Two conflicting concepts of the nature of time and space have competed for thousands of years. Modern science is at last on the verge of resolving the conflict one way or the other, and the ethical consequences may change the course of human development.
The Judeo-Christian myth of history is simple. In the beginning there was God. He created “the heavens and the earth” out of nothing. In the end he will destroy everything and create a new, eternal cosmological order that will be more to his liking.
Indo-European heathen cosmology, by contrast, is far more subtle. Our ancestors believed in a universe of endlessly repeated cycles.
Vedic tradition, for instance, conceives of “great cycles of Brahma” made up of 2,560,000 “mahayugas” of 12,000 tears each (1). Every cycle fits within another, larger one, and so the universe continues, endlessly renewing itself.
The Classical pagan philosophers inherited this Indo-European cosmology of eternal recurrence, which is most familiar today from Heraclitus, Empedocles, Plato, Aristotle, Virgil and the Stoics. It is an idea that is central to all intellectually developed forms of paganism.
In every ancient tradition there is also a purpose within the sequences of cycles. That purpose is embodied in the Gods, who are seen as beings within nature, rather than its creators. Typically, they strive against the forces of chaos to ensure that the initial Golden Age of each cycle will be higher than the one preceding it. The Gods therefore ensure that the endlessly recurring cycles spiral constantly toward a future that is more meaningful to us as humans.
This is the view of the earliest, least corrupted written account of our native cosmology, the Sanskrit Vedas. It is also the view of the last, somewhat corrupted written account, the Norse Eddas. In basic outline, the poetic or symbolic cosmological myths are often astonishingly similar. Thus, in the Vedic Hymn of Man, the Gods assemble our present world by dismembering the cosmic being Parusa. In the Eddas they assemble our world from parts of the cosmic being Ymir. In the Vedas the image of a great cow is often used as “a symbol of the inspiration implicit in the thought of the gods” (2). Snorri must have been familiar with some poem in which this image survived, judging by his confused introduction of the cow named Auðumla in Gylfaginning.
In neither tradition can the poets conceive any concept of meaningful order before the Gods emerged to structure our role in the universe. The Vedic Creation Hymn, for instance, reads in part (2): “There was neither non-existence nor existence then; there was neither the realm of space nor the sky which is beyond. What stirred? Where? In whose protection? Was there water, bottomlessly deep? … There was neither death nor immortality then. There was no distinguishing sign of night nor of day… There was impulse beneath; there was giving-forth above. Who really knows? Who will here proclaim it? Whence was it produced? Whence is this creation? The gods came afterwards, with the creation of this universe. Who then knows whence it has arisen?”
The corresponding section of Voluspá, discussing the time before the Gods, is only three terse lines (3):
[There] was no sand or sea, no surging waves,
Nowhere was there earth nor heaven above,
But a grinning gap and grass nowhere.
Although the most distant past is inconceivable, Voluspá presents the new beginning after Ragnarok as facilitating a higher stage of evolution, both of the Gods and of humanity
This heathen understanding of a guided unfolding of the universe toward a greater purpose was interrupted by the Judeo-Christian myth of time, in which God creates; God destroys; God re-creates, and his “new heaven and earth” constitute the end of history. The Judeo-Christian universe is static. Its laws are inflexible and unchanging – precisely because God made them that way.
Scientific discovery was immensely hampered by the Christian authorities, but nevertheless it happened, accruing many martyrs along the way. By the 19th century, scientific circles saw the universe as something like an enormous perpetual motion machine. It didn’t necessarily need a Christian God to start it off, it was without purpose, and it would probably eventually run down. This rather cheerless, mechanistic view was a partial step back toward our ancestral beliefs. At least the notion of a capricious creator God who stood outside nature was abolished. The path had been cleared for scientific investigation free of Judeo-Christian theology. Scientific thinkers, from Spencer and Haeckel to Rey (4), began to provide new evidence for the doctrine of eternal recurrence. Nietzsche considered it to be the fundamental issue of his philosophy, seeing it as “the way out of two thousand years of falsehood”.
Our modern cosmological thinking would have developed much further by now were it not for the theory of the Big Bang. According to recent science, the universe began with an explosion about 15 billion years ago. Before that there was no space, no time, no matter, no energy – there was absolutely nothing. Then, suddenly, everything was created ex nihilo. Once established at the moment of the Big Bang, the laws of physics became immutable. This concept is a return to something like the Biblical creation story, with the Universe itself taking the place of the Judeo-Christian God.
The Big Bang theory had little respectability until some of St Augustine’s ideas were revived in Einstein’s theory of relativity, re-affirming the idea of a static universe that came into being with time rather than in time. Einstein’s ideas were in a sense the culmination of the Judeo-Christian cosmology. They reigned supreme, with a lot of over-promotion for the sake of ethno-politics, until the 1960s. Quantum theory, with its discovery of hundreds of types of subatomic particles which behave in surprising ways, has shattered the rigid determinism of the Einsteinian or Judeo-Christian universe. Desperate attempts to reconcile the conflicting relativity and quantum theories are now being made, without noticeable success.
Another sign of progress is the articulation of the Strong Anthropic Principle, which states that: “The Universe must have those properties which allow life to develop within it at some stage in its history.” This implies that the universe has a grand purpose. As one author (5) explains: “Suppose that for some reason the Strong Anthropic Principle is true and that intelligent life must come into existence at some stage in the Universe’s history. But if it dies out at our stage of development, long before it has had any measurable non-quantum influence on the Universe in the large, it is hard to see why it must have come into existence in the first place.” With acceptance of the Anthropic Principle, no barriers remain to either (1) a universe embodying purpose, similar to the pre-Christian European concept of Wyrd, or (2) a universe given purpose by the Gods.
Despite all this progress, the Big Bang theory still remains the dominant cosmological model. Only a few scientists dare to question it. One was Fred Hoyle, the famous English astronomer. “The Universe didn’t start,” he said. “It’s infinite.” (6) According to Hoyle, the universe is eternal, with matter being continuously created at the centres of galaxies.
In 1996 a prominent Australian scientist challenged the Big Bang theory head-on, claiming that it is fundamentally flawed because it violates the first law of thermodynamics. The late Laser physicist Dr Len Hughes said, “You can bet that law is correct. Matter isn’t being created or destroyed. Every particle is unstable, changing constantly and cyclically in obedience to that law” In his book Laser Cosmology, Dr Hughes created a complete update of the cyclic universe of eternal recurrence – one that is infinite, unstable, without a creation point, constantly renewing itself through the birth and death of galaxies.
To simplify to the verge of caricature, Dr Hughes believed that giant clouds of gas condense into galaxies. After about 10 billion years the new galaxies themselves contract by gravity until the black holes at their core erupt into quasars. The quasars recycle matter back into huge gas clouds which will once again, in time, congeal to form new galaxies.
This new theory represents a complete return to the doctrine of eternal recurrence, by way of late 20th century physics. If Dr Hughes is correct, our ancestral heathen cosmology was correct. The Judeo-Christian or Einsteinian cosmology was therefore wrong.
Dr Hughes claimed that the evidence that is already available favours his theory, as against the Big Bang. He pointed out, for instance, that Big Bang cosmology cannot explain why there seems to be so little antimatter in the universe. The fact that we can see galaxies proves that they shed energy in all directions for 10 billion years. The inner galaxy must eventually contract to the point where the black hole at its core, where the “missing” antimatter has to exist, goes critical.
His work suggests that the old pagan (and Nietzschean) doctrine of eternal recurrence will be proven when lasers can be built that are sufficiently powerful to study photons. According to the Big Bang theory, photons must be stable, while in Dr Hughes’ theory they are as unstable as anything else in the universe. “I believe if we could isolate a photon from the surrounding universe, it would decay – into mass and other particles. It would show that a cyclical universe is possible.”
When will we have lasers powerful enough to settle the issue once and for all? By about the year 2015, according to Hughes. “They can call me crazy for the next 20 years,” he said, “but when there are big enough lasers they’ll change their tune.” (7)
If eternal recurrence is then proven to be an objective fact, the ethical consequences will be enormous. The fullness of life will again be recognised as both creation and destruction, joy and suffering, order and chaos – and as being beyond good and evil. Mankind will once again be seen to have absolute freedom, in contrast to the existentially meaningless automata to which we are reduced by the Judeo-Christian cosmology. Eternity will become the eternal Yea, rather than the endless and sterile subservience to God that Christianity envisages. And humankind will at last become a stage of evolution that exists to be surpassed, as prophesied in Voluspá.
1. Eliade, M, 1984. The Myth of the Eternal Return.
2. O’Flaherty, W.D. 1981. The Rig Veda: An Anthology.
3. Taylor, P.B. & Auden, W.H., 1969. The Elder Edda: A Selection translated from the Icelandic.
4. Rey, A. 1927. Le Retour Éternel et la Philosophie de la Physique.
5. Bowler, P.J. 1984. Evolution: The History of an Idea.
6. “World Without End”, New Scientist, 27/4/96.
7. “Physicist Challenges Big Bang Theory”, The Weekend Australian, 25-26/5/96.