Today I digress from the topics you might have come to expect here. Exploring one that’s perhaps a little more serious, as well as divisive. One that’s also deeply personal to each individual.
So before we begin, I want to stress that these are my own personal views. Please don’t be angered if you don’t necessarily agree with them!
My objective here is rather selfish. I want to begin to clarify my own thinking and understanding of the subject. I expect this will be the first of many posts.
Maybe it’s the backdrop of the cataclysmic year we are currently enduring. Or maybe, it’s due to the fact I increasingly find myself studying at the intersection of the humanities and science.
But, whatever the case, I’ve been thinking more and more about our place in the universe, as well as our origins. With the ‘our’ here being the human species.
And of course, one of the first notions you stumble upon at this intersection is the topic of natural theology1Which, as I understand, is everything about the world not supplied by revelation.
When you start to think about human species more deeply, you quickly come onto the idea of privilege. Ever since the invention of civilisation, there have been privileged classes in societies. There have been some groups that oppress others and that work to maintain these hierarchies of power. The children of the privileged grow up expecting that, through no particular effort of their own, they will retain a privileged position. At birth all of us imagine that we are the universe, and we don’t distinguish boundaries between ourselves and those around us. This is well established in infants. As we grow up, we discover that there are others who are apparently autonomous and that we’re only one among many other people. And then, at least in some social situations, there is the sense that we are central, important. Other social groups, of course, don’t have that view. But it is generally those with privilege and status, especially in ancient times, who became scientists, and there was a natural projection of those attitudes upon the universe.
So, for example, Aristotle provided powerful arguments, none of them instantly dismissible, that the heavens moved and not the Earth, that the Earth is stationary and that the Sun, the Moon, the planets, the stars, rise and set by physically moving once around the Earth every day. With the exception of this kind of motion, the heavens were thought to be changeless. The Earth, while stationary, had all the corruption of the universe localised here.
Up there was matter, which was perfect, unchanging, a special kind of celestial matter that is, by the way, the origin of our word “quintessential.” There were four essences down here, the imagined four elements of earth, water, fire and air, and then there was that fifth element, that fifth essence out of which the heaven stuff was made.
Now in the fifteenth century, Nicolaus Copernicus suggested a different view.
He proposed that it was the Earth that rotated and the stars were in effect motionless. He proposed moreover that in order to explain these apparent movements of the planets against the background of more distant stars, the planets and the Earth, in addition to rotating, revolved around the Sun. That is, the Earth was demoted.
Copernicus, by the way, felt his idea to be so dangerous that it was not published until he was on his deathbed.
Aristotle’s view had been accepted fully by the medieval church, and therefore by the time of Copernicus a serious objection to a geocentric universe was a theological offence.
And you can see why, because if Copernicus were right, then the Earth would be demoted, no longer the Earth, the world, but just a world, an earth, one of many.
And then came the still more unsettling possibility, the idea that the stars were distant suns and that they also had planets going around them and that, after all, you can see thousands of stars with the naked eye. Suddenly the Earth is not only not central to this solar system but no longer central to any solar system.
There was a period in which we hoped that we were at the centre of the Milky Way Galaxy. If we weren’t at the centre of our solar system, at least our solar system was at the centre of the Milky Way Galaxy. And the definitive disproof of that occurred only in the 1920s, to give you an idea of how long it took for Copernican ideas to reach galactic astronomy.
So those who wished for some central cosmic purpose for us, or at least our world, or at least our solar system, or at least our galaxy, have been disappointed, progressively disappointed.
The universe is not responsive to our ambitious expectations.
The Catholic Church threatened Galileo with torture if he persisted in the heresy that it was the Earth that moved and not the Sun and the rest of the celestial bodies. It was serious business.
By far the best way I know to engage the religious sensibility, the sense of awe, is to look up on a clear night. I believe that it is very difficult to know who we are until we understand where and when we are. I think everyone in every culture has felt a sense of awe and wonder looking at the sky. This is reflected throughout the world in both science and religion. Thomas Carlyle said that wonder is the basis of worship. And Albert Einstein said, “I maintain that the cosmic religious feeling is the strongest and noblest motive for scientific research.” So if both Carlyle and Einstein could agree on something, it has a modest possibility of even being right.Carl Sagan
As I said at the beginning, this will be the first of many on this topic — there’s simply too much to explore and document in one sitting. I set myself the challenge of writing daily, with this being my fifth post. The problem with setting yourself the challenge of writing daily, is that the hours keep progressing and if you’re not keeping in tandem with them, suddenly you cannot keep your word. I started this a little too late today, so wasn’t able to give the post the attention and time it deserved. Tomorrow I will start a bit earlier.8