Facts of the Matter
Perception of universe evolving beyond the ego
"The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible."
-- Albert Einstein
THE GROWTH of knowledge of our species in many ways parallels the growth of our own individual perceptions.
We are born egocentric, totally dependent on godlike parents to nourish and provide for all of our needs.
As we mature, we discover that the world does not revolve around us, and we learn to become independent as we mediate our egos with the needs of others.
Just as it is difficult for the 2-year-old not to be the focus of the world's attention, so has it been difficult for mankind to accept that our planet is not the center of the universe.
As we have unraveled the laws of nature, we have found ourselves being further and further removed from being the center of the universe emotionally, physically and spiritually.
Some individuals find it more difficult than others.
Attempts to understand the universe in natural rather than supernatural terms began in ancient Greece beginning around 500 B.C.
The earliest Sumerian writing from 4000 B.C. indicated belief that man, earth and the heavens were all influenced by supernatural entities.
The sun, moon and planets were viewed as gods, much in the same way that a toddler sees its parents.
The earliest concepts of the universe were geocentric, with earth at the center of a celestial sphere on which the sun, moon and planets wandered among the fixed star background.
This model was conceptualized and modified by generations of Greek philosophers, such as Pythagoras, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle.
It culminated in A.D. 149, when Ptolemy published his "Great Compilation," which summed up 600 years of Greek astronomy. Therein he explained how to calculate the erratic motion of the planets using mathematical tricks that he called "devices."
FOLLOWING THE DECLINE and fall of the Roman Empire, the Catholic Church brought order to an otherwise chaotic society during the first millennium A.D.
To maintain order, the church opted to turn away from nature to concentrate on spiritual and philosophical matters.
The ancient knowledge became dispersed throughout the Middle East and Europe after the destruction of the library of Alexandria in the fifth century A.D. The library was the repository for all of the known works of the great philosophers.
While Europe suffered through social restructuring, held together by the church, the Eastern Mediterranean entered a period of enlightenment, using the ancient texts.
By the middle of the 13th century, Europe had rediscovered the wisdom of the ancients, which stimulated within the church a new search for knowledge, including nature, which once again entered the realm of the supernatural.
It marked the reunion of the ancient and primal concepts of egocentric man in a geocentric universe. (It is an interesting coincidence that the prefixes "ego-" and "geo-" are anagrams!)
This is the social environment in which Copernicus presented his radical idea in 1543 that the earth rotates on its axis and revolves around the sun.
The notion caused little stir at the time, largely because Copernicus stated that it was merely a tool for calculation, not a serious physical model.
The church welcomed easier calculations since the calendar was out of sync with the stars, and seasonal church holidays required an accurate calendar.
Shortly thereafter, the church began a two-decade effort to reorganize and to develop strategies to counter the rising tide of Protestantism.
THE GREGORIAN calendar was one result.
The "carrot" to lure people back to church to hear the dogma was music and stained-glass windows.
The "stick" was the Inquisition.
Bruno, an Italian philosopher who speculated about the Copernican universe, was burned at the stake in 1600.
Meanwhile, Galileo began experiments and observed the heavens with the telescope, leading him to favor the Copernican model and challenge the authority of the church.
He believed that people had the right to question authority and seek their own truth.
With characteristic sarcasm he wrote that a third system was needed since one (heliocentrism) defied the church and the other (geocentrism) defied logic.
He escaped Bruno's fate but was eventually arrested, forced to recant his views and lived the final years of his life under house arrest.
The church pardoned him in 1972.
The abuse of power by a tyrannical church was the motivation behind the United States' First Amendment, yet we find ourselves still in conflict.
Adding fuel to the conflict, Darwin published "The Origin of Species" in 1859 and pushed mankind even further from its place as the center of the universe.
Today, the conflict is in the guise of "intelligent design," a thinly disguised version of creationism many feel should be in science curriculums. Its proponents cite the complexity of the universe as sole and conclusive proof that there is a higher creative power.
IT IS SCIENCE versus ego in conflict: Ego because it is difficult to change one's perceptions of self; science in the process itself, but also the vast expanse of geologic time.
Modern Christian belief about the age of the earth comes from a time line constructed in the 1650s by Archbishop Ussher of the Church of Ireland by literally interpreting the life span of major biblical figures.
He came to the conclusion that creation took place in 4004 B.C., right around the time that writing began.
Scientific methods estimate Earth and the solar system to be around 4.6 billion years old.
Considering intelligent design as science reveals a lack of understanding of what science is, as well as some basic physical principles -- thermodynamics, among others.
Thermodynamics is a branch of the physical sciences that studies heat and energy.
Recent studies find that complexity can develop spontaneously when energy is added to a physical system.
Conversely, we discover that simple rules can generate highly complex structures.
Try watching the computer "game of life" to see how simple rules develop complex structures over time.
In mathematics the Mandelbrot set is one of the most complex structures that we know of, yet it is generated by a simple equation. The set is infinitely self-recursive with no loss of detail and complexity no matter what scale it is viewed.
To the scientist, the reasons behind the rules are outside the realm of science and reside in philosophy.
NONSCIENTISTS CONFUSE science with a process of gathering facts and proving theories, but science is a process of skepticism and disproof, and scientists are continually looking for evidence that will invalidate a theory.
When scientists cannot find evidence to invalidate an idea, it gains credibility with each failure to disprove it.
Thus, science is malleable. Old ideas give way to new, and that is its strength.
Good science adapts to the facts at hand and evolves. Bad science ignores facts that are contrary to belief and stagnates.
A good theory is one that encompasses the most facts with the fewest contradictions in the simplest way possible.
There are many things we don't completely understand. One such is the flow of water through a pipe, one of the major puzzles in physics. Yet we do not stop looking for explanations nor attribute it to supernatural power and negate the rest of physics because of it.
By this method, science has become a huge body of methods, facts and theories melded into a unified and interlocking system that spans physics, chemistry, astronomy, geology, meteorology, biology and archaeology.
Intelligent design is not science because it collects facts only to support it, and there is no way to disprove it.
There is so little understanding of what science is, what it does, what it is good for and what it is not. Equally lacking is a general understanding of the respective realms and roles of both science and religion, and the relationship between them.
Are we too egocentric to learn the differences?
Richard Brill picks up
where your high school science teacher left off. He is a professor of science
at Honolulu Community College, where he teaches earth and physical
science and investigates life and the universe.
He can be contacted by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org