Like most subjects associated with formal inquiry, cosmology can be broadly or narrowly defined. The second edition of The Oxford English Dictionary describes it as "the science or theory of the universe as an ordered whole, and the general laws which govern it." The OED also includes historical uses of the term. The earliest cited reference, from 1656, refers to "a speaking of the world." In the mid-18th Century, cosmology referred to "the science of the world in general" and "a philosophical or physiological Discourse of the World, or Universe in general." By the third quarter of the 19th Century, it was identified as a branch of metaphysics concerning the world and all phenomena in space and time. This is OED-accurate, to be sure, but it's not the entire story by a long shot.
One of the key references on my bookshelf is the Encyclopedia of Cosmology: Historical, Philosophical, and Scientific Foundations of Modern Cosmology, edited by Norriss Hetherington. I learned about it several years ago during my first read of Michael Crowe's The Extraterrestrial Life Debate, 1750-1900 (see the More Good Reads post and the sidebar). What I like most about the work is its far-ranging content, which includes schaolarly yet very readable entries on Chinese, Egyptian, Islamic, Megalithic, Mesopotamian, and Native American cosmologies, as well as on religion and cosmology, the plurality of worlds, and much more.
The Encyclopedia's publisher, editor, and the advisory board intentionally took an expansive view of the topic, which is described in the preface this way:
"A look at the cosmologies of other cultures can help us recognize that certain elements of our own cosmology which might otherwise escape our notice and pass as inevitable developments consist, instead, of arbitrary choices and values."
"If we understand philosophy to be a search for understanding more through thought than observation, and comprising human values as well as logic, religion might well be encompassed within this intellectual realm . . . Recent cosmology may not offer religious believers easy arguments in support of their faith. Indeed, the new cosmology poses challenges with which religious people must come to grips. At the same time, religious beliefs and values of individuals inevitably have entered into our modern cosmology, since it is created by thinking human beings.
With this, we have come full circle. After remarking on strange elements in ancient alien cosmologies and noticing apparent abberations in the early history of our own cosmology prior to the triumphant appearance of Western scientific cosmology, we can now begin to analyze our own cosmology more as a cultural artifact than as an inevtiable development in which every detail is strictly dictated by indisputable empirical fact. Nor are we forbidden to return our attention to earlier cosmologies with an increased sensitivity."
Cosmology as a "cultural artifact" appeals to the archaeologist in me.
So does the idea of suspending the assumption that scientifically-based 21st Century cosmology represents an "inevitable development" far removed, disconnected, or especially superior to its past. Meaning, somehow distant from the rich intellectual and spiritual traditions that preceeded it. Instead I prefer searching for and exploring connections with these traditions because I believe the process leads to deeper understandings of, and appreciations for, what we think we know today.
I'm not alone in this view, of course. I have plenty of anonymous as well as some distinguished company.
CB readers will already recognize the name Steven Dick, the Chief Historian at NASA and an important contributor to our Western historical understanding of the extraterrestrial life debate. In Life on Other Worlds, Dick has this to say about the debate as it concerns religion and cosmology:
"In claiming that the debate has moved from the great generalizations of physical cosmology, to the exploration of philosophical implications, to more empirical investigations, we must constantly keep in mind that the philosophical is never banished completely and that the cosmological is always present in the background. This is equivalent to stating what is widely accepted: that the subject of extraterrestrial life has become more amenable to the methods of modern science -- observation, theory, and experimentation -- while still being enmeshed in philosophical assumptions that all of science seems unable to completely escape. Indeed, the extraterrestrial life itself may be seen as a struggle for a worldview, with all the problems that is implies."
I can't help but like this. The perspective complements CB so well that I smile when I read it.
Maybe it's true that I'm attracted to large struggles with difficult problems. But there's also something at work here beyond challenge and complexity: I really enjoy exploring the subjects I'm attracted to -- even more so since I launched CB last October.
I wrote back then there's no shortage of Big Questions and Cosmology Bus is one way of touring the landscape in search of answers.
So let's define cosmology as broadly as possible and expect to make many stops, some predictable, some out-of-the-way, and a few that aren't even on the map.
Not yet, anyway.
Next stop: The Day the Earth Stood Still
NASA Hubble Space Telescope true color image of Nebula NGC 3603, illustrating the life cycle of stars. Image credit: NASA, W. Bradner (JPL/IPAC), E. K. Grebel, (Univ. Washington), and Y-H Chu (Univ. Illinois Urbana-Champaign). For editorial use only.
Banner bus photo created by Dorothy Delina Porter