An American Mystagogue

Do you have a Synthetic or Analytic Cosmology?



“I’ve always been fascinated by physics and cosmology. It gets more and more scary the older you get.”

~John Banville



1. The study of the physical universe considered as a totality of phenomena in time and space.”

Most people have a functioning folk-cosmology that they live within and interpret information with on a daily basis. The question is what kind are they utilizing? For the majority of people, this question goes unanswered. Indeed, the question itself is usually never asked. Cosmological presumptions are nearly invisible to the average person, precisely because it is the foundation for their personal reality.  They do not question it more than the average person of any age questioned their personal or cultural cosmological ideas, instead viewing it as completely rational and attributing to other cosmologies past and present an air of ‘mythological’ triteness.

However, today we are going to take a look at two ways to quantity a cosmological outlook; analytic and synthetic, or Top-Down and Bottom-Up designs.

Analytic cosmologies would function on what is known as a Top-Down design. It is based on breaking down systems into smaller sub-systems. Generally speaking you would see this in a cosmology that starts at the “Top” with God, the Prima Materia, the Big Bang  or some kind of force or cause that started out the whole cosmic shebang and works itself all the way down to little ‘ole humans, and further down into atomic particles and the like. The big tell of a Top-Down design is that humans are generally considered somewhere near the bottom, or end, of the cosmic machine.

The world of a person who believes that God or some First Cause pushed humanity into being could be considered Top-Down. An idea that many material positivists and Christians could find in common for once perhaps, since they both run around the same Fiat Lux themed idea, though they disagree on what exactly caused it. The Top-Down cosmological design is especially prevalent in Post-Christian cultures. An example of Top-Down cosmology can be seen in the book of Genesis.

1 In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. 2 Now the earth was formless and empty,darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.

3 And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. 4 God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. 5 God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day.

6 And God said, “Let there be a vault between the waters to separate water from water.” 7 So God made the vault and separated the water under the vault from the water above it. And it was so.8 God called the vault “sky.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the second day.

~New International Version (NIV)




On the other end of the spectrum we have what could be called Synthetic cosmologies, or Bottom-Up designs. These get a bit trickier for the average person to wrap their mind around simply because we are used to being the end result of whatever forces we put our faith in for begetting our existence, be they ‘scientific’ or ‘religious’.

Bottom-Up design cosmologies would focus on the piecing together of smaller systems into larger ones so as to understand the universe, or reality. Synthetic design is sometimes referred to as a “seed model”, because of the way it grows outward with ever more complexity. Bottom-Up designs can start at the atomic level, or the idea of fundamental particles that make up the world and have convalesced things into existence, but it can also denote starting at your personal existence and moving outward, a ‘first-person’ cosmology so to speak, where your birth and life and experience are the foundation for your understanding of the universe.

An example of a ‘first person’ Bottum-Up design can be illustrated well with the Buddhist ‘Parable of the Arrow” which was allegedly given by Gautama Buddha to his disciple Malunkyaputta when the disciple asked why the Buddha would not answer the the Fourteen Unanswerable Questions, the Buddha’s response  follows below and illustrates a Bottom-Up, or first-person relevant world approach.

“It’s just as if a man were wounded with an arrow thickly smeared with poison.
His friends & companions, kinsmen & relatives would provide him with a surgeon, and the man would say, ‘I won’t have this arrow removed until I know whether the man who wounded me was a noble warrior, a priest, a merchant, or a worker.’

He would say, ‘I won’t have this arrow removed until I know the given name & clan name of the man who wounded me… until I know whether he was tall, medium, or short… until I know whether he was dark, ruddy-brown, or golden-colored… until I know his home village, town, or city… until I know whether the bow with which I was wounded was a long bow or a crossbow… until I know whether the bowstring with which I was wounded was fiber, bamboo threads, sinew, hemp, or bark… until I know whether the shaft with which I was wounded was wild or cultivated… until I know whether the feathers of the shaft with which I was wounded were those of a vulture, a stork, a hawk, a peacock, or another bird… until I know whether the shaft with which I was wounded was bound with the sinew of an ox, a water buffalo, a langur, or a monkey.’

He would say, ‘I won’t have this arrow removed until I know whether the shaft with which I was wounded was that of a common arrow, a curved arrow, a barbed, a calf-toothed, or an oleander arrow.’ The man would die and those things would still remain unknown to him.”

— Cula-Malunkyovada Sutta: The Shorter Instructions to Malunkya” (MN 63), Majjhima Nikaya


Essentially it comes down to which point you want to start in and which direction of cosmological complexity you want to go in. I say ‘which point you want’ because at the end of the day, cosmologies are ultimately less important than your actions. Analytic and synthetic designs aren’t mutually exclusive, and  human brain is more than capable of utilizing each.
~ Seth Moris