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From Chapter 4: Our Place in the Universe

Humanity’s fascination with the starry heavens is well attested from our earliest beginnings. Already in Paleolithic times our ancestors constructed monuments of astronomical and religious significance. Religion and cosmology are two sides of the same quest: understanding our place in the cosmos and touching the ever-receding horizon of the mystery ahead of us. To demonstrate, we began this chapter with a brief survey of cosmologies that governed the worldviews of the Ancient Near East. Despite differing founding stories, they shared a very similar cosmological picture based on what people at the time knew, observed, and experienced—a flat Earth with the dome of the sky above into which the celestial bodies and their courses were set. The Earth was the unrivaled geographic center of the cosmos. In classical antiquity under the influence of Plato and Aristotle, the Sun and the then known planets were thought to orbit the Earth in perfect concentric circles whose observable order testified to a superior intelligence behind all that exists. During the early Christian period Ptolemy’s geometrically structured model ruled. Still guided by Plato’s philosophy of ideal forms, this model pictured the planets and the Sun moving in epicycles around the Earth with the Prime Mover residing above the most distant sphere. With the sanctions of the church, this cosmology endured for more than eight hundred years until the Renaissance, when it was overtaken by the Copernican revolution.

Its collapse made way for a new picture of the world. As the imaginary hierarchies of older cosmologies faded, the newly emerging cosmology tended to increasingly reflect the mechanisms discovered in nature. Since Earth was no longer central, humans were likewise dislodged from their central position, making it more difficult for people to experience the world as God’s creation. When Newton introduced new concepts of time and space as absolutes, and space as a container, the mechanistic conception of the universe was complete, securing its three-century-long cultural and intellectual dominance in the West. Newton’s God was the Great Engineer who had constructed a cosmic clockwork, a view that even infiltrated theology. Although God still stood behind the laws of physics, once the universe was launched, God could retreat beyond the heavens. Superfluous in creation and in history, God was reduced to a formal absentee landlord.

However, this neat scheme collapsed with one stroke of Albert Einstein’s pen in 1905, when he announced his special theory of relativity. Space and time were no longer absolutes but formed a single dimension relative to each other. This shift in physics was so groundbreaking that it called for a new cosmology in which gravity and space-time combined to determine the large-scale nature of the universe. Discoveries in astrophysics and cosmology gave rise to previously inconceivable proposals: the universe is evolving; there are no separate independent entities as everything is connected to everything else; order and creativity are built-in properties of matter; matter and mind are inseparable; chance and lawfulness are not mutually exclusive but material manifestations of an underlying unity; the fundamental constants in the universe are finely adjusted to make life possible.

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