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The minding of Planet Earth – Cardinal Daly

30 April, 2012

Cardinal Cathal B. Daly examines the relationship between religion, science and ecology. He concludes that the human mind is able scientifically to understand the world because it discovers there the same presence of order and law by which it itself is governed. Mind in humankind and mind in the universe – both derive from the creative mind of God. And it is from this sharing in the mind of God that we can identify the duty to care for His world.


In The Minding of Planet Earth, eminent theologian Cardinal Cahal B. Daly addresses the relationship between religion, ecology and science, asserting that religion and science are complementary, not contradictory; both are needed for a completely satisfactory explanation of the world.

There is an intentional play on words in the book’s title. The word “minding” refers first to the fact that human beings, using their mind, can find traces of mind in the patterns of order and law in the universe. This makes science possible. By use of the same reason, we can rationally conclude that the mind or reason in human beings and the rational patterns in the universe have a common source in the Creative Mind of God, the Maker of both.

Minding also means ‘taking care of’. God gives human beings a share in His own minding of the planet; He places them in the world with a duty of care for the earth and its inhabitants. This is encapsulated in the triad: justice, peace and the integrity of creation. The Minding of Planet Earth pleads passionately for peace, for fair conditions of world trade and for a more equitable sharing of the world’s resources in a more just world order. It pleads powerfully for responsible use of the earth’s limited resources. The author puts the case for world development aid and the reduction of the debt burden of poorer countries. He insists that these issues must be faced with urgency if catastrophes on a cosmic scale are to be averted.

Yet, the book’s message is one of hope. It celebrates the beauty of the universe, which is a reflection of the Beauty of God; its background music is that of praise of God.

1. Science and Faith
2. The Galileo Case
3. Church and World
4. The Christian and Work
5. The Minding of Planet Earth (1)
6. The Minding of Planet Earth (2)

254 pp, Veritas, 2003. To purchase this book online, go to www.veritas.ie.

Chapter 1: Science and Faith

A very common reason given in our time for rejecting Christian faith is that it is incompatible with science. This charge is scarcely thought by its advocates to need proof or to require argument: it is treated as virtually self-evident. Faith and Church and religion generally are simply dismissed as unscientific, irrational, vestigial remnants of a prescientific and superstitious age, having no place in a modern rational society Richard Dawkins is the best known contemporary exponent of this kind of view, but it is not by any means a recent attitude towards religion. It was commonly shared in the nineteenth century by rationalists such as T.H. Huxley and in the twentieth century by his grandson, Julian Huxley. It was a standard topic for argument in nineteenth and early twentieth-century Britain. It was debated by H.G. Wells and G.K. Chesterton in packed halls up and down England. It was a commonplace in the polemical writings of Betrand Russell.

Indeed, we find it much earlier in the rhetoric of the eighteenth-century ‘Enlightenment’ in France, when ‘reason’ was assumed to have discredited and replaced Christian faith, reason being associated with modernity and ‘progress’ and ‘laicité’, and faith with’ clericalism’, backwardness and superstition. ‘Enlightenment’ thinkers indeed called their century the Age of Reason’. Newspapers in provincial France often have the title, ‘Le Progres’, which frequently betokens the ‘anti-clerical’ origin and orientation of the publication. The name alone subtly suggests that ‘laicity’ and anti-clericalism represent Progress while religion is associated with backwardness and ignorance, superstition and poverty. This was an unquestioned part of the official public culture in which Thérèse of Lisieux lived and struggled towards sainthood in provincial France towards the end of the nineteenth century. There are signs of its re-emergence in the public culture of Western Europe today – not excluding Ireland.

A British journalist, writing in The Sunday Times recently, remarked, quite casually, ‘the British like their debates rational, not religious.’ There is a déjà-vu feeling about a recent heading in an Irish Sunday paper over an article about the debate surrounding genetic cloning; the heading was: ‘Progress or Superstition?’ and the sub-heading: ‘Religion cannot be allowed to hold back the medical advances cloning can bring about.’ One of its sentences reads: “Soul’ is a supernatural fantasy that cannot be exposed to scientific analysis . . .’ The Galileo case, as we shall see, is often adduced as proof of the Church’s opposition to science. The article in question alludes to this case when it states:

The old idea that humanity was at the centre of the universe collapsed into dust in the face of Copernican truths (after a vicious attempt by the unreconstructed Church to stay standing) (1).

Some things apparently have not changed since Voltaire’s ‘Ecrasez l’infame!’ – ‘Crush the infamous Thing,’ where the ‘thing’ to be crushed was everything that was ‘irrational,’ and primarily the Catholic Church. I wish in this chapter to submit some reasons for rejecting such views of the relations between science and faith. Indeed, here and elsewhere throughout this book, I wish to plead for dialogue between science and faith as complementary ways of attaining truth. I shall argue that both are needed if we are to make sense of our own existence and of the world around us.

In this opening chapter, I propose to ask first whether such views about science and faith are historically true as accounts of the ‘copernican revolution’. I shall then try to show that post-copernican science, far from marginalising human beings in the vastness of the non-human universe, actually affirms man’s place in the cosmos as revealed by science; for science is the product of the human mind’s exploring of the world. I shall argue on a later page that there is a certain’ centrality of the human’ involved in the doing of science; there is a certain’ anthropic principle’ at work in the scientific enterprise. I shall then attempt to show that, so far from religion’s having been discredited and displaced by modern science, Christian faith and Christian theology have as a matter of fact played a vital role in creating the cultural climate in which modern science took root and flourished.

I then put forward some considerations which suggest that science itself, of its very nature, makes a number of assumptions, which it takes as ‘givens’, but which it cannot itself explain. Science raises questions which it cannot by its own methods answer. There is a realm of ‘mystery’ within and beyond science, which science itself cannot account for, but which the human mind cannot ignore. There is, as Greek philosophy already showed, a ‘meta-physics’ in and beyond the science of physics. Science cannot constitute the whole of human knowledge or of human exploration. Science cannot exhaust the remit of reason.

Then, since there seems to be a natural affinity between science and democracy, I look briefly at the role of Christianity in the genesis and the value system of modern democracy. Finally, in this chapter I look at the contribution of religion, and particularly of the Judaeo-Christian Bible, to the appreciation of beauty in the cosmos, and the place of nature’s beauty in that praise of God which is the Church’s liturgy.

Myth about the Medievals
The view that science is incompatible with faith is often expressed along the following lines. In the Christian centuries before Copernicus and Galileo men and women felt themselves to be comfortably installed in an earth-centred and human-friendly cosmos, whose sun and stars and planets revolved in harmonious circles around the human being, centre and lord of the universe, and revolved precisely for human edification and delight and benefit; and all of this was taking place under the benevolent eye of a God who was Himself man’s Alter Ego, a projection of man’s own image.

Copernicus and then Galileo, so the story continues, shattered this geocentric and anthropocentric complacency. Earth, they showed, is not the centre, and man is not the measure, of the cosmos. Consequently, the main foundation of human self-esteem is at once demolished; the basis of man’s sense of his own importance in the cosmos, indeed the basis of his religion, is in principle destroyed. This, it is argued, is the meaning of the copernican revolution. The full force of the destruction was not, indeed, at once perceived. But subsequent progress in astronomy and in science generally has only completed the process begun by Copernicus and Galileo. Science has cut man down to size – the size of a marginal, negligible and expendable accident in an indifferent, inhuman, and above all, irreligious cosmos. Science has, in brief, discredited and disqualified religion. (2) Religion is no longer an option for modern and post-modern human beings, at least for those who wish to retain intellectual integrity.

I wish to quote some of the classic statements of this theory. First, to show how pervasive it has been in the scientific era, I shall quote from David Hume near the beginning, and Sir Bernard Lovell nearer our end, of the modern scientific age.

David Hume, in Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779), asked:

What peculiar privilege has this little agitation of the brain that we call thought, that we must thus make it the model of the whole universe? … If thought, as we may well suppose, be confined merely to this narrow corner and has even there so limited a sphere of action, with what propriety can we assign it for the original cause of all things? The narrow views of a peasant who makes his domestic economy the rule for the government of Kingdoms is in comparison a pardonable sophism. (3)

Sir Bernard Lovell, giving his BBC Reith Lectures in 1958 on ‘The Individual and the Universe’, called his first lecture ‘Astronomy Breaks Free’; and in it he spoke of the work of Copernicus and Galileo as seeming to upset the long-held unitary conception of the cosmos, thereby having the potential to undermine the existing ethical and moral basis of life. Lovell said:

The coherence established under the guidance of Aquinas between the ecclesiastical doctrines and the basic idea of the fixed earth and finite universe, provided an organised scheme of great strength which formed the basis for physical and theological teaching in the Middle Ages. Attempts to undermine the central features of this scheme were bound to lead to bitter struggles. (4)

Sir James Jeans, who did not himself share this view; stated it well in his book, The Mysterious Universe. (5) But probably the most extreme and the most celebrated of all expressions of this point of view is that found in Bertrand Russell’s early (1903) essay, ‘A Free Man’s Worship’. (6) Russell begins by presenting Goethe’s Mephistopheles telling the history of the Creation to Dr Faustus in his study. Creation is God’s sadistic jest, a drama conceived in order that he might ‘be worshipped by beings whom He tortured’. At the end of the play, God smiled; and seeing that man was not perfect in renunciation and worship, decided to bring down the curtain; so ‘he sent another sun through the sky, which crashed into Man’s sun; and all returned again to nebula’. ‘Yes’, God murmured, ‘it was a good play; I will have it performed again’.

This, Russell contends, is an imaginative picture remarkably close to what science has shown to be the true picture of the cosmic process and of man’s place in it. I quote the Russell passage in full, since it is a classic piece of his early writing:

Such, in outline, but even more purposeless, more void of meaning, is the world which Science presents for our belief. Amid such a world, if anywhere, our ideals henceforward must find a home. That Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins – all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.

Brief and powerless is Man’s life on earth; on him and all his race the slow, sure doom falls pitiless and dark. Blind to good and evil, reckless of destruction, omnipotent matter rolls on its relebtless way; for Man, condemned today to lose his dearest, tomorrow himself to pass through the gate of darkness, it remains only to cherish, ere yet the blow falls, the lofty thoughts that ennoble his little day; disdaining the coward terrors of the slave of Fate, to worship at the shrine that his own hands have built; undismayed by the empire of chance, to preserve a mind free from the wanton tyranny that rules his outward life; proudly defiant of the irresistible forces that tolerate, for a moment, his knowledge and his condemnation, to sustain alone, a weary but unyielding Atlas, the world that his own ideals have fashioned despite the trampling march of unconscious power. (7)

Russell subsequently confessed that he did ‘not now think well’ of ‘A Free Man’s Worship’. When he wrote it, he says, ‘I was steeped in Milton’s prose, and his rolling periods reverberated through the caverns of my mind’! But it is permissible to think that there is more at fault in the essay than the prose style. From such an expert on logic, the argument seems, to borrow a modern euphemism, ‘logically challenged’. It may be wondered, for example, how despair, however reinforced with verbal unyieldingness, can provide a ‘firm foundation’, even for the habitation of something so unsubstantial as a materialist’s ‘soul’, which surely is, like the Emperor Hadrian’s, an animula vagula, blandula, pallidula, frigida, nudula, ‘a fleeting little wisp, pale and wan and cold and naked’. It remains a mystery as great as any how, out of this half-creature, there can emerge a being superior to ‘the resistless forces’ of matter, because aspiring to and challenged by ideals which’ are not realised in the realm of matter’; indeed’ an ideal of perfection which life does not permit us to attain’. This’ outcome of accidental collocations of atoms’, the human being, is yet mysteriously ‘free from the petty planet on which our bodies impotently crawl’. ‘We must learn, each one of us, that the world was not made for us’, cultivating the while, as best we may, ‘the pilgrim’s heart’, indeed meditating, in face of death and pain and the irrevocableness of the past, the’ sacredness… (the) awe… (the) feeling of vastness, the depth, the inexhaustible mystery of existence’.

Indeed, we are asked ‘to burn with passion for eternal things’; which seems difficult if indeed, as Russell believes, all is ‘destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system’ and to burial ‘beneath the debris of a universe in ruins’. Chesterton once remarked that we could recognise the nineteenth-century materialist by the religiousness of his language about the irreligious cosmos. This seems true of Russell in this essay.

For good measure, I refer to one more statement of this theme, one in which Miltonic melodies and Russellian strains can both be detected: it is a purple page of the late Professor C.E.M. Joad. I hasten to add that Joad stated this doctrine only to criticise and reject it. Nevertheless, his statement of it is still worth quoting:

Life then, if the materialists are right, is to be regarded, not as the fundamentally significant thing in the universe in terms of which we are to interpret the rest, but as an incidental product thrown up in the haphazard course of evolution, a fortuitous development of matter by means of which matter has become conscious of itself. It is an outside passenger travelling across a fundamentally hostile environment, a passenger, moreover, who will one day finish his journey with as little stir as once in the person of the amoeba he began it. In every direction the material and the brutal underlies and conditions the vital and the spiritual; matter everywhere determines mind, mind nowhere determines matter.

The prospects for humanity in this view are not encouraging, Joad points out. When the sun goes out, ‘a catastrophe which is bound to be’, mankind will have long since disappeared from the face of the earth. The last inhabitants of the earth will be as destitute, feeble and dull-witted as their prehistoric ancestors. Eventually the last survivor of mankind will

exhale to an unfriendly sky the last human breath and the globe will go rolling on, bearing with it through the silent fields of space the ashes of humanity, the pictures of Michelangelo and the remnants of the Greek marbles frozen to its icy surface. (9)

Whatever may be thought about an ice age as earth’s final future, this view, like that of Russell, is not one which favours or flatters mankind.

Historically False
The theory implied by these statements is coherent, and it offers some comfort to modern readers by stressing their’ ‘progressiveness’ as compared to previous generations; (10) but it is not in agreement with the facts. Essentially it rests on a flawed version of history, anachronistically interpreting the events and ideas of the sixteenth and early seventeenth century in the light of the psychology and ideology of people of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

The distinguished philosopher and historian of ideas, R. G. Collingwood, discussed the suggestion that copernican astronomy taught mankind for the first time that ‘man is only a microscopic parasite on a small speck of cool matter revolving round one of the minor stars’. He dismissed this idea as ‘both philosophically foolish and historically false’. He pronounced it philosophically foolish, because the relative importance of persons or things is not measured by ‘the relative amount of space they occupy’. The idea is historically false, Collingwood continued, because ‘the littleness of man in the world has always been a familiar theme of reflection’. Boethius, who lived in the late fifth and early sixth century, had already stated this in his book, De Consolatione Philosophiae.

Collingwood quotes from this work, which, he reminds us, was perhaps ‘the most widely read book of the Middle Ages’. Boethius wrote:

Thou hast learnt from astronomical proofs that the whole earth compared with the universe is no greater than a point, that is, compared with the sphere of the heavens, it may be thought of as having no size at all. Then, of this tiny corner it is one-quarter that, according to Ptolemy, is habitable to living things. Take away from the quarter the seas, marshes, and other desert places, and the space left for man hardly even deserves the name of infinitesimal. (11)

Collingwood concluded:

Every educated European for a thousand years before Copernicus knew that passage and Copernicus certainly did not risk condemnation for heresy by repeating its substance. (12)

C.S. Lewis points out that in the second century AD the astronomer, Ptolemy, had written a work called The Almagest, which was ‘the standard astronomical handbook used all through the Middle Ages’. Ptolemy wrote:

The earth, in relation to the distance of the fixed stars, has no appreciable size and must be treated as a mathematical point. (13)

Ptolemy’s message about the infinitesimal smallness of planet earth in relation to the vastness of the universe would, like the Boethius passage, have been known, therefore, to every educated European for a thousand years before Copernicus.

One might add that medieval philosophers were not completely unfamiliar with the heliocentric hypothesis. This was recognised as a conceivable – though hypothetical – alternative to the geocentric system. St Thomas Aquinas, in the Summa Theologica, distinguishes between hypothesis and proof in astronomy. He writes:

There are two sorts of explanation possible in respect of any given subject-matter. First there is an explanation which adequately proves the truth of the initial hypothesis; an example would be the proof, in natural science, of the uniform velocity of the movement of the heavenly bodies. A second type of explanation is one which does not amount to a proof of the initial hypothesis, but, on the assumption that the hypothesis is true, shows that observed consequences agree with what would be expected to follow on this assumption. An example of this would be, in astronomy, the hypothesis of eccentric cycles and epicycles: this hypothesis is justified by the fact that, if we make this assumption, then the observed phenomena of motion of the heavenly bodies can be accounted for. But this does not amount to a proof of the hypothesis; for it is possible that these phenomena could be accounted for equally well by other hypotheses. (14)

This distinction is later to figure prominently in the Galileo controversy. Cardinal Bellarmine, in his efforts to persuade Galileo to treat copernicanism as a hypothesis, is indebted to Aquinas for his conception of the role of hypothesis in science. It is interesting to note that the manner in which Bellarmine, following Aquinas, treats of scientific hypothesis has some parallels in the hypothetico-deductive method often used by modern science. (This is the method whereby a scientist offers a formula or a. mathematical equation as a possible explanation of a given phenomenon, and then deduces from this the effects which would be expected if the hypothesis were correct, and finally sets up experiments to determine whether these effects are verified in reality.) Speaking of Bellarmine’s reply to Galileo, James Brodrick suggested that, as a piece of scriptural exegesis, Galileo’s views were much superior to Bellarmine’s, whereas, ‘as an essay in scientific method’, Bellarmine’s views are ‘far sounder and more modern than Galileo’s’. (15) The resemblances, however, are superficial. Bellarmine, like Aquinas, had no conception of the experimental method characteristic of modern science. Brodrick’s interpretation of Bellarmine is in this respect mistaken.

On the other hand, Sir Bernard Lovell was in error when he made his Aquinas ground his’ ecclesiastical doctrines’ on ‘the basic idea… [of a] finite universe’. Aquinas indeed argues that a body cannot be of infinite magnitude; but he admits that his arguments are not conclusive or necessitating. (16) Clearly, his difficulties about spatial infinity are contingent, not conceptual, much less theological. But on the .guestion of temporal infinity, he is explicit: there is no conceptual and no theological impossibility for him in the hypothesis of a temporally infinite duration of the cosmos. (17) Time, Aquinas teaches, is a measure of events in a world which is contingent and therefore necessarily a world of change. Time is continuous with the duration of the world; it is ‘co-created’ with the world. When there is a world, and for so long as there is a world, there is time. Apart from the world, there is no time: the world ‘begins’ therefore with time, but not in time. The ‘beginning’ of the world, so far as human reason and philosophy are concerned, is an aspect of its existence as dependent totally on God, rather than a determinable date in its duration. Aquinas formally and repeatedly refuses to base the truth of creation or the proof for the existence of God, on the assumption of a temporal origin of the cosmic process. ‘The world exists’, he declares, ‘for as long as God wills it to exist, for the being of the world depends on God’s will as its cause.'(18) Hence, whether the duration of the world be infinite or finite, can be known, not from the nature of the cosmos, but only from the Revelation of God. (19)

When Aquinas, in his ‘five ways for proving God’s existence’, repeats that ‘one cannot regress to infinity’ (non est procedere in infinitum), this has nothing to do with a ‘walled-in universe’. (20) It has nothing to do with a five thousand-year time-scale since ‘the morning of creation’. Aquinas explicitly shows that he means, not that it is physically impossible to proceed backwards in an infinity of astronomical time, but that it is metaphysically useless to do so, so far as accounting for the existence of the cosmos is concerned. (21) The point for Aquinas is that the cosmos, in all its being, depends totally on God. Its creation, philosophically speaking, is its absolute ontological dependence, not its chronological beginning.

In the next chapter I deal more extensively with the ‘Galileo case’, which demands special attention because of its role in shaping modern attitudes to the relationship of science and faith. Here, I simply remark that only a very slight acquaintance with medieval literature or art is needed to convince us that medieval man, with his spatially finite, geocentric cosmos and his Infinite God, felt far more humble, more little, more insignificant, more dependent, than does modern secular man, with his infinite universe and no God. If the medieval cosmos is walled-in, it is not by its defective cosmology and astronomy, but by its awe before the mystery of the universe and the mystery of God, before divine majesty, before the certainty of eternal judgement. Medieval religious art illustrates this vividly: as, for example, in Fra Angelico’s Last Judgement scene. It could plausibly be claimed in a 1965 broadcast on ‘Dante’s relevance today’ that, though ‘Dante is seven hundred years old this summer, yet he is still the most topical poet for a cosmonaut floating in space to read. (22) The medieval sense of mystery can still retain all of its power for a contemporary scientist.

The Centrality of the Human
The idea that the human being’s importance or significance in the cosmos is a function of relative size or of spatio-temporallocation, is, as Collingwood declared, philosophically foolish. Bertrand Russell once criticised traditional philosophy for beginning with the problem of how we know. This, he held, is a mistake:

It tends to give to knowing a cosmic importance which it by no means deserves, and thus prepares the philosophical student for the belief that mind has some kind of supremacy over the non-mental universe . .. I accept without qualification the view that results from astronomy and geology, from which it would appear that there is no evidence of anything mental except in a tiny fragment of space-time, and that the great processes of nebular and stellar evolution proceed according to laws in which mind plays no part. (23)

But surely the sciences of astronomy and geology which reveal these’ great processes’ are themselves discoveries of the human mind’ and show its supremacy over the non-mental universe. The existence of these sciences is possible only because the processes of the non-mental universe are intelligible to human minds, and therefore have some relationship with human thinking. One cannot discredit the human intellect in the name of science, which is itself one of the greatest products of the human intellect. (24)

Science is the thinking of humans on the earth, it is what Hume’s Philo called ‘the little agitation of the brain that we call thought’. But science is the measurer of the entire cosmos throughout all its ‘mind-less’ space and ‘human-free’ time. The possibility of science proves that mind and nature have between them some kind of ‘pre-established harmony’; for science is the discovery by the human mind of a pre-existing pattern in nature, which is responsive to the postulates of thought, warp to the weft of the workings of mind; and yet is not mind-made. The human body is ludicrously puny in comparison with the cosmos; but in mind a human being spans the cosmos, reaching out to its farthest horizons of space and back to its uttermost aeons of time. The human mind arrived in the cosmos very late in evolutionary terms; but the cosmos has forever been mysteriously shaped for understanding by the human mind. The cosmos had, one may say, been long ‘waiting’ for man’s arrival with ‘mind-friendly’ features, which only the human mind when it eventually came could recognise.

In another sense too the cosmos can be said to have been ‘waiting’ for the arrival of the human species long before homo sapiens came into being. The environmental elements and combinations of elements which are consistent with the appearance of human life in the cosmos and capable of sustaining it are extremely complex. Aeons of astronomical and geological time were required to bring them into being. We are now only beginning to understand how fragile and vulnerable this combination of elements is. How and why did this come about? How and why did conditions come to be which were suited to the appearance of the precise kind of creature which is the human being? It is as though the universe, in this sense, was ‘waiting’ for the arrival of mankind. What I have called the human-friendly nature of the universe has been termed the ‘Anthropic Principle’. It is completely at variance with the Russellian picture of the universe as alien and indeed hostile to human life. It is in agreement with the theistic concept of the universe as having been created by an infinitely wise and good Creator and so arranged as to be able to contain a planet suitable to the existence of the human being and capable of being understood by the human mind. As the scientist and theologian John polkinghorne puts it, this theistic concept of the universe offers, at the very least, an ‘insightful account of what is going on’. (25)

Many modern cosmologists, such as Gold and Bondi, adhered to the hypothesis of the endless duration of the cosmos; an hypothesis according to which’ continuous creation’ of matter is balancing cosmic expansion in such a way as to keep the universe in a constant ‘steady state’. Thus, at any given point of endless time or boundless space the broad-scale features of the universe remain the same for any observer. Bondi and Gold subscribed to the ‘Perfect Cosmological Principle’, formulated by Bondi in these words:

The large-scale aspect of the universe is always the same, irrespective of position and time… If the universe looks the same from all places at all times, then our physics is universally valid. Location in space and time is irrelevant. (26)

Many of these cosmologists and astronomers would perhaps accept as indisputably true the Russellian story which I have been calling a myth. But they should surely see that their Perfect Cosmological Principle assumed that the cosmos has for ever been attuned to man’s mind and man’s mind to the cosmos in a manner to which ‘location in space and time is irrelevant’. The ‘Steady State’ theory seems to have been excluded by contrary evidence of an evolving universe. However, one may ask whether science is not committed to a different kind of ‘perfect cosmological principle’, one which assumes the accessibility of all matter throughout all space and all time to man’s scientific intellect and indeed to man’s mathematics. We shall see in the next chapter how one of the founders of modern science, Galileo, declared that ‘this grand book, the universe, … cannot be understood unless one first learns to comprehend the language and to read the alphabet in which it is composed’; and went on to say that it ‘is written in the language of mathematics’, its characters being ‘triangles, circles and other geometric figures’ .

Three centuries later, Fred Hoyle wrote:

What Einstein’s principle of ‘relativity’ states is that whatever your environment, the same mathematical equations will suffice to describe your observations. (27)

What is this but a postulate of what can be called scientific ‘anthropocentricity’? In thought, in science, man is the centre of the cosmos. It has been fashionable to accuse metaphysics and religion of a naive and pre-scientific anthropocentricity and anthropomorphism. (28) But in truth there is an unavoidable dimension of a certain kind of ‘anthropocentricity’ and’ anthropomorphism’ about all human thinking. To avoid ambiguity, one should perhaps speak of an ‘anthropic’ dimension, rather than an ‘anthropocentric’ one; for the latter term suggests ‘anthropomorphic’. Human thinking is by definition’ anthropo-thinking’, the thinking of anthropos. Scientific thinking is, in that sense, no less and no more man-based and man-shaped than metaphysical and religious and theological thinking. Copernican astronomy is, in this epistemological sense, no less’ geocentric’ and’ anthropocentric’ than aristotelian astronomy. Astronomy is knowledge on the part of arithropos-man on the earth. There is, in this specific sense, no non-anthropocentric science, no non-geocentric astronomy. All human thought and knowledge, including science, are by definition anthropic. And yet there is no ‘ego-centric predicament’. Humans can think only human thoughts; but it is a well known epistemological fallacy to conclude that they are therefore only thinking thoughts, not knowing things. F.H. Bradley scornfully wrote of the theory of the ‘relativity of knowledge’:

‘I know what I know’, ‘I experience what I experience’. ‘I want what I want’, indeed, ‘here be truths’; much the same as ‘I am what I am’; but it is a poor neighbourhood where such truths can be considered as making the fortune of a philosopher.(29)

It is only through and for earth-bound anthropos-man that the scientific picture of the cosmos exists. It is only for human beings that the universe becomes a cosmos with a logos. Without man, without human beings, there is no cosmology – but only a chaos which does not even have a name. The implication of science is in this sense one with the message of Genesis:

And the Lord God, having formed out of the ground all the beasts of the earth, and all the fowls of the air, brought them to Adam to see what he would call them: for whatsoever Adam called any living creature, the same is its name.(Genesis 2: 18-20)

And this in turn is the same truth which Heidegger and Sartre utter when they say that man is the being through whom meaning comes into the world, Indeed the universe’s infinities of quantity are themselves revealed as infinitesimals of worth in comparison with the mind that knows them. None better than Pascal felt the awful immensities of astronomical space, yet took its spiritual measure.

When I consider the short duration of my life, swallowed up in the eternity before and after, the little space which I fill, and even can see, engulfed in the infinite immensity of spaces of which I am ignorant, and which know me not, I am frightened, and am astonished at being here rather than there; for there is no reason why here rather than there, why now rather than then. Who has put me here? By whose order and direction have this place and time been allotted to me? Memoria hospitis unius diei praetereuntis The eternal silence of
these infinite spaces frightens me…. (30)

But Pascal goes on:

Thought constitutes the greatness of man… Man is but a reed, the most feeble thing in nature; but he is a thinking reed. The entire universe need not arm itself to crush him. A vapour, a drop of water suffices to kill him. But, if the universe were to crush him, man would still be more noble than that which killed him, because he knows that he dies and the advantage which the universe has over him; the universe knows nothing of this.

All our dignity consists, then, in thought. By it we must elevate ourselves, and not by space and time which we cannot fill. Let us endeavour, then, to think well; this is the principle of morality …..

A thinking reed. It is not from space that I must seek my dignity, but from the government of my thought. I shall have no more if I possess worlds, By space the universe encompasses and swallows me up like an atom; by thought I comprehend the world. (31)

That ‘I comprehend the world’ is itself a metaphysics encapsulated in a word: to ‘comprehend’ is to understand and explain, and, therefore, also to exceed, to transcend, the comprehended. Also, it remains as true in the age of science as it was for Ecclesiastes:

All things are hard: man cannot explain them by word. The eye is not filled with seeing, neither is the ear filled by hearing. (Ecclesiastes 1:8)

Opus scientificum semper impeifectum; the work of science ‘is perpetually incomplete. Science can never exhaust or fully satisfy man’s need to know. Man aspires insatiably beyond the limits of all possible science, beyond the infinities of boundlessness to the Infinite of Perfection, beyond inference and hypothesis to Vision. Science reveals the truth of Browning’s lines:

And thus I know this earth is not my sphere,
For I cannot so narrow me but that
I still exceed it.

‘When I Behold the Heavens’
It seems sometimes to be assumed that it was science which first revealed to human beings the immensity of space and time. This is not so. I have already referred to Boethius and to Ptolemy’s Almagest. Furthermore the sense of distance and of antiquity is as much a matter of existential impact as of mathematical computation. Medieval humans, for whom travel shared one word with travail, had perhaps a greater sense of distance and of human lostness in it, than have we who live in the age of supersonic speed and space travel and light-years and the telecommunications revolution. The sense of time is psychological as much as chronometric. Medieval man, whose historical time was less packed with known data, whose lived time was less filled with change, than ours, may have had as strong a sense of the remoteness of the ‘In the Beginning’ of the Book of Genesis as we with our geological and astronomical timescales.

This is particularly true of the sense of awe aroused by the immensity of the heavens. The two sources of the sense of awe for Kant were the ‘contemplation of the starry heavens above and of the moral law within’. But to have the sense of awe beneath the heavens it is necessary to look up; and ancient man and medieval man did this as much as, or more than, modern man does. There can be as great a sense of cosmic immensity to be derived from long gazing at a star-filled sky as from looking through a telescope or watching spacecraft launchings on a television screen. It is only such looking that will translate the unimaginable milliards of astronomical calculations into felt immensities. And this was done perhaps more often in the past by religious men and women than in the present by non-religious scientific men and women. Yet even so, the solar eclipse of August 1999 and the landing on the surface of Mars of the probe Rover in January 2004 evoked in many people a sense of awe which can truly be described as in some sense religious.

Nearly three thousand years ago a Hebrew went out into the night to gaze at the heavens, and was suddenly overwhelmed by the sense of his own insignificance beneath the stars and cried out:

when I behold the Heavens, the work of your hands,
the moon and the stars which you arranged,
What is man…? (Psalm 8)

Modern astronomers have scarcely conveyed the sense of planetary and human insignificance better than Isaiah:

Have you not understood how the earth was founded:
He lives above the circle of the earth,
its inhabitants look like grasshoppers
He has stretched out the heavens like a cloth
spread them like a tent for people to live in …
Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown,
scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth
than He blows on them. Then they wither
and the storm carries them off like straw.
(Isaiah 40: 21-4)

This is from the section of Isaiah known as the ‘Book of the Consolation of Israel’. The consolation consists in Israel’s knowing by faith that this Almighty God loves His tiny creature, man, with an unconditional love and that His almighty power is manifested above all in His pity and His mercy.

Is it not, incidentally, ironical that the same writers who condemn religion for making men proud and possessive towards the cosmos, as filling them with emotional reassurance and security, are found in nearby pages castigating religion for making men humble and self-distrustful, for filling them with fear and guilt and shame?” Little wonder that Chesterton concluded:

What again could this astonishing thing be like which people are so anxious to contradict, that in doing so they did not mind contradicting themselves? … Such hostile horrors might be combined in one thing, but that thing must be very strange and solitary. (33)

The whole story about religion having a vested interest in a reassuring and consoling cosmos is, of course, contradicted by the alternative story coming from the same sources suggesting that religion results from pre-scientific fear of cosmic unknowns. What science understands and controls, we are told, man ceases to hold in religious awe and fear; therefore, as science advances, and man’s knowledge and power increase, religion withers! The truth is that some of modern humans’ greatest fears actually are fears of what science, uncontrolled by ethics, is capable of doing.




1. Johann Hari, ‘The Sunday Tribune’, 15 February 2004

2. Some of the writing popular in the 1960s about ‘religionless Christianity’ assumes as a premise the truth of the theory that copernican astronomy definitively destroyed the religious picture of the cosmos. See the Bishop of Woolwich’s Honest to God, SCM 1963, and The New Reformation, SCM 1965; John Wren-Lewis, ‘Does Science Destroy Belief? in Faith, Fact and Fantasy, Fontana Books, 1964, pp. 11-44. These draw extensively on Barth, Bonhoeffer and Tillich. See Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters from Prison, Fontana Books, 1959, pp. 90-95, 106-10; Ethics, Fontana Books, p. 75-78, 88-109; Paul Tillich, The Shaking of the Foundations, Penguin Books, 1962, pp. 11-21,59-70,99-108; The New Being, SCM Press, 1963, p. 63-91; Theology of Culture, A Galaxy Book, Oxford University Press, New York, 1964, pp. 43-51; The Courage to Be, Fontana Books, 1962, pp. 114-34; 176-83, E.L. Mascall was a penetrating critic of this thesis: see his The Secularisation of Christianity, Darton, Longman and Todd, 1965, especially pp. 10740, 190-212; see also his Christian Theology and Natural Science, Longmans, London, 1956, especially pp. 1-31,91-104, 132-55. Cf. Daniel Jenkins, Beyond Religion, SCM Press, London, 1962.

3. Hume’s Dialogue Concerning ‘Natural Religion’, (edited with an Introduction by Norman Kemp Smith), Nelson (1935), 1947, p. 148.

4. A.C.B. Lovell, The Individual and the Universe, Oxford, 1959, pp. 8, 11. Compare Alexander Koyre, From the Closed World to the Infinite Universe, Harper Torch Books edition, New York, 1958. Koyre speaks of the copernican revolution as a spiritualrevolution or crisis. He writes (p. 29): ‘I need not insist on the overwhelming scientific and philosophical importance of copernican astronomy, which, by removing the earth from the centre of the world and placing it among the planets, undermined the very foundations of the traditional cosmic world-order’. Koyre however, a philosopher of Jewish birth and secular education, came gradually closer to a Christian and Catholic world view as his life advanced. He was at one time a friend of Edith Stein.

5. James Jeans, The Mysterious Universe, Cambridge, 1937, pp. 2-3.

6. Reprinted in Mysticism and Logic, 1918; my edition is that by Penguin Books, 1953.

7. pp. 51, 59. The same theme is developed, in less Miltonic prose, as if it were the intelligent man’s guide to the history of science, in Russell’s Religion and Science, Home University Library, Oxford (1935) 1949; see especially pp. 19-48.

8. Portraits from Memory, Allen and Unwin, London, 1956, p. 196; see also Alan Wood, Bertrand Russell, The Passionate Sceptic, Allen and Unwin, 1957, p. 232.

9. C.E.M. Joad, Guide to Modern Thought, Faber, London, 1933, pp. 39-40.

10. This aspect is particularly evident in Bertold Brecht’s play, The Life of Galileo (English translation by Desmond I. Vesey; published by Methuen, London, 1963). The play is in large part a brave-new-world-ish propaganda tract in praise of science and technology. But it falsifies the historical perspective, projecting into Galileo’s time the thought-patterns widespread in our own.

11. Book ii, Prosa, vii.

12. Collingwood, The Idea of Nature, Oxford, 1945, pp. 96-97

13. The Almagest, Book 1, Chatper 5. See C.S. Lewis, Essay Collection and other Short Pieces, ed. Lesley Walmsley, Harper Collins, London 2000, p. 145. Annibale Fantoli says Ptolemy’s astronomical system remained for more than 1400 years the Alpha and the Omega of theoretical astronomy’. See Fantoli, Galileo: For Copernicanism and for the Church, Vatican Observatory Publications Rome, 1994, p. 8. I draw copiously on Fantoli’s work in the next chapter.

14. S. Theol., I, 32 ad 2.

15. James Brodrick, Robert Bellarmine, VoL II, pp. 360-1. Brodrick quotes the great French scientists, Henri Poincare and Pierre Duhem, in support of this view. Duhem’s ‘instrumentalist’ view of science was, however, eccentric and is now discredited. (See Fantoli, Galileo, Vatican Observatory Publications, pp. 15-16 and n. 18; and Fantoli 2002, pp. 4-9 and 30).

16. In 8 libros Physicorum Aristotelis Expositio, III, 1,8,4, (ed. P.M. Magiolo, Marietti, Rome, 1954, p.352)

17. cfr. S. Theol., 1,7; 46, 2, and 7.

18. S. Theol., I, 46, 1.

19. S. Theol. 1,46,2: ‘the temporal origin of the cosmos cannot be demonstrated from the nature of the cosmos itself’ efr. De Potentia, III, 14’5 and 17; Opusc, De Aeternitate Mundi, in Opuscula Omnia, ed. J. Perrier, Lethielleux, Paris, 1949, pp. 53-61; Quodlibetum III, a, 31 in S. Thomae Aquinatis Quaestiones Disputatae, etc., (ed. R.M. Spiazzi, Mariette, Rome, 1959); S.C.G., II, 3138.

20. Koestler, op. cit., pp. 94. seq. Koestler’s suggestion that Copernicus ‘let in the destructive notions of infinity and eternal change, which destroyed the familiar world like a dissolvent acid’ (p. 216) is disproven by the reading of the texts; and with it falls another sub-theory; namely that ‘This meant, among other things, the end of intimacy between Man and God. Homo sapiens had dwelt in a universe enveloped by divinity as by a womb; now he was being expelled from the womb. Hence Pascal’s cry of horror’ (p. 218).

21. cf. E.L. Mascall, Existence and Analogy, Longman, London, 1949, pp. 73-74.

22. Philip McNair; see ‘The Listener’, 1st July; 1965.

23. In a broadcast on ‘The World and the Observer’ see ‘The Listener’, 6th February; 1958

24. cf. Emil Brunner, The Word of God and Modern Man, Epworth Press, London, p. 33.

25. See John Polkinghorne, Belief in God in an Age of Science, Yale University Press. New Haven and London, 1998, pp. 5-11.

26. H. Bondi, ‘Some Philosophical Problems in Cosmology’, in British Philosophy in the Mid-Century, ed, C.A. Mace, Allen and Unwin, London, 1957, pp. 195-201; the reference is to p. 197.

27. The Nature of the Universe, Blackwell, Oxford, 1950, p. 5; cf. his The Frontiers of Astronomy, Mercury Books edition, London (1955), 1961, pp. 342-7.

28. Thus Bertrand Russell, in ‘On Scientific Method in Philosophy’ (1914) (Mysticism and Logic, Penguin Books edition, pp. 96-97): ‘In the days before Copernicus, the conception of the ‘universe’ was defensible on scientific grounds: the diurnal revolution of the heavenly bodies bound them together ‘IS all parts of one system, of which the earth was the centre. Round this apparent scientific fact many human desires rallied: the wish to believe Man important in the scheme of things, the theoretical desire for a comprehensive understanding of the whole, the hope that the course of Nature might be guided by some sympathy with our wishes. In this way, an ethically inspired system of metaphysics grew up, whose anthropocentrism was apparently warranted by the geocentricism of astronomy’. Professor J.J.C. Smart of Adelaide wrote: ‘In the Middle Ages the aristotelian view that man stood at the centre of the cosmos prevailed. There was a spherical earth around which the various sublunary and superlunary spheres rotated. This cosmology was clearly very congenial to Christian theology… (which) . .. gave to man a unique place in the cosmos… No wonder that there was resistance against the non-anthropocentric cosmologies of Copernicus and later scientists. Modern cosmology is even less anthropocentric’. (Philosophy and Scientific Realism, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, 1927, p. 254)

29. Ethical Studies, Oxford, 1927, p. 254.

30. Pensees, Everyman’s Library Edition, J.M. Dent, London, 1943, nos. 205, 206

31. Pensees, nos. 347-8.

32. Thus, in Bertrand Russell’s Why I am not a Christian (edited by Paul Edwards, Allen and Unwin, London, 1957), we read on p. 17: ‘We want to stand on our own feet and look at the world. .. see the world as it is and not be afraid of it, conquer the world by intelligence and not merely by being slavishly subdued by the terror that comes from it. The whole conception of God is a conception derived from the ancient Oriental despotism. It is a conception quite unworthy of free men. When you hear people in Church debasing themselves and saying that they are miserable sinners, and all the rest of it, it seems contemptible and not worthy of self-respecting human beings.’ But on p. 32, only 15 pages later, we read: ‘Religion has, however, other appeals, especially to our human self-esteem. If Christianity is true, mankind are not such pitiful worms as they seem to be; they are of interest to the Creator of the universe. This is a great compliment.’

33. Orthodoxy, John Lane, The Bodley Head, London, 1912, pp. 160-2.

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