Thursday, September 25, 2008

Cosmology and Anthropology:Towards a Definition

ETNY: In Anthropology a COSMOLOGY is an analytical construct but above all it is an object of study, and it can be defined as a set of knowledge, beliefs, interpretations and practices of a society or culture related to explanations about the origins and evolution of the universe as well as the role and the meaning of humans, life, and the world, within the universe or cosmos. A cosmology involves explanations of the past, present and future of a society, and these explanations are part of its understanding of cosmo-eco-ethnogenesis, and it deals with the origins as well as with the finality and destiny of humans and of other forms of existence.
If COSMOLOGY in Physics and Astronomy is a science for specialized researchers who study the origins and evolution of the universe and these specialists construct an interpretative framework for what is called a scientifically-based cosmology, thus, when using the word ‘cosmology’ we are dealing with two different approximations, one from Physics and Astronomy that refers to cosmology as a science or as a scientific process, and another one from Anthropology that usually defines cosmology as an object and as a socio-cultural phenomenon produced by all societies. Thus a cosmologist from Physics studies the universe; and an Anthropologist studies a cosmology.
SAGREDO defined 'cosmology' from the point of view of the disciplines of physics and astronomy, and in his definition he advocates for a strictly scientific approximation devoid of any interferences from ethics, philosophy, religion and such. Yet, in the last part of his text, he raises the issue of educating a general public and also decision-makers and politicians, as he notes with concern the rise of Creationism and other negationists who consciously negate modern scientific cosmologies. But before we debate more the relation between cosmologies and cultural dynamics, and also politics, in our contemporary world, in this blog, I will develop more my anthropological definition of cosmology.
Cosmology and Anthropology
In Anthropology, the term ‘cosmology’ is used to refer to the set of knowledge, beliefs, interpretations and practices, and to the set of overarching cognitive and behavioral templates which are reiterated, transformed and used, by a society to comprehend, interpret, and explain its role within: humanity, life, the world (planet Earth), and the cosmos. A cosmology involves explanations about the past, present and future of a society within these scales of encompassment and such it is a culture’s understanding of cosmo-eco-ethnogenesis, and deals with origins as well as the finality and destiny of their own society and of humanity within the grander whole.
Though possibly the Evolutionary Anthropologists would hold that as a common universal bases there are cognitive and behavioral universals for humans to manufacture cosmologies as an overarching system to give meaning to human existence within the grander world and universe, however anthropological particularists and relativists would hold that different types of societies construct different cosmologies and possibly for different purposes, and that cosmologies need not be coherent nor standard even within a society itself. Religious persons in turn, would argue that cosmologies involve spiritual parameters where the agency of a God or divinities and spiritual beings are held to be key parts of existence; they hold that there is another form of life after human death, that supernatural actors run the universe, world and also a good part of human destiny.
Anthropology analyzes the cosmologies of all of the world’s past and present cultures. Anthropologists consider that all cosmologies are social constructs, socially and historically situated (including those proposed by modern scientific cosmologists, Physics and Astronomy). Anthropology also analyses cosmological templates in their diverse levels of signification in rational, scientific, religious, artistic, ethical, emotional and sensorial terms (Reichel 2005).
All cultures have cosmologies which can be religious or non-religious, as means to interpret a society’s situatedness in the universe, Earth, biosphere and within humanity. Cosmologies are both ideational and operational systems, frameworks for thought and action, but in today’s world as the 10,000 or so cultures - that are, or were, somewhat homogeneous and territorially situated-, are now rapidly changing amidst new forms of cultural diversity including diaspora, hybrid cultures, virtual societies, migrants, cosmopolites, and such.
Evidently, in all societies a cosmology also changes along an individual’s life cycle, and according to his-her expertise, gender, rank, etc. Cosmologies also differ if they are based on the traditional big religions, new religions (including neo-paganism), or on traditional shamanic ones, or if they are not based on any religion or spiritual approximation.

Indigenous Peoples’ Cosmologies
What is clear in most anthropological research among a-modern, modern, and post-modern/post-industrial societies, is that though there can be one main or single prevailing cosmological template for example among small societies such as traditional indigenous hunting-gathering bands or among traditional indigenous tribes of shifting-cultivators, fishers, agriculturalists or pastoralists, however among most other societies, especially industrial and urban ones, there are no single, unique, standard, grand cosmological narratives shared by such large societies, In such complex societies several versions exist, not only in each society but also within a same individual, or they may be only fragmented and partial cosmologies as such (for example not including as much the concern for seeking meaning to belonging within the grander cosmos, or unclear about cosmic origins and cosmogony). In certain societies people use cosmologies to achieve a sense of belonging within nature, and of achieving socio-environmental wellbeing, while in other societies this endeavor is less evident.
The cosmologies of indigenous and traditional societies can invoke respect for nature and for human wellbeing, and there is often an appeal to keep a balanced coexistence between all parts of the universe, because people, ecosystems, the biosphere and cosmos are defined as being composed of common components of matter, energy and spirit. The common elements and forces are considered as shared cosmic synergies and humans must request permission and compensate for their use of resources which disrupt other beings or forces. It is not uncommon to find indigenous cultures that today still recreate cosmologies that correlate the existence of their society as part of a larger whole linked to socio-environmental contexts and to climatic, meteorological, astronomic and cosmic dimensions; which is not only a way of signifying their sense of belonging within nature, but of harnessing respect, admiration and responsibility towards it.
Cosmologies, for example, are used as key references for decision-making, when indigenous tribes, for example of the Amazon rainforests (Reichel-Dolmatoff, 1996, 1976) use natural resources and seek to achieve sustainable use of forests; and to decide human demographic levels and bio-social synergies; and also to establish peace among and within neighboring societies.
Myths and formal narratives, rituals, legends, folktales, proverbs, songs, and even children’s stories, are used to socialize, reiterate and to debate the cosmology while heightening individual’s and group’s socio-ecological awareness and to achieve balanced sense of existence within their societies, the world and universe. Anthropological analyses have indicated the sagacious foresight these cosmological systems have, along with the shamanic traditions they sustain, to resist acculturation imposed by non-indigenous societies, which along with colonization tend to impose other notions of the meaning of human existence within the Amazon rainforests, the world and universe.
Many indigenous cosmologies have a coherent scaffolding to include human experiences in rational, spiritual, artistic, emotional and ethical manners and also to invoke an awareness to minimize negative environmental impacts (Reichel 2005), however with the present accelerating social, economic, political, cultural and environmental changes due to globalization these cosmologies and the indigenous modes of life are increasingly endangered worldwide.
Among the world’s 400 million indigenous peoples there are over 6,000 languages and equal or more numbers of cosmologies, and many indigenous cultures, languages and cosmologies are now greatly threatened by extermination due to acculturation and forced displacement by dominant and mayoritarian cultures and languages, if present trends are not deterred.
In all historical times, cosmologies have been used to mobilize or immobilize normative directives and groups or individuals, and as such cosmologies have strategic socio-political functions and not only socio-environmental ones. They have been used to manage identitarian parameters, as there is power in defining the identity and role of a society within humanity, the world and universe, and in defining the sense of the evolution of humanity and of the universe. These parameters guide the imaginaries that relate the individual to the cosmos, and the microcosmos to the macrocosmos , which along with a complex use of cosmological symbols also encompass references that can cover knowledge of psychology, architecture, ecology, astronomy, philosophy, and other knowledge that societies harness to explain or monitor their position within humankind, ecosystems, and the world and universe (Aveni and Urton 1982, Douglas 1970, Schneider 1993). The ratio of rationality, science, religion and magic which are encompassed in a cosmology and in social systems, in turn, differ among and within cultures, and according to historical contexts in times of normality or of crisis.

Cosmologies in a Globalized World
Cosmologies that contain viable and wise forms of living and of conserving ecosystems and life on Earth, are today mainly held by some indigenous cultures, but in a globalized world and in urban contexts, cosmologies can –indeed must- have once again this wisdom in order to regain such vital functions for human survival, with a worldview and cosmology valid for present times and needs (see a debate about this in Goldsmith 1992). It remains to be seen how these cosmologies will allow diversity of responses of what it means to have a meaningful existence and a fulfilled life in a globalised world. As this human situatedness involves a worldview which relates to the dynamics of a society within humanity, life, and the world, and a cosmology which encompasses cosmic dimensions, it also rests to be seen if these modern cosmologies in the 21st century can also be composed with knowledge from modern scientific cosmologies.
Nowadays as some societies struggle to maintain their cosmologies while marginalizing, respecting, or exterminating those of others, others increasingly hold cosmological diversity, hybridity, or engage in re-cosmologizing by transposing cosmologies and fabricating others or parts of these. Individuals and groups use their cosmologies to define the meaning of human existence, within their society, humanity, the world, and in cases also within the greater universe and cosmos. But the response differs if there is a religious or spiritual approximation to supply the questions and answers to these matters.
Yet individuals and societies may continue to opt to forget, silence or ignore the lessons reaped for millennia by cultures that mitigated their impacts on the environmental and were vigilant of their daily practices in order to resonate with local ecosystems and with the basic laws of nature to avoid the collapse of whole cultures. At present the modernizing and modern and post-industrial societies in a globalizing world are faced with the challenges of achieving not only socio-ecological wellbeing, and conviviality among and across countries and cultures, but also in ensuring a sustainable humanity.
Though nowadays due to the advances of science, there is a significant amount of knowledge about the origins and evolution of the universe, and of its laws, forces, and structure and composition, however the vast majority of people, even in the Western world, do not concatenate this modern scientific cosmology into their personal or collectively-held cosmology. Except for some scientifically-minded persons and even then the issue of meaning is problematic, since modern cosmology is not engaged in such realms of meaning, whileas ethics, philosophy, religion, and other domains are, adding to the fact that science-making also entails non-scientific manners and negotiations (Latour 1993).
Nowadays there is also a rising amount of scientific knowledge about planet Earth, the biosphere, ecosystems, and also about humankind and cultures, but in spite of the relevance of such knowledge, many of it is not internalized into most peoples’ cosmologies and worldviews nor to mobilize their thoughts and actions, as can be seen for example, by the growing degradation of ecosystems, the lack of understanding of the relevance of conserving biocultural diversity, or the lack of responsibility in consumer, production, distribution, and transportation patterns, which are degrading ecosystems and have a huge ecological footprint.
However recently, among concerned scientists in natural and social sciences, and among ecologists, a significant process is occurring, where there appears to be an upgrading of cosmological referents to engage in socio-environmental ethics and also in a quest to achieve human wellbeing, justice and equity, where either in non-religious approximations, or in spiritual and religious approximations, there is a concern for human and environmental wellbeing and a sense of responsibility towards nature. There is also a concern to change towards a new paradigm for sustainability, and where people are considered as part of nature, and not as opposed to it (Descola and Palsson 1996). In such cosmologies knowing more about the universe, nature, Earth, and humanity would lead people to live sustainably and a balanced existence.
This knowledge and understanding can enhance a consciousness of the interdependencies and synergies between humans, ecosystems, and also the climate, atmosphere, and other dynamics, and contribute to correct the erred, short-sighted, risk-prone human activities that are degrading ecosystems, exterminating biodiversity, augmenting consumerism, rising human population and inequity, intensifying the use of fossil energies and natural resources, accelerating climate change, along with other human actions that in a historically unprecedented manner are endangering human survival itself.
As globalization is accompanied by wars, and possibly soon also by wars of cosmologies, and with the rising financial and energy crises, soaring food prices, impacts of climate change, and with the recent shifts in geopolitics with the emerging economies, as well as the rising pressures from social movements, privatization, and many other forces beyond and across countries, the dynamics relating cosmologies to cultures will increasingly become pivotal not only in the configuration of humankind’s profile, but of its own existence and of a significant part of life itself. Humankind’s capacity to make and to have cosmologies, is not only a means to give meaning to the existence of humans, and of life, the planet, and the larger universe and a means to achieve and accumulate knowledge and understanding of each of these levels of existence; it is also a means to work out ways by which humans can understand the universe, world and humanity in order to lead fulfilled lives individually and collectively in healthy environments. Thus cosmologies that further the understanding of nature and the universe can contribute to an awareness and a sense of marvel that makes persons increasingly conscious of their unique place in the cosmos, while also attending socio-environmental wellbeing and the plight of all human beings in this world.

Aveni, Anthony and G. Urton, Eds. Ethnoastronomy and Archeoastronomy in the American Tropics. New York: New York Academy of Sciences,1982.
Descola, Philippe, and G. Palsson, Eds. Nature and Society: Anthropological Perspectives. London: Routledge, 1982.
Douglas, Mary. Natural Symbols: Explorations in Cosmology. London: Penguin, 1970.
Goldsmith, Edward. The Way: An Ecological World-view. Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1992.
Klass, Morton. Ordered Universes: Approaches to the Anthropology of Religion. Boulder: Westview Press, 1995.
Latour, Bruno. We Have Never Been Modern. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1993.
Reichel-Dolmatoff, Gerardo. The Forest Within: The Worldview of the Tukano Amazonian Indians. London: Themis Press, 1996.
Reichel-Dolmatoff, Gerardo. Cosmology as Ecological Analysis: A View from the Rainforest. The Huxley Memorial Lecture. MAN. 11:3 (1976), 307-18.
Reichel, Elizabeth. “Cosmology” In: The Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature. Bron Taylor and Jeffrey Kaplan, Eds. London: Thoemmes Continuum, 2005:420-425
Schneider. Mark. Culture and Enchantment. Chicago: University of Chicago Press,1993,
Tambiah, Stanley, Magic, Science and Religion and the Scope of Rationality. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Definition of Scientific Cosmology

(Update: minor corrections and additional questions at the end)

SAGREDO: Scientific cosmology is a branch of physics that studies the structure of the universe as a whole, its origin, dynamics and composition based on the fundamental laws of physics and following an empirical method of testing hypothesis with observations. As such it excludes a large number of alternative models and explanations of the universe not based on testable hypothesis, such as philosophical speculation, creation myths and the biblical narrative of creation. A representative example of the standard definition of scientific cosmology found in most textbooks and popularization of science books is that given by Primack and Abrams [1]: "Cosmology is a branch of astrophysics that studies the origin and nature of the universe as a whole by developing theories and testing them against observational evidence to support or rule them out... Modern scientific cosmology says nothing about human beings or how we should live. It aims to provide scientific accuracy, not meaning." George Gamow, one of the originators of the big bang model in his popular book of 1952 "The Creation of the Universe" [2] calls it "cosmogony" and defines it simply as the theory of the origin of the world.

The models of the universe developed by the ancient Greeks, such as the heliocentric cosmos of Aristarchus of Samos (third century BC), the geocentric models of Aristotle and Ptolemy were based on logic, observations and solid geometric concepts. The same applies to Newton’s notion of an infinite universe. Modern scientific cosmology began with Einstein’s theory of gravity (1917) and later married with nuclear physics to explain the observed abundance of the elements (Gamow, 1948). The establishment of the widely accepted standard cosmological model is marked by the publication of Peebles’s book "Physical Cosmology" [3] (1971) after independent confirmation of the discovery of the cosmic background radiation. The model consists of the idea that the universe is expanding and in the past the temperature of the universe was higher and therefore provided the conditions to produce the nucleo-synthesis of the light elements. The model is supported by a web of interrelated observations that are consistent with the predictions of the model and with general relativity and the standard model of particles and fields: abundance of nuclear elements, expansion of space, the universe is denser and hotter in the past, and detection of the cosmic background radiation its temperature, polarization, spectrum and anisotropies. The big bang model however introduces two constituents that make up most of the universe, 25% of the mass/energy in the universe is dark matter and 70% is dark energy. This is problematic because the evidence currently available for dark matter and dark energy is weak and the nature of these components is unknown. Dark energy and dark matter are seen by the critics as ad hoc elements added to the theory so that it fits the data.

Cosmology is an experimental science in the full sense. While it is not possible to recreate the explosion of a supernova in the laboratory the supernova ‘experiment’ is played out by nature and astronomers make observations to collect data from these experiments. With the advent of satellite-based missions making observations from outer space, unperturbed by atmospheric effects, extensive amounts of new data covering a wide range of the electromagnetic spectrum (from microwaves to gamma rays) has been made available, ushering the emergence of the so called age of "precision cosmology". The recently analyzed data of NASA’s WMAP mission [4], for example, provides the parameters of the standard cosmological model with an unprecedented level of accuracy and coherence.

The actual domain of scales studied in cosmology range from galaxies and galaxy clusters and their distributions to the whole "visible" universe. In the theoretical side they range from quantum mechanics to general relativity. The earliest that we have been able to observe in the past is few minutes (~3) after the big bang by looking at the relative abundances of light elements (hydrogen, helium, deuterium, and lithium). To understand what happened before the first 3 minutes theorists have used the standard model of particles and fields and pushed the boundaries to where relativity and quantum mechanics leads them, but because of the lack of observational support this effort has been criticized as speculative. A favorite explanation for the initial state of the big bang is the mechanism of inflation (Guth 1981) but it has not been tested and therefore it is not part of the standard model. Grujic [5] summarizes this situation as follows: "As a research field cosmology covers a broad range of physical conditions (ontological aspect) and wide spectra of methodological approaches (epistemological aspects). The former go from the visually accessible parts of the cosmos we live in, to the remote parts whose nature we may only speculate about. It is these inaccessible regions that force us to resort to (often wild) speculations that go beyond the positive science. These speculations, though dressed in mathematical clothes, have provoked a number of astrophysicists, including cosmologists, to compare modern cosmology with traditional mythological representations of the universe." Theoretical speculation, as long as it is not teleological, eschatological or in search for purpose, has been a healthy activity in physics. Important contributions (relativity, prediction of antimatter, prediction of black holes, quarks, etc) have resulted from speculation founded on a sound theoretical framework and accompanied with testable predictions. The speculation that Grujic refers to has to do with theories that loose contact with the observable world, such as theories that predict multi-universes to which we cannot have causal contact, or "curled" extra- dimensions that have no "visible" manifestation.

Cosmology is different than other areas of scientific inquiry in that it touches fundamental questions about our origins encroaching fields of study traditionally claimed by philosophy, anthropology and theology and at times conflating with religious ideas. For this reason the work of cosmologists has been intensively attacked from all camps of humanities, philosophy, obviously theology, and even physics. The most important non- frivolous critiques are that 1. Modern scientific cosmology rests on monumental assumptions of homogeneity and isotropy (which are not firmly confirmed); 2. Astrophysicists are gratuitously extrapolating to the scales of the whole universe the theories and laws of nature that were developed to explain the local world. These are valid critiques. The homogeneity and isotropy assumption is a simplification to help work out the solutions to the equations of general relativity and is part of the scientific practice. Just as planetary orbits can be explained and studied in great detail by assuming that the planets are just simple points (a gross simplification indeed!) the large scale structures in the universe is deemed homogeneous because on average it exhibits a uniform distribution (with deviations from the mean of the order of 1% of the size of the universe) that justifies the simplification. No astrophysicist with full command of his/her senses is claiming recklessly that scientific cosmology is ‘final’ and complete. Most likely few decades from now there will be a better model of the universe with the big bang subsumed into it. As for the problem of scales, all of the observations rely on collecting electromagnetic radiation emitted far away. The mechanisms of radiation are the same (atomic transitions or accelerating charged particles) here or there, the characteristics of this radiation (spectrum) have been observed to follow the same properties regardless of the location the emission took place, near or far.

Can there be an exchange between scientific cosmology and the wider cosmology of past and present cultures? The definition of scientific cosmology with the necessary condition of adhering to scientific practice and method strongly suggests that these are two approaches whose relationship is appropriately characterized by Stephen Jay Goul’d dictum of "non overlapping magisteria" that he suggested for science and religion.

Nota Bene

An attempt was made to provide a definition of "scientific cosmology", but another question that arises in this context is: what makes a cosmology scientific? Mention was made of the requirement for testability and adherence to scientific practice and method; however a proper treatment of the subject would mean that we need to define what science is. I will not attempt that. After 800 years of trying, since Roger Bacon in the 1200s, it seems like there is no consensus and all we have to show after all this time is the "science wars" [6] and Feyerabend’s "anything goes". As an alternative let me offer a subjective criterion: "I know it when I see it". That is, if you show a purported scientific theory to a group of reputed scientists, once they see it most likely they can reach a consensus as to whether that can be accepted as scientific or not. This criterion is practical but I do not entirely like it because it has all the marks of accepting the putative and menacing "orthodoxy" (i.e. the group of scientist judges) that so insistently the sociologists of science of postmodern tendencies are pushing. The "I know it when I see it" criteria has origins in deliberations by the U.S. Supreme Court confronted with the need to define what is "obscene" under U.S. law. A task of immense ramifications as it impinges on the freedom of speech guaranteed by the First Amendment. The Supreme Court found huge difficulties when trying to define what pornography is. If you place the line a bit to one side, the whole Sistine Chapel falls in the pornographic side, if a bit to the other side the Pompeii orgy frescoes fall in the side of art. In 1964, Justice Potter Stewart tried to explain pornography by saying "I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced... but I know it when I see it" (Jacobellis v. Ohio, 378 U.S. 184, 197) [7]. So, the same with science: I know if it is science when I see it. Hoyle’s steady state cosmology was scientific but his theory that viruses that cause flu epidemics come from outer space is not scientific.


1. Why virtually every human society has developed models of the universe and explanations of how it came into being? Does developing a cosmology provide an evolutionary advantage?

2. Can the scientific approach to cosmology claim epistemic advantages?

3. Are sociological studies about how cosmological models are developed relevant?

4. Is the principle of symmetry an honest an ethical approach in the face of anti-science pronouncements based on ideological dealership? (i.e. global warming denial, evolution denial, etc -- see for instance the Kitzmiller vs Dover case)

5. Is sociology of science a science? If so, can it produce legitimate attacks on science while at the same time using a scientific approach? If not, what guarantees that the theses put forward by sociologists have any value beyond subjective utterances?

6. Do people (i.e. the layperson) in a modern society need to be educated about scientific knowledge about the universe? How about the leaders and decision makers?

7. Should/can scientific cosmology be reconciled with the wider cosmologies studied by anthropologists?

8. From the epistemic point of view should scientific cosmology receive the same treatment as any other creation myth and world view? What is a myth? And what is a worldview?

9. Are the claims leveled against scientific cosmology of being a dogmatic and inquisitorial sustainable? Is there a scientific "orthodoxy"? (see for instance


[1] J. R. Primack, N. E. Abrams, "The View from the Center of the Universe" (Riverhead: New York, 2006), p.16

[2] G. Gamow, "The Creation of the Universe", Bantam: New York, 1952.

[3] P. J. E. Peebles, "Physical Cosmology", Princeton University Press: New Jersey, 1971.

[4] J. Dunkley, et. al., "Five-Year Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) Observations: Likelihoods and Parameters from the WMAP data", 2008,

[5] P. V. Grujic, "Some Epistemic Questions of Cosmology", 2007,

[6] "The Science Wars Homepage",

[7] J. A. Silver, "Movie Day at the Supreme Court or ‘I know it when I see it’: A history of the Definition of Obscenity",

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Comments on "post-Western Cosmologies"

SAGREDO: in post-Western cosmologies ETNY touches upon a number of issues which are relevant to a discussion about cosmology. I agree that we cannot restrict our discussion to just the western scientific cosmology. Part of the motivation that brought us here together in this blog is the recognition that there is need for understanding by broad sectors of society of the new scientific knowledge about the universe, but in order to achieve this it is important not to disregard other cosmologies or points of view. Understanding new knowledge about the universe does not mean that it has to be imposed or that it has to be accepted. It only means that knowledge about the physical world could have some advantages. And you do not have to agree with this statement, but to highlight the point that knowledge is better than ignorance, consider this: there is a probability close to 50% that the strongest military power on planet Earth will soon have a vice-president (subsequently likely to become president) who is going to install a government blinded by ideology that does not accept evolution, or the big bang cosmology, or sex education, or stem cell research and rejects the notion that humans have caused global warming. That is a world-view. But I submit: in this world not all world-views are the same, some could be dangerous. So the discussion that we are undertaking in this blog is not an irrelevant exchange among academicians. It is a dialogue that should find useful connections towards understanding our place in planet Earth and the universe. We are making progress already by identifying key questions. All of the questions raised by ETNY are relevant: what is the relation between cosmologies and culture? How cosmologies appear and disappear? What cosmologies come packaged with globalization? etc. These are all great questions that we should attempt to answer here. ETNY also raises the concern of risking expanding into topics that cannot be dispatched with simple answers and will take us into interminable digressions. I agree. I propose that we structure these discussions around key fundamental questions first. We pose one question (like the introductory question here in "Big Bang Cosmology") and each one of us from our own field provides an answer. At least that lays out in front of us the differences and potential congruent points in specific topics. ETNY’s suggestion to start off by working the definition of COSMOLOGY from our own fields seems like the natural starting point. Let’s do it. My next post will be a definition of cosmology as seen from the camp of the astrophysicists. As we layout the foundation for this debate I propose we also work on the definitions of ‘world-view’ and ‘myth’ and their relation to cosmology. These terms are usually misused and only add to the fog that separates scientists from anthropologists and sociologists of science.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Advantages of a Scientific Approach to Cosmology

SAGREDO: I am providing an answer to the question posted in “big bang cosmology” (08/18/2008). In a separate thread I will comment on the very interesting points brought forward by ETNY.

The answer is yes, science has an advantage when it comes to understanding and explaining nature.

This question unavoidably brings the heavy load surrounding the intense debate among philosophers and sociologists of science that ponder how science works and what constitutes a work of science. So to avoid getting involved in such interminable debate let me propose a practical “working notion” of what scientific research in cosmology entails.

I posit -- notwithstanding quantum mechanics’ complications arising from the observer modifying the observed object -- that Heisenberg or not, there is an external reality, there are objects external and independent to the observer.

Having accepted that there is an external reality, the second fundamental point of understanding is that the work of theorists is to develop models of that external world that can be judged by how coherent they are at providing explanation of observations and how accurate at predicting and fitting experimental data. Note that 1. in this modest but practical approach to understand the workings of science, a model is not judged to be ‘true’ or ‘false’ but rather ‘useful’ in explaining and predicting observations; and 2. We have excluded from the domain of scientific cosmology a whole class of human experiences (art, spirituality, mystic experiences, etc) that do not fit the ‘model vs. fitting the data’ approach. The statement ‘explaining and predicting observations’ could be construed as an open ended proposition and certainly needs a lot of qualifiers such as here ‘explaining’ means providing causal explanation in a systematic and repeatable manner and ‘predicting’ is meant in a robust way (in the statistical sense), otherwise I can see my critics advancing the notion that astrology is science under my proposed definition. There is no room here to take on the topic of demarcation. Popper will come to the rescue in case of doubt. Granted, this is quite a restrictive definition of science and somewhat problematic in that here we are dealing with a legitimate approach to cosmology that excludes very important components as highlighted by ETNY (see “post-Western Cosmologies”). Let’s focus on the epistemic implications not the ontological.

Guided by the “working notion” of scientific cosmology one can take a Popperian approach and recognize that the value in the scientific approach to cosmology stems from the fact that 1. We know when a model is wrong (i.e. it does not fit the data) and therefore needs to be discarded; and 2. When a scientist makes a claim, it will have to be reproduced systematically and independently before it is widely accepted.

These two points alone are an advantage when compared with non-scientific approaches. Consider the alternative: when has divine revelation, inspiration of a shaman, the dictum of an oracle, prophesy, or astrological readings been able to be reproduced in a systematic and controlled way? Prediction is not the currency of religious doctrine; it is only post-diction in the form “the devastating earthquake is a manifestation of the will of god”.

The predictive power of non-scientific world views is weak and arbitrary (astrology) and can not be subjected to controlled and systematic measurement. As such there is no rejection mechanism for non-scientific world views. Furthermore, two such world views can come with conflicting accounts of “reality” and there is no way to discriminate because they both are based in non testable claims.

This response embodies the narrow point of view generally accepted by scientists, and it is perhaps the reason for so much apathy and at times disregard for a scientific cosmology from the public in general. One could argue that in the post-Hiroshima world it was about time that researchers in the humanities come out and put science on check. Too much power to science and scientists, with their manipulation of concepts that are closed to the average citizen, and we’ll see democracy diminished [Feyerabend]. Or as Ernesto Sabato put it “science is the new religion”. However, and leaving the “science wars” aside, taking the recipe of the sociologists to the extreme is also problematic. Two points: 1. in the case of cosmology, history shows that the prevailing model does not fit the “social construct” mold (i.e. nobody wanted the big bang, it emerged with the impulse of experimental data that at the beginning no theory was pursuing and went contrary to theoretical expectation and taste); 2. leveling the field among all possible approaches to uncovering the “truth” about nature has provided a platform to propel unethical notions in the academic environment by groups that have a non-academic agenda (global warming denial, evolution denial, holocaust denial, etc.). The challenge is: cognizant of the cultural backgrounds and diverse world views, can we bring closer to the popular audience the new scientific knowledge about the universe? I believe that faced by global environmental and resource challenges arising from blatant abuse, scientific ignorance is not an option.