On Our Place in the Cosmos

Human societies throughout the ages have wondered about questions such as the following: Why are we here? What’s our purpose in life? What is the meaning of life? What’s our place in the universe? Is there a God? What does God want us to do? In other words and in the words of Carl Sagan, “What is our place in the cosmos?”

Many look to science for answers about the unknown. Unfortunately, science cannot answer any of the questions above because of science’s self-imposed boundaries of the observable events in the natural world around us. Science cannot differentiate the natural and the supernatural because science cannot empirically observe God’s hand; but that does not discount God’s existence. Prominent scientific writer Stephen Jay Gould wrote the following (Scientific American, 267, “Impeaching a Self-Appointed Judge”, 1992).

Science simply cannot by its legitimate methods adjudicate the issue of God’s possible superintendence of nature. We (scientists) neither affirm nor deny it; we simply cannot comment on it as scientists.

This does not mean those initial questions cannot be answered. Although science is a way of knowing, it is not the only way because science does not corner the way to truth. Philosophical, theological, historical, ethical, psychological/emotional, and political views provide additional perspectives. Therefore, it is up to each of us to put these things together.

Whereas science is the quest for understanding in nature, theology is concerned with the quest for understanding about the nature of God and his association with humans and the world that surrounds us; including all human affairs – including science. By aiming at questions of why, theology is an intellectual, reflective, moral, answer-seeking study about the meaning of the life and value that God intends for us. Therefore, through science and theology we learn our place and the natural mechanisms God uses to operate within His creation.

Strengthening our understanding of science, theology, and the interchange between them provides a greater understanding and appreciation for God’s creation – a greater sense of awe – a greater understanding to make connections of our place in the cosmos and a deeper understanding of His creation – our majestic, awesome, intricate, beautiful, continually growing universe.

Astronomer Robert Jastrow, who is in the video below, wrote these poignant words in God and the Astronomers:

At this moment, it seems as though science will never be able to raise the curtain on the mystery of creation. For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.

Enjoy the video.

26 thoughts on “On Our Place in the Cosmos

  1. As I’ve posted here before, science does not have to be exclusive of theology, and that science can even provide vital stepping stones to the higher reachings of theology. As the quote goes from “Contact”. “If only 1 star in a billion has planets, and if only 1 planet in those billion can support life, and if only 1 planet in those billion HAS life, and if only 1 planet in those billion has intelligent life, that means there’s thousands of civilisations out there waiting to meet us. And if not, well, it seems like an awful waste of space.” (Apologies if that’s not exact – like God Himself, my memory works in mysterious ways! 🙂 ) To look at the night sky, and to try to comprehend the trillions upon trillions upon trillions of accidents that must have occurred in just the right order to create the cosmos, boggles the mind. And as I’ve also stated before, some of the most devout men I’ve met have been particle physicists. I don’t think the scientists worry about the theologians encamped on that mountain. I think they worry most about reaching that summit, and finding nothing on the other side. Some might say that the universe becomes smaller and less significant with God. I say, it becomes smaller, more insignificant, and sadder without Him.

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    • John,
      Thanks for sharing your points that are worth pondering. Of course you reminded me of another post I can do. 🙂 Meanwhile, science and theology can and do interact in different ways, but I’ll leave it at that. 😉 PS: You sure have your share of sci fi analogies! 🙂

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      • What can I say, Frank? Some people have a Bible by their bedside. I have “Everything I Ever Needed To Know I Learned From Star Trek”. I hate to say it, but for many years “contemplating the great beyond” meant looking through TV Guide for showtimes of Battlestar Galactica (Classic), rather than any theological leanings. But then again, whether theologist or atheist, aren’t we all trying to figure out what happened “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away”? (Okay, maybe a little closer to home!) 😀
        “Contact” is compelling for one reason for me. The signal that is central to the story comes from the star Vega. As Jodie Foster travels to main action site, there’s a huge mob consisting of religious fringe groups, UFO folk, general nutcases, and – most importantly – the Chevrolet Vega Club of Southern California. My first car was a Vega – and I grin til my face hurts EVERY time they roll past the Vegas!

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  2. One of the difficult things for people to recognize is when the line is crossed from scientific interpretation(methodology, interpretation of data, scientific conclusions) to philosophical/theological interpretation. For example, one can look at the voluminous data and make conclusions about how evolution works and that it is the best current explanation of the data- that is science. This is a different endeavor than looking at the data and concluding that God does or does not exist- that is a philosophical/theological interpretation. These are both important and necessary interpretations ( scientific and philosophical/theological) we just need to be clear when we are doing each. It is one thing to accept the scientific data and conclusions, it is another sort of thing entirely to draw conclusions about the existence of God.

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        • Nancy,
          Some probably fall in both groups you mentioned, but (in my opinion), I tend to go with the latter. In general and as a whole, schools don’t teach evolution very well. On the other hand, churches are probably doing a worse job at educating their flock. Thus, this is an example where two negatives do not equal a positive. Thanks for your input.

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      • At the risk of offending folk (and Frank can tell you I’m PLENTY offensive :D), I think a lot of it is people trying to substantiate their beliefs with facts (for the theologians going scientific), or of narrow outlook tied slavishly to the scientific method (for scientists going anti-theology). Granted, most of my experience of scientists were with particle physicists, who are usually far more open minded than other groups (since they’re looking all possible methods to explain what they do or don’t know). Too many theologists see science as a threat, in that science is working to dismiss God. In reality they are VERY complimentary – most of the physicists I worked with were VERY ready to believe in God or a higher power, as building their models would often yield almost artistic, beautiful patterns. Unfortunately, it’s the nuts with their “we can’t find a soul on a CT scan” sensationalism that gets the attention. It would be good if we ALL could remember Einstein’s quote “I don’t study physics to find God, I study physics to learn how He made the universe work” (I hope that’s right). You can’t find God with a microscope, but it’s hard to believe this physical existence is merely an infinite number of lucky dice rolls.

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        • John, Like the Einstein quote (paraphrase?) Here’s something from Augustine.

          Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he hold to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods and on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason? Reckless and incompetent expounders of Holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books. For then, to defend their utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements, they will try to call upon Holy Scripture for proof and even recite from memory many passages which they think support their position, although they understand neither what they say nor the things about which they make assertion. [1 Timothy 1.7]
          Saint Augustine (A.D. 354-430) in his work The Literal Meaning of Genesis (De Genesi ad litteram libri duodecim) This translation is by J. H. Taylor in Ancient Christian Writers, Newman Press, 1982, volume 41.

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        • Nancy,
          Even in his time (350-430 AD), Augustine could see how science and theology can intertwine. And his is long before Sir Francis Bacon and scientific methodology. And as you well know, there are theologians through history and in the present who support a positive interchange between the two disciplines. Thanks for sharing!!!

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        • John,
          In terms of “too many theologians see science as a threat”. If one is examining the more conservative denominations, I would agree. On the other hand, there are many theologians who not only not view it as a threat, but also see it as complimentary as you mention. I know I also used the word “many”, but what is many? 500 is many compared t0 2, 4, or 6 … but 500 is few compared to 50 million. Therefore, a reason for many of the misconceptions. …. and yes, Einstein had many good thoughts about the science/religion interface and the differentiation between the two. Thanks for sharing your strong thoughts.

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        • Nancy- Thanks for that great quote! That’s an excellent justification for both a good science AND theological background.
          Frank – My apologies for any over-generalisation. It’s only recently I’ve had a lot of dealings with more liberal denominations – where I grew up, they practised hard-core Roman Catholicism and VERY orthodox Judaism, so a lot of my experience is a bit limited. I promise to do better next time! 😀

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        • John,
          No problem on the generalizations as I was simply using your statement to make a point, but not to be critical. Interestingly, the Roman Catholic theologians (and the Vatican) are support of our thoughts here today. In terms of Nancy’s point, the question is “Does the flock know this?”

          Besides, just because the conservative denominations are up-front about opposing science (especially in terms of evolution), it does not mean they speak for all of Christianity.

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  3. Enjoyed the post and the video. Your insight reflects a recent four-week class that I just finished. Titled, “Can a Smart Person Believe in God?” it was led by Michael Guillen, a theoretical physicist, former ABC science correspondent, and best-selling author of Five Equations that Changed the World. Dr. Guillen explained that it was the expanding knowledge and discoveries of science that led him to a belief in God, and it is only with IQ (Intelligent Quotient) and SQ (Spiritual Quotient) that we’re able to see that the universe has depth, able to see ourselves and others in our full, multidimensional glory, and able to see more beauty and meaning in life than we’ve ever imagined.

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    • Derrick,
      I appreciate Dr. Guillen’s title as it alone stimulates thinking. To me it means that in our age of reason and scientific discovery, science answers all about the universe. Thus meaning, if you are smart, you don’t need religion to explain the unknown. Let’s say, a very Richard Dawkins view. On the other hand, these are two disciplines seeking different answers, thus it is for us to put the pieces of the puzzle together …. and to embrace what both bring to the table.

      Welcome back & thanks for sharing!

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  4. Pingback: Flashbacks: On Perspectives | A Frank Angle

  5. On “Our Place In The Cosmos”,

    It’s common of course to compare science to theology of course, as you do here, Frank, but I submit that it misdirects from useful thinking. They are too different. Science is rational thinking based on evidence and repetitive testing. Theology is about searching for meaning without rational restraint, a.k.a., philosophy and ideology. Therefore I accept the conclusion that science can answer the questions what, where, and how, but not “why”. Nevertheless, science shows that we live in a cosmos that is consistent, logical and in the material sense, predictable.

    The dichotomy between science and theology leads to frustration. We all want life to have meaning, but that search is elusive and probably uninsurable. I submit that the better and more pragmatic approach to understanding our place in the cosmos would be economics. Isn’t that where reality really meets dreams?

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    • Jim,
      Thanks for your thoughtful answer here (and with other posts during my blog break). However, as I read your words, I see us agreeing … and reading more of my posts on Religion & Science would confirm that.

      Yes, the interaction between science and theology can be frustrating to some – but I assure you, not with me.

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