Palæos: Palaeos Historical discovery
of Deep Time
Time Premodern concepts of Time

Historical discovery of Deep Time

Premodern concepts of Time

Different Time-Scales

Different world-views have different time-scales as regards the history of the Earth and the universe.  Buddhist, Jain and Hindu cosmologies describe the universe as a never-ending series of cycles each lasting millions or billions of years.  The Greeks had the "great year" of 24,500 years, based on the precession of the equinoxes.  The time-scale of the fundamentalist or Creationist Judeo-Christian is based on a word-for-word reading of the first book of the Bible, and assumes a total age of the earth and the cosmos of a mere 5 or 6,000 (some Creationists allow 10,000) years.  Astronomy and Geology, working on scientific data built up over the last two centuries or so, assumes the Earth to be very ancient, more in keeping with the eastern than the western (Graeco-Judeo-Christian) perspectives.  However, whereas the Eastern perspective is (like the Greek) cyclic, the Western scientific understanding is strictly linear and evolutionary. We now know that the universe is billions of years old, the Earth about four and a half billion, and life on Earth 3.8 billion or more. Thinking about time in terms of geological and cosmological ages, rather than the few scant thousand years of biblical history, is known as "Deep Time".

Creation Myths

Creation Myths: the earliest and most universal accounts of the origin of the world are creation myths, and indeed myths and mythology in general, such as are masterfully described by Joseph Campbell.

Creation myths represent the, so to speak, plesiomorphic condition of human understanding, the original baseline from which all other cosmologiocal accounts have ultimately been derived, the collective unconscious in the psychological theory of Jung. This pre-rational or, as I prefer because I don't believe a linear interpretation is valid here (see my essay on Mythopoesis for why), non-rational, mode of understanding has nothing to do with the objective material world, but everything to do with the workings of the psyche. The cosmos, rather than described in a naturalistic manner, is described supernaturally and anthropomorphically, in terms of humanoid spirits, deities, and ancestors.

Apart from the original creation, which in a sense is outside time, or ever present (the world of the ancestors, the spirit world), time is thought of in terms of cycles of seasons, reflecting the nomadic tribal or settled agricultural society of the time.

Cyclic time

Most ancient cultures had a concept of time as cyclic, based no doubt, especially with agricultural societies, on the seasons of the year, and, with civilisations with early science, priesthood and so on, the regular movement of the heavens, such as Neolithic and Megalithic Europe (and modern paganism), Mesoamerican and Native American cultures, Sumerian, Egyptian, Babylonian, Ancient and Classical Greece and Rome, Indian (Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, etc), Chinese, and many others share the basic idea of time and in more developed cosmologies the cosmos as cyclical (although they would differ in details).

Time in monotheistic religion

Monotheistic religion: Most creation mythologies do not have a strong sense of history or time, but instead are characterised by magical and mythical thinking. In other words, there is the spiritual world, the world of the ancestors or of the gods, and the material world. The material world is however infused with the sense of numinous.

With the development of civilization and a priesthood, the gods became more distant, magic was replaced by myth. There was also for the first time a sense of history, as determined by the various dynasties of kings and pharoahs. Nevertheless, science and cosmology was still essentially mythopoetic, and the overall worldview was for the most part cyclic.

At some point, perhaps the early 1st millenium b.c.e., there developed in the Western Asia (originally Persia (Zorastrianism), later, following the Bablylonian exile, Judaism, and from there other Middle Eastern religions like Christianity and Islam) the idea that time is finite, and just as there was an original creation, so there will be an end. These religions differed from other creation mythologies in that they were not cyclic and atemporal, but based on the premise that all that matters is the personal revelation of a single creator deity, who revealed himself to prophets, or manifested in a Divine incarnation. Humanity is allowed a certain amount of time to choose the one true god. Therefore there is no need for a long time scale. Between Creation and Consummation however the world, which only lasts for a few thousand years, is static, just as the deity of that religion made it. Hence there can be no concept of physical evolution or transformation.

A cosmology based on a finite time-scale, defined in terms of patriarchs and prophets, implies these religions are historical rather than ahistorical, and indeed is a form of universal history. At the same time, the strong religious element means that this is nothing like the history of Herodotus, or even the king lists of Egypt or Babylonia. Rather it emphasises the need for repentance and the hope for salvation and compmesation in the next world. Also, depends on the absolutist belief in a single religion, which is assumed to be the only correct one, all other deities, faiths and creeds being lesser truths, if not outright falsehoods. Apart from the emphasise on religious exclusivity and a finite world span, no different to other creation myths.

Although this sort of religion was also to a large degree mythic, or, to use the terminology of Henry Corbin, imaginal, with the rise of rationalism and science there developed as a counter reaction a Creationist approach to religion explanation draws from a literal reading of the Biblical book of Genesis. In its most extreme form as Young Earth creationism, what was once a simple creation myth, the creation of the world, the life span on the patriarchs etc, is now claimed to be literal historical fact (see Ussher chronology). Creation came about through the activity of a single supernatural entity, "God", who created the universe and all life in six 24 hour days about 6000 or 10,000 years ago.  As well as Young Earth Creationism, which adopts a literalist apporach to Biblical creation, there is also Old Earth creationism, Gap creationism, Day-Age creationism, Progressive creationism, and religious forms of Intelligent Design (all of which accept the Earth as being very old). All reject the Darwinian revolution, and claim that Man did not descend from the apes, but was created personally by God, and thus the only creature to have a soul.  MAK990312 MAK110718

Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism

Eastern philosophy: India took the opposite route to the Middle East; rather than an the anthropomorphic deity and external wars and conquest and conversion, there is an emphasis on the philosophical, mystical, and spiritual, and inner or psychological technologies for the transformation of consciousness (yoga, samadhi), the goal being the attainment of an ineffable absolute reality.

In contrast to the monotheistic abrahamic religions of the West and Middle East, Eastern world-views, which are more mystrically, psychologically, and yogically orientated, have time-scales that use cycles of hundreds of thousands, millions, and even billions or trillions of years old. Although this seems as if they independently discovered "deep time", they still retain the same static cosmology as that of the monotheistic religions. However there is no concept of evolution or change, only endless, meaningless, cycles within cycles, and endless reincarnation through successive forms, determined by ones actions (karma) in previous lives.

So, even though there is reference to countless ages, yugas, kalpas, and so on, each of these constitute conditions the same as those of the present world, apart from the general deterioration from original paradisical golden age (the Satya Yuga or Age of Truth) through intermediate ages to the current Kali Yuga or dark age. At the end of the Kali Yuga, the Earth will be destroyed, and thehn after a period of dissolution (paralya) there will be a new Golden Age. The cycle then repeats itself indefinitely (this is the Hindu version, the Buddhist and Jain cosmologies differ somewhat in details). In each yuga, manvatara, and kalpa (as the cycles are called, the yugas being the smallest unit of time, although still lasting hundreds of thousands or millions of years) there are avatars (Divine world teachers), yogis, and the possibility of Liberation escape from the endless wheel of rebirth). Similarily in Buddhism, in every kalpa there are buddhas (of which the historical Buddha was only the most recent) and it can be assumed that social conditions were the same likewise. Note that fundamentalist Hindus such as the Hare Krishna movement are creationists; it denies the possibility of evolution, using pretty much the same reasoning as the Christian Creationists. However, Buddhism tends to be more open to Western ideas and insights, including evolution, as it is an atheistic path of pragmatic spiritual psychology, rather than a religious doctrine. For this reason, many people in the New Paradigm, Integral, and related movements are attracted to Buddhism. Nevertheless geography, cosmology etc remains no different to plesiomorphic creation myths (e.g. the flat Earth with Mt Meru in the center, and gods in teirs of heavens).

Because Buddhism, Jainism, Hinduism, Taoism, and similar worldviews all are variations on the same theme of infinite cycles and infinite rebirhs (pre-buddhistic Taoism however had no concept of reincarnation), and aren't too fussed about things like Darwinian evolution, contemporary exponents tend to adopt Western scientific concepts of cosmology, astronomy, geology, and deep time, which are, neverthless still subsumed under the traditional Eastern idea of a universe of infinitely repeated cycles. This last is universally equated with the oscillating universe theory. MAK980528, MAK110419

Universal History

Before there was geology and paleontology, there was history. This is because it's easier to understand the human world, especially if there are written records, or even an oral tradition learned by rote , than than it is to understand the natural world. The latter is dependent on empirical method, which is generally absent, or at least very poorly developed, in premodern cultures. This for most of human history, it was mythology, religion, cosmology, and history that provided the sens eof time and an understanding of one's place in creation. Eventually, history became differentiated from philosophy, cosmology, and even ethnocentrism, the result being Universal History

The following is from Wikipedia:

"In Greco-Roman antiquity, the first universal history was written by Ephorus (fl. 4th century BC). This work has been lost, but its influence can be seen in the ambitions of Polybius (203–120 BC) and Diodorus (fl. 1st century BC) to give comprehensive accounts of their worlds. In Leipzig are preserved five fragments dating to the 2nd century AD and coming from a world chronicle. Its author is unknown, but was perhaps a Christian. Later, universal history provided an influential lens on the rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire in such works as Eusebius's Ecclesiastical History, Augustine's City of God, and Orosius' History Against the Pagans.

During the Han Dynasty (202 BCE - 220 CE) of China, Sima Qian (145–86 BC) was the first Chinese historian to attempt a universal history—from the earliest mythological origins of civilization to the present day in Records of the Grand Historian. Although his generation was the first in China to discover the existence of kingdoms in Central Asia and India, his work did not attempt to cover the history of these regions."

Universal history therefore provided a sense of moderately deep time, of the universe as a reasonably ancient (at least measured in centuries) place, generally in the context of religion and mythology, until the birth of geology showed that the age of the Earth, and of the universe, is far greater than had been supposed. This was the origin of scientific deep time, as distinct from (and non-synonymous with) the metaphysical deep time of Eastern philosophy.

images not loading? | error messages? | broken links? | suggestions? | criticism?

contact me

content by MAK110418, long quotes from Wikipedia.

Creative Commons License

Unless otherwise noted,
all original text on this page may be used under the terms of a
Creative Commons License.
However, all graphics on this page (apart from the Palaeos header) are copyright their original author or publisher, apart from those indicated to be public domain or open source license