Uniting Heaven and Earth

Posted on 1 February 2009

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The heavens have long symbolized the eternal, changeless perfection of the divine, while the earth has symbolized the ephemeral, changing flux of existence. Since ancient times, this division of heaven and earth has been a profound symbol of the separation humans feel from their divine source. We experience ourselves as ephemeral beings exiled from the eternal source from which we came, and we long for a return and reunification with this source. We long to reconnect heaven and earth, to experience the deep connection between the two.  Our desire to know the nature of the heavens is inherently religious.

Although heaven and earth have, at first sight, very different natures, they are also interconnected. The radiance of the Sun shines upon the Earth from above and gives life to everything here below.  The Sun evaporates waters from the oceans, drives the winds that carries that moisture to the mountains, where in falls, creating powerful rivers; the Sun feeds all vegetation with the energy they need to grow.  When animals eat these fruits and vegetables, they partake of the Sun’s power, releasing its energy in every beat of their hearts.  All life is deeply and profoundly connected with the Sun. This undeniable link between heaven and earth is a symbol of the bridge between eternity and time.

The connection between heaven and earth is manifested in the synchrony of heavenly and earthly cycles. Although the stars appear essentially eternal, a perfect image of timelessness, the Sun, Moon, and planets move through regular cycles in what Plato called a “moving image of eternity.” And these cycles of the Sun are synchronized with the daily rhythms of life. In the cycle of day and night we experience the duality of light and dark, life and death, warm and cold.  Our bodies pass through cycles of activity and rest, while our minds pass through cycles of consciousness and unconsciousness.  Our inner lives, as well as our outer lives, are powerfully attuned to this cycle. But while the passing days on earth result in aging and death, the cycles of the Sun repeat perfectly with mathematical precision. Although the heavens move, there is no imperfection, decay or death in their movement.

Because the cycles on earth are reflections of those in the heavens, we can come to know the heavens through knowledge of ourselves, and we can come to know ourselves through knowledge of the heavens. This revelation, expressed by the ancient insight, “as above, so below,” was certainly one of the most profound ever experience by the human species, and provided the root metaphor for many ancient cosmologies. Ancient astronomy was seen as a revelation of the profound connection between the rhythms of heaven and earth, and of the harmony of the entire cosmos.  The mathematical understanding of the observed astronomical cycles was thus a sacred science.

Of course, the daily cycle of the Sun is but one of the many astronomical cycles that can be observed. Another obvious but longer cycle involving the Sun is the annual cycle of the seasons. Each year, the length of the day gradually increases to a maximum at the height of summer and decreases to a minimum in the depths of winter. Like the daily cycle of day and night, all life is organized around this annual cycle. The trees drop their leaves in the fall and blossom in the spring.  Winters are dark and cold, while summers are sunny and warm. Spring is the time of planting seeds, while autumn is the time of harvest.

The Moon has its monthly cycle of four phases, which naturally divide the month into four weeks. Like the Sun, the Moon also influences the patterns of life on Earth.  The entire oceans of Earth rise and fall in the ebb and flow of the tides under the direct influence of the Moon.  These tides take sea creatures onto land, and take land creatures out to sea, providing an impetus for life to transition between land and water.  Even as land creatures, our physiology still remains influenced by the lunar cycle.

Because these the cycles of the Sun and Moon have clear connection with cycles of life on earth, it was natural to assume that the cycles of the other planets were similarly connected with life in some mysterious and subtle way. The basic premise of ancient cosmology, that heaven and earth are interconnected, implied that all heavenly cycles have some kind of imperfect reflection in the patterns of life. Thus, the study of the planets and their relationships with each other was viewed as a key to understanding ourselves and life in general.

Each celestial sphere has its own temporal period corresponding to the duration of its cyclic movement in the heavens. These rhythms correspond to frequencies having harmonies with each other.  The combined movement of all the celestial objects is thus a grand symphony of cosmic proportions. It is said that Pythagoras was so spiritually developed that he could “hear” this music, presumably because the heavenly spheres are simply the outer reflections of our own inner divinity.  Thus, insofar as we are conscious of this inner divinity, we are conscious of these qualitative aspects of the outer divinity as well.

The coherent and precise understanding of the cycles of the Sun, Moon, and planets requires a mathematical treatment. It is here, though, that mysterious problems emerge, for it was found that the various cycles do not harmonize with each other. The month is not equal to an integral number of days, nor is the year equal to an integral number of days or months. It was not possible to construct a single calendar that perfectly combines all these cycles into one coherent framework. For example, if the month is defined to be exactly 28 days long, then after several months the new moon will no longer begin at the start of the month. Similarly, if a year is defined as exactly 365 days, then the calendar will gradually drift out of sync from the seasons of nature. Driven by a faith in the comprehensibility of the cosmos, the ancients struggled with these patterns, looking deeper into the relationships between the cycles. This led to the discovery of even more subtle patterns, such as the precession of the equinoxes. Gradually, over thousands of years, the sphere of the stars gradually shifts ever so slightly. It is as if the cosmos has different asynchronous clocks to measure cycles having different periods of time. But their relationship to each other remained obscure.

The temporal cycles of the heavens were also evidently spatial cycles: the Sun is seen to follow a circular path around the Earth, as does the Moon and the sphere of the stars. The geometric circle is the perfect spatial image of temporal recurrence: Just as a cycle in time exhibits change yet repeatedly returns to an identical time again, so movement around a circle undergoes change yet repeatedly returns to an identical point. The different temporal cycles thus naturally suggested different circles in space, with the Sun, Moon, and stars pictured as concentric spheres. However, while the movement of the Sun and Moon was uniform, the movement of some planets was not: sometimes they went one direction, then other times they would reverse and go backward for a while, only to reverse again and continue forward. This retrograde motion posed a significant challenge to the ancient astronomers. What could explain this non-uniform motion?

For centuries, the retrograde motion was explained with complicated epicycles. Copernicus simplified the model by placing the Sun at the center of the solar system. The reversals were then explained to be illusions of perspective, and the daily motion of the sun around the earth only an appearance and not real. Although this retained the classical circular motion, this was a significant step away from the ancient worldview. Not only was the Earth no longer fixed at the center of the cosmos, but the reality of the cosmos shifted radically. No longer did the apparent motions of the Sun and Moon correspond to their real motion. What motivated and justified such a sacrifice? Although both the Sun-centered and Earth-centered systems both explained the appearances, the Sun-centered system introduced by Copernicus so much more simple and elegant than the complicated system of epicycles. It is remarkable that this intellectual elegance was sufficiently powerful to the human mind to usurp the obviousness of sensory appearances as well as the centuries-old dogma of the Aristotelian worldview.

Copernicus set the stage for another radical departure from the classical worldview: the dropping of uniform circular motion. As empirical observations of the planets became more precise, even the Copernican model was unable to fit the data without awkward, ad hoc modifications. After extensive effort to make a circular path fit the data, Kepler concluded that the planets must, in reality, follow elliptical orbits with the Sun at one focus. This bold step usurped the circle from its centuries-old place as the fundamental shape of heavenly motion. As with Copernicus, this revolution took place because the elliptical orbit provided a much more simple and elegant match with the appearances. Even though the circle itself is simpler than the ellipse, it did not have any simple correspondence with empirical observations of the planets. The ellipse, on the other hand, provided a perfect fit. Thus, the aesthetic quest for intellectual coherence drove astronomy to deeper and more subtle understanding of the patterns of the heavens, revealing truths that were not obvious in the appearances.

Not long after Kepler, Newton made a profound unification of the terrestrial and heavenly in his discovery of the universal laws of motion and gravitation. These same laws governed both motion of terrestrial objects and those in the heavens, providing an unprecedented unification of heaven and earth, guided again by the quest for mathematical coherence and unity. The ancient cosmology, which had been based upon the specifics of our particular solar system, was now seen as just one of many possible solutions to Newton’s general laws of motion. With Newton, a giant leap in abstraction was taken, grounding thought in universal mathematical laws rather than specific geometric models. The dichotomy of time and timelessness still exist, but are no longer associated with the obsolete distinction between heaven and earth. Instead, timelessness is a property of the mathematical laws that govern the entire cosmos, both heaven and earth alike, while time is experienced as a property of our specific cosmos, which is one solution to those universal laws. In short, the distinction between time and eternity shifted from a spatial distinction between earth and heaven to a distinction in the levels of manifestation that are universally omnipresent. At every point in space there is contact with timelessness insofar as the general laws are universal. And at every point in space there is contact with time insofar as this universe is a particular instance of those general laws. In this sense, modern science has accomplished the ancient religious quest to unite the realms of eternity and time.

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Posted in: Philosophy, Science