Throughout history, there have been many attempts to explain the origin and workings of our universe.


Throughout history, there have been many attempts to explain the origin and workings of our universe. Most every culture has its own cosmogony. Nearly every individual has his or her own idea of what our universe is. During our modern era of advanced scientific knowledge, we feel that we have a good grasp on how the universe works. We have our Chemistry and Physics, along with Mathematics, to examine the universe with. Any person educated in these fields will tell you that they know our universe. The point is science in the modern era is thought to be the correct summation of the universe. We think we are right. Does this make everyone else wrong?

Those who believe in myth over science, are they wrong? These are some of the questions that I will be discussing in this essay. I will examine the evolution of cosmological thought in Ancient Greece (Pre-Socratics through Aristotle). In doing this, I will show a movement from myth to more science based cosmologies. I will then examine the Buddhist Cosmology, which is somewhat separated from Ancient Greek thought. After all of this, I will examine the question of which is more correct, Science or Myth. Before continuing a clear definition of “myth” needs to be established. The term myth has multiple meanings. Webster’s II Dictionary, defines it the three different ways. “1. A traditional story that deals with supernatural beings, ancestors, or heroes who serve as primordial types in a primitive view of the world. 2. A real or fictional story that appeals to the consciousness of a people by embodying its cultural ideals or by giving expression to deep commonly felt emotions.

3. A fictitious or imaginary person, idea, or thing.” For the sake of this essay, I would like the second definition to apply to my use of the word myth. The term myth should not be thought of as fictitious or primitive. The possibility for the myth to be real should always be considered. Some of the earliest known philosophies on the creation of the Earth come from the works of Hesiod. In his Theogony he attempts to explain the creation of the Earth, and all that surrounds him, using myth. In the myth Hesiod anthropomorphizes the cosmos. He tells of “Chaos” being the first to come into being, then he goes on to describe how each of the gods of the cosmos comes in to being. The gods of the cosmos are all related to some characteristic of our universe.

They can be physical parts or concepts (similar to Plato’s idea of the forms). For example the line, “Earth first bore starry Heaven, equal to herself, to cover her on every side, and to be an ever-sure abiding-place for the blessed gods.”(Theogony, 126) describes both the act of birth, which is a human characteristic, and physical parts of the universe being gods (Heaven meaning the stars, and the Earth). He also has gods, such as Eros, which represents the concept of Love. Two main issues the come up during discussions of cosmology are how the universe was created and out of what was the universe created. In the Theogony, Hesiod has the world created out of gods that are human by nature and to create this universe the gods reproduced. Hesiod’s theories of the universe can clearly be classified as myth, since there is no scientific background for it. The philosophers to follow Hesiod moved slightly away from this. The Pre-Socratics begin to de-anthropomorphize the universe. Even later, in the works of Socrates and Plato, the universe is completely de-anthropomorphized. The Pre-Socratics focus more on what the universe was made of than how it was created.

They typically chose a single element that everything consisted of and tried to explain the world according to that element. Sometimes these elements were one of the basic four elements; earth, fire, air, and water. Sometimes they were more abstract such as Anaximander’s theory. “…The principle element of existing things was the aperion… it is neither water nor any other of the so-call elements, but some other aperion nature, from which come into being all the heavens and the worlds in them.”(Hetherington, pg. 58) The Pre-Socratics based their theories on insight and observations. For this reason their theories are both mythical and scientific. Because some of their choices of what the key element is are based on instinctive feelings, they can be considered myth. On the other hand, they support their ideas through observations and experience making the ideas scientific. Science is defined one way in Webster’s II Dictionary to be “Knowledge that is acquired through experience.” The Pre-Socratics were not completely scientific because not everything they theorized was based on experience, but they were not as mythical as Hesiod either.

Aristotle’s concept of the universe was mostly scientific. Since Aristotle was the tutor of Alexander the Great, he had access to a wide variety of cultures. By gathering information from all of these cultures, he was able to analyze the world from a scientific perspective. He came up with four fundamental theses to the universe. 1.) The universe was Geocentric, Earth centered. 2.) The universe contained two separate worlds, one that spanned out to the moon and it was ever changing, and another that was from the moon out that was unchanging and made of the fifth element (ether). 3.) The universe did not consist of any void or empty space within the inner world. 4.) The only motion of the planets was that of uniform circular motion around the center of the universe. More important than Aristotle’s four theses were the scientific methods he used to establish them. For example, in determine that there was no void, Aristotle argues, “If water were twice as thick as air, an object should move through water with half the speed it moved through air. But void with no thickness made such a ratio nonsense; it meant dividing by zero.” (Hetherington, pg. 99) From examining the history of cosmology in Ancient Greece, it becomes clear that there was an evolution away from myth and towards science. What are some of the reasons of why this could be? A likely answer is that the evolution came about out of an adaptation to the environment. Ancient Greece was a very volatile area to be a part of. Greece was established in an area mainly known for warring.

A history of Ancient Greece is mostly a timeline and description of the various types of war that occurred there. Because of this factor, the need for science increased. Aristotle spent his time studying the natural environment. By doing so he could make fairly reliable predictions (some of which we still believe to be true today) of the physical world. If one can predict the workings of the physical world, they will have a better chance of succeeding in battle. The constantly active environment in Greece lead to the development of science, but what results would we find in a civilization that did not have interaction with others? To examine this question, I will break down the Buddhist Cosmology and see the affects of the near isolation from Western civilization.

The Buddhist cosmology is summed up as, “a single, circular world system surrounded by a mountain of iron… above this circular surface is a series of four meditations (dhy-ãna) or “meditation realms” as they are generally designated. The successive divisions of the meditation realms into seventeen heavens mark the progress of the srãvaka… Detachment from all the mediation realms through the practice of meditation eventuates in the extinction of nirvãna.” (Kloetzi, pg. 3) Given this information about the Buddhist cosmology, it is clear that their world is more focused on the spiritual than the physical. It is described in a physical manner (mountain of iron), but all of the different stages of the world are attainable through mediation and spiritual growth. It is clear that the Buddhist did not believe that the world they were describing was the world we see with our eyes. They believed that they were describing a world that was beyond our own perception. The world wasn’t something that we can view with our senses, but instead it could only be understood through meditation. Buddhist beliefs about the workings of the universe were also very spiritually centered. “Everything we apprehend in the world is mere illusion.” (French, pg. 61) This statement was considered the core truth behind human interaction in the world. If everything in the world were an illusion, then it would be impossible to use science to determine the workings of the universe. Science could only be used to predict how the illusion will act and respond to different situations. With this concept brought to life, the only thing that could be used to explain the universe is myth.

A Buddhist parable about a man walking through the forest helps describe their belief of reality in the world. It is summed up as follows. “A man is walking a narrow path in a sun-dappled forest. Before his on the path, amid the leaves and streaks of light, he suddenly sees a very large coiled snake. Shocked and afraid, he noiselessly turns to hide behind a tree and waits, anxiously aware of the great danger. In time, he ventures a look around the tree once more and refocuses his eyes. He focuses again. Then he comes back to the path and stares down at the snake. He sees that it is not a snake but a heavy, coiled rope in front of him. With a wave of relief, he bends down to pick it up and finds that the rope, worn with age, disintegrates in his hands into tiny strands of hemp.” (French, pg. 61) This parable shows the three levels of reality according to the Buddhist tradition. The first level is that of the reality we perceive with our senses, the physical world we interact with everyday. This world is the illusion of the snake. The second level of reality is still somewhat illusionary. In the second level we will see things as they relate to the third level of reality. The reasons for the illusion of the first reality become clear in the second reality. In the third reality the truth is found. This third reality is on the level of nirvãna and is only reached through a lifetime, or many lifetimes, of meditation. Multiple lives, reincarnation, is another important aspect of the Buddhist thought.

The idea of karma plays a major role in the lives of Buddhists. “In Buddhism, an individual experiences rebirth into this world and begins the volitional production of both good and bad karma, or lay, which will determine his or her future rebirth and chances for enlightenment.” (French, pg. 63) To reach enlightenment is the highest standard for the Buddhists, which might be why nirvãna is placed on the outer most edge of their world. To reach enlightenment one must have developed a high level of good karma. Those that do not reach enlightenment in their lifetime are reborn into the world, and the life given to them is based on the level of karma they were at when they died. This makes karma not only important because it is the way to reach enlightenment, but also because it will provide a better life. After discussing the cosmogonies of different cultures, we have come across to different methods of thought. These being, myth and science.

We have seen the Greek thought move from myth to science, and we have seen the Buddhist thought focus in on myth. The question arises, which method of thought is better or more accurate? Ask an astronomer or a physicist, and they will probably tell you that science is more accurate. Ask a Buddhist monk or a Zen master and they might tell you that myth is better (if the definition of myth is presented to them properly). The physicist will argue that science has evolved so far that we can accurately predict the motion of the planets, we can explain the process of recreation, etc. This is a very strong argument for using science to explain the universe. The Buddhist monk will reply that we only believe that we know those things and that it is just a part of the illusion of the first reality. This won’t convince the physicist, but it does open another door. A person who opens their minds to all the possibilities will not be able to rule out the idea that everything we perceive could simply be an illusion presented to us. Science itself could be the illusion. If the entity that set up the illusion (if there is one) wanted the illusion to be believable, they most likely would place a set of laws on the illusion to keep it consistent. These laws could be the laws that we are now discovering and calling science. This is just one of many possible arguments for myth being the method of explanation of the universe. A scientist might not agree and say that this argument is implausible, but their only evidence against it would be the science that has been declared illusionary. By no means am I stating that myth is the proper method of explaining the universe. I am merely stating that it, and science, are possible explanations. Which one to believe in is complete up to the individual.


Bibliography: Hetherington, Norriss S. Cosmology : Historical, Literary, Philosophical, Religious, and Scientific Perspectives. New York & London: Garland Publishing, Inc, 1993. French, Rebecca Redwood. The Golden Yolk : The Legal Cosmology of Buddhist Tibet. Ithaca & London, Cornell University Press, 1995. Kloetzli, Randy. Buddhist Cosmology. Delhi, Motilal Banarsidass, 1983.

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