First two things which come to my mind when comparing Buddhist cosmology with modem physics are of the beginningless cyclic cosmology and the heavenly realms of Buddhism. At first, it does seem that modem cosmology in Physics does not support these claims. The common folk know of physics as proposing that the universe has a beginning, and that there is no evidence of heavenly realms or gods even when we can reach the moon. So the common presumption would be that Buddhist cosmology and contemporary astronomy and astrophysics are not brothers. Indeed they are not, as physics currently stands. However, what I intend to show is that neither are they enemies and indeed, they might even be identified as twins in the future.
Buddhist cosmology is beginningless is easily inferred by the suttas alongside SN 15.13, quote:
Transmigration has no known beginning. No first point is found of sentient beings roaming and transmigrating, hindered by ignorance and fettered by craving. If rebirth without materiality presence is impossible backwards to the infinite past, it means that here would be some beings at least would be reborn with a body. And a body requires a physical universe to exist in. Thus it implies that physical universe(s) also have no beginning. The “if’ on the first sentence is sort of implied by the sutta DNl, selected quotes are presented below: There comes a time when, after a very long period has passed, this cosmos contracts. As the cosmos contracts, sentient beings are mostly headed for the realm of streaming radiance. There they are mind-made, feeding on rapture, self-luminous, moving through the sky, steadily glorious, and they remain like that for a very long time. There comes a time when, after a very long period has passed, this cosmos expands. As it expands an empty mansion of Brahma appears Now, the being who was reborn there first thinks: ‘I am Brahma, the Great Brahma, the Undefeated, the Champion, the Universal Seer, the Wielder of Power, the Lord God, the Maker, the Author, the Best, the Begetter, the Controller, the Father of those who have been born and those yet to be born It’s possible that one of those beings passes away from that group and is reborn in this state of existence (humans on earth).
Incidentally, this also lays the evidence of the cyclic universe model of Buddhist cosmology, which DN 27 also repeats, almost word for word. Hence Buddhism requires a beginningless cyclic universe model.
Let us look at what Physics has to contribute to the table. A lot of people misunderstand the Big Bang Theory (the cosmology not the comedy show) as the theory which shows that our universe has a definite beginning. A lot of science articles for the laypeople presented it that way so that they do not have to explain the following.
We do not know the Bang of the Big Bang. Our physics theory breaks down near the fraction of a second after the Big Bang. Our experiments are just behind the mark by a little. The Large Hadron Collider was able to smash up to 5TeV of energy into each other, converted into Joules, the energy of our everyday scale, it is tiny, but to particles the size of atoms, it’s super hot, 5.8101 6 °C hot, which is the same temperature of the early universe at the age of 10•10 seconds after the Bang. The theory before that is mostly quite speculative, we can say something big may have happened , but we have no experimental data to definitively back our claims. The theory completely cannot describe what happens at the Planck time and before, 51-Q 44 seconds. According to most if not all quantum gravity theories, all which are speculative and not confirmed, time is fundamentally discrete, and Planck time is the smallest unit of time. Anything with less duration than Planck time is meaningless. Basically to tell what happens at the Bang, we have no idea.
Different quantum gravity theory can give different answers to the question: was there a universe before our universe? If we can find a cyclic universe model in physics without any beginning, then Physics and Buddhism are not enemies in this regard. The history of cyclic universe models in physics is quite fascinating. First we have the Big Bang, Big Crunch, followed by Big Bounce cosmology, naively modeled only with general relativity, with loop quantum gravity explaining how gravity becomes super repulsive near the Planck regime to explain the Big Bounce. It seemed to hold promise for the cyclic universe model to the future. Yet, the discovery that our universe is expanding at an accelerating rate rather than being slowed down by gravity to eventually get everything back as a Big Crunch kind of killed this theory for future cycles. Our universe is most likely not going to experience a Big Crunch due to gravity, thus no chance for a Big Bounce in the future. The theory got a second blow to be not past eternal when we consider that the second law of thermodynamics. It states that entropy, the measure of disorder or lack of information of a system, always tend to increase in a closed system. Applied to the universe as a closed system, entropy does not get reversed during the phase of the big crunch. The arrow of time is still toward disorder. Eventually, with each new universe, the entropy will increase and makes the next cycles longer and bigger. As the previous cycles are shorter, there will be a beginning.
So now all modern cyclic universe theories need to address for these two challenges , how to get a Big Bounce or another Big Bang despite the universe being accelerating expanding and how to deal with the entropy to have a model without a beginning and end.
There are three models which I am aware of currently.
- The Baum-Frampton model
This model assumes certain properties of dark energy, the hypothetical energy which physicists need to explain the accelerated expansion of the universe amongst other observation, but have no idea what it could be. Thus the name “dark” as in ignorance. It gives an application of how a model of dark energy can lead to a sudden turnaround of a small patch of universe to a small volume just before the Big Rip. That patch will have its entropy reset (by throwing out most of the stuffs in the universe) and then inflation restarts the cycle, beginning the Big Bang all over again.
Inflation is the hypothetical process some cosmologists think that happens near the Big Bang era, to account for several other observations in our universe. It’s a period when the universe expands super fast, much faster than the speed of light, for a very short time. Many models of inflation allow for some other regions of the universe to keep on expanding, thus this also produces more universes for each cycle. If there is an infinite amount of universe, then there would be no primordial (first) universe.
Possible experimental support would have to wait until we can know what exactly is dark energy first then measure if its properties are as this model requires.
- The Steinhardt-Turok model
This model is based on M-theory (you may know it by the name string theory) and assumes that our universe lives on a 4-dimensional brane (a fundamental object of the theory) that can collide with another universe of 4 dimensional brane in a higher dimension. Each brane is infinite in volume thus allowing for the accelerated expansion of the universe. In fact the expansion would clear the universe to vacuum again (solving the entropy problem) before gravity pulls two neighboring branes to another collision, producing the Big Bang. The collision would also explain away the things that standard cosmology uses inflation to explain. Since this cycle can repeat indefinitely, there is no beginning to this type of multiverse.
Possible experimental support would have to wait until we might one day build a galactic sized particle collider to see which quantum gravity theory wins out. If it turns out to be M theory, then this could work.
- Conformal cyclic cosmology by Penrose and Gurzadyan
This model allows for future expansion into infinity, but maps the future infinity to a the past Big Bang via a mathematical tool which rescales the universe. Only radiation can pass from one cycle to another, not matter, thus solving the entropy problem by allowing information to disappear. This however, would mean that quantum mechanics is wrong or at least not fundamental.
Possible experimental support would be to analyze the cosmic microwave background radiation for specific patterned predicted by this theory.
Each of them has very slim chance to ever to be verified, until the universe itself shows us how it ends and begins again, but I doubt if we can survive that journey inside the universe. Thus it would be rather falling upon the super mediators who have access to the Brahma realms (corresponding to full second Jhana mastery) which the Buddha said in the sutta above to maybe ask the residence there what happened. Whether this can count as scientific evidence depends heavily on scientist’s attitude towards this sort of evidence. I wouldn’t hold my breath through.
The second part of the essay talks about devas. What could they be? The suttas contains lots of references to them, but science does not have any direct evidence of them. In particular, AN 3:80 gives us a clue as to what devas could be:
A galaxy extends a thousand times as far as the moon and sun revolve and the shining ones light up the quarters. In that galaxy there are a thousand moons, a thousand suns, a thousand Sinerus king of mountains, a thousand Indias, a thousand Western Continents, a thousand Northern Continents, a thousand Eastern Continents, four thousand oceans, four thousand Great Kings, a thousand realms of the Gods of the Four Great Kings, a thousand realms of the Gods of the Thirty-Three, of the Gods of Yama, of the Joyful Gods, of the Gods who Love to Create, of the Gods who Control the Creations of Others, and a thousand Brahma realms. This is called a thousandfold lesser world system, a ‘galaxy ‘.
So each world system has one sun, moon, set of heavenly realms each. It fits in with the
- Higher dimensional beings, as in four space dimensions and above. As higher dimensional beings have more powers than lower dimensional ones.
- Beings from another parallel universe, like the brane multiverse from M-theory. If beings from another universe can cross over to our side, they must be technologically superior, which makes them almost the same as aliens, except for the place of origin.
- Advanced intelligence, as in Super Artificial Intelligence. As we create and improve upon artificial intelligence, they gain more intelligence, thus knowledge, power, and technology faster than us, eventually becomes the technologically superior life form. This has similarities with aliens too, but just not based on organic life form.
- Dark matter/ Dark energy beings. Dark matter is another unknown matter needed to balance out the rotation rate of galaxies which deviates from the predictions of general relativity. Together, dark matter and dark energy makes up 96% of the mass of our universe . We have barely any clue about what they are except for a few clues about how they must behave gravitationally and how much of them we need to fit in with our best theory and the data we observe. Thus with a majority of the universe being unknown to physics, we can put in anything in there, including gods.
- We are living in a simulated universe. Then the gods are either simulated too, or they are the programmers.
Again there is very little hope for physics to be able to verify most of these hypotheses, but the advanced intelligence one may come true within this 21st century. The best possibility maybe to ask those who has divine eye to help see which of the six scientific possibilities do devas fall into, or maybe none of them.
As I have limited space here, this link contains the full analysis in Physics and Buddhism of what could Devas be? https://physicsandbuddhism.blogspot.corn/2018 /11/devas-what-could they-be-pa rt-1.html
So far, even for the gods discussion, we can find that Physics and Buddhism may not be brothers, but they are still not enemies.
Yet there is one obvious contradiction between Physics and Buddhism cosmology. The mapping of mount Sineru, the four continents, four oceans. This is only ifwe go by the commentary comments on the sizes of these mountains , continents and oceans. As that size for the four continents added together exceeds the size of the earth. If we do not, then it can be easily mapped onto a lot of things on earth or other planets in the solar system.
All in all, there might be hope yet for Physics and Buddhism to not be contradictory to each other, but to learn from each other to advance each other’s knowledge. That’s basically brothers in knowledge acquisition. If one day, it turns out that experimental findings supports Buddhist cosmology, then physics might even become a twin to Buddhism!