and the three religious systems that arose in the Levant. Many of these cosmologies, and the myths in which they are expressed, seem quaint or even ridiculous to us. But these cosmologies are very important, indeed sacred, to the people who hold them.

There is perhaps no place where the naturalist feels the superiority of the scientific point of view more than in comparing the scientific cosmology to the mythic. It is not only that scientific cosmology has greater empirical validity, but that it also has a grandeur that surpasses all but a few mythic cosmologies.

But before we get too smug about that superiority, it is important to note that these mythic cosmologies serve a different purpose than our scientific cosmology. Mythic cosmologies provide a common understanding of the world for the people that hold them. Like our scientific cosmology they attempt to make sense of the physical world, but they also provide people with a system of ethics and a sense of orientation, as well as an underpinning for a religious life and a mythic basis for the the rituals through which that religious life is expressed. I think it fair to say that scientific cosmology does not do this, at least for most people.

Although the scientific world view attempts to provide us with a common understanding of the world, it has largely failed to do so. The scientific world view, what some have called “Big History,” is just too complex for many people. To get comfortable with this cosmology, one needs to be fairly intelligent and curious, have considerable education and learning, and time to study and think. Most people lack some or all of these. 

Mythic cosmologies are generally much simpler and can be understood by most of the members of a culture. Add to this the fact that scientific cosmology fails to provide many with a sense of meaning, a common morality, and a basis for spiritual practice and growth and it’s not hard to see why even in modern societies, traditional religions and the various forms of New Ageism abound.  

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In an earlier article, I suggested that the large questions that humans perennially ask fall under three headings: what is the nature of the world, what is the nature of the human soul, and what is the relationship between the two. Mythic cosmologies often work out an integral account of all three of these questions. Again, we might find these accounts inadequate by our standards, but they worked for the people living within these cultures. They helped many cultures survive, endure and even prosper over long periods of time. 

Mythic cosmologies take the reality and importance of the human soul for granted; it is the starting point of all further inquiries. (“Soul” here mean our subjective being or inner self and carries no further implications.) Modern scientific cosmology, to the contrary, attempts to establish a view point outside of human subjectivity. In its methodology, it attempts to eliminate the soul as much as possible from its inquiries.

Based on this methodological concern, the second and third perennial questions listed above are outside the scope of science. Some scientists go so far as to describe human awareness, the soul, as an epiphenomenon – something not quite real. (Given that the scientific enterprise is a value-based activity of active, knowing minds, this view seems a bit contradictory — if the mind is not really real, why would we consider the findings of this mind, scientific or otherwise, real?)

The physicist Steven Weinberg stated that “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.” Given that meaning and significance belong to the soul (human, but perhaps also animal), what other result would we expect when we have eliminated the soul from our cosmology? So I have to ask: Is this alleged pointlessness actually true of the universe, or is it simply a consequence of the particular perspective from which science approaches the universe?

If the soul is eliminated at the base of the scientific enterprise, is it any surprise that it is absent from the world science discovers (and to a certain extent, invents)? Perhaps the discoveries of science would appear in a different light if we approach them taking the soul as a part of the universe, as it is in the mythic cosmologies.

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Lee Smolin has noted that the cosmologist is in a rather interesting methodological position. In general, the scientific method separates the investigator from the subject investigated – the scientist is outside the subject of his of her study. But this doesn’t work for a cosmologist. By definition, the cosmos or universe is all that there is, there is no outside, and thus no outside viewpoint. The cosmologist that studies is a part of the cosmos that is being studied.

We might say that the cosmologist is that part of the cosmos that studies and seeks to understand itself. This, of course, is a terribly unscientific way of putting it, but it brings back into the cosmological picture those two elements common to mythic cosmology but missing from the scientific: the nature of the soul and the relationship between soul and the world.

We really have no idea why such a thing as our little soulful beings have been brought forth by the cosmos. It could be pure accident, as materialists tend to believe, or it could be that the whole reason the universe exists is to generate beings such as us. Or it could be a little of both, or perhaps the whole thing is beyond our comprehension. It’s a mystery, but here we are!

Contemplating the cosmos with the understanding that we are a part of the very thing that we are contemplating, opens an interesting perspective on the relationship between the world and the soul. It brings us a little closer to the intimacy that people feel towards mythic cosmologies. “Intimacy,” now there is a word you don’t often hear associated with the scientific world view.

“Rekindling an intimacy in the relationship between your soul and the world,” perhaps that could be a slogan for the Spiritual Naturalist Society.

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The Spiritual Naturalist Society works to spread awareness of spiritual naturalism as a way of life, develop its thought and practice, and help bring together like-minded practitioners in fellowship.

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