The evolution of science is a story of the shifting of the centre of the universe.
In most pre-scientific cultures, the earth was seen as a flat body with a specific geographically determinable centre. Of course, this is much after the times when the planet was supposed to be floating on the backs of 12 turtles!!!
In the second and third centuries BCE, the concept of a spherical earth gained currency, with the calculations of Aristotle and Ptolemy. This understanding was accompanied by the notion that the sun, the moon, the planets and the stars revolved around the earth; a theory that was largely accepted until the 17th century.
And then came Copernicus and his helio-centric theories that steadily gained credibility with Galileo’s writings, though he was forced to withdraw it before the might of the Roman Catholic Church. We all know how, even as he was recanting his theory, he muttered under his breath: Eppur si muove, meaning “albeit it does move.”
In the mid eighteenth century, the centre of the universe was pushed back a little farther. Scientific speculation grew that the Milky Way was a collection of a large body of stars held together by gravitational forces moving around a galactic centre. It was argued that Earth was at the its very edge and that all the heavenly bodies we see in our neighbourhood are revolving around some distant centre at the middle of the Milky Way. Thus we have the theory of the galactic centre of the universe.
The current thinking goes several steps forward: it speculates that the Universe is homogeneous, that is to say, the same observational evidence is available to observers at different locations in the Universe. The Universe is also isotropic, that is, the same observational evidence is available by looking in any direction in the Universe
A homogeneous, isotropic Universe does not have a center. Ergo, in about 2000 years, we have moved from a geo-centric universe to a helio-centric universe, and finally to a universe with no centre at all. It is a short story of but 2000 years of constant shift in the centre of the Universe. In the limitless fabric of space, it seems we can make no claim to be at the centre of it all.
On another index, that of time, the age of the universe is estimated to be about 13.77 billion years, give or take a 50 million! The age of the earth is calculated to be 4.5 billion years. Single celled bacteria is said to have developed about 3.8 billion years ago. About 2.5 billion years ago, multi-cellular life developed. Mammals evolved some 200 million years ago. Evolutionists say the dinosaurs ruled the earth for 140 million years, dying out about 65 million years ago. And human life evolved only about 200,000 years ago. Homo sapiens have thus been around only for about 0.004 % of the age of the earth. In the miasma of eternity, can we make any claim that this time right here is the most critical moment in the history of the universe?
What all religions claim, in fact, is that of all the billions of stars and planets in the firmament, of all the eons and eras of the universe, past present and future, this moment of today and now, and this space we inhabit on the third rock from Sol, is the focus point of the one true God; that all that went before, and will come hereafter, is irrelevant to the Great Plan, if there is one.
How inordinately selfish, and foolishly proud, can we be? The anthropocentric view of life considers human beings as the most significant entity of the universe, the central or most important element of existence. So, are we then the crowning creation of God? We who have lived on this planet for but a tiny fraction of the time since God said “let there be light”, can we claim to be the most magnificent and cleverest of God’s creatures? We, who cannot even say whether, as a species, we will be around in the next millennium?
The truth is that both in space and in time, we are not privileged, we are not central, we are not extraordinary.
We are faced with this conundrum if, and only if, we imagine ourselves to be at the centre of the universe, central to the purpose and meaning of the cosmos. If, for a moment, we have the strength of mind to push ourselves to the corner of the universe, if we can strip ourselves of our assumed centrality, if we can see ourselves as the debris of some monster machine, working blindly to the laws of physics and chemistry, if we use logic and reason (that God apparently gave us) to understand that we are but the workings of an unstoppable genetic evolution that began only some three and a half billion years ago, and will continue till it reaches some equally logical end at some inconceivably distant future, then perhaps, we will be able to see ourselves for what we actually are.
This does not mean that I deny the existence of a Creator. You only need to step out on a dark night and see the nebulae swirl in the heavens overhead to fall to your knees and know there must be a Master who drew the design of the cosmos. My argument is only with those who consider themselves as the centerpiece in the tapestry, that God created man and woman in his own form and shape and watches over us as a kindly parent would, loving and chastising, rewarding and punishing us for our deeds. That central role we assign to ourselves has no logic or reason which one can accept.
Nor does this mean that there is no purpose for our morality, for the ethics we employ to control lives, for the codes and laws and statutes and commandments with which we rule our violent existence? There is all the more reason for us to be governed by a common code based on order and reason, compassion and justice, as we try keep the darkness away; where we can with all humility celebrate the human existence and keep the howling devils lying just behind our eyes, from breaking out and destroying all that we have struggled so hard to create. We are the masters and servants of our own lives, and in the brief moments given to us in our allotted days, we must lift our heads up, and live the life we have been given, senseless, irrational and purposeless though it may seem. We must stare at the fate that awaits us in full knowledge and understanding of what it really is, and make the best of the days given us.
Bertrand Russell’s timeless essay “The Free Man’s Worship” puts it in a way that is matchless. You can read it at https://www3.nd.edu/~afreddos/courses/264/fmw.htm. I quote:
“Brief and powerless is Man’s life; on him and all his race the slow, sure doom falls pitiless and dark. Blind to the good and evil, reckless of destruction, omnipotent matter rolls on its relentless way; for Man, condemned today to lose his dearest, tomorrow himself to pass through the gates of darkness, it remains only to cherish, ere yet the blow falls, the lofty thoughts that enoble his little day; disdaining the coward terrors of the slave of fate, to worship at the shrine that his own hands have built; undismayed by the empire of chance, to preserve a mind free from the wanton tyranny that rules his outward life; proudly defiant of the irresistible forces that tolerate, for a moment, his knowledge and his condemnation, to sustain alone, a weary but unyielding Atlas, the world that his own ideals have fashioned despite the trampling march of unconscious power.”
There I have said it. These things have been swirling in my head for some time, but convention and rectitude confused me and struck me dumb. I need to think about this much more. I could spend a lifetime doing just that.