Sunday, October 4, 2009
How important is the human species, really?
This is a newly released photo of galaxy cluster Abell 370 taken by the Hubble Telescope. The Hubble Space Telescope is, at this point in time, one of the greatest achievements of human history. The science and technology behind this instrument is astounding, and that isn’t even saying anything about the discoveries that have been aided by the existence of the Hubble.
But that isn’t what I want to talk about here. I just want to speculate a bit about the role of human beings in the Grand Scheme of Things.
Take a close look at that photograph. Most of the objects captured in this extraordinary image are not stars. They are galaxies, similar to our own Milky Way. I would estimate there are anywhere from one hundred to three hundred galaxies show in that photo. That photo represents one very small fraction of the entire sky. There are literally billions of galaxies in the universe. Billions. In turn, each galaxy is made up of anywhere from as few as several million stars (such as globular clusters) to tens of billions of stars. It takes light about 150,000 years, traveling at 186,000 miles per second, to travel from one side of the rim of a typical galaxy like ours to the opposite side.
Now let's take a look at our smaller, more understandable solar system, where we are talking about a single star out of the literally trillions of stars that currently exist. It takes light around eight and one third minutes to travel the 93 million miles from our sun to the Earth. Probes sent to the outer planets, although they usually take a very circuitous route to take advantage of gravity assists, take years to get from Earth wherever they are going. This demonstrates that even our local neighborhood, which is a very tiny place indeed in the midst of all these billions of stars in the billions of galaxies, is a still incomprehensibly large.
Human beings cannot comprehend how large the universe really is. Astronomers and cosmologists really only understand it because they deal with that immensity every day of their lives. Everyone else deals with the universe on a scale that makes sense to them. Many Americans, for instance, do not seem to understand that there is an entire world of people and cultures that exist outside of their town, their state or their country. It’s no wonder that they cannot really grasp what the universe seems to be about.
Ancient cultures always put themselves at the center of the universe, because they had never experienced anything outside their culture. I do not want to get into what historically happens when cultures collide, or when one culture decides, for whatever reason, to pick up their stakes and move to an entirely new location. That is not the subject I want to explore here. My point is that the universe to ancient cultures was usually a very small place. To the inhabitants of Easter Island, the universe consisted of their island and the ocean. Native American cultures may have viewed their universe as a few hundred miles surrounding Chaco Canyon in what is now New Mexico. That was all they knew, so their customs and legends grew out of the belief that there was very little of interest beyond what they knew. “Here Be Dragons” was a warning that was placed on the white areas of maps.
I have taken a bit of time to set up my premise of this post. Most every culture in the history of mankind, it seems, has viewed itself as “God’s Chosen People.” These cultures had no reason to believe otherwise. Every culture seems to have had its own creation myth, to explain how the universe came into being. Part of this creation myth must also address how the People came into being. Some Native American cultures believed that they were descended from the beings who inhabited the underworld. Usually, the word that Native Americans used for themselves translated into something akin to “The People.” That meant, everyone else was not the part of tribe of true humans. They were “something else.” Only the People were The People.
Christianity seems to me to be no different. There is the creation myth; “God created the Heaven and the Earth.” There is the explanation of where humans beings came from; they are descended from Adam and Eve, who were themselves created directly by God. The ancient Jews became known to themselves as “God’s Chosen People.”
The point that I am making about these religious views that people hold regarding themselves is that they invariably put those people at the center of the universe. They are the only thing that matter. God or other diety is intimately involved in the lives, beliefs, actions and traditions of the Chosen People. There is no detail too small in the lives of the Chosen People. If you did things that God disapproved of, or even thought “inappropriate thoughts”, then God would be mightly displeased and you put your immortal soul at risk about going to Heaven or going to sit with your elders in the sky when you die.
Take a look at that picture again, and think about the immensity that we are talking about. Billions of galaxies, each with billions of stars, seperated by distances so vast that light takes millions of years to travel between them. If God created the Heaven and the Earth, then He created all of this.
My question is, if humans are the center of God’s attention, then what is the rest of the universe for? In the “big picture” scheme of things, it appears to me that humans are totally inconsequential. Galaxies gobble up other galaxies. Monstrous black holes suck up everything, including light, that comes within their event horizon. Suns explode in supernovas, taking out everything in the neighborhood. Our own sun, which seems to benign and has been the focus of so many religions in the history of mankind, is destined for this very fate. Earth will not survive this explosion.
Mankind is the center of God’s attention, such that He cares about whether you believe in Him or not? Or whether you think “impure thoughts?” He cares about whether or not someone engaged in extramartial sex? He cares about whether or not someone is gay, or that gay people might be allowed to be married to each other? I have heard, on a number of occasions, the basketball teams at Christian schools pray before every game, praying that playing the game of basketball “glorifies God.” I am sorry, but I fail to see how God could possibly be interested in such trivialities by a very small group of people on a tiny part of a tiny planet in a remote part of the Milky Way galaxy.
I have used this argument before, and I was accused of “not having an imagination.” Perhaps. But perhaps all the believers of God or whatever other diety they pray to suffer from microscopic vision, such that they cannot change their point of view that puts them at the center of the universe. To me, that is what happens when you teach a child, as soon as they are old enough to comprehend spoken language, that we ARE at the center of the universe and God DOES take microscopic interest in our daily lives.
If humans are indeed the center of God’s attention, then it seems that, to me, God is terribly extravegant and a very large showoff. Why wouldn’t the Earth be a big flat plane, just as people without science always envisioned it to be? That certainly would have been more focused.
I believe that the universe is a vast, mysterious and wonderous place. The things that science has discovered, and are continually discovering, about the place we inhabit are truly mindbending. I do not need an explanation that includes God to understand how amazing and wonderful it is that we even exist.