A Journey Through Previous Paradigm Shifts
A well-known scientist… once gave a public lecture on astronomy. He described how the earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the center of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy. At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: “What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise.” The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, “What is the tortoise standing on?” “You’re very clever, young man, very clever,” said the old lady. “But it’s turtles all the way down!”— Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time
The Loss of Geocentric World
Religiosity has survived a number of paradigm shifts before this—ones that are much more challenging than the current one—and successfully reinvented itself each time. It may be difficult for us to digest this fact, since we are products of those very reinventions, but allow me to describe some of them and outline the conceptual and religious challenges that they posed.
Once upon a time it was a given that the earth was the center of the world. The planets, the stars, the sun and the moon all circled the earth. Humanity ruled over the axis of the entire universe. In this world-view it is hardly surprising that humans would see their actions and life-choices as having cosmic importance.
The first chink in this armor came from Nicolaus Copernicus, whose research into planetary orbits unseated the Ptolmaic system and established the sun as the center of the solar system. His findings, soon supported by the mathematician Johannes Kepler and the telescopic observations of Galileo Galilei, changed the geocentric world into a heliocentric world, where the center of the universe was the sun, not the earth. The implications of this discovery with regard to the central importance of humanity rocked the religious world. Many Christian (and Jewish!) religious leaders declared this idea to be apostasy, acceptance of which would mean the death of religion; the Bible describes a geocentric world after all. Yet, the truth of the Copernican paradigm shift was eventually accepted, and religion adapted itself accordingly.
The shift to heliocentrism was only the first step in a massive rethinking of the nature of the universe. In addition to demonstrating the truth of the Copernican system, Galileo turned his telescope on the Milky Way and discovered that it was composed of stars. Although people were already aware of stars in general, the understanding of the Milky Way as a galaxy of stars (the word “galaxy” derives from the Greek word “galactos” meaning milk) demonstrated that our solar system and local stars were actually part of a larger system of stars.
Interestingly, it was a religious figure, Giordano Bruno, who forcibly declared the meaning of this discovery: our sun is just a star, and each one of those other stars is a solar system distinct from ours. In Bruno’s understanding, this fit well with a view of God as infinite. Nevertheless, the “galaxy model” certainly poses a challenge to the central importance of humanity. Bruno’s belief in an infinite God who creates a universe with infinite centers was a brilliant and powerful way of reapplying religious vision for a more complex world.
The shrinking of humanity did not end with galaxies, but continued with the Great Debate between Heber Curtis and Harlow Shapley (1920) about the nature of nebulae, like Andromeda or the Pinwheel Galaxy. It was clear that these nebulae were made up of star clusters, but where were they? Shapley believed that these star clusters were inside the Milky Way, which, in his view, made up the entirety of the universe. Curtis, however, believed that these nebulae were separate and distinct galaxies (“Island Universes” in Immanuel Kant’s terms). A few years later, Henrietta Leavitt, followed by Edwin Hubble, after whom the telescope was named, proved conclusively that Curtis was correct; there are more galaxies than just ours. Soon after this, Bart Bok and Clyde Tombaugh demonstrated that these galaxies were organized in clusters of galaxies, which were in turn organized into superclusters.
In other words, the earth is a satellite of one star, which is a small part of a galaxy of stars, itself part of a cluster of galaxies, itself part of one of many superclusters of galaxies—this is scientific fact. Furthermore, if any version of the “multiverse” theory—the idea, touted by many scientists nowadays, that our own universe is only one of an infinite variety of universes—turns out to be correct, this would shrink humanity’s stature to an incomprehensibly small piece of the universe. And yet, religious belief seems to be able to withstand all this and continue to give meaningful inspiration to countless people.
Apes and Stardust: The Loss of Humanity’s Unique Nature
Other scientific discoveries have contributed similarly to the shrinking of humanity’s place in the world. When Charles Darwin first began to advocate a theory of evolution that included the evolution of humanity from a primate pre-human ancestor, many Christian (and Jewish!) leaders declared that this heresy would extinguish the light of religion and God in this world. The fight rages on even to this day, but many traditionally-religious people believe in evolution and feel that this does not contradict their belief in God or in God’s interest in humanity.
When the fact that stars run out of energy and explode in a supernova became better understood, it was realized that all the elements on our planet, including our own bodies, are made up of star dust which coalesced after an ancient star exploded over 5 billion years ago. This “parent star” itself was formed from the explosion of previous stars going all the way back to an infinitely small and dense point 13 billion years ago that exploded—the Big Bang. This explosion “created” the materials for every atom in every supercluster in our universe—a universe that has been expanding ever since.
In short, following the understanding of modern science, humans are made up of “star stuff” (to quote Carl Sagan), which coalesced around the sun and evolved many forms of life, including us. This solar system is just one of many in our galaxy, which is one of many in our galaxy cluster, which is one of many in our supercluster, which is one of many superclusters in our universe.
The Total Perspective Vortex
In Douglas Adams’ comic science-fiction novel, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, he describes an invention called the Total Perspective Vortex. The idea behind this invention was to allow its occupant to see in one instant the whole infinity of creation and his or her relative insignificance in relation to it. “When you are put into the Vortex you are given just one momentary glimpse of the entire unimaginable infinity of creation, and somewhere in it a tiny little marker, a microscopic dot on a microscopic dot, which says ‘You are here.’” When its inventor, Trin Trigula, first tries out the machine on his wife, the shock kills her. Trigula comes to the humorous conclusion after this that, “if life is going to exist in a Universe of this size, then the one thing it cannot afford to have is a sense of proportion.”
Looking at the universe objectively is bound to make a person feel insignificant, and, at times it does. Nevertheless, most of us are aware of these facts and remain firm believers in importance of our life-choices and values. How is this possible?
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March 27, 2013
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Dr. Rabbi Zev Farber is the Senior Editor of TheTorah.com, and a Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute's Kogod Center. He holds a Ph.D. from Emory University in Jewish Religious Cultures and Hebrew Bible, an M.A. from Hebrew University in Jewish History (biblical period), as well as ordination (yoreh yoreh) and advanced ordination (yadin yadin) from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT) Rabbinical School. He is the author of Images of Joshua in the Bible and their Reception (De Gruyter 2016) and editor (with Jacob L. Wright) of Archaeology and History of Eighth Century Judah (SBL 2018).
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