The Alchemy web site on Levity.com
and its parallels in the
‘Big-Bang' of Modern Physics
Adam McLean ©
In earlier articles I have tried to point out the links between hermetic and alchemical ideas and the developing current of thought in modern physics and cosmology. In this present piece I would like to pursue the strange parallels between the late 16th century reformation of kabbalistic cosmology that arose through the insights of Isaac Luria, and the recent reformulation of the ‘big-bang' into the so-called ‘inflationary model' of cosmic creation. Although the formulation of these two cosmologies was separated by some 400 years, we can recognise that they addressed the same problem, that of the emanation of the cosmos out of nothing.
Before Luria the main stream of kabbalistic ideas arose from the centres in Spain. From the Gerona school emerged the main statement of ideas on the sephiroth, while Moses de Leon put together the Zoharatic writings. This stream of mystical cosmology arose out of intuitive perceptions, and the writings of this period tend to be obscure and clouded in allusion rather than being deeply argued philosophical works. They derived their authority by appealing to interpretation of hidden wisdom in the canonical books of the Jewish tradition, the Pentateuch and Torah, rather than consistent argument. Thus, during this period it was assumed that the sephiroth and the layers, strata or worlds that made up the cosmos, emanated in some way directly from the Ein-Sof – the limitless being of the deity. There were, however, certain philosophical and theological contradictions in this simplistic emanation that were glossed over by the earlier kabbalists until Luria faced up to these problems, restructured the cosmology and resolved many of these paradoxes.
Similarly, the earliest formulation of the ‘big-bang' theory (first named in this way by astromomer Fred Hoyle in 1950) which pictured the universe as emerging or emanating from a single cosmic event, was flawed. If one followed its mathematical descriptions fully through to their conclusions it described states of affairs that did not correspond to reality. In particular it could not adequately account for the uniformity of the cosmos, the formation of galaxies, or the fact that the universe seems to be composed of matter rather than anti-matter. Cosmologists, however, clung to this model out of conviction, pushing its paradoxes to the back of their minds, and hoping that its problems would eventually be sorted out. Much of these contradictions were resolved by the ‘inflationary scenario' devised by Alan Guth in 1979.
I am not here suggesting that Luria foresaw the problems of twentieth century physics, or that cosmologists and fundamental physicists are secretly adept in obscure areas of kabbalah, however, it seems that the Lurianic kabbalists and the modern-day researchers of Creation were approaching the same cosmological problem, though using different sets of ideas. What these parallels do reveal is the way in which the human mind formulates and pictures an event as vast and awesome as the creation of the cosmos. The simplistic archetype of the cosmos emerging from a single source or event, in a straightforward way, does not satisfy the patterning of our minds and both these cosmologies found ways of introducing a ‘falling into matter' which harmoniously touches some archetype within our being.
Let us look at both of these cosmic pictures, beginning with the kabbalistic cosmology of Isaac Luria.
Luria's cosmos is not an abstract static one, but the world for him emanated out of a dynamic interplay of archetypal forces. In this way he departs from the cold rigidity of the earlier kabbalistic schemes. Our present world has arisen out of three great dramatic cosmic events–the Simsum, or contraction of God, the Shebirah, or breaking of the vessels, and the Tikkun, the reconstruction or rectification.
Before the Simsum, the various powers of the Ein-Sof or Infinite God, were harmoniously balanced and could not be separated from one another. These aspects were the opposing forces of Compassion (Rahamim) and Stern Judgement (Din), bound together in light. At the beginning of existence, the Ein-Sof withdrew into itself, creating an empty space (the Tehiru or vacuum), within which the forces of Din began to take on an independent life. This deeper concealment, or contraction of the Ein-Sof, thus resulted in a purging of the harsh dross which contained all elements of potential evil from the being of God. The empty space thus contained the forces of Din and a remnant, the Reshimu, or impression of the the Divine Light.
At this point the Ein-Sof emanated a ray, the kab ha-middah or "cosmic measure", which is represented in the first letter of the Tetragrammaton, Yod. This ray penetrated the tehiru and worked to organise the opposing forces that now filled this space, and brought into manifestation the Primordial Man, the Adam Kadmon. This is the first and highest of the Partzufim or Archetypal Persons that appear in Luria's scheme. At this point the four Worlds (Atziluth, Beriah, Yetzirah and Assiah) had yet to be emanated, thus Adam Kadmon essentially lives in a fifth and higher spiritual realm of existence. However, this fifth world contained four levels, which were described by the four expansions of the Tetragrammaton (AB=72, SG=63, MH=45 and BG=52), which appear often in kabbalistic numerology.
Initially Adam Kadmon did not have the form of a man, but appears as a set of ten concentric circles, the outer circle remaining in close contact with the Ein-Sof. These ten Sephiroth eventually reorganised themselves into the linear form of the human body. From the head and eyes of this Primordial figure bright light poured forth. This light was gathered and held by the vessels (Kelim) of the Sephiroth. These vessels, the primitive ten Sephiroth, could only receive God, they could not in any sense resemble the giving, creating power of the Ein-Sof. In this sense the vessels were incomplete and could not hold the light.
The vessels of the upper three Sephiroth Kether, Hokmah and Binah at first performed well in the task of holding the light, but when the light poured down through the lower vessels, from Hesed through Yesod, these six lower vessels shattered and were dispersed into the chaotic void of the tehiru. This was the Shebirat-ha-kelim, "the breaking of the vessels". The original vessels were in what is now the world of Atziluth, but when the light from above penetrated the Sephira Malkuth, this shattered into 288 sparks which failed to return to the primordial source but instead fell through the worlds, and became attached and trapped in the broken framents of the vessels which formed the kelipoth, the "shells" or "husks". These husks became the evil forces of the Sitra Ahra, the "other" or "under" world, preventing the return of the sparks of divine light to its source. Thus the light or energy of creation "fell into matter".
The next stage in the cosmic process, and the one in which we are ourselves living, is that of the Tikkun, the period in which processes of restoration and repair must be undertaken. The primary medium for this restoration is the light that continued to emanate from the eyes of Adam Kadmon. This light now became refashioned into a series of emanations known as the Partzufim or Archetypal Persons which restore order to the chaos of the Shebirah.
The Sephira Kether is reshaped into the Arikh Anpin, the "long-face" or Greater Countenance of the Ein-Sof, also named Attik Kaddisha (or Attik Anpin), "The Holy Ancient One". Hokmah and Binah form the two archetypal figures, the Partzufim Abba ("Father") and Imma ("Mother"), respectively. A fourth Partzuf is formed from the six lower Sephiroth, from Hesed to Yesod, and is known as Zeir Anpin ("the Lesser Countenance or face of the Divine"). A final Partzuf is formed round Malkuth, the Nukba de-Zeir ("the female companion to Zeir"), also known as Rachel-Leah.
Abba and Imma remain in a constant state of union (like the Shakti and Shakta in Hindu cosmology), and from this union is born Zeir. Similarly Zeir Anpin and the Rachel-Leah Partzuf, are joined in an eternal state of married union.
In Luria's scheme the Biblical Adam had the task of reintegrating the divine sparks as his being contained all of the various worlds, his body being a perfect microcosm of Adam Kadmon. Adam should have separated the divine sparks from the husks and restored them to the light of the divine. Adam of course failed in his cosmic task, and this responsibility has now been passed on to all humanity. It is the task of humanity to find the sparks of the spirit buried in the husks of the material world and and raise these sparks to their divine source. How this is achieved through spiritual exercises is a major part of Luria's Kabbalistic practice, but it takes us beyond the scope of this article.
Luria thus images creation as an exile of the sparks of light, and a parallel is drawn with the diaspora of the Jewish people. The Partzufim Abba and Imma in the world of Atziluth are the source of Israel Sabha, "The Ancient Primordial Israel", that exists on a spiritual level.
The core problem of the pre-Lurianic emanationist cosmology was that if God the Ein-Sof was perfect and limitless in his being, then what emanated from Him had to be itself perfect, and in a sense such an emanation was merely God revealing Himself rather than an act of creating a universe from which he could stand outside and apart. One of the central ideas of Judaism was that God stood outside and apart from the created world, a ‘hidden God'. If God directly emanated the universe then clearly He was in the Universe and bounded by the universe. In order that something non-divine and finite should come about, it was necessary that there was a radical break in the process of emanation, a dilug or Kefitzah ("leap" or "jump"). Thus to address this philosophical problem there arose the Lurianic doctrine of the Simsum, the withdrawal, concentration, or concealment of the Ein-Sof. Luria even describes a state of being before the act of creation, in which the Ein-Sof manifested to Himself the Ein-Sof Or (the "light of the Ein-Sof"). There is a parallel here with the earliest state of the cosmos that can be envisaged by modern cosmology, which we will look at later. At the beginning of creation the Ein-Sof withdrew into Himself through the Simsum, thus creating an empty space, a vacuum or void (called the chalal or tehiru). Next, the ray (the kav) from the Ein-Sof Or beamed into this primaeval vacuum and so proceeded the emanations as described above. Effectively, this distances God from the Creation even before anything has come into manifestation, it allows for a cosmos created ex nihilo, literally "out of nothing". We will see that the central idea of modern cosmology is the emergence of the universe out of the vacuum state.
The Inflationary Universe
Present day cosmologists picture the universe beginning around 15 billion years ago in the "big-bang". The energies involved in this explosion of space-time, matter and energy out of nothing were enormous, however, in the past two decades particle accelerators have allowed scientists to explore some of these energy densities in their laboratories (cooresponding to the state of the universe after one thousand billionth of a second), so the theories that have emerged about the big-bang are to some extent supported by experimental evidence and not merely upon speculation.
The universe emerged out of this point event and the space it occupied rapidly expanded until it filled up the vast tracts of space explored by astronomers. When we try to picture epochs close to the big-bang, all the energy and matter of the universe must therefore have been packed into a much smaller space, and therefore the universe had a much denser energy level. The earlier we go back in time, closer to the event of creation – to 1 second after the big-bang, to 10 to the power -3 or one thousandth of a second, to 10 to the power -9 a billionth of a second, and so on – the smaller a volume of space it occupies, and consequently the higher its temperature and energy density. The simplest of big-bang models thus assumed that at the instant of creation the universe had infinite density and temperature. The idea was that the universe emerged out of a naked space-time singularity, a kind of knot in space-time, like a black hole in reverse. This model of an explosive expansion from a point of nothingness (which had infinite density), raised more questions than it answered. In particular it proved difficult to see how the various physical constants and relationships between different particles had adopted the values they have. For example, the ratio of matter to photons of light (the so-called baryon number), or the relative strengths of the four fundamental forces of nature – gravity, electromagnetism, weak interactions, and strong nuclear force. If the value of some of these constants had differed by a fractional amount the universe would have taken a radically different course. On the macro scale, stars and planets would not have come into being, while on the smaller scale even the long-chained carbon based molecules that are the building blocks of living cells could not have come about unless the physical constants which constrain the nature of chemical bonding had adopted the values they have. Some philosophers and theologians saw the possibility of evoking the hand of God acting to adjust these various values to create the particular special conditions that gave rise to the universe we know today.
This period of theorising about the big-bang in the 60's and 70's is to some extent akin to the earlier kabbalistic cosmology, in which God had to play an active formative role in structuring the chain of events. Further there was the problem of what was before the big-bang singularity, and what caused it to happen. God could again be called upon for assistance.
Isaac Luria had realised that if God played a formative role in the structuring of the cosmos then the cosmos would be a direct manifestation of Him. God would not have been able to separate Himself from his creation, and therefore our created world would in fact be part of God's body.
In a similar way present day cosmologists did not feel inwardly happy with creation theories in which some factor, outside the equations and mechanics of creation, set the critical values of the constants of nature that determined the shape and form of our universe as we know it.
In 1979 Allan Guth, an american physicist, devised a theory which seems to have solved many of the problems inherent in the simplistic big-bang theory. He looked at a very early stage in the development of the universe from about 10 to the power -32 to 10 to the power -43 of a second after the initial creation. [10 to the power -36 for example, is a billion billion billion billionth of a second.] At around 10 to the power -43, the ‘Planck' moment when the strength of the gravitational force comes to equal that of the other fundamental forces, quantum gravitational events dominated the emerging universe, its minute bubble of space-time being subject to quantum fluctuations. The universe could indeed be described at that early epoch as a quantum fluctuation in the vacuum. The energy that the universe contained was bound up in special fields of force, (the Higgs fields named after the physicist who first described them) which were essentially unstable.
Above a temperature of 10 to the power 27 degrees centigrade which occurred during this early period of the universe, the Higgs fields were in equilibrium, however, once the environment fell below this they could release their energy through a process known as "spontaneous symmetry breaking". While the symmetry conditions are maintained the Higgs fields can hold considerable amounts of energy, without this energy having a mass. Only when the symmetry is broken does the energy bound up in the Higgs fields attain a mass. This breaking of the unified symmetry between the four fundamental forces results in the separation of gravity from the other forces and consequently the emergence of particles of matter.
In the inflationary model the Higgs fields are able to remain in equilibrium for an extended period in a special state known as the "false vacuum", a quantum vacuum state which can be described mathematically. During this period the false vacuum exerts an expans- ive force, a negative pressure, on the universe, which impells the cosmos to expand exponentially. In each minute fraction of time, 10 to the power -34 of a second, the diameter of the universe doubled, and this continued until the universe had expanded by a factor of 10 to the power 50 times its original size. This extreme exponential stretching of the fabric of space, faster than the speed of light, stored up masses of energy in the Higgs fields. After this period of inflation the Higgs fields can no longer remain in equilibrium and they spontaneously break their symmetries and release the energies trapped within them, filling the rapidly expanding universe with an intense dense fire of particles and photons.
We can see a parallel here between the Higgs fields and the vessels (Kelim) of the sephiroth, which were unable to hold the light energy that poured through them. The matter in the universe arose out of the breaking of the symmetries of the Higgs fields, which Lurianic kaballah parallels with the Shebirah, or "breaking of the vessels", and the falling down through the worlds of the husks or shells (Kelipoth).
In the inflationary model, the Higgs fields have energy pumped into them from the intense gravitational curvature of spacetime while they exist in a false vacuum state. When the universe eventually falls into a true vacuum state, its light energies and particles of matter come into being. The theory can account for the creation of the universe as a quantum fluctuation in this false vacuum of sufficient energy to allow the inflation process to get under way. Thus it provides a creation ex nihilo.
The inflationary model also resolves various problems with the naive big-bang from an singularity of infinite density and pressure; especially the problem of the large scale uniformity of the universe, the fixing of the parameters of the constants of nature, the existence of obscure particles called magnetic monopoles and other difficult and paradoxical aspects of the earlier theory.
As I indicated above, the inflationary model allows speculation about even earlier periods in the life of the universe before the inflationary period, in which the universe was a bubble of spacetime emerging out of quantum fluctuations in the false vacuum state. One speculation which has received some credence recently is that the universe began as a quantum fluctuation in an eleventh dimensional space. This resulted in four of the dimensions expanding (these being the three dimensions of space and one of time), while the other seven became wrapped up into a seventh dimensional sphere of extremely small size. These seven dimensions remain hidden from our universe on the macro scale which only knows the four outer space-time dimensions, though they do participate in the inner structure of particles of matter.
This idea is strangely paralleled in the Lurianic doctrine of the Ein-Sof contracting into itself and forming a tehiru or vacuum while its Ein-Sof Or expands outwards. The Simsum of the kabbalists and the folding up of seven of the eleven dimensions of spacetime are obviously related. Both of these cosmologies place this contraction before the formation of the false vacuum out of which the matter and electomagnetic or light energies of the universe was later to emerge.
In a strange way the physicists of today have come to retrace the philosophical and theosophical steps taken by kabbalists 400 years ago.