Jesus Creed

Jesus Creed

Faith and Culture 4

F&C.jpgI’ve been asked and given permission to publish this week a series of chapters from the new A Faith and Culture Devotional: Daily Readings on Art, Science, and Life


The Copernican Principle

By Guillermo Gonzalez, PhD, associate professor of physics at Grove City College
and a recognized expert on the astrophysical requirements for habitability. Gonzalez
is cofounder of the Galactic Habitable Zone and coauthor of The Privileged Planet:
How Our Place in the Cosmos Is Designed for Discovery;

In a memorable passage from the 1994 book Pale Blue Dot, the late astronomer
Carl Sagan reflects on an image of Earth taken by Voyager 1 from four
billion miles away:

Earth seems to be sitting in a beam of light, as if there were some special
significance to this small world. But it’s just an accident of geometry and optics.
. . . Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we
have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of
pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark.1


The idea that we are insignificant in the cosmic scheme, fashionable among
modern scientists, is known as the Copernican Principle, named after astronomer
Nicolaus Copernicus (1473 – 1543). According to the popular story,
Copernicus demoted us from our place of importance by showing that our
universe was not Earth-centered, but rather sun-centered, Earth revolving
around the sun like all the other planets. Or so the story goes. That story has
a single, decisive problem: it’s false.

The real story is more subtle. The pre-Copernican cosmology envisioned
by Aristotle, Ptolemy, and other ancients was a set of nested, concentric
spheres that encircled our Earth. The “center” of the universe was considered
no place of honor any more than we think of the center of the Earth as being
somehow exalted. It was seen as the corruptible, base, and heavy portion of
the cosmos. Things were thought to fall to Earth because of their heaviness.
The Earth in pre-Copernican cosmology was the “bottom” of the universe
rather than its “center.”


When Christian theology was added to the mix in the Middle Ages, the
bottom of the universe became, quite literally, hell. Dante’s Divine Comedy
immortalized this vision, taking the reader from the Earth’s surface through
the nine circles of hell, which mirror the nine celestial spheres above.

The “official story” gives the false impression that Copernicus relegated us
to an insignificant backwater and scientifically established the unimportance
of our “pale blue dot.” But far from demoting the status of Earth, Copernicus,
Galileo, and Kepler saw the new scheme as exalting it. They thought the
Earth’s new position removed it from its place of dishonor.
Let’s fast-forward four centuries and see whether recent astronomical
discoveries confirm these early astronomers’ convictions about Earth’s


If you were a cosmic chef, your recipe for “cooking” up a habitable planet
would need many ingredients. In order to maintain a stable, moderate climate
and produce an atmosphere that would sustain sentient, intelligent life, you
would need a rocky planet large enough to hold on to a substantial atmosphere
and oceans of water. You would need a large moon to stabilize the tilt
of the planet’s rotation axis. You would need the planet to have a nearly circular
orbit around a main sequence star similar to our sun. In order to avoid
excessive asteroid and comet impacts, you would need to give that planet the
right kind of planetary neighbors within its star system and put that system
far from the center, edges, and spiral arms of a galaxy like the Milky Way.
And, you would need to “cook” it during a narrow window of time in the history
of the universe.


The probability of having all these ingredients come together is small.
Earth-like planets are rare. While this fact contradicts the Copernican
Principle, rarity alone does not make the Earth and its inhabitants truly

Consider what it takes for scientific discovery. Read any book on the history
of scientific discovery, and you’ll find magnificent tales of human ingenuity,
persistence, and dumb luck. What you probably won’t see is any discussion
of the conditions necessary for such feats. A discovery requires a person to
do the discovering and a set of circumstances that makes it possible. Without
both, nothing gets discovered.

Although scientists don’t often discuss it, the degree to which we can
“measure” the wider universe from our Earthly home is surprising. Few have
considered what science would have been like in, say, a different planetary


Think of the following features of our Earthly home: the transparency of
its atmosphere in the visual region of the spectrum, a large moon (just large
enough to perfectly cover the sun during a total solar eclipse), and its particular
location in the Milky Way Galaxy. Without each of these assets, we would
have a very hard time learning about the universe. For example, scientists
were able to test Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity by observing light
“bending” around the sun during a total eclipse.

It is not idle speculation to ask how our view of the universe would be
impaired if, for example, our home world were perpetually covered by thick
clouds. After all, our Solar System contains several examples of such worlds:
Venus, Jupiter, Saturn, and Saturn’s moon, Titan. These would be crummy
places to do astronomy.


The central argument, the central wonder of our research is this: If a planet
satisfies all the requirements for habitability, it also satisfies the requirements
for making a wide range of important scientific discoveries. In other words,
the best places for observers are also the best places for observing. It is the
connection between life and discovery that makes our home a truly “Privileged

For reflection and discussion
? What new scientific discoveries have seemed to challenge your faith?
? How have you responded? How might you use the Internet or resources
in this book to answer any questions?
? If we are not at the center of the Universe, but rather on a terrifically
positioned observation platform, what does that suggest about God? And
about us?

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posted February 11, 2009 at 1:28 pm

Interestingly it is highly likely that in the future it will no longer be possible to make the kind of measurements we can currently make regarding the universe. I can’t recall the exact reason for this, but it has something to do with expansion. So our science has turned up “just at the right time”. . . .or so it would appear.

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posted February 11, 2009 at 2:59 pm

The first half of this, debunking the widespread myth that the Copernican revolution was seen at the time as demoting Earth from exalted status, is probably based on the work of Dennis Danielson at the University of British Columbia. For those who find this interesting and want to read more, the seminal reference is Danielson’s 2001 article in the American Journal of Physics (vol. 69, p. 1029, I don’t think it is publicly available), and I see Danielson has a paper on his website:
The writer of this essay may be familiar to some because his tenure denial at Iowa State (likely influenced by an atheist campaign against him) was a big stink a couple of years ago and was featured in the culture-war movie “Expelled”, on which I highly recommend this review:
His inclusion may lend more weight to the observations DOpderbeck has made about the overall outlook of this book — although my impression of Gonzalez’ work (and this essay) is mostly positive and it is more the company he keeps (the culture-war propagandists at the Discovery Institute) that bothers me.

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posted February 11, 2009 at 3:08 pm

I agree – my view of this essay is also positive.
Owen Gingerich’s book God’s Universe is also good reading and deals with design and the Copernican principle.

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posted February 11, 2009 at 3:42 pm

“If we are not at the center of the Universe, but rather on a terrifically positioned observation platform, what does that suggest about God?”
I never really looked at it this way. Being the center of the universe we’d be more rapped up in ourselves, while being in a privelaged position of observation we can better witness the manifest glory of God in our created universe and the celestial bodies in motion. In a sense, God wants to be the center of our universe that we can spend eternity with him.
P.S. Excellent job this past week and a half Scott being the featured blog. It started out a little racey (like Sex in the City) with the coffee drips and the Divine election will, but you’ve brought it together quite nicely in my humble opinion. Keep up the good work!

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posted February 11, 2009 at 5:02 pm

First, the points made about the Copernican principle are good.
Having said that, I am very bothered by the lack of intellectual humility found in the other “conclusions” made in this post.
I know this opens up all kinds of debates about the anthropic principle, but how can we possibly assume that our kind of life is the only kind that can develop? Similarly, the conjecture, “if a planet satisfies all the requirements for habitability, it also satisfies the requirements for making a wide range of important scientific discoveries,” strikes me as unjustified and terribly unscientific when we know of no other sentient races that we can use as a kind of reference point.
Who knows how many scientific discoveries we’re NOT making because of the environment we find ourselves in? Say, for example, there were sentient beings who “lived” their “lives” at the scale of an Angstrom: it would seem likely to me that they would have a much better understanding of quantum mechanics and nanometer scale physics than we do.
Perhaps God placed in an excellent position for conducting science or perhaps he didn’t. With no sort of “experimental control” I think its the height of hubris to assume that we can make these kinds of conclusions from our limited knowledge about creation.

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Jeremiah Daniels

posted February 11, 2009 at 9:43 pm

Great post!!
1. When I was young and in University, everything challenged my Faith. I do not blame the unbelievers — I blame the believers. They didnt prepare me for how to deal with questions. That’s a little harsh in some ways but on the mean correct.
2. I begin with belief and work my way from there. I do not get in a hurry to change my mind and I am not afraid of different ideas. I remember that behind every idea is an agenda — Christian or non-Christian. The internet is 15% treasure and 85% junk. Look for source documents and always look for criticism about the ideas you encounter.
3. I don’t know. Definitely helpful.

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posted February 12, 2009 at 12:18 am

The quoted material seems like another–if clever–argument for God from design. It has all the typical strengths and serious weaknesses of that take.
I’m not sure many thoughtful people–even within the church–will be convinced by this kind of thing. Arguments from design always strike me as a potential abuse of both science and religion.
But I do appreciate the power of this kind of approach to encourage lots of believers who feel intimidated by scientific thinking. Pastors have a different agenda than scientists.
As for ‘debunking’ the ‘myth’ that we aren’t as important in the overall scheme of things than our ancestors thought we were, well, I’m not sure how to respond to that.
I think science and experience over many centuries has taught us all that we’re just a very small part of a very (very, very, very) big and (very, very, very) complicated reality. I think history, art, culture and every other human concern was clearly affected in deep ways by the scientific revolution. We got smaller, and generally speaking, for the better.
That we’re at the heart of God’s concern is a faith statement that has little to do with science.
What has Athens to do with Jerusalem? Maybe more than Tertullian thought but perhaps less than some current apologists for biblical faith think.

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Lael Arrington

posted February 12, 2009 at 9:47 am

I suspect many Christians take ?celebrating Darwin Day? to be an oxymoron, while others appreciate this world-changing scientist on this, the 200th anniversary of his birthday. Rather than joining today’s well-orchestrated applause with unthinking disregard for his weaknesses or simply railing at the darkness of doubt that his theories have wreaked, we can remember the man for his complexity?his strengths, his flaws and his surprising regard for the gospel. (read more at A Faith and Culture Devotional blog

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