A good colleague of mine at my University of Durham’s philosophy department, Dr. Emily Thomas, recently posted a short essay with this title on the (wonderful) academic multi-disciplinary blogsite TheConversation. It’s had a great number of readers, one of whom was me. I like most of what Emily writes, but this time, as she knows, I had a rather strong negative reaction! So I thought I would write a little about this question on the Faith and Wisdom in Science blog, as it is clearly important for a good number of people.
Here is the short version:
- Yes the Universe is ‘mind-bogglingly big’ (thanks Douglas Adams) on the scale of the human being (see image and caption above)
- No, that does NOT imply in any way that the ‘Christian God’ is less likely to exist
- The argument confuses the two distinct categories of scale and significance (the old ‘size matters’ problem)
- Is, as typical of arguments from philosophers and scientists today that they believe impact on Christian theology, based on a level of triviality of theological learning and sophistication that makes me blush to read it.
So, just a little more on that. The confusion of scale and significance is an easy one to make – we are overawed by size, vastness, immensity. Of course we are. But that is a visceral reaction not a cognitive one. I hesitate to illustrate the point, but we do not ascribe a greater significance to a mountain than to a human baby simply because the first is 7 orders of magnitude larger than the second. One of the special abilities that humans have is to identify meaning and significance, and to associate that with narrative place and relationship.
To take a more cosmological example, we do not know how common life is in the universe (yes Drake equation, Fermi and all that – another time perhaps – but we really have no idea because we don’t yet have a process for the origin of life). We might be alone or the galaxy might be teeming with life. But whichever of those turns out to be the case, the microscopic and special event or events that start a tree of life on its way are extraordinarily significant, yet vanishingly tiny in time and space, compared with the 13 billion years, and light years of the cosmic T and R. Another vital point rides on this – namely that in order to have had enough time to manufacture heavy elements in the first generation of stars since the Big Bang, and to evolve a second generation of stars, planets and life since then actually requires a universe the size of ours. So the length scale of the cosmos and the human scale are physically and causally related, it turns out.
Thirdly, those who take the line that the largeness of the universe rules out a theology of specificity have forgotten that even our notion of scale ordering is conventional. Physicists, mathematicians, chemists and molecular biologists are used to thinking in ‘reciprocal space’. Its the space in which the diffraction patterns of molecular structure dwell, the realm of the Fourier transforms, of the photon fields in theoretical physics.
The figure shows an example. The point is that descriptions of reality can be made either in ‘real space’ or reciprocal space, in which the information on large objects is held in small places, and vice versa. In many ways, physics looks more natural in this space. If we were to apply the ‘large matters’ mantra in a view of the world through reciprocal space, then we would be led to favour the small, the detailed, over the large. Of course I am not advocating that automatically any more than its opposite, merely pointing out that the ascription of large or small numbers to objects in the world is conventional, so cannot carry any philosophical weight at all.
Finally we need to do out theology just a little better. Yes of course there is a strong strand of the particular and special in Judeo-Christianity. Israel, Moses, election, … and supremely the incarnation. But that is not the only strand. From the oldest texts there is alongside this an decentralising narrative as well. Readers of this blog will at this point not be surprised that we are going to go to the Book of Job for a reminder of the warning not to be exclusively anthropocentric about the world. For the pinnacle of Yahweh’s creation as displayed to Job in the ‘Lord’s Answer’ is not the human, but the sublime and ‘other’ creatures of Leviathan and Behemoth (from Job chapter 40):
15“Look at Behemoth, which I made along with you and which feeds on grass like an ox.16 What strength it has in its loins, what power in the muscles of its belly!17 Its tail sways like a cedar; the sinews of its thighs are close-knit.18 Its bones are tubes of bronze, its limbs like rods of iron.19 It ranks first among the works of God, yet its Maker can approach it with his sword.
Even the later and highly-developed Genesis 1 creation narrative does not stop with humankind, but reaches its climax with the Sabbath, God’s rest, where He is central. Jesus takes up the non-anthropocentric theme at several points in the Gospel narrative. It’s not ‘all about us’. A number of theologians have explored this theme – Christopher Southgate’s book The Groaning of Creation is a good starting point for a discussion that goes back to Aquinas and further.
So in conclusion, the findings of modern cosmology turn out to balance the place and significance of humans in much the same way that the Judeo-Christian narrative does.
It’s not the size, it’s what you do that matters, and who you are.