Once a field of thought is turned over to the careful ministrations of scientific method, it becomes for all time removed from control by mythology or religion.56 One of the most significant advances by Western Civilization was the submission of cosmology to the dominion of science. If a dividing line must be drawn, the first person of "modern history" is probably Galileo,57 of whom the Encyclopaedia Brittanica says:
"Perhaps the most far-reaching of his achievements was his re-establishment of mathematical rationalism against Aristotle's logico-verbal approach and his insistence that the `Book of Nature is written in mathematical characters.' From this base, he was able to found the modern experimental method."
introduced was a profound philosophical change for mankind. For all of
prior history, if mankind studied the stars, he did so in order to gain
an insight into the gods which ruled his existence. Astrology was a
much respected science in virtually all civilizations, including
Western Civilization before Galileo. Galileo divorced the gods from the
Cosmos, and subjected the Cosmos to the scientific method. After four
centuries of carefully controlled inquiry, mankind has a grasp of what
really exists in our universe which ancient man could never have
So, unlike the Classical Greco-Roman civilization, and even early
Western Civilization, each of which viewed cosmology as a branch of
religion, modern man views cosmology as a branch of Astronomy.
But this does not really divorce cosmology from Philosophy. Remember that a true Philosophy must embrace all of scientific knowledge, not excluding anything. Thus, modern man might well embrace the words of Carl Sagan in the beginnings of his book and television series "Cosmos," where he said:
"The Cosmos is all that is, or ever was, or ever will be. Our contemplations of the Cosmos stir us. There is a tingling in the spine, a catch in the voice, a faint sensation, as if a distant memory, of falling from a great height. We know we are approaching the grandest of mysteries.
"The size and age of the Cosmos are beyond ordinary human understanding; lost somewhere between immensity and eternity is our tiny planetary home, the Earth.59 For the first time, we have the power to decide the fate of our planet and ourselves.60 This is a time of great danger; but our species is young and curious and brave; it shows real promise. In the last few millennia, we have made the most astonishing and unexpected discoveries about the Cosmos and our place within it[; explorations that are exhilarating to consider. They remind us that humans have evolved to wonder, that understanding is a joy, that knowledge is prerequisite to survival].61 I believe our future depends powerfully on how well we understand this Cosmos in which we float like a mote of dust in the morning sky.
"We're about to begin a journey through the Cosmos.62 We'll encounter galaxies and suns and planets, life and consciousness, coming into being, evolving, and perishing; worlds of ice and stars of diamond; atoms as immense as suns and universes smaller than atoms. But its also a story of our own planet, and the plants and animals that share it with us; and its a story about us: how we achieved our present understanding of Cosmos; how the Cosmos has shaped our evolution and our culture;63 and what our fate may be.
"We wish to pursue the truth no matter where it leads;64 but to find the truth, we need imagination and skepticism both.65 [Imagination will often carry us to worlds that never were. Skepticism enables us to distinguish fancy from fact, to test our speculations.]66 We will not be afraid to speculate, but we will be careful to distinguish speculation from fact.67 The Cosmos is full beyond measure of elegant truths, of exquisite interrelationships, of the awesome machinery of nature.
"The surface of the Earth is the shore of the Cosmic ocean. On this shore, we've learned most of what we know. Recently, we've waded a little way out, maybe ankle deep, and the water seems inviting. Some part of our being knows: this is where we came from. We've longed to return; and we can; because the Cosmos is also within us: we're made of star stuff. We are a way for the Cosmos to know itself.68 [These aspirations are not, I think, irreverent, although they may trouble whatever gods may be.]69 The journey for each of us begins here [points to head].70 We're going to explore the Cosmos in a ship of the imagination, unfettered by ordinary limits on speed and size, drawn by the music of cosmic harmonies, it can take us anywhere in space and time. Perfect as a snowflake, organic as a dandelion seed, it will carry us to worlds of dreams and worlds of facts. Come with me.71
"[The Earth is a place. It is by no means the only place. It is not even a typical place. No planet or star or galaxy can be typical because the Cosmos is mostly empty. The only typical place is within the vast, cold, universal vacuum, the everlasting night of intergalactic space, a place so strange and desolate that, by comparison, planets and stars and galaxies seem achingly rare and lovely. If we were randomly inserted into the Cosmos, the chance that we would find ourselves on or near a planet would be less than one in a billion trillion trillion72 (1033, a one followed by 33 zeroes). In everyday life such odds are called compelling.73 Worlds are precious."
book and television series presents an overview of how Western
Civilization views the place of mankind within the "overall scheme of
things," and how we eventually arrived at that viewpoint after many
centuries of thought. I highly recommend either to anyone who wishes to
grasp many of the essential concepts of Western Civilization and their
But the essential Philosophical point is this: any philosophy which is based upon reason (as opposed to faith) will naturally discover all that we will ever know about the Cosmos and the natural laws which rule our existence. Any philosophy which is based upon some other principle, such as faith, will eventually be forced to deny some portion of reality in order to continue to flourish. We see these forces at work in our own times. The essence of the ongoing debate over the teaching of creationism or evolution in our schools is an attempt by the Christian "Right" to deny the reality of evolution because it does not fit with the world view of fundamentalist Christianity. It should be the goal of every "right thinking" individual in our society to stand against the reactionary forces of the Christian "Right," who attempt to brainwash our children, thereby stealing from all mankind the intellectual capacity of those children to think in a scientific manner.
56 Religion and mythology are really synonymous. One man's God is another man's myth.
57 Galileo Galilei was born on February 15, 1564 and died of fever on January 8, 1642.
58 For basically two reasons: no telescopes and a tendency to blame everything, good or bad, on various supernatural forces.
59 It is exactly the true scale of this "immensity and eternity" which led those who preceded us on this planet to shroud its origins in mythology. Before the invention of Arab numerals, mankind lacked the ability to easily express numbers of sufficient size, let alone the mathematics required to manipulate those numbers and the scientific instruments necessary to create the raw measurements themselves.
60 This sentence is an expression of Carl Sagan's essential pacifism, a world view which did not endear him to any in the so-called "Right," let alone the Christian "Right."
61 The majority of this excerpt is transcribed from the television series. However, the part within square brackets is taken from the accompanying book of the same name, Cosmos (1980).
62 This speech was introducing the first of several fanciful space flights which illustrated his points about the immensity of the Cosmos and the innocuous position of mankind in the Cosmos.
63 Again, Cosmology was one of the traditional branches of Philosophy, and a Philosophy is one of the essential ingredients of a Culture.
64 This is the essential mission of science, but it is the "great enemy" of mythology and religion. Superstition cannot stand the bright white light of "Truth," and both mythology and traditional religion depend upon superstition for survival. This is what led to such things as the religious persecution of Galileo.
65 Again, these are the essential ingredients to "scientific method."
66 Again, the part within square brackets is from the book.
67 This refers to his subsequent presentation of his view of the Cosmos.
68 This is an overly cute expression of viewpoint, sort of like: men and women are the method by which sperm and ovum reproduce themselves.
69 Again, the part within square brackets is from the book. This thought expresses the basic enmity between science and any system of thought based upon "faith," which includes all of mythology and religion.
70 The part within square brackets is a visual note. Since the text was taken from the television series, it denotes the meaning of the word "here" in the text.
71 At this point in the television series, he began the first of the imaginary space flights.
72 The footnote in the text explains that the words "billion" and "trillion" will be used as they are in American scientific literature: one billion is 109 (1,000,000,000), while one trillion is 1012 (1,000,000,000,000).
73 For example, take the DNA odds at the O. J. Simpson trial, where numbers in the billions were used to "prove" that certain blood stains came from certain specific people. The prosecution called those numbers "compelling evidence."
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