Does a Tiny Earth in a Vast Universe Mean Humanity is Insignificant?


The truth: Even ancient thinkers recognized that the earth was tiny in relation to the immense cosmos. In any case, size doesn’t necessarily mean significance, as many theologians and philosophers recognized. ~ Dr. Michael Newton Keas
Last time, I posted about a book dealing with science, history and Christianity that had graciously been made available for free both through Academia.com and Amazon.com by Dr. Michael Newton Keas entitled Unbelievable: 7 Myths About the History and Future of Science and Religion. As part of that blogpost, I quoted part of the book’s introduction where Dr. Keas raised the supposed problem for God’s existence arising from the existence of an insignificantly small Earth in an almost incomprehensibly vast universe. He identified the myth: “Premodern scholars in the Western tradition thought the universe was small—a cozy little place just for human benefit. Modern science displaced this Church-sanctioned belief with a vast cosmos that revealed humans to be insignificant.”

In the book, Dr. Keas points to a number of sources to show that while man may not have fully grasped that immense largeness of the universe, from at least the closing years of the Medieval period the idea that the universe was extremely large was unquestioned. Dr. Keas writes:
For example, the popular medieval work South English Legendary stated that if a man could travel upward at a rate of about forty miles a day, he still would not have reached the stellatum (“the highest heven that ye alday seeth”) in eight thousand years. The fact that this medieval stellar distance is much smaller than modern estimates gives the “premodern small cosmos” myth the superficial appearance of truth. But, as [C.S.] Lewis deftly argued: “For thought and imagination, ten million miles and a thousand million are much the same. Both can be conceived (that is, we can do sums with both) and neither can be imagined; and the more imagination we have the better we shall know this.”
So, perhaps they didn’t think in trillions and trillions of light-years, but they certainly recognized the vastness in terms of their own more limited scale of measurement. Eight thousand years was thought, at that time, to be greater than the number of years that the universe had been in existence, which made it a very large number indeed.

So, should these early thinkers have concluded that such a large universe pointed to man’s own insignificance? Quite to the contrary, even with an understanding of man’s incredible insignificance in light of the universe’s size, the immense size of the universe served as further cause to praise God for His wonderous works.

For example, one portion of Dr. Keas’ book sites the work of Christiaan Huygens, a Dutch Physicist and Astronomer who worked in the mid-to-late 1600s who was clearly a very serious scientist. A quick look at his Wikipedia page praises his scientific work:
Christiaan Huygens FRS, also spelled Huyghens, was a Dutch physicist, mathematician, astronomer and inventor, who is widely regarded as one of the greatest scientists of all time and a major figure in the scientific revolution. In physics, Huygens made groundbreaking contributions in optics and mechanics, while as an astronomer he is chiefly known for his studies of the rings of Saturn and the discovery of its moon Titan. As an inventor, he improved the design of the telescope with the invention of the Huygenian eyepiece. His most famous invention, however, was the invention of the pendulum clock in 1656, which was a breakthrough in timekeeping and became the most accurate timekeeper for almost 300 years. Because he was the first to use mathematical formulae to describe the laws of physics, Huygens has been called the first theoretical physicist and the founder of mathematical physics.
And the accolades for Huygens’ work continues on Wikipedia – more so than I want to spend time copying here. In his work, Huygens knew that the universe was even larger than the Medieval scholars had imagined. But the size of the universe did not somehow make God less likely. As Dr. Keas notes:
In his posthumous Cosmotheoros (1698), he wrote that earth, when seen in Copernican astronomical context, is but a “small Speck of Dirt.” He believed—based on a weak analogical argument—that the vast cosmos was filled with countless inhabited planets. Huygens wrote:
What a wonderful and amazing Scheme have we here of the magnificent Vastness of the Universe! So many Suns, so many earths, and every one of them stock’d with so many Herbs, Trees and Animals, and adorn’d with so many Seas and Mountains! And how must our Wonder and Admiration be encreased when we consider the prodigious Distance and Multitude of the Stars?
He suggested that this cosmic perspective has a few moral and theological implications:
We shall be less apt to admire what this World calls Great, shall nobly despise those Trifles the generality of Men set their Affections on, when we know that there are a multitude of such earths inhabited and adorned as Well as our own. And we shall worship and reverence that God the Maker of all these things; we shall admire and adore his Providence and wonderful Wisdom which is displayed and manifested all over the Universe.
Humility before the creator, not godless dethronement of humanity, is the appropriate response to a huge cosmos filled with varied forms of life (including intelligent ET), Huygens argued. (Footnotes omitted.)
In fact, as Dr. Keas also notes, man’s insignificance compared to the universe is actually alluded to in the Bible and the scholars of the day (who were certainly not as ignorant of the Bible as today’s scholars) took note of God’s foretaste of what would later be discovered.
[One] of the most quoted biblical passages in eighteenth-century astronomy literature is Psalm 8:3–5:
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,
what is man that you are mindful of him,
and the son of man that you care for him?
Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings
and crowned him with glory and honor.
King David sang of how insignificant we feel as we gaze upon God’s vast cosmos. Why should God care about puny humans? Yet God granted us slightly less than angelic celestial status. This song provokes great gratitude for God’s honor bestowed on humanity.
So, it is clear that the size of the universe alone, which has been known to the educated since the Medieval Age, did not and should not lead people to believe that God doesn’t exist. But should it lead us to believe that the Earth is not somehow specially created for humanity?

Coincidentally, J. Warner Wallace, author of Cold Case Christianity, recently published on this very point in his Quick Shots section of his blog, ColdCaseChristianity.com. The short article entitled Quick Shot: “Earth is just a pale blue dot in a huge hostile universe” [] makes an excellent point that the universe’s incredible size should not, in and of itself, lead to the conclusion that the Earth is somehow a cosmic accident. Wallace gives two answers to that position:
Response #1: “I agree that the universe is hostile to life. But how does that make the case against God? Doesn’t the existence of a planet like Earth, that overcomes the statistically impossible odds of existing in such an unfavorable universe – especially given the level of fine-tuning that is required for a planet to support life – demonstrate the need for Divine intervention? The odds of a planet like Earth, supporting the life that it supports, is more than just statistically improbable. It’s miraculous. Why wouldn’t the existence of a planet like ours demonstrate the existence of a Divine Creator?” OR “OK, imagine finding yourself in a vast desert stretching for hundreds of miles in every direction. As you walk in this huge wasteland, you discover a stone. Examining it closely, you find that something has been written on it. The words appear to be freshly scribed in dried blood: “Help! I have been kidnapped, and I am being held hostage a mile from here in a small red shack. Please contact authorities!” Should we ignore the stone and toss it back to the ground along with all the millions of other stones in this huge desert? Why should we consider this stone to be anything special? After all, this is just another stone among millions. They’ve been here a long time. Can you see why it doesn’t really matter how big the desert is, how many stones there are, how long the stones have been out here, or how old the desert is? This stone is special. It bears the hallmark of design and intelligence. It begs us to investigate further and to find the author. In a similar way, it doesn’t really matter how big the universe is, how many planets there are, how long the planets have been out here, or how old the universe is. Our little pale blue dot is special. It bears the hallmark of design and intelligence. Can you see why it begs us to investigate further and to find the author of life?”
The argument that an incomprehensibly large universe contrasted against a tiny speck of a planet makes God’s existence less likely does not bear the weight put on it. The fact that a planet in the vast cosmos exists which is incredibly well-suited to support human life is not cause to doubt God’s existence, but cause to give Him more praise.

Comments

Anonymous said…
BK: So, perhaps they didn’t think in trillions and trillions of light-years, but they certainly recognized the vastness in terms of their own more limited scale of measurement. Eight thousand years was thought, at that time, to be greater than the number of years that the universe had been in existence, which made it a very large number indeed.

However, they believed the earth was at the centre of that universe. I would suggest that thinking the planet you live on is at the centre of the universe is very different to thinking the planet you live on is just one of eight in this star system, which is merely 1 of 100 billion in this galaxy, which is itself just one galaxy of 100 billion just in the observable universe.

They believed they were in a vast universe, but they were at the centre of it. We now know that the universe is unimaginably vaster than that, and that our planet is an unremarkable speck. I think that is a big difference.

BK: So, should these early thinkers have concluded that such a large universe pointed to man’s own insignificance? Quite to the contrary, even with an understanding of man’s incredible insignificance in light of the universe’s size, the immense size of the universe served as further cause to praise God for His wonderous works.

Because they believed our planet was at the centre of the universe.

BK: And the accolades for Huygens’ work continues on Wikipedia – more so than I want to spend time copying here...

Worth noting this bit on the linked Wiki page though: "As a rationalist, he did not believe in an immanent supreme being and did not accept the Christian faith of his upbringing." That kind of destroys your point about him I think.

Pix
BK said…
Let's see, Huygens says: "And we shall worship and reverence that God the Maker of all these things; we shall admire and adore his Providence and wonderful Wisdom which is displayed and manifested all over the Universe." No, it shows that Wikipedia is not always accurate -- most particularly when it comes to faith issues.

And no, the idea that it was at the center doesn't really change much of anything.
Anonymous said…
BK: Let's see, Huygens says: "And we shall worship and reverence that God the Maker of all these things; we shall admire and adore his Providence and wonderful Wisdom which is displayed and manifested all over the Universe." No, it shows that Wikipedia is not always accurate -- most particularly when it comes to faith issues.

Fair comment.

BK: And no, the idea that it was at the center doesn't really change much of anything.

Of course it does! Believing you are the centre, the most important part, of a huge galaxy is ego-boosting. Believing you are an insignificant point in the huge galaxy is quite the opposite.

Consider this analogy. Two nations, one tiny, with a population of 100. the other huge with a population of 1 billion. Who is more significant, more important?

- An ordinary person in the tiny kingdom
- An ordinary person in the huge kingdom
- The leader of the tiny kingdom
- The leader of the huge kingdom

I think it is obvious that the most important person is the leader of the huge kingdom. He is the political centre of the kingdom, and the kingdom being larger magnifies his significant.

On the other hand, the least significant is the ordinary person in the huge kingdom. For his, the kingdom being larger reduces his significant.

Pix
BK said…
Read the comments policy. When the call is made that the conversation is done, it is done. I don't even read posts once it's done, so don't bother.
BK said…
"Believing you are the centre, the most important part, of a huge galaxy is ego-boosting. Believing you are an insignificant point in the huge galaxy is quite the opposite." You are confusing being the physical center of the universe with God's making man the crown of his creation. One does not have to believe that God put man as the center of the physical universe to understand that God is the true center of the universe and man is the highest of his creation.
The Pixie said…
BK:

Sure, people can believe any old nonsense. However, the belief we are the crown of God's creation is a lot harder to support when we know we are orbiting an insignificant star out of 100 billion in our galaxy, which in turn is just one unremarkable galaxy out of 100 billion.

In contrast, the medieval view that there is just one star system where all the astral body turn about our planet makes that belief seem quite reasonable.

The medieval view support us being the crown of God's creation, while the modern view does the opposite.
Does a Tiny Earth in a Vast Universe Mean Humanity is Insignificant?


Yes it does unless there's a God and he created us for a reason,
Sure, people can believe any old nonsense. However, the belief we are the crown of God's creation is a lot harder to support when we know we are orbiting an insignificant star out of 100 billion in our galaxy, which in turn is just one unremarkable galaxy out of 100 billion.

If you study the fine tuning argument you see life bearing placates are very rare, so that ups our capital . But the size i snot important we are the race created in God's image and for whom Christ died. You are on;y looking at externals
BK said…
"Sure, people can believe any old nonsense." ~ Absolutely, we just disagree with what is nonsense.

"However, the belief we are the crown of God's creation is a lot harder to support when we know we are orbiting an insignificant star out of 100 billion in our galaxy, which in turn is just one unremarkable galaxy out of 100 billion." ~ Not really. In many ways it points out just how remarkable it really is that in a vast universe, we are so important to God that He sent His Son to die so we might live. Makes us pretty darn important to God.

"In contrast, the medieval view that there is just one star system where all the astral body turn about our planet makes that belief seem quite reasonable." ~ That's because you are focused on the physical.

"The medieval view support us being the crown of God's creation, while the modern view does the opposite." ~ From one point of view, yes. Not from others.

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