Life as We Know It

  • Article
  • 3000 words
  • Level: all audiences

A 2012 article from Notre Dame Magazine, by Michael J. Crowe, a historian of science with the University of Notre Dame, and Christopher M. Graney.  Crowe and Graney write:

The Aristotelians were wrong; the Copernicans were right. Our home is not the center of the universe; it is merely one planet circling one star in an incomprehensibly vast universe. But what is the deeper significance of this important claim?

David Wootton suggests an answer in his recent biography, Galileo: Watcher of the Skies. The Copernican theory, he writes, “[O]ffered a view of the cosmos in which humankind, and the things that matter to humankind — love and hatred, virtue and vice, mortality and immortality, salvation and damnation — were irrelevant. Far from embodying a scheme of values, far from embodying a telos or purpose, [this] universe appeared to be indifferent to moral and metaphysical issues, and even indifferent to our own existence. . . . Galileo’s greatest and at the same time most disturbing achievement was to recognize that the universe was not made for the sake of human beings.”

Thus many see the significance of the Copernican theory as summed up in what is called the “Copernican Principle” or sometimes the “Principle of Mediocrity”: the claim that there is nothing special about our Earth, and by extension, nothing special about its inhabitants.

We, however, suggest the surprising conclusion that a number of important scientific results indicate that our great-grandchildren may live in a world where the “Copernican Principle” has been consigned to the dustbin. In their world Earth will be understood to be special indeed, possibly even unique, swimming in a vast alien universe that speaks to them about Earth’s specialness.

Moreover, in this universe they will still recognize the universe that many early Copernicans originally envisioned. For although the first Copernicans did see the Earth as orbiting the sun, most viewed the sun and solar system as being unique within a vast and alien cosmos of strange bodies that had little in common with the Earth, the sun and the solar system — a cosmos that spoke to Earth’s inhabitants of the power of God….

Certainly future generations will develop some equally interesting ideas regarding what science has told them about the universe and what it has to say about them and the special world on which they (and we) live, ideas that will affect their perception of religion and their popular culture, just as the “Copernican Principle” had an impact on Paine and Adams and brought us Star Wars. Their view of the universe will be as different from ours as ours is from that of the Aristotelians.

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