A father and his two-year-old son had the following conversation one night
when the child was getting ready for bed:
Son: Dad, where do things come from?
Father: You mean like the things in this room?
Son (waving his hands to include the surroundings): No, everything. Where do we come from, and what happens to us after we die? Why are we here? How and when did the earth and the universe begin? These cosmological (or origins) questions arise early in human consciousness —both developmentally speaking, as the story with the father and son illustrates, and in terms of human history, as discussed in the previous section of the encyclopedia. Religions are built around answers to these questions; scientists are deeply engaged in them, and science and religion converge, conflict, and compromise on them to varying degrees.
Although the essays in this section directly address cosmological questions, most sections of the encyclopedia also at least touch on them in some way. Many authors in the General Overviews and Historical Perspectives sections explore how people synthesize religious and scientific views to prevent conflict or demonstrate consensus. Why we ask cosmological questions in the first place is explored in the sections on Consciousness, Mind, and the Brain; Genetics and Religion; and Ecology, Evolution, and the Natural World. Many issues discussed in Health and Healing and in Death and Dying are rooted in the answers different disciplines and religions have to these fundamental questions.
In this section we have brought together scholars from history, physics, philosophy, religion, art history, African studies, ethics, and the history of science and technology. They hail from the United States, the Netherlands, Africa, Canada, Italy, and Israel. Each gives a small taste of the ideas in this area of origins questions and how those ideas integrate with and challenge elements of both science and religion.
Of course, for nearly all of the time humans have existed, we had no need to integrate, accept, ignore, embrace, or reject science, because there was no science as we know it. Explanations of cosmological questions were looked at, one imagines, less as “explanations” and more as “the way it is.” Marcelo Gleiser, a professor of physics and astronomy, traces the first glimmers of thinkers thousands of years ago who began to address origins questions, and he follows those glimmers as they gain energy and slowly move away from the supernatural through Aristotle, the Enlightenment, Einstein, to the quantum and expanding universe models of today.
Gleiser also examines the power of myth in creation stories then and now, and Hazel Ayanga as well as Gloria Emeagwali and Ayele Bekerie, scholars in African studies, lead readers through African tribal creation myths in other essays—exploring parallels and similarities across many of these stories. Historian Stephen Snobelen looks specifically at the Judeo-Christian Bible and the views of nature and cosmology developed therein. These writers begin to explore in what ways the original cosmological explanation stories have held sway and still greatly influence the views and day to day lives of Africans and Westerners, despite scientific discoveries and the mixing in of other religions and cultures and their accompanying explanation stories.
But what does happen when modern science challenges culturally ingrained answers to cosmological questions? One unquestionable principle, for example, was that the earth was at the center of our astronomical universe, and the sun and other planets moved around it. In separate essays, philosopher Mariano Artigas and Stephen Snobelen write of two great figures who straddled ancient and modern science, Galileo and Newton. Although both men’s science was profoundly affected by their spiritual beliefs, they ironically became iconic representatives of modern science—that practice intentionally devoid of religion.
Artigas points out that the famous case of Galileo and the Catholic Church, although historically critical perhaps in establishing in the West a “science versus religion” paradigm, was actually less about science and religion than about politics. Snobelen explores recent discoveries relating to Newton’s personal beliefs (including his significant immersion in alchemy, a school of thought addressed by Gardenour in her essay on the female body in Historical Perspectives), their effects on his science, and the myth-making by his fellow scientists surrounding his groundbreaking work. The beginnings of a “science versus religion” conceptual framework were emerging. The very concept of science versus religion, especially in the discussion of creation and evolution, appears to be an especially nonproductive idea. As noted in the introduction to the first section, our goal is to explore but also move beyond such conflict. In this section, essays engage both religious and scientific ideas to discuss, analyze, and come to some conclusions about cosmological questions. Theodore Schick Jr., Victor Stenger, Jeffrey Koperski, and Gerald Schroeder take aim at this challenging goal, using different approaches and different cosmological questions as entry points.
If the universe was created by God, gods, or the Big Bang, what was there beforehand? Schick, a philosopher, discusses this question and its implications for both science and religion. Stenger, a physicist and philosopher, dissects the anthropic principle, a concept that unites ideas from the realms of both physics and the spiritual. This theory argues that, yes, science is right, but with the slightest change in the physics or chemistry of our world before, during, or after the Big Bang, life and humans could not have arisen, thus opening the door to a nonscientific force that might have been responsible for creating the just-right conditions.
Koperski, a philosopher, writes on creationism and its different philosophical flavors throughout history. These move on a spectrum from varying degrees of acceptance of scientific ideas to outright rejection; different versions have waxed and waned in the past centuries. Schroeder, a physicist and biblical scholar, has no problem seeing agreement between modern science and the Old Testament, and he gives several intriguing illustrations. For example, he calculates that the early “days” of the universe were much longer than current days because, according to Einstein’s theory of relativity, time took longer directly and soon after the Big Bang. Thus, the six days of creation are actually about the right amount of time science says it took to get what we have today.
Philosopher and ethicist Willem Drees takes a different tack. He suggests that science and religion be left as they are and that we develop a new cosmology or mythology, rooted in science and religion, that reflects the best of both. His discussion recalls many of the essays in the opening General Overviews section of the encyclopedia. Finally, Rex Koontz, an art historian, shows how ancient Mesoamerican views of space and the cosmos are directly reflected in the architecture of those cultures and the designs of their towns and open spaces. His essay strikingly illustrates how critical our seemingly abstract discussions of cosmological questions are, and how they are concretely reflected in our everyday lives.