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by Richard Nilsen
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Imagine nothing. Now, imagine that not even nothing exists, for after all, nothing is something. At the very least “nothing” implies its opposite, and I’m asking you to imagine a time before opposites are possible, before time is possible.
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Then, imagine a point, the way geometry defines a point, with no dimensions. This point is something. But it can exist for only a billion-trillionth of a second — although a second is something that doesn’t really exist yet. The word “yet” implies that a future does exist, however, and in that infinitesimal fraction of eternity the point — which is everything that exists or ever will exist — physicists tell us that the point “expanded,” although that word cannot adequately express the explosion. In fact, the universe ejaculated into both something and nothing. It gave rise to particles and antiparticles and we were off to the races.
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As it says in the Tao Te Ching, “Thus something and nothing produce each other.”
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Now, 13.799 billion years later, the universe is still expanding, ever faster and faster. And we are riding on one meager little mote in that great soup, called the planet Earth. Now, “nothing” is what exists between the bits of “something.”
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That is our Creation Myth.
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By calling it a myth, I am not implying it is not true, or not factual. Myth does not mean something is untrue, but means it is our way of comprehending what is beyond our actual understanding.
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Myth is our explanation to ourselves of something. It may be factual, it may be fantastical. It may be taken literally or it may be understood as metaphor. Either way, it is an approach to the comprehension of something too complex to be held in the mind any other way.
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A physicist may be able to put the math together and parse out the myth in non-mythic terms (I use the word “may” advisedly), but for the rest of us, we take it on faith that our creation myth is scientifically verifiable and therefore, factual. It is the myth we believe in, i.e., the story we take as true. (That it is true is irrelevant to its function as myth).
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We mistakenly tend to look on myth as something from the past: Zeus or Achilles, or Odin, or Indra fighting Vritra, or Quetzalcoatl, or the Chinese dragon. It is something we condescend to, having learned better. We know that thunder isn’t clouds crashing together. But such an attitude misunderstands myth and its function. We all live by myth, even now.
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There are things we do not or cannot understand. Either too complicated to grasp or just plain unknowable. We need a metaphor to help us come to grips with such things. Language cannot describe such things with the precision of a dictionary, but rather it has to fall back on not “what it is,” but “what is it like.” We tell a story.
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The Big Bang is our story. When we assume our superiority, we fail to understand that for most of us, we are relying on the argument from authority no less than the Middle Ages did. We must accept that the physicist knows what we merely accept. (I am making the assumption that a physicist has a more complete understanding than even an educated lay person).
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And since we cannot know every corner of relativity or quantum mechanics, we simplify it all into a comprehensible story. The Big Bang.
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I am not claiming what science has parsed out is false, but that our understanding as non-scientists is a mythological understanding, not a literal one. And for that matter, I doubt any scientist is conversant in all aspects of theory. Perhaps he or she has a good grasp on black holes, but how much has he or she published on quasars? Specialization is necessary for modern science, and even a scientist has to rely on the work of others.
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All of which takes me off point: Creation myth. There are so many of them, from the Chinese cosmic egg to the Mesopotamian butchery of the sea goddess Tiamat. The one we are most familiar with is that of Genesis.
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“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light.”
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We are so used to the organ tones of the King James translation that sometimes putting it into modern English takes away some of the majesty.
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“When God began creating the sky and earth, the earth was formless and empty.”
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A literal translation from the ancient Hebrew is even more peculiar: “When it all started up, and the gods were arranging the sky and the ground, When the earth was emptiness with darkness over the ocean, the wind of the gods hung over the face of the water. The gods said: ‘Let there be light,’ and light happened.” Yes, the word for God in Chapter 1 of the story is “Elohim,” which is plural.
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There are many believers who take this story literally, just as most of us take the Big Bang. For most of us, the Bible story is a story. If we had to stake our lives on it, we would defend physics and — even if we were Christian believers — accept that ancient Middle-Eastern poetry is just that.
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“Mythology opens the world so that it becomes transparent to something that is beyond speech, beyond words, in short, to what we call transcendence,” said scholar Joseph Campbell. The King James Genesis is transcendent poetry. But so is our story of the Big Bang.
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“The energies of the universe, the energies of life, that come up in the sub-atomic particle displays that science shows us, are operative. They come and go. Where do they come from? Where do they go? Is there a where?”
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Physicist Paul Dirac in 1930 imagined a where: Now called the “Dirac Sea,” it is an infinite XX of subatomic particles that exist beneath our visible world. An electron may pop up anywhere, as quantum physics has shown, and may disappear also. Where they come from, where they go is the Dirac Sea. Using the nautical term is another case of mythology making familiar what cannot be grasped otherwise.
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“The ultimate ground of being transcends definition, transcends our knowledge,” said Campbell. “When you begin to ask about ultimates, you are asking about something that transcends all the categories of thought, the categories of being and non being. True, false; these are, as Kant points out in The Critique of Pure Reason, functions of our mode of experience. And all life has to come to us through the esthetic forms of time and space, and the logical ones of the categories of logic, so we think within that frame.
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“But what is beyond? Even the word beyond suggests a category of thought. So transcendence is literally transcendent.”
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Vedic mythology has many creation stories, but the one most widely seen has the Brahman, or the ultimate ground of reality, as the source of all. However as it says in the Upanishads, the Brahman is just a word, and already it is a distortion of the ultimate, which is beyond words, beyond category, beyond comprehension. As Campbell says it, it has never been soiled by words.
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“Of all knowledge,” Campbell said. “In the Kena Upanishad, written back in the seventh century BC, it says very clearly, ‘that to which words and thoughts do not reach.’ The tongue has never soiled it with a name. That’s what transcendent means. And the mythological image is always pointing toward transcendence and giving you the sense of riding on this mystery.”
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So, we look at the Hubble image of a portion of the Eagle Nebula and have named it “The Pillars of Creation.” It is a transcendent image, and fills most of us with genuine awe. But of course, it is a photograph in false color: It would not look that way if seen by a human eye through a telescope. It is a myth. Again, I am not saying it is not true — even the false color is true in its way — it provides a way to see wavelengths that cannot register in a human eye, but are there nonetheless.
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But let us go back again to that bit before “something” and before “nothing” — those pairs of opposites.
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In his De Rerum Natura (“On  the Nature of Things”), the Roman writer Lucretius comes very close to both modern astrophysics and to quantum mechanics, although told in mythic terms rather than mathematical formula.
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For Lucretius, the universe has always existed. Nothing can be created from nothing, he wrote, nor can it be destroyed — anticipating the conservation of matter and energy. But the universe originally was an undifferentiated mass of atoms, all traveling in straight lines — anticipating Newton’s First Law of Motion — but oddly the atoms had an irrational  tendency to “swerve.” This unaccounted divergence of the atoms’ direction led them to bump into each other, to make concentrations of matter in some localities and voids of matter in others — very like the astrophysicists’ explanation of how the cooling of the Big Bang led to unequal distribution of matter in the early universe through density fluctuations.
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Before anything, there was Chaos. We should not be fooled by modern science’s version of Chaos Theory. It that, chaos is just something so complex it cannot be predicted by mathematical formula. But mythological Chaos is something else again: It is before the organization of “categories of thought.” It is to order what eternity is to time. Not unordered as beyond any idea of order. Chaos can only be understood mythologically. It cannot be described either in words or algebra.
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Percy Shelley called it “the intense inane,” where “inane” has its original meaning, not of insipidity but of the terrible void. Latin “inanis.”
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My favorite Creation myth is found in the opening of Ovid’s Metamorphoses: “Before sea or land, before even sky which contains all, Nature wore only one mask — since called chaos. A huge agglomeration of upset. A bolus of everything — but as if aborted. And the total arsenal of entropy already at war within it. No sun showed one thing to another, no moon played her phases in heaven. No earth spun in empty air on her own magnet, no ocean basked or roamed on the long beaches.
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“Land, sea, air, were all there but not to be trodden, or swum in. Air was simply darkness. Everything fluid or vapor, forms formless, each thing hostile to every other thing: At every point hot fought cold, moist dry, soft hard, and the weightless resisted weight.
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“God, or some such artist as resourceful, began to sort it out. land here, sky there, and sea there. Up there, the heavenly stratosphere. Down here, the cloudy, the windy. He gave to each its place, independent, gazing about freshly. …
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“He rolled earth into a ball. Then he commanded the water to spread out flat, to life itself into waves according to the whim of the wind, and to hurl itself at the land’s edges. … Hardly had he, the wise one, ordered all this than the stars, clogged before in the dark huddle of Chaos, alit, glittering in their positions.”
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— I.e., The Pillars of Creation.
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Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic.   A few years ago, Richard moved to North Carolina.   We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal.   We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons

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