Review of Paul Brockelman’s “Cosmology and Creation”

Review of Paul Brockelman’s “Cosmology and Creation”

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Below is a review of Paul Brockelman’s new book Cosmology and Creation: The Spiritual Significance of Contemporary Cosmology (Oxford University Press, 1999). Brockelman is a professor of religion and philosophy at the University of New Hampshire writing about scientific cosmology.The review is written by Mark Stuckey, a professor of physics at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania.

Stuckey departs from Brockelman on some points of sciences and ethics. For instance in one section below, Stuckey discusses how General Relativity Theory renders spacetime always atemporal. Because the cosmos is universally present in the view of General Relativity, the narrative of Big Bang Cosmology may not be developmental. Overall, however, Stuckey agrees with Brockelman that “education is disciplinarily balkanized, and share[s] his enthusiasm for the potential of … cosmology to unify education spiritually and scientifically.”

— Editor


Paul Brockelman is University Professor of Religious Studies and a professor of philosophy at the University of New Hampshire. His previous work includes The Greening of Faith: God, the Environment, and the Good Life. In the eight well-structured chapters of Cosmology and Creation, he constructs a cosmology nucleated on Big-Bang cosmology (BBC).

By cosmology I mean, “A comprehensive view of all reality, attending to both the nature of the whole and also to the place of all parts within the whole. The origin, order, meaning, and destiny of all that exists are key issues in a cosmological system, as is also the question of what this ‘reality’ in fact embraces” (Mercer’s Dictionary of the Bible, Mercer University Press, edited by Watson E.Mills, 1990, p. 175). Brockelman’s definition of cosmology—”the study of the origins and development of the universe over twelve to fifteen billion years”—is by comparison restricted, but is that employed widely by physicists (whence the “C” of BBC). On the definition of cosmology we differ, but on its classification as “story” we agree.

In fact, I further argue that cosmology (per his definition or Mercer’s) should not be classified as science. One can hardly argue with Timothy Ferris that BBC is “the ultimate history story” (The Creation of the Universe, produced by PBS Home Video, edited by Bob Estrin and Lisa Day, 1985), and contrary to the popular maxim, history does not repeat itself. By any reasonable definition, science is a study of reproducible phenomena, thus cosmology (as with any study of history) is not a science. This led Rosen to state that “if someone prefers the biblical description of the coming into being of the universe, for example, or any other description couched in mythic terms, science cannot object. It really can do no better” (Joe Rosen, The Capricious Cosmos, Macmillan Publishing Company, 1991, p. 4). Having addressed these semantical issues, let me attempt a brief overview of Brockelman’s cosmology.

According to BBC, the universe began in a singular state—infinite density and temperature—which is called the “Big Bang.” Since its “birth,” the universe has evolved increasingly complex aggregates of matter to include consciousness-harboring entities. Today, through this consciousness, the universe is self aware. This awareness enables the universe to recognize ‘being,’ and it is the power ‘tobe’ which is the essence of God. Further, via consciousness, one may ascend to a mystical appreciation of ‘being.’ It is in the context of this enlightened state whence moral imperatives, ethics, and educational goals are to be addressed. Brockelman’s suggested core curriculum and ethics piqued my interest, but I comment first on points not made in the book.

Perhaps since the vast majority of physicists working in cosmology employ some version of BBC, alternatives such as Steady State cosmology receive no mention in Cosmology and Creation. In this sense, Brockelman’s cosmology may be as fragile as Aristotle’s which was precariously dependent upon geocentricism. Further, the”unfolding universe” of Brockelman’s cosmology is but one (dynamical) interpretation of BBC while general relativity (GR, the parent theory to BBC) admits non-dynamical alternatives.

This is because—contrary to what is often reported—spacetime is not dynamic in GR. That is, spacetime doesn’t ‘do’ anything. Neither is it “static.” Each point of the spacetime manifold “is,” “was,” and “will be” relative to some other point(s) of the manifold under various foliations into space-like hypersurfaces, i.e., collections of universal “presents.” As a whole, spacetime is an atemporal structure (cf Willem Drees, Beyond the Big Bang: Quantum Cosmologiesand God, Open Court Publishing, 1993, p. 237 – 238). It is this view of spacetime which prompts Nerlich to write:

“The first of these metaphysical beliefs is well known, in philosophy at least, as the Myth of Passage of Time. The image of time’s passage or flow is the image of an ontically preferred time (the present) moving along a space-like dimension in which events lie ordered (which I will call supertime). The myth of passage is thus tied to deep, but generally inarticulate beliefs which give rise to a picture on which there is a dualism (or a still higher ascending regress) of times” (What Spacetime Explains, Cambridge University Press, 1994, p.233).

Thus, relativity suggests that presentism (the existence of preferred space-like hypersurfaces/universal “nows”) is spatio-temporal “solipsism” (Paul Davies, About Time, Simon & Schuster, 1996).

Perhaps more problematic for dynamism is quantum non-locality which may intimate spacetime be reduced via pregeometry. Accordingly, “the features of the conventional space-time, such as its continuity, dimensionality, and even causality and topology, should not be present from the beginning, but should emerge naturally in the transition process from pregeometry to the usual space-time dynamics of our conventional physical theories” (J. Demaret, M. Heller, and D.Lambert, 1997, “Local and Global Properties of the World,” Foundations of Science 2: 137 – 176). In this case, trans-temporal objects, e.g., cars, people, and subatomic particles, are not fundamental elements in the description of reality.

This obtains because a local association of events via the tangent space to the spacetime manifold is implicit in the construct of trans-temporal objects. As an analogy, consider the construct of “aman’s image” on a film strip. The construct of a trans-temporal object (single image) is obtained as we map right index finger to right index finger, left thumb to left thumb, etc., frame by adjacent frame. But quantum non-locality with its correlated space-like separated events, suggests a truly fundamental description would allow for a point on the right index finger of frame 10 to be correlated with a point on the left thumb of frame 8. Thus, trans-temporal objects are resolved into spatio-temporal patterns without counterparts in dynamism. Should such non-local reduction portend progress in physics, a successor to quantum theory might be seriously inimical to consciousness-based teleologies.

However, these perspectives were provided only for completeness. They do not necessarily undermine Brockelman’s cosmology, since relativitydoes not dictate the “block universe” (Christopher Southgate et al, God, Humanity and the Cosmos, Trinity Press, 1999, p. 102 – 107) and the future of reductive methodology in physics is questionable. Thus, let me assume the validity of Brockelman’s BBC interpretation and comment on his suggestions for educational goals and ethics.

Specifically, I want to first respond to his suggestion for a core curriculum. He writes:

“Imagine, for example, a core curriculum that begins with considerations in physics and astronomy of the early stages of the universe, including the intellectual revolution that we call quantum theory. After that might come courses detailing with [sic] both the history and methodological manner of understanding the geological, biological and botanical development on earth. Courses that follow might outline the early evolution of hominids and Homo Sapiens—a fascinating and remarkably robust set of contemporary disciplines.The archaeology and history of human cultures with their diverse religious perspectives and practices, economic and political institutions, and oral and literary traditions from their Neolithic beginnings to modern history and cultural developments might followin rich detail.”

I agree with him that this program has the potential to integrate “the fragmented disciplinary bodies of knowledge into a single, inclusive and astonishing, narrative understanding of the whole” and provide “a story of the universe with both scientific and spiritual significance.” Further, “This story may illuminate the natural and historical situation in which we find ourselves, thereby helping usto discover meaningful roles for our future.” I’ve studied core curriculums as a member of our core revision committee here at Elizabethtown College, and I have not seen a model which is more comprehensive/holistic (addressing both the cognitive and spiritual attributes of the mind) or cohesive (achieving interdisciplinary coherence in a sequential format). I will enthusiastically share his model with the rest of the committee.

I also embrace his proposed moral standard, although his suggestions for its bearing on ethics are fraught with ambiguity. The problem as I see it, is that ethics—not HIS ethics per se, but ANY ethics—necessarily compromises the moral standard which I infer from Cosmology and Creation.

Brockelman calls for “transformational ethics” which he sees as derivative of “the transformed spiritual state of integration and compassion.” The moral basis for his ethics “flows from character, ‘love, joy, peace, long suffering,’ from a transformed way of existing that is the result of ‘the Spirit.’ ” (Where Brockelman is quoting from Galatians 5:22 – 23.) He writes:

“We must remember that in the mystical state we identify not only with each manifestation of being, but with being as such—that is with being as a whole in all of its interactive manifestations. … Individual moral decisions can never be taken apart from a compassionate concern for the whole. That does not lead to a particular moral judgment in one or another specific situation. Rather, it leads to a different way of viewing a particular situation and thus making moral decisions about it—a view sub specieaeternitatis (from the eternal point of view), a wider and more compassionate state of being and character that has emerged from the various stages in the spiritual journey of life. It is a transformed and transparent spiritual state of love and compassion that weighs such decisions in the light of a deep concern for all being.”

The moral standard I infer from these passages and their counterparts elsewhere in Cosmology and Creation may result in an ethical ‘slippery slope.’ If one attains a mystical state of “deep concern for all being,” self existence may be difficult to justify. Each hamburger I ingest is nutrition not available to other (starving )life forms. Even the ascetic who survives on but a grain of rice per day must respire, diminishing the oxygen supply available for other aerobic life forms. It seems this moral standard, when fully realized, is necessarily in discord with survival in a world of limited resources. Couple this with a transcendent teleology and one might acquire an exaggerated fortitude, concluding life has greatest meaning in martyrdom or refusing to respond to basic survival instincts. To some extent, this resonates with the Christology presented by Marcus Borg in Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time: The Historical Jesus & the Heart of Contemporary Faith (HarperCollins, 1994).

But, Brockelman more than acknowledges the potentially contentious application of his ethics with some hypothetical anecdotes of his own. As quoted supra, the power of his ethics lies in its novel “way of viewing a particular situation,” empowering its practitioners with a new moral decision making apparatus. Short of austere self-deprivation or self-destruction, this may be an optimal ethics in Darwinian reality.

Overall, the book is cohesively structured and Brockelman’s thesis amply supported with a plethora of quotes and citations from scientists, philosophers, theologians, and humanist scholars. While Brockelman neglects the potential for detracting arguments to his thesis from competing ‘scientific’ cosmology models and ‘reductionist’ metaphysics, his use of BBC and tacit reliance upon emergent phenomena are precisely in accord with mainstream science. I agree with Brockelman that education is disciplinarily balkanized, and share his enthusiasm for the potential of his cosmology to unify education spiritually and scientifically. I likewise share his moral standard, but regrettably not his optimism for its application to ethics. I nonetheless see great promise in what the construct of such cosmologies presages for humanity.